What’s real and what’s not so far during the 2018-19 NBA season?
As we close in on the halfway point, our experts examine 10 trends we’ve seen — and whether they’re poised to continue as the calendar flips to 2019.
The chaos that is the Western Conference standings
REAL. Look, some of the 14 teams are eventually going to give way due to either injuries or an ill-timed slump. Nonetheless, the West playoff picture doesn’t look likely to get much clearer any time soon. Both FiveThirtyEight’s projections and those based on ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) have 11 teams finishing .500 or better on average, and BPI projects all 14 teams in the playoff race to win an average of at least 38 games. With so many teams in the mix, every game will count in a wild second half of the season. The trade deadline (and buyout market) may also be an important differentiator in a setting where an extra win or two could be the difference between making the playoffs with a realistic chance of a first-round upset or going home early.
— Kevin Pelton
The death of the traditional NBA big man
NOT REAL. The traditional big man isn’t extinct, but he is now a spot specialist who is no longer essential — and often a liability — to his team’s success. Rim protection is still a priority for NBA defense, which is why players like Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan and Clint Capela with elite defensive abilities can play 35 minutes for competitive teams, so long as they’re willing to roll and run to the rim with authority on the offensive end. Though he’s not as springy, Steven Adams‘ mastery of defensive bully-ball and creative goonery makes him indispensable to the Thunder’s identity, and energy bigs like Montrezl Harrell are invaluable in an up-and-down game. And there’s always the occasional nights when a Jusuf Nurkic gets loose against a small-ball unit.
Teams will also find use for a Tyson Chandler, who can stabilize a young defense, or a Boban Marjanovic, who can use his uncommon size to take over a game for 10 or 12 possessions. But these guys are now the exceptions instead of the rules.
Until further notice, a present-day NBA big man must brandish offensive skills like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Blake Griffin. They must be able to stretch the floor, serve as fulcrums through which the half-court offense can operate, command double-teams — and when those extra bodies come, be able to exploit the defense with the pass. As Jokic has demonstrated, it’s not so much the range from deep (the Nuggets’ big man is shooting only 31 percent from beyond the arc this season). It’s the versatility, the uncanny ability to morph one’s skills into whatever the conditions of the game demand.
Without those multiple arrows in their quiver, big men will have a hard time both staying on the floor and drawing the big paychecks their smaller contemporaries earn in free agency.
— Kevin Arnovitz
The Lakers’ chances at a top-3 seed in the West playoffs
NOT REAL. The Lakers came into this season already needing time to learn one another with a new cast surrounding the young prospects to go with LeBron James. And as good as the Lakers have looked at times this season, they’ve had to deal with injuries and suspensions that have disrupted their ability to become a finished product. So while they’re capable of winning big at Golden State, they can also lose to Orlando twice. The recent injuries to James and Rajon Rondo, the Lakers’ two leaders, will help the young players get into a groove but still require more time for Luke Walton’s team to reach its potential once everyone is healthy again.
The Lakers will eventually hit their stride, as Magic Johnson predicts. But with the margin of error so slim in the Western Conference, they may not win enough games to ultimately finish in the top three or even four ahead of teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder or the charging Houston Rockets.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
The Raptors as the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference
REAL. When the Raptors have been healthy this season, they have easily been the East’s most complete team. Kawhi Leonard has looked like an MVP candidate again after last season’s injury issues, Kyle Lowry has been one of the league’s best ball distributors, Pascal Siakam has continued to progress toward a possible All-Star berth and Serge Ibaka is having one of his best seasons in years. Toronto goes two-deep at every position, has length and athleticism to spare, and can play virtually any style against any team.
The Raptors do have some weaknesses: They are a team full of streaky 3-point shooters, Lowry’s playoff resume has its share of disappearances and the amount of injuries they’ve already had — plus Leonard’s issues last season — bear monitoring. But in an Eastern Conference in which each of the contenders has flaws, that is enough — for now — to tip the scales in their favor despite the latest run by the Milwaukee Bucks.
— Tim Bontemps
NOT REAL. George has a strong case, to be sure. He’s having a career season, playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level, and has propelled the Thunder to the upper crust of the West despite injuries and uneven play for Russell Westbrook. But the competition is strong — and statistically superior. George’s climb to an MVP would probably need to feature the Thunder overachieving and finishing atop the West while he continues to roll on a hot streak that gets him somewhere in the 27- or 28-point-per-game range.
Here’s how tough the competition is, just in the West: George could be DPOY and finish in the top three or four of the MVP race, yet not even make first- or second-team All-NBA. It ain’t easy being a forward in today’s NBA.
— Royce Young
Serious trouble for the Spurs’ 21-season playoff streak
REAL. The Spurs no longer possess what coach Gregg Popovich calls the “corporate knowledge” to lean on that they had during the Big Three era with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Think about it: San Antonio lost three All-NBA defenders before the season even tipped off — Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded and Dejounte Murray suffered a season-ending torn ACL during the preseason. And for a Spurs franchise that believes lockdown defense should be the foundation to everything it does on the court, that’s a devastating blow.
Throw in the loaded West and the fact that the Spurs are trying to maintain their normal high standards with eight new players (10 if you count two-way players), and it’s a recipe for the possible end of a postseason streak that started with a team that included David Robinson, Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, Will Perdue and Chuck Person — who are now all in their 50s!
— Michael C. Wright
The Jimmy Butler trade made the Sixers better
REAL. Did it make the Sixers better this season? Not necessarily (more on that below). But in the NBA, the goal is to collect star talent and figure out the rest later. In adding Butler to its core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia has unquestionably done that.
In the short term, however, the trade only exacerbated a depth issue the Sixers were already dealing with when the season began. Outside of their star trio and JJ Redick, coach Brett Brown is in a constant struggle to find players he can rely on. The Sixers would love to find a couple more depth pieces on the buyout market this winter like they did last year, when they landed Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova — moves that helped transform them into a juggernaut down the stretch and lift them into the second round of the playoffs.
Even if adding depth doesn’t happen until the summer, though, the addition of Butler raised Philadelphia’s long-term ceiling. That alone is enough to justify the move.
— Tim Bontemps
De’Aaron Fox‘s case for best player from the 2017 draft
REAL. Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Lauri Markkanen might beg to differ, but you certainly can make a case for the Sacramento Kings‘ electric point guard as being the best player so far from the Class of 2017. Why? First of all, you have to be special to lead the Kings to a winning record after so many lackluster years. Fox is the main reason for that with his scoring, passing, steals, quickness and improved 3-point shooting. The former University of Kentucky star also deserves Western Conference All-Star reserve consideration. Fox has turned the Kings from a laughingstock to a true playoff contender, and he still has room to get better. If Fox were in a bigger market, he would get more recognition for his stellar second season. But game recognizes game, and he will ultimately get his respect if he continues to play on this elite level.
— Marc Spears
NOT REAL (YET). While it’s premature to dub Williamson the best collegiate prospect since Davis before the start of conference play, he’s on the right track to claiming the prestigious honor. Through 12 games, Williamson has a player efficiency rating of 42.3 while posting per-40-minute averages of 30.2 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.2 steals and 2.9 blocks with an incredible 68.9 true shooting percentage. His productivity and efficiency are unprecedented, and he’s an ideal fit as a small-ball big in the modern NBA.
So who is Williamson’s competition? The three main names that come to mind are Towns (2015), Simmons (2016) and Embiid (2014). Williamson gets the edge over Towns because he’s better defensively, plays with a more revved-up motor and can create for himself and others. I prefer Williamson to Simmons as well. While not quite as gifted of a passer, Williamson shows more potential as a perimeter shooter, is consistently aggressive as a driver, makes winning plays and has similar potential defensively despite weighing 285 pounds.
Embiid is the toughest call. Take out the injury flags and Embiid would have been the surefire No. 1 pick and, to me, a better prospect than Williamson given his two-way, inside-out dominance and rapid ascension. But when you take Embiid’s injury questions into consideration, Williamson, so long as he stays healthy and makes strides as a shooter, has a chance to surpass one of the best bigs in the NBA. He’s different from his counterparts, has the ability to grab and go in transition, can finish above the rim with ferocity, can create offense from the perimeter and can fly around defensively — all of which make him arguably the most intriguing prospect we’ve seen since The Brow.
— Mike Schmitz
The Knicks’ plans for a Kristaps Porzingis return … in October
REAL. Publicly, the New York Knicks have left the door ajar for Porzingis to return this season. But they’re certainly prepared for him to miss the entire season — an outcome that makes sense for both the player and the team. From a Knicks perspective, the club can put itself in the best position to land a top lottery pick by keeping Porzingis on the sideline and losing as many games as possible. From Porzingis’ perspective, he’s entering this summer as a restricted free agent, so risking injury and putting a potential $150 million-plus contract in jeopardy doesn’t seem worthwhile.
The All-Star big man’s rehab, by all accounts, is going well. Knicks president Steve Mills said last month that Porzingis has started to work on the court with coaches and will be re-evaluated in mid-February. But even if he’s physically ready to return at some point after that evaluation, it’s best for both Porzingis and the Knicks if the face of their franchise remains out for the entire season.
— Ian Begley