The 1 Thing Every NBA Team Should Be Thankful for This Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 22, 2017

The 1 Thing Every NBA Team Should Be Thankful for This Season

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Save for the NBA All-Star break, the basketball calendar only has two open dates during the regular season—Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

    The latter gives clubs selected to compete on Christmas a brief opportunity to celebrate the holiday a day early. The former allows players to act like the rest of us do on turkey day—gorge on food and football (and maybe a few adult beverages) before falling asleep on the closest couch, recliner or empty carpet space.

    Oh, there's also a chance to do that whole giving thanks thing.

    And even if the standings suggest otherwise, all 30 clubs have something to be thankful for this holiday season.

Atlanta Hawks: John Collins' Body Count

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    Nothing boosts an otherwise bleak rebuilding season better than an explosive, fearless dunker on a personal quest to keep the poster-printing industry alive. And when that rim-rocker happens to be (arguably) the rebuilder's most important prospect, that's the formula for gratitude during a dismal 3-14 start.

    John Collins is the aforementioned head-hunter, and he's been committing aerial assaults from nearly the second he was named the 19th pick of the 2017 draft. His sprint through the Sin City summer session was a continuous dunk reel, and he seemingly hasn't landed since.

    The frosting on the cake whipped cream on the pumpkin pie for the Atlanta Hawks, though, is that Collins can actually play. The 20-year-old has been a top-10 rookie as both a scorer (11.6 points per game, seventh) and a rebounder (7.4, tied for third). And despite being only 12th among freshmen in floor time (22.2), he's tied for fourth with three double-doubles.

    But let's be honest—no one is sitting around the holiday table and dissecting Collins' early work in boxing out. Fire up some of his high-flying finishes, on the other hand, and you have a centerpiece the whole family will rave about.

Boston Celtics: Clutch Wizardry

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    The Boston Celtics had a general idea of what they were getting in Kyrie Irving this summer—an in-prime All-Star with modest upward mobility after climbing out from behind LeBron James' super-sized shadow.

    Most of the time, that's exactly what the Shamrocks received. Irving's numbers generally mirror his 2016-17 marks, save for a sizable step forward at the defensive end. But when the game clock moves into its final moments, Uncle Drew becomes a world-class escape artist.

    Irving's crunch-time start already borders on legendary. He's tallied a league-best 65 clutch points (on 61.5 percent shooting) and 10 assists without a turnover in 38 minutes. The Celtics, winners of 16 straight, have followed his lead to an absurd 9-2 record in games within five points during the final five minutes.

    "Obviously, he's got every move imaginable, but then on top of that, he's one of the best shooters in the league," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "I think sometimes everybody gets caught up in the moves and the dribbling and the different things he can do with the ball, but his touch is beautiful with both hands. ... He's got every bit of the game you could have."

Brooklyn Nets: Masterful Cap Manipulation

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    When the Brooklyn Nets tabbed Sean Marks as their top executive in February 2016, they handed him cupboards that weren't just stripped of assets, they were overflowing with unpaid draft debts.

    The situation was, in Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr's estimation, "maybe the worst hand to play with as a GM of anybody in the history of this league," per Newsday's Greg Logan. "That may be hyperbole, but I don't know if I could find another example of a guy taking a job with a bad team with no draft picks."

    But Marks refused to succumb to the situation.

    He's been maximizing the value of Brooklyn's few resources ever since. That's almost exclusively cap space, which Marks has essentially sold to other teams in order to acquire D'Angelo Russell (to take on Timofey Mozgov's monstrous deal), 2018 first- and second-round picks from the Toronto Raptors (to absorb the $30 million owed to DeMarre Carroll) and Allen Crabbe (who's overpaid, but young and lethal from long range).

    Brooklyn still sits woefully short on talent, but this is far from the barren wasteland Marks walked into less than two years back. Russell flashed star potential before knee surgery sidelined him, and there are a handful of lesser-known but still intriguing prospects in the rotation. The rebuild has started, which feels miraculous given the recent dearth of construction supplies.

Charlotte Hornets: All Things Kemba

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    The Charlotte Hornets without Kemba Walker are like a race car without the driver—and the engine. The 6'1" point guard is everything to Buzz City basketball. The Hornets are elite when he plays (plus-9.5 net rating, would be second in the league) and a contraction candidate when he doesn't (minus-21.1, would trail the worst of the worst by a mile).

    And he's not just critically important; he's a gift to the viewing public.

    "Walker is the most underrated must-watch showman in the NBA—a magician who ascends into rapturous frenzies of ball-handling wizardry that can last entire quarters," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "Some of what he does is so mean, so manipulative, it should be illegal."

    If that weren't enough, Walker is also a testament to hard work and perseverance.

    The former No. 9 pick never even resembled a star during his first four seasons, topping out as a scoring specialist with major shooting limitations. But flash forward to campaign No. 7, and he's one of five players in the top 15 of both scoring (22.9, tied for 13th) and assists (6.3, 13th) and an outside 50/40/90 candidate (.452/.390/.887).

Chicago Bulls: The Finnish Flamethrower

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    Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

    It's been a glass-knocked-over-and-spilled-across-the-counter kind of start for the rebuilding Chicago Bulls. But the few drops still hugging the inside hold enough promise to prevent hopelessness from overwhelming the Windy City.

    Lauri Markkanen accounts for 94 percent of any optimism around the healthy Bulls, with the remaining 6 percent split between Kris Dunn's redemption, Denzel Valentine's three-ball, Bobby Portis' non-punching abilities and Robin Lopez's trade value. Markkanen, though, is the surest sign that despair doesn't have to be the new reality and better days are ahead somewhere.

    The sweet-shooting big man has impressed even amid a roaring start for this rookie class. He's a dangerous scoring threat from the perimeter to the post and tied for second on the rookie double-double list (five). The league has never seen a freshman 7-footer make more than 100 triples; Markkanen is on pace for 205.

    If the Bulls didn't have Markkanen, they'd be killing time until Zach LaVine returns by watching Portis, Lopez, Dunn and Justin Holiday wrestle for offensive control. I could think of a million more enjoyable activities, starting with winter hibernation.

Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James' Birthplace

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    There are 29 alternate universes in which LeBron James entered the world within comfortable driving distance of all the other NBA markets. But in our so-strange-it-must-be-true version—reality-star-turned-president is an actual descriptor—we know the King's castle as Northeast Ohio, an area permanently perched on the wrong side of the proverbial hump.

    At least, it could never clear the ultimate hurdle until James felt a duty to #TheLand, made himself a human spring and launched the Cleveland Cavaliers into championship orbit. The individual accolades and top-shelf team success speak for themselves, but the sheer relevance of employing a legitimate GOAT candidate is invaluable.

    Sure, James' NBA past wasn't spent entirely in Cleveland. And no, we don't know if it will remain the setting for his future. (Anyone who says they do is lying.)

    But the Cavs presently have James. And until proven otherwise, that's a golden ticket to the NBA Finals. He paces them in points, assists, steals, blocks and player efficiency rating. Take him out of the equation, and Cleveland would crumble like a house of cards in the air path of an industrial-strength fan.

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk's Career Highlight Reel

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    The Dallas Mavericks aren't tanking. At least, their owner, Mark Cuban, manages to say that with a straight face.

    But if they aren't overtly tanking, that just means they're plain old terrible—dead last in winning percentage (.167), 28th in net efficiency (minus-8.3). There's an emphasis on the old part, too. Only three teams have an older average age than the Mavs' 28.4. And after the promotion of Maxi Kleber to the opening group, Dallas only starts one player under the age of 25 (rookie Dennis Smith Jr.).

    Whatever is taking place with the Mavs might get worse before it gets any better. Smith is getting jostled around by the typical growing pains, and Harrison Barnes is looking overexposed as an offensive focal point.

    Dallas fans need a diversion. Luckily, they have a historically special one in Dirk Nowitzki.

    His wildly successful run is still fresh on everyone's mind, even as Father Time advances on the future Hall of Famer. It might be nearing its last leg, but this is a 20-year relationship with an all-timer. Be thankful for the glory days of one-legged fadeaways and frontcourt stretchiness, and cherish the fleeting fun moments he's still generating.

Denver Nuggets: The Joker's Serious Skill

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    Nikola Jokic might be the strangest star in today's league. He has modern offensive skills with a throwback physique. He's an offensive focal point who's already had a scoreless outing this season and is a detriment on defense regardless how he's deployed.

    But all that matters is the Denver Nuggets are 14.2 points better per 100 possessions when he plays than when he doesn't. And his stat sheets are stuffed like no one else's. DeMarcus Cousins is the only other player averaging at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and one three, and Jokic is outshooting Boogie from all three levels and coughing up less than half as many giveaways.

    Jokic is a basketball wonder, even if he can't jump over a phone book with a running start. He is simultaneously a point-center, a stretch big and a smooth-as-silk scorer in the low post. Oh, he was also a second-round selection in 2014 and won't turn 23 until February, so good luck mapping his career trajectory since he's already crashed through all his previously established ceilings.

    The pre-Joker Nuggets were floundering since Carmelo Anthony's exit, trapped in that claustrophobic realm where you can't win because you don't have stars and can't attract stars because you're not winning. Jokic changed the entire organization's outlook, grabbing a full-time starting spot in December and making them appealing enough by July to lure in All-Star forward Paul Millsap.

Detroit Pistons: Staying the Course

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    Consider this season a stay of execution for this iteration of the Detroit Pistons, perhaps an outright reprieve.

    They were this close to meeting their demise. Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson were shopped at the trade deadline and again over the summer, sources told Basketball Insiders' Michael Scotto. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was let go during free agency. People have been temperature-checking Stan Van Gundy's coaching seat since at least April.

    But look at the Pistons now—proud owners of the fifth-highest winning percentage (.647) and potentially in position to make only their second postseason appearance since 2009. Tobias Harris looks comfortable in his primary scoring role. Jackson has bounced back in a big way from an injury-riddled 2016-17 season. Avery Bradley has increased the collective intensity. Drummond is suddenly not hot garbage at the free-throw line.

    Skeptics are free to raise an eyebrow at Detroit's sustainability. The Pistons don't have a top-10 net rating, and only one Eastern Conference club has played more home games. Still, this is a resilient start for a squad many had left for dead.

Golden State Warriors: Staying Light-Years Ahead

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    For the first time in what feels like forever, the Golden State Warriors aren't atop the league standings. And after last week's loss to the Celtics, they're actually stuck in the No. 2 spot of almost every power ranking you can find.

    Whatever. None of that matters.

    Move away from the standings, and all evidence points to the Dubs occupying their own atmosphere above the rest of the basketball galaxy. Their average game is a double-digit victory. Their plus-13.1 net efficiency rating is better than any posted in the last three seasons—a period in which they won two world titles and set the new standard for regular-season victories.

    "Nobody squeezes more points from their possessions in half-court sets or in transition than the Warriors," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "Nobody spaces the floor with deadlier shooters. Nobody has this kind of depth. And, as a result, it's still fair to say nobody stands a chance in a seven-game series."

    Find another roster with four current All-Stars in the starting five and two former All-Stars (one also a former Finals MVP) on the second unit. Find another club with a historically potent offense and the potential to field the league's stingiest defense. That team doesn't exist.

Houston Rockets: A 1979-80 Rule Change

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    The roots of the Houston Rockets' championship hopes were planted in the original American Basketball Association. Needing to distinguish itself from the established NBA, the ABA goosed its offenses to make them more aesthetically appealing by embracing both slam dunks and three-point shots. Once the two leagues merged, the NBA adopted the long ball ahead of the 1979-80 campaign.

    Fast-forward nearly 40 years, and head coach Mike D'Antoni's blitzkrieg attack is retracing the ABA's point-blank-or-perimeter blueprint. Houston fires off threes at a blistering pace—44.4 per game, which would break its own record of 40.3 set last season—and attempts the fourth-most free throws (25.6 per game) and eighth-most restricted-area shots (27.7).

    The Rockets spread defenses thin, then leverage the on-ball creativity of James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon to shred them to pieces. Despite sitting ninth in defensive rating, Houston ranks second in overall efficiency thanks to its tremendous point-producing power.

    And it's all tied to an analytical approach that wouldn't exist if not for a league's willingness to think outside the box. The Rockets are the bearded faces of the three-point revolution and a full-fledged contender because of that shot's existence.

Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo's Homecoming

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    When the hoops world handed out grades for this summer's Paul George swap, it bypassed letter grades entirely for the Indiana Pacers' portion of the evaluation. The Victor Oladipo-Domantas Sabonis package received only a crying laughing emoji in the post-transaction analysis.

    But apparently we all forgot about the Hoosier State version of Oladipo, the high-flying two-way talent who climbed into the second slot on the 2013 draft board. He's been nothing short of a wrecking ball for the Pacers, almost taunting his critics with numbers eerily similar to George's during his last go-round in the Circle City:

    • Oladipo: 22.9 PPG, 3.8 APG, 5.2 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 45.8 FG%, 44.7 3P%, 21.3 PER
    • George (in '16-17): 23.7 PPG, 3.3 APG, 6.6 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 46.1 FG%, 39.3 3P%, 20.2 PER

    "He's playing at an All-Star level," Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel said of Oladipo, per CBSSports.com's Chris Barnewell. "The best basketball of his career. He's always been a great basket attacker, slasher and defender. The way he's shooting the ball from the three-point line is what separates where he's been prior to this year."

    Oladipo's track record leaves room to doubt whether he'll keep this up. Even if he does, he's already being paid like a star ($21 million per season through 2020-21), so it's not necessarily added value on Indy's end. But everyone who thought the Pacers were skewered in the PG deal has had to rethink their assessment. If this continues, they will have moved one building block for a younger one who isn't a flight risk.

Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley's Resolve

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    Replacing resident point god Chris Paul should be an impossible task for Patrick Beverley. While the former parlayed his top-five draft position into a Hall of Fame-caliber career, the latter went more than four years between his final college outing and his NBA debut.

    But even though Beverley trails his predecessor in nearly every on-court skill—anything related to offense, at least—he's still the perfect Paul replacement for his strikingly similar competitive disposition. Beverley is a fighter, and with the Los Angeles Clippers free-falling amid a nine-game losing streak, they need someone willing to speak with no filter.

    Challenge accepted, apparently.

    "This ... feels like 100 losses," Beverley said, per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "Straight up. This ... is weak. This ain't how I roll. This ain't OK and I won't allow it to be OK as long as I'm here."

    This is no-nonsense, reality-check time for the Clippers.

    Maybe they lost too much this offseason—fellow mainstays JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford followed Paul out the door—to snare a playoff berth in the always-loaded Western Conference. But Beverley won't accept lying down and conceding defeat. And if his grit becomes contagious, perhaps that'll be enough to turn things around in L.A.

Los Angeles Lakers: 26 Teams Passing on Kyle Kuzma

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    It took commissioner Adam Silver 27 trips to the dais before announcing Kyle Kuzma's name at this summer's talent grab. The Los Angeles Lakers have been profusely giving thanks ever since.

    Kuzma has more points than anyone picked that night (302), more rebounds than all but four (118) and the second-most double-doubles of anyone in the freshman crop (five in 18 outings). He oozes—or Kuzes if you'll allow it—modern versatility from his 6'9", 220-pound frame and has helped the Lakers climb to the top spot in paint points (team-best 9.0 per game).

    Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman placed Kuzma third on his rookie rankings, trailing only one player selected in 2017 (Jayson Tatum).

    "His footwork and shot-making have stood out," Wasserman wrote. "From post moves to runners and jumpers, Kuzma has flashed impressive versatility in terms of creating and converting different types of attempts."

    Finding a draft's biggest steal is typically a years-long exercise. And while it's too soon to say Kuzma has definitely earned that label, he's built a comfortable cushion over any other prospect who slipped through the cracks.

Memphis Grizzlies: Marc Gasol's Perpetual Breakout

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    They say life moves a little slower in Spain, and perhaps that motivated Marc Gasol's model for his uncharacteristic career arc.

    The super-skilled 7-footer didn't log a minute of NBA action until his age-24 season, and he's operated on a delayed launch schedule since. He made his first All-Star appearance at 27 and now, with his 33rd birthday coming in January, has a shot at consecutive All-Star selections for the first time in his career.

    Last season's out-of-nowhere addition of a perimeter shot expanded his scoring arsenal, and he's on pace to post a second straight personal best in points per game (19.7). He's never grabbed this many rebounds (9.4) or blocked more shots (1.9).

    As the Memphis Grizzlies' elder statesmen, he should be their biggest constant, and in a lot of ways, he is. But reliability doesn't always offer this much room for improvement, especially for someone with as much life experience as he's had.

Miami Heat: Interior Clamps

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    Hassan Whiteside has never averaged fewer blocks as a member of the Miami Heat (1.8 a night). He's also never been more effective as a full-fledged defensive anchor.

    Agent Block used to be too focused on his nickname and chased rejections like they were limited-quantity Black Friday doorbusters. Hence, why Miami's defense used to post better metrics with the big man on the bench.

    But newfound defensive discipline has debunked that narrative with the Heat performing at their point-preventing best when Whiteside mans the middle (100.0 defensive rating, 6.6 fewer points per 100 possessions than when he sits). He's been a thorn in the side of every opposing attacker, holding players 11.8 points below their normal shooting average within six feet of the basket.

    As a team, Miami has been among the league's stingiest from point-blank range. Only the Portland Trail Blazers surrender a lower shooting percentage at the rim than the Heat's 59.8 and keep opponents under the 54.8 percent conversion rate Miami cedes within five feet.

Milwaukee Bucks: The Greek God

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    Before the season started, general managers were tasked with picking any player to build a hypothetical franchise around on NBA.com's annual survey. Only one player received more support than Milwaukee Bucks phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo, who commanded 21 percent of the vote (Karl-Anthony Towns had 29 percent).

    Run that survey again, and Antetokounmpo might monopolize the vote.

    "Holy god. What are you even supposed to do with his guy?" ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "Play off of him, and he uses the open space as a runway. If Giannis Antetokounmpo is barreling at a flat-footed defender in the paint, it's over. Your natural instinct...is to backpedal, and most defenders open their hips in one direction as they do. That gives Antetokounmpo a straight line to paydirt."

    Antetokounmpo has a chance to become the Association's first repeat Most Improved Player award winner. He has beefed up his scoring (from 22.9 points to 29.7), rebounding (8.8 to 10.3) and field-goal percentage (52.1 to 55.2) without losing any ground in shot-blocking (1.9) or stealing (1.6). He's again pacing the Bucks in those four counting categories and is only 0.3 assists back of their top distributor.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Maturation

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    The seeds for the Minnesota Timberwolves' rise were sown in consecutive offseasons when they nabbed the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years (first Andrew Wiggins—in the Kevin Love trade—then Karl-Anthony Towns).

    They then spent this past summer adding the Miracle-Gro to assist with the germination process. Veterans arrived by the busload, a haul that included All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler, former All-Star point guard Jeff Teague and steely veterans Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford. Every move was made in an effort to kick-start the ascension many prematurely predicted for last season.

    The Timberwolves aren't a finished product, but they're as powerful as anything the Gopher State has seen since Kevin Garnett's (first) departure. Their offense is nipping at the heels of the NBA's elite (seventh in efficiency), and their defense is rapidly advancing (10th in November efficiency, 30th last month).

    The picture is still fuzzy, but the outline of a contender is taking shape. The Butler-Wiggins tandem has the potential to overwhelm opposing wings at both ends, and Towns remains entrenched among the league's most coveted up-and-comers.

New Orleans Pelicans: Size Mattering

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Pelicans zigged in the face of a league-wide zag toward a smaller, more perimeter-oriented style. The Big Easy bet big, pairing 6'10" All-Star Anthony Davis with 6'11" All-Star DeMarcus Cousins to create a twin towers setup with modern amenities.

    New Orleans could be too top-heavy to make this work, but any failing won't be attached to the frontcourt fixtures. When Davis and Cousins share the floor, the Pelicans operate like a top-10 team at both ends (would be ninth on offense and 10th on defense). History holds that distinction as an essential ingredient of any contending recipe.

    "This was the idea when Dell Demps flipped a first-round pick, Buddy Hield and Tyreke Evans for Cousins ... that Davis and Cousins were so gifted, sporting so much shooting and passing craft, they could work around all the limitations that come with playing two traditional big men in the modern NBA," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "In effect, that they are not traditional big men at all."

    Davis and Cousins are the only players with top-10 ranks in both scoring and rebounding. They're also both top-20 shot-blockers. Collectively, they supply the Pellies with 52.4 points, 24.2 rebounds and 3.5 swats on a nightly basis. But they're also tallying 8.4 assists, 3.3 triples and 3.1 steals, the away-from-the-basket contributions required from today's top bigs.

New York Knicks: Unicorn Taking Flight

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    All Kristaps Porzingis needed was less clutter. So, the New York Knicks treated their offseason as a spring cleaning, jettisoning former top executive Phil Jackson and shot-chuckers Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose.

    Porzingis finally has a clear path ahead of him, and he's taken it near the top of the league's superstar ranks. The 7'3" anomaly has successfully navigated the tricky task of upping both his usage and efficiency, all while simultaneously emerging as a top-shelf defender.

    His stat sheet is spiking in most critical areas. He's up nearly double digits in both scoring (from 18.1 to 27.6) and PER (17.4 to 26.0). His shooting rates are personal bests from the field (47.2) and from three (40.0), and he's yielding the lowest field-goal percentage allowed at the rim among rotation bigs (37.7).

    The 'Bockers are in the thick of the playoff chase, a development you would have struggled to sell to even the most optimist supporters just one month ago. But if you told them Porzingis would already be crashing the NBA's superstar party, then maybe they would have seen this surprise start coming.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Dominant Defense

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    Expectations ran rampant after the Oklahoma City Thunder (seemingly) heisted both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this summer. With Russell Westbrook already behind the wheel, almost everything felt possible for the revamped Thunder—elite offense, a dominant scoring trio, maybe a bigger threat to the Dubs than anyone posed.

    Still, I'm not sure anyone could foresee stellar defensive play like this. The Thunder were solid defensively last season (10th in efficiency); this year, they've been sensational (third).

    The rest of OKC's game has undergone a clunky transition. The three stars are each at or above 20 points per game, but overall this is a bottom-half attack. There's also the comically (or painfully) anemic play in clutch situations, leading to an abysmal minus-48.5 net rating in those spots and a fluky 1-9 record in games decided by single digits.

    Spinning all of the above as positives doesn't seem easy, but a macro view sees everything through electric-blue-colored glasses. There's too much talent for this offense not to find its way. And the late-game mishaps can be attributed to bad luck and a transitionary period. If those issues can be ironed out while the defense remains dominant, the Thunder's wildest dreams can still be in play.

Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon Turning the Corner

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    Don't get me wrong, Aaron Gordon the dunk specialist was incredible. But his highlight reels always felt like empty-calorie guilty pleasures. He lacked substance beyond his high-flying theatrics, and the Orlando Magic had yet to open a road to relevance in the post-Dwight Howard era.

    Aaron Gordon the do-it-all contributor, though...he's a different player entirely. He's suddenly comfortable and competent as a volume shooter (2.1 threes per night at a 43.8 percent clip), and his box scores have swollen across the board. Now back at his natural 4 spot, he's better able to maximize his absurd athleticism, quickness and handles in ways that discombobulate bigger, slower defenders.

    That might not be reason enough to put Orlando on the national radar—the club's current five-game losing skid says it isn't—but at least the home of Disney can dream about a brighter future. Gordon's ceiling has already jumped multiple stories this season, and it has five more months to keep climbing.

    However, not every aspect of this story is good news for the Magic. After failing to extend Gordon, they're now witnessing his price tag rise astronomically ahead of his restricted free-agency venture next summer. Still, spending big on a very good young player is a much better option than having that prospect plateau at a lesser level.

Philadelphia 76ers: The Fun Part of The Process

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    Long live Sam Hinkie.

    The Process mastermind positioned the Philadelphia 76ers for a meteoric rise with a years-long commitment to strategic losing. And while the organization eventually lost patience with its aesthetically unpleasing method—in part due to a nudge from the NBA—we're witnessing why Hinkie hoarded draft lottery ping-pong balls season after season.

    It took all of two weeks for five different NBA.com scribes to anoint Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as the Association's premier young duo.

    "I just can't fathom drawing up a better pair of barely of age basketball players than Embiid and Simmons," Sekou Smith wrote. "They are like the perfect puzzle pieces in the 'trust the process' franchise-builder kit. Their versatility, ability to dominate inside and out (as well as in transition) coupled with their upside ... means there's no telling where they go next."

    Embiid is a new-age Olajuwon, a 7-footer with phenomenal footwork, three-point range and a knack for touching every inch of the stat sheet. Simmons is built like a point-forward (6'10", 230 lbs), but he's just a jumbo point guard, sitting sixth in assists (7.6) and tied for fifth in double-doubles (11).

    If the viability of tanking is ever questioned, a picture of this pair is the perfect counter.

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker Adding Layers

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    When handling young NBA talent, it's OK to be greedy. So, once Devin Booker established himself as one of the league's brightest young scoring stars, people immediately started asking for more.

    Seventy points is great and all, Devin, but you think you could get us more assists and better defense?

    Good thing the 21-year-old was ahead of the rest of us. While he's continued honing his scoring craft (more points in fewer minutes with better shooting from all three levels), he's also bumped his boards (4.3) and dimes (4.4) to career levels. That has brought his all-encompassing PER from a hair-below average (14.6) to comfortably above it (18.7).

    The Phoenix Suns have desperately needed all of the improvements. They've already ditched their coach (Earl Watson) and starting point guard (Eric Bledsoe) from opening night and seen growing pains aplenty from the inexperienced trio of Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.

    But at least Booker looks special, and not solely for his work in the scoring column.

Portland Trail Blazers: Plugging Defensive Leaks

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    What was your reaction to Jusuf Nurkic saying at media day that the Portland Trail Blazers needed to fix their "trash" defense? If it was anything like mine, it probably included a chuckle, a few nods and a thought along the lines ofGood luck with that, big fella.

    And yet, one month into the season, the Blazers sit second in the defensive efficiency ranks, or 19 spots higher than where they ended last season. They've already held 11 opponents under the century mark, including each of their last five. In all of 2016-17, they only kept 21 teams below 100 points and never had a sub-100 stretch last longer than three contests.

    This sample size is relatively tiny, and they haven't faced murders' row in terms of opposing offenses (just four games against top-10 attacks). But no club has provided more resistance at the point of attack. Portland leads everyone in opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim (58.8) and within five feet (53.5).

    Their backcourt still has cracks, but they have two of the league's top 25 defenders by defensive real plus-minus in Nurkic (16th) and Al-Farouq Aminu (22nd), per ESPN.com. Over the 184 minutes those two have shared, Portland has ceded just 95.3 points per 100 possessions, a rating last posted by the 2011-12 Chicago Bulls.

Sacramento Kings: The 2018 Draft Class

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    This feels a little harsh for the holiday season, but the Sacramento Kings left me with no choice. When watching the present requires enduring a minus-14.1 net efficiency rating, it might be best to divert your attention for a while and check out some of the drool-worthy college players who might become this franchise's next savior.

    You'd love to pretend it's not all bad, but right now it is.

    The Kings have four wins on the season. During two of them, their opponents posted a season-worst point total. (A third, the Mavs, missed their season-low by a point.) Their top two players pulled from the 2017 draft rank last (De'Aaron Fox) and second-to-last (Justin Jackson) in real plus-minus. They booted Buddy Hield from the starting five and limit Skal Labissiere's exposure for defensive reasons.

    They ate a 46-point loss to a Hawks team that's 26th in plus/minus and hyper-focused on the future. Their leading scorer is Zach Randolphat 12.3 points per game!—who turned 36 this summer and has contemplated his post-playing career. They don't have a top-30 performer in any of the five major counting categories.

    But they do own both of their 2018 draft picks. And if that class is as loaded as it appears, maybe Sacramento can find its missing difference-maker then.

San Antonio Spurs: Typical Resilience

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Outside of the San Antonio Spurs being the San Antonio Spurs—and Gregg Popovich being Gregg Popovich—there's little in the way of logic to explain the silver and black sitting third in the West.

    They haven't gotten a second from Kawhi Leonard (their sole superstar) or Tony Parker (their best distributor and No. 4 scorer last season). Their top scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, entered the campaign amid a two-year decline and with summer trade winds having swirled around him. Their top table-setters are a shoot-first-and-second point guard (Patty Mills) and their starting center (Pau Gasol).

    None of that matters, apparently. Between Pop's leadership, Aldridge's resurgence and another top-five defensive showing, San Antonio is refusing to leave the elite ranks. They're always well-prepared, never beat themselves and embody the cliche of just finding a way.

    The Spurs have the consistency of clockwork, and we were foolish for thinking they'd miss a top-five talent and a future Hall of Famer.

Toronto Raptors: Modernized Offense

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Old dogs are not pleased with the Toronto Raptors. Thanks to the latter's overnight transformation from an antiquated ball-pounding, mid-range-heavy attack to a modern pace-and-space offense, the former is no longer excused for failing to learn new tricks.

    The Raptors somehow reset this summer without major reshuffling. Their opening night starting five was full of incumbents. Their primary offseason additions were a second-team sniper (C.J. Miles) and a late-first-round rookie (OG Anunoby, taken 23rd overall).

    But if you watch Toronto now, you barely recognize the team that cleared 50 wins each of the last two seasons. The Raptors have nearly trimmed their mid-range looks in half (from 20.3 to 12.5) while taking significant steps forward in points (106.9 to 110.4), assists (18.5 to 23.0) and three-point shooting (8.8 makes to 10.9).

    "Our goal is that, in the playoffs, we're a little more unpredictable and better able to handle the different situations that come up," assistant coach Nick Nurse said, per Scott Cacciola of the New York Times. "I'm pretty tickled where we are, to be honest."

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell's Aggressiveness

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the post-Gordon Hayward Utah Jazz.

    Former No. 5 pick Dante Exum went down before the season started. Perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert was lost to a bone bruise in his right knee. Rodney Hood has struggled to ignite as a primary scorer. Ricky Rubio still can't shoot. The worst offensive fears were realized25th in efficiency, 27th in scoring, 26th in field-goal shooting.

    But Donovan Mitchell, selected 13th overall this summer and sent to Salt Lake City on draft night, has been a welcome source of relief. He's one of only three rookies with top-10 first-year ranks in points (14.9, fourth), assists (2.9, eighth) and steals (1.3, fourth). And he's already Utah's No. 2 scorer despite only logging the club's fifth-most minutes (28.2).

    His assertiveness gives this group some needed pep. He's tied for the team lead in field-goal attempts (14.6), paces it in fourth-quarter shots (5.5) and gets up more attempts off drives than anyone (4.2). His middling shooting percentages (38.2 overall, 32.7 outside) might indicate a need to ease up on the gas pedal, but this attack adds an extra 2.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.

Washington Wizards: Bradley Beal's All-Star Audition

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    An All-Star selection has appeared imminent for almost as long as Bradley Beal has been striping triples at higher-volume, higher-efficiency rates for the Washington Wizards. The Big Panda just needed to clear two hurdles first.

    Tops on the list were the injury woes that once were so severe they spawned talk of a career-long minutes restriction. I'm knocking on wood while typing this, but it appears his health problems are behind him. He played a personal-high 77 games last season and has yet to skip a contest in this campaign.

    Then came the matter of climbing the Eastern Conference ladder. He was deservedly close last season, appearing on several snub lists. His odds have improved immensely since, though, with four of last year's All-Stars out of the conference (Butler, George, Anthony and Millsap), another sidelined by injury (Isaiah Thomas) and the only incoming star lost on opening night (Gordon Hayward).

    That should be enough for Beal to get his due, even if his numbers are similar to last season across the board. With the Wizards playing well enough to justify two selections (top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency), their leader in points and perimeter splashes belongs at the world's greatest pickup game.

                

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.