After an unplanned DNP last Wednesday, it’s time to get back to doing what I love: talking about a handful of teams I find compelling at the moment, even if they’re not necessarily at the top of everyone’s power rankings.
Let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 9. And since there were no choices last week, we can get right to our five new teams, starting with the walking wounded in Colorado …
Denver Nuggets (18-9)
The good news: After a slight swoon following their torrid start, the Nuggets have won eight of 10 to surge back to the top of the Western Conference alongside the Warriors and the red-hot Thunder. The bad news: their players are dropping like flies. Seriously, check out this injured list from Monday night:
In summary:— T.J. McBride (@TJMcBrideNBA) December 11, 2018
Gary Harris is out 3-4 weeks.
Paul Millsap is out 4-6 weeks.
Will Barton will be re-evaluated weekly.
Isaiah Thomas has no timetable.
Michael Porter Jr. has no timetable.
Jarred Vanderbilt has no timetable.
That didn’t even include emotional fulcrum Jamal Murray, who was limited after getting kicked in the shin against Atlanta. But the Nuggets still outlasted a tough Grizzlies team, thanks to a big game from star playmaker Nikola Jokic and a potent, malleable bench that can expand to provide whatever Denver’s missing—even if that’s $57.6 million worth of starters, its top two picks in the 2018 draft, and a hoped-for spark-plug scorer.
I’ve sung the praises of the Nuggets reserves in this space before, including Juancho Hernangomez’s vital versatility. After coming into the league two seasons ago as a power forward, the 6-foot-9 Spaniard has played 95 percent of his minutes this season at small forward, according to Cleaning the Glass. Denver’s outscoring opponents by a very strong 7.1 points per 100 possessions with him at the 3, which has been massive given the near-season-long absence of Will Barton.
One guy I didn’t name-check, though, was Monte Morris. Your man made me feel very guilty for that oversight against Memphis, scoring 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting with six rebounds, five assists, and just one turnover in 28 minutes of work. He capped the strong night with a corner triple with about five minutes to go in the fourth quarter that put Denver ahead for good:
Despite being just 23 years old and in his second pro season, Morris plays like a 10-year vet that opponents can never speed up or throw off. He leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio—just as he did in all four of his seasons at Iowa State—and has the lowest turnover percentage of any point guard in the league who gets significant minutes. Morris does exactly what the Nuggets need off the ball, too, drilling 49.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s while playing solid, opportunistic defense.
Smart, low-mistake players who can distribute the ball and shoot are worth their weight in gold; the Nuggets landed one with the 51st pick in the 2017 draft. Denver outscores opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions with Morris on the court, the third-best mark on the team among qualifying players. (A small-sample-size stat that bears watching: The starting quartet of Jokic, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Hernangomez has a solid plus-4 net rating with Murray on the ball. It jumps to plus-15.6 with Morris in his place.)
Depth is critical in today’s NBA, and with Millsap (broken toe) and Harris (right hip injury) both expected to miss several weeks, it’s about to become even more important for Denver, especially on defense. The Nuggets’ rise in the West has been fueled by a jump to fifth in defensive efficiency after finishing in the bottom third of the league in Malone’s first three seasons in Denver. They’ve actually allowed fewer points per possession with Millsap and Harris off the floor, but more minutes to fill means more opportunities for overexposure and diminishing returns. How effectively the short-handed Nuggets can handle a rough upcoming slate—the Thunder, Raptors, Mavericks, Clippers, and a home-and-home with the Spurs over the next two and a half weeks—should tell us a lot about just how dangerous Denver could be when it finally gets back to full strength.
Utah Jazz (13-15)
Here is exclusive footage of me watching Jazz games this season:
Utah’s been one step forward, two steps back since the jump, unable to string together enough good games to establish itself as the legitimate contender many expected it to be. Instead, everybody coming off of career seasons seems to have either stalled or slid back.
Donovan Mitchell’s still scoring 21 a night, but he’s shooting more and facilitating less, with his efficiency dropping in both areas. Joe Ingles is shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, which is only a bummer because he shot 44 percent in each of the past two seasons. Ricky Rubio’s fighting with his shot again, and posting the worst free throw rate of his career.
Utah’s offense has been considerably better with Jae Crowder on the floor, but that’s less because he’s a knockdown stretch 4—31.8 percent from deep on 6.1 attempts per game—than because he provides some respite from the Rudy Gobert–Derrick Favors pairing, which remains a claustrophobia-inducing net negative. And while Gobert’s scoring a career-best 14.8 points per game and leading the league in field goal percentage, he’s also allowing opponents to shoot 59.4 percent at the rim, 4.2 percentage points higher than his mark last season, and 12.2 percentage points higher than two seasons ago.
That’s not all Gobert’s fault. Utah’s perimeter defense has slipped noticeably, and when you’re not stopping dribble penetration, there’s only so much even an elite eraser can do to hold down the fort. (More run for Dante Exum might help, but he’s missing nearly three-quarters of his 3s and the offense has died in his minutes; you might lose as much as you gain.) What in the season’s first few weeks might have been chalked up to struggling with the league’s new freedom of movement rules now just looks like a flat-out struggle. Utah ranks 12th in points allowed per possession and 21st in opponents’ effective field goal percentage, down from first and sixth last season. Even after trading for Kyle Korver, whose shooting and space-creating impact has helped boost Utah’s offense, the Jazz just don’t have enough playmaking and firepower to weather that kind of defensive drop-off every night. No wonder Rudy’s getting so testy with the refs; he needs someplace to vent all that frustration, and you get in trouble for taking it out on the scorer’s table.
LOL Rudy Gobert gets ejected three minutes into game after going insane and slapping drinks off the scorer's table pic.twitter.com/fpvuDbWg1v— gifdsports (@gifdsports) December 7, 2018
The silver lining: Things won’t stay this hard. The Jazz are generating the right kinds of looks, taking the league’s fifth-highest share of shots at the rim and the third-highest share of corner 3s, according to Cleaning the Glass, and the fifth-most “wide-open” 3s, per NBA.com/Stats. Keep that up, and the math should tilt their way eventually. Plus, nobody has had a tougher schedule thus far, with 18 of the Jazz’s first 28 games coming away from home; the road should rise to meet them in the new year once they start seeing more iffy teams in Salt Lake City.
For all their issues, the Jazz are only three games out of sixth. If they can just stay within striking distance of the middle of the Western pack, they’ll be in position to make a run when the schedule softens up. If they can’t consistently display the identity that propelled them last season, though, they’ll have a hard time making the same kind of late push.
Boston Celtics (16-10)
Two and a half weeks ago, the Celtics were mired in the muck, sitting at .500 with the NBA’s fourth-worst offense. Kevin O’Connor wrote about Boston’s problems with shot selection and sluggishness; I called the C’s the biggest disappointment of the first quarter of the season. So, naturally, they’ve since run off six straight wins with an average margin of victory of 26 points. (Shouts out to the 56-point widowmaker they dropped on The Shock And Awe Crew for padding the stats, and to Ringer blessings, which never fail.)
It took 20 games of trial and error, but Celtics coach Brad Stevens finally found the right combination to kick-start the Celtics attack, sliding Marcus Smart into the starting lineup alongside Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Marcus Morris Sr. Boston has boasted the best offense in the NBA since the shift, scoring a mind-boggling 10 points per 100 possessions more than the Steph-led Warriors in that span. The perimeter group of the Marcuses, Irving, and Tatum has been lethal of late, outscoring opponents by 43 points in 74 minutes in five appearances no matter which big they’re lined up alongside. Smart’s always been a bellwether for Boston, the kind of player whose activity, aggression, and versatility made him more valuable than the counting stats suggest; it’s no surprise that the Celtics have taken off since his elevation.
Adding a defense-first facilitator in Smart and a credible three-level scorer willing to do dirty work in Morris has helped balance and simplify Boston’s approach. The ball and bodies are moving more, finding shooters and cutters in space and in rhythm:
Everybody’s stepping into shots more readily and confidently, swarming to harass ball handlers and plug up passing lanes, and gang-rebounding to finish defensive possessions and get out in transition. They’re not squandering their chances—since the lineup change, Boston has turned the ball over on a minuscule 9.4 percent of its plays when Irving and Smart play together—and they’re creating more of them, rebounding 30.1 percent of their misses (up from 25.4 percent before the change) and forcing turnovers on 16.6 percent of opponents’ trips (up from 15.3 percent).
Can't be sloppy around Smart. pic.twitter.com/NsVewjrYnk— Boston Celtics (@celtics) December 7, 2018
The reshuffled rotation also seems to have helped make things easier for the Celtics who’d struggled earlier in the season. Gordon Hayward has settled into a groove as the primary pick-and-roll playmaker on Boston’s second unit, averaging 4.6 assists and 1.5 turnovers since moving to the bench. After missing three games following a hard fall in Dallas, Jaylen Brown has come off the bench with perhaps his three best games of the season, persistently attacking the rim and the boards. Terry Rozier’s been firing confidently, and generally looking more free than he has since the Eastern Conference finals.
Whether the across-the-board uptick will carry over once the Celtics start playing some tougher competition again remains to be seen, but I’m bullish. It all just feels cleaner, more sensible, like the come-at-you-in-waves monster we expected Boston to be coming out of the gates. Better 20 games late than never.
Cleveland Cavaliers (6-21)
When a toe injury shut Kevin Love down after four games, it became clear that the Cavaliers weren’t fit to compete for anything this season but the top pick in the draft. Granted, things weren’t going super hot before that: A clearly hampered Love was shooting just 32.3 percent from the field before being put on ice, and Cleveland was 0-4 with losses to the disintegrating pre-Jimmy-trade Wolves and abject young Hawks. But an extended period without Love—re-upped on a four-year, $120 million contract extension to be the sort of bulwark against armageddon that the Cavs lacked the first time LeBron left—ensured that Cleveland would be waiting for next year to make a run at the playoffs, whether Dan Gilbert liked it or not.
Now, general manager Koby Altman is firmly in sell-off-the-spare-parts mode. He traded Kyle Korver to Utah for oft-injured guard Alec Burks and a pair of future second-round picks. A week later, he sent George Hill (and his tasty barely-guaranteed 2019-20 contract) to Milwaukee for erstwhile fan favorite Matthew Dellavedova, injured big John Henson, a future first-round pick (which will come … eventually), and another second-rounder. The exiled J.R. Smith could also be on the move, as well as Rodney Hood and the just-acquired Burks, whom the Cavs can redirect on his own right now or in a larger deal in two months (which will still be before the February 7 trade deadline).
The amount Altman will be able to get in return for those relatively paltry assets likely depends on how much future salary Gilbert’s willing to take back. Considering Cleveland imported $20 million in 2019-20 money for Delly and Henson to get Milwaukee’s future first-rounder, the answer might be, “Quite a bit.” But if the Cavs are indeed embarking on their own process, they have a big question to answer: What do they do with Love?
The forward is expected to be back on the court next month, perhaps with enough time for a pre-deadline showcase. His six-month post-extension trade moratorium ends January 24, but who’s lining up to give up valuable future considerations to take on such a giant salary for a 30-year-old with an increasingly dicey injury history, and who hasn’t shown he can be a true focal point in years?
The Cavs have made it clear that they’re looking to the future. They’re force-feeding opportunities to rookie point guard Collin Sexton, who leads the team in minutes, points, and field goal attempts over its past 15 games. He’s now finishing more than 25 percent of Cleveland’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover for the season, the third-highest usage rate in this rookie class behind only Trae Young and Luka Doncic. Sexton still has a long way to go, but after a rocky start, he seems to be developing; has that disabused Gilbert of the notion that he needs a viable All-Star partner? Or does Cleveland still believe Love’s the best fit to help bring him along? How the Cavs handle Love when he’s ready to return should tell us a lot about what they believe is the best path to fostering Sexton’s growth, and just how far they’re willing to fall in hopes of one day rising again.
Los Angeles Lakers (17-10)
When I wrote about L.A.’s strong recent play last week, I noted the two primary causes—LeBron James being freaking amazing, and a massive improvement on the defensive end—while also expressing some skepticism that a team that entered the season with so many defensive question marks could so quickly become elite at shutting down the opposition. In reviewing just what’s helped make the Lakers so stingy during their 15-5 run, though—they’re third in defensive efficiency since Halloween, and second in points allowed per possession in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass—there’s a pretty reasonable answer: some of their young guys are removing those question marks.
Kyle Kuzma entered the season as the Lakers’ small-ball backup center. That … didn’t quite work out. Los Angeles allowed 118.1 points per 100 possessions with him at the 5, well below even what Cleveland’s league-worst defense has mustered over the course of the full season. Lately, though, coach Luke Walton has given Kuzma a different assignment that’s been a better natural fit for his skill set: guarding wings.
Recently, Kuzma has checked a bunch of perimeter players—among them DeMar DeRozan, Luka Doncic, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Joe Ingles—and acquitted himself well. He’s been using his 6-foot-9 frame, 7-foot wingspan, quick feet, and athleticism to stay attached to smaller marks off the bounce and off screens, and has showcased a better feel for how to close out under control, beat his opponents to their preferred spots, and contest without fouling:
With Kuzma at power forward next to LeBron—really just a nominal positional distinction—the Lakers have given up just 104.3 points per 100 possessions this season, a top-five-caliber mark, and a mammoth upgrade over his work as a miscast man in the middle. (They’ve been even better when Kuzma shares the floor with Tyson Chandler, conceding a microscopic 95.2 points per 100 possessions, which dovetails with the eye-test evaluation that L.A. took off defensively once the veteran big man came to town.)
While Kuzma’s bona fides as a defender were in question after his rookie season, Lonzo Ball stood out as an impact stopper pretty much right from the jump. He came up with a steal or a block on more than 2 percent of opponents’ defensive possessions last season, making him one of just 15 freshmen in Basketball-Reference.com’s database to do both as a rookie, joining the likes of David Robinson, Andrei Kirilenko, Anthony Davis, and Joakim Noah. His individual play carried over to team success on that end, too; L.A. allowed 3.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lonzo on the court as a rookie.
While the on/off splits have skewed the other way thus far this season, Ball’s preternatural defensive instincts still pop off the screen. He covers a lot of ground away from the ball, and routinely puts himself in position to plug up passing lanes. He’s got a great feel for figuring out which option is most dangerous and in need of his attention on a switch, and for how to time his help on a double for just when an opponent goes into his move. He’s really, really good on the defensive end, and he’s getting better:
What a fantastic sequence on both ends from Lonzo. His activity on defense never ceases to amaze. pic.twitter.com/OWp21U0AqT— Isaac Gutierrez (@ByIsaacG) November 18, 2018
This is such a good defensive read. Matthews sets the flare screen on Ingram here to try to free up Doncic. Lonzo immediately identifies that that's Barnes' read & leaves DSJ to jump the passing lane, knowing that Barnes can't see him because he's behind Matthews and Ingram. pic.twitter.com/ndOZKQgawv— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) December 1, 2018
Whether the Lakers can keep up this level of defensive production remains to be seen; they’re still allowing the league’s third-highest share of shots at the rim, which could lead to a deluge of points if their top-five defensive field goal percentage on such shots slips at all. But with the addition of Chandler to fortify the interior defense, one of his former Phoenix teammates possibly on the way to add length and expertise on the perimeter, and youngsters like Kuzma, Ball, and Josh Hart showing that they can be real defensive contributors, the Lakers are starting to look less like a team scrambling to figure it all out, and a hell of a lot more like a force to be reckoned with in the West.