We’d already seen a few early-season deals go down, including one blockbuster. But December 15, the first day that teams can redirect the players they signed as free agents over the summer, marked the proper start of trade season in the NBA, as rung in by the aborted three-team deal and completed two-teamer that landed Trevor Ariza back in D.C., Kelly Oubre Jr. in Phoenix, and Ernie Grunfeld’s résumé back in the spotlight.
The Wizards-Suns deal might not signal a flurry of moves in the immediate future. (Teams typically wait until the eve of the trade deadline to get their business done.) But it does mean that the time is coming for teams to honestly assess where they stand and start planning accordingly. It’s a complicated calculus, especially in a season when a three-game winning streak can move you from the bottom of the conference to the middle of the playoff pack. But that initial appraisal matters: Whether you’re looking to build a roster or tear one down, you don’t want to miss what might be your best chance to get the project underway.
While we wait to see which teams have reconstruction in mind, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the league for Week 10. But first, a quick review of how last week’s choices panned out:
Denver Nuggets (21-9): They’re one of only three teams (Milwaukee, Toronto) to rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. The team’s still in the mix atop the Western Conference, despite injuries to three starters, thanks to fantastic depth and the stellar play of Nikola Jokic.
Utah Jazz (14-17): Recent blowout wins over the Spurs and Heat boosted their advanced stats, but the Jazz have lost four of their last five games, and their next five are brutal: Golden State, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, and a pair against Portland. Nobody’s going to be happier when 2019 gets here than Utah, which has played the NBA’s toughest schedule so far.
Boston Celtics (18-11): The new-look starting quartet of Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Marcus Morris has been Godzilla-stomping fools, outscoring opponents by 27.2 points per 100 possessions over the last 10 games no matter which big man occupies the middle. The Celtics need a healthy Al Horford to reach their ceiling, but while he rests a sore left knee, the trio of Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis, and Robert “Time Lord” Williams have held down the fort to keep Boston rolling through a soft spot in the schedule.
Cleveland Cavaliers (8-23): I’m sure they’d prefer being on a good team with an actual chance of playing a meaningful game this season, all things being equal. But if they can’t have that, at least Jordan Clarkson (24th in the NBA in usage rate over the last 15 games) and Collin Sexton (41st) have seized the opportunity to hoist whatever shots they want. In a dire situation, you have to take hope where you can find it, and there are few situations more dire than the one in Cleveland.
Los Angeles Lakers (18-13): Neither James Harden nor John Wall seemed all that impressed with L.A.’s suddenly stingy defense, but the Lakers still remain within striking distance of the Denver–Golden State–Oklahoma City troika atop the West. Thirty games into Year 1 of the LeBron era, close is close enough for now.
Now, on to a new week and five more teams, starting with the squad with the most prolific scorer in basketball …
Houston Rockets (15-14)
There’s a lot wrong with the Rockets. You know what’s right with them? James Harden. That dude’s nuts.
I know, I know: that viral double stepback was very clearly a travel, and Harden still gets dusted on defense and picked on in isolation, and watching him play can sometimes feel like watching someone show you just how good they are at extreme couponing. Like, I get that it saves you money, but it looks really tedious; is it really worth all of that?
For Houston, the answer is yes. Yes, it is. Harden is leading the league in scoring with a career-high 31.5 points per game, shooting more accurately on 2-pointers than he has since he was a sixth man in Oklahoma City and knocking down 37.1 percent of his 3s despite taking an eye-popping 11 per game. No single player is more responsible for generating his team’s offense, especially with Chris Paul off to a troublingly slow start in the first year of the ginormous maximum-salaried contract that will carry him through his age-36 season. The only player who has ever had as high a usage rate and shot the ball as efficiently as James Harden this season was … James Harden. Last season. When he won the MVP.
Even with Paul and Eric Gordon struggling to consistently knock down the long ball, the Rockets offense remains one of the NBA’s most dominant forces so long as Harden’s at the controls. With him on the court, Houston scores 112.4 points per 100 possessions; when he sits, that drops to 105.5. Since his return from an early-season hamstring injury that contributed to the Rockets’ slow start, only Milwaukee has fielded a more explosive and potent attack.
Having spent most of the season hovering below .500, Houston’s only recourse has been to have Harden grab the game with both hands and score as much as possible. He’s responded with six 40-plus-point performances in the past six weeks. The Beard followed last week’s 50-point triple-double to beat the Lakers with Monday’s clinic against the Jazz, during which he repeatedly torched Ricky Rubio with evil feints, jabs, crossovers and, yes, stepbacks to the tune of 47 points with six rebounds, five assists, and five steals in a five-point win:
The Rockets have had no choice but to continue relying on the most potent weapon at their disposal: Harden’s gift for putting defenders in compromised positions and then alchemizing their discomfort and awkwardness into points. But that alone is not sustainable. We’ve seen Harden tire out late in the postseason after bearing such a massive offensive responsibility for the full 82 games; if Paul’s not up to sharing the burden like he did last year, with the West so tightly packed this season, you wonder whether Harden’s wheels might fall off before the Rockets even get that far.
Indiana Pacers (20-11)
Twenty games later, I’m still wondering the same thing I was in early November: Could the Pacers be the third-best team in the Eastern Conference? Or is Indiana’s early-season success based as much on circumstance and schedule as overall quality?
Before a disappointing at-the-buzzer loss to the Cavs on Tuesday, the Pacers had the NBA’s longest winning streak, riding seven straight victories. The first four of those came without Victor Oladipo, who missed three weeks with a right knee injury. Expected to struggle without its lone All-Star, Indiana instead went 7-4 in Oladipo’s absence, staying in the thick of the race for home-court advantage in the East alongside the Raptors, Bucks, 76ers, and Celtics.
Nate McMillan’s club made ends meet without its best player largely by suffocating opposing offenses, allowing just 101.7 points per 100 possessions during Oladipo’s stint on the shelf, which trailed only the lockdown Thunder in defensive efficiency during that span. The Pacers spread the wealth, ranking second in the league in team assist percentage with Oladipo out, giving other scorers (Bojan Bogdanovic, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young) more chances to finish and other playmakers (Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans, rookie Aaron Holiday) more responsibility to create. And Domantas Sabonis, one of the league’s very best reserves this season, remained a monster in the pick-and-roll and on the glass:
Indy’s last four games have featured Oladipo back in the fold, looking to relocate both his shot-making rhythm and explosiveness off the bounce. Neither look quite right just yet; he’s shooting 38.2 percent from the field and hasn’t had the same burst when trying to get downhill in the pick-and-roll. Still, the Pacers have scored 108.7 points per 100 since Oladipo came back, a tick above their full-season mark, with convincing wins over Milwaukee and the Sixers in which the forever underrated Young more than held his own against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons. But then, there was Tuesday, a desultory slog in which nearly every Pacer played like he’d just contracted a particularly virulent strain of the flu.
Perhaps most encouraging for the Pacers’ chances of emerging as a real contender: Through the first third of the season, they’ve shown signs that they might be able to stay afloat offensively when their star needs a rest. Only two of their six most effective lineups thus far feature Oladipo in the backcourt; their roster balance is a far cry from last season, when the team scored 7.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Oladipo off the court. What was once a tough, hard-nosed team with no secondary means of creating and converting good looks has become a tough, hard-nosed team with at least some other credible means of doing so.
That’s no small thing. If it’s real, it could be the difference between another first-round exit and the Pacers’ first deep postseason run since Frank Vogel’s model dashed against the rocks of the Big Three Heat. That caveat, though—if it’s real—is no small thing. The Pacers have fattened up on one of the league’s most accommodating schedules; only five of their 20 wins have come against teams currently over .500. They’ll get the chance to burnish their bona fides Wednesday, when they head north of the border to take on the East-leading Raptors. A win in Toronto would certainly wash out the taste of Tuesday’s loss to Cleveland, but, more importantly, it would give them victories over the three other best teams in the conference in the space of a week. There’s nothing soft about that.
Oklahoma City Thunder (19-10)
Late in the third quarter of Monday’s win over the Bulls, Paul George ran a high pick-and-roll with Steven Adams. He took a short dribble to his left to draw out a trap, then rifled a left-handed pass across the court to Jerami Grant, who drove baseline for a layup. On the ensuing Chicago possession, George defended Bobby Portis on the block, absorbing contact from a power forward 2 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than he is. He timed Portis’s move, tied him up, and forced a jump ball, which he won.
These weren’t highlight-reel plays, like the 360 windmills and Birdman pluckings that helped make George a household name. But something about the skills and craft on display—the patience to wait just long enough to get the help defender leaning before throwing the fastball to Grant, the hard-earned strength to absorb the back-downs in the post, the awareness of exactly when to pounce on Portis’s move—struck me. So did the ease with which George did it all. Four years removed from his catastrophic leg injury, in his second season after pushing his way out of Indianapolis and five months after deciding he’d prefer Oklahoma City after L.A. after all, this might be the best Paul George we’ve ever seen.
The numbers back that up. He’s averaging 24.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.2 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game—all career highs—while posting his second-highest effective field goal and true shooting percentages since entering the NBA. He’s turning the ball over less frequently than ever despite having to take on a larger playmaking role after Russell Westbrook went down with an ankle injury and needing to score more with the former MVP struggling since his return.
When Westbrook or Dennis Schröder bumps George off the ball, he’s been perfectly comfortably spacing the floor; he’s taking more 3-pointers per 36 minutes than ever and drilling them at a 37.8 percent clip. He’s helped Adams lead a swarming defense that ranks first in points allowed per possession and forces turnovers on opponents’ offensive plays more often than any team in the league, even with elite wing stopper Andre Roberson still sidelined by a patellar tendon injury. In Roberson’s stead, George has been arguably the sport’s most disruptive perimeter defender, leading the NBA in total steals and loose balls recovered while trailing only Jrue Holiday in deflections.
This was the vision general manager Sam Presti had when he sent Oladipo and Sabonis to Indiana two summers ago: pair Westbrook’s frenetic explosiveness with George’s smoother, more multifaceted game; surround them with go-go-Gadget-armed super-athletes; wreak defensive havoc and blow down doors in transition; return to the ranks of viable championship contenders. The Carmelo Anthony experiment muddied the waters last season, but now that everyone knows George is around for the long haul, the team’s pecking order is firmly entrenched and the results are speaking for themselves. Since their season-opening 0-4 stumble, nobody’s been better than the Thunder. (Here’s where we’ll note that Indiana’s strength-of-schedule caveat applies to OKC, too.)
Philadelphia 76ers (20-12)
We’re coming around to the idea that depth matters in today’s NBA, thanks to teams like the Raptors, Nuggets, Mavericks, Clippers (before their recent swoon, anyway), and aforementioned Pacers getting off to hot starts by punishing opponents with their strong reserve corps. That cuts the other way, too: Even if you employ top-line talent, if you don’t have enough reliable bodies to cycle through in a league that’s pushing the pace like never before, you’ll soon find yourself gasping for air. The Sixers are huffing and puffing right now, the consequence of being spread too thin by last month’s swing-for-the-fences deal to import Jimmy Butler.
It’s a trade you’d make 10 times out of 10. As beloved as Robert Covington and Dario Saric were in Philadelphia, they’re rotation players. Butler is a legit All-NBA-caliber star, one who made an immediate and dramatic impact upon his arrival. Philly won nine of Butler’s first 12 games, as his two-way excellence and ballsy game-winners helped vault the 76ers back into the conference-supremacy conversation.
But even no-brainer deals come at a cost, and you don’t need a degree in applied mathematics to grasp it here: Philly traded away two starters and got back only one. Combine that with the ongoing medical-marvel absences of 2017 no. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and 2018 first-rounder Zhaire Smith and a big whiff at convincing an impact free agent to take their money last summer, and you’ve got a team leaning heavily on nine players: starters Butler, MVP candidate Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, and Wilson Chandler, and reserves Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, T.J. McConnell, and Furkan Korkmaz. That group’s looked weary of late, losing three of four, capped by a 27-point pasting at the hands of the scuffling Spurs on Monday.
The starters have been lethal, outscoring opponents by a blistering 21.2 points per 100 possessions since the trade, fourth-best of any big-minutes lineup in the league. But as our Kevin O’Connor noted, every member of that rotation besides Butler, Embiid, and Simmons struggles defensively and few are bankable long-distance shooters. Even Redick, one of the sport’s premier snipers, is shooting the lowest 3-point percentage of his career.
Philly needs players who can shoot and defend on the perimeter. It really could have used Nemanja Bjelica, who backed out of a verbal agreement with the Sixers to take a longer, more lucrative deal with the Kings, and has gone on to be exactly what Sacramento needed. Getting the Fultz they thought they drafted would’ve been nice too. The Sixers don’t have either, though, so they need to find other answers.
Last season the help came on the buyout market, where Philly found Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli to give Embiid and Simmons the room they needed. But can the Sixers afford to wait for that market to open up? New general manager Elton Brand might need to consider being proactive with additional trades, but viable deals could be tough to come by. After sending Jerryd Bayless to Minnesota in the Butler deal, Philly lacks midsize salaries to use as trade ballast. Whether to cut bait on Fultz is a dilemma; what Philly could even get for him after his haunted season and a half is a mystery. Brand also can’t really afford to trade away much more from the existing rotation and needs to avoid taking on contracts that stretch beyond this season to preserve cap space for a summer in which the Sixers hope to re-sign Butler to a long-term deal and further augment the roster.
“We’re going to be aggressive. Elton will be aggressive on how we ultimately design this team,” Sixers coach Brett Brown recently told reporters. “We’ve admitted that the sort of timeline has changed. We genuinely believe our timeline is now.”
Brooklyn Nets (14-18)
Losing Caris LeVert to a brutal dislocated foot in early November deflated Brooklyn. Starting on the night they watched their best two-way player go down in Minnesota, the Nets lost 11 of 13 games, a downward spiral that seemed set to scuttle any early-season hope of contending for a lower-tier postseason spot in the Eastern Conference. But Kenny Atkinson’s team appears to have pulled out of its tailspin, winning six straight games—the NBA’s longest active winning streak and Brooklyn’s longest in three and a half years—to draw within a game and a half of Orlando for the East’s no. 8 seed.
The Nets have been winning with offense, scoring a scorching 117.6 points per 100 possessions and shooting 40.5 percent from 3-point land during the streak. Everything for Brooklyn starts in the backcourt. When LeVert was healthy, he was the primary ball handler and creator at the helm of Atkinson’s offense. With him sidelined, the Nets have needed more out of the point-guard tandem of starter D’Angelo Russell and reserve Spencer Dinwiddie. They’ve gotten it recently, with the two lead guards combining to average 42.2 points and 14.7 assists per game over their last six games while shooting efficiently from inside and out to pace the Brooklyn attack.
Russell and Dinwiddie have been taking turns roasting opponents over the past couple of weeks. Dinwiddie led the way in wins over the Knicks, Wizards, and Sixers, against whom he poured in a career-high 39 points with five assists in 30 minutes off the bench ...
... while Russell took the reins in beating the Raptors, Hawks, and, on Tuesday, his former team, the Lakers. The 2015 no. 2 pick thanked Magic Johnson and company for shipping him east in the summer of 2017 (along with Timofey Mozgov’s still-unbelievable contract) by sticking them for 22 points and a career-high-tying 13 assists Monday, capping it all off with a cold-blooded pull-up 3-pointer that gave the Nets a six-point lead with 22 seconds to go:
D'Angelo Russell gets his revenge on the Lakers. Hits dagger 3..... pic.twitter.com/2Pz2hQFCTW— gifdsports (@gifdsports) December 19, 2018
Russell coming on offensively raises some interesting questions for the Nets. Brooklyn has hemorrhaged points when Russell shares the floor with either Dinwiddie or LeVert in each of the past two seasons. GM Sean Marks just inked Dinwiddie to a three-year, $34 million extension to stick around in the backcourt mix, and the Nets have made it clear that they view LeVert as a foundational ball handler and playmaker. So where does that leave Russell, who is set to hit restricted free agency this summer after Brooklyn passed on offering him an extension of his rookie deal before the start of the season?
Moving on from Russell and forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson could give the Nets nearly $50 million in cap space with which to pursue free-agent talent. Can Russell show enough over the rest of the season—perhaps in helping fuel a surprise feel-good push back toward playoff contention—to convince Marks and Atkinson that he’s worth making a building block, too? Or is this the start of Russell’s long audition for prospective suitors on the restricted market?
An earlier version of this story misstated the day the Nets beat the Lakers. It was Tuesday, not Monday.