Tuesday, May 30 2023

If your personal sports calendar has Christmas marked as the start of the NBA season, don’t worry, I’m here to help fill you in on what you’ve missed so far, and to point out what to look for in the day’s slate of (for you) season-opening games.

The good news: GMs, scouts, coaches and executives uniformly believe the best is yet to come.

“I would describe it as one of the best seasons we’ve seen in a long time,” said Cleveland Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff.

It’s not all that surprising that Bickerstaff would be giddy. The Cavaliers made arguably the only offseason blockbuster move that has actually worked out for both teams, acquiring All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. The Cavs currently sit third in the Eastern Conference, and if that holds, it would be their highest regular-season finish since 2017, when they subsequently reached the NBA Finals. The Jazz — whether they intended to or not — have also been unexpectedly good, in large part because of forward Lauri Markkanen, the No. 7 pick in 2017, whose passivity threatened to take him out of the league. Suddenly, he’s gone HAM, alternately crushing rims and burying 3s.

Among moves that haven’t worked out so far: the Minnesota Timberwolves acquiring the Jazz’s All-Star center Rudy Gobert. While the T-Wolves paid a hefty price — five players and four first-round picks — it was expected to solidify them as a playoff team, yet they currently sit 10th in the Western Conference. The Atlanta Hawks also went open-wallet shopping, acquiring one-time All-Star guard Dejounte Murray from the San Antonio Spurs for Danilo Gallinari and three future first-round picks. The Hawks are currently seventh in the East.

While daubers might be down in Atlanta and Minnesota, their struggles have put the league’s parity on par with the NFL, where 26 teams still have a shot at making the playoffs with three games to go. In the NBA, four games separate the top 10 teams in the Western Conference, and the last-place Houston Rockets are a mere 11.5 games out of first.

“It’s one of the more unique seasons we have ever seen in terms of the parity,” a Western Conference scout said. “Obviously, the West is a crapshoot. I literally think the healthiest team come playoff time between Memphis, New Orleans, Warriors, Suns, Nuggets, Clippers or the Mavericks, assuming every team either stands pat or makes a positive trade, will be favored to win.”

The East is slightly more tiered, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Cavs stacked at the top, and the No. 7 Hawks, No. 8 Indiana Pacers and No. 9 Miami Heat all sporting near identical records.

“The season has been somewhat fascinating, actually, watching some of the best teams go through losing streaks and some of the worst teams have winning streaks,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “There are no off nights, that’s for sure.”

Case in point: The defending champion Warriors, whose five-game losing streak earlier this season included losses to the East’s three worst teams in the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic. There’s no telling how much the Warriors’ early struggles should be attributed to a viral video of Draymond Green cold-cocking teammate Jordan Poole in training camp, but it assuredly didn’t help.

At the other end of the spectrum are the perennially hapless Sacramento Kings, who won seven in a row in November, their longest winning streak since 2005.

The Kings’ rise and the Warriors’ slide are also part of an overall shift in the Western Conference. The Warriors and Lakers, two of the last three conference title winners, as of today wouldn’t even qualify for the play-in tournament, while the Kings and Pelicans are firmly entrenched in the postseason picture. And the most compelling Christmas Day matchup is the nightcap between the Suns and Nuggets.

“A changing of the guard in the wild, wild west,” said a Western Conference scout.

That could include the star player hierarchy as well. LeBron James will once again be part of the Christmas Day festivities, but for how much longer? The 11:30 a.m. PT tipoff against the Mavericks is the earliest he’s been on since he moved to L.A. The Lakers appear headed to the lottery for a second year in a row, especially now that Anthony Davis is out with a foot injury for an indefinite period of time.

James’ greatest nemesis over the last decade, Steph Curry, is facing a challenge to his relevance as well. Curry is playing as well as ever, on pace to produce his second 50-40-90 season and post career highs in rebounds and assists per minute — but even with all that, the Warriors were lottery-bound before a left-shoulder injury sidelined him.

Individual stardom only goes so far.

But the overt race to land the No. 1 pick and 7-foot French center Victor Wembanyama has not materialized so far. “No Victor sweepstakes,” a Western Conference GM said. “Teams will probably shut down late but no one is doing so early.”

And then there’s the Brooklyn Nets, who have been a little bit of everything — good, bad and, of course, controversial. The good: their current eight-game winning streak and the play of Kevin Durant, a four-time scoring champ who is putting up points at a career-high pace (40.3 per 100 possessions — Basketball Reference). The bad: a 2-6 start that cost head coach Steve Nash his job and an eight-game team-imposed suspension for Kyrie Irving after he posted the cover of an antisemitic film on his social media feed and initially refused to apologize. That led Nets owner Joe Tsai, the players union and commissioner Adam Silver to roundly chastise Irving publicly until he relented.

All of which has the entire league looking at the Nets warily, uncertain if they’ll explode or implode.

Said one Eastern Conference GM of the Nets: “They literally scare the hell out of everyone because you just don’t know what they can do.”

The conference’s defending champions, the Celtics, had their own spate of controversy, with head coach Ime Udoka being suspended right before training camp for allegedly sexually harassing several women in the organization. Assistant Joe Mazzulla was installed as the interim coach. Since then, though, they’ve shown no signs of a hangover, winning a league-high nine games in a row thanks to the league’s most efficient offense.

The Bucks, meanwhile, have had the evenest of keels. They opened the season 9-0 without All-Star guard Khris Middleton, and their longest losing streak is two, which they’ve suffered once. Giannis Antetokounmpo is telling dad jokes, taking his time at the free-throw line — sometimes too much time, resulting in several forfeited free-throw attempts — and scoring at a career-high pace (31.6). Coach Mike Budenholzer has decided that defending corner 3s might be a good idea after not doing so saw the Celtics send the Bucks home in last year’s second round. Brook Lopez is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Even Grayson Allen has gone months now without being accused of doing something dirty.

Finding out which team has the edge is part of the charm of the Christmas Day schedule. The Bucks and Celtics will face off for the first time this season in the middle of the five-game slate. That edge could be determined by their respective league MVP candidates, Giannis and Jayson Tatum. What to watch for: how much Budenholzer allows Giannis to guard Tatum and whether Tatum wilts, having marred an otherwise impressive season so far with underwhelming performances against some of the Celtics’ most heated rivals recently (Heat and Warriors).

Who shows out could impact the league MVP race, which is as crowded and undecided as the team standings. Dallas’ Luka Doncic once again entered as the preseason favorite and once again appears to have had that parade canceled already, thanks in largest part to the Mavs struggling to stay above .500. In all, though, Christmas Day will feature seven of the top 10 MVP candidates currently listed on NBA.com‘s MVP Ladder: Antetokounmpo, Tatum, Doncic, Nuggets center (and reigning two-time MVP) Nikola Jokic, Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and Suns guard Devin Booker.

For the casual fan, this last bit of news may seem rather mundane because it’s not about a specific player or a team but a rule: traveling. NBA referees are now calling it! I kid you not. The same league that surreptitiously expanded the number of steps a player can legally take between dribbles from 1.5 to 3 has been cracking down on all manner of inappropriate ball handling and footwork. Carrying the ball, as in the act of holding it for a count in one hand before continuing to dribble, has been another point of emphasis. Sliding pivot feet, especially on step-back moves to get behind the 3-point line, is a third.

And the whistles haven’t been the just-to-show-we-care type, as in making one or two calls on role players early in the game and that’s it. A couple of weeks ago, 10 traveling violations were whistled in a game between the Warriors and Mavericks, including back-to-back calls on All-Stars Doncic and Curry. The Warriors’ chance at tying or winning the game in the final seconds was erased by yet another traveling violation called on Curry.

The question is, will the referees keep it up? Will they have the guts to make the same call with a playoff berth or postseason win hanging in the balance?

“A lot of the best players have those questionable moves to create their shots,” a Western Conference scout said. “Will those calls be made at critical moments come playoff time?”

One of many looming questions this season. You already have the rest. Let the Christmas Day games begin.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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