Is this the real thing, or is it fantasy?
NBA observations, trends, and bad puns at the quarter point of the season.
I started out with the intention of writing about the Orlando Magic, who had just beaten the Lakers twice in the span of nine days. While the fans were angry about the “bad” losses, and the media characterized the Magic as “mediocre,” I thought Orlando had some really good players. The connotation of mediocre is slightly worse than average, but the Magic had a 10–10 record after winning on Sunday, so they were perfectly average.
In the NBA, being average means something completely different, depending on the geographical location of each team.
In the East, Orlando (now 10–12) is currently the #8 seed, with a 1.5 game cushion ahead of the #9 team. Wouldn’t that make Orlando a good team?
But in the West, Orlando would be tied with Utah for the #13 seed. Wouldn’t that make Orlando a lottery team, and therefore be bad?
It made me wonder how many of these teams can continue to walk the tightrope and ask the question:
Which teams can maintain their level of their play throughout the next 60 games in what looks to be one of the most competitive regular seasons in NBA history?
For the sake of brevity, I will just divide the league up into tiers, and look at the factors that might keep them within their tier or propel certain teams to either jump up or fall down in the standings.
Tier 1: They Rout
Golden State, Toronto, Milwaukee
The Warriors started out the season on fire (10–1), and have since turned into a dumpster fire (4–6). But that’s only because of injuries and internal strife.
As long as Stephen Curry gets healthy for the playoffs, they will still be the team to beat for the title.
The Raptors have looked virtually unbeatable, aside from a 3-game losing streak caused by a chain of unlikely events we may not see for the rest of this season:
- Outscoring the Pelicans’ bench 42–20 and still losing by 16 points
- Blowing a 19-point lead and losing on a last second shot to their former coach
- Kyrie Irving playing the best game of his career (even better than game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals), but the Raptors still needed to blow a 4-point lead with 1:29 left in regulation.
What makes them so good? Having a top-5 superstar (Kawhi Leonard), a strong starting unit (#3 in point differential) that has the flexibility of using either a big traditional center (Valanciunas) or a small ball 5(Siakam), and a super deep bench.
I picked the Raptors to win the East, and they are here to stay.
The Bucks are also for real. In my Eastern prediction, I had them at #5, because I wasn’t sure a new coach could raise their level: “It remains to be seen whether their new coach, Mike Budenholzer can turn these ill-fitting pieces into something precious.”
Budenholzer made me a believer.
Now surrounded by 3-point shooters, Giannis is doing his best impression of LeBron James circa 2007. Milwaukee has the #1 rated starters in the NBA with a +27.7 point differential. For context, this is the second best unit since 1999–2000. Only the 2017 Warriors (+28.2) were better. They are #1 in offensive efficiency and #6 in defensive efficiency, which is supported by them being in the top 2 in total rebounding % and defensive rebounding %.
Milwaukee’s only Achilles heel is the inevitable variation in 3-point shooting over the course of a season. The Bucks recently lost to Phoenix, wasting a monster game by Giannis (35–10–3, on 14 for 16 shooting), because they made only 10 of 44 3-pointers.
Tier 2: They’re Stout
L.A. Clippers, Denver, OKC, Portland, L.A. Lakers, Philadelphia, Indiana
This category can be summed up as playoff locks, some of which could win a round or pull off an upset. There may be some variation in their ceilings or floors, but these teams have figured it out by the first quarter of the season. I’ll be writing more about these teams throughout the season, but here are some quick takeaways:
The Clippers (13–6) are currently leading the Western Conference on the strength of good coaching, solid defense, a very deep team with almost no drop off, and the 4th quarter pyrotechnics of super 6th man Lou Williams.
The Clippers are winning so many games after trailing by double digits, it’s as if they’re the West coast version of last year’s Celtics.
Maybe that’s because they’re coached by a guy who used to coach the Celtics.
Without a true All-Star, the Clippers have razor thin margins and have benefited from a combination of low probability situations:
- Currently, the Clippers have the best bench in basketball, with a point differential of +18.8. That is the best point differential of any bench since the 1999–2000 season. For comparison, the second best bench, the 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs, had a point differential of +16.6. No other team has ever reached 14 points. On the other hand, the starters are #26, with a point differential of -12.9. There’s no way the bench can maintain that level, which means a lot of those crazy come from behind wins will turn into near misses.
- Their timing has been perfect in playing good teams that are not at full strength: two wins over Houston (once without Chris Paul and once without James Harden, but both times before the team dumped Carmelo Anthony), an overtime win against Golden State (without Curry), and a big come back from a 15-point deficit in Portland (Nurkic got injured in the first half).
- They have the best record in the league in overtime games (3–0), which is like rolling three straight sevens at the craps table.
The Clippers are a lock to make the playoffs, but I don’t think they can sustain their current level, and will settle into that space where they are battling to hold on to the #8 seed.
Portland (12–8) has shown that they belong in the playoffs, even if they come up short once the playoffs arrive. Damian Lillard is so good, and so capable of catching fire in the 4th quarter, no team is safe on a given night. With 9 of 13 games at home to start the season, Portland flirted with the best record in the West, but a six game road trip brought them back down to earth.
Damian Lillard is so good, and so capable of catching fire in the 4th quarter, no team is safe on a given night. But the playoffs are a different story.
Currently the #6 seed, Portland is right around where I expected them, and they have the offensive fire power to sustain their level. Once the playoffs arrive, top teams will survive the Lillard-McCollum gauntlet, leaving them stuck as one and done team in the playoffs.
Denver (14–7) started the season looking like a great team, boasting the #1 defense, a signature win over Golden State, and a 9–1 record. Then they lost 6 of 7, but have since bounced back to win four straight. A lot of their strength is due to their perennial high-altitude home field advantage, but they have made great strides defensively, which shows up in their improved road record.
Denver has excellent balance, as they are one of only two teams that ranks in the Top 10 in point differentials for both starters (+7.4) and the bench (+7.9).
The team has excellent balance, as they are one of only two teams that ranks in the Top 10 in point differentials for both starters (+7.4) and the bench (+7.9). Only Golden State (#3 starters, #10 bench). With their depth, they look like they can sustain their play as a top 5 team in the West. (I picked them as the #5 seed.)
Oklahoma City (12–7) is another team that is playing better than I expected.
NBA Western Conference Predictions
We know how it all ends, but there will be some interesting twists and turns
They are a horrendous 31.1% in 3-point shooting (#30), which is not surprising. What is surprising is they currently have the #1 defense in the NBA, in spite of the absence of Andre Roberson. Their biggest off season move was trading Carmelo Anthony.
The Thunder’s biggest off season move was trading Carmelo Anthony. Who knew the power of addition by subtraction?
As always, OKC has major problems when Westbrook leaves the floor: the starters are #4 in point differential (+16.6), but the bench is #26 (-8.6). However, effort on defense is something a team can bring every night, so look for them to sustain their level of play as a Top 5 team in the West. Having said that, I still think they are most probably a one-and-done team in the playoffs, as they have the worst record (4–7) against teams above .500 among
The Lakers (11–9) have had to overcome a lot of obstacles to start the season, due to integrating new players, fighting suspensions, injury, and a poorly designed roster that had no back up center.
The Lakers were incredibly lucky to fill their roster hole with a rejuvenated Tyson Chandler. Did LeBron’s friendship with Phoenix GM James Jones play a part in such an early buyout?
With LeBron James still being the best basketball player in the world, the Lakers don’t have too much downside. Currently the #7 seed, the Lakers are 1 1.5 games out of the #4 seed, and 1 game ahead of the #8 seed.
I think a major measuring stick is how the team does against teams it couldn’t beat when the Lakers didn’t have an superstar. Last year, they went 0–11 against Portland, Minnesota, Utah and the Clippers. This season, they are 4–2 against their Western nemeses, (3–0 since Chandler signed), with no games played yet against the Clippers. This is a team that can only get better, once they have LeBron James playing with effort on both sides of the ball in the playoffs.
One last note: there are the beginnings of some bad blood between the Lakers and Nuggets. It started last year as Jamal Murray dribbled around Lonzo Ball as the clock was winding down in a win at Denver. Julius Randle man handled Murray while getting a steal to win a game later in the season at Staples. This year, the Lakers ruined Denver’s perfect start to the season, in large part sparked by an aggressive steal off Murray after an inbound play. Tonight, Lonzo got hurt at the end of the second quarter in a 3-point game, leaving the Lakers with no point guards. Denver took over the game in the 3rd quarter and the game ended in a rout.
Each team has won on their home floor. I would love to see these two teams play each other in the playoffs.
Philadelphia (14–8) may begin to take a big step forward and challenge for the Eastern Conference if they are able to extract themselves from the Markelle Fultz experiment/disaster. It’s a terrible thing when a young talented player has mental issues when competing as a professional. It’s an unspeakable thing when you introduce Jimmy Butler into his safe space.
It’s a terrible thing when a young talented player has mental issues when competing as a professional. It’s an unspeakable thing when you introduce Jimmy Butler into his safe space.
On paper, the 76ers have the best “Big 3” in the East, with Simmons, Embiid and Butler. If they can learn to play together, they have the perfect combination of skill sets: a center who is an unstoppable force near the rim, but can also stretch the floor; a super tall point guard who can defend, facilitate and finish at the rim; and an elite wing who can defend, and knows how to close games by creating shots for himself. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them, but that talent isn’t going anywhere this season, so expect them to sustain their play as a Top 4 team in the East.
Indiana (13–8) is another deep team that tries to stay in every game and depends on a single All-Star guard to catch fire in the 4th quarter to win close games. Kind of like a poor man’s Portland or Boston. They’re #4 on defense, and they shoot the 3-pointer at a very high level (#4). They’re just solid enough to beat all the teams below them (9–3 vs teams under .500), and playing in the East means they will play a disproportionate amount of games against these kinds of teams.
Indiana looks to be the #5 seed not because of any slippage in their play, but because of Milwaukee’s surprise jump to the top of the Eastern Conference.
On the other hand, the Pacers are not good enough to beat the better teams (0–4 against Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Houston) and have a losing record against teams above .500. Indiana looks to be a #5 seed not because of any slippage in their play, but because of Milwaukee’s surprise jump to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Tier 3: Got My Doubts
Boston, Houston, Utah, Detroit, Charlotte, New Orleans, San Antonio, Memphis, Minnesota
Teams in this tier aren’t necessarily worse than the teams in Tier 2. They either have a lot to prove to show that their surprising start can continue, or they have been a huge disappointment to their fans and have to prove they can turn it around.
First, the disappointing teams that made everyone doubt their preseason projections:
Boston (11–10) is a pretty much the same team as last year, except the expectations for this team were blown up beyond all measure of rational thought. They are great defensive team without a bona fide superstar that relies entirely on jump shots. Because they have one of the best coaches in the NBA, they will probably bounce back to become a Top 4 team in the East, but they will have a tough time to even reach the conference finals. I’ve written about them extensively.
Don’t worry about the Celtics, worry about fake news
The difference between ballin’ and baloney
The Celtics are pretty much the same as last year, except the expectations for this team were blown up beyond all measure of rational thought.
Houston (9–10) is also struggling. The Rockets’ launch this season looks more like this:
(See? I didn’t use the “Houston, we have a problem” gag like everyone else?)
The Rockets are basically a 5-man team (Harden, Paul, Gordon, Capela, and Tucker), with a couple of role players (Green, Ennis, and maybe Clark) who may or may not be unplayable when they play an elite team in the playoffs. The loss of Ariza and M’bah a Moute has killed their defense (#25 in defensive efficiency), and surprisingly affected their offense (#9 in offensive efficiency), because those guys either took an open shot or moved the ball, while Gordon is more of a ball stopper. If the eye test isn’t enough, just look at this statistical monstrosity in point differentials:
Houston’s starters are #5 in the NBA (+12.2), while the bench is #30 (-19.9). That is not a typo.
In their most recent loss, Harden (54) and Gordon (36) combined to score 90 points and they still lost in overtime to the hapless Wizards. Remember all those complaints about Westbrook being a loser because he couldn’t make his teammates better while searching for triple doubles during his MVP season? James Harden took 868 dribbles in that game, the most of any player in the last three seasons.
In spite of their troubles, the Rockets are the only team under .500 in the NBA with a winning record (7–6) against teams above .500. I think they will regain their mojo because Harden and Paul (if healthy) are simply too good not to finish in the top 4.
Utah (9–12) was originally my pick for the #3 seed, while some people picked them as high as #2. This is another case of irrational expectations due to recency bias, as I assumed they would be the same team they were in the second half of last season (29–6), instead of the team they were through the first quarter of the last season (10–11).
For now, the Jazz are an inharmonious mess, because they can’t play defense under the new freedom of motion rules.
Kind of ironic, no? The team whose name is a genre of improvisational music doesn’t like to play a more free flowing kind of game. Okay, never mind.
Last year, Utah was the #1 rated defensive team at 102.9. This year, the Jazz are #13 at 108.3. Combine that with Mitchell’s sophomore slump, and their offense has created a cacophony of clanking sounds as they toss up 3-point bricks at the second to worst rate in the league (31.9%).
Utah has a very good coach in Quinn Snyder, so in this rare case, bad play is not sustainable. Like last season, they will figure out how to play the right way, and they’ll get on a hot streak that will boost them back into the playoffs. They’re still only 1.5 games out of the #8 seed.
Next, here are the teams that have played above expectations, but I wonder if they can do it over an entire season.
Memphis (12–8) is zigging where the rest of the league zagged. They are playing at the second fastest pace in the league, with 100.0 possessions per game, just behind Golden State. Oh wait, that was for the 2008 season, not the 2018 season. The Grizzlies should have been renamed the Van Winkles, as they apparently hibernated for 10 years. They play at the slowest pace in the NBA.
And they are driving teams crazy.
The Grizzlies should have been renamed the Van Winkles, as they apparently hibernated for 10 years. And they are driving teams crazy.
Memphis is a solid bottom 10 team in anything that involves moving fast: possessions per game; offensive efficiency; fast break points; and points in the paint. But they are killing it in defensive efficiency (#3), steals per defensive play (#3), block percentage (#3), 3-point shooting percentage (#6) and assist/turnover ratio (#7), so they get a ton of stops and make the most out of each possession they have.
Based on the number of close games they win, I don’t think they can maintain their current level of play, which projects to a 52-win team. The resurgence of Gasol and Conley has been a pleasant surprise, but they are both playing more minutes than they have averaged over their entire career, so I don’t think they can sustain that kind of usage.
Memphis is certainly one of the big surprises this year and they might compete for the #8 seed.
New Orleans (10–11) started the season with a number of questions. Could Julius Randle continue to put up All-Star level numbers, like he did when he started for the Lakers? Could Elfrid Payton run the offense even half as well as Rajon Rondo? Could Nikola Mirotic continue to light it up from beyond the arc?
In a humiliating rout of the Houston Rockets (before we knew that the Rockets stunk), they answered each question with a resounding yes!:
- Randle: 25–8–3 in only 24 minutes (and 2 of 4 3-pointers!?)
- Payton: 10–10–10 triple double with only 1 turnover
- Mirotic: 30–10–3, while hitting 6 of 8 3-pointers
Anthony Davis played like an MVP with 32–16–8, 3 steals, 3 blocks and only 1 turnover. And the only question for the season is can he stay healthy? New Orleans is 0–4 when Davis can’t play, but he keeps getting banged up during games, which give their coach and fans mild heart attacks and throws off the consistency of the team.
Almost as important as Davis, is the role played by Payton. They started 4–1 with him as the point guard, and are 6–10 without him.
The Pelicans are a ravenous predator when they’re healthy, but those spindly legs don’t bode well over the course of a long season. if New Orleans can stay healthy, they should be a playoff team. Unfortunately, that’s a big IF.
San Antonio (10–11) is another team already fighting for its playoff lives. The play at one of the slowest paces (#25), and shoot more 2-point jumpers than any other team (72.8%), while being near the worst (#28) at points in the paint. When they played the Lakers at the start of the season, they made 10 of their first 12 shots to grab a 24–7 lead in a crazy overtime game they won 143–142. I thought maybe they had discovered a new secret to playing basketball, but their 21 games have proven those kinds of games are just a fluke.
Like the Memphis, the Spurs play like its 2008. The only difference is, 2008 seems to be the year their key players passed their prime.
The Spurs feature six core players who are 30 and over. Pau Gasol’s age is measured in tree rings, and may be permanently rooted to the bench after sustaining a stress fracture in his foot. He was one of my favorite players during his glory days winning titles with the Lakers.
DeMar DeRozen, their All-Star is 29, but he plays the mid-range game like a poor man’s Kobe Bryant from 2008. They are still coached by the master, but the style and construction of this team is showing their wear and tear of playing inefficient basketball with older, less athletic players.
Popovich is faced with drinking a sour cup of wine: San Antonio has not had a losing record after 21 games since the year BEFORE they drafted Tim Duncan.
If I make a list of teams that give San Antonio problems, it almost seems to be every team in the league:
- Teams with a fast, dominant point guard (losses to Portland, Sacramento, Indiana)
- Teams with a dominant center who can stretch the floor (Milwaukee,Ne Orleans, Orlando)
- Young teams that get hot (Phoenix)
- Teams that play good defense (Memphis, Clippers)
You can sum up the teams San Antonio beat as follows:
- Missing one or more starters (Golden State, Indiana, Lakers)
- Teams that shoot under 30% on 3-pointers (Houston, New Orleans)
- Young teams that can be outcoached (Chicago, Phoenix, Dallas)
I think the Spurs can sustain their current level of play, but being a .500 team will mean they miss the playoffs.
Minnesota (10–11) was a complete disaster due to the Jimmy Butler soap opera. (Lots of people are stricken with cancer — locker room or otherwise — in soap operas, right?) With that, everyone forgot about all of the franchise’s other problems that center around Thibideau (obsolete defensive concepts, running players into the ground, acquiring former players who he had already run into the ground), Wiggins (hideous contract for an inefficient volume shooter who plays no defense) and Townes (moody, talented kid whose effort is inconsistent on offense and nonexistent on defense).
Guess what? Bill Simmons’ Ewing Theory is alive and well in Minnesota. The T-Wolves are 6–2 without Butler!
Here’s the most amazing part: Minnesota has the #1 defensive rating (101.0) in the league during the eight games Butler did not play!
Can Minnesota sustain this current level of play, and claw their way back into the playoffs? The indicators suggest that the answer is no:
- Since Butler left, Minnesota is 1–2 against teams .500 and above, but there are currently 10 Western teams playing at that level.
- During their streak, they were 4–0 against Eastern lottery teams, and those games will not come again with much frequency.
- Minnesota doesn’t score enough easy baskets, as they are below league average in points in the paint (#19), so they depend on jump shots.
- The T-Wolves are #28 in field goal percentage, #29 in 2-point field goal percentage, but #13 in 3-point percentage.
- They are below average in rebounding % (#22), terrible in defensive rebounding % (#30) and good in offensive rebounding % (#13).
- They are a terrible road team (2–8), and 6 of their 8 games during the Butler Theory streak were at home.
Detroit (11–7) started the season 4–0, but that was against 3 terrible teams, and an overtime win against Philadelphia with the wrong #1 overall draft pick sitting on the bench. Then, they went 0–5, losing close games to bad teams and not so close games against good teams. Since then, the Pistons banged out a 6–2 record with a signature win over Toronto, coach Casey’s old team.
Detroit is a true mixed bag, just like their key players:
- Blake Griffin, an aging power forward on a horrible contract trying to overhaul his game from the high flying act of Lob City, to an efficient play maker who can hit 3-pointers.
- Andre Drummond, an old school post up big man in a league that puts a premium of stretching the floor.
- Reggie Jackson, a moody guard who wants the ball in a system where Griffin is the best facilitator.
All you need to know about Detroit is that they are currently the #5 seed in the East, and the lead story out of the Athletic features the headline “A list of which Pistons are most likely to get traded, depending on the circumstances.”
The author is suggesting the Pistons need to make a trade that will put the team in the conversation of the Eastern Conference’s top dogs, but this could just as easily be a story about blowing up the team a couple of weeks from now if Detroit slides out of the playoffs as they did last year.
Everything about Detroit is mixed: starters are average in point differential (+0.1); bench is bad (#22); average offensive efficiency (#14); better than average defensive efficiency (#12); excellent in rebounding % (#4); terrible in 3-point shooting (#26).
I don’t think Detroit can sustain their current level (48 win pace). Their point differential projects as 43-win team. But they play in the East, so who knows?
Charlotte (10–10) so far is the Kemba Walker show. When he shoots over 40% on his 3-pointers, they are 9–3, including a 113–112 loss to Milwaukee, and a 124–123 loss to Atlanta. The Hornets’ have an un-bee-lievable point differential of +11.5, which is better than the league-leading Raptors. That projects to a 72-win team.
When Kemba Walker shoots over 40% on his 3-pointers, they are 9–3, with an un-bee-lievable point differential of +11.5, which is better than the league-leading Raptors.
When Walker shoots under 40%, they had to wait until their 20th game of the season to break their 7-game losing streak with a squeaker over the Bucks. That’s a -6.75 point differential, which projects to a 23-win team.
Charlotte is a schizophrenic team that has wins over Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston and losses to Atlanta, Cleveland and Chicago. Based on Walker’s brilliance this season, the have a very good offense (#5) and a middle of the road (#14) defense. The Hornets are average on the defensive boards (#14) team, play at an average pace (#14), shoot slightly above average (#12), and assist slightly above average (#11). What they do at an elite level is maximize all that averageness by not turning over the ball (#2).
While I don’t think it’s possible for Walker to continue shooting the way he is, they do enough things around league level or slightly better to stay in a lot of games.. Why shouldn’t they be a .500 team and sneak into the #8 seed?
Tier 4: Reasons to Shout
Dallas, Sacramento, Orlando
Dallas (9–9) won the Doncic sweepstakes, and they are already competitive, winning 7 of their last 9 games.
With every win Dallas picks up, that 2019 1st round draft pick they traded to Atlanta looks less and less exciting. Doncic is the real deal.
Dallas got a big win over the Warriors. Even though they were missing Curry and Green, the young Mavericks still had to beat a healthy Durant and Thompson. With point guard Dennis Smith, Jr sidelined, Dallas still beat the struggling Celtics. Like most young teams, they play much better at home (8–2) than on the road (1–7).
Dallas is strong on defense (#8) and elite in defensive rebounding % (#2). They are above league average on 3-point shooting (#12), and in fast break points (#12). Their biggest weakness is in turnovers (#28).
The starters currently struggle, with a -8.5 point differential (#22), as the two young playmakers learn how to lead the offense, but they have an excellent veteran bench led by JJ Barea (#6) and a +7.7 point differential.
But the big news is Doncic (19.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.3 apg, shooting .396 3P%), who is less of a rookie than Ben Simmons was last year. Doncic has been playing professional basketball since he was 14 years old, and was the Euroleague MVP last year. People are talking about him as a possible All-Star selection.
You know a young guy is considered a true threat when opponents try to intimidate him with cheap shots. With Dallas beating the Celtics, Jaylen Brown lowers a shoulder into a defenseless Doncic as he runs down the floor.
I think Dallas can sustain their current level of play. And if they can clean up their turnovers over the next few months, they could spoil the way for a lot of teams fighting for the playoffs.
Sacramento (10–10) fans have enjoyed the break out season of D’Aaron Fox. Their coach finally thought it was a good idea to stop giving the ball to Zach Randolph, who is old enough to play Rip Van Winkle and slow enough to make you think they traded teams with Memphis.
Sacramento has transformed into an exciting fast (#2) young team, with Fox (17 ppg, 7.5 apg, 4.0 rpg) being yet another reason for Philadelphia fans to cry over the Fultz pick.
They’ve got a bunch of good but inconsistent young players, which is why their defensive and offensive ratings are in the bottom 10. And they’re not particularly big when they’re running, so their rebounding is weak (#25).
But their youth and energy is a weapon, and it has allowed them to earn surprising victories over traditional playoff teams (OKC, San Antonio, Memphis, Utah), and win a majority of their games against sub .500 teams. When they run into more experienced team that aren’t affected by their speed, the Kings have suffered some decisive losses (Milwaukee, Toronto, Utah, Houston, Lakers).
I don’t think they can maintain this level of play, but the development of Fox, and the other young players is a source of hope for the future.
Orlando (10–11) had a hot start last season, winning 6 of the first 8 games, but it was based on shooting an impossible number of 3-pointers. This year, their team looks stronger, and already has a number of quality wins (Boston, San Antonio, Philadelphia, Lakers) and played tough games against Toronto (game winning shot by Green with less than a second) and Golden State (9-point 4th quarter lead).
A big part of this progress is due to the improvement of Nikola Vucevic. With improved 3-point shooting, he is an offensive force both inside and out, able to stretch opposing defenses and allow penetration by his young, springy teammates. Aaron Gordon is their second leading scorer who has slowly improved his 3 point shooting. Evan Fournier is normally a very good shooter (career .372 3P%) in a big slump (.286 3P%).
DJ Augustin is a journeyman point guard who only plays like an All-Star against the Lakers, but he has been a big upgrade over Elfrid Payton’s hair.
Orlando’s starters are #10 in point differential (+4.5), but their bench is only #26 (-7.4), and depends on the shooting of Terrence Ross.
At this point, the question becomes whether they want to sustain their current level of play, where sneaking into the #8 seed would prevent them from getting another high draft pick.
The young core of bigs in Vucevic, Gordon, Isaac, and rookie Mo Bamba should give Orlando fans something to look forward to. But they need to find an elite point guard to put the team in a position to win on a more consistent basis.
Tier 5: Down But Not Out
Brooklyn, Cleveland, Chicago, Phoenix, Atlanta
These are probably lottery teams, as they don’t have a superstar, depend on young players and don’t have winning coaches. They are going to have a lot of bad games, but the young guys will play with energy in every game and pull off some surprises:
Brooklyn has two young guards (Russell and Dinwiddie) who catch fire once in a while. When they do, they can hang with playoff level teams (wins over Philadelphia, Denver and Detroit, plus a few close losses). They have finally dug themselves out of the pit known as the Garnett-Pearce heist, owing their 1st round draft pick and opening up a lot of cap space for next summer. I would say they will be good in less time than the other teams in this tier.
Cleveland was going down in flames, but the injury to George Hill allowed rookie Collin Sexton to start. With the bizarre exit of JR Smith, defensive bulldog David Nwaba became a starter, and they look like a completely different team. After blowing a 9-point 4th quarter lead against LeBron and the Lakers, they beat the 76ers and Rockets in back to back games.
With a core roster of seven guys 26 or younger, and a potent bench (#8 in point differential), the Cavs outscored their bench counterparts on the Lakers (45–24), the 76ers (28–17) and the Rockets by (45–24). Lacking an All-Star closer (until Kevin Love returns from injury), the team operates on a razor thin margin of error.
Chicago is in full development mode, with all five starters 24 or younger. They are truly bad, as they haven’t beaten a single team over .500. They have a couple of young, expensive pieces who don’t play defense, so I think they’re going to be bad for a while.
However, they’ve got a great young rookie in Wendell Carter Jr, who fits the archetype of the next great modern NBA center. In an overtime loss at Denver, Carter Jr more than held his own against Jokic (25–8–5, 3 steals, 3 blocks while making 2 of 3 3-pointers). This dude is only 19 years old, but Ready for Prime Time.
Phoenix is just like Chicago, but with a higher upside because they have a quasi All-Star closer in Devin Booker (far more consistent than Jabbari Parker and Zach Lavine), and a mixture of promising rookies (Ayton, Bridges, Okobo) and veterans (Ariza, Warren, Crawford). They can get up for good teams on occasions (wins over the Bucks, Spurs and Grizzlies, and an overtime loss to the Celtics), but they don’t have the consistency or maturity to do it often, or to beat bad teams.
Atlanta is going to be scrutinized and judged more harshly than any other lottery team as they gave up the chance to draft Luka Doncic. Trae Young is putting up some good numbers, but their starters are a disaster, with the worst point differential in the league (-25.5). It’s way too early to write off Trae Young, but the Hawks will have a good shot at the #1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, along with the Dallas top-5 protected pick. That’s why they’re not in the last tier. They also have a ton of cap space, so their rebuild looks promising.
Tier 6: Time to Pout
Washington, Miami, New York
It’s not that these are the worst teams in the NBA, but they’re in that singular hoops hell of being so bad they might miss the playoffs, but not so bad to have a good shot at a high lottery pick. Throw in a bunch of horrendous contracts (Wall, Porter, Mahinmi, Hardaway Jr., Whiteside, and Tyler Johnson) and no cap space (in the case of Miami and Washington), and your team is looking at years of livin’ on a prayer, much worse than what Lakers fans experienced for the last five years.