Other teams and players are surging in the NBA right now, but the Celtics deserve to have this section to themselves. Winners of an incredible 16 games in a row, the Celtics give the feeling of a team of destiny this year. Gordon Hayward, possibly their best overall player coming into the season, went down with terrifying ankle injury in their first game, and the only effect it’s had on the Celts is apparently to inspire them. Jayson Tatum is having an unbelievable rookie season, scoring the ball at high efficiency and playing competent defense on a consistent basis. Jaylen Brown has taken a step forward in his sophomore season, and is rounding into a well above average player on both sides of the ball. Al Horford, a four time All Star, is putting together a career year at age 31, and is somehow the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. Kyrie Irving is dishing out his usual punishment as the closer in clutch games, Marcus Smart is boosting the team on both offense and defense despite being the worst shooting player in NBA history, and the team is getting positive contributions from unheralded rookies such as Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis. They’ve gotten lucky with some close wins, sure. But this team defends every possession like it’s the NBA Finals, and they believe in themselves to an insane degree. LeBron James lingers as a specter over their season, and endures as the gatekeeper to the Finals—yet the Cavs have proven themselves vulnerable. Boston won’t keep playing like this all season, but if they can summon this kind of energy and defense in the playoffs, they have a chance at taking down the King.
The Memphis Grizzlies:
The Grizzlies were one of the talks of the NBA following a 5-1 start. They seemed to have put worries of age and lack of talent behind them, and appeared to be just as good a team as they have been this entire decade. They have now lost five games in a row, and the concerns about them before the season are starting to come home to roost. They simply don’t seem to have a lot of talent (on the offensive end), borne out by the fact that only three of their players are scoring in double digits. Mike Conley has shot the ball horribly this season, and while his efficiency might revert towards his career norms, his and Marc Gasol’s lack of help will remain an issue barring trades. Tyreke Evans has been a revelation for the Grizz, but none of the other projects on their team look nearly as good. After four years of being a below average player in Sacramento, McLemore is now playing at the same level in Memphis. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Andrew Harrison is still young, but he was atrocious for the Griz last season, and he’s shooting even worse so far this year. Chandler Parsons appears much improved over last year’s husk, yet he remains far removed from the player they wooed in free agency two summers ago. Where do points come from on this Memphis team? Unless one of their young guys makes a leap, their offense will probably be among the worst in the NBA this season, and that’s not a recipe for making the playoffs.
After a 6-2 start, the Magic are 2-7 in their last nine games. Worse, five of those losses have been utter blowouts, and their two wins have come against mediocre opposition. I doubt many people thought they were going to be a 50-win team, but there was a possibility they could make the playoffs after five seasons in the lottery. They still could (it’s only been 17 games, and they are one game below .500 even now), yet their outlook is a whole lot grimmer. Their nosedive coincided almost perfectly with the return of starting point guard Elfrid Payton, and his lack of shooting really cripples their offense. The issue is that he’s their best overall option at the position, especially defensively, and has been one of the team’s building blocks since being drafted in 2014. The Magic need to figure out what to do with him, because he is not helping them at all right now. Orlando’s outside shooting has cooled after a hot start, and they don’t have a true go-to scorer. Even in the Eastern Conference, it’s tough to make the playoffs without a player like that. If the Magic can tighten their defense up to the level it was the first two weeks of the season they should still be a solid team, but it’s difficult to see them finishing higher than 8th in the East.
Lonzo Ball’s Scoring:
Lonzo Ball has done a lot of stuff well in his first NBA season. He’s averaging 7 assists to just 2.6 turnovers, a very good ratio, especially for a rookie. He’s also proven himself a terrific rebounder for a guard, pulling in just over 7 a game. Ball’s defense has also been a lot better than expected—he’s been around average there, rather than awful. Providing decent defense as a rookie point guard is legitimately impressive, and there’s nothing you can take away from Ball on that end of the court. The issue has been Ball’s shooting, or really just his overall scoring. Right now, he’s shooting 31.3% from the field, 22.8% from three, and 46.2% from the free throw line. That is one of the worst shooting lines from any player in NBA history. He can’t make jump shots, he can’t finish around the rim, and he doesn’t get to the line (1.5 attempts per game). His shooting will undoubtedly improve somewhat over the course of the season, but the struggles to finish and work free in the halfcourt are worrisome. Ball simply doesn’t look explosive out there, and that’s not something that players can generally improve much. He brings things to the table, but he’s also taking a lot away right now.
Your Los Angeles Clippers, currently on a nine game losing streak, are easily the ugliest thing going on in the NBA right now. They aren’t playing well on either end of the floor, don’t play exciting basketball, and appear to already be in their own heads. Not exactly the fresh start fans were expecting this season.