NBA Contenders and Pretenders at the start of December

The NBA is wide open, and the competitive balance throughout the league is something we have not seen since the Warriors dynasty started and since LeBron has been in the East. While the Eastern Conference still seems to be somewhat weak with only 3-4 potential contenders, the West still holds to be wide open with five or so teams looking to contend for a title. There are no Warriors to pencil in for the finals, and LeBron is going to have to now go through a competitive Western Conference to taste the finals again. Regular season success doesn’t always translate to postseason success, and while some teams are competing now, they may not hold up come April. Today we are going to take a look at the top teams in the league and separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Contenders:

Lakers

When you are a team sitting atop the Western Conference a quarter through the season, you are more than likely going to be pegged a contender. When you are a team sitting atop the Western Conference a quarter into the season with LeBron James and Anthony Davis on your team, you are 100% a contender.

The Lakers are 17-2 and 3.0 games up on Denver for the top spot in the West. The one knock early on for the Lakers is that they haven’t faced much competition. They are currently on a ten-game winning streak, but not a single team they faced during that stretch has a record above .500.

Some may point to this and say that the Lakers haven’t proved anything yet, but I see it more of the Lakers are handling business and beating teams that they should be beating. During their streak they are beating opponents by an average score of 10.2 and nothing suggests that they aren’t for real. The Lakers were hot in the month of November, where were are 14-1, one win off their franchise record for total wins in a calendar month.

As fun as the Lakers are to watch on the offensive end with LeBron and Anthony Davis, a large part of their early success has been their defense. They’re 4th in the league in defensive net rating and have five players currently boasting a defensive rating over 100.

These defensive numbers are going to be important to maintain as defense holds key come playoff time. With LeBron focusing more effort on the defensive end and having interior presences such as AD, Dwight Howard, and Javale McGee, it doesn’t seem like they are going to let up. The Lakers could very well end up with the best record out West, and if they escape with home-court advantage for the playoffs, there is no arguing that the Lakers are for real.

Clippers

The Clippers are similar to the Lakers due to the fact they have two of the best 10 players in the league on their roster. We haven’t seen much action of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard playing together so far due to some injuries, but the Clippers are being cautious and making sure that both these guys are going to be healthy when it really matters.

The Clippers are 4-1 in games that these two have played together beating teams by an average margin of 7.2 points. What separates the Clippers from the Lakers currently is that their depth outside of their two stars is much more established. After LeBron and Anthony Davis, the Laker’s next three leading scorers are Kyle Kuzma with 11.7 PPG, Avery Bradley with 9.6 PPG, and Danny Green with 8.6 PPG. The Clippers are much more balanced. After Kawhi and PG13, the Clippers still have Lou Williams who is averaging 21.7 PPG, Montrezl Harrell with 18.6 PPG, and Landry Shamet with 9.1 PPG. This is going to help the Clippers in the long run if they are going to continue to rest Kawhi Leonard in back to backs, and in the playoffs, they have other options if Kawhi and Paul George struggle shooting.

The month of December is going to test the Clippers, however, as they will face off against some of the top teams in the league on the road, all in a short period of time.

If Leonard continues to rest on the second half of back to backs, this stretch will test the depth of the Clips and see if they can hold up without the best player in the league. There’s no argument to be made if the Clippers will make the playoffs, and if they make it to April with a fully healthy squad, there is a good chance they will be the favorites to win it all. After all, they were the favorites to hoist the trophy at the start of the season.

Nuggets

The Nuggets are quietly 14-3 and second in the Western Conference to start the season. If it weren’t for a 42-point outing by Trae Young, and a blown 17-point lead against the Kings, the Nuggets would have had a perfect November and be sitting at 16-1. After having a season last year in which Nikola Jokic was receiving MVP consideration, he has taken a statical step back. On paper, this would cause people to worry about Denver’s star center, but Jokic is still providing the Nuggets with exactly what they need. Their offense is still running through the Joker, and when the team needs a big shot, Jokic has no fear to step up as he hit two game-winners in the month of November.

The Nuggets are also one of the most complete and well-rounded teams in the league. All five of their starters are averaging in double figures in points scored, and currently leading the NBA in team defensive rating at 101.9.

Last year the Nuggets had a top 10 offense to go with their 7th ranked defense, but this year defense has been what is carrying them as their offense is ranked a few spots outside of the top 10. Like I mentioned with the Lakers, the defense is going to go a long way when it comes to the playoffs. To go along with the Nuggets top-rated defense, they have two players, Paul Milsap and Will Barton, ranked in the top 10 in NBA defensive rating.

Perhaps the most important defender for the Nuggets, in the long run, isn’t one of those two. Gary Harris has played lockdown defense all season and is tasked with shutting down opponent’s top wings night in and night out, something you need when going up against the likes of LeBron James, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs. Although Harris may not be putting up eye-popping defensive stats (1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks), a lot of his impact goes well beyond the box score. His teammates are fully aware of his impact, and teammate Jamal Murray has even gone as far as suggesting that Harris should be on the leagues All-NBA Defensive First Team at seasons end.

After falling a game short of the Western Conference Finals last season, the Nuggets are young but also experienced. With a top seed in the West seeming imminent, the Nuggets should be able to use their high altitude home-court advantage and in turn, be contenders in April.

Bucks

Although the quality of the Bucks roster may have taken a step back from last season, the play of their star player Giannis Antetokounmpo as gone to another level. The Greek Freak is averaging 30.9 points per game, 13.3 rebounds, and 5.9 assists a night, and could very well win his second straight MVP award.

The Bucks are 17-3 and have won their last 11 games as of December 1st. Like the Lakers, the Bucks have had a very productive November, only losing a single game and beating opponents by an average of 13.6 points a game. This is in large part to Giannis’s play, as he is averaging 32.7 PPG (56 FG%), 13.3 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 1.6 3PT, and 1.3 BLK. Giannis has his sights on something bigger than an MVP award this season, he wants to win a championship.

The Bucks did all of this in November without Khris Middleton, as he was sidelined with a left thigh contusion for seven games in the middle of the month. The Bucks won all 7 of those games. With Middleton back, some of the offensive pressure will be taken off Giannis, and the Bucks will have another scorer that they can go to in crunch time.

The Bucks may not have the depth of some of the teams out west, as outside of Giannis, Middleton, and Eric Bledsoe, the roster is compiled of mostly high-end role players at best. But for the Bucks, playing in the East will pay dividends. They are more than likely going to finish with the best record in the conference, and this season they will not run into Kawhi Leonard in the Conference Finals. They have the best player in the whole league, and still have the best odds to win the Eastern Conference according to OddsShark. As long as the Bucks have Giannis, they will be competing for a title.

Pretenders:

Rockets

The Rockets still have plenty of time to figure it out, but so far the Westbrook/Harden backcourt has had some growing pains. The team is still capable of putting on the offensive on slots, as we saw on November 30th when the Rockets beat the Hawks 158-111 with Harden pouring in 60 points in three quarters.

 The bright side for the Rockets so far was an eight-game win streak in the month of November, but after that, they dropped three straight to the Nuggets, Clippers, and Mavericks, three Western Conference teams that are a top of the standings.  

The Rocket’s success in past seasons was in large part to their live and die by the three mentalities, and although that hasn’t changed, the loss of Chris Paul seems to have cost their defense as a whole. The Rockets are currently 15th in defensive rating and will have to pick that up as they will not be able to outscore team’s night after night.

The man they replaced Paul with, Russell Westbrook, is going to need to turn the majority of his focus to the defensive end. Harden is averaging 38.9 points per game and is having no trouble handling the majority of the offensive burden. Like we saw in OKC with Paul George, Westbrook is prone to taking bad shots not within the offense when his teammate is scorching hot. If Westbrook can take some of his focus from the offensive end, and lock in on defense, the Rockets still will have a shot.

Fundamental defense should be the emphasis on Westbrook’s game going forward. He is only shooting 42.6% from the field and 23.3% from three, as he isn’t excelling in the Rockets iso offense. If Westbrook can stop taking so many chances on steals, and stay in front of opposing players on defense, his value is going to increase. Until this happens, the Rockets will not be able to compete with some of the higher powers in the Western Conference.

Mavericks

Although the Mavericks are one of the most exciting teams to watch in the league, they are not ready to compete for a title this season. 20-year-old Luka Doncic’s superstardom has skyrocketed over the course of the season, though the supporting cast behind him cannot keep up. After Luka and Kristaps Porzingis, the Maverick’s third-leading scorer is Tim Hardaway Jr with 12.9 points and their fourth-leading scorer is JJ Barea with 11.7 points. When it comes to the playoffs the Mavericks won’t have enough firepower.

Although the Mavericks are on a historic offensive pace, their defensive rating is only 16th in the league, a number that must improve. They lack having a lockdown defender on the perimeter than can guard the opposing team’s best players. THJ has been tasked with this challenge, as he has been the guy early on matching up with LeBron and Kawhi Leonard in those key games. Going forward, Hardaway Jr isn’t going to cut it.

This isn’t a knock on the Mavericks, as they are well ahead of their projected schedule. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Mavericks had a 44% chance to make the playoffs to start the season.

Through 18 games this season, the Mavs are sitting at 12-6, 5th in the Western Conference, and have increased their chances of making the playoffs all the way to 94%.

Though they may be pretenders this season, a year of playoff experience is only going to help them moving forward. With Luka continuing to improve, and with another young sidekick in Porzingis, the Mavs are going to be contenders in no time.

Celtics

This pains me to write as a Celtics fan, and though they are in a weak Eastern Conference, Boston is going to need to add a legitimate rim protector to fare well in the playoffs. Although they are 8th in the league in defensive rating, Enes Kanter cannot anchor a championship defense, and second-year pro Robert Williams still lacks the experience even though he may possess the tools.

Marcus Smart has been the team’s best defender so far this season, as he is tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player regardless of position, but even early on this challenge is taking a toll on his body.

Smart was knocked out of the Knicks game with an abdomen injury and has been banged up prior, hurting his finger in an earlier game against the Kings. Smart is going to continue to put this wear and tear on his body for the whole season, and without a true interior presence, he may have a tough time staying 100%.

The Celtics do have a shot at the Eastern Conference, however. They have four players close to averaging 20 points, as Kemba Walker is at 21.9 PPG, Jayson Tatum is at 20.6, and Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown are just outside with 18.9 a game and 18.7 a game. They have arguably the most depth in the league on the wing, a position that is most important in the league. Tatum is taking a legitimate leap in his game on both ends of the court, and Danny Ainge is looking like a genius inking Jaylen Brown to his contract extension when most people thought he wasn’t worth that money.

 With other Eastern Conference teams like the Bucks, 76ers, and Raptors having a lot of frontcourt depth, the Celtics may lack the individual defense and interior defense to compete in a seven games series. Boston is very close to losing this pretender title, but until they make a move for a rim protector, they may be a year away from being contenders.

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