Oh, how things have changed
On the eve of June 12, 2017, exactly 10 months prior to the publishing of this article, it felt like there was a cataclysmic problem with the National Basketball Association. The Golden State Warriors had just defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers by a score of 120-129 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals to secure the championship series 4 games to 1. At that moment, not only did it seem like there was no reason to watch the 2017-18 regular season, but it seemed inevitable that Doris Burke would be handing the NBA Finals Trophy over to Steve Kerr and the Warriors again in a year’s time.
Then, four months later, something awesome transpired — the 2017-18 NBA season began. Kyrie Irving forced his way out of Cleveland, leaving LeBron’s grip on the Eastern Conference slightly loosened. The Process finally came to fruition in Philly. We were duped by one of the best (cheapest?) April Fools Day tricks ever by The Brow, and Russell Westbrook officially became Mr. Triple-Double. Now that the Playoffs are set to start, here are five takeaways from a totally unpredictable NBA regular season.
1. LeBron being LeBron
Two months before the regular season began, Kyrie Irving decided he was done playing second fiddle to LeBron James (who may or may not have been asking the Cavaliers front office to shop Irving). Shortly after, on Aug. 23, 2017, the Cavaliers traded one of the ten-best players in the NBA, a 25-year-old superstar, to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets’ first round pick. Simply put, Danny Ainge fleeced the Cavaliers and pulled off the biggest NBA heist since the Lakers stole Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies. The only player from that trade still in Cleveland is Zizic, who’s played just 31 games and averages just six minutes per appearance.
The Isiah Thomas experiment was a disaster for Cleveland. During his 15-game stint in The Land, Thomas averaged 15 points and three turnovers per game while shooting 36% from the field and 25% from three. To be frank, Thomas should have sat out the first half of the season and let his hip heal, but he was in the final year of his contract with hopes of inking a new max-deal. Instead of proving his value to the league, Thomas looked like a broken player with the Cavs.
That led general manager Koby Altman to wheel-and-deal at the trade deadline like we’ve never seen before. Cleveland made four acquisitions and sent an astonishing six players out the door. So, what has LeBron James done with an assorted cast of teammates in his 15th season? He has led the Cavaliers to a 51-31 record and the 4th seed in the East. On the surface, this may not seem all that impressive, but looks are deceiving.
In the regular season James averaged almost 28 points per game with career highs in assists and rebounds. He shot an impressive 54% from the field (sixth-best among player who shoot at least 10 times per game) and 37% from beyond the arc.
To put those numbers in perspective, here are LeBron James’ numbers side-by-side with the overwhelming favorite for MVP this year, James Harden.
|LeBron James Averages||James Harden Averages|
One last note to put a bow on LeBron James’ greatness in year 15; As pointed out by Justin Kubatko from Statmuse on Twitter, LeBron has now led his team in total points and assists in ALL of his 15 seasons. No other player in NBA history has had such a streak for more than 10 seasons. Somehow, at 33, LeBron is actually playing better now than he ever has in his career. Oh, he has also played in all 82 games and is leading the league in minutes per game, all while doing things like this:
For fun, I looked to see how some of the other players drafted after James in the 2003 class were doing at this point in their career. And, lets just say it must be nice to be LeBron. Out of the 13 other lottery picks that heard their names called after James, only Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Nick Collison are still on a NBA roster in 2018.
I am convinced that LeBron James is not a human being.
2. Speaking of aliens
On Feb. 1 the New Orleans Pelicans had a record of 27-23 and were sitting at seventh place in a jam-packed Western Conference. On top of that, DeMarcus Cousins had suffered a season-ending Achilles injury just days before. I, along with many others, wrote this season off as yet another year of Anthony Davis’ prime wasted. The Brow had different ideas.
In a fashion that could only be accomplished by a handful of people to ever walk this earth, Anthony Davis slid over to Boogie Cousins’ center spot and told the rest of his Pelicans squad to get on his back. Davis has been carrying them there for three months now.
Since February, Davis has catapulted his name into the MVP discussion by averaging 31 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals per game while shooting over 50% from the field. The three-month span included games where Davis had stat lines of 44-17, 45-17, 53-18, 42-15, and a triple-double (on his birthday) with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks. Checking the NBA app each morning to see what Anthony Davis had accomplished the night before became a daily ritual. It was incredible.
The Pelicans finished the three months going 21-11 and locking up the sixth spot in the Western Conference Playoffs. This New Orleans’ team may not have a real shot at a championship or even the Western Conference Finals, but we will finally get to see Davis’ one-of-a-kind skill-set in the playoffs. He has proven that in any series, against ANY opponent, there is a good chance he will lace up and be the best player on the court for either side. That’s scary to play against, no matter who you are. As for us fans, it means more chances of seeing plays like this:
3. Rush the process
Philly sports fans are getting spoiled by the success of almost every team in the city (looking at you, Flyers). First the Eagles win the Super Bowl. Then Villanova wins the NCAA Men’s National Championship. Now the 76ers have run into a nice problem heading into the NBA Playoffs. They can’t remember how to lose. And expectations for “The Process” have gone absolutely through the roof.
The 76ers are riding a franchise record 16-game winning streak, and now the team that fans were skeptical of coming into the season is one that fans firmly believe will unseat LeBron James from his Eastern Conference throne. The skeptics were warranted, seeing as Joel Embiid had played a combined 33 games in his first three seasons and Ben Simmons had not yet played in a real NBA game, but it is yet to be determined whether the same can be said for the current optimism surrounding the team.
Now with 81 games under his belt, Ben Simmons has looked like Magic Johnson reincarnated and could easily be the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. Simmons has found a way to average 16 points per game on 55% shooting without attempting a legitimate three all season. As Zach Kram from The Ringer pointed out that Simmons has technically attempted 10 three-pointers this year, but they have all been of the end-of-the-quarter-heave variety:
Even more interesting is how the Sixers have built a team that compliments Simmons. They have surrounded him with shooters all over the court, allowing his uncanny court vision and freakish size/athleticism to create for others. Simmons is averaging over 8 rebounds and assists to go along with his 16 points.
One addition in particular that shouldn’t go unnoticed is the off-season signing of J.J. Reddick. Reddick has not only brought excellent shooting to Philadelphia, but his experience and attention to detail have had a noticeable impact on a team full of young guns.
And finally, the reason this team has a real shot to make some noise in the playoffs – Joel Embiid. One of the faces on the NBA’s Unicorn Mount Rushmore, Embiid’s highlight video from ONE GAME shows the multiple facets of his skilled big man game:
The 7-foot, 250-pound center can beat opponents in the post with his back to the basket. He can face up opposing big men 10+ feet from the basket and win off the dribble OR the mid-range jumper if they don’t respect his shot. If teams try to create a speed mismatch, Embiid can physically overpower smaller defenders. As if all of that isn’t enough to make opposing teams tremble, he can also knock down the three at an efficient clip. The league has not before seen an offensive skill-set this varied from a player of Embiid’s size. Oh, and there is also a case for Embiid as the 2018 Defensive Player of the Year.
The only question mark, which has been with Embiid throughout his young career, is his health. He is currently sidelined after undergoing surgery to repair the orbital bone (in his eye) after catching an elbow two weeks ago.
But thanks to their recent winning streak and the injury bug hitting the Celtics, the Sixers have a favorable road to the Eastern Conference Finals. If they win their first-round match-up against the Miami Heat, they would then get a Kyrie Irving- and Gordon Hayward-less Celtics, who are both out for the postseason.
There may be a few big if’s in the Sixers’ proposed run to the Finals, but its possibility this early on in “The Process” is something few, if any, would have imagined a year ago.
4. Another team exceeding expectations
If he doesn’t win the NBA’s Coach of the Year, then Quin Snyder, head coach of the surging Utah Jazz, definitely wins the award for the coach who looks most likely to play the villain from a 1990s movie:
On a serious note, what the former Mike Kryzewski-disciple has done with this year’s Utah team is nothing short of spectacular. Not only did the team have to find a way to replace an All-Star guard in Gordon Hayward, but Snyder was also tasked to find a way to replace the team’s second and fourth leading scorers from last year’s team in George Hill (left in free agency) and Rodney Hood (traded). To put that in perspective; Hayward, Hill and Hood combined for 51% of the team’s total scoring and 46% of the team’s total assists in 2016-17.
Oh, and the anchor of the Jazz and possibly the best defensive big man in the NBA, Rudy Gobert, had 11-game and 15-game absences due to injuries this season. To illustrate the importance of Gobert, since his second return on Jan. 19, Utah has won 30 of 36. So how did the Jazz find a way to replace over half of their offensive production from a year ago, supplement their most important player for 26 games and STILL win consistently? They relied on a rookie.
The 13th overall selection in last summer’s NBA Draft, the 6-foot-3 guard out of Louisville, Donovan Mitchell, has led Utah all season, averaging 20.3 points per game. Mitchell’s historic performance has incited a fiery debate of not only who should be the Rookie of the Year, (between Mitchell and the 76ers’ Simmons) but also what actually qualifies as a rookie. Simmons, the 2016 first overall pick, is two years removed from college, but since he didn’t play in any games last season due to injuries, the NBA still deems him a “rookie.” However, Mitchell seems to think otherwise:
Regardless of who wins the award, the fact that the Jazz have not only found a way to stay afloat but have put themselves in a position to be the third seed in the Western Conference, all while leaning on a rookie, is something we have seen very few times in the NBA. In fact, it has only happened four other times in leagues history.
Here is the list of the teams that have had a rookie lead them in scoring and finish the season with a winning record:
|Player||Points Per Game||Team||Team Record|
|Wilt Chamberlain||37.6||Philadelphia Warriors (1959-60)||49-26|
|Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||28.8||Milwaukee Bucks (1969-70)||56-26|
|David Robinson||24.3||San Antonio Spurs (1989-90)||56-26|
|Walter Davis||24.2||Phoenix Suns (1977-78)||49-33|
|Donavon Mitchell||20.5||Utah Jazz (2017-18)||49-33|
That is pretty good company for Donovan Mitchel to find himself in. Just for fun, I looked at some of the other top rookie seasons and their team’s record that year:
- Michael Jordan averaged 28.4 points per game his rookie season while his team went 38-44.
- Elgin Baylor averaged 24.9 points per game his rookie season while his team went 33-39.
- Allen Iverson averaged 23.5 points per game his rookie season while his team went 22-60.
- Shaquille O’Neal averaged 23.4 points per game his rookie season while his team went 41-41.
- Pete Maravich averaged 23.2 points per game his rookie season while his team went 36-46.
- Blake Griffin averaged 22.5 points per game his rookie season while his team went 38-44.
5. The wide-open Western Conference
Raise your hand if you asked one of these questions prior to the regular season: “How many games will the Warriors win the Finals by this year?” or, “How many years in a row are the Warriors going to win the Finals?” I see every one of you has a hand raised — you can put them down now. As we head in the Western Conference Playoffs, not only are the Warriors not the favorites, they aren’t even a lock to win their first-round match-up against the San Antonio Spurs.
We have learned over the past month of Steph Curry being sidelined with yet another injury that he is by far and away the most important player on Golden State’s roster. That’s not to say Curry is a better player than Kevin Durant, but what he does for the Warriors as a point guard, coupled with the space he creates on the floor just by being on the court, is vital. Curry is such a threat to kill teams from beyond that arch that defenders have to play him close up to 30 feet from the basket, whether he has the ball or not.
Nobody has ever put that type of pressure on a defense. When Shaquille O’Neal was at the peak of his powers in the NBA he elicited a similar type of pressure — teams often felt they had to have one guy on him and another shadowing, ready to double as soon as O’Neal got the ball. Still, what Curry does is different. When Curry comes off a screen from Klay Thompson, Durant or Draymond Green, he garners so much attention that it leaves his teammates (who are more than capable shooters) with often-open looks. And that is without Curry even touching the ball.
Then you have the effect he has on the team as one of best point guards in the league. In fact, here is a look at how the Warriors have fared in the 17 games without Steph Curry on the floor to end the season:
The Warriors' final 17 games (all but 25 minutes without Steph Curry)
-62 point differential
105.7 offensive rating
107.8 defensive rating
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 11, 2018
To give you an idea of what those defensive statistics really mean, check out these numbers from Micah Adams of ESPN Stats & Info:
Since March 1, the Warriors have trotted out Durant-Thompson-Green for 222 minutes without Curry.
In those minutes… an offensive rating (108.8) that would rank 11th and a defensive rating (114.5) that would rank dead last overall during that span. pic.twitter.com/aSGIpGILkb
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) April 11, 2018
With uncertainty surrounding the Warriors as they head into the playoffs, the Rockets are riding a great regular season and seem like the presumed favorites in the West. But, the two stars they lean on, Chris Paul and James Harden, are more known for playoff no-shows than for any memorable performances. The Jazz, as we hit on early, are led by a rookie, which makes it tough to believe they can make a serious run. The Trail Blazers, while they have been better than expected this year, are led by two perimeter players that are both under 6-4. So scratch them as a someone you’d be willing to put your money on. Then you have the normally-trustworthy Spurs, who don’t even know where their star, Kawhi Leonard, is at the moment. What I’m getting at here is the Western Conference is wide open.
Although, if I am a betting man, I’m still putting my money on the Warriors and Rockets finding a way to make it the Western Conference Finals.
The Denver Nuggets have been so fun to watch, but the Nuggets’ playoff hopes came to an end on the final night of the season in a win-and-your-in game against the Timberwolves in overtime. That’s unfortunate, because us fans will no longer get to watch Denver’s 6-foot-10 center Nikola Jokic, who quite possibly is the best passing big man I have ever seen in my life:
Even crazier than the rare vision of the center is this stat: Jokic has more triple-doubles this year (9) than dunks (8). I don’t even know how that’s possible.
The ageless wonder
Manu Ginobili has quit aging. Ginobili is not the same player he was in 2005 when he started every game for the Spurs and averaged over 20 points per appearance in the playoffs, but his euro-step has not aged a bit since 2010. Here’s a play from earlier this year for proof:
I left this for the last thing because it seems that we are not as interested in it this year. Russell Westbrook needed 16 rebounds in the Thunder’s final game to average a triple-double for the second straight year. So, naturally, he had 16 before the third quarter was over. That means that Westbrook has now averaged a triple-double over the span of 164 games.