Kobe Bryant is retiring after this season and wants to be remembered as a “talented overachiever” when it’s all said and done.
Meanwhile, Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers (3-15) trail only the Philadelphia 76ers (1-19) for the league’s worst record. With every loss, the Lakers grow closer to keeping their top-three protected draft pick and potentially land top prospect Ben Simmons.
On the flip side, the Golden State Warriors are undefeated at 20-0 and on pace to challenge the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ all-time best single-season record of 72-10.
As a result, there are 28 teams between the 76ers and Warriors spectrum.
With that in mind, here’s where we stand through the season’s first quarter and what to watch moving forward:
The Golden State Warriors are playing like a real life video game. Stephen Curry has taken his game to an even higher level than last season as we previously noted on the site. Despite the loss of coach Steve Kerr, Luke Walton has stepped in seamlessly and won the West’s Coach of the Month award. Safe to say Walton has garnered serious attention around the league as a viable candidate for future coaching openings this summer.
A rematch of last year’s Finals matchup between the Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers appears inevitable. However, San Antonio hasn’t gotten that memo just yet.
Kawhi Leonard has become the go-to scorer for the Spurs while LaMarcus Aldridge continues to adjust well to his new surroundings. The demise of the Spurs has been written about for nearly a decade, but the team has always found a way to remain a Finals contender. San Antonio’s policy of resting its veteran players remains an important part of the long-term process. Only Leonard is averaging over 30 minutes per game.
In the East, LeBron James and the Cavaliers (13-5) own the conference’s best record with Kyrie Irving fully cleared for practice and working toward a return. Over the past few days, Irving has participated in full contact, full court 5-on-5 play.
Cleveland remains the lead dog in the East. However, Indiana’s Paul George has returned better than ever from his gruesome leg injury and was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month. In addition, the Miami has arguably the best starting five in the conference and Dwyane Wade has made it clear to James the Heat are coming for him.
The Chicago Bulls are narrowly behind the Cavaliers for the East’s best record at 11-5. The biggest X-factor for the Bulls has always been Derrick Rose. That’s still a shaky position to be in for Chicago with Rose shooting 34 percent from the field, 19 percent from beyond the arc and carrying a PER of 9.8. Joakim Noah has also struggled mightily at the worst time – a contract year. Noah is averaging 3.5 points and an 11.3 PER in 21.5 minutes per game off the bench for Chicago thus far. Coming into the season, I ranked Noah as one of the top 25 free agents heading into the summer.
The Toronto Raptors have gotten All-Star caliber starts to the season from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. That said; Toronto isn’t paying DeMarre Carroll $13.6 million to shoot 40 percent from the field with a PER of 11.8. They’ll need him to be the difference maker he was in Atlanta if the Raptors want to advance past the first round for the first time since 2001.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a team nobody wants to face with Kevin Durant trying to regain his MVP form and Russell Westbrook a walking triple-double threat on a nightly basis. Durant and Westbrook have scored 51 percent of the Thunder’s points this season and the team is still looking for a consistent third scoring punch since trading James Harden. Durant and Westbrook can win video games by themselves, but asking those two to carry the Thunder past the Warriors on offense by themselves is a daunting task – even for two of the league’s top five players.
The Houston Rockets have been arguably the biggest disappointment of the season thus far. With James Harden and Dwight Howard returning, Ty Lawson was brought in to be the straw that stirred the drink. However, it appears the Rockets bought a faulty blender. Lawson has struggled from the field shooting 35 percent and was benched in mid-November. Hastily firing Kevin McHale hasn’t proven to be the answer either. If things don’t improve fast, Daryl Morey will look to make a blockbuster trade by dangling Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas as bait.
The Los Angeles Clippers have nearly as disappointing as the Rockets. A team with arguably the most talented roster from top to bottom is only a game above .500 at 10-9. With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in their primes, the time to turn the ship around and win is now. Doc Rivers, a coach known for his motivational tactics and getting the best out of his players, must get more out of this group or the blame will shift more his way some point sooner than later.
Another playoff team from last season that has taken a major step back this season is the New Orleans Pelicans. The trainer for the Pelicans has been busy with Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Norris Cole, among those who have missed a substantial number of games thus far.
In the East, the Milwaukee Bucks were expected to take a major jump with the addition of Greg Monroe and return of Jabari Parker to the core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Michael Carter-Williams. While Monroe has been exactly what Milwaukee signed up for, Parker has yet to be fully unleashed as an injury precaution and Carter-Williams has yet to develop his range from the field (.410) and beyond the arc (.294). Milwaukee must improve on the road (2-8) to make a run at the playoffs.
The Washington Wizards have missed Paul Pierce in the locker room terribly as the team has stumbled out of the gate at 7-9. The duo of Nene and Kris Humphries at power forward has left more to be desired.
As noted above, Paul George has the Pacers in early contention with the Cavaliers after winning the East’s Player of the Month award by averaging 27.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game while shooting a career-best 46 percent from downtown and 85 percent at the charity stripe.
After years of collecting high lottery picks, coach Scott Skiles has molded the young core of the Orlando Magic into a competitive team. Keep in mind, Orlando lost by one to Washington in their opener, three to Oklahoma City and five to Chicago in the team’s first three games. The team could easily be 14-5 instead of its current 11-8 mark.
After landing and then not landing DeAndre Jordan in free agency, the Dallas Mavericks have turned heads in the West tied with Oklahoma City for the third best record in the conference at 11-8. Deron Williams has averaged 14.8 points and 5.8 assists per game with a 17.8 PER. Those numbers in Brooklyn would draw boos, but not in Dallas where he’s making $5 million instead of $20 million. Zaza Pachulia has been a double-double revelation since being acquired in a trade from Milwaukee to fill Jordan’s void.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have also been a pleasant surprise out West. Andrew Wiggins has become a legitimate go-to scorer averaging 22.1 points per game. The veteran presences of Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller have helped the young Timberwolves learn how to close games, play defense and win. Flip Saunders would be proud.