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The Top 10 Players in the NBA: 2015

Nate Duncan ranks the top 10 players in the league, and explains why LeBron James is no longer first.

Nate Duncan

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Last year around this time, I debuted the maiden version of my top-10 players in the NBA. At that point, the top tier clearly consisted of only two players, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. While Durant would go on to win the MVP, most at that time felt James was the clear best player in the league.

What a difference a year later. Seven of the 14 players in the top four tiers (including honorable mentions) have completely dropped off the list.  Of those, five have been felled by injuries.  What’s more, nobody has been as good this year as James and Durant a year ago.

Despite those disappointments, the intrigue has only grown. The 2014-15 season features perhaps the most fascinating MVP race ever, with at least five players able to make a legitimate argument.  This list features a slightly different inquiry, as less weight is provided for minutes and games played than in an attempt to measure “value” over the course of the season.

To refresh, the list is created as an answer to the following question: Which player would I pick if I needed to win a game tomorrow* with average NBA talent around him? A guiding philosophy in this ranking is that efficiently creating shots for oneself and others is the premium skill in the NBA. Defense certainly matters, especially at the big positions, but the difference between the best and worst offensive players is far greater than on the defensive end. Finally, I will rank the players in tiers to represent points in the list where there is a big drop off.  On to the rankings.

*”Tomorrow” is used a bit loosely.  If the player has a short-term injury like an ankle sprain with no indication it will have any lasting effects, that is not considered.  Longer-term injuries of course factor in much more severely.

Tier One

  1. Stephen Curry

The Warriors’ point guard has statistically been the league’s best player on a per-minute basis this year. He leads the league in RPM and Kevin Pelton’s Win Percentage, while ranking third in PER*. While he is not a lockdown defender and can be blown by in a few matchups, he is one of the best point guards at help defense and has the league’s fourth-best steal percentage.  As the point guard for what is by far the best defense in the league, it is difficult to argue he is not a good defender at this point.

*Note that these rankings only include realistic contenders for this list.  Hassan Whiteside scores very highly in most metrics, but nobody is arguing he’s anywhere near this level. Last year, we used RAPM, a regularized adjusted plus-minus system created by Jeremias Engelmann.  He and Steve Ilardi later debuted a modified version for ESPN called Real Plus-Minus (RPM), which we will use instead of RAPM this year. 

I chronicled Curry’s strengths in great detail when I made the argument he is quite a bit better than Steve Nash ever was.  Over the last two months, Curry has gone to yet another level.  He has a 64.7 percent True Shooting Percentage in concert with a 29.5 percent usage percentage over that time.  He is at 48.5 percent from three, while averaging 24 points and eight assists in only 32 minutes per game over that same time period.  For the season, the Warriors have a ridiculous 17.5 net rating with him on the court, by far the highest of anyone on this list.  His shooting off the pick and roll simply breaks defenses, as it is nearly impossible to prevent either an open shot or a four-on-three for his teammates.  And as by far the best shooter on this list, he creates tons of space for his teammates even without the ball in his hands.  What he has been able to do, dragging a team of relatively pedestrian offensive talents to near the top of the league in offense, is unbelievable.  While I fear that LeBron James could prove me wrong in the playoffs, for now Curry has surpassed him by a nose as the league’s best.

  1. LeBron James

A year ago, James topped this list. He was fresh off two straight championships in which he had proved an unstoppable all-court force, and the only wart on his resume was the fact that his defense had declined during a regular season in which he was forced to carry the load for the oft-resting Dwyane Wade.  His defense when locked in was the primary impetus for ranking him above Durant despite the latter’s explosive 2013-14.

But another year in the ledger has shown James’ defensive decline is real (and unsurprising) as he enters his 30s.  Advanced stats and the eye test the last two years have shown that James is not the night-to-night defensive force he once was.  Even in their surge the last two months, the Cavs’ defense has been only average.

Meanwhile, his offensive stats have also taken a hit. He ranks a mere sixth among realistic candidates in win percentage, fifth in PER and third in RPM. His efficiency is way down from the astronomical heights of his Miami days—his True Shooting Percentage is almost seven points lower.

Based only on his entire body of work this season, James no longer has an argument as the best player in the game.  But he still has a history of a peak higher than any other player in this tier.  Since his return from injury on January 13, James has been much better both statistically and by the eye test.

Another argument for James is that he simply is harder to stop than players like James Harden and Steph Curry due to his physical gifts.  Even at 30, no player in the league possesses his combination of size, strength and athleticism.  What’s more, he has powered the Cavs to spectacular offensive heights since his return despite their rather rudimentary offensive system (though they have tons of talent around him).  He is less dependent on teammates to affect the game than perhaps any other player on this list.

Nevertheless, James turns the ball over a bit more than Curry, and even during this post-injury run his True Shooting Percentage is not much higher than his season average.  Although he has the better playoff resume, in recent years that was compiled in Miami’s system that encouraged more ball-movement and spaced the floor with great shooters around him. We shall see whether he can reach the heights of playoffs past this year, but the regular season decline may augur he does not.

  1. Anthony Davis

In ranking Davis seventh last year, it was noted that he should be higher on the list based on his individual box score statistics.  However, he struggled to really help his team, as indicated by his miserable (for a superstar) performance in plus/minus metrics. It was also predicted that Davis would figure out that aspect of his game sooner rather than later, and that has indeed occurred.  He now ranks a healthy sixth in RPM, including a sterling performance on the defensive end.  What’s more, his clutch performance has been among the best in the league this season.

Oh, and his box score performance? Davis is on pace to be one of four players ever to record a PER over 31, in company with Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and James.  He ranks second in Pelton’s Win Percentage.  He has upped his usage rate to superstar-level 27.8 percent, while also increasing his efficiency and (an oft-unnoticed factor) never turning the ball over. He has the lowest ever turnover percentage for a player with a usage rate of 27 percent or higher, a miniscule 6.4 percent.

So why is he only third on on this list?  He still isn’t quite the offensive force the rest of this tier is.  Davis scores poorly relative to his competitors in offensive RPM, ranking only 20th in the league. That makes some sense subjectively, as he less often initiates the play and finds his teammates (though his passing has improved).  And his jumpers, while automatic, do not require defenses to stick to him in the pick and pop because most teams are willing to concede a long two.  Extending his range to pick and pop from three could be the next step for him.  Defensively he scores well in plus-minus metrics this year, but overall the Pelicans’ defense has been inadequate.  He clearly has the talent to be better defensively and racks up the blocks and steals, but he has not been able to push his team to a dominant performance despite the raw tools to do so.

Still, one wonders whether the NBA community is missing the boat and Davis really is the league’s best, but is just unfairly punished for bad coaching and teammates.  However, until he at least makes the playoffs, performs well there and shows he can be a dominant force initiating plays as well as finishing them, he remains a bit below Curry and James.

  1. James Harden

Harden deserves plaudits for the improvements he has made to his game this season, vaulting him into the top-tier.  His much-maligned defense has improved mightily, although he is still “not bad” more than he is “good.”  Few would really consider him a stopper or an above-average team defender, although he does have the ability to effectively switch onto larger players in the post in small lineups and to anticipate for steals.  Offensively, he has upped his usage rate to north of 30 percent while maintaining the same ridiculous efficiency.  With Dwight Howard sidelined much of the year, he initiates nearly everything for Houston when he is on the court. He is the league leader in offensive RPM, ranking fourth in Win Percentage and fifth in PER.

But Harden has two major demerits for the top spot.  The first is that pretty much no measure indicates he is superior to Curry on a per play basis this season.  The only reason he has amassed more “value” for the season is that Curry sits out a ton of fourth quarters because Golden State is blowing teams out.

The second is his relatively pedestrian playoff performance to date.  Six-game losses the past two years to Oklahoma City and Portland have seen his efficiency crater.  Portland, a defense that was shredded a round later by San Antonio, really put the clamps on him.  He was unable to get to the rim and/or get fouled, and was forced to settle for a cavalcade of midrangers.* Until Harden shows the ability to dominate to the same level against great defenses in the playoffs, he cannot be higher on this list.

*Against Portland, Harden took only 15 percent of his shots at the rim, while 44 percent of his shots were twos outside the restricted area. 
  1. Russell Westbrook

Westbrook has always been an extremely controversial figure, often derided by the mainstream for shooting too much and taking the ball away from Kevin Durant.  With KD sidelined much of the year, it was Westbrook’s show once he returned from a broken hand.  And what a show it has been, with Westbrook currently recording the second-highest usage rate of all time at 38.4.  When Westbrook is on the floor this year, his “True Usage” (percent of the time he shoots, sets up teammates for scoring chances, or turns it over when he is on the floor) is 65 percent, over nine percent higher than second-ranked James.  During his most dominant stretch after Durant went down in February, that number peaked at 79 percent. Few, if any, players in history could carry their team like that.

The result of all this is a second place ranking in PER (a statistic particularly impressed by high usage), third in Win Percentage and seventh in RPM.  Of particular note, RPM sees Westbrook as a negative defender, and the eyes match that despite his outstanding steal rate.  He loses his man far too much, and is a mediocre pick and roll defender.

Ultimately though, Westbrook’s season skews slightly more toward impressive than valuable, though it is clearly both in spades.  His True Shooting Percentage is right around the league average.  While one could argue his high usage rate is partially responsible, he has pretty much been right at this level the last five seasons.  Some of the concern for his inefficiency is alleviated by the fact he has been a part of some great offenses, but no matter who he plays with and how often he shoots he has not shown the ability to be elite at scoring efficiently.  That and his defense keep him fifth on this list.

Tier 2

  1. Chris Paul

This year Paul occupies the second tier all by himself, and was still a tough omission from the first tier. Aside from a declining free throw rate, the Clippers’ point guard continues to defy the aging process as he nears 30 years old, putting up an overall statistical season almost identical to a year ago by increasing both the volume and accuracy of his three-point attempts.  He has now settled in as solidly above-average from deep, preventing teams from going under on the pick and roll.  Paul pilots what has been the number one offense for most of the year, and kept it at those lofty heights even while Blake Griffin missed time.

Paul only misses out on the top tier due to the fact that he just isn’t quite as dominant on a personal level.  His usage rate has been below 24 percent the last few years.  He rarely gets to the basket any longer, taking only nine percent of his shots at the rim and 19 percent within 10 feet.  And unlike the players above him, he really doesn’t have any argument for being the best player in the league, ranking fifth in Win Percentage, seventh in PER and fifth in RPM.

Tier 3

  1. DeMarcus Cousins

It may be a shock to see the Sacramento center at this level, but pretty much all the advanced statistics support it despite the Kings’ desultory performance since Mike Malone was fired.

Cousins has become an excellent defender by most metrics.  The Kings’ D collapses when he is off the court, and he ranks third among centers in defensive RPM.  Offensively he could stand to be more efficient, but the dearth of shooting and passing around him means he has to take more tough shots than optimal.  He ranks sixth in PER, seventh in Win Percentage and ninth in RPM.  While his surly reputation and the Kings’ descent into the maelstrom hurt his national perception, Cousins has earned his spot here.

  1. Blake Griffin

Griffin’s season has been somewhat of a disappointment for a player his age.  Instead of taking the next step, he has regressed. He missed time with an elbow injury after having to withdraw from Team USA with a back fracture.  Athletically, he doesn’t look quite the same. His dunks don’t detonate the way they used to, and they have declined from 2.2 per game to 1.3.  He doesn’t have quite the same explosion facing up his man from the mid-post.  While Griffin has refined his midrange jumper to his credit, and cited the desire to avoid injury in avoiding the paint more, the fact is his bread and butter is getting to the rim.  What’s more, he still is not a plus defender protecting the basket, although he is showing a burgeoning ability to switch out onto perimeter players.

In some respects, this ranking is based on a faith that Griffin can return to a similar level to last year.  Having just turned 26, the hope is that he will.

Tier 4

9.  Marc Gasol

Gasol ultimately takes this spot as likely the most valuable defender in this tier anchoring the Grizzlies staunch unit.  He has upped his usage rate this year while remaining relatively efficient, and his passing from the high post powers the Grizzlies’ offense.  Curiously though, RPM does not like him nearly so much, putting him at only 45th overall in the league.

10.  Damian Lillard

Count Lillard’s ranking in this spot as a vote for the value of being able to shoot threes off the dribble in pick and roll situations.  While Lillard is shooting only an aberrational 34 percent from three on the season, he launches them with abandon and defenses respect it. While he’s not Steph Curry in efficiency, he has a similar effect in forcing many teams to change their pick and roll coverages. Lillard also deserves credit for improving his two biggest weaknesses, defense and finishing at the rim.

Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order

All of these players belong in Tier Four as well, as there is little to separate them from Gasol and Lillard.

LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge is a tough case because he is not particularly efficient offensively.  But the threat of what he can do when he gets hot is perhaps more important than his actual results, as defenses stick to him like glue in the pick and pop and frequently double team him in the post.  As a result, he manages to boost Portland’s offense despite his own personal inefficiency.

Jimmy Butler

Butler has been a revelation this season as a two-way wing, and is an easy choice for most improved player in these eyes with the way he has added great footwork and midrange shooting to his individual offensive game.  But he isn’t the offensive threat many others on this list are despite his efficiency, given a mere 20 percent usage rate. That keeps him out of the top ten.

John Wall

Wall is one of the league’s best defensively at point guard, and Washington inordinately depends on him for what offense they can muster.  He is right up there among the league’s best distributors. However, Wall still is not particularly efficient and doesn’t shoot threes off the dribble, which contributes to the Wizards’ spacing problems.  It would be nice to see what he could do with more shooting around him and a more complex offensive system.

Kawhi Leonard

Leonard was perhaps the toughest omission from the top 10.  RPM loves his defense, where he ranks second among wings behind specialist Tony Allen.  He has also increased his usage to well above-average this year, though his marksmanship from downtown has declined along with his overall efficiency.  Ultimately, a preference for bigs on defense and creators on offense kept him out of the top 10, but maybe I should trust the advanced stats more than I do.

Klay Thompson

Thompson has made unbelievable strides offensively, upping his usage rate into star territory at 27.6 percent while also boosting his True Shooting Percentage by four points to 59 percent.  He is a very solid (though not great) defender on the wing as well, and his shooting in concert with Curry’s stretches the defense to its breaking point.

Kyrie Irving

Irving may be overlooked at this point.  Not a ton separates Irving from Lillard in individual statistics.  What keeps him out of the top 10? Irving continues to be a problem defensively despite some increased effort.  He also benefits from being the second option in Cleveland while playing off the ball quite a bit, a luxury Lillard does not have.  Irving is younger than Lillard and may surpass him eventually, but for now Lillard is the superior player.

Who Dropped Out

Kevin Durant would clearly be in the top tier if healthy, but after a lost year and four to six months of rehabilitation ahead of him, he has to drop out for now.  Kevin Love’s fall is perhaps the most disappointing.  He was fourth a year ago, and could not even crack honorable mention this year.  Unlike the others on this list, he does not have age or injury (though he has periodically struggled with a nagging back injury) as an excuse.  Perhaps he can rejoin this list if he plays elsewhere next year or Cleveland’s system is revamped to play more to his strengths.  Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard have all had their seasons wrecked by injuries and ailments. Unfortunately, all are of an age where we probably should not expect to see them return to this list.  And at age 36, Dirk Nowitzki has finally seen enough slippage to fall out, especially defensively.  Paul George unfortunately suffered a horrific broken leg that was bad enough that one wonders whether he can return to full health.  Hopefully he can return to this list next year.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

Matt John

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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