Coaches and defenders might be struggling to catch up to the NBA’s offensive revolution, but the league’s not about to slow down, and neither are we. Let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 3 of the 2018-19 season. But first, here’s a quick review of how last week’s choices panned out:
Denver Nuggets: 5-1, still top-three on defense and capable of winning even when Nikola Jokic doesn’t go off.
Houston Rockets: 1-5, eyeball-deep in Yikesville.
Boston Celtics: 5-2, still riding the league’s best defense as all that offensive talent figures things out.
Now, on to a new week and five more teams, starting with the team that’ll end everything …
Golden State Warriors (7-1)
The Warriors just got two 50-point performances and a 40-point outing all from different dudes in the span of six nights. They have won four of their past five games by at least 20 points, and their one loss this season came on the road on a block with two seconds left. Stephen Curry is leading the NBA in scoring, producing at an even more remarkable rate than he did in the season when he became the first unanimous MVP, and he remains the most unstoppable shooter alive … until Klay Thompson gets on the move and sees a couple go through the hoop.
After incinerating the Bulls on Monday, Golden State leads the NBA in offensive efficiency by a comical degree; the gap between first and second place is about the same as the gap between second and 11th. And the Warriors are doing so despite Thompson and Kevin Durant shooting below 35 percent from 3-point range to start the season and a near total lack of second-unit scoring. I don’t care if you’re sick of How They Ruined The League; this is as good, as unrelenting, and as inarguable as any NBA offense has ever been.
The Warriors are again appointment viewing, and a Wednesday date with another offensive monster—the 4-2 New Orleans Pelicans, led by MVP candidate (and reported object of Warriors affection) Anthony Davis—is no exception. Curry has authored a terrifying performance against the Pelicans on Halloween before; let’s see whether he and the rest of the NBA’s scariest team have a sequel in store.
Milwaukee Bucks (7-0)
Our first repeat customer! Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks are rolling, man, opening the season with seven straight wins—that’s one more than the longest winning streak Milwaukee rolled up during the Jason Kidd era, if you’re keeping score at home—including a 15-point win over the previously undefeated Toronto Raptors. It’s tough to take too much from Monday’s win; superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo (concussion protocol) and Kawhi Leonard (scheduled rest) missed the game, as did key Raptors reserves OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet. But Milwaukee still looked awfully good without Antetokounmpo, capable of distributing scoring responsibilities while making tactical shifts (in this case, leaning more on the size of Brook Lopez, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, and Thon Maker against a smaller-ball Raptors group) to apply pressure. Malcolm Brodgon and Eric Bledsoe attacked, first-round pick Donte DiVincenzo flashed potential, and the Giannis-less Bucks still went 10 deep without breaking a sweat. Impressive.
From the About to Get Scrooge McDuck–Rich file: Khris Middleton, who holds a $13 million player option for next season, is one of only 12 players averaging more than 20 points, five rebounds, three assists, and a steal per game. He’s also making almost 55 percent of his 3-pointers while taking more than seven a night, which is (a) extremely good, and (b) the kind of thing that will only further cement his bona fides as the NBA’s best player that nobody outside of Basketball Twitter ever talks about. (That’s all right, though, because we talk about him incessantly.)
Plenty of ink has been spilled on the Bucks’ offensive overhaul under Budenholzer, but the strides they’ve made on the other end might matter more for their chances of turning this hot start into a real shot at a Finals berth. The more conservative scheme Budenholzer imported to replace the frenetic high-hedging under Kidd has produced way fewer shots at the rim from opponents (only Detroit’s preventing those better, according to Cleaning the Glass) and way more shots from midrange (only the Nets, Pistons, and Jazz have forced more). The result has been across-the-board improvement: Milwaukee ranks first in effective field goal percentage allowed, second in overall defensive efficiency and fast-break points allowed, and in the top 10 in second-chance points allowed, opponents’ free throw rate, defensive rebounding rate, and points conceded in the paint.
That defensive profile might change a bit; it’s probably not reasonable to expect opponents to keep shooting 28.8 percent from 3-point range. But for the most part, the Bucks are giving up the shots they want, contesting them well, grabbing the rebounds, and slicing the opposition to ribbons once they’ve got the ball. If they keep this up, they’ll be a threat to do a hell of a lot more than just grab a top-four seed in the East.
Utah Jazz (4-2)
After a rocky 1-2 start to the season capped by an unsightly home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in which the Jazz managed all of 84 points, Utah has gotten right, ripping off three straight victories over the struggling Rockets, the Anthony Davis–less Pelicans, and the just-happy-to-have–Luka Doncic Mavericks. But whom Utah has played of late is less important than how Utah has played: The Jazz are starting to more closely resemble the team that tore through the league in the second half of last season on its way to the second round of the playoffs.
Donovan Mitchell opened his sophomore season with a whimper, missing 40 of his first 61 shots and 21 of his first 29 3-point attempts. Since then, the Rookie of the Year runner-up has course-corrected in a major way, shooting 57.4 percent from the floor during Utah’s three-game winning streak:
Mitchell appears to be making a more concerted effort to get into the teeth of opposing defenses rather than settling for tough, contested pull-up and step-back jumpers. Through the first three games, 56 percent of his field goal attempts came from farther than 15 feet out; in the past three, that ratio has flipped, with 65 percent of his shots coming inside 14 feet. And he’s using that downhill attacking to open up the rest of his game. Mitchell will always be a scorer first, but he’s thrown some absolute dimes as he’s gotten his feet under him this season, showing signs of next-level playmaking even as he, like virtually all young guards, struggles to get his turnovers in check.
Through the first week of the season, Mitchell looked ill at ease, like he was trying too hard to follow up his breakthrough release with an interesting and meaningful second album. (He acknowledged as much.) Now, it seems like he’s through worrying about being a one-hit wonder and back to carrying himself with the same sort of self-assurance that made him such a sensation in Year 1. It’s nice to see talented young dudes exhale and get out of their own heads; it’s even nicer to see them do it quickly.
The Jazz still have questions to answer before they can cement themselves as a threat in the West’s sub-Warriors tier. Namely: What’s their answer at power forward if Jae Crowder (right ankle sprain) and Derrick Favors (left knee soreness) are sidelined or limited (keep an eye on Georges Niang)? And can Ricky Rubio, arguably Utah’s most important bellwether, find a consistent shot-making rhythm amid an early-season cold snap? But with Mitchell back to carving up defenses at his own practiced pace, Rudy Gobert dunking everything in sight, the defense back to clamping down at a top-five rate, and their small-ball starting lineup (Gobert, Mitchell, Ricky Rubio, Crowder, and Joe Ingles) once again tenderizing fools, the Jazz have the key pieces of last season’s successful formula back in place. If they can stay alive during a tough upcoming slate that includes the Jekyll-and-Hyde Wolves, Grizz, Nuggets, Raptors, and Celtics, they could be poised to make a run.
Miami Heat (3-4)
With all due respect to the fine people of Miami—especially you, Mr. 305—the Heat aren’t here because they offer something especially scintillating on the court right now. I mean, I love Rodney McGruder’s growth into a pick-and-roll playmaker and the Kelly Olynyk fake dribble handoff as much as the next guy who spends entirely too much of his life watching basketball, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into must-see TV on a nightly basis. Instead, they’re here because of what their comparatively gray start—15th in offensive efficiency, 14th in defensive efficiency, 13th in net rating, just solidly and stultifyingly middling—might portend.
Maybe Miami’s just a James Johnson and a Dion Waiters away from surging toward the top of the Eastern Conference. But considering we have no idea when they might return, and considering the Heat’s main alternate plan of attack seems to be force-feeding Josh Richardson touches in hopes that he’ll grow into a no. 1 option sooner rather than later, it might be time to consider more … drastic measures.
We know that the scuffling Rockets are reportedly willing to send the Timberwolves as many as four future first-round draft picks to acquire Jimmy Butler. We know that the Heat, who owe their 2021 first-round pick to Philadelphia (via Phoenix) and don’t own the rights to any other teams’ future first-rounders, can’t quite match that offer. If Wolves owner Glen Taylor is committed to reloading Minnesota’s draft war chest in any Butler deal, then Miami would seem to be out of luck. But if president–head coach Tom Thibodeau, and not Taylor, is ultimately the one making the trade, then it seems plausible that a Heat offer starting with Richardson and one first-round choice would be preferable, because it sure doesn’t seem like Thibs is going to be around to reap the benefits of a first-round pick in 2025. (Or, for that matter, in 2019.)
And if that’s true, then it’d be very interesting—there we go—to see whether the Heat try to reassemble the pieces of the deal that fell apart when Thibodeau raised his asking price at the 11th hour and Pat Riley definitely didn’t call Thibodeau a motherfucker.
Butler is an excellent player, a go-to scorer, playmaker, and perimeter defender better than any Miami employs right now. Minus the practice stuff, he’s pretty much the best-case scenario for what Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra hope Richardson can become. (And Riley probably didn’t mind the practice stuff all that much.) Butler will cost a lot more than Richardson (four years, $42 million) after he signs whatever new deal he chooses this summer, and very well might not be the better player by the back end of that deal. But Riley is 73 years old and two years removed from bringing back the core of the team that went 30-11 in the second half because he wasn’t interested in Miami going through a rebuilding process of bad, uncompetitive basketball; he might not care too much about the back end of that deal right now, instead preferring to go into battle with a legitimate star once again after skating on the fringes of relevance since LeBron James left in 2014.
The Heat have one of the most expensive rosters in the NBA, not just for this season, but beyond; they’re already on the hook for more than $132 million in salaries next season, right around where the luxury tax is projected to be. They can’t create the financial flexibility to get in the mix for potential maximum-salaried free agents like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but they can use their handfuls of dudes on eight-figure deals as ballast for a deal to add a max dude like Butler in a trade. The only questions: Are they willing to put players in there that Thibodeau believes will keep Minnesota in postseason contention this season? And, even if they are, would Thibs really pull the trigger, after this has all lingered so long and he’s already gotten Butler back on the court?
Charlotte Hornets (4-4)
You already knew that the Warriors owned the NBA’s top offense. Guess who’s second? Yep: James Borrego’s fightin’ Hornets, presently scorching the nets to the tune of 114.9 points per 100 possessions after busting up the Heat on Tuesday. Just as we all predicted coming into the season!
Kemba Walker’s done a lot of the heavy lifting there, sitting second in the NBA with a career-best 30.1 points per game on 46-41-84 shooting splits. (The NBA’s top three scorers entering Wednesday: Steph, Kemba, Damian Lillard. It’s almost like high-volume, pull-up 3-point jump-shooters are incredibly valuable nowadays.) But save some of the credit for Borrego, the longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant who got a second chance at the top job after a brief and unremarkable stint with the Orlando Magic, and who has wasted little time putting his imprint on the Hornets by completely reorganizing the team’s rotation in search of a modern offensive jolt.
Charlotte broke camp with three true centers, plus Frank Kaminsky, the 7-foot tweener drafted ninth overall just three years ago. But none of them get more than 22 minutes a game these days. With Dwight Howard gone, the message is simple: If you’re not doing something that helps us score, you’re not going to play. Cody Zeller starts, and all of the Hornets’ most frequently used non-starting units feature 6-foot-11 center Willy Hernangomez stretching the floor (11-for-32 career from 3-point range) and forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a small-ball center, where his playmaking, offensive rebounding, and defensive versatility all thrive.
It probably won’t be too long until Miles Bridges starts getting that kind of floor time too. The 2018 draft’s 12th pick just seems to pop whenever he’s on the court, whether skying for rebounds, attacking in the half court, or running the floor in transition:
The Michigan State product is shooting 60 percent from the floor and 7-for-16 from deep, and he’s got the size and athleticism to guard three positions. You get the feeling that it’s going to be tough for Borrego to keep him off the court when Charlotte’s looking for a little extra oomph.
Borrego found that oomph on the other end of the spectrum Tuesday. Rather than going with the youngster, he opted to lean more heavily on veteran backup point guard Tony Parker, whom the Heat just couldn’t keep out of the paint (24 points on 8-for-15 shooting with 11 assists in 25 minutes). Borrego even paired his two point guards, something he’d done for just 26 total minutes prior to the Heat game, to boost Charlotte’s offense late and fend off Miami’s last push in the fourth quarter. The Walker-Parker duo worked beautifully, outscoring the Heat by eight points in 13 minutes of shared floor time to help the Hornets salt the game away.
That combo might not be an every-game option—you need an opponent who can’t bully smaller guards, and Miami fit the bill—but for a team looking to wring every ounce of offensive juice it can out of a somewhat misshapen roster, it was worth trying. That’s the order of the day right now in Charlotte: throw a bunch of lineups and options at the wall and see what sticks. I’m not sure it’ll result in a team that’s much better than just OK. If nothing else, though, it’s offering a way more compelling watch than I expected before the season tipped off.