The NBA truly is the gift that keeps on giving. From brain-breaking box scores, to unbelievable highlights, to the mental puzzle of trade ideas, to the sheer zaniness of what happens off the court through social media and petty beefs, the league has a new storyline for every fan, every single day. This season is no exception.
With turkeys in the oven and families preparing to break bread to welcome the holiday season, we thought it might be time to take a moment from the non-stop urgency of each next thrilling NBA topic and give thanks for what this season has brought us, both seriously, and, well, with a heaping dose of sarcasm. Here's what we're thankful for this NBA season:
The Celtics defying the odds
Man, if there's one thing Boston fans did not need was more fuel to their underdog complex. Yet, here we are, with the Celtics out in front of the whole league in the win percentage department despite the season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward and despite being down entering the fourth quarter in nearly half their games. This win streak has been improbable, not only for how tough it is to keep that momentum going without Hayward, but for how it's happened. The painfully young Celtics are leading the league in defensive rating, shattering the idea that you can't play consistent and smart defense with a team full of kids who haven't reached the 25-year-old insurance break yet. Kyrie Irving has brought his signature clutch-time heroics, but it's been the performances of sage veteran Al Horford and explosive second-year star Jaylen Brown that have fueled Boston's run. If it was up to the offense, the Celtics would sink, but they're winning with grit, scrap, and all the other cliche attributes of a team that is certainly outworking their opponent.
The Celtics are a blast to watch on both sides of the ball. Their absolutely absurd length means they're able to switch any kind of movement the offense throws at them, with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum showing defensive ability well beyond their years, and Marcus Smart doing the typical bullying he brings, and Terry Rozier hounding guards under the radar. Offensively ... they're a mess, to be honest, with a sub-15 ranked efficiency. But their eye test is much more appealing, with so much off-ball movement, quick, crafty passes, and the usual array of Irving circus shots.
No team faced more adversity early in the season, and no team has thrived as much in the face of it. Throw in signature wins against Houston and even the Warriors and you have a start that has made them the biggest talking point of the first five weeks of the season, with a good chance they'll stay in the headlines through April.
There's two ways to look at the win percentage distribution across teams going into the Thanksgiving off-day. If you want to see the glass half empty, you can believe the league is suffering from the same problem the NFL is: Parity that has created widespread mediocrity. There are very few truly great teams (Golden State, Boston, Houston, Detroit, and San Antonio), and the rest of the league caught in a messy middle. But there is another way to view it: Despite several teams bent on tanking, there are very few truly dreadful teams.
Yes, Chicago, Atlanta, Sacramento, and Phoenix are painful to watch, but even then Lauri Markkanen, John Collins, De'Aaron Fox and a suddenly efficient Devin Booker make their games worth flipping through on League Pass. Meanwhile, even the teams that have struggled show promise: Denver is still figuring out its offense, yet dropped 146 on the Pelicans. Those same Pelicans have knocked off several big teams and are hanging in above .500. The Wolves have sneak out enough wins to cover up for some of their issues, but remain a puzzle trying to sort itself out. Orlando was actually really fun to watch before all of its point guards were hurt at once, and outside of Boston, Houston, and Golden State, no team has looked invulnerable. The result is a league that is low on dynamos right now, but high on night-to-night competition. Even teams like Brooklyn and the Lakers have been downright pesky, and are far from being pushovers.
The quality of play isn't down, the games are efficient and typically pretty tight. For a regular season so routinely panned for its level of play, the start to this year, as it was last season, has been high.
The Knicks ... ?!
This is not my first rodeo with a good Knicks start, so my skeptical eyebrow raises are in full effect. However, this Knicks team hasn't melted down yet, hasn't face-planted, and is genuinely fun to watch. New York is plastered all over the national TV schedule, and having a roster that's worth watching has been a refreshing surprise. Kristaps Porzingis has burst into the MVP debate courtroom and demanded an audience.With the Zinger dropping 28 points every night along with those highlight swats, and with so few depressing, cap-spacing veterans wasting away, New York has been downright plucky. From their "feud" with LeBron James, to their much more modern style of play under Jeff Hornacek, New York is finally a team that's fun to watch, with low expectations. You know, the kind of team a rebuilding squad should be.
The Lonzo debate
Lonzo Ball is the worst rookie ever! He's a triple-double machine! Give the kid time (while also acknowledging that he has a special passing gift that even applies when he's not on the floor). Let's just state facts: He's the worst rookie shooter ever (except that most rookies are bad shooters when they first get into the league).
Many will get sick of all the Lonzo talk, but then, they'll love talking about how sick they are of it. Lakers fans love to defend him; they haven't had a punching bag that meant this much to them since Kobe Bryant. LaVar Ball critics love to (inappropriately) criticize his son in an attempt to create some sense of humility in the tireless promoter father. Analysts love to show his incredibly basic passes as some sort of revelation, critics love to point out how much the Lakers are padding his assist stats.
The NBA is nothing without polarizing athletes, and while the atmosphere around Ball is corrosive to giving the kid room to develop in a way he deserves, it's endlessly entertaining watching the NBA fan world go to battle over a kid who's basically a pretty typical rookie for an 8-10 team.
The eternal flame of LeBron's career
LeBron James, in his 15th season, at age 32 (turning 33 next month):
- Best field goal percentage of his career.
- Best 3-point percentage of his career.
- Best free throw percentage of his career.
- Points, rebounds and assists per game all above career averages.
- Second-most assists per game of career.
- Most blocks per game of his career (second-most per 100 possessions).
I've broken Austin Carr frequently refers to him as "the L-train." But now he's a train in the sense that he is this constant rumble -- an iron and steel beast rolling through the countryside at the same steady rhythm, even in what should be the beginning of the twilight of his career.-- which have continued despite their recent win surge they remain 30th in defensive rating -- but those numbers, and James' performance, are simply spellbinding. Early in his career he was compared favorably to a freight train, Cavs color commentator
Joel Embiid hasn't had a great statistical season, comparable to what we expect from him. He has shot over 50 percent from the field in just six of 14 games. His scoring is actually down per 100 possessions (though rebounds, and assists are way up). He is, however, emerging as one of the biggest names in the league. He's staring down players after big plays and talking trash constantly. I mean, look at this:
The man is an absolute artist at working the crowd. He's a wrestling heel-face, in the vein of Stone Cold Steve Austin, trolling opponents while bathing in adulation and acting like he doesn't care about it. He's also an abject monster who can euro-step. He is transcendent, and for however long he's healthy, two days or six years, fans are loving every second of it.
Meanwhile ... Ben Simmons has the eighth-best effective field goal percentage among rookie guards, shooting eight times a game since the 3-point era began. This comparison seems crazy, but the eye test is backing it up:
Simmons is something new, a human tornado with pinpoint accuracy, a shroud that just devours possessions on defense launching fast breaks. His leadership has been shockingly strong for such a young guy on-court, and he and Embiid have incredible chemistry. The Sixers are good. They're getting better and they are worth watching as they rise to whatever they'll become.
And also ...
- Victor Oladipo's perseverance and emergence.
- The hilarity of the clutch time disasters for OKC.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo's emergence as an omni-forward, even without a jumper.
- The Warriors thriving when they want to.
- Detroit's resurgence, fueled by an engaged Andre Drummond and a consistent Tobias Harris.
- DeMar DeRozan, playmaker.
- The Jekyll and Hyde Pelicans.
- James Harden, ruthless and relentless.