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5 Underrated Storylines of the NBA Season Thus Far

1. Wait, why aren’t the Charlotte Hornets terrible?

The fun of writing half of an article a week after the other half is that you get to marvel at just how right or wrong you were – always a treat as an analyst. I felt this part sort of spoke for itself; since its writing, the Hornets have lost three straight to Washington, Chicago, and Miami, and now sit on a 5-game losing streak (though a home-and-away with Detroit proves an opportunity to fix that).

Well, I think the easy answer to the above question is that they kind of are terrible, they’ve just managed to get lucky and win some games. The evidence is awfully damning; the Hornets rank 24th and 23rd in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, respectively. That means they are one of the seven worst teams in the NBA on both offense and defense thus far this season. Not impressive.

The Hornets sit at 6-9, good for 9th in a dismal East. However, Chicago is only a game behind, and the five other teams below Charlotte have four wins each. Certainly, banking even a couple of wins could be crucial for teams competing for the last couple slots in the East playoffs this year, but it isn’t like Charlotte has been banking wins against good or even decent teams; they have simply been good enough to beat the teams we would perceive as the Hornets’ peers; while wins on the road over Sacramento and at home versus Indiana (a game where Devonte’ Graham, the main source of hope for these Hornets, put up a career-high 35 points in an overtime thriller) are mildly impressive, the remaining ragtag bunch of Chicago, Golden State, Detroit and New York is not necessarily a murder’s row of competition. In fact, this is borne out in the numbers; Charlotte has had the 3rd easiest schedule through 15 games, and I think it is fair to say they haven’t necessarily capitalized on it.

If this Charlotte team was legit, they wouldn’t have dropped games to New Orleans and Memphis at home, and while they were competitive versus Philadelphia (which hearkens back to the thriller between the two teams last year, headlined by Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler) there is little to no evidence that this team is going to consistently win (or even compete) against teams in the playoff race. While I am not counting the Hornets out of the playoff race – the 8th seed in the East could genuinely be a 36-win team, and I think Charlotte could feasibly hit that total – it seems clear to me they are not even close to one of the best 16 teams in the NBA, and while they have eschewed a major rebuild thus far, there is certainly no hope for a budding contender in the vein of this year’s Phoenix Suns to emerge out of this Hornets’ roster. They simply don’t have the talent or the long-term tooling that it takes to be in a situation conducive to winning both on the court and “in the books,” meaning financially.

Expect the Hornets to struggle as the season goes along, and more and more teams begin to round into playoff shape. One of the big advantages the Hornets have is, in a league where around 50% of players changed teams in the 2019 offseason, they lost very few players to turnover. Yes, Kemba Walker is gone, and that has taken massive adjustments for the Hornets to adjust from. But other than slotting in Terry Rozier and rookie P.J. Washington, this is the same cast of characters that has been around with the Hornets. Gone now are Jeremy Lamb and Frank Kaminsky, but now the aforementioned Devonte’ Graham and former 2nd round pick Dwayne Bacon are ready to step into the rotation, and not only have they been good enough to replace those minutes, but they have been with the Hornets for a couple of years, and thus have a better understanding of the defensive schemes, communication, and other team-specific nuances. This may seem foolish, given the huge loss that Kemba Walker was, but I believe this Hornets team is winning because of superior team chemistry, and I am wary as to how that will fare going forward.

I feel pretty confident predicting the Hornets to finish somewhere around 28-32 wins this season. They are not the historically talent-depraved team that some seemed to think coming into the season; reliable vets like Marvin Williams and Cody Zeller have anchored the defense, and young guys like Graham, Malik Monk, and Miles Bridges have stepped up to create a sense of youthful energy within the locker room that shows on the court. However, the team simply does not have the top-end talent to win against playoff teams, and is bound to have games where they simply cannot hit a shot on offense, and drop games to bad teams almost by default. The biggest focus for Charlotte Hornets fans this season should be the most under-the-radar young core in the NBA. Between Devonte’ Graham, Malik Monk, P.J. Washington, Miles Bridges, and even Cody Martin, the Hornets have a true young core that I don’t believe many in the NBA are aware of quite yet.

2. Wait, why are the Brooklyn Nets terrible?

Well, for starters, lets note that the Brooklyn Nets are currently tied for the 7th seed in the East, though that may be more indicative of the level of play from teams below the Nets than anything else. However, the Nets are under .500 at 6-8, and there is no clear culprit as to why. Kyrie Irving has missed the past few games with a nerve impingement in his shoulder, but the team has actually won 2 of 3 in his absence, though against shoddy competition. Again, like the Hornets above, this is not a team that has played a particularly punishing schedule to this point – the Nets come in at 24th in strength of schedule (meaning the 6th easiest schedule) and they have certainly needed the “cupcake” match-ups to even make it to 6-8. The Nets have tallied wins this season against some less than stellar competition – beating the Knicks by 4, the Rockets (an impressive win in which James Harden went gulp 2/16 from 3PT range) by 7, the Pelicans by 10, Portland by 4, Chicago by 6 and Charlotte by 6. Even in their wins, the Nets have never quite produced at the level we expected a playoff team that traded D’Angelo Russell for Kyrie Irving to produce at.

The biggest slight on this Nets team has got to be their inconsistent play, even within a single game. Against Phoenix back on Nov. 10, Brooklyn went down 13-33 after about 9 minutes of regulation – the team looked absolutely lost, giving up 10 points to Aron Baynes and just all-around forgetting how to play basketball. The team picked it up though, mostly on the legs of Caris LaVert and backup PG Spencer Dinwiddie, who has been the team’s 2nd leading scorer with 18.6 points and 5.1 assists in 27 minutes per game off the bench. Fast-forward seven minutes of game time, and the Nets brought the score to 40-42, and seemed poised to turn their huge deficit into a big lead.

That’s not what happened though.

Instead, Kyrie comes back into the game, and the offense goes cold. Brooklyn all but sits by idly as the Suns go on yet another run, ramping the lead back up to 68-50 by halftime, and essentially ending the competitive portion of the game. Am I saying that Kyrie is to blame for their collapse?

No.

But I sure am implying it.

So are the Nets bad? No, I don’t think so. I think they’ll finish in the playoffs, and as long as they aren’t matched up against the Bucks or 76ers, I think they will lose in the first round without getting too embarrassed. But I am very worried about the long-term future of the Nets. I love Caris LaVert, I love Spencer Dinwiddie, I love Joe Harris – this team feels like it should be fun to watch. But boy has it been chaotic thus far. Even the wins the Nets have racked up have been pretty unimpressive, and losses to Memphis and Detroit are not exactly emblematic of a playoff-caliber team. In all honesty, I am worried about the effect Kyrie Irving is having on this team. Call me gullible, but it simply stinks too bad for a skunk not to be nearby. I don’t necessarily think it has much to do with the way Kyrie acts off the court – NBA players rarely seem to dislike teammates, and never is it for the petty reasons fans and the media do. And listening to Marcus Smart’s appearance on the Lowe Post podcast was pretty insightful as to how Kyrie’s teammates in Boston felt about the guy. But I think there may be something to the idea that Kyrie’s style of offense is simply not conducive to a happy, free-flowing team. One can imagine that his style of play is frustrating to play with at times, and I can see that frustration really rearing its head in the worst of times. Compare playing with Kyrie to, say, Nikola Jokic, or LeBron James. What a difference in role, a difference in mentality! Kyrie is an electric player to watch on the court, but as a teammate, I an imagine it must be frustrating not to have a guy leading the offense who is constantly looking to set you up. In fact, this four game winning streak with Kyrie still out might serve as proof to this point, even accounting for those games being against weak competition.

Now I should clarify, that in the long-term, the Nets are an enigma. There are a ton of moving pieces on this team as it stands, and the rotation will likely stay in flux throughout most of the season. Kevin Durant’s debut looms on the horizon, serving both as an icon for what is yet to come and as a scapegoat for the team’s current problems. I am certainly optimistic about KD’s return, and how much better Kyrie will look in an environment with another superstar like Durant. But until we see it, we can simply speculate on the present, and in the present, these Nets look pretty dang bad. I would still be stunned if they missed the playoffs altogether, but I also feel pretty confident in predicting that they finish no better than a .500 W/L record.

3. Wait, so the Denver Nuggets are actually good still…right?

Ohhhh, Denver. You almost had me doubting for a second there.

Turns out that yes, the Denver Nuggets are in fact still good. At 12-3, Denver has the third best record in the league, behind only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. If the playoffs were to begin today, the Nuggets would be matched up with the 9-8 Minnesota Timberwolves, a matchup I believe the Nuggets would be cautiously pleased to see. Unless Andrew Wiggins plays like an All-Pro for 4 out of 7 games, it is awfully difficult to imagine KAT carrying his team to a series victory versus this much more talented Denver roster.

The team hasn’t necessarily won in the way you may expect, however; any team helmed by Nikola Jokic is sure to be heralded for their offense, and it is the defensive side where one may be dubious. This Nuggets team have completely bucked that trend this year – offensively, they have been rather mediocre by the numbers. At an offensive rating of 107.9, the Nuggets are at a nadir in terms of offensive production thus far this season; this is the first season since ’15-’16 – Nikola Jokic’s first in the NBA – in which Denver has been below a 110 offensive rating, good for 16th in the NBA. For reference, they ranked 6th both of the past two years, and 4th in ’16-’17. Where the Nuggets have excelled has been on the defensive end – through 15 games, the Nuggets lead the league in opponent PPG, and rank 3rd in defensive rating. Another trend that has become even more evident this year is that as the league has collectively ramped up the pace of play, Denver has remained relatively constant. Three years ago, in Nikola Jokic’s first full season with the team, the Nuggets finished with a +1.9 relative pace at 98.3. Since then, Denver has remained relatively constant at 96.8, 97.7, and 97.5 – at the same time, though, their pace relative to the rest of the league has been trending downward: -0.5, -2.3, and down to a rather ludicrous -3.7 relative pace to the rest of the NBA – dead last, according to NBA.com/stats.

When evaluating the Denver Nuggets, I believe you must start with a very fundamental question:

Do I believe Nikola Jokic can be the #1 player on an NBA title team?

Personally, I say yes, I do. There was a ton of worry surrouding Jokic early in the season, and while some of it was slightly sensationalized, there was certainly reason for concern. The Nuggets started off 3-2, including an 108-107 OT victory against a Phoenix Suns team that has certainly proven to be a formidable foe this season, but two games into the season the general NBA-sphere was none too aware of this new phenomenon. So when the Nuggets dropped back-to-back games against the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans – two lottery teams last year, by the way – giving up 109 and 122 points respectively, the ringing of the alarm bells was none to suprising. What was a bit of a suprise was the stretch they went on the next few games – holding Orlando, Miami, and Philadelphia to 87, 89, and 97 respectively, going 3-0 over the stretch. In the matchup versus the 76ers, Jokic and the Nuggets held Joel Embiid to 19 points on 6/17 shooting, while forcing him into foul trouble early and often (Embiid ended up fouling out with a few seconds remaining in the game) – Embiid also racked up eight turnovers coupled with a paltry 2 assists. Jokic himself was a respectable 10/22 for 26 points, adding another 6 assists as well as 2 steals and 2 blocks. And for the most part, that has been the trend with Jokic. He has not had any statistically stunning performances – he has yet to break 30 points in a game this season – and for a guy many expected to be right there in the MVP race this season and beyond, 16.7pts and 6.1ast on 53.9% true shooting is not exactly what were expecting this season.

Yes, Jokic seems to have taken a slight dip in several statistical areas, and yes, he has still been noticably pouty at times on the court. But I am a believer in the Nuggets’ defense, and the ability of a team with a bunch of guys with aligned personalities and complementary skillsets all revolving around the dynamic presence that is Nicola Jokic to adapt across a 7-game series, over and over again. If Mike Malone and his coaching staff has the creativity it takes, this could be one of the most dynamic, versatile teams in the playoffs we have ever seen. Defending the great wings of the West like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard is a clear crack in the Nuggets’ armor, but we have seen every year how dramatically injuries shift the landscape of the league, and what the Nuggets have is depth. Denver has a near-starter-level player as a backup at every single position. Seriously, check it out:

PG: Monte Morris
SG: Malik Beasley
SF: Torrey Craig
PF: Jerami Grant
C: Mason Plumlee

Is there another team in the league that goes this deep? This isn’t even to mention the various “lottery ticket” prospects on the Nuggets’ roster – Jarred Vanderbilt, a second round pick out of Kentucky from the ’18 draft, (13th ranked recruit in the ’17 HS class) Bol Bol, a second round pick out of Oregon from the ’19 draft (6th ranked recruit in the ’18 HS class) and, of course, Michael Porter Jr. – 14th overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft (2nd ranked recruit in the ’17 HS class, behind Marvin Bagley III) who sat out all of last year after undergoing back surgery. MPJ has played 90 minutes on the young season, and in his minutes has managed to hit 15/34 shots, including 2 of his 10 3PT attempts; his other contributions have been minimal, but one thing pointed out by Adam Mares on the Dunc’d On Podcast season preview of the Denver Nuggets was how effective MPJ looked as a cutter in practice with the team. Any offense helmed by Nikola Jokic is sure to be cutter-friendly, and the fact that MPJ has already been praised as possibly the best cutter on the team is indicative of good things going forward.

This Nuggets team is certainly a long shot at the title this year, but I certainly wouldn’t count them out, and I sure wouldn’t bet against them winning one in the next five years.

4. Are you seriously trying to tell me Dwight Howard is good??

What is happening? This doesn’t make any sense to me. I thought Dwight was done? Why is he still playing basketball? Isn’t that dude like 40? (well, he is going on 34, actually)

Trust me, I don’t get it either.

It turns out that when you take a guy who spent most of his life at the peak of his craft, going so far as to take his Orlando Magic team to the NBA Finals in 2009, and put him on absolute backwaters in Charlotte and Washington for a couple seasons, he remembers the desire to compete when back with an actually competitive team. Dwight never had the reputation as the most serious character, and after his stint in Los Angeles, it seemed as if his engagement and effort levels have dropped drastically. Sure, in Charlotte he had that one 30 point, 30 rebound game, but watching that performance was more depressing than anything else. Here is this physical specimen, this guy who used to be at the peak of his craft, three times voted the best defensive player in the entire league, and here he is putting up meaningless stats in a meaningless game on a meaningless team during a meaningless season. Last season in Washington was even more depressing. Dwight suffered a piriformis injury, and I legitimately remember nothing else of Dwight Howard’s Washington Wizards tenure other than the “butt injury” jokes that were made when that was announced.

I’d imagine some of y’all have forgotten, but Dwight missed all but 9 games with this injury last year – it may have led to a lot of joking, but it was a serious matter for him and cost him the season.

This year is different though! In all honesty, I feel like I should have been more confident in predicting this success. LeBron has worked his magic on all sorts of vets over the years, notably bringing in reformed goofball JaVale McGee to the Lakers last year. I imagine some of this comes from the simplification of roles when a player plays with LeBron James. For a guy like Dwight, it is significantly easier to adopt a minor role when you are feeding off of a legend like LeBron, rather than some highly-touted rookie or some mediocre veteran Dwight doesn’t respect. By buying into his role as a rim runner, Howard has simplified his game, and limiting his minutes to around 20 per game has allowed him to concentrate his effort into fewer, but more powerful bursts. This has borne out in the box score thus far – check out Dwight’s stats through 14 games:

MPFGAFG%FTAFT%PTSREBASTBLKSTL
20.63.775%2.155%6.77.61.01.60.4

7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks are awfully impressive averages in only 20 minutes per game, and that 75% FG% will put Dwight near or at the top of the league in efficiency if he keeps it up. With a usage rate of 12.1%, Dwight has been able to focus on all the aspects of the game that don’t require the ball, and it turns out he’s still pretty dang good at ’em. Good on you, Dwight.

5. So…is this finally the year for KAT and the Minnesota Timberwolves?

Karl Anthony-Towns was the hottest name in the NBA the first week of the season. KAT opened the season with a 37 point performance in an overtime win over the Brooklyn Nets, led by Kyrie Irving’s own 50pt performance. KAT followed that up with 37 points in a mere 28 minutes in a win versus the Hornets, and put up 23 points and 11 rebounds to hand the 11-3 Miami Heat a rare loss in this young NBA season. Three games in, and the Timberwolves are 3-0, looking like this year’s breakout team, in the same vein of the Bucks last year. KAT looked to have broken into the MVP debate, and the team was running on all cylinders despite some pretty awful play from Andrew Wiggins. Minnesota was on fire, and the impetus behind the flame was Karl Anthony-Towns, who seemed to have taken yet another step in commanding this team and knowing what it takes to act as an offensive centerpiece. KAT was the focal point of this Wolves offense, and that offense was chugging along.

Until the Timberwolves traveled west to Philadelphia. About halfway through the third quarter, KAT and rival center Joel Embiid engaged in a shoving match that devolved into an all-out brawl. Both players were ejected and suspended the following two games, and while the team has been solid since, the hype train has certainly lost quite a few passengers over the past few weeks. The Timberwolves have been fine since then, but its tough to predict them finishing in the playoffs, even with this Andrew Wiggins resurgence. Since KAT returned from the suspension, the Wolves have lost games to Memphis and Washington by 16 and 21 points respectively, (KAT put up 36 points on 13/18 shooting against Washington, by the way) and their only signature win is on the road against the Jazz – promising, but simply inconsistent.

But that’s sort of been their style since KAT arrived, hasn’t it? Not to say the blame rests with KAT – if it wasn’t for him, they would never win games versus teams like Utah and Miami. Unfortunately, the team has simply not surrounded him with enough talent, and that problem exists to this day. I’m sorry, but if Treveon Graham and Jarret Culver are gonna play the 4th and 5th most minutes of any player on this team respectively, then there is just not enough talent. Just take a look at the Timberwolves role players:

NameAgeGPMPPERTS%3PT%PTS
Treveon Graham261625.26.442.319.26.5
Jarrett Culver201723.58.342.927.78.8
Jake Layman251426.410.353.935.210.5
Josh Okogie211524.412.854.823.58.5
Noah Vonleh241412.612.455.510.04.1
Gorgui Dieng301312.520.754.631.65.3
Shabazz Napier28622.212.647.022.67.8
Kelan Martin24715.43.640.720.85.0

Note: stats are per game

Look, I love to watch this team. When Karl Anthony-Towns is cooking, he can win you a game in a way no other big man in the history of the NBA has been able to do. Andrew Wiggins, Josh Okogie, Robert Covington are incredibly intriguing players, and Jarrett Culver certainly has the potential to be a solid starter on the wing down the line. But c’mon now. It’s 2019. Have you seen the Clippers’ roster? The Bucks? The Lakers? I mean we talked about how weak the ball-handling would be for the Lakers, but it seemed pretty clear if they could get consistent center play, they would have a top-5 defense, and could easily wind up #1. Even a team like Phoenix or Indiana or Brooklyn or Sacramento puts the Timberwolves rotation to shame.

The Timberwolves got their guy, and that’s always been the trickiest part of building an NBA team. But we’re going on season 5 of Karl Anthony-Towns’ Wolves tenure, and this is the first year of KAT’s 5 year max extension that starts at $27.25mil this season and pays out $35.97mil in ’23-’24. Minnesota has limited flexibility going forward. All we can do is wait and see if newly-instilled GM Gersson Rosas can come over from Houston and turn this Timberwolves’ rotation into one that can compete with the elite teams in the West. I am cautiously optimistic, but until then, let’s just kick back and enjoy the KAT show. I’m sure it will be glorious.

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