So much for those early season worries. The Cavs have won 12 games in a row (coinciding suspiciously with Derrick Rose’s injury and subsequent separation from the team), and look like favorites to reach the Finals once again. While LeBron James is no longer the menace on defense that he was in his younger years, he remains unstoppable on offense: all he needs to generate consistent open shots is a decent pick and roll partner and three point shooters. James’ excellence was expected, however; the surprises have come from elsewhere on the roster. Dwyane Wade has adapted fantastically to his role as a playmaker off the bench, and he’s been the Cavs’ best point guard with Isaiah Thomas injured. Old friend Jeff Green appears resurrected after a lost season with the Magic, and is feasting on open looks in transition. Kyle Korver is having one of his best shooting seasons in his illustrious career, and pairing him with Wade and Channing Frye off the bench has led to an explosive reserve unit. There are still worries about the Cavs’ defense, and their age, but they look really good—and this is without Thomas, who was All NBA last year. Despite the Celtics’ ridiculous record this season, the Cavs will be tough to bet against in the Eastern Conference come playoff time.
There is a good argument to make that the Rockets have been the best team in the NBA this year. They obviously don’t have the talent of the Warriors, but they are still stacked, and have fit together like a glove thus far. The Rockets haven’t lost a game since Chris Paul returned from injury, and staggering him with Harden ensures that their offense is running at full throttle at all times. Paul has already developed a scary connection with Ryan Anderson, and their pick and pop is a nightmare to stop. Clint Capela continues to develop into one of the NBA’s best big men (yes, it’s true), and is the perfect complement as the “garbage man” around the rim to the Rockets’ perimeter focused attack. Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute are all providing top-notch, versatile defense along with capable three-point shooting, and their defense leads to open shots in transition. The Rockets simply don’t have many weaknesses. They run 10 players deep with Nene and Tarik Black, and are capable of besting all kinds of opposing styles and tactics. When their three point shooting runs hot, they are the only team in the NBA that can match the Warriors in firepower. There’s a lot of season left, yet the Rockets look like the most formidable Western Conference opponent to the Dubs in years.
The Lakers have lost five games in a row, and have sunk to 12th place in the West. Their defense, has, surprisingly, remained stout. It is their offense that is letting them down, due in no small part to the struggles of hyped rookie Lonzo Ball. Ball just can’t shoot (or score) right now, and his 31.3% shooting and 25% from three don’t appear to be improving any time soon. Brook Lopez is also quietly having his worst season since his rookie season: coach Luke Walton is only playing him 24 minutes due to the presence of younger players on the roster, and Lopez therefore hasn’t been carrying the team like many thought he would. Luol Deng is getting paid $18 million to sit on the bench (he’s played in one game), and has two years left on his contract, which is one of the worst in the NBA. Not all is doom and gloom. Second year player Brandon Ingram has made massive strides, and looks like he should be a solid starter at the least when in his prime. He can really score the basketball, and his finishing has improved immensely from his rookie season. Speaking of rookies, Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers’ late 1st round pick this past summer, has carried over his strong Summer League performance to the regular season. He is the Lakers’ leading scorer, and is doing so quite efficiently. He can shoot, he can create a bit, and he can finish around the basket. He’s an absolute steal, and would be a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year if it weren’t a lock for Ben Simmons. The Lakers aren’t going to be good this year, but they have some very promising young players, and could be a force in a few years.
Things somehow haven’t really improved for the Bulls since Bobby Portis broke Nikola Mirotic’s face with a punch in training camp. They are 3-19, have lost 9 games in a row, and are the worst team in the NBA by a significant amount. Zach LaVine isn’t back from his ACL injury, and now reports are emerging that he might not return until January. Two promising young players last year, Paul Zipser and Cristiano Felicio, have regressed substantially this season. Kris Dunn, the other centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade, has shot the ball much better than in his rookie season, though he still lacks point guard skills. At least he looks like a real NBA player. Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez are solid veteran players, but are vastly underqualified to be the two best players on an NBA team, and their numbers have suffered as a result. Rookie Lauri Markkanen has fallen off after a blazing start to the season, though the same qualification applies to him—he might look significantly better in a smaller role. The Bulls, to be honest, are just devoid of much NBA talent, and that isn’t changing any time soon. LaVine will help, but he’s not good enough to turn around a situation that is this hopeless. The Bulls are going to be tough to catch for the top chance in the lottery, and boy do they need a top 5 type of talent on this team. This season is just one long journey to the NBA draft for them.