FOX Sports NBA Analyst
If your personal sports calendar has Christmas marked as the start of the NBA season, don’t worry, I’m here to help inform you of what you’ve missed so far and point you in the direction of what to look for on the day. slate of (for you) season opener games.
The good news: General managers, scouts, coaches and executives uniformly believe the best is yet to come.
“I would describe it as one of the best seasons we’ve seen in a long time,” Cleveland Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff said.
Not so surprisingly, Bickerstaff was giddy. The Cavaliers made arguably the only blockbuster offseason move that has actually worked for both teams, acquiring All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. The Cavs currently sit third in the Eastern Conference, and if that holds, it would be their best regular season finish since 2017, when they subsequently reached the NBA Finals. The Jazz, whether they wanted to or not, have also been unexpectedly good, largely because of forward Lauri Markkanen, the No. 7 pick in 2017, whose passivity threatened to take him out of the league. Suddenly it’s gone HAM, alternately crushing rims and burying 3’s.
Among the moves that haven’t worked out so far: The Minnesota Timberwolves acquiring Jazz All-Star center Rudy Gobert. While the T-Wolves paid a high price (five players and four first-round picks), it was expected to solidify them as a playoff team, but they currently sit in tenth place in the Western Conference. The Atlanta Hawks also went shopping with an open wallet, acquiring former All-Star guard Dejounte Murray from the San Antonio Spurs for Danilo Gallinari and three future first-round picks. The Hawks are currently seventh in the East.
While the daubers might be down in Atlanta and Minnesota, their struggles have put the league parity on par with the NFL, where 26 teams still have a shot at making the playoffs with three games to go. in the end. In the NBA, four games separate the top 10 teams in the Western Conference, and the last-place Houston Rockets are just 11.5 games out of first.
“It’s one of the most unique seasons we’ve ever seen in terms of parity,” said one Western Conference scout. “Obviously, the West sucks. Literally, I think the healthiest team coming into the playoffs between Memphis, New Orleans, the Warriors, the Suns, the Nuggets, the Clippers or the Mavericks, assuming all the teams maintain or make a positive change, it will be favored. win.”
The East is a bit more staggered, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Cavs stacked at the top, and the No. 7 Hawks, No. 8 Indiana Pacers and No. 9 Miami Heat with nearly identical records.
“The season has been kind of fascinating, actually, watching some of the best teams go on losing streaks and some of the worst teams go on winning streaks,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “No nights off, that’s for sure.”
Case in point: the defending champion Warriors, whose five-game losing streak earlier this season included losses to the East’s three worst teams in the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic. There’s no telling how much of the Warriors’ early struggles can be attributed to a viral video of Draymond Green’s teammate Jordan Poole in training camp, but it sure didn’t help.
At the other end of the spectrum are the perennially hapless Sacramento Kings, who won seven in a row in November, their longest winning streak since 2005.
The rise of the Kings and the slide of the Warriors are also part of an overall change in the Western Conference. The Warriors and Lakers, two of the last three conference title winners, would not even qualify for the play-in tournament as of today, while the Kings and Pelicans are firmly entrenched in the postseason picture. And the most compelling matchup on Christmas Day is tonight between the Suns and the Nuggets.
“A changing of the guard in the wild, wild west,” said one Western Conference scout.
This could also include the hierarchy of star players. LeBron James will once again be a part of the Christmas Day festivities, but for how much longer? The 11:30am PT matchup against the Mavericks is the earliest he has been since moving to LA. The Lakers appear headed for the lottery for the second year in a row, especially now that Anthony Davis is out indefinitely with a foot injury. time period.
James’ arch-nemesis for the past decade, Steph Curry, also faces a challenge to his relevance. Curry is playing as well as ever, on pace to produce his second season of 50-40-90 and record career highs in rebounds and assists per minute, but even so, the Warriors were forced into the lottery before a left shoulder injury sidelined him. he
Individual stardom only goes so far.
But the open race to land the No. 1 pick and 7-foot French center Victor Wembanyama has so far not materialized. “There are no Victor sweepstakes,” said one Western Conference general manager. “Teams will probably close late, but no one does this early.”
And then there are the Brooklyn Nets, who have been a little bit of everything: good, bad, and of course, controversial. The good: Their current eight-game winning streak and the play of Kevin Durant, a four-time scoring champion who is scoring at a career-high rate (40.3 per 100 possessions – Basketball-Reference). The bad: A 2-6 start that cost head coach Steve Nash his job and a team-imposed eight-game suspension for Kyrie Irving after he posted a movie cover anti-Semitic on his social media and initially refused to apologise. That led Nets owner Joe Tsai, the players’ union and commissioner Adam Silver to publicly chastise Irving until he relented.
All of this has the entire league watching the Nets warily, not knowing if they will explode or implode.
One Nets Eastern Conference general manager said, “They literally scare everybody because you don’t know what they can do.”
The defending conference champions, the Celtics, had their own controversy, with head coach Ime Udoka suspended just before training camp for allegedly sexually harassing several women in the organization. Assistant Joe Mazzulla was installed as interim coach. Since then, though, they’ve shown no signs of a hangover, winning a league-high nine games in a row thanks to the league’s most efficient offense.
The Bucks, for their part, have had the most keel. They opened the season 9-0 without All-Star point guard Khris Middleton, and their longest losing streak is two, which they suffered once. Giannis Antetokounmpo is telling dad jokes, taking his time at the free throw line, sometimes too long, leading to several missed free throw attempts, and scoring at a high rate (31.6). Coach Mike Budenholzer has decided that defending the corner 3s might be a good idea after the Celtics’ failure to do so sent the Bucks home in the second round last year. Brook Lopez is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Even Grayson Allen has gone months without being accused of doing something dirty.
Figuring out which team has the upper hand is part of the charm of the Christmas Day schedule. The Bucks and Celtics will meet for the first time this season in the middle of the five-game slate. That advantage could be determined by their respective league MVP candidates, Giannis and Jayson Tatum. What to watch for: How much Budenholzer allows Giannis to guard Tatum, and if Tatum marries an otherwise impressive season so far with underwhelming performances against some of the Celtics’ hottest rivals recently (Heat and Warriors) .
Who shows up could affect the league’s MVP race, which is as crowded and indecisive as the team standings. Dallas’ Luka Doncic reentered as the preseason favorite, and once again, that parade appears to have been called off, thanks in large part to the Mavs struggling to stay above the . 500 In all, however, Christmas Day will feature seven of the top 10 MVP candidates currently listed on NBA.com’s MVP Scale: Antetokounmpo, Tatum, Doncic, the Nuggets center (and two-time reigning MVP) Nikola Jokic, Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and Suns point guard Devin Booker.
To the casual fan, this latest news may seem rather mundane because it’s not about a specific player or team, but about a rule: travel. NBA refs are now saying it! I’m not kidding you. The same league that stealthily expanded the number of steps a player can legally take between dribbles from 1.5 to 3 has been cracking down on all manner of improper ball handling and footwork. Carrying the ball, as in the act of holding it for a count in one hand before continuing to dribble, has been another point of emphasis. Sliding pivot feet, especially on step-back moves to get behind the 3-point line, is a third.
And the whistles haven’t been the just-to-show-we-care kind, like making a call or two to role players early in the game and that’s it. A couple of weeks ago, 10 traveling violations were called in a game between the Warriors and Mavericks, including back-to-back calls on All-Stars Doncic and Curry. The Warriors’ chance to tie or win the game in the final seconds was erased by another Curry traveling violation.
The question is: will the refs keep it? Will they have the guts to make the same call with a playoff spot or a postseason win hanging in the balance?
“A lot of the top players have these questionable moves to create their shots,” said one Western Conference scout. “Will these calls be made at critical moments come playoff time?”
One of the many questions that arise this season. You already have the rest. Let the Christmas Day games begin.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young-onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds”. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @Rick Bucher.
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