With every NBA team hitting the 10-game mark this week, we’re starting to get past the point when every positive or negative trend can be dismissed as a small-sample-size illusion and closer to being able to draw some real conclusions about the state of the league. (Like, for example: The Warriors seem good.) As we continue to separate what’s real from what isn’t, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the NBA for Week 4 of the 2018-19 season. But first, here’s a quick review of how last week’s choices panned out:
Charlotte Hornets: 6-5, still the East’s most potent offense outside of Toronto, with Tony Parker (averaging 19.7 points and 9.4 assists per 36 minutes) looking like one of the steals of the summer and Miles Bridges out here making Hornets fans reminisce about peak Grandmama:
Now, on to a new week and five more teams, starting with the other Best Team Nobody’s Talking About …
Indiana Pacers (7-4)
When jotting down notes for this week’s list, I reflexively referred to the Pacers as “maybe the fourth-best team in the East?” like it’s somehow surprising that they’d elbowed their way into the conversation with the Celtics and 76ers beneath the Raptors-Bucks tier. But honestly, at this point, that’s giving them short shrift.
The Pacers are comfortably ahead of both Boston and Philadelphia in points scored per possession and net rating. They force and capitalize on turnovers more frequently than the Sixers or C’s, do a better job of keeping opponents off the free throw line than either, have yet to get utterly pantsed the way the Sixers did in Brooklyn, and haven’t allowed a player to flirt with the half-century mark like the Celtics did with Jamal Murray in Denver. The Pacers aren’t increasing their nightly degree of difficulty by willfully starting a lineup that can’t score in pursuit of long-term gains. Sure, you might take the 76ers’ or Celtics’ top stars over Victor Oladipo in a vacuum, but are any of those dudes about to drop the hottest R&B album of 2018? I ask you: What’s not to like in Indianapolis?
I’m tempted to say that what the Pacers lack in flash, they make up for with form and function, but even a casual watch reveals that they’re not exactly shy on sizzle, either:
It's worth watching again (and again). pic.twitter.com/lpPitAzDIS— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) November 4, 2018
The Pacers operate at the slowest pace (ha!) in today’s supercharged NBA, and rank in the league’s bottom five in 3-point makes, attempts, and reliance; head coach Nate McMillan doesn’t much care for your 21st-century gadgets and gizmos. What he does care for is consistency and production. He gets the former from the starting five of Oladipo, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Darren Collison, and Bojan Bogdanovic, on pace to be one of the league’s most frequently used lineups for the second straight season. Early on, McMillan has been getting the latter from a second unit led by third-year big man Domantas Sabonis, whose monster start has him second in the league in true shooting percentage while setting career highs in rebounding, assist, and block percentages.
Oladipo has handled the increased defensive attention that’s followed his first All-Star appearance without skipping a beat; his shooting, scoring, and playmaking efficiency are all right in line with where they were during his watershed 2017-18. And while the Pacers don’t have a breakout secondary scoring threat—we’re still waiting for Myles Turner’s great leap forward—Indy diffuses that burden by going nine deep with guys who can dribble, pass, and shoot, all while competing hard on defense. It just works: the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Whether it’ll be big enough to stand toe to toe with what Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, and Philly can put together by season’s end remains to be seen, but for now, it’s working, and it makes for a pretty fun watch.
Los Angeles Clippers (6-4)
To some degree, the Clippers owe their strong start to catching some opponents at the right time. They got the Thunder without Russell Westbrook or anyone who could make a jumper, the Rockets once with Chris Paul suspended and once with James Harden nursing a strained hamstring, and the Wizards in the midst of infinite despair.
But NBA teams don’t have to apologize for their opponents’ misfortunes; they have to capitalize on them. The Clips have done just that, riding a many-hands-make-light-work approach to a better record than their Staples Center cotenants and a sunnier outlook than most of us expected when the Lob City era came to an end.
The Clippers are the good kind of confusing—a roster full of players who can do at least one fun thing, mashed together into a weird pile and shoved at the opposition like, “I don’t know, man, you figure it out.” But weird is working: The Clips are somehow one of six teams to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, alongside the Warriors, Raptors, Bucks, Blazers, and Nuggets. Not bad for a team pegged to finish 11th in the West.
Freed from the roster-construction shackles placed on him by reviled former Clippers president of basketball operations Doc Rivers, respected Clippers coach Doc Rivers has shown a deft hand with his rotation, cycling through as many as a dozen players—depending on health, matchups, and chemistry—in an ongoing search for his best five. Statistically, his most promising lineup has been an all-reserve unit featuring bigs Montrezl Harrell and Mike Scott surrounded by reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, Serbian visionary Milos Teodosic, and exciting rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a three-guard alignment that can make life miserable for opposing defenders:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander attacking the rim! pic.twitter.com/iXp4OQNCB9— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) November 1, 2018
Later in that same game, Milos Teodosic nutmegged Carmelo Anthony on a bounce pass to Montrezl Harrell that resulted in a dunk. This dude. pic.twitter.com/k18zn2py74— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) October 30, 2018
Not far behind that fivesome, though, is a reshuffled starting lineup. Joining playmaking forwards Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari, both of whom are playing the most productive ball of their careers, and tenacious defenders Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley, is 7-foot-3 sentinel Boban Marjanovic, who remains one of the most productive per-minute players in league history, and who has surprisingly good (and awe-inspiring) hands for a Jaeger:
Shai is patient, using the snake dribble to take his defender out of the play and pocket passes to Boban: pic.twitter.com/ieVqm8PjkI— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) November 3, 2018
L.A. hunts opportunities and advantages wherever it can find them; between the off-the-bounce craftiness of Williams and Gallinari, and the sheer physicality of the Marjanovic-Harrell combo, the Clippers make a living at the line. They’ve got the NBA’s second-best free throw rate and make more freebies per game than any other team in the league, and no other team gets a larger share of its points at the stripe. Rivers, owner Steve Ballmer, and the Clippers front office envision a team led by one or two max-level superstars, but until then, they’ve got to rely on collective effort. So far, so good.
Oklahoma City Thunder (5-4)
It sounds like Russell Westbrook’s left ankle sprain isn’t as serious as it first appeared to be. That’s fantastic news for Oklahoma City, which has followed up its disappointing 0-4 start to the season with five straight wins thanks largely to the propulsion from Westbrook and the sharper shooting from Thunder role players.
After a 2-for-15 start to the season, swingman Terrance Ferguson is 9-for-16 from the floor during the streak. Power forward Patrick Patterson, who couldn’t buy a bucket to stretch the floor in the early going, has made nine of his past 18 3-point tries. Alex Abrines (9-for-23 from deep over the past five games) is back to catch-and-shoot sniping, and Jerami Grant is back to running the floor hard, forcing his way to the line, and finishing damn near everything that he gets his hands on in the lane.
It hasn’t been all about Russ; Ferguson and Grant have shot significantly better when sharing the court with Westbrook during the streak, while it’s been the other way around for Abrines and Patterson. But his presence animates Oklahoma City’s attack, and his absence means Dennis Schröder and Paul George, who’s still searching for his shot as he battles a nerve issue in his left foot, have to take on more playmaking responsibilities than they should. Westbrook’s ankle injury being a day-to-day concern rather than a week-to-week issue should help keep the Thunder’s pecking order in place; that, combined with a cozy upcoming slate that features games against bottom-feeders like the Cavs, Mavericks, Suns, and Knicks, could keep OKC from losing too much ground in its effort to get back into the Western Conference race.
And if you’re looking for something else that’s interesting about the Thunder beyond how Westbrook’s ankle injury shakes out, may I suggest a quick peek at rookie guard Hamidou Diallo?
Thunder general manager Sam Presti’s preference for fast, long-limbed, quick-twitch athletes (who may or may not be able to shoot) is well-documented, and it’s easy to see why he was so enamored of Diallo. Dude perpetually looks like he just got shot out of a cannon. He’s got as many blocks as he does turnovers, and he’s logging steals on the same share of opponents’ offensive possessions as the veteran George. When your team struggles to shoot, forcing turnovers that shift defense into offense can be a pretty good way to generate high-percentage looks. Diallo’s only 20, but he’s already earning his keep as a disruptive defender who can leave trailers in the dust, finish above the rim, and look good doing it.
Memphis Grizzlies (5-4)
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just an ol’ sentimental softy. But after a pair of well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful attempts by Dave Joerger and David Fizdale to modernize Memphis and move beyond Grit and Grind, it’s kind of nice to see the Grizzlies looking like the Grizzlies again.
The revival’s underway on Beale Street, in all its shambling glory. J.B. Bickerstaff’s team is playing slow as hell, ranks 19th in offensive efficiency and seventh on the other end, and is holding its own with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley leading a new collection of misfit toys. Journeymen Garrett Temple and Shelvin Mack, peculiar point forward Kyle Anderson, reclamation-project gunner MarShon Brooks—they’re all part of a whole gang of Grizzlies just trying to figure it all out on the fly.
They try stuff:
BEWARE OF THE OMRI CASSPI SHAMGOD!!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/lb5Uk67Kau— Grind City Media (@grindcitymedia) November 5, 2018
Still happy with Wayne Selden deciding to try to seize the opportunity to become immortal. pic.twitter.com/AU8wAS4iuS— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 7, 2018
And they’re managing to walk the line between being consistently competitive and giving every developmental opportunity to no. 4 overall draft pick Jaren Jackson Jr., who stepped into the starting lineup after JaMychal Green suffered a broken jaw and hasn’t looked back:
The 3-point stroke Jackson flashed at Michigan State hasn’t come around yet, as he’s missed 16 of his first 19 pro triples, and Memphis’s scoring margin has been significantly better without the rookie on the floor. But he’s already showing he can bang in the post, defend in space, protect the rim, and hold his own against veteran frontcourt players. Fewer than two months after turning 19, Jackson is averaging 11.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 blocks in 23.4 minutes per game; the only player who’s ever put up that kind of line over a full season before his 20th birthday is Chris Bosh. (This year, three teens are on pace to do it: Jackson, Wendell Carter Jr., and Marvin Bagley III.)
If Memphis’s decent start was a mirage, we’ll know soon enough. The Grizz get Denver, Philly, Utah, Milwaukee, and Sacramento over the next week and a half, so things could get upside-down fairly quickly. Right now, though, they’re outscoring teams with Conley and Gasol on the floor—if only barely—despite the point guard having an ice-cold shooting start and the big man significantly underperforming his typical marks on midrange jumpers and paint attempts outside the restricted area. A little bit of regression to the mean for Memphis’s stars mixed with continued improvement in their new defensive scheme could continue to make the Grizzlies a tough out for top teams. Here’s to the future being just like the past with a new coat of paint (and to the development of a teenager with the tools to be hell of a lot more than that).
Brooklyn Nets (5-6)
There’s a sort of tug-of-war going on with the Nets among people who watch way too much basketball. On one side, there are those who think general manager Sean Marks deserves serious praise for dragging a hopeless (and pickless) team out of the Bad Place and somehow fielding a roster full of potential-laden young players. On the other, there are those who note that for all Marks’s roster-churning and poison-pill-projecting, Brooklyn has yet to reach 30 wins under his stewardship or produce a single truly bankable prospect.
Caris LeVert seems intent on making it harder to take the “con” side of that argument.
The 24-year-old, whom Marks landed on the night of the 2016 draft in exchange for Thaddeus Young, is one of just 12 players averaging better than 20 points, four rebounds, three assists, and a steal per game this season. The list includes four former NBA MVPs and 10 players with All-NBA selections under their belts. (Also, Zach LaVine.)
The Nets drilled the Suns on Tuesday, and watching LeVert repeatedly dust Trevor Ariza, shake Deandre Ayton in the pick-and-roll, and smother Devin Booker into a 6-for-21 shooting performance, you felt like you were watching a player who recently understood he can be the best player on the court at the highest level of the sport, and whose pulse barely quickened at the realization. His surprising start becomes less surprising with each passing game.
The same goes for the Nets, who have climbed out of the NBA’s deep, dark basement and firmly into the league’s middle class, ranking 13th in offensive efficiency and 16th on the defensive end. Head coach Kenny Atkinson spent two dismal seasons establishing a style of play—push the pace, spread the floor, drive and kick, bomb away—that would foster the development of all the young players Marks handed him and, once he had some talent to plug in, might even win some games. What once looked ragged now looks polished. The Nets move the ball and their bodies with purpose, know what they’re looking for against set defenses, and actually have some firepower to be able to get it.
The names might not leap off the page, but there are actual NBA players up and down the Nets roster, and you see it in games like Tuesday’s beatdown of the Suns. Smart teams know they can take younger, inexperienced opponents and just maul them with motion and execution, trusting that discipline will exacerbate the other team’s disorganization. There was a time when the Nets were that disorganized team, frantic and racing and chasing its tail. That time’s over.
The Nets aren’t great, and they might not even be good yet, but they’re officially no longer bad. They’ve got a smart coach, a system, and a plan, and they’ve got talent—including one player who might be pretty special. In a watered-down East, that might be enough to chase Brooklyn’s first playoff berth since the last days of the Deron Williams era.