Can the Rockets hold the top seed in the West?
The Houston Rockets had one team in mind when they constructed their current roster: the Golden State Warriors. Houston has the length and talent on the defensive end to bother the Warriors shooters and offensively, well, James Harden – need I say more? Chris Paul can still pick anyone’s pocket and will bother Steph Curry enough to possibly put off the Warriors star guard. Harden has improved on his notoriously lethargic defensive effort this year to the tune of 1.8 steals and 2.9 deflections per game. Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker are all long wing defenders who won’t be able to stop Durant (who can, really) but will be enough of a presence to cause him problems.
On the other side of the ball, the Warrior’s “death lineup” isn’t so deadly anymore. As the NBA has figured out by now, Golden State lives and dies by the three-pointer. Curry, Durant and Thompson can obviously shoot with the best of them but the other two members of the rotation, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala aren’t living up to the Golden standard. Green is shooting 30% from three – close to his career average – but is an abysmal 8.3% on corner threes. Iguodala is at 20% and 11%, respectively. With two of the five players on the court throwing up bricks on offense, teams can focus on the Warriors other three scorers and potentially limit the damage that they can cause. To top it off, the Rockets are taking 13 more threes per game than the Warriors and are only trailing in 3P% by around three percent. In other words, they are beating Golden State at their own game.
In short, I think that the Rockets have the offensive firepower to keep up with the Bay area juggernaut. They also have the bench scoring necessary to keep leads (Eric Gordon is averaging 18 points for the second unit) to go along with a defense that is quietly ranked 12th in the league in opponents PPG. Maybe Mike D’Antoni has found the solution to stopping one the NBA’s best teams ever.
Can the Raptors hold the top seed in the East?
Now we’re headed to the LeBron’s training ground, otherwise known as the Eastern Conference. However, the king has been dethroned (for now.) The Toronto Raptors are sitting in first place at a stellar 41-16. You could say that the Celtics’ recent offensive ineptitude or the Cavalier’s dysfunctional roster (more on that later) led to Toronto stealing the top seed, but give credit where credit is due: The Raptors are playing the best basketball in the East.
DeMar DeRozan has always been an explosive scorer. However, his game was antiquated in today’s three-crazy NBA. DeRozan’s affinity for the mid-range jumper is well known and he is a constant threat to get in the lane and get to the charity stripe. All his offensive repertoire was lacking was an outside shot. Well, cue the three-point barrage. DeRozan has taken 200 threes and is connecting on 33% of them. His previous career high in threes attempted was 210. 33% from three isn’t a world-beating number, but it’s enough to warrant a close-out if DeRozan gets a clean look. In other words, Toronto’s best player just got a lot better. He’s averaging 23.7 PPG, which is down from last year but is scoring more effectively when you take into account his three-point attempts.
As I just mentioned, DeRozan is scoring less. Backcourt mate Kyle Lowry’s scoring totals are also down from 22.4 PPG last year to 16.6 this year. So how are the Raptors sitting on a 72% win percentage? The answer sits on cushioned seats as the game tips off. Toronto’s bench is fourth in the league in minutes and eighth in points per game. They’re also top 10 in FG%, assists, steals and blocks per game. C.J Miles has been the top contributor off the bench, scoring 10.2 PPG. Delon Wright filled in admirably for an injured Lowry earlier this season and proved that he can play both ways at the sports highest level. Fred VanVleet and Jakob Poeltl have both drastically improved their overall play as well. Of course, it also helps that the Raptors as a team are top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating, TS%, effective FG%, and net rating.
However, the king lurks…
New look Cavs
Entering the 2017-2018 season, the Cleveland Cavaliers were the consensus favorite to win the East. After all, LeBron has made seven straight finals appearances. Unfortunately for the Land, the Cavs started the season looking like his run would stop at seven. LeBron was up to his usual brilliance, scoring 26.6 PPG at a 54.7% shooting percentage to go with 8.1 rebounds and 8.9 assists. His teammates, on the other hand, were underwhelming to say the least. Isaiah Thomas spent most of the first half of the season on the IR. When he came back, he failed to replicate his Beantown brilliance, shooting 36.1% from the floor and a horrendous 25.3% from three while acting as a sieve on the defensive end. Jae Crowder, Dwayne Wade and the other new additions to the Cavs roster failed to gel and there were reports of problems in the locker room.
When the trade deadline rolled around, Cavs GM Koby Altman blew up the roster. Thomas, Wade, Crowder, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye were all moved to various teams. Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. arrived from the Lakers while Rodney Hood and George Hill came in from the Jazz and Kings, respectively. The complete roster overhaul seemed to work for the first few games as the Cavs got back to their winnings ways. However, the question of whether it be enough to propel them back to the top of the East still remains.
LeBron is not just a great scorer, but also one of the game’s best facilitators. IT’s ball-dominant game didn’t work out with the king, but the new additions just might be able to. Hood is a pure spot-up shooter who shot 38% from three and 35% on corner threes. His game is perfect for James’s drive-and-kick tendencies. Clarkson and Hill are both capable of running an offense when point Lebron takes off a few plays or heads to the bench. Larry Nance is an athletic four who defends well and can run the break and finish at the rim with the best of them.
So long as LeBron keeps up his otherworldly play, I think that his new teammates will give him a good chance to unseat the Raptors and Celtics and claim his rightful place atop the East.
So maybe Kawhi Leonard isn’t a robot after all…
After the Spurs beat the Grizzlies 4-2 last playoffs, Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale claimed that “Leonard is a robot who bleeds antifreeze.” In the Spurs’ current state, Gregg Popovich probably wishes that he could re-program his injured superstar. Although San Antonio sits in third place in the West at 35-24, they’ve played the majority of the games without Leonard. He’s made only nine appearances this year while battling a quad injury and the Spurs are apparently debating whether to shut him down for the rest of the season.
Before his injury, Leonard was a top MVP candidate and could arguably compete for the “best player in the NBA” title. Always a defensive stalwart, Leonard shaped his offensive game to become one of the NBA’s best two-way players. He was the new Tim Duncan in the sense that he was the next quiet superstar in San Antonio. Things were looking up for the Spurs as they made the Western Conference Finals. An ankle injury to Leonard cost them the series, and ultimately their season. Expectations were high entering the 2017-2018 season.
The most recent development with Leonard’s injury has the San Antonio front office considering something that they never would’ve thought of a year ago: trading their superstar. While I think that it’s unlikely, San Antonio could claim quite the return on a trade package if they were to move Leonard. The Spurs seem to be in limbo at the moment.
Personally, I think that the Spurs’ window to the finals is open for a few more years. Big man LaMarcus Aldridge is playing like he’s back in Portland, averaging 22.4 PPG while shooting over 50% from the field. He’s proved that he can be a number 1 scoring option in Leonard’s absence. If the Spurs were to shut down Leonard, if he can return fully fit and if Aldridge can keep up the production, the Spurs will be contenders. However, that’s a lot of “ifs.”