As we inch closer to the halfway point of the NBA season, the landscape of the league is taking shape. About six teams in each conference are proving to be legitimately good, while a massive section of the league is just below average and a few teams are terrible. Which squads have been on the move in the past week?
Let’s recap the week with some of the most pleasantly surprising and most disappointing squads from recent play.
NBA Week 10 Pleasant Surprises
Utah Jazz (22-12, No. 6 in Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
The Jazz shored up a big weakness last week by trading Dante Exum and draft picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers for veteran guard Jordan Clarkson. Exum just hadn’t progressed his game to the level he should have in Utah and the Jazz needed volume scoring off the bench, not defense.
Clarkson has been fantastic in his first four games with Utah, averaging 15 points in a mere 23.8 minutes per contest on a solid 58.5 true-shooting percentage. Most importantly, all four games were wins, including a big 13-point road win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
When Mike Conley comes back, this team should hit an even higher level. Are they legitimate title contenders? I don’t know if they have the offensive superstar needed to hit that level, but they could be closer than many people think.
New York Knicks (10-25, No. 14 in Eastern Conference, Past week record: 2-1)
The Knicks’ three-game winning streak ended Friday with a road loss against the Phoenix Suns but a three-game winning streak is reason for celebration. New York is still six games out of a playoff spot and the team isn’t going to get there. The Knicks have separated themselves from the 7-28 Atlanta Hawks at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
New York’s key stat from its winning streak is that all three opponents shot below 40 percent from the field. That hadn’t happened a single time this season prior to last week, and then it happened three times in a row. Is this luck or is it actual progression? The Knicks do seem to be operating better on defense under interim head coach Mike Miller. It’s probably a good bit of both luck and improvement factoring into the equation.
The Knicks’ roster is still a mess full of power forwards and a weird mixture of young players and vets. I’d love to see what they have in their young core by strongly featuring their young trio of Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina.
Oklahoma City Thunder (19-15, No. 7 in Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
I picked the Thunder to be a solid squad if injuries didn’t become an issue and they didn’t trade their veterans to rebuild. Sure enough, OKC has been relatively healthy and hasn’t traded anyone yet. The team is on pace for 46 wins.
The Thunder have won 13 of their last 17 games on the strength of a vastly improved offense. Center Steven Adams has rounded into form on that end, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is in the Most Improved Player conversation with his 20 points per game and veterans Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel are all contributing with efficient offense.
At the beginning of the season, I thought this season could easily turn into a throwaway campaign for a team that has both lots of veterans and some promising young players. OKC also has a treasure chest full of future draft picks. With the squad gelling and staying healthy, there’s a lot to look forward to both this season and in the future.
NBA Week 10 Dismal Disappointments
Detroit Pistons (12-23, No. 11 in Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
The Pistons have found themselves in nearly the worst possible position. They currently have the seventh-worst record in the NBA but that’s despite them playing lots of veterans who shouldn’t figure into the team’s long-term plans. Injury issues also plague the roster at the moment.
Detroit has now lost eight out of nine contests, with all eight of those losses coming by 12 or more points. This week, the Pistons lost three road games by margins of 27, 23 and 14 points.
The big news surrounding the Pistons right now is the trade rumors on star center Andre Drummond. What’s tough about this is that we don’t really know what sort of impact Drummond can have on a good team. The rebound-hoarding big man has never been on a team that is better than average. His offensive skill set could be an awkward fit with most modern offenses. With Drummond having a player option this summer, how much could the Pistons fetch for him?
Brooklyn Nets (16-17, No. 7 in Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
The Nets started 4-7. Then they won 12-6 over their next 18 games. Now, they are on a four-game losing streak.
The honeymoon phase of playing without star point guard Kyrie Irving has clearly worn off. Spencer Dinwiddie’s efficiency as a shooter and a ball-handler has tailed off significantly. Dinwiddie is a very good player but he is not a guy you can consistently depend on to be a good No. 1 offensive option over a large stretch of the season.
The ripple effect of Dinwiddie struggling shows in the rest of the team he is creating shots for. The Nets are full of spot-up shooters, but they lack creators. On the positive side, wing Caris LeVert is scheduled to return against Toronto Raptors on Saturday after missing nearly two months due to a thumb injury.
Philadelphia Sixers (23-14, No. 6 in Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
The Sixers just can’t find consistency. Philly has had some amazing games and stretches this season, but none of it has been sustainable. Despite having arguably the most talented roster in the East, the Sixers are sixth in the East, are on a four-game losing streak and are a whopping 8.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Bucks.
The spotlight right now is on the fit between stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Both guys have been pretty productive and efficient on offense recently, but the way they play is not conducive to their teammates getting into a good rhythm due to their ball dominance and their hindrance on spacing.
As a result, both Al Horford and Josh Richardson have had somewhat underwhelming seasons compared to what people expected from them. You have to think the Sixers are at least considering some sort of shakeup, whether it is a coaching change, lineup change or a trade.