Kobe Bryant’s death shook up the NBA this week. Players were understandably affected by the passing of one of the greatest players in league history. Many younger players idolized the Black Mamba when they were growing up, and many older players had significant memories of playing against him.
On the court, the players kept fighting and gave fans lots of good games and individual performances. In particular, the Western Conference race for the eighth seed is heating up with several teams in that range now coming good.
With the trade deadline just a few days away, let’s check in with the state of the NBA.
NBA Week 14 Teams Finding Their Touch
New Orleans Pelicans (20-29, No. 12 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
After narrow losses in Zion Williamson’s first two NBA games, the Pelicans have officially exploded onto the scene with three big wins by a combined 57 points. Yes, Williamson has been at the forefront.
The 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick is averaging 19.2 points and 7.8 rebounds in just 25 minutes per game on 62.5 percent shooting from the field since returning from his knee injury. He provides a huge upgrade at the power forward position considering the team had been going with a small-ball approach of Brandon Ingram and Kenrich Williams at the 4. Neither guy is really suited to being a main option at that position.
However, even before the Pelicans’ three recent wins, they were pulling things together. New Orleans’ defense is now respectable thanks to improved chemistry and better luck with injuries, and the offensive is explosive. The Pels should make a serious run at a playoff berth in the second half of the season.
Portland Trail Blazers (22-27, No. 9 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
Sometimes, you can essentially attribute a team’s success to one person. That’s true for the Blazers right now, who are getting some outrageous performances from superstar point guard Damian Lillard.
Lillard has notched at least 34 points in seven straight games and has also put up performances of 61, 50, 48 and 47 points in that span. In his past five games, he has averaged eight made threes per game as well as 8.2 rebounds and 9.8 assists per contest. This week, all of Portland’s three wins came against top-five playoff seeds. This is an all-time great individual run we are talking about.
The Blazers are still having a disappointing season, mainly due to their 26th-ranked defense. Lillard’s tear isn’t super sustainable but if he can at least stay kind of close to his current level for the rest of the season, he will be able to cover up a lot of Portland’s deficiencies.
Atlanta Hawks (13-36, No. 15 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 2-1)
The theme in this risers section so far is individual brilliance, with Zion Williamson for the Pelicans and Damian Lillard for the Trail Blazers. Trae Young of the Hawks continues that theme here.
Young’s last five games have seen him put up 34 points and 15.2 assists per game. He is getting to the free-throw line 15.4 times per game and converting on 13.2 of those shots per contest. The first two games in this stretch were Atlanta losses, but the Hawks have had impressive wins against the Washington Wizards and then Philadelphia 76ers in their last three contests.
Like the Blazers, the Hawks are a bad defensive team that relies on their opponent missing shots and turning the ball over to win. Right now, it’s been a good combination of Young’s all-around offensive brilliance, power forward John Collins playing extremely well and some fortunate play on defense.
However, if rookie wings Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter can continue to improve on both ends, the Hawks are going to be a much tougher outfit on a consistent basis in two months.
NBA Week 14 Teams Losing The Plot
Detroit Pistons (17-33, No. 11 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-4)
The Pistons’ young core has shown promise in recent weeks. Sekou Doumbouya, Svi Mykhailiuk, Bruce Brown and Christian Wood have turned in some nice performance, and the injured Luke Kennard is a high-level bucket-getter. Are they a good enough core to trust moving forward? I have doubts about that.
This roster is still in need of a facelift. Essentially all of their veterans’ names have surfaced in trade talks, because for a team that is 17-33, Detroit has just too many guys who are not going to help the team down the line and could be more helpful to other squads.
With the Pistons likely looking to make some moves before next Thursday’s deadline, this squad could continue to struggle for the rest of the season.
Orlando Magic (21-27, No. 8 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-2)
The Magic have made a few nice pushes this season, but it is always terrible offense that brings them back to Earth again. Orlando’s last three games (all losses) have seen the squad post a combined 37.6 percent from the field, 28.3 percent from three-point range and 72.9 percent from the free-throw line. Yikes.
Injuries have plagued Orlando to some extent this season, but what’s really concerning is how key pieces like Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon have regressed significantly on offense from last season. As a result, Evan Fournier is being relied on more than ever, and he is just not a No. 1 option type player.
The Magic will likely make the playoffs for a second straight year because of the East being bad, but the team is never going to hit the next level with its current approach toward lineup building, especially on the offensive end of the floor.
Utah Jazz (32-16, No. 4 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 1-3)
It may be too soon to overreact, but the Jazz’ three losses in a row immediately after 19 wins in 21 games isn’t a great look for the they-feasted-on-an-easy-schedule crowd. Utah had very few high-quality opponents and no back-to-back games in the aforementioned hot streak, but now the team is struggling in the face of a bit more adversity.
The question for Utah is whether the squad has enough high-level offensive creation and enough defensive athleticism against the more explosive teams of the West. The Jazz still turn the ball over at a high rate and aren’t a good defensive team in transition, partially due to their lack of team speed and size.
By the end of February, we should have a lot better idea of where the Jazz stand after they face a consistently tougher schedule.