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Seventeen of the league’s 30 teams have played at least 27 games. A third of the regular season schedule, in other words, is essentially complete.
So we can safely make some declarations about what has been a Los Angeles-centric season so far — with considerable doses of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, too — after what amounts to a full trimester to evaluate things:
1. LeBron James has never been more like Wilt Chamberlain.
Wilt The Stilt, as legend has it, decided to lead the league in assists in 1967-68 because he got tired of being branded selfish and wanted to show the world he could do whatever he wanted on the floor.
He remains the only center in league history, in any N.B.A. season, to win the total assists crown.
LeBron has never been labeled a selfish player, but he has also never led the league in assists over an entire season. In Year 17, James is averaging a league-high 10.7 dimes per game. That makes him the only current player to sport a double-digit assist average and, because the Lakers list him as a forward, puts him on track to become the first forward in league history to lead the league in that category.
It’s certainly still early in the race to the championship, all things considered, but LeBron has never started a season more impressively. We can nitpick and point out that the Lakers have had the 18th-easiest schedule based on ESPN’s rankings. Just make sure you also note that while Kawhi Leonard and Paul George try to establish consistent smoothness in their fledgling partnership with the Clippers, King James and Anthony Davis look every bit the dream duo on the court that they appeared to form on paper.
The concern for the Lakers, if you insist on highlighting one, is that both James and Davis are averaging nearly 35 minutes per game. That’s a big load by modern N.B.A. standards.
That’s also such a welcome problem compared to the nonstop drama that gripped this franchise throughout LeBron’s first season in Hollywood.
2. James Harden has never been more like Wilt, either.
The Rockets employ a tireless statistician named Sean McCloskey. I like to call him Jack, in tribute to the former Detroit Pistons executive to whom he is not related, because he’s as good at his job as Jack McCloskey was in putting the Bad Boys Pistons teams together.
I share this dribble of minutiae because I recently asked Jack, er, Sean to send me his latest list of Harden scoring superlatives. What became immediately apparent, scrolling through them, is that so many invoke Wilt’s name.
Wilt earned copious scorn throughout his career for being so dominant (and so much bigger than most of his opposition). Harden gets his own share of scorn some 50 years later because of his high usage and his penchant for drawing contact (and hunting for fouls) that some find unappealing to watch.
You may not enjoy it, but Harden’s relentless production, just like Chamberlain’s, has to be respected — even if some of it this season is actually a byproduct of Houston’s rise to No. 3 in the league in pace since acquiring Russell Westbrook over the summer. The way people react to Harden makes him a true heir to Wilt, despite the fact that he’s eight inches shorter. And left-handed.
As Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni and General Manager Daryl Morey are fond of saying, it’s bonkers to see a player like Harden, in his 11th season, find a way to get better yet again. You have to respect that, too.
3. The West is weaker than we all thought.
Instead of trying to pinpoint the most disappointing team through the season’s opening third, perhaps it’s wiser to just select the most disappointing conference.
Only six teams in the West are over .500. Denver (17-8) and Utah (15-11) have likewise fallen short of predictions.
The West’s record in interconference games, furthermore, is a very modest 73-72.
The East remains the overall weaker conference from 1 to 15, but its top six teams have collectively been more impressive than the West’s. That’s even with Houston (arguably) and Dallas (definitely) exceeding expectations.
Phoenix and Minnesota, after promising starts, are reverting to the lottery-bound form that has plagued those franchises for years. Portland and New Orleans spoke with considerable optimism (and even bravado) in the preseason, as did the Timberwolves, only to quickly descend into crisis.
And then there is San Antonio. The Spurs couldn’t hold a 25-point lead on Monday night in Houston and fell to 10-16. Rather than closing in on a record-setting 23rd consecutive playoff appearance, Coach Gregg Popovich is being urged, louder than ever, to trade the veteran duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan and launch the sort of rebuild Pop has happily avoided his whole career.
We made the case in last week’s newsletter that, unless the Pistons get it together, we likely already know our eight playoff teams in the East. In the West, by contrast, we know so much less than anticipated by this juncture.
4. The championship race may not be nearly as wide open as many predicted.
If the Lakers and Clippers are generally healthy come April, they will be overwhelming favorites to advance to the Western Conference finals. If Milwaukee and Philadelphia likewise have good health entering the postseason, they’ll be equally huge favorites to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
The free-for-all for the title that was widely promised, given all the injuries that waylaid Golden State after the Warriors’ five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals, simply hasn’t materialized.
5. The team to watch before the trade deadline is Denver.
Looking across the league in search of a trade that could truly trouble the two L.A. teams or the East brutes Milwaukee and Philly, I am repeatedly drawn to Denver.
The Nuggets need a jolt. The continuity edge they carried into the season over the teams that made dramatic summer changes hasn’t paid off — and Nikola Jokic has receded from last season’s peak form as he continues to generate questions and criticism about his conditioning by playing at nearly 300 pounds.
My former ESPN colleague Zach Lowe suggested recently that the Nuggets should make a trade play for New Orleans’ Jrue Holiday. It’s a sensational idea — and Denver has the assets to pull it off.
Given a variety of hypothetical deals to consider, Holiday to the Nuggets would do more for Denver than, say, Boston overcoming the considerable salary-cap challenges it would face in trying to acquire Kevin Love from Cleveland or Miami importing Kyle Lowry from Toronto. Perhaps the Heat could also make a run at Holiday, but I rate Denver, which has been very methodical in its teambuilding, as the most intriguing hope for a landscape-changing trade during the season.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Their loss is our gain. We have a fresh, young, motivated stud in @Bam1of1. — @Junior_TreyOh5 from Twitter.
STEIN: I know, I know. This isn’t a question.
But it’s a response to one I’ve thrown out on Twitter a couple of times already this season as Miami’s Bam Adebayo continues to mount a wholly unexpected bid for an All-Star spot in the East as well as Most Improved Player honors: How did this ridiculously versatile player not make U.S.A. Basketball’s 12-man squad for the FIBA World Cup over the summer?
It’s an increasingly pertinent what-if given that Adebayo, after posting two triple-doubles in four days, was just named Player of the Week in the Eastern Conference. To go with his rugged defense and dogged rebounding, Adebayo has flashed a blossoming touch for both scoring and passing in Miami’s 19-8 start.
I’ve done some rechecking on the matter and was advised recently that U.S.A.B. officials didn’t see anything resembling this Adebayo during practices in August. It was likewise suggested that Adebayo, deep down, knew he didn’t make a strong enough case to earn a slot.
Adebayo wouldn’t go that far when I had a chance to ask him directly over the weekend, but he did acknowledge that losing out to Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, Indiana’s Myles Turner and Denver’s Mason Plumlee left him with a “bigger chip on my shoulder.”
“Obviously no man wants to get cut, so I take it personally,” Adebayo said after posting the second of those triple-doubles in an overtime win on Saturday night in Dallas. “But it’s behind me now.”
Yet Adebayo insisted that “it’s not the reason why I’ve been doing what I’m doing.”
Credit Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra for instilling him with the confidence to become an increasingly significant part of Miami’s offense on top of Adebayo’s Draymond Green-like ability to guard all five positions.
Q: Does Taylor Jenkins have what it takes to not only guide the Grizzlies back into the playoffs in the next couple of years but also keep the Grizzlies in the city of Memphis? Or is a move to Las Vegas or Seattle inevitable? — Ross Kerwin (Hoboken, N.J.)
STEIN: Let’s separate these very disparate questions.
The Grizzlies, at 10-17 and fresh off a home win over Miami, have been a refreshingly tough out.
I didn’t expect a lot from this group with so much being asked of three rookies: Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke and the new coach. But Jenkins has the Grizzlies moving the ball. Morant, Clarke and the second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. are all thriving.
Memphis is 4-1 since Morant came back from a bout of back spasms, and the only loss was to mighty Milwaukee.
But let’s be clear here: Jenkins will have virtually nothing to do with keeping the Grizzlies in Memphis. That’s way beyond his pay grade. The team owner Robert Pera, in his most recent comments on the matter in April 2018, said he is “committed to Memphis as an N.B.A. market” and has no intention of relocating the franchise.
Neither relocation nor expansion is considered a pressing topic in the league at the moment, but the Grizzlies do continue to be mentioned as an occasional relocation candidate, thanks to their market size (29th in a 30-team league) and their struggles at the gate. They awoke on Tuesday ranked 28th in the league in home attendance at 15,304 fans per game, ahead of only New Orleans and Minnesota.
Should Pera’s stance change before 2027, various locally based minority shareholders in the Grizzlies must be given the first shot at buying the team, according to reporting from my fellow Western New York native Geoff Calkins, now of the Daily Memphian. If things ever reached that point, mind you, it would be fair to wonder who in Memphis could afford the going rate for an N.B.A. team.
The big picture, though, looks encouraging as a calendar flip to 2020 draws near. Faster than most outsiders anticipated after it traded away Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, Memphis would appear to have the makings of a new core starring Morant, Jackson and Clarke. With the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson still out indefinitely after October knee surgery, Morant is the Rookie of the Year favorite — and showing everyone why numerous pundits proclaimed him a potential franchise-saver when the Grizzlies won the No. 2 overall pick in last May’s draft lottery to acquire him.
Q: Feel stupid now for not having the Pacers make the playoffs in your preseason predictions? — Randy Bruce
STEIN: No, sir.
And that’s because I didn’t pick the Pacers to miss the playoffs.
I’ll be the first to put my hand up when I misfire with a prediction. Example: My tout that the Utah Jazz will reach the Western Conference finals isn’t looking especially clever at the minute.
But if you check back to my Eight Fearless Predictions newsletter from Oct. 22, I think you’ll find that I said Pacers Coach Nate McMillan would be in the conversation for the Coach of the Year Award if he can steer Indiana to what so many of us thought would be an up-for-grabs No. 3 seed in the East. Even with Victor Oladipo’s ongoing injury absence and even after the Pacers’ surprising 0-3 start, I (and many others) had Indiana as a playoff team.
The surprise, through Monday’s games, is that the Pacers are one of six teams in the East that have an average point differential of plus-4.9 and above. I can’t remember anyone who projected that to last this deeply into the schedule. According to Cleaning The Glass, Indiana’s average victory margin of plus-5.0 is worthy of a 54-win team.
The Milwaukee Bucks, finally beaten on Monday night by Dallas, were the 13th team in league history to assemble a winning streak of at least 18 games. Only seven of the previous 12 teams, however, went on to win the N.B.A. championship. They are the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (33 wins in a row), 2012-13 Miami Heat (27), 1970-71 Bucks (20), 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs (19), 1999-2000 Lakers (19), 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (18) and the 1969-70 Knicks (18). The five teams that fell short are the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (24), 2007-08 Houston Rockets (22), 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks (19), 2008-09 Boston Celtics (19) and the 1981-82 Celtics (18).
In 1979-80, when the 3-point line was introduced in the N.B.A., teams combined to shoot an average of 2.8 3s per game. Forty seasons later, in 2019-20, teams are averaging nearly 30 more 3-pointers at 33.7 per game.
When James Harden followed a 55-point outburst in Cleveland with 54 points in Orlando last week, it marked the second time this season that the Houston scoring machine posted consecutive 50-point games. He’s done it five times in his career.
An interesting offshoot of the load management era: Several players who would be classified as Most Valuable Player Award candidates are averaging 32 minutes per game or fewer. They are: Milwaukee’s Antetokounmpo (31.2), Dallas’ Luka Doncic (32.2), Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (30.7) and the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard (31.5).
There are 51 days remaining before the Feb. 6 trade deadline at 3 p.m. Eastern time. Trade season began in earnest on Sunday when more than 100 players who signed contracts in the summer became eligible to be dealt. Potential names on the move include Cleveland’s Kevin Love, Memphis’ Andre Iguodala and the Knicks’ Marcus Morris. Trade chatter could begin to ramp up this week when representatives from all 30 teams converge on Las Vegas for the N.B.A.’s annual G League Showcase.