We’re not even in mid-December yet and the NBA season is 25 percent done — a byproduct of a mid-October start. There are so many story lines that are making the season breeze by.
The China controversy seems like a couple of years ago. The Houston Rockets are in the midst of another controversy after James Harden’s made dunk was inexplicably ruled a miss because of the decrepit nets in San Antonio.
Seven weeks into the season, Carmelo’s back, Fizdale’s fired, the Warriors are a lottery team, and the Cavaliers are already tired of John Beilein.
Here’s 10 things we have already learned about the 2019-20 season:
1. There’s going to be a new Finals representative in the Western Conference. Golden State went from five consecutive Finals to the worst team in the NBA in a matter of months. Kevin Durant left. Stephen Curry got hurt. Klay Thompson blew out his knee during the Finals. Their young players just aren’t that good or aren’t ready. The Warriors are already prepping for next year when they get a lottery pick while Curry and Thompson return.
2. LeBron James ain’t getting old. He missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, allowing his body to rest but his pride to be damaged after a failed first season in Los Angeles. He did more than watch his son play ball in the offseason. James reenergized himself and has reclaimed his crown as the best all-around player in the game with the help of Anthony Davis. The Lakers are indeed back.
3. Don’t feel sorry for the Toronto Raptors. It was supposed to be a transition season for the Raptors after they lost Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers. They were going to slip in the East, perhaps sneaking into the playoffs. Uh, that hasn’t happened. The Raptors remain one of the best teams in the league with their teamwork, the improvement of Pascal Siakam, and a relentless defensive style that has not allowed for any slippage.
4. Milwaukee is still plenty mad about last season. The Bucks have raced to the league’s best record behind reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and a revamped lineup that was honestly embarrassed about their playoff thumping at the hands of the Raptors. The Bucks have established themselves as the favorites in the East.
5. Give Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham the Most Improved Player award right now. How many of you fantasy basketball players actually saw Graham drafted in your league? He was a backup to Kemba Walker last season and was supposed to stay there with Terry Rozier coming in. Instead, he has turned into a deluxe scorer and the Hornets’ unquestioned offensive leader. He’s improved his scoring average a whopping 14.4 points from last season (4.7 to 19.1).
6. The Utah Jazz aren’t all that good. Remember when the Jazz were mentioned in the same breath as the Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets in the West? The Jazz were 12-10 entering Friday and have lost every matchup against a contender this season. The Jazz could emerge as a contender, but they are one of the league’s disappointments so far.
7. The Spurs’ streak could end. San Antonio has been to the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons and they got off to a 4-1 start this season. Suddenly, the Spurs turned into the Bengals, losing 13 of their next 17 games. It will be difficult for the Spurs to come back in the treacherous Western Conference.
8. Carmelo Anthony is very much alive and well. After nearly a year away from the game, a miserable 10-game stint with the Rockets, and a salary-dump trade to the Bulls, Anthony is back with the Trail Blazers, averaging 17 points and shooting nearly 39 percent from the 3-point line after being considered elderly in a young man’s league.
9. The Knicks are still dysfunctional. Not only did they waste cap space after missing out on Durant and Kyrie Irving, they turned into one of the worst teams in the league with a mismatched roster and a coach who appeared to be over his head. David Fizdale was fired after a 4-18 start.
10. Kyrie is being Kyrie. While Irving was supposed to lift the Nets into a major contender, they have played better without him in the lineup. The Nets are 4-7 with Irving healthy and 8-3 with him sidelined with a shoulder impingement. The Celtics also had a winning record with Irving out of the lineup. Is this a coincidence?
Nuggets’ Jokic set bar high last year
Nikola Jokic was an MVP candidate last season, averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists for a team that reached the Western Conference semifinals. But he’s been a shell of himself statistically this season, averaging 5 fewer points and shooting 5 percent less from the field and 8 percent lower from the 3-point line.
The Nuggets are still winning mostly with six players averaging in double figures, but if they want to accomplish their lofty goals of reaching the NBA Finals, Nokic is going to have to return to his All-Star level.
“We’re trying to be a selfless team and when your best player conforms to the culture you’re trying to create, that makes it much easier for everybody else to fall in line,” Denver coach Mike Malone said. “Nikola is a guy that doesn’t want any credit. He just wants to win. That’s why I love him — the only thing that matters to him is winning basketball games. He doesn’t care who gets the credit.
“We are at our best when he’s playing at a high level like he did in the playoffs. That’s our focus right now, getting him more involved and continue to let him make plays for us.”
There’s speculation that Jokic is exhausted from Serbia’s run in the World Cup or that he didn’t exactly enter camp in pristine condition. Or perhaps he feels the pressure of being one of the league’s top returning players, expected to surpass a career season.
“I’m around him every day and he’s in great spirits,” Malone said. “I think he’s going through a tough stretch, I really do, and this is the first time where I’ve seen him go through this and we all forget how young he is and how hard it is to get through those, and that’s why sometimes I may be a little overly defensive with him because not many guys can average 16, 10, and 6, and everybody is saying, ‘What the hell is wrong with Nikola?’ That speaks to how great he is, and as I told him in the playoffs, he set that bar so high. He was phenomenal.
“And now he comes back down to earth a little bit and everybody says, ‘What’s wrong with Nikola?’ I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him, I just think him getting that confidence back and seeing that ball go through the net.”
Denver entered Friday’s game with the Celtics 21st in league scoring and 18th in shooting percentage. The Nuggets have relied on their defense.
“Offensively, we’ve been all over the place,” Malone said. “The defense has been a constant, our anchor. But the offense, you catch us two or three different games and we look like two or three different teams. All of our shooting percentages are low, bottom 10 in the NBA. We feel we’ve been generating good looks, but it’s a matter of getting Nikola going. He’s a guy that kind of sets the table for us and [Thursday] night the great thing about it, he didn’t score. He’s averaging 15-10-6 and he had eight assists and no turnovers and made the right plays time and time again, which is what you want from a selfless franchise player.
“Last year is when it started. We were a top-10 defensive team and the greatest thing about it was we went from 30th in 3-point defense to first, and I think we talked about it going into this season if we want to be a great team, if we want to go further than the Western Conference semifinals, we have to find ways to improve more and not be satisfied.”
Barton produces under the radar
Will Barton is probably the best player that only true fans are aware of. He has flourished during his five years with the Nuggets, emerging as one of the league’s more effective two-way players. He is an elite defender as well as a strong shooter (45 percent from the field, 42.2 from the 3-point line).
Yet he can likely walk the streets of any NBA city outside of Denver and not be recognized. Barton has helped the Nuggets become one of the contenders in the Western Conference with his overall improvement and ability to fill different roles.
Barton smiles when asked if he’s one of the league’s best-kept secrets. The answer is a resounding yes.
“You can definitely say that,” he said. “We’re a small-market team and we don’t have a big superstar. [Nikola] Jokic is a star, but he just plays basketball, keeps his head down, and does what he does. I think the people around me know that I can play though, and that’s all that matters to me, my peers know what I can do. That’s it.”
A 2012 second-round pick by the Trail Blazers from Memphis, Barton earned the nickname “Thrill” for his ability to score in bunches. He was sent to Denver as part of a 2015 trade deadline deal for Arron Afflalo. The Nuggets won that deal, as Barton developed into a dependable sixth man and now a productive starter.
“He’s so trustworthy making the right reads, finding guys in the pocket, making late passes at the rim or finishing, which is what you want when you play pick-and-roll,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “You want a guy that’s thinking, let me get downhill and now engage that big. He’s been in the league for a while, the game is slowing down for him. He’s reading things better. He’s not forcing the issue. The ball’s going to be in his hands plenty. So he’s slowing down, making the right play, and making the right reads.”
The Nuggets aren’t on ESPN or TNT often. They play in relative obscurity until the playoffs and Barton’s talents get overlooked. The Nuggets also possess a lot of even-talent players — Jokic, Barton, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, and Paul Millsap – but no real superstars.
“We all have different personalities and talents,” said Barton. “A lot of people probably don’t get to see it because we’re such a small market. With me, I’ve always been about winning and I know to win you’ve got to play with other good players. You can’t be the only good player on your team and expect to win at a high level. I always try to put the team first and have the attitude of just wanting to win, so it’s easy for me to get along with guys and have my guys’ back. It’s almost like a family. I don’t want to let my guys down, so I take pride in that.”
The Nuggets entered last season’s playoffs as the No. 2 seed and beat the Spurs in seven games in the first round before losing Game 7 to the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference semifinals. That left an unsavory taste in Denver and the Nuggets have sought to improve.
“That’s why we took the early steps on the defensive side of the ball this year,” Barton said. “It’s still early in the season, but I feel like we’re making huge strides. We’re doing that because of the run we had in the playoffs and we know if we want to be the team we want to be we’ve got to play defense.”
The Nuggets had a home game against the streaking Lakers this past week and were thumped, 105-96, a strong indication there’s more to do to compete with the elite.
“I look at it differently. I try to look at it like, they got LeBron [James], they got AD [Anthony Davis], but at the same time they’re in the same boat as us. They’re a new team. They haven’t won anything,” Barton said. “So we’ve got to go out and just compete at a high level. We know they’re pretty good, but no one’s the champions right now so we’ve got to be our own measuring stick.
“If we all buy in, I feel like the sky is the limit. I feel like we’ve got everything we need to win at a high level and win a championship, but we just can’t talk about it, we’ve got to be about it.”
The Knicks’ firing of David Fizdale should come as no surprise. He was essentially being used as a scapegoat for general manager Scott Perry and president Steve Mills for weeks. The Knicks are off to a horrid 4-18 start and lost their past two games by a combined 81 points. Fizdale definitely deserves his share of blame because he did not develop younger players in the process of losing. Before this past week’s loss to the Celtics, Fizdale explained how he planned to get second-year forward Kevin Knox out of a season-long slump. Knox averaged nearly 13 points per game during his rookie season, but that has dwindled to 7.9. The Knicks signed Marcus Morris to a one-year deal (he’ll be a major trade chip come February) and Morris soaked up Knox’s role. Fizdale was not able to get Knox untracked, and he played musical point guards with Frenchman Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr., both former lottery picks. Neither seems ready to take on the primary role at point guard and the organization will have to figure out what to do when free agent signee Elfrid Payton returns from a hamstring injury. One interesting point Fizdale made after the 9-point loss to the Celtics was his team still doesn’t know how to close games. But Fizdale was playing veterans such as Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Smith, and Taj Gibson down the stretch. If the Knicks weren’t able to close out games with veterans, that’s an indictment on the roster and Fizdale. The perception was Fizdale got a raw deal during his brief stint with the Grizzlies and he was a rising coach ready to lead a young team to prosperity. But the Knicks never responded to his coaching and he had a mismatched roster filled with point guards and power forwards. Who will coach the Knicks next? There is no right answer because many qualified coaches may stay away from the position because of the chaos and the team’s recent history. Fizdale will likely join a staff next season as an assistant, while Perry and Mills will keep their jobs . . . Carmelo Anthony, 35, being named the NBA’s player of the week should serve as vindication that he wasn’t exactly done as a player, and that aging players can still contribute to teams with playoff aspirations . . . The Nets were seeking a defender and energy player when they signed Iman Shumpert for the rest of the season, and he has etched his spot in their rotation. Shumpert had to wait until the first few weeks of the season to land an NBA job. J.R. Smith, Joakim Noah, Jonathan Simmons, and three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford are still available for work. Crawford, who played last season with the Suns, deserves another opportunity and could help a team. Ten-day contracts become available on Jan. 5 and interest in veterans should spark then.