Writing about the five players I found most interesting during the 2018-19 NBA regular season wound up being a revelatory exercise. Apparently, the things I find most compelling include enigmatic figures whose words and actions are hard to understand, players who through fate or choice seem to have driven their careers to inflection points, and dudes plumbing the depths of isolation in its various forms. (I also enjoy dunks and stuff, too. I swear: I am a lot of fun at parties!)
This week, though, I’m writing about the five teams I’ve found most interesting this season, and as I started putting it together, I realized that the shift from individual to collective led to a shift in my thinking. Teams in flux like the Lakers, Celtics, and Pelicans have tended to dominate my daily work this season, but when I focused on what I’ve found engrossing over the past six months, I kept coming back to one idea: the pleasant surprise. The brief bit of warmth that you weren’t expecting but stumbled across and felt delighted by as you kept on moving through the gray of an 82-game slog.
So let’s open up our hearts and let the sunshine in, starting with the rise of a new superpower in the Upper Midwest ...
Smarter people might have seen it coming. But to me, watching the Bucks become the NBA’s best team was akin to waking up one morning and seeing a new, gleaming 100-story skyscraper suddenly dominating the once-familiar skyline. Yeah, I knew they’d been moving those cranes and girders and everything over there for a while, but shit, it’s ALREADY DONE?
As it turns out, there was a sleeping giant hiding in plain sight in downtown Milwaukee. General manager Jon Horst took the core assembled by predecessor John Hammond, one that had been coached to a plateau by Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty, and handed the keys to Mike Budenholzer, a longtime Gregg Popovich disciple and former Coach of the Year. Sprinkle in some savvy free-agent signings—chiefly reborn stretch-5 Brook Lopez—and voilà: instant juggernaut.
Budenholzer’s systemic tweaks unleashed the potential of the Bucks’ existing talent base. Giannis Antetokounmpo entered the stratosphere, becoming a front-runner for MVP and possibly Defensive Player of the Year. Khris Middleton adjusted to a new role that required him to sacrifice some of his preferred isolation and pick-and-roll plays, and transformed into an All-Star and Giannis’s ideal second banana. Lopez and Eric Bledsoe have had arguably the best all-around seasons of their careers, playing vital offensive roles while emerging as legitimate All-Defensive Team candidates. Milwaukee announced its arrival in the ranks of the NBA’s elite with authority at Oracle Arena in November and has never looked back; the Bucks have crushed opponents by 9.6 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, the best in the league by a considerable number.
The Bucks’ statistical profile isn’t quite at the level of the dynastic Warriors or some of the other all-time great teams; that plus-9.6 efficiency differential, while huge, is just the seventh-best mark of the last 15 seasons. It’s still pretty damn impressive, though: Milwaukee is tied for the 14th-biggest average margin of victory in the shot clock era and is just the eighth team in league history with 45 wins by 10 or more points, tied for the fifth most of all time. The previous seven all went on to win the NBA title.
Milwaukee’s remarkable season has been interesting in its own right, but it could shape the future in interesting ways, too. When the Bucks were a feisty but ultimately flustered first-round out, you heard rumblings about whether Antetokounmpo would want to stay in Wisconsin once his current contract ends in 2021. By getting this good this fast, locking up Bledsoe on a favorable extension, and retaining the financial flexibility to re-sign Middleton this summer, the Bucks have given themselves an opportunity to get ahead of that particular pre-agency problem. If they continue to win and win big, the Bucks could change the team-building calculus for some other teams who assumed they’d be in the driver’s seat in a post-LeBron East, altering the conference’s competitive hierarchy for years to come. The skyscraper’s here. Now we find out just how large a shadow it will cast.
For the first time in 15 years, it seems like the Kings are moving in the right direction. I ventured as much early in the season but did so with a skeptical hedge; surely, things couldn’t keep working out for the Kings, right? Sacramento’s ignominious league-leading playoff drought will indeed continue for another year, but there’s something to be said for the fact that the Kings remained alive until the end of March and did so by playing a vibrant, frenetic brand of basketball that revitalized a long-moribund franchise and introduced the NBA to some young players on the road to stardom.
De’Aaron Fox will likely receive Most Improved Player consideration for the strides he made in his second season, which saw him develop as a 3-point shooter, a pick-and-roll orchestrator, and the culture-setting leader of a team that plays hard as hell and at the league’s second-fastest pace. A couple of years removed from all that “next Stephen Curry” hype, shooting guard Buddy Hield has emerged as one of the sport’s sharpest high-volume marksmen, ranking in the top five in the league in 3-point makes and attempts while drilling them at a 42.9 percent clip, seventh-best in the NBA. And for all the rending of garments over the fact that he was not Luka Doncic, no. 2 overall draft pick Marvin Bagley III has been really good in the second half. He’s averaging 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game over his last 25 appearances; Sacramento’s postseason hopes started to dip when he suffered a sprained left knee in late February.
Sacramento still needs some things to go right. (Topping the list: finding the right offensive role and a financially tenable contract extension for trade-deadline acquisition Harrison Barnes and continued growth and development from their young bigs.) But with Fox and Hield in the backcourt, Bagley and fellow intriguing rookie Harry Giles up front, and Serbian playmaker Bogdan Bogdanovic on the wing, the Kings have talent. And with head coach Dave Joerger seemingly safe following an early-season squabble with assistant general manager Brandon Williams, they might have the makings of something pretty fun on their hands. With a couple of breaks, one of this season’s most pleasant surprises and enjoyable watches could return to perennial playoff contention in the crowded West.
It’s one thing to set out to build something like Warriors East; it’s another to actually look like you’re on the way there after just two drafts. After a brutal start to the season that saw Atlanta sitting in the Eastern Conference basement at 17 games under .500 through two months, the Hawks started to turn it around in mid-December and have been surprisingly solid—and pretty damn watchable—ever since. They’re 23-27 over their last 50 games with a middle-of-the-pack offense led by the playmaking excellence of point guard Trae Young.
The rookie’s been lights-out for about two and a half months, averaging 22.9 points, 9.1 assists (third best in the league behind Russell Westbrook and LeBron James), and 4.4 rebounds per game since mid-January. The attention Young draws with the threat of his back-online jumper (36.9 percent from 3-point range since February 1) and his exceptional passing touch have elevated the play of ascendant power forward John Collins and reclamation project center Alex Len, who looked left for dead in Phoenix before Young reignited his pilot light.
With Young, Collins, and several versatile wings already in the fold—Taurean Prince (who’s been damn good since the All-Star break), veteran podcast host Kent Bazemore, Ringer favorite rookie Kevin Huerter, and do-everything grinder DeAndre’ Bembry—the Hawks might already have one of the best young cores in the East. With another lottery pick on the way (and a second if the Mavericks’ pick lands lower than fifth, thanks to the Luka-Trae trade) and a projected $41 million in cap space to augment that core in free agency, Atlanta could be poised to make a serious leap in short order.
As my friend Paul Flannery of SB Nation says, “The best time you can have in this league is right before you get good.” Young, first-year head coach Lloyd Pierce, and the rest of the Hawks have been enjoying the hell out of figuring it all out, and the result’s been an awful lot of fun to watch.
Most discussions about the Nuggets these days tend to focus on how wobbly they seem as they head into their first postseason since 2013. Denver is 3-4 in its last seven games, fielding a bottom-10 offense since the All-Star break that has featured underwhelming production from starters Paul Millsap and Gary Harris and recent cold snaps from MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, point peacock Jamal Murray, and key reserve Malik Beasley. A team that has spent the bulk of the last six months as one of the West’s top teams just keeps getting pummeled by the Warriors and Rockets and may now be in danger of an early postseason exit; of course this is concerning.
But as we fret over whether the Nuggets will stick the landing, we should remember just how high and how far they have flown. Denver has ranked among the league’s most alluring watches all season, a captivating collection of young talents figuring out how to win in real time as they rotate in orbit around Jokic; the sui generis Serbian point center somehow manages to translate “plays every minute like he’s wearing flip-flops” vibes into historic production:
With Jokic cementing himself as one of the sport’s best players, Murray’s rise as the team’s irrepressible step-back-and-bomb-away talisman, bench-mobbers like Beasley and Monte Morris putting themselves on the map, and a fluid ball- and player-movement-heavy style that results in some dynamite possessions, there’s been a lot to like about Denver this season. They’ve got some decisions to make—Murray, Beasley, and Juancho Hernangomez all become eligible for extensions of their rookie contracts this summer; there’s the huge $30 million team option on the 34-year-old Millsap to consider—but what the Nuggets have built will give them a chance to be a real factor in the West for years to come. That’ll still be true even if things get rocky in Round 1.
The denouement of the Nets’ 2018-19 season has also left something to be desired. After an unforgiving seven-game, 15-day road trip, Brooklyn has lost seven of 10 to fall to 39-40, just a half-game ahead of the Miami Heat in what has been a surprisingly spirited race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. And with a rough closing schedule, a postseason berth that seemed a good bet just a couple of weeks ago now seems balanced on a knife’s edge.
Even so: How freaking cool is it that the Nets are even here at all?
It took years and years of planning and scouting, scouring international leagues and the deep benches of other NBA squads, and scrounging for assets in trades and taking big swings in the draft, but the Nets are on the verge of climbing out of NBA purgatory. Their 2013 trade with the Celtics never really bore fruit; the KG-and-Pierce Nets won one playoff series before withering on the vine, leaving nothing but spilled soda and acrimony in their wake. But what general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson planted in that salted earth has finally started to grow.
There’s an All-Star in Brooklyn now, after D’Angelo Russell’s breakout season. There’s support alongside him, with Spencer Dinwiddie becoming one of the league’s best reserve playmakers, Caris LeVert starting to show signs of returning to form after the devastating dislocated foot that interrupted his breakout season, and center Jarrett Allen developing into one of the league’s most fearsome rim protectors. There are role players plucked off the scrap heap and turned into key contributors, like long-distance bomber Joe Harris and Latvian glue guy Rodions Kurucs.
There’s pace and there’s buckets; for a team that has seemed bereft of distinct personality and identity since its commute from New Jersey, there’s finally some blossoming swagger. And there’s also an opportunity: a projected $21 million in cap space this offseason, and perhaps quite a bit more if Marks can find a taker for high-priced swingman Allen Crabbe. This summer could end up testing the theory that top-flight free agents might like the idea of playing and living in New York City without having to contend with the perpetually dispiriting circus at Madison Square Garden.
Maybe that pitch will work, and the Nets will enter next season loaded for bear with a true superstar on the roster for the first time since the days of Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. If it doesn’t, things won’t fall apart; this season proved that, at long last, there’s a real, stable foundation in Brooklyn to build on.
Toronto Raptors: I was fascinated by the gamble that Raptors president Masai Ujiri made last summer in trading for Kawhi Leonard despite the former NBA Finals MVP having just one season remaining before he could decline his player option for 2019-20, hit unrestricted free agency, and potentially skip town. So far, just about everything has come together exactly the way Toronto hoped it would, with Leonard being near-MVP-level great (when he plays), Kyle Lowry thriving as a facilitator and spoon-feeding Serge Ibaka to his best season in years, and Pascal Siakam looking like a star in the making.
And yet! The Raptors are still the 2-seed in their conference, with a new indomitable monster standing between them and the promised land, and either three months away from having to go back to the drawing board … or, if their post–Marc Gasol–trade form holds, from the first Finals trip in franchise history. Either way, Toronto won’t lack for drama this spring and summer. I’m sure Raptors fans will handle it all calmly.
Los Angeles Clippers: The Clips have been the poster children for the increased importance of depth in a post-pace-boom NBA. They got off to a surprisingly hot start despite lacking a signature superstar, and after cooling off and trading away the closest thing they had to one, they’ve gone nuclear, winning 15 of 20 since the All-Star break behind a Coach of the Year–caliber performance from Doc Rivers, the free-wheeling two-man game of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, a quietly tremendous season by sharpshooting forward Danilo Gallinari, and big contributions from young finds like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Landry Shamet, and Ivica Zubac. (Though apparently the Clippers didn’t really find Zubac so much as the Lakers just gave him to them.) The Clips will enter the playoffs playing with house money, and they will enter free agency playing with real money—reportedly anywhere from $54 million to $75 million—to spend. If all goes well, they might not be lacking that signature superstar for much longer.
Philadelphia 76ers: There have been so many different iterations of the Sixers this season that I’ve lost count—it feels like about four decades ago that Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric started against Boston on opening night—and I still don’t know how good the one that’ll enter the postseason really is. Some nights, they look like world-beaters; some nights, they can’t stop anybody in the pick-and-roll. There have been a lot of those nights, actually. (Seriously, Brett Brown: Give Zhaire Smith a chance on the ball in the playoffs! It could work!) But they’ve all been entertaining in their own ways, led by Joel Embiid’s reaching an even more frightening level while playing more minutes than ever. It feels like a roster this kludged won’t hold up under playoff scrutiny; it also feels like a starting five this talented has a credible chance of beating literally anybody. I can’t wait to find out which way things break.
Portland Trail Blazers: Coming off last spring’s utter desecration at the hands of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, and without significant offseason additions to a roster that felt kind of tapped out, many NBA pundits predicted pain, regression, and an underwhelming season for the Blazers. Instead: 50 wins, for the first time in four years, with the league’s no. 4 offense and no. 6 net rating, and a 10-7 record against the other top-four seeds. Lose CJ McCollum three weeks before the playoffs? Lose Jusuf Nurkic with just nine games to go in the regular season? Whatever. Just keep rolling, fighting for home-court advantage, and trying to figure it out.
With All-NBA point guard Damian Lillard and Coach of the Year contender Terry Stotts at the helm, the Blazers just keep finding answers. A dash of Seth Curry, a pinch of Jake Layman, a soupçon of Evan Turner (you don’t want to use too much; he’s a powerful spice)—whatever it takes to get the job done. The rest of us might not believe that recipe will lead somewhere of consequence in the playoffs until we actually see it; that’s fair, given the history. What’s cool about the Blazers, though, is that they never seem to stop playing like they believe it. Maybe this year, that faith will be rewarded.