Spurs Done? Sixers Truly Flawed? We Can't Figure out These NBA Teams
Many preseason NBA predictions are coming true.
The Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks look really good. The New York Knicks, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls all stink as expected.
What about the teams in the middle, with impressive wins and embarrassing losses? The following clubs have been the toughest to get a pulse on a month in.
Best Wins: Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets (x2)
Ugliest Losses: Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Hornets
An 8-6 record with so much roster turnover and no Victor Oladipo seems pretty good, especially considering starting center Myles Turner has missed eight games with a sprained ankle.
Those eight wins, though? None have come against a team with a winning record. In fact, the Pacers have played the NBA's weakest schedule thus far by a wide margin. Only two of Indiana's 14 games have come against winning teams (Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks), both losses.
Still, beating up on bad teams has resulted in only one of six winning records in the 15-team Eastern Conference, meaning the Pacers should once again be postseason locks.
Domantas Sabonis (18.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 20.9 PER) has played at an All-Star level, especially with Turner sidelined. New point guard Malcolm Brogdon (19.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 22.7 PER) is thriving in a bigger role and should eventually fit in well next to Oladipo. TJ Warren and Jeremy Lamb are both averaging over 17 points per game as well.
While the defense has been solid (even factoring in opponents), the Pacers are just 29th in three-point makes and attempts and dead last in free-throw makes and attempts despite shooting at an 82.1 percent clip (third-best in NBA).
It was always going to be tough to get an accurate read on these Pacers pre-Oladipo. Without knowing yet if the Turner-Sabonis combination will work and with playing such a soft early schedule, it's hard to determine how good the Pacers are.
Best Wins: Miami Heat, Utah Jazz
Ugliest Losses: Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards
Minnesota has been a pleasant surprise in a loaded Western Conference.
Karl-Anthony Towns (27.0 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.6 blocks, 43.5 3P%) looks like the NBA's best all-around big man, an unstoppable force offensively who has only gotten better on the defensive end.
While Towns was expected to once again be an All-Star, it's Andrew Wiggins' improved play that has come as a shock. As Danny Cunningham of SKOR North wrote:
"Wiggins has done this by changing his game. He's bought into the system in a way that he either never has wanted to or never has been forced to before. The days of him launching away from the mid-range are all but gone. Now he attacks the rim and puts up three-pointers. Right now it looks like he's headed for a career year and has a case that he could be the most improved player in the NBA."
After averaging 20.4 points and 2.0 assists on 42.2 percent shooting in his first five games, Wiggins has exploded for 30.5 points and 5.0 assists while shooting 51.4 percent over his last six. He's been asked to play point guard for stretches with veteran floor general Jeff Teague out, leading to an increase in responsibility and production.
So, is six games really enough to believe Wiggins has changed following fives years of disappointing play? Probably not, although head coach Ryan Saunders has the team running at the league's third-fastest pace, something that suits Wiggins' athletic skill set.
No one should be ready to christen Minnesota as a playoff lock just yet, however, as its minus-1.8 differential rating is the lowest of the top-eight teams in the West.
Best Wins: Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs
Ugliest Losses: Atlanta Hawks, Oklahoma City Thunder
Orlando has arguably the worst roster makeup in the league, is two games below .500...and is still positioned for a playoff spot in the East. Insert Larry David GIF here.
The Magic play at the league's slowest pace, have the 25th-ranked offense thanks to shaky point guard play and feature a roster with way too many big men. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the only other team not to have won on the road yet this season.
While Markelle Fultz has shown signs of life (10.5 points, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals in 23.5 minutes), the Magic have been hesitant to remove his training wheels. As The Athletic's Josh Robbins wrote:
"The team is limiting his minutes because he played so sparingly during his first two pro seasons and because he's still getting over his shoulder issue. Team medical officials don't want to push him too far, too soon. His minutes will increase gradually, coach Steve Clifford has said, without giving a timetable."
Orlando's roster still screams for a trade: something that would move one of its talented frontcourt pieces (Aaron Gordon?) for backcourt help.
While the Magic's size has helped lead to a ninth-ranked defense and the sixth-best rebounding squad, this is still an awkward roster that doesn't seem to be maximizing its talent.
Best Wins: Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ugliest Losses: Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic
Philly got off to a hot 5-0 start before stumbling to 4-5 since.
The team's defense, thought to be a calling card this season, is just 11th overall and allowing 104.1 points per 100 possessions. Given the personnel, this should be a top-five team.
Joel Embiid remains one of the most physically dominant players in the league, able to get position underneath the basket against just about anyone. The 25-year-old is now shooting a career-high 38.9 percent from three as well.
New additions Al Horford and Josh Richardson have been solid, providing a mixture of scoring, rebounding and multipositional defense.
Still, the Sixers need Ben Simmons to be more aggressive. The 23-year-old's numbers are down across the board, although he finally attempted (and made) his first regular-season three-pointer Wednesday night. It's something Philly (24th overall with 10.1 threes per game) desperately needs.
While Simmons' play and the lack of outside shooting in general are concerns, only losing to one non-playoff-positioned team this season is a good sign. However, Philly has looked far from the elite Eastern Conference squad many projected.
San Antonio Spurs
Best Wins: Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder
Ugliest Losses: Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards
A 4-1 start to the season seemed Spurs-esque. Now, riding a seven-game losing streak is uncharted territory.
While San Antonio is putting together a top-six offense, its 27th-ranked defense is the worst a Gregg Popovich-coached team has ever performed. The Spurs are next to last in the West and have zero wins over teams with winning records.
What makes this team so confusing is a roster stuck between fading veterans and budding stars not quite ready to run things on their own. It's the Spurs, so going on a five- or 10-game win streak wouldn't be surprising, although they've shown few signs of anything close to that thus far.
Point guard Dejounte Murray leads the next wave of Spurs stars, but he is limited with his playing time following a return from a torn ACL. San Antonio only plays him for five minutes at a time and 20 to 25 minutes total during a game, and he must sit out one side of back-to-backs.
"I just can't wait to be free—all the way," Murray said, per Tom Orsborn of MySanAntonio.com. "But it's the process. I sat out the whole year. And I love the game so much. I am so passionate about it. And you always hear me saying, 'I want to play, I want to play.' But at the end of the day, they've been doing this for a long time. This is all new to me. I've never been hurt."
With Popovich now 70 years old, the Spurs probably won't be plunging into a rebuild and offloading DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, but trading Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV or other young guards for veteran help would handicap the team's ceiling.
It's hard to imagine the Spurs not turning their season around enough to at least make the playoffs, but for now it's a strange sight to see San Antonio so far down the West standings.