A month into its new season, the NBA took its annual day off to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday last November 25 (November 26 PH time).
Teams have already played close to 20 games each, which means that around 25% of the regular season has now been completed. While there is still a lot of basketball left to be played, it’s never too soon to take stock of what each franchise can be thankful for on this iconic American holiday.
Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets: Health in Numbers
The Warriors have been the class of the league so far led by a 33-year-old Stephen Curry who has taken the early lead in this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player race. Curry’s ability to remain healthy and continue to play at this level despite his age are key for their hopes this season.
The return of Klay Thompson within the next month from two years on the sidelines will also be closely monitored by the team and the rest of the league.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn still does not have the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving, yet they find themselves on top of the Eastern Conference behind the dynamic pairing of Kevin Durant and James Harden.
The Nets will need these two superstars, who are both now in their 30s, to remain as close to full strength as possible if they are to meet the championship expectations that have been laid upon them this year.
If the recent string of good health that both teams’ superstars have enjoyed continues, then a championship meeting between these two juggernauts becomes a major possibility.
Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns: The Privilege of Continuity
The reigning champion Bucks have been battered by injuries and the coronavirus to start the season, although they have roared back over the past week by capitalizing on an easy schedule with a five-game winning streak.
On the other hand, Phoenix, who were their rivals from last season’s finals, have carried over their momentum to this new campaign where they are currently riding a 14-game winning streak.
They have both managed to keep the major parts of their rotation intact and are reaping the benefits of their familiarity with one another. The question now is whether the Bucks have enough motivation and depth to win back-to-back while it remains to be seen whether these Suns can complete the last mile this year and finally take home that elusive championship.
Chicago Bulls: This Team Only Needs One Basketball
The biggest knock on the roster that the Bulls assembled in the offseason was that too many of their key pieces needed the ball in their hands. They have proved their critics wrong over the first few weeks of the season and are firmly in the race for the top seed in the East.
They have managed to do so even with the prolonged absence of starting center Nikola Vucevic in compliance with the league’s health and safety protocols.
The high-scoring Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan have teamed up to become one of the premier scoring duos in the league, proving that they can coexist with one another.
Their other key offseason acquisitions Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have acquainted themselves smoothly with the rest of the team as well. The defensive instincts and high IQ playmaking of these two guards have been integral to their success and have been just as much of a reason for their strong start.
Utah Jazz and Toronto Raptors: Growth in Silence
No one is talking about the Jazz and Raptors, which might be what’s best for these teams at this point in time.
Last year, the Jazz finished with the best record in the Western Conference, but were abruptly eliminated in the second round of the postseason by the LA Clippers in embarrassing fashion.
Now, they are currently running third and flying under the radar which might be exactly what they need to work out their kinks before another postseason rolls in.
The Raptors are in quite a different situation in terms of playoff positioning, although the relative lack of coverage compared to their 2019 title run and the lowered expectations this year have been a blessing in disguise.
It is easy to forget that the remaining holdovers from their championship team are still young (Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are only 27, OG Anunoby is 24) and have continued to improve over the past few years.
The addition of 23-year-old guard Gary Trent Jr last season remains an underrated transaction and their rookie Scottie Barnes has already exceeded expectations.
The die-hard Toronto fanbase might not have to wait too long before this team makes noise once again in the playoffs because this is starting to look more like a reload rather than a rebuild, especially if their excellent player development program can keep it up.
Dallas Mavericks: The Unicorn Reappears
Kristaps Porzingis finally looks healthy and is fresh off his seventh consecutive game with at least 20 points which is the longest streak of his career. This is quite surprising considering how highly touted he was during his time with the New York Knicks, where he even made one NBA All-Star appearance.
If Porzingis can continue playing with the tenacity that he has shown over the past two weeks, his pairing with Luka Doncic will rank among the best 1-2 punches in the league. This version of the 7’3 forward gives Dallas its best chance of advancing to the second round for the first time since their title-winning season in 2011.
LA Clippers and Miami Heat: A Lunch Pail Mentality That Never Grows Old
It seems like the Clippers will not have Kawhi Leonard this year, but that hasn’t dissuaded this feisty bunch. While Paul George remains as their leader and is a seven-time NBA All-Star, the rest of this team is littered with scrappy role players and reclamation projects who seem to have finally found their home in Los Angeles playing their tough brand of basketball.
Reggie Jackson, Ivica Zubac, Nicolas Batum, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann, and Isaiah Hartenstein have all had big games this season and even their players from the deep end of their bench, such as Amir Coffey and Brandon Boston Jr., have had their moments. They are gritty and play with a high level of energy that is difficult to match on a nightly basis.
The Miami Heat have used the same model over the past few years and it continues to reap bountiful dividends for them. Jimmy Butler, who is the ideal poster boy for the overused yet appropriate “Heat Culture” catchphrase, is one of the rare superstars who still embodies this hard-nosed mentality.
Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro have grown up with this Heat organization that drafted them and have been trained to do the same. Now with the well-respected veteran tandem of Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker–who are cut from the same cloth as Butler–onboard with the team, it has never been easier for them to get complete buy-in from the rest of their roster.
While minor injuries to their stars have slowed their hot start, the Heat, when fully healthy, are looking like dark horse title contenders who can give any team a run for their money come playoff time.
A potential finals between the Clippers and Heat is a longshot, but in the rare chance that it happens, it will most probably look like a throwback series from the 90s full of physicality and oversized personalities fit for a WWE pay-per-view.
Portland Trail Blazers and Atlanta Hawks: The Swagger is Slowly Coming Back
After a slow start to the season following a busy summer, Damian Lillard has finally regained his form. The 31-year-old guard has scored over 32 points in two out of Portland’s last three games and they have surged back into the playoff picture following a recent four-game winning streak.
The Blazers are by no means a deep team and they will need to squeeze every ounce of productivity from Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, and Norman Powell if they want to make this season a meaningful one.
Atlanta finds themselves on the opposite end of the depth spectrum with their wealth of talent, especially in the wing positions, yet they find themselves in a similar situation to that of Portland.
This was supposed to be a breakout year for this team, with some pundits even proclaiming them in their preseason predictions as the likely top seed in the East. Instead, they stumbled out of the gates and they seem to have all taken a step down from their inspiring postseason run.
The low-point of their season was their six-game losing streak earlier this month, with the last four losses coming over their first extended Western Conference road trip. Apparently, all they needed was to see the Bucks.
Atlanta pummeled Milwaukee in their 120-100 victory which kicked off a six-game winning streak that has them back into the thick of the playoff race. Their early season woes now seem to be behind them, though it will be interesting to see if any of their talented wings or power forward John Collins can step up and firmly entrench themselves as their second option behind Trae Young.
Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets: This Point Guard is a Bonafide Superstar
Morant has upped his averages in remarkable fashion to 25.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.1 assists, and 1.7 steals. His three-point shot has also improved considerably which has further opened opportunities for more jaw-dropping drives to the basket.
The rest of his supporting cast has made considerable progress as well and the future looks bright for these up-and-coming Grizzlies. They had a taste of the playoffs last year and it looks like they are hungry for more.
A team that might become their rivals in due time over the next few years due to their similar structures and trajectories is Charlotte. They have their own star point guard in sophomore LaMelo Ball and he is flanked by an equally talented supporting cast.
Ball, who is averaging 19.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.9 assists, is the maestro of this team that has fed off his electric brand of play. They have established themselves as a League Pass favorite and are not too far away from becoming a mainstay in the NBA’s national TV schedule.
Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards: A Wild Five-Game Winning Streak Appeared
Minnesota looked like they were headed for another hopeless season after stumbling out of the gates with a 4-9 record. Instead, they responded in surprising fashion with a five-game winning streak that has them currently eighth in the Western Conference.
Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and D’Angelo Russell are proving to be a potent Big Three, at least on offense, and the rest of their roster is mostly populated by defense-oriented players who have helped cover up for the limitations of their stars.
The Wizards also had their own run of five consecutive victories earlier in November and have been one of the most pleasant surprises this year. Now freed from the triple double artist known as Russell Westbrook, the players whom they received in exchange for the former NBA Most Valuable Player have banded together with Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie to lead Washington to a top-four seed in the East.
These two teams still have a long way to go, but at least they are finally making progress in the right direction following a frustrating string of seasons.
LA Lakers and New York Knicks: They are the Lakers and Knicks
They both have a rich franchise history and play in the league’s two most glamorous markets.
Otherwise, there’s really not much to be thankful for with regards to how they have played to start this season compared to where their fan bases expected them to be.
Their offseason moves have been duds so far though an eventual turnaround is not entirely out of the cards, especially for the top-heavy Lakers.
Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers: Hyland is Making his Bones and Mobley is Evan Better Than Expected
This is starting to look like a lost season for the Nuggets with Jamal Murray recovering from an ACL tear and Michael Porter Jr. once again dealing with back issues. To make matters even worse, PJ Dozier joined them on the sidelines this week after tearing his own ACL in their loss to the Blazers.
The silver lining of an unlucky year like what this one is turning out to be is that it gives a team’s younger players more playing time to help them develop. Unfortunately, this Nuggets team is short on prospects and is filled with veterans who were brought on board for a perceived deep playoff run except for their 2021 first round pick Bones Hyland.
The 6’3 guard has impressed in limited minutes and if Denver’s campaign continues to crumble, he figures to see extended playing time which will only help him improve in preparation for next year.
To a certain extent, the same narrative rings true for Cleveland.
This year was supposed to be the one where they barged into the postseason and made some noise. Instead, last year’s leading scorer Collin Sexton will have to miss the rest of the season due to a torn meniscus. The Cavaliers were already thin in their backcourt and will now have to rely heavily on Darius Garland and Ricky Rubio to carry their playmaking duties.
Fortunately, third overall pick Evan Mobley has exceeded expectations so far and once he returns from his elbow sprain, he should contend for the Rookie of the Year plum and continue to develop into the true centerpiece of this team moving forward.
Sacramento Kings: Luke Walton is Gone
The Kings have their fair share of talent on their team yet it has never translated into wins over the past two seasons. Following a slow start this year, they finally turned the page on their franchise’s Luke Walton chapter and ushered in the Alvin Gentry era.
While Walton has been labelled a player’s coach, his tactics and strategies have left much to be desired. Now that the Kings have moved on, hope springs eternal that they can finally put an end to their league-leading 15-year playoff drought.
Oklahoma City Thunder and Philadelphia 76ers: These Guards are the Real Deal
The Thunder picked Josh Giddey with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft and the Australian has immediately impressed with his calculated and controlled style of play.
The 6’8 guard is averaging 10.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 5.8 assists while playing alongside their cornerstone Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. This pair has formed an interesting backcourt that looks like it has the potential to lead them in their transition from a rebuilding team into an up-and-coming one.
Another guard who has gained a following this season is Tyrese Maxey of the Philadelphia 76ers. Thrust into the starting five in the absence of the pouting Ben Simmons, Maxey plays with a similar calm demeanor to that of Giddey, but is even more dangerous because of his lightning-quick ability to accelerate.
With Joel Embiid sidelined due to health and safety protocols, the Sixers have slid down the standings following a strong start that saw them briefly on top of the East. Maxey has done his part to keep the Sixers afloat and has scored at least 10 points in all but one of their 19 games so far this year. The 21-year-old’s averages are now up to 18.7 points and 4.6 assists per game this season.
What is even more breathtaking is that Maxey is making his free throws at an 89% clip this season which is a far cry from what this team has grown accustomed to expect from their starting point guards in recent years.
San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, and Indiana Pacers: Ready for a Trade?
This season is going nowhere for the Spurs, but they continue to accumulate decent trade assets in the form of the talent that they have developed.
They currently have six players on their roster who are averaging at least 10 points per game and while Dejounte Murray seems like the only one who might even make just one NBA All-Star game, the rest of their pieces have the potential to become tenured veterans who can make an impact on winning teams.
It is conceivable that some of these players can eventually form a package that can help them acquire the next disgruntled superstar or capitalize on the next crumbling franchise, though in the meantime, the lean years in San Antonio will have to continue.
In the Eastern Conference, the Celtics and Pacers are playing below expectations and might just be the trade partner that the Spurs are looking for.
Boston’s star wingman Jaylen Brown has already emerged in trade rumors with the Celtics looking like a shell of the team that made the Eastern Conference Finals three out of a possible four times from 2017 to 2020. Brown is not to blame for their underwhelming start and the real culprit is more likely their poorly constructed roster which fits together like a glove on a foot.
Indiana has had it even worse and currently sports an 8-12 record. Newly-installed head coach Rick Carlisle has not found success with this current roster and their shot-blocking specialist Myles Turner continues to see his name floated around the league in trade rumors.
Turner and Domantas Sabonis have been unable to truly mesh with one another despite this already being their fifth season together and it is conceivable that their front office decides to head in a different direction in order to give their well-known coach a team that is more to his liking.
While the Spurs can be grateful that they have developed enough assets that are attractive enough to draw attention from potential trade partners, the Celtics and Pacers might be more relieved that their players still draw interest even with the uninspiring play of their respective teams.
New Orleans Pelicans: Zion is Still a Pelican
Their offseason moves were head-scratching and they lost Zion Williamson to another injury even before the year began.
This was destined to be a lost season for the Pelicans from the get-go. While it is hard to find positives with how they have played, at least the reportedly disgruntled Williamson has not yet publicly demanded for a trade.
Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, and Detroit Pistons: The Kids are Okay
Jalen Green is still adjusting to the physicality of the NBA although he already averages 14 points per game. His backcourt partner Kevin Porter Jr. has recently returned from a thigh injury and this season will be devoted to these two players building chemistry with the goal of them eventually turning into this team’s foundational backcourt.
Rookie big man Alperen Sengun has also played well in his limited minutes this season and it will be interesting to monitor when the Rockets finally decide to bench their veterans in favor of their younger members.
Down in the southeast, the Magic are even more all-in on their youth movement. Terrence Ross and Gary Harris are the only players on their team who are above 23 years old and average more than 15 minutes per game.
Cole Anthony, Mo Bamba, and Wendell Carter Jr have unexpectedly made decent progress this season while lottery picks Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs are getting all of the opportunities that they can handle.
For the first time this millennium, it seems like the Magic are finally willing to undergo a full rebuild which bodes well for the future of this franchise that has gone around in circles since Dwight Howard’s departure almost a decade ago.
Seemingly in step with Orlando, the Pistons have tumbled down the standings from their highs of the 00s too. The team that once crowned the disappointing Andre Drummond as its savior now finds itself with a do-over with this year’s top pick Cade Cunningham.
His debut was delayed by a sprained ankle and it took him a few days to find his rhythm, but the 6’6 point guard has finally flashed his potential over the past two weeks. The Pistons find themselves in the rare and privileged situation that their building blocks in Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, and Killian Hayes theoretically fit well together and it will be interesting to monitor whether this plays out on the floor.