We’re a month and a half in and things have been really exciting, and I got a column done on time! Let’s dive right in.
Nobody got a hotter start to the season than the Kings, and that’s mostly because nobody got a hotter start than DeMarcus Cousins. The guy has been putting together an absolute beast of a season so far – easily his best yet and the third best in the league behind only James Harden and LeBron James. This team is good…but is it really 21-1 good? Maybe not. Despite owning the best record in the league and playing in a weak Pacific division, the Kings have only scored the sixth most points in the league. They’re a lot closer in terms of points to teams like the Knicks, Bulls and Raptors than they are to the top three teams in scoring so far: the Pelicans, Mavs and Hornets. Sacramento is easily a top team as long as Boogie keeps producing, and Bradley Beal taking yet another big step forward is great news. As with many of the teams we’re used to calling elite in this league, though, depth might be a concern. After Beal, the talent drops off considerably. Barton, Wade, Gay and Mike James are all contributing at decent clips, but I wouldn’t call any of their situations stable. McBuckets has improved as a basketball player, but it’s not translating to fantasy. And Chriss has actually regressed. It will be difficult for the Kings to improve through trade using only their bench assets, but this team could get a lot better in a hurry if they’re willing to part with one of their three likely lottery picks over the next two years. The Kings could go in a lot of different directions, but with Cousins and Beal having their best seasons yet, they should roll the dice and see how far they can go.
My word, has this team looked good. The Blazers would still have a perfect record if it weren’t for a roster violation a few weeks ago. And that’s with DeAndre Jordan and Jimmy Butler taking a step back. Damian Lillard is having an MVP type season, but the real reason for this team’s success is its depth. With six players averaging 30 or more points a game, Portland is one of our league’s deepest squads. If Ibaka starts putting up better numbers, this team looks absolutely deadly. Losing Beverley for the season is a real bummer, but the Blazers had six players better than him anyway, so it’s not a colossal loss. Lillard, DJ and Butler remain the core here, but Portland owes much of its success to a breakout season from Tim Hardaway Jr., he of the much-maligned contract. In New York, THJ has basically become an offense unto himself, essentially by default. With the Knicks playing better than expected, I don’t anticipate Hardaway slowing down at all this year. JJ Redick is having his best season yet. Thad Young has come back to life yet again. The Blazers do have some disappointing pieces on the bench – namely the Cavs duo of Jae Crowder and JR Smith – but this team is still looking like one of the very best.
I have to admit it: I was dead wrong about this team. Granted, I made my predictions about them before the Dwight Howard trade, but still, I was wrong. At almost 33 years old, LeBron James is somehow having his best season ever. And that really is saying something. Dwight has been doing Dwight things. He continues to be much maligned, and he’s not Superman anymore, but the dude is just flat out useful in fantasy. And of course Porzingis has unleashed full unicorn mode this season. With Melo out, Kristaps has taken a monumental step forward in his development and is a sure top-15 player in the league. There is still room for improvement here, as the Knicks are barely above division rivals Toronto and sub-.500 Brooklyn in the scoring standings, but New York has to be pleased with the production it’s gotten from guys like Ulis, Chalmers and Moore. Toronto has its first ever challenger for the Atlantic crown, and it’ll likely be a two-man race over the course of the rest of the season.
Is it possible to have a quiet 20-2 start? If it is, Dallas has done it. With injuries to the Pelicans and Spurs, the Mavs have stormed out to grab this division by the throat in the early goings. After starting the summer off with a bang by (relatively easily) acquiring early MVP frontrunner James Harden, Dallas continued improving by adding players who have had breakout seasons, like Lee, Collison and especially Victor Oladipo, who has become a borderline elite fantasy option. The Mavs finished with the sixth-worst record last year and are now the second-best team in the league in terms of scoring. Talk about a transformation. This has been a masterful turnaround, especially considering how quickly it was done, and it’s leaving teams like New Orleans and San Antonio pretty nervous – especially with their mounting injuries. This team is a title contender.
Surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly), a lot of teams. This is really the first year where there are a lot of truly bad teams. In the past, there were always three or four bottom feeders, but so far there are five teams who have yet to hit the 5-win mark and three more who are just above that mark. As the years progress, the teams are slowly migrating into three categories: the elite, the .500 teams and the teams all the way at the bottom. Usually it’s pretty rare in this league for a lot of teams to go around .500, but so far we’ve got 10 teams hovering around that mark. It seems to be the natural order of things. The good teams have become a lot better and there are several bona fide super teams this season. The bad teams have gotten worse. So the rest of us really have no other course of action than to suck up the wins from the teams on decline, but still get crushed by the giants of the league. It’s a race to the bottom for anywhere from six to eight teams for one of those sweet high lottery picks. In looking at next year’s draft class, it kind of seems like there’s a clear top five of elite prospects and the talent kind of really falls off after that. My feeling is things are going to get really ugly for some of these teams soon. Godspeed.
WHO’S MAKIN’ MOVES
After auctioning off almost everyone from last year’s record-setting 71-win team for picks, the Hawks just as quickly turned it right back around and began selling off the picks (and injured players) to fill out the roster in an attempt to come back from a 1-10 start. So far it’s worked. They’ve gone 8-3 since. But did they wait too long? And did they get enough value back? The Hawks effectively turned Oladipo, Millsap, Ariza, Reggie Jackson, Tyler Johnson, Lou Williams, Rondo, Redick and Dwight into Thon Maker, Evan Fournier, Draymond Green, Robin Lopez, Derrick Favors, DJ Augustin and KCP – and only two first round picks remain. Nevertheless, it was a bold and admirable decision by Atlanta to defy the tradition of tanking and put up a good fight. The Hawks are now the likeliest candidate to grab one of the East’s last two playoff spots, but they went through a lot of changes to get here. Let’s see how the strategy pans out.
THE EAST’S MIDDLE OF THE PACK
In the Eastern Conference, there are six clear playoff teams: Indiana, Charlotte, Chicago, New York, Toronto and Milwaukee. There are another seven that will be fighting for those last two playoff spots: Atlanta, Miami, Washington, Detroit, Brooklyn, Orlando and Philadelphia. That’s right. We’re a month and a half into the season and only two teams in the East are definitely out of the playoff picture: Boston and Cleveland. I don’t think we’ve ever had that happen before. The playoff picture, especially in the East, has always been pretty open and shut pretty much right out of the gate. But this season? Intrigue! There’s so much to dissect here. So now I’ll break off of this segment and rank these seven teams by their likeliness to make the playoffs.
After their in-season quick fix turnaround, the Hawks clearly have the best roster of these teams. No one else in this conversation can really match the output Atlanta will be getting from guys like Green, Fournier and KCP for the rest of the season as presently constructed. I wouldn’t say any team is a lock to make the postseason, but Atlanta is closest.
The Heat should definitely have been a sure playoff team, but they’ve been seriously let down by some new acquisitions like Tyler Johnson, Cody Zeller and the always injured Danilo Gallinari. Mainstays like Valanciunas have been extremely disappointing, as well. I believe Miami still should make the postseason, but it’ll be hard to get there when the team is relying on Goran Dragic and Harrison Barnes to get it done.
I really think Washington would be a shoe-in if Wall was still around, but alas. This team still has so much young talent that is performing way above expectations, chiefly Sabonis and Kuzma. Jrue Holiday has returned to form this season and whether or not he sticks around could determine if the Wizards make the playoffs this year. With some not-yet-totally-developed prospects like Skal, Kennard and even Julius Randle still, along with four first round picks, the Wizards have options.
I would have ranked myself higher if I still had Fournier, but it’s not likely that I’m getting to the playoffs this year with Steven Adams as my best player. Fultz’s injury and Derrick Rose’s disappearing act have kind of sunk the ship, and it’s already too late for me to get a good pick in the summer. Oh well. At least Ingram is looking good. And hey! Gordon Hayward next year!
This team has become a major sleeper and could skyrocket with some more moves. LaMarcus Aldridge has somehow miraculously become a great player again. Will he keep it up when Kawhi comes back? I dunno. But it’s encouraging. Melo might be having his last useful season in fantasy, but he’s still good for now. CP3 is doing the thing where he refuses to try and score, but he’s still great and, from a non-scoring perspective, is having one of the best pure point guard seasons of all time. Seriously, that assist-turnover ratio is insane. But after those three the production falls off a cliff. Brogdon and Crabbe have been decent, but almost everyone else on the roster is scoring in the teens or worse. Philly can get there, but as of now, they’re on the outside looking in.
I don’t think Detroit can quite get there, but if they do, it’ll be because of Lou Williams, and yes, I know that is a truly crazy thing to say. But when other guys are injured like they are on the Clippers, Lou goes nuts. Look at his scoring over the past week or so. This is an official advertisement on behalf of the Pistons to trade Lou for some really nice prize. Detroit has a lot of things laying in wait, chief among them Jahlil Okafor. We’ve all heard the song a million times. He’s really good at a couple of things but can’t get any time with Embiid there and he’d average 20 and 10 on the Bulls and bla bla. The good news for Detroit is that most of their players – Hield, the Portland power forwards, Okafor, Nance, Hernangomez – are looking at an upward trajectory. Not this year, but maybe next year.
The Magic seem to be a bit mired in mediocrity, and there is no depth to speak of. Tyreke Evans is having a great season and Reggie Jackson is back-ish…but that’s pretty much it. Ross, Monroe, Ariza…those guys are all fine, but they’re probably never going to give you more than they’re doing right now. Where does Orlando go from here? They could sell off Evans and Jackson, or they could see what’s out there for Bender if they want to make a playoff run. Could go either way.
And that’s it for this month! Let me know what you think about how this season is going so far.