Toronto Raptors: The team in the north has won 9 of their last 10 games, and look better than ever before—their offensive rating is now tied with the Warriors for best ever. DeMar DeRozan has fallen off after his unsustainable start to the season, but the slack has been more than picked up by everyone else on the roster. Terrence Ross is shooting 50% from three and is scoring 11 points per game in just 19 minutes. His transformation into one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NBA has been fascinating to watch. Ross has been so good that Norman Powell, a terrific prospect in his own right, has been unable to get more than a handful of minutes per game. DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson started out the season slow, but have really kicked things into gear over the past few weeks, and are standouts in the Raptors small lineup. Kyle Lowry, of course, is a borderline top 10 NBA player, and there are even fewer than that outplaying him recently. The Raptors don’t have it in them to beat the Cavaliers in a playoff series, but they are a great team.
Houston Rockets: The Rockets have an incendiary offense, and enough three point shooters to make even the Warriors afraid. James Harden is the head of the snake, but his offensive production this year is directly tied to the threats brought in around him. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have stayed healthy thus far this year, and their ability to take and make an abundance of three pointers has really cleared out the court for Harden. Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverly, and Clint Capela do just enough on defense to keep the Rockets afloat, and that combined with their combustible offense has them tied with the Clippers for 3rd in the playoff race. The Rockets are going to be a dangerous, dangerous team to play in the postseason.
Portland Trailblazers: The Blazers are 4-6 in their last 10 games, and are now two games under .500 on the season. This is a terrible start for a team hyped by many as just a tier below the top teams in the Western Conference. These struggles are continuing even with Evan Turner improving after his atrocious first few games, and show no sign of letting up soon. Portland possesses one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and the worst part is that there is no simple way to improve. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are their two best players, but both are well below average on the defensive end, and even worse when playing together. The Blazers probably won’t have a strong defense as long as those two get heavy minutes together, which isn’t great for their long-term future. I think the Blazers should shop McCollum for an upgrade at big man or on the wings, but I don’t know if the franchise has the courage to trade away such a superb scorer.
Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets have a promising future with many interesting prospects. However, they were supposed to be a solid team this year, a team challenging to make the playoffs. So far, they stink. Michael Malone can’t figure out his rotations on a team with quite a few players who could use minutes, and players such as Kenneth Faried have picked up several DNP-CDs. Their weakest link is almost certainly at point guard. Emmanuel Mudiay is large and athletic, but he can’t shoot or score at an efficient rate at all, and his assists are way down from last season. In this point guard driven NBA, the Nuggets are going to struggle until he gets better or they bring in a stop-gap starter to replace him. Look for some of the veterans on Denver, such as Faried and Wilson Chandler, to get traded over the next couple months.
Kent Bazemore: Bazemore signed a 4 year $70 million deal this summer to remain with the Hawks. He is a prototypical 3 and D wing… but has been lacking in the 3 part this year. Bazemore is shooting just 35.8% from the field this year, and an unbelievably bad 29.2% from deep (on over four attempts per game). His inability to shoot the ball has cramped the Hawks spacing, and has been a big reason for their recent struggles. Bazemore still provides useful energy and defense on the wing, but the Hawks might have to cut his minutes if he doesn’t start hitting outside shots.