The NBA is Finally back! After having the season suspended due to the coronavirus, it has warmed every NBA fan’s heart seeing the action return. While the NBA community has rejoiced at the opportunities of watching their favorite players on the court again, the focus from all the major media outlets has been on only the stars. And of course the top teams are going to receive the most media attention. However, at the start of this bubble, there are four teams that have really impressed me and have shown serious progress since the restart.
While some of these teams may not currently be contenders now, they show immense promise and could easily wreak havoc on the league for years to come. I’m going to shine a light on all these teams and provide my opinion on what has impressed me the most about each team and what they need to do to take that next step to be legitimate contenders.
What to Like: Player Development
I can’t express into words how much the Denver Nuggets have impressed me during this restart in terms of their ability to develop talent they have drafted in the past two years. Let’s start with the obvious surprise which has been Michael Porter Jr. This was a guy that many teams passed on due to health concerns and lack of playing time in the college game. And in the hand of lesser franchises, MPJ may have had his overall development rushed, or be placed in a role that would have caused him issues.
However, Coach Malone has wisely conserved this talent by carefully getting him opportunities throughout the year to grow and develop as a talent so that he will be ready to carry the weight of a star player. Porter has already had two games where he has scored 30+ points on great efficiency, and with the return of Harris and Jamal Murray, it should give him and more importantly this Nuggets offense an extraordinary boost.
The other player that I wanted to highlight is Bol Bol who is clearly still developing. But anyone that has watched this rookie play sees the potential upside he brings to a team. He is not only a very good defender and rim protector for his age, but he is also an incredible shooter, as he’s averaged 50% on three pointers this season.
Look, do I believe that the Nuggets are serious contenders for this year’s finals? Quite frankly, no, as they still have a ways to go to be in that conversation. However, if they continue on this trajectory, they not only will be eventually contending for a championship, but they will be one of the NBA powerhouse for years to come.
Things to improve: Experience
This will be the ultimate knock against the Nuggets. Quite frankly, this is something that can’t be fixed overnight. However, they are getting experience this year in the playoffs, and it will be incredibly crucial for Jokic, Murray, and especially MPJ. It’s a different type of game played in the playoffs, and it will be imperative for the Nugget to learn how to adjust in those circumstances, especially in tight games.
Right now, the Nuggets in clutch time rely heavily on Jamal Murray and while I understand the conventional wisdom of putting the ball in the hand of a guard/ball handler, I believe Jokic needs to be given those opportunities to shine in the clutch. He has proven the ability to hit big shots in the past, and despite being a center with no flash to his game, win or lose, I believe that by giving him the chance to lead his team in those moments will greatly enhance his confidence and the team’s success in the future.
What to Like: Monty Williams
Sink in the fact that the Suns have played against the Wizards Clippers, Mavericks and the Pacers. Yet, this team is undefeated in the bubble and have shown tremendous determination to earn a chance to get the final 8th seed. They also just recently knocked off the Heat to go 5-0 in the bubble. And a lot of their success has to go to Monty Williams who has not only been able to maximize his players talents from a basketball perspective, but also has done a great job motivating his players to work tirelessly to compete for that 8th spot.
Prior to restart, no analyst (including myself) gave the Suns a chance to win the 8th seed. And considering the fact that they had a difficult schedule and a tough path to get that 8th seed, that would have deterred many players and coaches. So for them to have the tenth seed with only one game behind to force a play-in game with Memphis is an unbelievable accomplishment.
The talent that they have is also finally being used properly and effectively. For years, I believed that the Suns had talent on their roster, but they were missing the coach/management craft and knowledge to be able to effectively use that talent to win games. Booker is looking like a legitimate All-Star, Dario is making great contributions off the bench, and Rubio is able to masterfully execute the offense established by Monty Williams. But the guy that has really impressed me has been the first overall pick Deandre Ayton.
In his draft class, the names that one always hears in the media are Trae Young and Luka Doncic. And rightfully so as both have been incredible for their franchise. However, people have forgotten about Ayton and the different things that he can bring to a team as either their center or power forward. He not only has an incredibly diverse offensive game, but will dominate the boards and is a serviceable rim protector. Williams has been able to get the most out of Ayton, and I look forward to seeing what other creative things Williams does for this team.
Things to improve: Consistency
The Suns are playing great right now but the question on everyone’s mind is whether they can maintain this success. In the beginning of the season, they were off to a very good start before they started reverting back to mediocrity. The challenge for Williams is not going to be cultivating the talent, but being able to consistently have that talent produce on a nightly basis. And while I believe they have a long way to go before they reach their zenith, Williams has placed them on the right path for contention.
What to Like: Defying Expectations
This team, while considered talented, was viewed as having a near impossible road to the playoffs due to their schedule. Despite the circumstances, Portland has continued to defy the expectations of the media world and has played amazing basketball in the bubble. This has propelled them to the ninth seed, and if the playoff started today, they would be a half a game away from playing the Grizzlies in a play-in series.
I have a lot of respect for the Trailblazers and all of the players that had to constantly defy the expectations the media has placed on them. Starting with the star backcourt of Lillard and McCollum. The duo have always been considered good but never in the conversation as one of the premier duos in the NBA. They are proving this season that whatever challenges they face, the Trailblazers can rely on these two guys to perform especially during the clutch.
For Carmelo Anthony, many considered him washed, and simply no longer able to contribute on a title contending team. However, he has shown that not only will he adjust his game to improve the team, but that he has enough in the tank to both propel himself and the Blazers forward into the playoffs.
There are also concerns about the bigs on whether Nurkic would be able to return to form, and the overall effort level of Whiteside. Both have proven their worth on this team as they both are great at abusing mismatching, protecting the rim, and dominating the boards. Admittedly, I don’t see the Trailblazers as legitimate contenders this year, but I have been impressed with their play thus far and look forward to seeing what other obstacles they will have to contend with for the remainder of the season
Thing to improve: Team Depth/Matchups
Despite doing so well, one of the bigger issues that I have with the Trailblazers is bench scoring. One player that I am going to be keeping an eye on though is Gary Trent Jr. He has played extremely well for them in the bubble, and off the bench he is averaging around 20 points which is great.
The big problem that I have concerns about is whether or not he will be able to continue scoring at high numbers during a playoff run. Because if he is unable to, then the Trailblazers are going to have a lot of issues. Also despite having a good team, their style of basketball is a bad matchup against both the Lakers and the Clippers.
While they can put up a fight against both teams, the fact that they have no answers against any of the opposing teams’ best players is incredibly concerning. However, the Trailblazers are used to being undervalued, and if there is a team primed to make an upset, it would be the Trailblazers.
What to Like: Offensive showcase
The final team that I find myself so impressed with are the Mavericks and their explosive offense. While people have talked about their offense in the past, there was concern that in a playoff format or against tougher competition their offense would not be able to produce at such high levels. This has, in my view, been proven wrong as the team is able to score at will against any opponent and this is due to two major factors.
One is their star duo in Doncic and Porzingis. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have proven to be one of the most dynamic and complimentary duos in the league. On the offensive end, their games compliment each other so well, and teams are forced to constantly double to prevent them from demolishing their defense.
As a stretch big, Porzingis works great in the pick and roll as defenses that switch everything are forced into a bad mismatch with Porzingis able to abuse the smaller player in the post. If they play zone or the center stays in the paint to guard the rims, Porzingis is able to stay behind the line for an open three.
Luka, on the other hand, is the ball handler constantly dissecting the defense to make the best basketball play. He is able to score in multiple different ways, and if not doubled, he will completely take over a game. The second piece to Dallas’ success are the role players. Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber, and Tim Hardway Jr are all great offensive players that can hit open shots or create of the dribble.
In addition, Coach Carlisle has done a great job defining the role of each player on the team and helping that player succeed in that role at a high level. They are an extremely fun team to watch, and don’t let the record fool you. They are going to be a tough matchup for any team they play against in the playoffs.
Things to improve: Defense
The Problem with Dallas is, ironically, their defense. They are, at best, mediocre with a defensive rating that is 17th in the league. If they want to become serious threats in the playoffs, they have to collectively work together to make it more difficult for the opposing team to score. There are two many offensive gems in the NBA to have a lackadaisical defense.
This starts with both Porzingis and Luka who have both clearly focused most of their attention this season on the offensive side of the ball. They both are going to be in constant actions defensively, and if they are unable to hold their ground, this team will have no chance at competing. However, if they are able to make serious improvements in their defense, they can be a team that makes an unexpected playoff run.