Dwight Howard: Despite the Kyle Korver trade, the Atlanta Hawks have solidified themselves as the 4 seed in the Eastern Conference—and are within shouting distance of the Celtics at 3rd. And no small part of that success is due to a re-invigorated Dwight Howard. Dwight is rebounding at a career-high rate, gobbling down 25% of all available rebounds, and pulling in 13.3 of them in under 30 minutes a game. Even better, his scoring and field goal percentage are higher than last year’s abomination of a season in Houston. The cherry on top is that he’s shooting 55.1% from the free throw line, his best number since 2010-2011. Still an above-average defensive player (and well capable of throwback moments), Howard remains a top-tier center in the NBA, one that doesn’t get discussed nearly enough in such conversations. He isn’t the dominant force that once stopped LeBron James flat in the playoffs, but there’s no question that Dwight has become severely underrated.
Nikola Jokic: Jokic is a beast. Denver’s season began to turn around when Jokic was inserted into the starting lineup as the linchpin of their offense—at the center position. His incredible playmaking ability has created easier looks for teammates than any the Nuggets’ point guards could achieve, and he has upped his scoring and efficiency as well. His passing is truly dazzling- only a handful of players can make the same plays that he can- and something that should only improve as he becomes more accustomed to being the focus of NBA defenses. Not yet 22 years old, Jokic is the clear future of the franchise, the building block the Nuggets have been lacking since Carmelo Anthony. He has a lot of work to do on the defensive end, and in the new age of shooting and spacing, his three-point shot is still in its infancy. But his play has pushed the Nuggets into the 8th seed in the playoffs, and as long as he’s playing at this level, they are unlikely to relinquish that hold.
Dwyane Wade: The future Hall of Famer is quietly having the worst season of his career. Wade just turned 35 a couple days ago, and his age is really showing this year. His scoring and efficiency are down, he relies on midrange jumpers more than ever, and there are fewer and fewer “vintage Wade” moments. Far more damaging is that his defense, which has been up and down for a few years, is now straight bad. He’s not a below average player, not yet, but he’s not a particularly good one either. That just makes his lead on the All Star starting spot (due to fan voters) even more maddening. While part of his struggles might be due to his poor fit with superstar Jimmy Butler, there isn’t much hope he will turn it around this season or any time in the future—and the depressingly awful Bulls front office gave him a 2 year $47 million deal. Sadly, one member of the Banana Boat team is already becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets started off the year on fire, and seemed poised to be a contender for home court advantage in the struggling Eastern Conference. Not anymore. They are 3-7 in their last 10 games, and show no real signs of being able to turn things around. Kemba Walker is terrific, a top 10 point guard and a true All Star even in the crowded guard positions in the East. Nicolas Batum is a solid fringe All Star type who does a little bit of everything on the court—a top of the line glue guy. The issue is that those two guys don’t have a lot of support. Marvin Williams has predictably regressed from his career season last year. Ramon Sessions predictably hasn’t been able to provide what Jeremy Lin did last season. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t really improved much over the past few years, and his jump shot is as broken as ever. Charlotte also really misses the defense and consistency of Courtney Lee as well as the post scoring of Big Al Jefferson. The Hornets just aren’t as good a team as they were last year, and it’s going to be tough for them to make much noise in a relatively tough Eastern Conference.
Andre Drummond: Detroit’s franchise centerpiece is putting up a stat-line only slightly worse than last season, where he was an All Star and All-NBA 3rd team member. It’s not his pure counting stats that are troubling, however. The Pistons are a much, much better team with Drummond on the bench. As a matter of fact, he is a -157 on the season, a number that doesn’t make sense with the mediocre Pistons. Usually, teams play better with their star players on the court: that’s just common sense. So if the Pistons are better off when he sits… is he really a star player? There is some noise in those on/off numbers, but just judging by watching him play, you can see how poor a defensive player he really is. Sometimes counting stats reflect play level correctly. James Harden is having a monstrous season, and the numbers clearly demonstrate that. Drummond, on the other hand, pulls down a ton of boards, and has decent steal and block rates, so people assume he’s a good defensive player. He isn’t, and it’s costing the Pistons dearly. They are going to need to decide whether they want to move forward with him as the franchise player, or go a different route.