Happy New Year, all of you! I hope this week’s edition finds you all in good health.
Forgive me for taking the week-long break from the newsletter to start the calendar year. But it was for good reason: Over the holidays, I capped off the best and most fulfilling year of my adult life by asking the woman I love to marry me, and she said yes. In light of that, I couldn’t be more excited for all the surprises 2023 has in store.
With the regular season halfway through this week, I thought it worth going over the things that surprised me the most and a few questions I’m looking forward to learning the answers to as we’re heading into the second half of what looks like a wide-open NBA campaign.
What I really didn’t see happen
The Bucks offense falling off a cliff: We knew it could take a while for Milwaukee’s offense to purr without a major hub in Khris Middleton, whose playoff injury absence left the Bucks far too dependent on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday in this loss. seven-game epic against Boston. Middleton returned to the ground early last month. But after seven games – in which he averaged 11 points on 32.5% shooting – a sprained ankle and now an apparent knee injury has kept him out for almost four weeks at this stage, the question remains a little open as to when he returns, and once he returns, what he will look and behave like.
At one point, it didn’t seem that much of a concern that the Bucks lack firepower without him. Last regular season with Middleton on the sidelines and Giannis on the court, the Bucks notched 117.3 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, according to PBP Stats. (They were particularly deadly with both scorers playing, racking up more than 120 points per 100.)
But this season has gone differently. Antetokounmpo is still an MVP candidate, but teams have been able to give him more attention, and his effectiveness as a roll man has seen a huge drop as he struggles powerfully from deep and on the free throw line. . Suddenly the Bucks, who were in the top three on offense last year, are ranked 25th this season. Part of that is poor three-point shooting from the bench compared to last season. But there’s no denying that much of that stems from Middleton’s size hole in Milwaukee’s lineup.
You obviously don’t want to see Middleton come back before he’s ready and suffer another injury because his body is compromised. At the same time, I find myself preoccupied by a group that I believed to be neck and neck with Boston, if not better.
The Cavs have the best defense in the NBA so far: It was fair to think that Cleveland could be a factor in the East this season. Taking a strong young core and then adding a relatively young star who can net you 71 points in a single game will put you in that conversation with conference candidates.
What wasn’t so clear about the Cavs, however, was what their defense would look like. Yes, they had an incredible pair of defensive greats in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. But would those two be able to defensively cover a pair of 6’1″ guards in Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell? (They answered that call, with Allen holding shooters 8.7 percentage points below of their averages near the edge, and Mobley holding players 6.5 points below theirs, according to NBA stats.) Cleveland entered the season with a question mark as to who, exactly, would fill the spot. starting small forward, and for the time being this has been almost a moot point being managed almost by a committee, everyone who has served there has generally worked hard defensively the team ranks near the top of the league in most shots taken per game, even though she is playing at one of the slowest paces in the NBA, which means there are fewer shots to actually defend. Kevin Love leads the Association in charges taken. The commotion is there most nights, which is a good sign. And no team allows fewer points per 100 possessions than Cleveland.
A few of the teams we thought weren’t good have actually been decent: Even though Utah lost seven of eight, it’s pretty amazing that the Jazz were single-handedly in first place in the West three weeks into November. Not bad for a team that dealt out its two franchise players.
Amid their recent struggles, the Jazz are just one game away from 10th place for the final play-in spot, which is miles from where most of us thought they were. would be at this point in the season. Half a game behind Utah is Oklahoma City, who managed to record an 18-22 mark with 10 of those wins being ones in which the young Thunder came back to win after trailing in double digits. Look closely enough and you can begin to see the ingredients for something real with this club. Next year could be very interesting.
Then you have Tyrese Haliburton, who would be a more than deserving first-time All-Star, and the Pacers, who sit 23-18 and right now wouldn’t even need a game turn to reach the playoffs. .
Myles Turner is in the midst of his best season. Bennedict Mathurin could finish No. 2 in the Rookie of the Year voting. Andrew Nembhard, who hit a winner against the Lakers earlier in the season, also deserves All-Rookie consideration. The Pacers are incredibly fun and a winning club.
To have all of these things happen in a season that many of us expected from Victor Wembanyama is wonderful, frankly.
What will happen with the _______?
timber wolves: When Karl-Anthony Towns went down, I thought Minnesota’s best-case scenario was trying to find things that worked without him in hopes of having better rhythms in place once he was back. Things looked bleak, to say the least, on a six-game slide to end the calendar year. But now the T-Wolves have a chance to win a fifth straight contest to start 2023 on Wednesday against the lowly Pistons. D’Angelo Russell is playing much, much better after a stunning start to the season. Anthony Edwards looks fully in charge and like he has a clearer idea of what he should do with a lesser big on the floor. And the defense, anchored by Rudy Gobert, is finally starting to lock in. That might just be enough to avoid some tough questions for now and keep the team afloat until Towns can return later in the season.
Raptors: Coming into this campaign, I thought Toronto was a safe bet to make the leap. Aside from the fact that they have both talent and experience, they are built very differently, have a coach who thinks differently, and seem relatively fearless as an organization. But with this season’s slow start – even with Pascal Siakam having a fantastic year, they’re a game and a half behind the Bulls for 10th right now, at 17-23 – that fearlessness could mean trading parts to pivot to a new direction. A number of teams would be interested in what Toronto has to offer, while whatever the Raptors pick up would arm Masai Ujiri with the assets needed to make his own game down the line.
Suns: Over the past two years, Phoenix has largely managed to stay healthier than almost anyone in the NBA when it comes to the top of their rotation. Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton started a total of 90 games while recording nearly 1,500 minutes of regular season action together. But that roster was scrapped before the start of the season, when Crowder – perhaps upset by a pending roster change – opted to sit in camp. Now add the injuries to his replacement, Cam Johnson, Paul and Booker, and you have what the Suns have avoided for so long: a season made much more difficult by injury. But even once everyone returns, one question remains: how does this club find a way to overcome the hump of the past two seasons, particularly after one of the strangest and perhaps most Match 7 flats of all time?
Two things that shouldn’t surprise me: Nikola Jokić and Jacque Vaughn’s MVP candidacy
I thought there was no real way The Joker could find himself in contention for a third consecutive MVP, but here we are, with Jokić recording career-best efficiency on the pitch and about to take a beating. average a triple-double — 25 points, 10.8 boards, 9.7 assists — for a first-place Nuggets team. And while he’s doing that, MVP hopefuls Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson are all missing a lot of time, reducing the number of realistic contenders for the award.
I think it will take a Herculean effort for him to win it again, as Luka Dončić and Jayson Tatum have also been terrific and provide potentially weary voters with solid alternatives. But a hat-trick from Jokić is certainly more possible than I initially thought, and shows what an incredible player he is. He had become the fourth player in league history to accomplish this feat, with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Larry Bird being the only three to achieve three consecutive victories.
Separately, while I’m in no rush to credit one organization for creating one self-inflicted problem after another, Nets coach Jacque Vaughn deserves a huge shoutout for helping turn things around quickly in Brooklyn. The Nets, winners in 18 of their last 20 games, are a game and a half from first and look like contenders.
After all – getting passed over for the job of a guy who had never coached before, almost watching the team bypass him again for a coach who had just been investigated with another team, helping revive a rusty Ben Simmons and all the unnecessary headlines swirling around Kyrie Irving to start the season – it was really nice to see Vaughn have the success he has. Mostly because he looks like someone who wants his work to speak for itself, which is refreshing after the endless rumblings that were coming out of the organization for the wrong reasons.
The coach now gets a big test in the form of having to schedule a game for a while without having Durant, who played at MVP level. Depending on his ability to navigate it, Vaughn should be at the top of most Coach of the Year lists come season’s end.
Meat and potatoes: good reads from SI and elsewhere last week
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