THE MIXED BAG
Looking at my roster of teams, I have to admit it’s much more of a mixed bag than I initially expected. Let’s start with the creme de la creme.
THE RACING CARS:
While Cleveland and Golden State were always expected to be amongst the elite teams this NBA season, the Clippers (10-2) look to be the real deal in the early going. I know what you’re thinking and part of me can’t help but be skeptical (particularly after dropping a close one to Memphis last night), however it’s amazing what a healthy (and disciplined) Blake Griffin can do for a teams fortunes.
Probably one of the more underappreciated players in the game today, Blake has worked hard on his jumper to make it a respectable threat – and is one of the best big men passers in the game (4.0 assists per game). He and Jordan have a great chemistry and compliment each others strengths and weaknesses so well. I still have concerns on their ability to compete against the elite teams when it counts given their lack of wing depth, but considering they’ve won 7 games by double digits, you can’t help but be impressed so far in season 2016/17. The Clippers have a pretty soft remainder to their November schedule (BKN, MEM, SAC, CHI, TOR, DAL, DET, IND and BKN again) – so it’s possible they’ll enter December leading the West.
We could talk all day about Lebron, Kyrie, KLove and Co – but I’d like to focus on one of the unheralded players on the Cavs (9-2) roster. It seemed a pretty odd move at the deadline last season when Cleveland decided to trade for Channing Frye. Not so much because of the fit (god knows the Cavs love an outside shooter) but more the fact he could barely get on the floor throughout their postseason run. Having gone through a training camp with his new squad, Frye looks to be a key part of their 2017 championship aspirations. Frye is a great yin to Tristan Thompson’s yang – giving the Cavs a different, spacier look when Thompson needs a spell. Currently playing a shade under 20 minutes per game, Frye is sinking 48% of his three point looks and hitting 3 per game. That’s lights out, and scary when paired alongside Love, Irving, Smith and James with the rock in his hands.
The Warriors (9-2) sputtered out of the gate, looking as flaccid as me watching my Miami Heat this season (more on that later…the Heat I mean…). However they’re starting to hit their straps, and you can see the potential dominance of this team coming to the fore. Part of the reason for their slow start was Klay Thompson looking like he spent the off-season practicing a different kind of three. It’s hard to believe that Klay started the season at 3-28 from downtown over the seasons first four games. That just doesn’t happen to a shooter of that calibre – he’s arguably got a more pure release than Curry or Durant. He’s still at just 31% on 7 attempts per game through the Warriors’ first 11 games and when (and it is a when) he finds his range, the Warriors will truly become unlocked. As a side note, how sweet are their homage uni’s to the Run TMC era? This is how you do modern retro right people (Sacramento take note).
THE STRAWBERRIES AND CREAM:
Utah (7-6) had to start the season with some niggling injuries to key personnel. Gordon Hayward injured his thumb and missed the first 7 games of the NBA season, however that hasn’t stopped him from going off in his 5 games since. Hayward is averaging 22/7/4 on 43% shooting in 35 minutes per game. More importantly, the Jazz are 4-2 in games that Hayward has played.
Unfortunately, the Jazz lost George Hill to a finger injury around the same time Hayward returned. Hill has perhaps been the most surprising player through the seasons early going. He looks like a new man in Salt Lake City, and looks like an ideal fit alongside the ball handling of Hayward and Rodney Hood. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of deal Hill gets in Free Agency 2017, but he’s doing his value no harm through the start of this season. Continuing Utah’s injury curse is the ongoing knee troubles for Derrick Favors, who lasted just 6 minutes vs Miami the other night. At 7-6 as they lose to the Bulls, Utah is on track to finally return to playoff basketball.
The Spurs (9-3) have been the quiet achievers again so far this season. However, they perhaps don’t look as crisp as I imagined when predicting a 60 win season for this team. Tony Parker has struggled so far this season, and it is looking like father time has finally caught up with the speedy Frenchman. He has lost a step and is now splitting time with Patty Mills (10 points, 4 assists and 46%fg) at the 1. Mills is a stronger 3pt threat than Parker, which works better considering Kawhi is handling the rock more and more. Speaking of which, if you thought Kawhi Leonard was gonna average 25 a game when he was drafted, you’re a liar.
My biggest concern for the Spurs is the fit between Aldridge and Gasol.
Both their numbers are down on last season, and it might take some time before they are fully comfortable with each others game. San Antonio has dropped games to Utah, Houston and the Clippers – all fellow West playoff contenders – so the jury is out on whether they are true contenders this season, or just making up the higher seed numbers.
The Bucks (5-6) were dealt a devastating blow to their playoff hopes when Khris Middleton was ruled out for 6 months with hamstring surgery. In order to cover some of the deficit, the Bucks swung a trade for Tony Snell – who has been so-so in the first 11 games of his Bucks career. A player who has been above expectations though has been rookie combo guard Malcolm Brogdon. He has a kind of stocky build to him, almost Evan Turneresque, but has shown to be a solid defender and has a good all around feel for the game. A great find in the 2nd round. The Bucks have stayed afloat
through predominantly the play of their 2 young stars – Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetonkounmpo. The Greek Freak looks to have taken the next step this season – 21/8/5/2/2 on 52%fg. About the only thing he doesn’t do is shoot the 3, but when it takes you one step from the 3pt line to the rim – who cares?
Speaking of the 3 ball though, Parker looks to have added it to his offensive repertoire this season. After going 9-35 (26%) through 76 games last season, Parker has already hit 8-25 (36%) in 9 games so far in 2016/17. Adding this shot to his arsenal will only make Jabari a more difficult cover, as his handle, quickness and athleticism are well above average for a guy of his size and stature. The Bucks will be fighting for a 6-8 seed in the East this season, but it just might be achievable – setting the platform for a leap in 2017/18.
THE LIQUORICE CATS:
My beloved Heat (3-8) look all aboard the Markelle Fultz Express. Not necessarily by choice, more so a function of a mish-mash roster that doesn’t have a true go to guy and is a collection of 1yr rentals and young guys with potential. After over a decade of giving the ball to Wade in the clutch, Miami has lost close games through not having a clear offensive weapon to deliver crunch time buckets.
An ankle injury to Goran Dragic has compounded matters, who has missed the past three games (all losses). Considering Miami have gone with just one pure PG on their roster, it’s not a surprise the offence has been, well, plain offensive. From an effective FG% perspective, the Heat rank 28th out of 30 teams in the NBA. In addition to that they rank dead last in Free Throw attempts compared to Field Goal Attempts. Simply put, Miami aren’t hitting shots and aren’t getting to the line. While Whiteside is getting his (18 points, 15 rebounds, 55%fg) – it isn’t translating into wins or impact, which has always been the rub on Hassan. Riley is now on record stating he’d like to acquire another 1st round pick for this upcoming draft – if I’m Dragic, my bags would be packed.
I’ll start on a positive for Dallas (2-8). Harrison Barnes is looking like a decent investment thus far. It’s early, but HB has been doing work – flashing a more complete offensive game than he had the chance to show throughout his first few years in Golden State. My one criticism is that his box scores are very hollow and remind me quite a bit of Rudy Gay:
Harrison is young though and this is his first season of being exposed as a go-to-guy. Given time, this investment just might pay off for Mark Cuban. At worst, he’s Rudy.
The Mavs have also dealt with their fair share of injuries – Dirk has barely played, and Deron Williams has missed the past couple games (you could argue he’s missed the past 5 years) . Really though, it looks to be a long year for Mavs fans. The much needed rebuild looks nigh, and it’ll be interesting to see if Dirk wants to stick around or whether he decides to do a KG/Duncan and pull the pin.
And then we have the Celtics (6-5), who would be very disappointed in their start to the year. Losses to CHI, CLE, DEN (gross), WAS (gross) and NOP (wow) show a shaky start for a team expected to challenge Cleveland for top of the conference. Admittedly it’s unfortunate that they’ve missed key off-season acquisition Al Horford for 8 straight games due to a concussion, as well as starting SF Jae Crowder for 7 straight games to an ankle injury. Their depth has been severely tested and perhaps hasn’t responded as well as they would’ve expected.
Avery Bradley has been the surprise packet for Boston so far – flashing an all around game that frankly nobody knew he had in him. For a career 2.8 per game rebounder, he is averaging 8.7 per game through the season’s first 11 games, which is pretty crazy for a 6’2″ guard. Boston’s main problem appears to be on defence – currently ranking 19th per game in opponent points per game (12th last season). As Horford and Crowder return, I’d expect Boston to find their groove and start to reel off some decent win streaks to solidify a top 4 spot in the East.
And that’s it from me for edition 1 of my roster round up’s – stay tuned for more long bow comparisons between NBA teams and confectionery!