NBA 2017/18: The season so far

December has arrived and the first quarter of the regular season has been played. This is the Overtime Online’s Quarterly NBA Update.

What we expected

The Golden State Warriors were the overwhelming favourites to win their third championship in four years before the season started and nothing has happened to change this situation. Even an injury to two-time MVP Steph Curry has not hindered their dominance, with all-stars Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green stepping up their production. 2017 Finals MVP Durant is fully utilising his unique athletic ability and is channeling it like never before on the defensive end. The champions will be focusing on their christmas day game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, which will be live on BT Sport.

The biggest challenge to the Warriors’ reign looks like it will come from the Houston Rockets, who are leading the Western Conference with the best offence in the league. James Harden continues to play at an MVP level, while the team are 11-0 when Chris Paul plays alongside him in the backcourt. The all-stars have fit together seamlessly in Mike D’Antoni’s high-tempo offence, shooting more three-point attempts than any team in history (43.2). The biggest improvement from last season, when Houston’s regular season led to D’Antoni winning Coach of the Year, has been the team’s defence. The Rockets are currently 7th in defensive efficiency after the clever low-key summer signings of Paul, Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J Tucker. The only question will be how the Rockets match up with the Warriors in a seven-game playoff series. On paper, they have the squad to challenge, but past failings of their two leaders in important post-season games leaves the Warriors as clear favourites until proven otherwise.

Magic Johnson statue outside Staples Center, the home of the Los Angeles Lakers.

When Magic Johnson, the greatest point guard of all-time and the current Los Angeles Lakers GM, drafted Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick in last summer’s draft, expectations were raised unrealistically high. Lonzo’s father, the highly outspoken Lavar Ball, continued to raise the bar by predicting a 50-win season. After shining in Summer League, by the time the Lakers stepped onto the court for their first game of the season, Lonzo had become the most hyped rookie to enter the league since LeBron James in 2003. After 25 games, however, the Lakers are right where we would expect them to be. Ball has shown glimpses of his abilities to make teammates better by using his unique passing skills, pushing the tempo and limiting turnovers. He has also looked passive, is statistically the worst shooter in the league and is not even the best rookie on the team. Kyle Kuzma looks like the steal of this year’s draft, while Brandon Ingram has finished stronger at the basket in his second season. The Lakers also have the best bench in the league, but will miss out of the playoffs before the big battle in free agency in 2018.

What we did not expect

The Boston Celtics have experienced both the highest highs and the lowest lows of any team this season. After losing their marquee free-agent acquisition Gordon Hayward just five minutes into the season to a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle, their season looked to be over. Brad Stevens, considered the best young coach in the league by most, instead masterminded a 16-game win streak despite bringing back only four players from last season’s squad. The biggest surprise on the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference has been the efficiency of rookie Jayson Tatum, who is the only player in the league shooting 50% of his three-point attempts.

Despite the hot shooting of Tatum and the impressively relentless aggression shown by Donovan Mitchell in Utah, Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers is the consensus Rookie of the Year at this point of the season. The number one draft pick in 2016 missed his entire first year to a foot injury, but is beginning to revolutionise the point guard position with his unique combination of size and speed. This athleticism allows him to get to the rim with ease, a useful tool given that his jump shot has yet to develop. If it eventually does, Simmons could go on to form the most dangerous one-two punch in the NBA alongside his young and equally dominant teammate Joel Embiid, provided both are able to stay healthy. It has been remarkable to see such young players showing leadership and having a huge affect on winning games so early in their careers. British fans will be able to enjoy watching the young Sixers take on the first-seed Celtics on January 11th, in the most exciting match-up to come to the O2 Arena since the NBA Global Games began.

Tickets for the 8th NBA games to be played at the O2 Arena sold out within minutes.

The team who were commended for making the best off-season signings have unexpectedly been the most underwhelming team in the league so far. The Oklahoma City Thunder capped off their super summer by signing league MVP Russell Westbrook to a new five year contract, after adding Paul George from Indiana and Carmelo Anthony from New York. With a 12-14 record however, the Thunder are not even in the playoff positions and the position of coach Billy Donovan looks under threat. Pinpointing where the blame lies is not easy, however, with the three all-stars each shooting less efficiently than in recent seasons. The lack of ball movement is also something which will need to be solved if this team are going to stay together and be successful.

The MVP Race

LeBron James returned to Cleveland in 2015 and won the city its first ever NBA championship a year later.

LeBron James has been the unanimous best player in the NBA for the past decade but has not won the award since the 2012-13 season, mostly due to voter fatigue. James has led his team to the second best record in the East, despite injury and controversy surrounding his team. His nearest competitor, James Harden, is leading the league in points (32.3) and is second in assists (9.2). Last year’s MVP runner-up has also led the Houston Rockets to the best record in the league (20-4).

Last year’s winner Russell Westbrook has so far failed to gel with his new teammates and is shooting less efficiently than in previous years. Although considered among the league’s best, former MVPs Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have missed games and will continue to share the credit for their team’s success, to the detriment of their own individual award ambitions.

This year’s MVP dark horse is a 6’11” Greek phenom named Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 23 year-old has lifted the Milwaukee Bucks franchise into an Eastern Conference playoff position, giving us highlights such as this along the way:

Last season the ‘Greek Freak’ became the first player in NBA history to finish the season in the top 20 in the league in the five main statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals) and has picked up where he left off last season. Antetokounmpo is a perfect example of the direction the modern NBA is beginning to take; an athletic player who can guard any position and a major part of the movement of players from Europe who are finding success in the league.

Trade season approaching

More than 90% of the the league became eligible to be traded this week and the trade deadline is fast approaching. At this time of the season, teams will assess their current situation and direction they are heading in. Some league executives will feel that their team is a trade a way from being contenders, while those seeing their teams slip out of playoff contention towards the lottery may be keen to offload their better players as they consider rebuilding their rosters. With this in mind, here are three highly impactful players who could be packing their bags for a new location in the new year.

DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers) – Now in his 10th season with the Clippers, Jordan is a versatile rim defender and is shooting the best free-throw percentage of his career at 60%, allowing him to stay on the court for longer at the end of games. Having lost Chris Paul in the off-season, however, the Clippers will probably miss the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons and may look to rebuild. Any team interesting in trading for Jordan will be looking for a long term commitment; the all-star’s contract has a player option for the 2018-19 season. The Bucks, keen to surround Antetokounmpo with a better supporting cast, could use Jordan’s rim protection.

Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies) – This year has been the most turbulent Grizzlies season since Gasol joined the roster in 2008. Letting Zach Randolph and Tony Allen leave meant a departure from the ‘grit n’ grind’ identity which formed the foundation of the Grizzlies’ recent playoff runs and their season took an unexpected turn with the firing of coach David Fizdale. Gasol apparently played a major role in the firing of Fizdale and an injury to fellow superstar Mike Conley led to an 11-game losing streak. In similar circumstances to Jordan and the Clippers, the Grizzlies might decide to move the 32 year-old on before having to pay him further. The Spaniard still has the ability, however, to take a team in need of a skilled big-man to the next level.

Paul George led the Pacers to three Conference Finals in his time with Indiana

Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder) – When Thunder GM Sam Presti made the deal to bring Paul George to Oklahoma City, he knew that the team had just one season to impress George enough for him to commit long-term. With one year left on his contract, and his ambitions to play for his hometown Lakers made public, the Thunder took a risk by taking the perennial all-star from Indiana in the summer, pairing him with MVP Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. Currently sitting outside the playoff positions in the Western Conference, if things do not improve by January, Presti could be forced to move George on once again or risk losing him for nothing. Because of his contract, teams will be hesitant to give up many assets in return.

(All statistics correct as of 14th December 2017)

 

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