The immediate returns of the NBA calendar flipping into a new year tend to look fairly similar to our own New Year's resolutions. It is around this time of year when a few underachievers find some semblance of competence while some of the league's better teams take their foot off of the gas pedal and slip a bit down the standings through some combination of boredom, injuries and scheduling. In some rare cases, the New Year's trend sticks. Most teams, like most of us, tend to regress to who they truly are in time.
So let's look at some of the league's recent trends and try to figure out what's real, and what we'll forget about in a few weeks (like your new gym membership).
Buy or Sell: Derrick Favors is more important to the Pelicans' playoff hopes than Zion Williamson
Derrick Favors missed time earlier in the season due to a combination of injuries and the death of his mother. Since he's been back, the Pelicans have looked like a whole new team. They are 6-2 in their last eight games. With Favors on the floor as a whole this season, they have only been outscored by 1.3 points per 100 possessions, and if you restrict that sample to simply the games that have been played since his return, they are outscoring opponents by 0.2 points per 100 possessions. With or without Zion, the Pelicans with Favors anchoring their defense look to be a .500-caliber team. In a weak Western Conference, that's enough to compete for a playoff spot. They are only three games back behind the eighth-place San Antonio Spurs at the moment.
In the long run, New Orleans would trade Favors' health for Zion's in a heartbeat. But the fact of the matter is that rookies are rarely positive value players, and introducing Williamson into this system is probably going to come with a few bumps. If the sole goal is making the playoffs right now, Favors means more to the Pelicans.
Buy or Sell: The Clippers 'aren't a great team'
Most sensible NBA viewers still view the Clippers as the championship favorite, but Montrezl Harrell certainly doesn't. After allowing 140 points to the Memphis Grizzlies, Harrell said that the Clippers "aren't a great team." That statement's truth is context-dependant.
The full-strength Clippers are a great team by any measure. Lineups including both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are outscoring opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions. The five-man combination of those two, Harrell, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams -- which will likely be the group that they close playoff games with -- has decimated opponents by over 24 points per 100 possessions. The best version of the Clippers is still a juggernaut. Nobody load-manages in the playoffs.
But Leonard's knee has been problematic enough this season to raise doubts about his durability in a playoff setting. He can outplay LeBron James once. Can he do it seven times? Beverley is currently dealing with a wrist injury and has a lengthy medical rap sheet. Landry Shamet only fell in the draft because of medical concerns. Williams is 33. George is coming off shoulder surgery. At the very least, the concerns those issues raise will make it hard to develop the sort of chemistry that tends to prevail in the postseason, which seemed to be at the core of Harrell's comments.
It's been two months and the Lakers already look like a well-oiled machine because everyone plays every game. If the Clippers can't field their full roster for a sustained period, it will be hard for them to reach that point before the real games begin in May. They are a great team, but whether or not they are a champion is another question entirely.
Buy or Sell: David Fizdale was the problem in New York
The Knicks have now won more games without David Fizdale (six) than they did with him (four) despite playing eight fewer times since deposing their former head coach. None of the typical statistical markers for regression explain that, either. The Knicks are shooting worse from behind the arc than they were under Fizdale, and while their opponents have fallen as well, the drop for the Knicks has been bigger so far. If ever there were a time for a Steve Mills victory lap, it would be now.
If I were him, I'd be taking it quickly, because the schedule is about to become far less forgiving. None of New York's six wins under Mike Miller have come against a team currently seeded in the top six of their conference. Seven of their next nine games will be as they embark on a brutal stretch that essentially features every team in the championship conversation. The onslaught begins Monday with the Clippers, so expect the Knicks to start losing again shortly.
Buy or Sell: Nick Nurse is the best coach in the NBA
The Raptors functionally whittled their rotation down to eight players in last season's playoffs. Their best player (Kawhi Leonard) left. Their starting shooting guard (Danny Green) also left. Of the six that remained, all have missed at least five games so far this season. Yet to this point, the Raptors have outscored opponents in the minutes missed by literally every player on their roster. No Raptor has a negative net rating this season. Even without MVP candidate Pascal Siakam, the Raptors are 5-4 to this point. As a whole, they are 24-12 and currently in fourth place in a surprisingly deep Eastern Conference.
If this keeps up, it should be the easiest Coach of the Year Award ever given. There are literally no more questions about Nurse's coaching acumen. He has won the championship in 100 percent of the seasons he has finished as a head coach. His team lost the Finals MVP and has had little discernible decline. He's proven he can strategically innovate, as he did with the box-and-one defense he threw at Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals. He has proven he can develop players, as Siakam is now an MVP candidate, and Toronto's bench is a motley crew of undrafted free agents that still manages to crush just about every lineup they face. His track record isn't as long as some other top coaches, but the resume, to this point, is absolutely flawless. Nick Nurse is the NBA's best coach.
Buy or Sell: Philadelphia needs another overhaul
The 76ers haven't won since their Christmas stomping of the Milwaukee Bucks. Joel Embiid says the losing is taking a toll on the team. Al Horford is unhappy with his role. The last time he played against Philly, Markelle Fultz made as many 3-pointers as Ben Simmons has in his entire career (two). Their starting lineup scores fewer points per 100 possessions (105.2) than Chicago's (105.7). Needless to say, there are structural problems here.
Some of the problems are system-based. The 76ers may be 25th in 3-point attempts, for example, but they are 14th in 3-point percentage. Taking better shots could fix some of the problems here, but many of the problems are structural. The Sixers run the second-fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, and are ranked 25th league-wide in efficiency on such plays by scoring 0.8 points per possession on them. The NBA's simplest action is nearly impossible to run with a 6-10 non-shooting point guard and a center who refuses to roll.
The Sixers aren't exactly gun-shy. They overhauled their roster twice last season and then again in the offseason. If any team has the stomach for a Chris Paul trade right now, it would be them. But smaller changes can make a big difference. The Sixers know that well from their experience with Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. Between Mike Scott and Zhaire Smith, Philadephia could aggregate enough salary to add a player in the $10 million range hoping to do the same. D.J. Augustin and Derrick Rose aren't world-beaters, but they'd solve a lot of problems for Philly offensively without costing anyone who would figure to be in the playoff rotation.
That is the sort of move the 76ers should make before they consider another reset. Remember, this team throttled the 32-5 Bucks, came four bounces away from beating Kawhi Leonard last season, and has a starting lineup that allows only 97.1 points per 100 possession. The defense is so good that breaking it up for the sake of offense without at least exploring minor tweaks would be irresponsible.