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The Five Most Interesting Teams in the NBA in Week 6

LeBron James heads back to Cleveland on a tear, the Thunder try to readjust to Russ Ball, and the Magic are … good? That, plus more intrigue from around the league.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As we head into a mammoth 13-game Wednesday before the NBA takes off for Thanksgiving, let’s celebrate the fact that just about the whole league feels worth watching each night. At this stage of the season, nearly every team has legitimate playoff aspirations, some fun young talent to keep an eye on, or both. If you’re a fan of any team except the few who tipped their plan to tank before the season began — or the accursed Wizards — you still have something more than ping-pong balls to cheer for. That’s pretty good!

Let’s revel in that good fortune by taking a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 6. But first, a quick review of how last week’s choices panned out:

Golden State Warriors: 12-6, losers of three straight following Draymond Green’s return after The Incident. Everything remains bad and weird; Stephen Curry’s groin cannot heal fast enough.

Philadelphia 76ers: 12-7, winners of three of four since trading for Jimmy Butler, with coach Brett Brown starting to figure out how to get his most important pieces on the same page. And the beleaguered Markelle Fultz apparently taking the team by surprise with his agent’s announcement that he won’t practice or play until he sees another shoulder specialist on Monday? Well, for a number of reasons, that’s very interesting.

Minnesota Timberwolves: 7-10, winners of three of four since trading Butler — shouts to win-win deals! — thanks to a significantly stiffer defense. Looking pretty damn fun, a loss at the hands of the fun-crushing Grizzlies notwithstanding.

Houston Rockets: 8-7, far and away the NBA’s most potent offense during their four-game winning streak, finally back to last season’s fearsome form (or close to it).

Sacramento Kings: 9-8, cooling down some after their hot start amid puzzling reports about Dave Joerger’s job security. Internecine weirdness aside, De’Aaron Fox continues to do very cool stuff.

Now, on to a new week and five more teams, starting with the King in yellow (no Carcosa) …

Los Angeles Lakers (9-7)

About a month ago, after Curry scored 51 points in three quarters, I wrote that there is no present-day basketball experience quite like watching Curry go nuclear. I got some pushback on that, with several dissenters asking some version of, “Um, did you forget about how cool it is to watch LeBron James?”

At first, I thought, “No, of course I didn’t! They just take over games differently, and I was talking about how it’s unique to watch Steph do his thing his way.” But then last week happened, and man, maybe I had forgotten about how cool it is to watch LeBron James:

James bracketed a forgettable outing in a road loss to the Orlando Magic (whom we’ll get to!) with a pair of peerless performances. He scored 44 points on 19 field goal attempts, and added 10 rebounds, nine assists, and three blocks in 36 minutes to beat the surging Trail Blazers last Wednesday. Then, on Sunday, the second night of a road back-to-back, he reminded the Heat of the good old days, dominating Miami to the tune of 51 points on 19-for-31 shooting.

As James prepares to play the Cavaliers in Cleveland for the first time since joining the Lakers in free agency, he’s showcasing everything that has made him such an incredible all-time scorer. Against Miami, he flashed the athleticism to get out in the open court and hammer down tomahawk dunks as well as the low-post game he developed as a member of the Heat to bulldoze smaller defenders. He broke down defenders off the bounce before finishing through contact inside and orchestrated switches to draw more lumbering big men out into deep water. Stepbacks, floaters, fadeaways — he has it all, and he had it all working in Miami.

James is still nearly impossible to guard when he makes up his mind to get to the front of the rim, and he still does it a ton; he’s tied for seventh in the NBA in attempts per game in the restricted area. But years of marathon seasons have taught him the value of a longer-range attack. After establishing himself as one of the league’s premier super-deep marksmen last season, James has kept bombing away in L.A., ranking ninth in the NBA in makes from 26 feet and beyond, and knocking down those defense-bending tries at a 42.6 percent clip. It’s not quite Steph, but it’s not that far off:

It’s reasonable to wonder whether LeBron shouldering such a significant scoring load is a viable long-term plan for the Lakers, and whether their defensive resurgence — just 105.2 points allowed per 100 possessions in the six games since Tyson Chandler’s arrival, a top-10-caliber mark — is sustainable. But this recent run of seven wins in nine games has offered an earlier-than-expected reminder that, when it’s all working, LeBron James remains as breathtaking and compelling a force as this league has to offer. He’s an unforgettable offensive talent. I’ll try to be better about remembering that.

Orlando Magic (9-9)

And now, for the last team to beat LeBron’s Lakers — one clearly determined to make a mockery of the Five Most Interesting Teams of the Week.

After hanging 131 and 130 on the Lakers and Knicks, respectively, last weekend, the Magic ranked 12th in the NBA in non-garbage-time offensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass. (They dropped to 18th, just a tick below league average, after Tuesday’s loss to Toronto.) That, frankly, is astonishing. Orlando doesn’t employ a bona-fide-star offensive focal point, though center Nikola Vucevic — who’s averaging 20 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game while shooting a scorching 55.4 percent from the field and 42.2 percent from 3-point range — might beg to differ. And it has handed nearly all of its minutes to point guard to D.J. Augustin, whose ceiling tops out at “serviceable but unremarkable veteran,” and Jerian Grant, who aspires to that lofty goal. So how the hell are the Magic doing this?

Knowing his lead guards are caretakers and not rainmakers, Steve Clifford has democratized the Magic attack, emboldening Orlando’s bigs and wings to take on a larger share of the playmaking responsibility within the confines of the half-court offense. Not everybody’s seeing more of the ball; Aaron Gordon’s touches are down a bit from last season, Jonathon Simmons’s are down by a lot, and the Magic actually average fewer passes per game than last season. But nearly everybody seems to be doing more with the ball when they get it.

Orlando ranks in the top five in assists, secondary assists (the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the basket), and points created via direct assist. Gordon, Simmons, Vucevic, and swingmen Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross are all assisting on their teammates’ baskets more frequently than ever. The starting five of Vucevic, Gordon, Fournier, Augustin, and second-year small forward Wesley Iwundu has locked into a dynamite rhythm, scoring a blistering 120.3 points per 100 possessions, the highest offensive rating of any lineup in the league that has logged at least 100 minutes.

Gordon and Vucevic have developed a nice chemistry on the secondary break, with Gordon looking for opportunities to feed the big man when he runs the floor and seals his defender deep in the post. Fournier’s a crafty facilitator in the pick-and-roll with a great sense of how and when to lead his roller into scoring chances. Clifford loves to get Ross rocketing out of the right corner for a dribble handoff heading to the middle of the floor, betting that the sight of him barreling into the lane will force a defender to help, creating either a dump-off pass to an uncovered big underneath for a layup or an easy kickout to a shooter in the weakside corner. Even young bigs Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba have the freedom to work from the elbows and look to make high-low feeds.

The Magic move a lot — only six teams cover more ground per game on offense — and they love to roast sleeping defenses with off-ball cuts:

Orlando isn’t among the league’s highest-volume 3-point shooting teams; it ranks 15th in makes per game and 15th in attempts. But proper spacing combined with a commitment to making the extra pass has resulted in a lot of clean looks. Eighty-nine-point-four percent of the Magic’s 3-point attempts have been either open or wide open, according to NBA.com’s shot charting, and while they’ve shot a below-average 35.2 percent on those tries, you’d imagine that number will tick up if they keep creating them:

Only three teams take a higher share of their shots from the midrange than the Magic, and only three take fewer attempts at the rim, so the Magic offense could taper off if Vucevic stops looking like a one-man army and Augustin stops hitting 46.3 percent of his 3s. (That’s especially true if Orlando can’t start getting more free points; no team has a lower free throw rate.) But while a final-second loss to the East-leading Raptors on Tuesday dropped them to .500, there just seems to be a certain crispness and professionalism to this Orlando team that previous iterations have lacked. If they can keep the ball and body movement up while keeping their turnovers down, a trademark of Clifford’s Charlotte teams, the Magic might prove that their strong offensive start is more than just smoke and mirrors.

Oklahoma City Thunder (10-6)

The novelty of the Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant matchup has worn off a bit now that OKC is in Year 3 post-KD, but it’s never going to be “just another game” when they face off. Wednesday’s Warriors-Thunder game — the second this season, but the first that will include Westbrook — might be the most intriguing yet, if only because the on-court distance Durant put between himself and his former teammate in the summer of 2016 has been closed by circumstance.

Steph’s out. Draymond’s not quite himself, and he and KD are trying to repair their frayed relationship after their highly publicized falling out last week. Injuries to Curry, Green, and reserve Alfonzo McKinnie have exposed Golden State’s precarious lack of depth; even with Durant at the controls, the Warriors have the NBA’s 19th-ranked offense since Curry went down, and the defense has been even worse. Whenever these two teams met over the past two seasons, Durant could take or leave the pissing contest with Russ and just rely on the clear, overwhelming superiority of his crew to come away with the win. Now, though, Durant has to assume more of the do-everything role that Westbrook has had to occupy in Oklahoma City if Golden State is to pull out of its tailspin ... all while Westbrook, ironically enough, tries to balance his natural inclination toward maximalism with the need to pare back and reintegrate himself into a team that had gotten on quite a roll without him.

Monday marked two weeks since Westbrook landed awkwardly on Anthony Davis’s foot while trying to grab a rebound, rolled his ankle until it damn near touched the court, and left us wondering what would become of a Thunder team that had just started to hit its stride. But OKC scarcely skipped a beat with Westbrook shelved, winning five of six using a stripped-down formula.

The Thunder snuffed out (an admittedly soft slate of) opposing offenses, allowing just 99 points per 100 possessions in the six-game stretch. They accepted Dennis Schröder’s flaws (inconsistent shooting accuracy and scoring efficiency, a tendency to look for his own shot before looking to create for others) in order to receive the benefit of his strengths (a lightning-quick first step to get into the lane, points in bunches, opportunistic off-ball defense) while Westbrook was on the mend. They trusted Steven Adams to maul his way into possession-extending rebounds and second-chance points, and gave Paul George the opportunity to prove he can still be a no. 1 option when called upon; George responded by averaging 26.2 points on 46-39-87 shooting splits to go with 9.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 2.5 steals per game while Russ was out.

But Westbrook’s return Monday — from both the ankle injury and some extra time away after the birth of twin daughters — upset the formula a bit. The Thunder were out of sorts early in Sacramento, and the Kings jumped all over them, racing out to a 27-8 lead in just over six minutes. Oklahoma City struggled to generate good looks and to stay attached to the Kings as they sprinted all over the court, getting open 3s and layups on trip after trip. The Thunder righted the ship and briefly took the lead during the third quarter, but came up short late. The 117-113 loss was only OKC’s second in its past 12 games.

The Thunder didn’t lose because Westbrook came back; he finished with 29 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals, and largely looked like the same offensive havoc-wreaker he always has. But Westbrook’s return bumped Schröder back to the second unit and off his game: Schröder missed 14 of 17 shots and had one more assist (five) than he had turnovers (four). Oklahoma City has too many holes elsewhere in its rotation — Terrance Ferguson away from the team for personal reasons, Grant coming up with an ankle injury late, Alex Abrines and Nerlens Noel unavailable due to illness, Andre Roberson still out after knee surgery — to make up for that.

If the defense slips, even for a half, Oklahoma City can be had. If Schröder goes cold, an offense without many creators can stagnate. If Grant can’t go, the Thunder become awfully thin, especially if their crapshoot wings come up snake eyes. (Billy Donovan has gotten good minutes over the past two games from Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, and rookie Hamidou Diallo continues to impress; Ferguson and Abrines might want to get back and healthy ASAP.) The Thunder have an excellent top three, but they also don’t have much margin for error; they’ll have to readjust to life with Russ quickly if they want to keep pace in a crowded conference.

Dallas Mavericks (7-9)

What stands out to me every time I watch the Mavs is how frequently Luka Doncic gets wherever the hell he wants on the court.

It’s not supposed to be that way. Not for a rookie who stands 6-foot-7, weighs 218 pounds, doesn’t explode off a screen, and is dealing with the length and athleticism of NBA defenders for the first time. And yet the no. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft keeps moving at his own pace, probing with a live dribble, and maneuvering until he gets where he wants to go:

It’s not shocking that Doncic is playing well. He was the youngest Most Valuable Player in the history of Spain’s ACB, the EuroLeague, and the EuroLeague Final Four — all in the same season. Even so, the sheer ease with which the 19-year-old often seems to be operating is stunning.

Doncic is averaging 19.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game, while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from 3-point range, and it almost feels like he hasn’t even gotten started yet. There are awkward edges to sand down and smooth out — floaters flung too early or too late to avoid shot-blockers’ contests, a handle sometimes loose enough to get picked (like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson did in Dallas’s loss to Memphis on Monday), 3s a bit too audacious to be considered quality shots, etc. But every moment of questionable decision-making is countered by one in which Doncic looks like he’s in complete control of his surroundings. That’s a hell of a thing for a teenager, and it’s one reason the Mavs — who have quietly produced the NBA’s best net rating since their 2-7 start — have outperformed expectations.

Charlotte Hornets (8-8)

Kemba Walker isn’t going to need a bunch of guys to get injured to make it into the All-Star Game this season:

On Saturday, Walker flame-broiled the Philadelphia 76ers for a career-high 60 points. Two nights later, he hung 43 more on the Boston Celtics, with 21 coming in the fourth quarter alone to erase a 10-point deficit and get Charlotte back to .500. He is now the NBA’s leading scorer, averaging 29.6 points per game, while also dishing assists more frequently and turning the ball over less often than he has in four years. This is Peak Kemba, and it looks an awful lot like the best point guard in the Eastern Conference.

But even that may not be enough. Walker scored 103 points on 59 field goal attempts in two games, and the Hornets lost one game and might have lost another had it not been for a timely helping hand from Tony Parker late in the fourth quarter against Boston. Walker’s strafing is the coolest thing in Charlotte basketball since Grandmama, and it’s barely making a dent in the team’s fortunes. The Hornets are a seventh seed without a second scorer to ease Kemba’s burden, but they’re also 2-6 in games decided by five or fewer points, the third-worst record in the league, and own the NBA’s seventh-least-efficient “clutch” offense.

Combine that with Charlotte’s general underperformance during most of Walker’s career, irrespective of which coach or executive has steered the ship, and you’ve got the basis of an argument that Walker should bolt when he reaches unrestricted free agency this summer.

Walker has said multiple times that he wants to be in Charlotte for the long haul, but by staying put, he might be squandering the chance to find a better basketball situation. It would be incredibly tough to walk away from a five-year maximum-salary contract — especially if Walker makes an All-NBA team this season, making him eligible for a supermax extension, which would bump his pay ceiling over five years from $189 million to $221 million. But if Walker, who has played on a bargain deal the past four years (at $12 million per), wants to spend his prime years competing for something more consequential than a shot at home-court advantage in Round 1, something the Hornets/Bobcats have never done since the franchise’s revival in 2004, he might have to swallow hard and say no thanks to the richest contract he could possibly receive.

But that can wait until the summer. In the here and now, there’s nothing more compelling to watch than Walker’s transformation from a 36.6 percent shooter as a rookie to The Closest Thing There Is to Stephen Curry. It’d be amazing if he got some more help. But the wait has been pretty freaking cool, too.