NBA Power Rankings: Jazz, LaMarcus Aldridge, Trae Young and other big early-season conclusions revisited
Are the Jazz righting the ship? That, plus why you should never count out Aldridge and the Spurs
After only a month or so of the NBA season, we in the media like to jump to big-time conclusions about teams. It's what we do.
Of course, those conclusions are sometimes right, sometimes not. So what better time than now – slightly before the halfway point of the season – to revisit those early-season conclusions to see which ones held up and which ones didn't?
For example: Early in the season it seemed like LaMarcus Aldridge was on the downward slope of his career, and his San Antonio Spurs were moving into a post-dominance era, perhaps even primed for a rebuild. How does that conclusion look now?
And what about the Utah Jazz? The team that had the NBA's best defense a season ago, and was the most surprising team in the league, was heading in the opposite direction, with a middling defense, an offense that struggled to score and a near future that looked dangerously close to missing the playoffs.
And what about rookie point guard Trae Young? The guy who the Atlanta Hawks traded Luka Doncic for was supposed to come into the NBA as a dead-eye 3-point shooter like he often was billed as in college, a Steph Curry 2.0. But Steph Curry 2.0 couldn't seem to make a shot. If this was the real Trae Young, any optimism surrounding the Hawks' future was very much in doubt.
Let's check in on the early-season conclusions we made about each NBA team, and which of them held up.
|1||Raptors||The early-season conclusion: Kawhi Leonard is the missing piece that it would take for the Raptors to change from being a great regular-season team into a true contender to make the Finals, and perhaps the league's top challenger to the Warriors. What it looks like now: Pretty much the same, but just don't forget the importance of Pascal Siakam (who should be an All-Star this year), Danny Green (the forgotten piece of that Kawhi-DeRozan trade) and Kyle Lowry (who was unreal to start the season, but whose injuries have been concerning). This team, when perfectly healthy, could win it all. Five wins in a row, the longest streak in the NBA.||3||35-13|
|2||Warriors||The early-season conclusion: Let's make the cutoff a little different here. On Nov. 8, Steph Curry was injured, and missed the next 11 games. Before his injury, the Warriors looked like the Warriors: 10-2, with the NBA's best offensive rating and second-best net rating. Over the next 11 Steph-less games, the Warriors had the league's 15th-rated offense, and a net rating of -2.3, good for 19th in the league. What it looks like now: Who knows with this year's Warriors? Since Steph's return, the Warriors have been good - the fifth-rated offense in the NBA, with the league's sixth-best net rating - but they have looked far from invincible. Maybe the chinks showing in the Warriors' armor will rear their ugly heads again in the playoffs, and this will mark the beginning of the end of the Warriors dynasty. Or maybe they're about to add All-Star center Boogie Cousins to their rotation, and this team is going to gel like we always expected, and run all the way through the playoffs. My bet is on the latter.||1||32-14|
|3||Bucks||The early-season conclusion: Mike Budenholzer is the best offseason acquisition not named LeBron James, and the Bucks are for real - the top offense in the NBA. Budenholzer took the Bucks revamped, shooter-heavy roster and spread the floor around Giannis for the most efficient offense in the NBA in the season's first six weeks. What it looks like now: Pretty close to that ... only with a bit more attention to the Bucks' elite defense as a reason for their success. The Bucks may be the NBA's most balanced team, the only team in the league ranking in the top four in offensive and defensive efficiency. They have the NBA's best net rating by nearly three points per 100 possessions over the next-best team. Yes, there are a handful of good teams at the top of the East, and plenty more in the West. But these guys are legit title contenders - as good of a chance at winning a title as perhaps any team not named the Golden State Warriors.||1||33-12|
|4||Nuggets||The early-season conclusion: Um, Denver plays defense, apparently? One month into the season, the Nuggets - a bottom-10 defense in the NBA a year ago - ranked third in the NBA in defense. The two reasons were Paul Millsap's health and Nikola Jokic making a jump as an intelligent defender. What it looks like now: The Nuggets' defense has dropped off somewhat, but it's still pretty good - ninth in the NBA - and that's all it needs to be for the Nuggets to be one of the best teams in the West. Despite being ravaged by injuries, the Nuggets still sit in the driver's seat in the West.||3||31-14|
|5||Rockets||The early-season conclusion: Uh oh. The Rockets missed their championship window in last season's Western Conference Finals, when they had every shot in the world to unseat the Warriors, but didn't. After a Dec. 8 loss at Dallas, the Rockets were 11-14, second to last in the West. The window has closed. What it looks like now: James Harden is a golden god, and the Rockets are right back in it. Since that Dec. 8 loss, the Rockets are 13-4, with an NBA-best offensive rating of 117.0 points per 100 possessions. They're back in the mix at the top of the West. Harden has been on a heater like none we've ever seen before.||--||26-19|
|6||76ers||The early-season conclusion: With Markelle Fultz still looking like a lost cause, the Sixers are one big-time piece away from being a true contender at the top of the East. What it looks like now: Well, they got their big-time piece when they traded for Jimmy Butler. But are we sure that Butler makes the Sixers a contender? The fit with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as a Big Three was always going to be imperfect, but you shoot your shot to get Butler every time. Butler has already spoken his displeasure at his role in the offense, which is not a good early sign for his locker-room fit. Before the Butler trade, the Sixers were 8-6 but with only the 19th-best net rating in the NBA, and ranking 21st in offensive efficiency and ninth in defensive efficiency. Since then, the Sixers have gone 20-10, with the 10th-best net rating in the NBA, and ranking seventh in offensive efficiency and 14th in defensive efficiency. This team is very good, and certainly better with Butler than without; however, they have a way to go before they are great.||--||30-17|
|7||Pacers||The early-season conclusion: Maybe the Pacers' surprising 2017-18 season, when what was expected to be a lottery-bound team in its first post-Paul George season ended up pushing LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in a first-round playoff series, wasn't such a fluke after all. What it looks like now: Yeah, this franchise is legit, and it's not just because of Victor Oladipo. Despite Oladipo's injury troubles, the Pacers still have an elite defense - the second-ranked defense in the NBA - and sit in third in the East. Myles Turner's defense has been elite, and Domantas Sabonis is going to get a lot of votes, including mine, as Sixth Man of the Year.||--||31-15|
|8||Celtics||The early-season conclusion: There's no way a team with this many talented players doesn't turn things around and become one of the favorites to win the East. This team was supposed to win a million games, but on Nov. 24, they were sitting at 10-10, with the NBA's 27th-ranked offense. What it looks like now: There's still room to grow, as evidenced by Kyrie Irving's comments after the Celtics' recent loss at Orlando. But the team has been 15-7 since that rough start, with the NBA's best net rating and the NBA's top-rated offense. The top of the East is tough, but the Celtics must be included as one of the three Eastern Conference teams most likely to make the Finals (along with the Bucks and Raptors).||1||28-18|
|9||Spurs||The early-season conclusion: LaMarcus Aldridge was beginning his decline at age 33 after a phenomenal season last year, and that meant the Spurs and their antiquated, mid-range-dependent offense were going to miss their first playoffs in forever - and perhaps needed to move toward a rebuild. Through November, Aldridge was averaging only 17.8 points per game (on a miserable 48.9 true shooting percentage) after scoring a dominant 23.1 points per game a year ago. What it looks like now: Since Dec. 1, Aldridge is averaging 23.4 points per game (with a sparkling 64.3 percent true shooting percentage) as the Spurs have gone 15-7 during that stretch and moved back into the thick of the playoff race. Their mid-range-dependent offense no longer looks antiquated; it looks like a team that's zagging as the rest of the NBA zigs. Never doubt Gregg Popovich.||2||27-21|
|10||Thunder||The early-season conclusion: Russell Westbrook looks exposed due to his poor shooting stats. What it looks like now: Russell Westbrook looks exposed due to his poor shooting stats (23.3 percent 3-point shooting and scoring 21.4 points per game, his fewest since his second season in the NBA. The Thunder's schedule was among the NBA's easiest over the first half of the season. As they enter the tough part of their schedule, the Thunder have lost three of four, including a couple heartbreakers.||2||27-18|
|11||Trail Blazers||The early-season conclusion: They need another star to take the burden off Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Until then, this team will be stuck in the pretty-good-but-never-a-serious-contender category. What it looks like now: Pretty much the same, except Jusuf Nurkic has looked like the same player who was so damn good for the Blazers two years ago when they traded for him midseason. He's not a star, but Nurkic playing at this level - 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 57.1 percent true shooting, all career highs - nudges the Blazers' ceiling upward.||1||28-19|
|12||Jazz||The early-season conclusion: The Jazz defense that was so dominant a year ago - best in the NBA! - either was a mirage or had badly regressed. One month into the season, reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and the Jazz defense ranked 21st in the NBA in defensive efficiency. What it looks like now: The Jazz are just fine, and the defense is again dominant. Since Nov. 16, the Jazz have ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Two factors might have been at play early in the season: Over the first two-plus months of the season, the Jazz played the NBA's most difficult schedule. And I've also heard NBA executives say that the NBA's offseason rules emphases about more freedom of movement for offensive players affected the physical Jazz as much as any other team. They've now won 9 of their past 13, and have the Western Conference's easiest remaining schedule.||1||26-21|
|13||Clippers||The early-season conclusion: A month and a half into the season, the Clippers had among the top records in the West. The team never quite felt like the typical roster for a top NBA team, valuing depth over superstar power, but they were getting the job done. What it looks like now: Not nearly as rosy, but still better than expectations leading into the season. The Clippers are 12-12 since Nov. 25, with the NBA's 27th-best defense. Tobias Harris is making himself some money in his final season before free agency. There's nothing sexy about his game, but he needs to be considered a star. He's averaging 20.8 points and 8.1 rebounds on 43.3 percent 3-point shooting.||3||25-21|
|14||Lakers||The early-season conclusion: Patience, young Jedi. That's what this team needs. What it looks like now: Hard to judge this group when LeBron's been injured, but the Lakers are 3-7 since his groin strain. The youngsters, particularly Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, need to show more consistent passion, as Luke Walton recently said. You can't stoop much lower than a loss to the Lakers at home.||--||25-22|
|15||Kings||The early-season conclusion: Um, the Kings are kind of good? What it looks like now: Um, the Kings are kind of good! They're right in the thick of the playoff hunt in the West. The core of De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Marvin Bagley III feels like a solid core moving forward - perhaps much better than solid.||--||24-22|
|16||Nets||The early-season conclusion: Caris LeVert is a foundational franchise piece for the Nets, and his devastating injury will sink the Nets' season. What it looks like now: LeVert is still a foundational piece for this team's future - but the Nets have built enough of a solid organizational culture under Sean Marks that this team will end up in or near the playoffs anyway. It's going to be fascinating to see how Marks will operate now that the shackles of the devastating Celtics trade of the previous regime are finally off.||--||24-23|
|17||Timberwolves||The early-season conclusion: What a mess. Timberwolves fans can never be rewarded for their perseverance by being able to enjoy consistently good things. What it looks like now: Considering the circumstances? Not all that bad! Jimmy Butler's gone, thank God, and for a pretty decent return. Tom Thibodeau is gone, too, and early returns about interim head coach Ryan Saunders are nothing but positive. He's giving the organization the jolt of positive energy it needs (not to mention the jolt of modern-day basketball thinking). At the very least, this team can say that the drama of the past 1 ½ years is now in the rearview mirror. That's something. And they got the type of player in Karl-Anthony Towns that teams will tank for.||1||22-24|
|18||Mavericks||The early-season conclusion: Luka Doncic is the best player from the 2018 draft, and with all due respect to DeAndre Ayton, it's not particularly close. What it looks like now: At age 19, Luka Doncic is even better than we thought he would be - and there aren't many players who enter the NBA with more hype than Doncic did. He's not just the best player from the 2018 draft; he's a 2019 All-Star, and a future MVP candidate.||1||20-25|
|19||Heat||The early-season conclusion: The definition of mediocrity. What it looks like now: The definition of mediocrity. Sorry for the lack of analysis here. I'm just so bored by this team. Not their players - their players are fine! Their players are even good! And not their coach - their coach is great! Just their situation. It's so hard to see the Heat being anything but a .500-ish team this season or for the foreseeable future.||--||22-22|
|20||Pelicans||The early-season conclusion: How has this franchise wasted seven years of one of the best basketball players on earth? What it looks like now: How has this franchise wasted seven years of one of the best basketball players on earth? And how in the world can the Pelicans rank 25th in the NBA in defensive rating despite perhaps the best defensive duo in the NBA - Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday - ranking third and fourth in the NBA in minutes respectively?||--||21-25|
|21||Hornets||The early-season conclusion: Kemba Walker needs help. He's playing the best season of his career - after a month, Walker was averaging a career-high 26.4 points per game and shooting 10 triples a game - yet the Hornets are sitting at .500. What it looks like now: There's been a lot of little, nice stories for the Hornets this season. Jeremy Lamb is having the best season of his career. Miles Bridges seems like a solid, do-it-all rookie with a high upside. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has found a niche in a Draymond-ish role. But there hasn't been a single big, impressive story aside from Kemba. And that's what the Hornets need.||--||22-24|
|22||Magic||The early-season conclusion: An overachieving team in need of a point guard. What it looks like now: A less-overachieving-but-still-somewhat-overachieving team, whose point guard play has been better than you'd imagine, but whose point guard play still lowers the team's ceiling. The Magic need to get more from Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba.||2||19-27|
|23||Wizards||The early-season conclusion: What a disaster. This team needs to blow it up. What it looks like now: Before John Wall was shut down for the season, the Wizards were 13-22, ranking 20th and 28th in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. Since then, the Wizards are 5-4, ranking ninth and 15th in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. Not saying this team is better without John Wall; just saying this team is screwed in perpetuity because of that massive John Wall contract.||2||19-26|
|24||Grizzlies||The early-season conclusion: You really CAN win in the modern-day NBA with a slow-paced offense and an elite defense! On Dec. 8, the Grizzlies were 15-9 and 1.5 games out of first in the West, with the NBA's slowest pace and fourth-best defense. What it looks like now: Or maybe not. The Grizzlies have won four of their last 17 games. They've gone from the biggest surprise in the NBA to ... pretty much what we expected going into the season. That's what happens when you can't make buckets. Over the last month-plus, the Grizzlies have the lowest 3-point percentage in the NBA, and have scored fewer points than any team other than the Chicago Bulls.||2||19-27|
|25||Pistons||The early-season conclusion: Blake Griffin has successfully transitioned from a player who can dominate through phenomenal athleticism to a complete basketball player. What it looks like now: Blake has kept it up, even if the Pistons have been less than great. Blake is scoring a career-high 25.6 points per game, on career-high 36.3 percent 3-point shooting on a career-high 6.6 3-point attempts per game. He's going to be an All-Star again, but as a very different player than he was during his last All-Star appearance.||2||20-25|
|26||Hawks||The early-season conclusion: Trae Young is a historic bust, especially considering that the player he was traded for on draft night, Luka Doncic, is looking like a historically great rookie. Nineteen games into the season, the guy who captured the imagination of college basketball a year ago as Steph Curry 2.0 was shooting a pathetic 22.6 percent from downtown. Yes, his passing abilities were always what Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said he valued most in Young, but the putrid shooting is a major concern. What it looks like now: Not nearly as bad as it did back then. Since Nov. 25, Young is shooting a perfectly acceptable 35.5 percent from deep. Although passing on Doncic still seems like an enormous error by the Hawks (and the team with the No. 2 pick, the Sacramento Kings), Young still has the goods to become something special. Such a slightly built, unique basketball player was always going to struggle in his transition to the NBA, especially considering he left college after only one season. We won't have a true gauge of what Young can become until three or four years into his career. His passing vision, at least, looks as advertised.||--||14-31|
|27||Suns||The early-season conclusion: This team isn't going to be anywhere near good this season, but at least there's something nice to work with. What it looks like now: The Devin Booker point guard experiment has gone well. DeAndre Ayton isn't Luka Doncic, but he's the second-best rookie in this freshman class. This team is "just" a Zion Williamson and a productive full-time point guard away from being competitive.||1||11-37|
|28||Bulls||The early-season conclusion: Gross. What it looks like now: Still gross. But with some promise from the youngsters.||1||10-36|
|29||Knicks||The early-season conclusion: Please tank. What it looks like now: The Knicks are getting the best of both worlds: They're tanking for a high draft pick at the same time that they're developing some intriguing young talents. Kevin Knox may not become a star, but he's got a whole lot to like. Mitchell Robinson has incredible defensive abilities, even if he's an offensive liability. Emmanuel Mudiay, Noah Vonleh and Allonzo Trier have been incredible scrap-heap pickups who could become rotation players for a while.||--||10-34|
|30||Cavaliers||The early-season conclusion: Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to give Kevin Love a monster contract extension in an ill-fated attempt to contend for the playoffs. What it looks like now: Worse than anyone ever could have imagined. And I'm writing that after having watched them upset the Lakers in Los Angeles on Sunday night. The best thing that could happen for Cleveland is a complete liquidation, and for someone to take on that Love contract.||--||9-38|
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