NBA's Biggest Winners and Losers from December
In the grand scheme, the 2022-23 NBA season is only nearing the midpoint of this marathon.
Yet December sure felt like an all-out sprint, didn't it?
Fortunes changed over the last month—for better or worse. Championship contenders flexed their muscles. Pretenders, meanwhile, stumbled so hard their tailspins could send them plummeting toward a fire sale between now and the trade deadline. A few elites positioned themselves for potential award-winning runs. Others faltered when their teams needed them most.
It was a whirlwind ride of dizzying heights and humbling lows. To travel back between these peaks and valleys, we're crowning the month's biggest winners and losers in the Association.
Winner: Ben Simmons
The Nets have been all-caps AWESOME this month, winning 10 times in 11 tries and steamrolling virtually anyone who comes in their path.
So, who has had the biggest impact in Brooklyn? Is it MVP candidate Kevin Durant? How about walking net-shredder Kyrie Irving? Or maybe do-it-all center (and defensive dynamo) Nic Claxton?
Nope. Statistically speaking, Ben Simmons is the proverbial straw stirring the Nets' drink with a team-best—and wholly dominant—plus-19.9 net rating.
Simmons, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Philadelphia 76ers in February and discarded by some as recently as last month, is playing his best brand of basketball. No, that still doesn't include any shooting, but it's overloaded with 1-through-5 versatility on defense, elite playmaking (7.0 assists against 2.0 turnovers) and top-notch finishing (60.9 percent shooting).
Loser: Mikal Bridges
On balance, Bridges' 2022-23 performance has been commendable—borderline All-Star-worthy when accounting for his lockdown defense.
December has been rough, though. More for the Suns as a whole, but they needed Bridges to level up to cover for an injured Devin Booker, and he has instead backtracked in a bad way.
He entered the month converting 51.8 percent of his field goals. In December, that connection rate has plummeted to 39.2. His assists are down (3.5 to 2.3), and his turnovers are up (1.1 to 1.6). The Suns have lost his team-high 477 minutes by 8.2 points per 100 possessions. His frustration even boiled over to an on-court spat with Deandre Ayton.
It's hard for any team to survive the loss of a superstar. It's harder still for a secondary star to hold his own in the spotlight. This was Bridges' chance to show how much his game has grown, but he's looked more like a supporting actor whose ceiling stops shy of stardom.
Winner: Julius Randle
Flash-back to late November, and it appeared we were headed to another lost season in the Empire State. The Knicks were a couple of games below .500, and Randle was hurting this team more than helping.
His numbers had volume but lacked substance. No part of his 46.2/33.1/76.6 slash line particularly impressed, his 3.5 assists were nearly wiped out by his 2.8 turnovers and his floor time typically put the 'Bockers deep in the red.
What a difference one month can make, huh?
Despite losing four straight, the Knicks still enter their Thursday, Dec. 29 game at San Antonio with an 8-5 record and December's third-best point differential (plus-7.5 points per game). Randle has been right at the heart of this turnaround, upping his nightly output to 26.8 points on 47.5/35.5/76.5 shooting, widening the gap between his assists (3.9) and giveaways (2.2) and pacing New York's regulars with a plus-9.8 net differential.
Loser: Chicago Bulls
Look, it's not like things were all rainbows and unicorns in the Windy City prior to this month, but the deeper the Bulls probe into this season, the more utterly depressing they become.
Offensive miscues, defensive disasters, ill-fitting pieces—Chicago has shown it all during this miserable run. What's worse is that the Bulls' stars have actually fared fairly well this last month, individually at least.
During December, DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević have averaged a combined 68 points per game while dishing out 12.6 assists against 6.1 turnovers. All three have shot better than 48 percent from the field, LaVine and Vučević have both buried 40-plus percent of their threes and DeRozan has converted 90.2 percent of his free throws.
You know what all of that production brought the Bulls? A 5-7 record for the month and a minus-4.1 net rating during the Big Three's 295 minutes of shared floor time. The stars are individually doing their part, but there are some major square-peg-round-hole logistical issues at play.
Lonzo Ball is still stuck on the sidelines, there are reports of a "disconnect" between LaVine and the franchise, per The Athletic's Shams Charania and Darnell Mayberry, and the external calls for a total teardown at the deadline are getting louder.
Winner: Luka Dončić
This is getting ridiculous—even by Dončić's ridiculous standards.
Gamers don't net numbers like these. No one does, honestly. His Dec. 27 trip to the hardwood may have been his most magical to date, as Dončić singlehandedly ethered the Knicks with a first-of-its-kind 60-point, 21-rebound, 10-assist triple-double.
"To do something that's never been done before, that's hard to do," Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon. "There's been some great players before him. Elgin Baylor and Wilt [Chamberlain], he was in that class, and then he separated himself and made his own class."
The Mavs have gone a respectable 9-6 this month—9-4 when Dončić plays—and they're seemingly eyeing even greater success. They've long needed a co-star for Dončić and might have their latest target, with ESPN's Tim MacMahon relaying there are people who "hold prominent positions within" the Mavs organization who are "fans" of Zach LaVine.
Loser: Rudy Gobert
Even if you weren't a fan of Minnesota's colossally costly trade for Gobert this summer—and many were not—you probably at least imagined something better than this.
The Wolves paid an enormous win-now price (four first-round picks, first-round rookie Walker Kessler and four other players) to win less than last season (which was fun but only yielded a .561 winning percentage). Even Minnesota's defense is more generous than a year ago.
December might be this team's worst month yet (5-7 with a minus-0.9 net rating), and these struggles can't be pinned on Gobert's clunky on-court fit with Karl-Anthony Towns since the latter has been sidelined since late November with a calf strain. Instead, much of this simply falls on Gobert being less impactful than he was in Utah.
"The Timberwolves have to ask themselves if the Gobert they got in the trade with the Jazz is a shadow of the player who was such a force in Utah for so many years or just one that needs a little more time to find his way," The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski wrote.
Minnesota is running out of time to right the ship and doesn't have much beyond wishful thinking to keep hope alive. Gobert's last six outings have all been Wolves' losses, including Monday in Miami against an undermanned and undersized Heat team that saw two-way rookie Orlando Robinson best Gobert in points (15-10), boards (9-8) and blocks (1-0).
Winner: Joel Embiid
Just when you think we've seen Embiid's best, he finds a way to up the ante.
He was firmly in the MVP race before December started, but he keeps forcing his way closer to the pole position. In 11 tilts this month—eight of them Sixers' triumphs—he's averaging an absurd 37 points on an equally absurd 54.9/45.2/87.1 shooting. Oh, he's also tallying 9.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.4 steals in his 36.9 minutes.
This isn't all about statistics, though. The vibes seem better in Philly. Tobias Harris is dialed in from distance (46.6 percent in December). De'Anthony Melton is doing a masterful job of connecting the dots while keeping the seat warm for Tyrese Maxey, who's nearing his return from a foot injury.
Even if Harden might have a wandering eye, he is flat-out hooping and working two-man magic with Embiid.
Loser: Trae Young
Two seasons removed from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance but only one season removed from being play-in tournament participants, this was supposed to be the year in which the Hawks got their wings back. In a perfect world, their offseason addition of Dejounte Murray would've greased the runway for their flight back up the conference standings.
So much for that.
Atlanta is stuck in ninth place in the East, having dropped seven of 12 games in December with the month's seventh-worst net rating. More troubling, though, is that Young, the franchise face, can't pull this team out of its tailspin. Instead, he's dragging it down as much as anyone with a minus-9.5 net differential—the worst of the Hawks' starters.
He has forgettable shooting rates from the field (41.9) and outside (34.3). He's coughing up an alarming 4.5 turnovers per tilt. Nearly 80 percent of his shots this month have come after he takes at least three dribbles, which shows how little he's adjusted to having another playmaker alongside him.
There are reportedly "simmering issues" between Young and Hawks coach Nate McMillan, per The Athletic's Shams Charania and Sam Amick. Rival executives wonder aloud whether Young will be the next star to seek a scenery change, per B/R's Chris Haynes. Redemption season, this is not.
Winner: Denver Nuggets
Only two teams have topped Denver's eight December wins. A recent stretch of eight triumphs in nine outings has propelled the Nuggets atop the Western Conference standings.
Somehow, it gets even better, as Michael Porter Jr. only recently returned from a lengthy layoff, and Jamal Murray is still knocking off the rust from having his 2021-22 season erased by an ACL tear. In other words, there's a very good chance we haven't even seen the top-seeded Nuggets at their peak.
Two-time MVP Nikola Jokić has been unguardable. He's not only averaging 29.2 points this month, but he's doing it while shooting a torrid 60.6 percent from the field. He's also hauling in 12.8 rebounds to go along with his 10.3 assists. For the non-math majors out there, yes, that is a triple-double average for the month.
This isn't all about the Joker, though. Aaron Gordon was dunking everything in sight (and splashing 38.5 percent of his long-range looks) before a shoulder injury forced him off the floor. Porter has been a flame-thrower in his short time back. Murray keeps climbing closer to his pre-injury form. Bruce Brown keeps converting almost everything he attempts.
If there were any doubts about Denver's status as a heavyweight contender, consider them silenced.
Loser: Lakers Guards (Not Named Austin Reaves)
The Lakers' odds of surviving Anthony Davis' latest trip to the injury report were never great, but three things had to happen to make it possible: LeBron James turning back the clock, Thomas Bryant stabilizing the interior and L.A.'s perimeter players picking up the slack.
Well, James has averaged 30.3 points on 52.7 percent shooting this month. Bryant has put up 19.6 points per 36 minutes on 63.5 percent shooting. And the Lakers have gone 6-8 this month and 2-5 since Davis was sidelined by a foot injury.
Guess which part of the plan hasn't worked. Beyond the steady-as-a-rock Austin Reaves, all members of this backcourt have underwhelmed.
Russell Westbrook is shooting 21.6 percent from three (64.7 at the line) and committing 3.3 turnovers in only 27.9 minutes. Dennis Schröder has three games with 18-plus points and another four with five points or fewer.
Kendrick Nunn is hitting just 36.4 percent of his field goals; rookie Max Christie is down at 33.3. Lonnie Walker IV and Patrick Beverley, meanwhile, have the rotation's worst net differentials at minus-20.4 and minus-10.6, respectively.
Injury bug, please leave the Brow alone. And Lakers executives, please go get James more help already.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.