It’s still early in the 2017–18 season and, as we approach December, there are a plethora of interesting storylines developing around the association. We’ve gathered some of our staff writers and contributors to answer 10 questions pertaining to the league as a whole. Have at it, team.
1. Who was your preseason MVP pick and how’s that looking?
Andrew Miller: Kawhi Leonard. It’s not looking great right now because he hasn’t suited up yet for the Spurs, but give it time! He’s still one of the best best two-way players in the league.
Ivan Mora: Giannis. It’s looking good despite their drop in the rankings. If Westbrook with a sixth-seeded Thunder did it, Giannis can easily achieve it as well with the stat line he’s averaging. Let’s just hope Bledsoe can help bring the Bucks into the fold as a top five team in the East.
Julian McKenzie: LeBron James. With Kyrie Irving gone to Boston, and no Isaiah Thomas until the new year, it was clear that LeBron James would have to shoulder a larger load than usual for the first few months of the season. In a sport where the wear and tear on knees and legs should slow players down once they reach double-digit seasons, LeBron is having his best scoring season since 2010, in which he won the second of his four MVP titles. In his 15th NBA season, LeBron is top 10 in points per game, assists per game, field goal percentage, and player efficiency rating. I still expect him to be in the MVP conversation at season’s end, along with current clubhouse leaders in Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden.
Brandon Anderson: My preseason MVP was Kawhi Leonard. That’s going… not great. But my sleeper pick was Giannis so I’m feeling pretty okay with that one.
Will Strickland: LeBron Raymone James is my easy bake default choice almost every year, so I was looking to lean toward him again.
But I thought James Edward Harden, Jr., The Ultimate NBA MVP Bridesmade over the past couple seasons, finally gets married to his first Maurice Podoloff.
So far so good on that front.
Phil Boileau: Mine was Giannis… His numbers are making it happen, but the losses keep piling up. I also didn’t see Kyrie doing what he is doing or Harden getting his team back when CP3 was out. I have to feel that the Bucks will bounce back so I still feel okay with it.
2. The Celtics currently have a 16-game winning streak despite dealing with injuries to key players like Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving. Are they the team to finally knock off LeBron James’ Cavs in the playoffs?
Miller: I think this is the year that we see a Finals without LeBron. Getting Isaiah Thomas back will be a huge boost for the Cavs but they just haven’t shown an ability to really turn up the heat when they need to. JR and Wade have to get themselves going at some point.
Mora: I really think they can. Even when Cavs get IT back, they won’t stop a more balanced offense in the Celtics. With Kyrie now playing with a greater sense of purpose, he will keep up his intensity through the season. I’m calling it: The Celtics will be Eastern Conference champs.
McKenzie: We can pencil in a Celtics-Cavaliers Conference Finals from now, barring anything catastrophic taking place with either team. The Cavaliers are expected to figure it all out come playoff time and the Celtics are built for a deep playoff run of their own. On paper, the Celtics should be good enough to beat LeBron, even if they get IT. But it’s so hard to make these takes in November.
Anderson: I guess for this one we are supposed to assume the Cavs actually make the playoffs? Kidding, kind of, but it does feel like these Cavs are in some trouble. Still, I’m sticking with the Wizards. They’re the one team that seems to really believe they can take down Cleveland, and the one team the Cavs seem to fear a bit too. LeBron still thinks he can just brush off the Celtics anytime he feels like it.
Strickland: The preamble to the question was cute, but in reviewing the variables in the Celtics’ new equation, a couple things stood out: Hayward led a team to a playoff series win, but it was a 35-year-old Joe Johnson who took and made the winning shots. Horford anchored a 60–win team who was unceremoniously swept in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. Kyrie Irving has yet to see, play or win a playoff game without LeBron James.
While all early signs point to GangGreen reigning supreme once again in the East, it is a daunting task to beat LeBron James-led squads in the Eastern Conference four times as the past decade has shown us.
Boileau: Tough to say without Hayward this year. As a general comment I’d have to say yes (depending on how quickly the Bucks and 76ers can grow). Even though the Celtics are cruising like a Snoop Dogg video, LeBron is still the king and the throne is still spoken for.
3. Who has been your favourite player to watch so far?
Miller: That’s possibly the hardest question of all. Guys like Giannis and Porzingis are mesmerizing at times, but for me it’s probably been Ben Simmons. I was a huge critic of his when he played at LSU and didn’t quite expect him to adjust to the NBA this quickly.
Mora: Ben Simmons, hands down. I was excited for him to come back and compete for Rookie of the Year since he was out all last year and he has NOT disappointed. While the 76ers are still figuring some things out, expect great things from Simmons. Possibly an eighth seed playoff berth with him behind the wheel.
McKenzie: Giannis. The size, the strength, the ability to practically Eurostep his way to the basket in three strides from mid-court (only a slight exaggeration). He might be MVP one year before I said he would (I predicted he’d win in 2019).
Anderson: It’s gotta be Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. It’s just a joy to see them both healthy on the court together and I hope they stay healthy forever. Obvious honorable mention to Giannis. Those are the three guys I’ll stop the channel on every time.
Strickland: Joel Embiid.
The possibilities are tantalizing.
The storyline is compelling.
And his social media life is the stuff of millennial gold.
Live Life, Young Lion and #DoWork!
Boileau: Honestly… Ben Simmons. He plays the game with a patience that I can only relate to LeVeon Bell with the Pittsburg Steelers. High level IQ and maturity for his age.
4. Lonzo Ball has had a mostly poor start to his NBA career after playing very well in college. Is it just confidence that’s killing his game?
Miller: There are a million miles between the level of collegiate basketball and the NBA. His defensive problems, from what I’ve seen so far, appear to be effort problems rather than confidence. If an attacking player gets the better of him, rarely will he try to recover and turn the play around. In terms of his horrible shooting, I think that’s a mix of confidence and pressure. Playing off the bench against second-unit guards is something Luke Walton should take a good look at if Ball can’t shoot his way out of the slump.
Mora: Not at all. He’s a good player. It’s the unnecessary added pressure from his dad that’s probably getting to his head. He’s not a leader, but that’s okay because he’s a great player. Just needs more time to get his groove back. He’ll be fine as long as these unrealistic expectations for him drop a bit.
McKenzie: I think it’s a combination of confidence and adjusting to the NBA as a whole. While he has ways to go, it’s not like he’s been totally awful. For what it’s worth, Lonzo has two triple-doubles to his tally, and is the youngest player in league history to do so.
Anderson: Lonzo has had a “mostly poor start” because of perception and unfair expectations. How many 19-year-old point guards come in and dominate the NBA their first 10 games? The answer you’re looking for is zero. Point guards have the longest learning curve of any position, and Lonzo has done a lot of good things on a bad team, including being the youngest player in history to record a triple-double. The shooting is a problem, particularly near the rim, but if he gets that figured out he’s still going to be very good.
Strickland: Nothing is killing this kid’s game. He’s 20. Yes, I know his boss won a title without the Association’s MVP in arguably the greatest NBA Finals performance history in 1980, but he’s an outlier in an entirely different strata. Ball is a rookie playing in what could be the league’s Golden Era of point guards, still learning the game on a bad team. Refusing to give his paterfamilias oxygen as a contributing factor in his shaky start is optional over here.
Boileau: I’ve been saying it for a while. The kid doesn’t bend. Sounds stupid but he’s too straight up and gets killed on defensive assignments because he can’t use that height and length well enough. His shot is fine but he needs more “dog” in him. Some angry yoga would be his salvation… but it’s not a real thing.
5. As things stand, the Grizzlies have the eighth seed in the West. Will that stay the same? Who’s going to end up with it?
Miller: Both conferences are basically wide open at this point (other than a few certainties) but things can change in a heartbeat. The Clippers went from the first seed to the 13th in a matter of 10 games.
Mora: Probably not. The Thunder just have too much star power not to be in the playoffs. Expect a swift change with the Thunder in possibly at six or seven, leaving the Grizzlies out of the playoffs.
McKenzie: I can tell you this: The Blazers should be better than eighth, but perhaps not better than fifth or sixth.
Anderson: I had the Jazz, Grizzlies, Blazers, Clippers, and Pelicans fighting for the last two playoff spots in approximately that order, but it was always going to come down to a couple key injuries. Portland is the most durable team of the five, and already the Jazz and Clippers have suffered some big injuries. I’d probably pick Portland and Memphis for the final two spots if I chose today.
Strickland: The bottom of the playoff seedings rung, regardless of conference, generally isn’t decided in November… and it’s not going to be now. Case in point? At the time of writing this, Memphis is ensconced in eighth, though seeing a first-round series between presumptive top seed and current champ Golden State vs. the retooling Oklahoma City Thunder would be a ratings bonanza.
Boileau: Yeah, the Blazers were just in the eighth spot and now look at them. They will battle with a few teams but they have a solid rotation and one of the top coaches, in my opinion. Nurkic will continue to improve… and look at that defense!
6. What the heck is wrong with the Thunder? After amassing two more stars around Russell Westbrook, the club is off to a rocky 7–9 start.
Miller: What’s that old saying about too many cooks? For the record, I do think they’ll figure it out eventually, but when you glue three guys together who have always been the first option on a team (call Russ 1b when KD was still with the Thunder) you’re bound to have some teething issues. The closing of games has just been a confusing nightmare so far. I’m not convinced that Billy Donovan is the man to lead this team to where they need to be, but time will tell.
Mora: Team chemistry—especially after a solo dominant performance from Westbrook. He needs to adjust his game. He will, just needs time. It’s like a completely different ballgame. Going from a Big 3 to a leadership role back to acclimating with a Big 3. Too much talent for them not to fix it. They will. We just have to be patient.
McKenzie: OKC is still trying to figure out how three ball-dominant alpha males, including the reigning MVP, can co-exist. Their lack of depth hurts—especially when the notable pieces they gave up for Paul George (Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo) are thriving on a playoff team in Indiana.
George, a pending UFA, might be the biggest loser in all this: He leads the league in steals but in terms of scoring, he’s having a down year. You could argue this was to be expected because he has to share with Russell and Carmelo Anthony, but they’re not even a consistent .500 ball club yet.
Anderson: I’m not sure anything much is wrong with the Thunder other than that these things take time. They remind me a bit of a poor man’s 2011 Miami Heat where they just haven’t gotten comfortable playing together on offense yet. The underlying numbers are all good, and the defense has been strong outside of comically bad crunch-time numbers. OKC has the fourth-best point differential in the NBA. They’re fine.
Once the new guys in Paul George and Carmelo Kyam Anthony stop seeing themselves as guests, actually become furniture in the house that Christopher Emmanuel Paul built and accent what the MVP does for this team, the final result can be scary.
There is a lot of professional courtesy going on in that locker room right now. Someone’s feelings (Hi, Hoodie Melo) may have to be hurt as they resign themselves to the role of primary scorer off the bench to find some sort of cohesion while giving the Thunder an opportunity to compete at the top of the conference.
Boileau: One word: Melo. He lost games for the Knicks. They traded him. They got better, Thunder got worse. In an ideal world they trade him for Kevin Love, but I can’t see the Cavs doing that…
7. Does losing Rudy Gobert (for a while) kill any chance the Jazz had of making the playoffs?
Miller: I’d say so. Gordon Hayward’s departure left their playoff future up in the air, and without Rudy Gobert the team just doesn’t have the talent to make it in an insanely loaded Western Conference.
Mora: Unfortunately, yes it does. They’ll be back stronger than ever.
McKenzie: Losing Gordon to free agency. Both Rudy and Joe Johnson are out for the rest of November at least. But as long as Gobert isn’t lost for the season, their year isn’t lost. They can still salvage a spot.
Anderson: Losing Rudy definitely hurts the Jazz. The question is how much. It looks like he’ll miss 15 to 20 games, but this next two week stretch before December is the key. The schedule is very soft here, so Utah needs to eke out wins however possible before an absolutely brutal December schedule. The Jazz can still be a strong defense around Ekpe Udoh, and maybe this injury will force a kick start to their anemic offense. If not, they’ll be out of it by year’s end.
Boileau: People like to sleep on Favors. His ideal position is center, so as long as he is healthy (a big if), they will be good. This team is also way deeper than people give them credit for. They will fight for eighth.
8. Is Joel Embiid the best trash talker in the NBA?
Miller: I’m not sure you can be the best trash talker in a league where you haven’t even played 50 games over the last three years. He’s definitely the one who spends too much time trying to talk shit, that’s for sure.
Mora: Probably not. That award goes to Draymond Green, but he is the most fun to watch on and off the court. He doesn’t back down nor should he. I trust The Process.
McKenzie: With regards to social media? Yes.
Anderson: Yes. Joel Embiid has mastered the era of social media in ways LeBron can only ever dream of doing. It’s Joel’s world now. We’re all just living in it.
Strickland: In a league where it is a lost art, perhaps.
Social media allows room for several layers of shade to aid in enhancing the garbation, as The King can, but won’t, attest.
Boileau: No… that is Charles Barkley. But to be fair, we also don’t hear half of what players say.
9. The Pistons have started the season 11–6. Are they for real?
Miller: Results speak for themselves. Andre Drummond looks rejuvenated and Tobias Harris has been quietly playing himself into All-Star consideration. Avery Bradley has been fantastic in Detroit so far, too—he’s scoring a mega-efficient 18 points per game and still being one of the top perimeter defenders.
Mora: As much as I hate to admit it, they are. I refused to believe it, but after really analyzing their roster and watching their games, they have a solid offense and roster. People forget they have Avery Bradley. Combine him with Reggie Jackson and you have an amazing, undervalued back court. Will they keep it up? I don’t know. Way too early to tell, but for now they’re a real threat in the East.
McKenzie: Considering how most of the Eastern Conference’s stars upped and left for the West, it’s nice to see a team like the Detroit Pistons surprise us with a winning record to start the year. Ask me this question again closer to the All-Star break.
Anderson: The Pistons are real enough. Andre Drummond is a different player when he’s making free throws, and Reggie Jackson is back. Detroit’s not 10–3 any longer but they look like a solid Eastern playoff team, for whatever that’s worth. Their ceiling is a home playoff series and a surprise first-round upset.
Strickland: When the Macho Man Stanley SVG adjusted the way they played the game offensively, not so much to match everyone else’s desire to match what the Warriors do, but to be more effective in how Andre Drummond is incorporated, the dynamic at the Hot -N-Ready Box changed dramatically.
The team was bound to be improved defensively by the addition of Avery Bradley, who brings a toughness and determination the Motor City had embraced already. But it seems that Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson have accepted their roles in the pecking order, Stanley Johnson, Ish Smith and Anthony Toliver are thriving off the bench and Drummond has actually shown a desire to improve his free throw shooting to limit his presence as a late-game on-court liability.
In short, the Pistons are playing harder, smarter and more together than they have in some time. In turn, the results have been favourable so far.
Season-long sustainability is the next question.
Detroit may answer it vociferously this year.
Boileau: Nope. Sell high, kids. There is not enough star power to maintain this.
10. We’ve already had one coach fired this season (Phoenix’s Earl Watson)—who’s the coach on the hottest seat right now?
Miller: That’s gotta go to one Mr. Glen “Doc” Rivers. The Clippers have had bad injury luck (again) this season, but even then, a team with two All-Stars and a decent supporting cast should be more than capable of at least treading water. A lot of the blame the last few seasons has been on CP3, or Blake, or DeAndre, but eventually the captain of the ship has to take responsibility for getting his crew in the best position to succeed.
Mora: Probably Carlisle. At 2–13, the Mavs are sinking fast. They need a change quickly and the coaching staff might be the first ones to bite the dust.
McKenzie: Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.
Anderson: Tyronn Lue. Someone has to take the fall, and LeBron knows how this stuff works.
Strickland: Gonna reach a bit on this one, but there may be some merit to the thought that Glenn Rivers won’t survive this season unless the Clippers do something significant in the playoffs, providing that they even make it. Few believed the drop-off in productivity and wins would be THIS precipitous without Chris Paul, but an early season swoon due to losing eight of their last nine games doesn’t bode well for future fortunes.
Granted, injuries to starters Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverly and 30-year-old rookie PG Milos Teodosic aren’t helping. Yet a team that still fields Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on the frontline, along with the presence and play of other relatively solid NBA veterans should be a bit more competitive than the Clippers are as currently comprised.
Boileau: Lue. Why he hasn’t been fired yet is beyond me.
You can find all of our roundtable contributors on Twitter:
Andrew Miller: @AndrewMillerNBA
Ivan Mora: @moraivan
Julian McKenzie: @jkamckenzie
Brandon Anderson: @wheatonbrando
Will Strickland: @WallStrizzle1
Phil Boileau: @SportingPhil