With the season in full swing, it’s time for an early progress report. If you remember the joys of bringing home your progress report (and if you were lucky like me, having to get it signed by your parents and then having to bring it back to school), then you know how it goes: your jerk teacher decides that everyone needs to know all of your grades that aren’t even finalized. There are the “Stars of the Class”, who love this time because it gives them time to lord their “A’s” over all of the average kids. Then there are the “Class Clowns”, who have all “D’s” even though they have the potential to at least be average. And occasionally, there’s that one student who just stops showing up altogether because they’d rather take the “I” than an “F”. At my private school 15 years ago, we received progress reports every two weeks because the teachers had nothing better to do than get me in trouble, so here at the Draft Class, I’m here to do just that. With that being said, welcome to 7th period! I’ve got the grades right here, so let’s get started:
Stars of the Class
L.A. Lakers: Full disclosure, I’m a die-hard Orlando Magic fan and this pains me to say, but the Lakers have been pretty good out of the gates. It looked shaky opening night (and I still consider the Clippers the best team in the league), but the Lake Show currently sits atop the Western Conference at 7-2. Their offense has its lags, only ranking 19th in offensive rating per 100 possessions. But their defense has been nothing short of stellar: they have allowed only 98.1 points per 100 possessions, 2nd in the league by the slightest of margins to the Utah Jazz. For them, it all starts at the rim: the Lakers currently lead the league in blocked shots, which is no surprise since they have elite shot blockers in Davis, McGee and Howard. And as stated before, the offense is far from perfect, but Anthony Davis has really been killing it. He’s currently averaging 26.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and a league-leading 3.1 blocks. As unstoppable as he has ever looked in the past, he looks that much more unstoppable now, thanks in part to the empowerment of LeBron James. And LeBron has been no slouch himself: he’s scoring 24.6 points, 11.0 assists (which currently leads the league), and 8.3 rebounds, including four triple-doubles, two of which on national television in a big win in Dallas and a comeback victory in Chicago. It’s safe to say that the stars are doing their job.
Going forward, one issue they need to address is the minutes that their star players are playing, and that is mainly caused by the lack of depth on their roster. LeBron and AD are both playing around 35 minutes a night, which is a little too much with LeBron’s age and AD’s sketchy injury history. And Davis has already been plagued with an early shoulder injury. The bench is currently ranked 22nd in the league in scoring, which needs to improve. And unless the Lakers have already approved the Klutch Management two-week retreat in early January, they have to address this issue sooner rather than later or LeBron and AD will be burned out by the All-Star break.
LA Clippers: Currently 6-3, the Clippers are still the favorites to win the championship this year. Their only losses are to Phoenix, Utah, and Milwaukee, who have a combined record of 19-9. And keep in mind that in the Utah and Milwaukee games, Kawhi sat out due to load management and/or a knee injury, depending on who you ask. They are currently ranked 6th in offensive rating per 100 possessions, but are only ranked 14th in defensive rating per 100 possessions. And, the team has Paul George, an All-NBA 1st team and Defensive 1st team player, on their roster who has yet to play. The Clippers are far from a finished product, with and without George. And yet, it still feels like they’re in complete control of their own destiny. One stat can quantify the difference between them and the rest of the league: the Clippers rank 1st in the league bench scoring, currently scoring a whopping 50.6 bench points! To put things in even more perspective, consider this: Lou Will and Montrezl Harrell are averaging 42.8 points by themselves, which would rank as the 9th highest scoring bench in the league! The Lakers by comparison, currently average 32.3 points off the bench. Not having to rely on Kawhi and PG for buckets makes it so that 30 minutes a night should be enough for them to get by, and they can also accentuate their prowess on defense since they don’t have to handle a large offensive load. And if that’s the case, a more-rested Kawhi and PG should wreck the playoffs.
Phoenix Suns: Show of hands, did anyone expect this start out of the Suns? I won’t lie, I expected the Suns to probably be 2-7, mostly because they’re the Suns and we really haven’t seen any competence from the franchise in a while. But 6-3?! Clearly their offseason was better than people like me expected. The signing of Ricky Rubio filled a glaring void at point guard. I know Boston would love to have Aron Baynes back right now. The Saric trade…has not been a complete train wreck (seriously, unless Danny Ainge offers you three first-rounders, just use your pick, don’t think you’re smarter than everyone else). And who predicted the resurgence of Frank the Tank? Couple all of that with a year-older Devin Booker, and the best version of Kelly Oubre Jr. we’ve seen so far, and this is what you get. A huge chunk of this fast start should be given to Monty Williams, who is the most liked coach in the NBA. And as a side note, never forget why Monty was fired in New Orleans. I’ll just say it was 0% his fault and you tell me which one of the two individuals involved is still in the league and which one isn’t.
On the court, the biggest surprise is the defense, and the fact that they’re playing it. Phoenix is currently ranked 9th in defensive rating per 100 possessions. Last season, they ranked 29th. In a word, Wow! Oh, and they’re also ranked 9th in offensive rating per 100 possessions, so this team is legit on both ends. If they feel like this is a playoff team, then Phoenix, like the Lakers, should look at improving their bench, which is currently ranked 20th in the league. The good news is that they actually have assets to fix their bench. However, my advice would be to not rush anything. Learn from the mistakes of others: rushing a rebuild never works out. But…listen to any offers you get that you think would help the team in the long run. Yeah, even if that means trading Ayton. Honestly, you shouldn’t have drafted him anyways and I bet all the money in my empty bank account that if Ayton were from Europe and Doncic went to the University of Arizona, Doncic would be in Phoenix. Take that for what it’s worth.
Chicago Bulls: This is more an early cautionary tale about having expectations set a little too high (any Cleveland Browns fans out there?). Chicago entered the season after having what I’d consider one of the more successful offseasons in the league: they addressed their need at point guard by drafting Coby White and signing Tomas Satoransky, which in theory should have helped improve last seasons’ 29th-ranked offense. They also looked to improve their 20th-ranked defense by signing Thad Young and getting Wendell Carter Jr. back healthy. Combine that with a more-experienced Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, and the Baby Bulls were poised to make a run at the playoffs this season. Not much has gone well in Chicago, to say the least. The team is off to an abysmal 3-7 record, including a disastrous meltdown to the top-ranked LA Lakers and bad losses to the Cavs and the Knicks. Their defense is currently ranked 16th in the league, which is an improvement from last year from 113.2 per 100 possessions to 107.2. But their offense, while improving to 25th league-wide, has actually regressed from 104.8 per 100 possessions to 102.7. It’s still early, but it’s easy for a young team to see things go off the rails, so hopefully they can right the ship soon. Otherwise, have your scouts book their trips to Australia now because that’s too long of a trip to ride economy class.
Orlando Magic: Being a Magic fan can sometimes be a little masochistic. Did you watch the game their only national television against the Nuggets on November 2nd? If you didn’t, the score was 91-87 (a Magic loss). You can only imagine how much fun that was to watch (plot twist: it wasn’t). The Magic, who did absolutely nothing to address their offensive woes this summer, are currently ranked 29th in offensive rating per 100 possessions, at 100.9. Overall, they average 98.1 points per game, dead last in the league. It’s one thing to have a defense-first team, but the Magic are on the cusp of being a defense-only team. For one reason or another, this team, which decided to stay the same even though they were already a bottom-third offense last year, has found a way to stagnate even more offensively. Orlando could start to improve offensively with time, which I’ll give them credit, they have scored 100+ in three straight games. Or, they could just double down on the defense, start Bamba over Vucevic, and just run a full-court press for 4 minutes every quarter to get transition baskets. Either way, the Magic need to start scoring points. Orlando has five more national television games scheduled this season and they don’t want to get flexed out because they’re a healthy team plays such a slow (surprise, ranked dead last in pace as well), boring, brand of basketball.
The semester just started, so no need for anyone to drop just yet. However, the Knicks, Grizzlies, and Warriors have flunked a few early quizzes, so look for them to maybe start thinking about taking the “I” this semester to focus on their other classes (or next year).