Following a wedding a few weeks back, I settled in to watch some college basketball with the groomsmen, almost all of whom had gone to Iowa State.
Fred Hoiberg’s squad was playing Kentucky, and I only knew Fred Hoiberg was the coach of Iowa State because, like so many Minnesota Timberwolves fans, I long for him to return to the franchise as our coach someday. I only knew about Kentucky because it’s where John Wall, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins played. I don’t watch a lot of college basketball.
But then an ad for an upcoming NBA game came on and one of the guys joked, “Is it June? No? Then nobody cares about the NBA.” There was much laughter.
It was a reminder that while the NBA might be a year-round league for diehards, there are plenty of people out there who only check in once the sports landscape becomes barren – a dead zone also known as “After the Super Bowl.”
So if you’re just joining us, let’s check in on some of the things you might have missed during the first two-thirds of the NBA season. Spoiler alert: There’s a lot to catch up on.
TEAMS TO WATCH
Golden State Warriors
If you’re going to watch one team in the NBA starting now, it should be the Golden State Warriors. First-year head coach Steve Kerr has built on last year’s solid defensive team by unlocking the true offensive potential of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (who scored an NBA record 37 points in the third quarter of a game against the Sacramento Kings recently). The ball moves like liquid gold through smart offensive sets, generating a league-leading 27.3 assists per game, and, as a result, the Dubs can flat-out score. There have been four 50-point games in the NBA this season, and two of them have been by Curry and Thompson. The defense rotates on a string anchored by center Andrew Bogut and bolstered by a gaggle of similarly sized swingmen and forwards (Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green) who can guard multiple positions.
You want one thing to tell you how good they look right now? They could be the first team in history to rank first in both defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and pace, meaning they’re getting the most possessions and letting opposing teams score on the fewest – a nearly unbeatable combination, as shown by their 39-8 record.
If you don’t want to stay up for the West Coast games, then the Atlanta Hawks are your team. The perennially underwhelming birds have put it all together this year under former San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer and rightfully earned the sobriquet of “Spurs East.” Another ball-movement heavy offense that’s a joy to watch, Atlanta’s team doesn’t have any individual star as incandescent as Curry, but Kyle Korver may be the first player in NBA history to shoot better than 90 percent on free throws, 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range in a season.
The Hawks also recently racked up a 19-game winning streak, which lead to the team’s Twitter account adding “W’s” to their name – HaWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWks – until they eventually had to bump the “Ha” onto their avatar to make them all fit.
The fact that Atlanta and Golden State have ascended to the top of their respective conferences while last year’s best teams have either faded (Pacers, Heat) or struggled (Thunder, Spurs) is one of the biggest stories of the season so far, an affirmation of the importance of process and patience in assembling a team.
New Orleans Pelicans
And what team ended the Hawks’ colossal win streak? The one helmed by Anthony Davis, who at the age of 21 is a threat to post the highest ever player efficiency rating (PER) in league history at 32.0. That’s higher than Wilt Chamberlain, higher than Michael Jordan, higher than LeBron James. You watch the Pelicans because, on any given night, Davis could pull off one of these kinds of moves, but you also watch – and this is weird – for how frustrating the team can be.
Despite Davis’ prodigious skills as a shot-blocker and pairing him with immovable object Omer Asik, the Pelicans are 24th in defensive rating this season. It’s baffling, but makes a little more sense when you see a wing rotation occupied by Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Jimmer Fredette and John Salmons. Point guard Jrue Holiday is an improvement defensively, when he’s healthy, of course.
The net result is that the Pelicans are fun when Davis is doing his thing and interesting to watch as they try to figure it all out this season and try to scratch their way into the playoffs from the ninth spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
TEAMS TO WONDER ABOUT
To paraphrase Vizzini reaming out Fezzik from The Princess Bride, “You were supposed to be this colossus, you were this great legendary thing, and yet you’re in fifth place in the East!” With the return of LeBron James, the Cavs were expected to marry Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love’s blossoming talents to LeBron’s established ones, shore up the bench with veterans and then stampede through an Eastern Conference that was ripe for the taking. And yet, where they are now is hardly inconceivable.
Viewed from a distance, Cleveland’s season has been neither amazing nor amazingly bad, but a good helping of each. With the Hawks’ streak ended, they’re the owners of the league’s longest winning streak at 11 games, but it’s come on the heels of losing nine of ten. LeBron missed a stretch of eight games – the longest of his career – but he’s been on fire since he returned, posting a net rating of 17.8 (offensive rating minus defensive rating) in that time. A big midseason move (more on that later) seems to have righted the ship, but the challenges aren’t over for a team that’s still learning how to play together.
For several years now, Houston general manager Daryl Morey has been pursuing his own vision of offensive basketball built on stunning efficiency and dominated by 3-pointers, shots at the rim and free throws. This season might not be the endgame for his plan, but it’s looking damn close.
Houston is attempting 33.3 3-pointers per game, or nearly six more per game than the second-place Trail Blazers. At the heart of Houston’s blistering offense is James Harden, and no one’s outlined his foul-drawing, 3-point-draining, super-diming offense better than Kirk Goldsberry does here. But now the Rockets are facing an extended period without Dwight Howard, who recently underwent a procedure on his right knee that will sideline him for at least the next four weeks. The Rockets have made moves like trading for veteran wing Corey Brewer and signing waived forward Josh Smith (more on him later), giving every indication that they’re in the hunt for postseason glory. But can Morey’s machine sustain itself without Howard down the stretch and prove that a team built on 3-point shooting can drive deep into the playoffs?
San Antonio Spurs
If any other defending champ was seventh in their conference with more than half the season gone, there would be endless hand-wringing. But these are the Spurs. They deflect attention through some kind of voodoo. The season after winning it all they’ve struggled with injuries, including one to Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard that has cost him 15 games.
A pair of triple-overtime losses in the span of three days seemed to bear a message from the Basketball Gods about head coach Gregg Popovich’s strategy of resting his aging starters as much as possible. But this is still a team returning most of the players who won the championship last year, and it’s becoming a yearly tradition to write off the aging Spurs during the regular season before watching them field strip opponents in the playoffs.
Sure, you don’t have to watch the Spurs, but you might want to if you’d like to understand what’s happening when they take apart your favorite team.
STORIES SO FAR
The Josh Smith Saga
It’s pretty rare to see a team flat-out walk away from a player owed $40.5 million over the next three years, but that’s exactly what the Detroit Pistons did in December once president of operations/coach Stan Van Gundy decided to scrap the experiment of playing Smith on the wing next to bigmen Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. As expected, that strategy only exacerbated Smith’s worst tendencies, leading to plenty of ill-advised 3-pointers (a career-high 3.4 per game) that only dropped 26 percent of the time. Once he was gone, Detroit promptly ripped off a seven-game win streak.
The Cleveland-OKC-Denver Deal
After losing Anderson Varejao to a torn Achilles, a Cleveland team that was already hurting for defensive help became starved for it. LeBron may have talked about the need for patience in building the team prior to the season, but it was clear that the Cavs had to do something if they were going to prove they had the foundation in place to please LeBron, retain Kevin Love and move forward.
So in early January, the Cavs traded shooting guard Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City and brought Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from New York while sending contract filler to the Knicks. They also picked up a protected first round pick from the Thunder, which they in turn used along with a pick they acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies to get center Timofey Mozgov from Denver.
So far, it’s worked out, with Cleveland posting an 11-3 record since the trade. With Smith unable to party, he’s regained some of the form that earned him a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2012-13. Shumpert has returned from his shoulder injury and Mozgov has remained a giant human being. Playoff contenders – especially untested ones – often have to roll the dice midseason, but rarely so well as the Cavs just did.
Boogie Cousins and the Kings’ Search for a ‘Jazz Director’
What do you do when your team gets off to a hot 5-1 start but then swoons to an 11-13 record when your star goes down with viral meningitis? Fire the coach of course! The notoriously mercurial DeMarcus Cousins looked like a dark-horse MVP candidate over the first six games of the season: focused, engaged on defense, holding his tongue when the game wasn’t going his way. A lot of the credit for that was given to head coach Mike Malone, who had seemingly connected with Cousins and had gotten the entire team to buy into his defensive principles.
But new Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive didn’t see it that way, firing Malone in December and beginning the search for a “jazz director” while installing assistant Tyrone Corbin in the interim. The result has been a slide back into petulance for Cousins and a 6-17 record under Corbin. Kings fans are hoping this is a “one step back, two steps forward” situation, but it will surprise precisely no one if this ends up being an example of an overeager new owner jumping the gun.
Kobe Passes Jordan
On an otherwise innocuous night in Minneapolis in mid-December, Kobe Bryant passed Michael Jordan for third on the all-time scoring list. As an occasion, it was oddly heartwarming, with the game pausing after Bryant passed Jordan on a pair of free throws and the Target Center crowd giving him a warm ovation. But Bryant also took the opportunity of the press conference following the game to remind us of the cost. “You can’t get to a supreme level,” he said, “without kind of channeling the dark side.”
The torn rotator cuff he suffered in late January ended his season and put his future in doubt, but given what he’s already come back from and his relentless devotion to the game (and his legacy within it), no one will be surprised if he has to be physically dragged away from the court to keep him from coming back.
The Knicks and Lakers are Terrible
It’s nearly impossible to follow the NBA and avoid discussion about the gap between small-market and major-market teams. The major markets – so they say – have all the clout when it comes to attracting the big free agents: they have the legacies, the lucrative endorsement deals, can offer the best lives outside of basketball. Historically, this may be true, but this season, it’s completely upside down.
The top teams in each conference hail from Atlanta, Toronto, the Bay Area and Memphis. Meanwhile, the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers are dumpster fires, smoldering near the bottom of their respective conferences. Knicks prez/guru Phil Jackson is either dead-set on proving the Triangle Offense can still be a thing or committed to entirely blowing everything up (or possibly both). In Los Angeles, the legacy of Kobe looms large, both symbolically and in the ledger, where Kobe is still owed $25 million next year.
Don’t bet on either team languishing for long, precisely because of the above mentioned draw of those markets, but for the time being, everything’s gone topsy-turvy.
Hassan Whiteside, Mr. Triple-Dozen
No accounting of the season’s storylines would be complete without this year’s breakout player, Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside. After playing just 19 games in the NBA since being drafted in 2010 and stints in the D-League and overseas, Whiteside has gone absolutely bananas since joining the Heat, including posting the first triple-dozen (at least 12 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocks) since Shawn Bradley in 1997-98. He also managed it in just 25 minutes on the court. A 7-footer with a 7-foot-7 wingspan, Whiteside was always long, but he’s also put on a lot of muscle since being drafted, and the general consensus is that he may have needed a dose of humility to become a contributor in the NBA.
And what a contributor he is. He’s rebounding 26.5 percent of total shots on the floor, a mark that would be the fourth-highest rate of all-time. In addition to the offensive and defensive boards, he’s dominating defensively and offensively at the rim, blocking 4.6 shots per 36 minutes and shooting 65 percent from the field.
Can he keep it up? Hard to say, but the folks at 2K Sports honored his request following his triple dozen and bumped his player rating in NBA 2K15 from a lowly 59 all the way up to 77.