Because of the NBA All-Star break, there were only two days’ worth of regular NBA games in the past week. However, because of all the preparation time that teams had, these games were definitely a good barometer for the sort of play we can expect to see from all 30 teams.
With some background information on the health level of teams, as well as their chemistry, let’s assess which teams are rising and falling at this point of the NBA season.
NBA Week 18 Risers
Denver Nuggets (40-18, No. 2 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 1-0)
The Nuggets are finally healthy! Well, almost. Rookie forward Michael Porter Jr. is still sidelined with a back injury and Trey Lyles just injured his hamstring in practice this week. However, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Isaiah Thomas have all missed at least 11 games this season, but now they are back.
The health the team is gaining is the key reason why Denver is on this list. However, the team also submitted a strong performance in Dallas on Friday. The Nuggets took their 14-14 road record into the contest against the Mavericks and their 20-9 home record, but the Nuggets absolutely destroyed the Mavs on the boards (63-42) to win by 10 points despite lackluster shooting.
Denver is known as more of a finesse team, but the Nuggets are actually quite physical inside. Their offensive punch to supplement that physicality is only going to get stronger now that key scorers like Harris, Barton and Thomas are all back in the lineup and getting comfortable.
Chicago Bulls (15-44, No. 13 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 1-0)
The Bulls’ trade for Otto Porter at the deadline got mixed reviews. Some people thought taking on Porter was a bad move because of his big contract, but others thought it was worth it to get off of Jabari Parker’s bad contract.
I don’t think anyone expected Porter to perform as well as on the court as he has, though. The former Washington Wizard has scored at least 17 points in all five games with the Bulls and averaged 21.4 points per game in that stretch. That five-game streak of 17 points is the longest of his NBA career.
Throw in the fact that 21-year-old big man Lauri Markkanen is averaging 23 points and 13.2 rebounds per game in his last 10 contests, and you have the makings of a really solid duo to build around going forward. The Bulls will struggle the rest of this season, but there is some hope rising.
Also, on Friday, the Bulls got an impressive road win against the Orlando Magic, who entered the game with five very quality wins in a row.
Los Angeles Lakers (29-29, No. 10 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 1-0)
The Lakers’ Thursday win over the Houston Rockets felt like a turning point in their season. Facing a 19-point deficit in the third quarter, Los Angeles kept chipping away with excellent defense and opportunistic scoring. The Lakers ended up winning by five points to improve their playoff chances.
The defensive performance was a real eye-opener for spectators, since the Lakers have been bad on defense for the last few weeks with Lonzo Ball injured.
Ball’s injury could be worse than expected, but the Lakers’ current core of four big-minute guys (LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Reggie Bullock) is starting to gel. James and Ingram have been effective play initiators, and Kuzma and Bullock are excellent spot-up shooters. All four have good size to defend a variety of positions.
NBA Week 18 Fallers
Phoenix Suns (11-49, No. 15 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-1)
It is not exactly breaking news that Suns are a bad NBA team. They have lost 16 straight games now, and there have been some pretty terrible losses in there. Phoenix has losses by margins of 34, 20, 27, 14, 37, 14, 28, 13 and 27 points in that span.
However, one of the team’s worst performances came on Thursday in its first game back from the All-Star break. Facing the 12-46 Cleveland Cavaliers, the Suns lost by 13, scoring 98 points against the NBA’s worst defense. You would hope to see a little bit more energy and intensity from a team coming off of a long break, but it wasn’t there for Phoenix.
The Suns have stockpiled young players through the draft and trades, but the squad looks on its way to a fourth straight season of 24 wins or fewer. Sooner or later, these Suns will need to get serious about trying to win and not just focus on the development of young players.
Washington Wizards (24-35, No. 11 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-1)
The Wizards have played a total of 25 players already this season. Five of their top 10 minute-getters of the season won’t play another minute in Washington this season, due to either injury (John Wall) or trade (Otto Porter, John Wall, Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre).
The lack of continuity is showing up in a really bad way on defense. Washington is 27th in defensive rating this season, which is the franchise’s worst ranking in 10 seasons. The team has also allowed an average of 127.5 points in eight February games.
The Wizards’ most recent defensive failure was against the Charlotte Hornets on Friday. The Hornets are an average offensive team, but they had 123 points and erased Washington’s double-digit lead from the game’s first quarter.
Houston Rockets (33-25, No. 5 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-1)
The Rockets have been almost unbeatable in the past couple seasons when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela are all in the lineup. Unfortunately, injuries have broken up that trio far too often, but they had a chance to play together against the Lakers on Thursday.
The trio combined for 65 points, but their teammates shot a combined 14-of-40 (35 percent) from the field and 7-of-26 (26.9 percent) from three-point range. Harden also had eight turnovers, and the squad’s defense was bad at the wrong times as the team blew a 19-point lead.
The Rockets just don’t seem to have nearly the same magic that last season’s 67-15 squad had. Harden is doing everything on offense and having an MVP-caliber season, but now that Paul and Capela are both healthy, can he find a way to let them produce and still keep the team’s other shooters and slashers in rhythm?