The Raptors have won 12 of their last 14 games, and are in 1st place in the Eastern Conference. To be fair, they are in that place primarily because they’ve played an incredible five fewer games than the 2nd place Celtics, but it is still impressive for a roster that saw very little change over the summer. DeMar DeRozan keeps getting better every season even into his late 20s, and is one of the hardest players to defend one on one in the NBA. Kyle Lowry’s numbers are down this season, though part of that is due to coach Dwayne Casey finally limiting his minutes somewhat. The Raptors’ bench is awesome, filled to the brim with young role players who possess significant upside. OG Anunoby appears to be an absolute steal of a late 1st round pick—he’s already a competent 3 and D wing who is incredibly versatile on the defensive end. Delon Wright is one of the best backup point guards in the NBA. Both Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl have flashed starting-level upside as big men. The one disappointment is Bruno Caboclo, but a single miss isn’t a big deal when the Raptors have accumulated so many hits. The teams dominating the headlines in the East this season have been, as usual, the Cavs, Celtics, Knicks, and 76ers, but the Raptors have quietly been the best team in the league’s weaker conference. Their lack of a spot on the Christmas Day slate just underscores how little they are discussed in the grand scheme of things. It remains to be seen whether this Toronto squad does better in the playoffs than in previous seasons, but this is probably the strongest overall roster of this iteration of the Raptors.
Remember when the Knicks were derided for weeks because they only got Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott in return for Carmelo Anthony? Kanter was one of the whipping boys of NBA fans the past couple years due to his laughably bad defense and his earnest defense of teammate Russell Westbrook. Those jokes have faded away this season, though, as Kanter has turned in the best stretch of his career. He’s averaging career highs in rebounds, assists, steals, and field goal percentage, and is even playing improved defense. Kanter has probably been the second-best player on the surprisingly good Knicks behind Porzingis, and some advanced metrics even has him as topping the Latvian wunderkind. He’s a beast in the low post, dominant on the offensive boards, and has worked on his passing so he isn’t a complete black hole. The Knicks thought Willy Hernangomez, a 1st team All-Rookie selection last year, was their center of the future. Instead, Kanter might have usurped that title. He’s only 25, and a snug fit next to the three-point bombing and defensively capable Porzingis. Far from a throw-in, Kanter is now an essential piece to the Knicks’ plans.
The Jazz are 2-9 in their last 11 games, and can’t seem to stay healthy. All-NBA center Rudy Gobert has missed 15 games with various injuries, and will be out for at least a couple more. Without him, this Jazz team is merely good on defense instead of great, and that’s a slip that a team as offensively challenged as the Jazz can’t afford. Donovan Mitchell has been spectacular, and is a legitimate contender for Rookie of the Year. He’s already the best scorer on Utah, and promises to be a 20+ point per game weapon with an overall skillset for years to come. In other good news, Alec Burks has had a bounceback campaign after several seasons primarily lost to injury. He has provided a boost off the bench, and is a capable backup across multiple positions. The bad news, however, outweighs the good. Dante Exum, their lottery pick in 2014, is going to miss yet another full season due to an injury, and at this point his NBA future is in question. Hopefully he comes back healthy next year, but the Jazz still don’t really know what they have in him, and that’s not good for a team trying to rebuild. Ricky Rubio has been dreadful for the Jazz: he still can’t score efficiently, and his assists have plummeted while his turnovers have gone up. He’s sporting a horrible 4.8:3.1 assist to turnover ratio, and is shooting under 29% from three. While his defense has been as strong as ever, his lack of playmaking ability has been a real detriment to the Jazz’s offense. Finally, Joe Johnson, who was such a key piece for the Jazz last year, has at last shown his age with the worst season by far of his career. The Jazz need to get healthy, but even healthy, they might not have the offensive tools to make a playoff push.
Dion Waiters parlayed one season as a useful NBA player with the Heat into a 4 year, $52 million deal to re-sign with them. It’s only30 games into the first of those seasons, but all the old habits that made him such a frustrating player in the past have re-appeared this year, and with every game that goes by, 2016-2017 seems like more and more of a fluke. Waiters is shooting under 40% from the field, barely over 30% from three, and isn’t getting to the line as frequently. His rebounding and assists have dipped from last year, and turnovers have gone up. It’s been a no-good, very bad season for Waiters, and at age 26, he might not improve much from here. There’s only one year of evidence of Waiters contributing positive things to an NBA team. He’s a ball-hog who can’t shoot, a plus athlete who can’t defend, and a surprisingly adept passer with no feel of how to run an offense. Good for Waiters for getting that contract, but it is not a pretty one for the Heat.
Andrew Wiggins was supposed to be the next Kobe Bryant coming out of Kansas in the 2014. He had an up and down first three seasons in the NBA, but generally showed enough promise that the Wolves had no choice but to extend him to a max salary contract (5 years, $145 million) this summer. In response, he has put forth the worst season of his career. His scoring taking a dip was expected with the Wolves adding Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague, but those players were supposed to make Wiggins more efficient. The opposite has been the case, with Wiggins regressing as a three-point shooter and getting fewer opportunities to go to the free throw line. He has failed to develop as a rebounder or as a secondary playmaker, and while his defense has gotten better, he remains below average in that department. Really, the only thing he’s good at right now is volume scoring, and that’s less important with Butler, Teague, and Karl Anthony Towns on the Wolves. Wiggins is still young, and has the tools to be a very good NBA player. But his feel for the game just doesn’t seem to be there, and skills such as shooting and ball-handling haven’t really developed as much people thought they would. His contract looks like a total albatross, and he might be a player who needs a change of scenery to reach his ceiling. Without his further improving, however, the Wolves’ upside as a team is decidedly capped as a middling playoff squad.