Almost every NBA team is now a quarter of the way through its 2018-19 schedule, and while it’s still early for definitive judgments about whether teams and players are For Real—at least that’s what everyone who doesn’t like something I’ve written tells me—it’s not that early. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann notes, on average, 14 of 16 teams in playoff position 25 percent of the way through the season wind up in the postseason. How you perform at the start of the season matters, too, and it can tell us who you’ll be by season’s end.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 7. But first, a quick review of how last week’s choices panned out:
Los Angeles Lakers: 11-9, now flirting with being a top-10 team on both ends of the court. They’ve powered through a shaky start to get into the hunt in the claustrophobia-inducing West; they’ll be in even better shape if they can start taking better care of the ball and figure out how to get the most out of Brandon Ingram in a world that revolves around LeBron.
Orlando Magic: 10-11 after a good-news-bad-news stretch that featured a season-series-clinching sweep of the Lakers, nail-biter losses against Toronto and Golden State, and a blowout in Denver. As long as Nikola Vucevic remains one of the league’s most productive big men, Terrence Ross keeps scorching the nets from deep, and the ball keeps moving, the Magic will continue to be a tough out. (Not that coach Steve Clifford’s all that interested in moral victories.)
Oklahoma City Thunder: 12-7, now no. 1 with a bullet in defensive efficiency, with the league’s best record and net rating over the past month. The schedule stays friendly for a bit, with OKC wrapping up a home stand against Cleveland and Atlanta before a road trip to Detroit, Brooklyn, and Chicago; if a thin bench can withstand losing Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo to ankle sprains, the Thunder could be poised to go on a run.
Dallas Mavericks: 9-9, tied with Sacramento and San Antonio in the running for the eighth seed out West thanks to the brilliance of Luka Doncic and one of the NBA’s best benches. Now comes the hard part: keeping it up.
Charlotte Hornets: 10-10 and coming off their best win of the season, in which they held off a late comeback to take down Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Since I wrote about Kemba Walker as a one-man army, Jeremy Lamb has averaged 18.3 points per game, Malik Monk has shot 57.9 percent from 3-point range, and Frank Kaminsky has returned to the ranks of NBA rotation big men.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: You’re welcome, Hornets fans. Enjoy these Ringer blessings.
Now, on to a new week and five more teams, starting with a new North Star …
Toronto Raptors (18-4)
If I asked you to name the seven forwards who rank in the top 10 in the NBA in win shares, value over replacement player, box plus-minus, and ESPN’s real plus-minus, you’d probably nail a few right off the bat. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo make sense. So do Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. If you remember that the Thunder are 12-7 despite Russell Westbrook missing eight games, you might guess Paul George too.
The other two, though, would be tougher pulls. One is Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, who has turned himself into much more than a throw-in in the George–Victor Oladipo trade by making the shrewd tactical decision to stop missing shots. Lucky no. 7? That’d be Pascal Siakam, the third-year forward from Cameroon who has taken a massive leap as a jack of all trades who solves all sorts of problems for the East-leading Raptors.
Siakam stepped forward last season as a key cog in the dynamic second unit that helped pace the Raptors to a franchise-record 59 wins. But after the blockbuster trade for Kawhi Leonard reshaped the Raptors, new head coach Nick Nurse tapped the New Mexico State product to start alongside Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and whichever center matched up best. The decision has paid off handsomely; the four-man core of Leonard, Lowry, Green, and Siakam has destroyed opponents by 18.9 points per 100 possessions. All-Stars Leonard and Lowry deserve plenty of credit for that, but the fact that they get to play with a 6-foot-9, 230-pound über-athlete who can defend five positions, break down defenders off the dribble, run the offense, and outsprint everyone in transition doesn’t hurt.
Expected to play a low-wattage complementary role entering the season, Siakam is instead posting the highest usage rate of his career. Playing alongside knockdown shooters and capable playmakers, the 24-year-old gets the chance to attack defenders one-on-one in a spaced half court. His combination of size, speed, and handle has allowed him to live at the rim. He averages only 9.1 field goal attempts per game, but five of them come inside the restricted area, where he’s shooting a blistering 78.9 percent:
Wow play from Siakam, that's a really difficult finish. Good luck stopping that full speed in transition with 4 shooters around him pic.twitter.com/iZ4PjMvCXU— Liam Doyle (@LiamDoyleNBA) November 28, 2018
The steady diet of high-percentage looks—and an uptick in free throw rate as a result of all that attacking—has led to a wildly efficient offensive start. Among players who have logged at least 400 minutes, Siakam ranks third in the league in both true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, despite a still-iffy outside stroke (33.3 percent). He’s got the quickness to blow past just about any 4 who tries to check him, the size to see over the top of the defense, and the passing touch to make plays on the move; good things happen for the Raptors almost every time he touches the ball.
On the other side of the court, he has the foot speed to hold up against smaller guards in space, the strength to stand up to opposing power forwards, and the length (a 7-foot-3 wingspan) to switch onto and then disrupt most players. That’s one hell of a valuable player in today’s NBA. He’s not quite Draymond Green, because nobody is, but if you squint, you can see the blueprint: Siakam has turned himself into an integral part of the Raptors’ identity on both ends of the floor. He’s the skeleton key capable of unlocking the best version of a team that Klay Thompson thinks could easily wind up in the Finals. Guys like Siakam don’t stay unheralded for long.
Phoenix Suns (4-16)
OK, granted, your mileage may vary when it comes to what’s interesting about the worst team in the NBA. But over the past couple of weeks, first-year head coach Igor Kokoskov has decided to take a much longer look at a lineup featuring Devin Booker as the de facto point guard alongside an extra wing on the court—an alignment my colleagues have considered more than once. As it turns out, the Suns look a whole lot better running things through their franchise centerpiece.
Phoenix has logged 227 minutes this season with Booker on the court without nominal point guards Isaiah Canaan, Elie Okobo, or De’Anthony Melton, according to NBA.com’s lineup data. Nearly all of those no-PG minutes have come in the past two weeks, since Kokoskov elevated rookie swingman Mikal Bridges into the starting lineup; the new first five of Booker, Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Trevor Ariza, and T.J. Warren is a promising plus-12 in 63 minutes, and the Suns are 2-4 in Bridges’s six starts, with wins over the Spurs and Bucks. With Booker on the ball, the Suns have outscored opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s just about the same point differential as the very good Indiana Pacers—whom the Suns hung with until the final minute Tuesday—have managed on the season, and it is an Incredible Hulk–style leap over Phoenix’s full-season net rating, which is tied for the NBA’s worst.
The fit just makes more sense. Moving Canaan to the bench and handing Booker the reins removes an unnecessary impediment to the Suns getting the ball where they want it on a given possession; as Mike D’Antoni said two years back after naming James Harden the Rockets’ full-time point guard, “Why camouflage it?” It also makes room for Bridges, who has been one of the most effective members of the 2018 draft class out of the gate.
The Suns have been awful defensively this season, but they’ve been significantly better with Bridges on the floor, allowing just 101.6 points per 100 possessions in his minutes. That’s carried over into the new-look starting lineup, which is bigger—another benefit of replacing a (listed at) 6-foot point guard with a 6-foot-7 small forward who has a 7-foot-1 wingspan—and more disruptive at the point of attack.
Adding Bridges to the perimeter group of Ariza and Warren allows Kokoskov to station two viable shooters in the corners and one in the slot, creating more space for Booker and Ayton to work in the two-man game. That increases the likelihood that Booker will have either an easy pass to make as he turns the corner toward the paint off the dribble ...
… or room to dribble into a rhythm jumper:
Booker’s shooting percentage has dipped when he’s been the lone facilitator, but he’s still scoring at a high clip and dishing more dimes than ever. He’s averaging 31.9 points and 12.8 assists per 100 possessions of no-PG floor time; the only players averaging more than 30 and 10 per 100 this season are Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Going all in on Point Book won’t change Phoenix’s fortunes overnight; there’s just too much for all this youth to learn, especially defensively, for the Suns to suddenly become the superteam Booker hopes to lead. But giving Booker the keys empowers Phoenix’s best player to take ownership of the team, creates more opportunity for the team’s two 2018 lottery picks to share the court, and gives the Suns their best chance of finding a group that can have sustained, replicable success for the first time since Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe partnered up. Continuing to explore a lineup with this kind of potential is the sort of experiment that can turn a season going nowhere into the start of something bigger.
Washington Wizards (8-12)
Break up the Wizards! No, I mean that the other way this time!
Ever since a dispiriting loss to the Trail Blazers that dropped them to 5-11, prompting reports of internal strife and an impending fire sale, the Wizards have begun resembling an honest-to-goodness NBA team. Washington has won three of four since last week’s unpleasantness, capped by an overtime victory over the Rockets that saw the Wiz climb out of a 17-point hole and withstand a 54-point explosion by Harden.
John Wall and Bradley Beal are once again scoring and distributing efficiently, and looking like they actually have a vested interest in the team’s success. Otto Porter Jr. has shown sustained signs of life, ripping down 14 rebounds in a win last Tuesday over the Clippers, and exploding for 29 points to beat the Pelicans on Saturday. Head coach Scott Brooks has started to do his part, too … although perhaps indirectly.
With his starting lineup sputtering, Brooks moved Markieff Morris to the bench in favor of the more athletic Kelly Oubre Jr. It hasn’t helped the starting unit. Oubre has continued his pre-restricted-free-agency swoon, shooting just 36.1 percent from the field since his promotion; overall, the new-look lineup of Wall, Beal, Porter, Oubre, and second-year center Thomas Bryant has hemorrhaged points in its first 50 minutes of burn. But the 29-year-old Morris is enjoying his best stretch of the season as the new focal point of Washington’s second unit, turning in 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting with 11 rebounds in 41 minutes in the comeback win over Houston:
Dwight Howard’s injury and the general ineffectiveness of Bryant, Ian Mahinmi, and Jason Smith have led Brooks to downsize more often, and to positive effect. Lineups featuring Jeff Green, the 32-year-old journeyman forward, at center have outscored opponents by a whopping 14.8 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, and the Wizards have posted similarly strong scoring margins when Morris has played the 5 alongside some combination of Wall, Beal, Porter, Oubre, and Green. It’ll be tough for Washington to play that way a ton, given its roster is simultaneously deep and lacking at center. But necessity has led Brooks to find out that he’s got the tools to play small ball, and that the Wizards can hold their own when they do.
Still, I’m skeptical that a team that has struggled to maintain its motivation for years has all of a sudden found the formula for consistent competition. If nothing else, though, the Wizards now have a proof of concept.
“We realized if we just play hard, the rest will take care of itself, because that’s all we did,” Beal told reporters after Monday’s win. “It wasn’t nothing spectacular.”
“Just play hard.” It’s so out there, it just might work.
New York Knicks (7-15)
Before a loss in Detroit on Tuesday, the Knicks had won three straight games. It was the first time in nearly a year that New York had won three in a row. And yet, as I watched the Knicks win basketball games—something they haven’t done much in the past, oh, 18 years—I found myself wondering whether it was for the best. Not only because every win costs the Knicks a game in the Tankathon standings, but because they’re coming courtesy of guys who might not be in New York next season.
The Knicks beat the Celtics behind 29 points and a dagger 3 from Trey Burke. They beat the Pelicans because, for one quicksilver moment, Emmanuel Mudiay was the best player on a court that also featured Anthony Davis. They beat the Grizzlies thanks in large part to Enes Kanter’s second 20-20 game of the season. In those three games, the Knicks outscored their opponents by 40 points in Noah Vonleh’s 98 minutes. What do those four players have in common? They all enter free agency this summer.
It’s cool to see New York’s reclamation-project strategy paying dividends, and if the Knicks can flip any of those rejuvenated players for future draft picks, then so much the better. But if the game plan is to maintain financial flexibility to try to land one of this summer’s marquee free agents—one big one, in particular—then it wouldn’t make much sense to spend that money to bring back any of their outgoing free agents. (Though I wouldn’t mind having Vonleh back on a reasonable deal.)
If the hoped-for scenario includes not having these players on the roster next season, then where’s the value in giving them heavy minutes now at the cost of more run for the young players who are expected to be around come next September? Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, and Mitchell Robinson all averaged fewer than 19 minutes per game during the three-game winning streak. Second-year guard Damyean Dotson hadn’t gotten off the bench in four games before being dusted off in Detroit. If player development is the top priority of the David Fizdale–Steve Mills–Scott Perry regime, shouldn’t it start with recent draft picks under team control?
Fizdale has, by all accounts, done a great job of getting his young roster to buy into what he’s selling, and it’s reasonable to suggest that young players need to earn their minutes. There’s nothing wrong with the Knicks trying to win some games and having some fun doing it. But what matters most about this season in New York is how it can help set up the future. That shouldn’t take a backseat to trying too hard to be too good right now.
Denver Nuggets (14-7)
After a brief skid had us wondering whether they were as good as they looked through their first 10 games, the Nuggets have righted the ship in a big way. After a 32-point thrashing of the Lakers on Tuesday, Denver has now won four straight and five of seven, with the only losses in that span coming on the road in New Orleans and Milwaukee. They’re back in the top three in defensive efficiency and up to seventh on the offensive end, and they’ve started to surge without getting outsize play from their best players; like the Clippers and Mavericks, the Nuggets are rolling thanks to a second unit that’s deeper and better than a lot of people probably realize.
The Nuggets can win when Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris combine to shoot 13-for-38, because Trey Lyles can pop off for an efficient 22 off the bench. They can win with starting small forward Will Barton out for more than a month because Juancho Hernangomez can do a little bit of everything to help fill the void. They can win when Harris is sidelined for two games (and counting) by an ankle injury because backup wing Torrey Craig can harass opposing scorers, attack the glass like wild, and contribute without needing the ball in his hands. And they can make light work of King James and his court because Malik Beasley just turned 22 and he wanted a new career high for his birthday.
Denver comes at you in waves, with energy, length, and smarts everywhere. Only the Mavs and Pacers boast a better second-unit net rating than Denver, and that’s with some reserves pushed into starting roles due to injuries.
We won’t know just how good the Nuggets can be until Barton gets back, until offseason additions Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. get healthy, and until coach Mike Malone faces the first-world problem of trying to manage a rotation in which everybody can play. (It’s not always as easy as you’d think.) But we know they’ve got enough on hand to be down two starters, with their best player in the grip of a sustained cold snap from the field, and to just keep winning. This season’s Nuggets feel a little different, and the quality of their depth is a big reason.