We again have a short week of action to evaluate this week for the risers and fallers list. While many of the games in the first two days back from the All-Star break followed a predictable script, there were also several surprises.
Based on play in the past two days as well as longer trends, let’s take the pulse of six different NBA teams.
NBA Week 17 On Song
San Antonio Spurs (24-31, No. 10 in Western Conference, Past week record: 1-0)
The Spurs can’t possibly turn this disappointing season around and earn their 23rd straight playoff berth. Surely, they can’t, right?
San Antonio is still 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot, but the team has won its last two games, both on the road, against top-six seeds in the Western Conference. Legendary head coach Gregg Popovich has made some questionable lineup decisions this year, but he has always been known as a guy who gets the most out of his players. We have seen that in the past two games.
The big spark recently for San Antonio is point guard Dejounte Murray. The knocks on Murray in the past is that he doesn’t have a jump shot and makes questionable decisions on offense. However, he has averaged 15.8 points per game in his last six contests and the vast majority of those points have come from the midrange and three-point areas. He has also committed only two total turnovers in that stretch.
Charlotte Hornets (19-36, No. 10 in Eastern Conference, Past week record: 1-0)
A team like Charlotte seems like a prime candidate for a tank. The franchise is in a terrible place with the salary cap and doesn’t have a true franchise player to build around for the future.
The Hornets have been messing up the tank recently, though. They have won their past three games against fellow lottery teams and now would have just the eighth-best odds at winning the lottery if the season ended today. If all three of those games were losses, the Hornets would instead have the fourth-best lottery odds.
At least the Hornets are seeing nice signs of improvement from youngsters Miles Bridges and Malik Monk over the past few weeks. Bridges has averaged 20.5 points and 7 rebounds per game in his last eight contests. Monk is at 21 points per game in his last four contests.
Toronto Raptors (41-15, No. 2 in Eastern Conference, Past week record: 1-0)
This is probably too late to be touting the Raptors, because they have actually won a ridiculous 16 of their last 17 games. Sure, the schedule was very soft in that stretch, but that sort of consistency is very tough to achieve in a league with such a high level of talent.
Following a disappointing loss immediately before the All-Star break to the Brooklyn Nets, the Raptors pounded the Phoenix Suns on Friday, taking a 26-point lead in the second quarter and then cruising to a 17-point victory. If there were any worries about this team losing any of its steam over the break, the squad showed that the answer is “very likely not” in the first half on Friday night.
Amazingly enough, the Raptors have had a great season despite dealing with a variety of injuries. Toronto still needs to get back Norman Powell and Marc Gasol, and with those two, the Raptors are going to have an insanely deep and versatile team, especially defensively.
NBA Week 17 Teams Off Key
Denver Nuggets (38-18, No. 2 in Western Conference, Past week record: 0-1)
The Nuggets are 38-18, but I don’t really know how. They are still a very good team, but their net rating projects them as just a 34-22 squad. The squad has just 12 double-digit wins this season, which ranks it tied for 15th in the NBA with the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies. Neither of those teams is above .500.
Denver has also lost its last two contests despite getting very good performances from star center Nikola Jokic in both games. The Nuggets’ offense is better than it was earlier in the season, but does it have enough reliable self-creators to compete with other elite teams in the NBA?
One big concern I have is with starting guard Gary Harris. Dating back to January 4, he’s getting just 7.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 30 whole minutes per game on a shooting slash of 29.4/17.3/85.7. He is just 25 years old, but he has been considerably worse as a scorer this year than he has been in the last four seasons. He is still a very good defender, but is he still worth a big role if he’s such a big negative on offense?
Washington Wizards (20-34, No. 9 in Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-1)
I put the Wizards in the risers section last week to show some respect for their improved defense and a nice stretch of five wins in seven games.
On Friday, they lost at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Yes, the Cavaliers with the worst record in the East. Now, we can’t majorly overreact to one game, but Washington led by 16 points in the second quarter but went ice cold on offense for the remainder of the game.
Heading into the All-Star break, Wizards guard Bradley Beal had the highest scoring average ever for a non-All-Star, at 29.1 points per game. He said his snub was “disrespectful.” We expected a big Beal game after the break, but instead, he shot just 9-of-28 from the field and 1-of-10 from three-point range with just one assist and six turnovers.
To be blunt, Beal played selfish ball and the Wizards lost. The disappointing loss is a major blow to the Wizards’ playoff hopes and could be a turning point (in a bad way) for the team heading into the last one-third of the season.
Minnesota Timberwolves (16-38, No. 14 in Western Conference, Past week record: 0-1)
The Wolves’ home loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday doesn’t concern me. That was an expected loss, especially with Karl-Anthony Towns out for Minnesota.
What does concern me, though, is that Towns was announced to have a broken left wrist on Friday. He is supposed to be out at least two weeks. Towns was the picture of health in his first four seasons, combining for just five total missed games. In two weeks, though, he will have missed 27 games this season alone.
Even ignoring Towns’ injury issues, I worry about the Wolves’ future with Towns and D’Angelo Russell as the core pieces. Towns has just not developed on the defensive end of the floor as well as he should have in his career and Russell is worse than KAT on that end. For all their offensive talent, can you build a good team around two stars who are below-average defenders?
One thing that is a definite positive from the past couple weeks is the offensive explosions of recently acquired shooting guard Malik Beasley. The 23-year-old has scored 23, 15, 28 and 27 points in his four games with the Wolves since arriving from the Denver Nuggets.