The current NBA season has entered its Christmas break and there is no better time to look at the action of the past few weeks, analyse the talking points and make some bold predictions for the future. While the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Warriors look strong contenders to finish top of their respective Conferences, here are five talking points from the first quarter.
The role of the ‘big men’ have changed
Generations in the NBA have been defined by dominant players occupying the centre or power forward position. These players – usually called “big men”, have traditionally been relied upon to grab rebounds, score heavily off nifty passes by guards and bolster the defence by protecting the rim and enforcing blocks. While, athletic centres have often left their mark in the NBA – Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett come to mind, in the modern game however the role of centers and forwards has changed, forcing players to re-model their game and add skills to their arsenal.
The current NBA “big man” needs to be able to space the floor, drain mid range jumpers and have a post game to boot. All, this besides the heavy defensive and offensive workload that is traditionally expected from them. Players like Marc Gasol, all seven foot of him, have added a three point shot to their arsenal. In his first eight years, Gasol made eight three pointers. This season he has hit 19.
Over the last few years players like Brook Lopez, Demarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis have all added three point shooting in their offensive weaponry. Youngsters like Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid have followed suit. This season, we see an increasingly large number of centres moving out of the paint and making jump shots and it looks like a trend to stay, mirroring the development of the style of gameplay over the years.
The Golden State Warriors are as good on the court as they are on paper
Before the start of the season, many speculated if the Golden State Warriors, fresh from signing Kevin Durant, would be able as dominant as they were last season. However, besides a few hiccups where they have looked mortal, Golden State have put up an impressive show. They have individual pieces of talent – Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s shooting, Kevin Durant’s all round offence and Draymond Green’s defence. But, what makes them so dangerous is their unselfish team play.
Their assist rate has been incredible this season, forcing detractors to ridiculously claim that the team passes too much! Amazingly, Kevin Durant has gotten better and is shooting super efficiently while also helping out in defence. Overall, with the best record in the league and their high octane offence, the Golden State have often made short work of opponents, winning by huge margins. Currently, they stand unchallenged in the Western Conference and barring the odd off shooting night when they look ordinary, they are near impossible to beat in a playoff series.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden are putting up video game like numbers
It is maybe still early to make predictions for the Most Valuable Player Award but if names could be thrown around, two clear frontrunners would emerge – Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Over at Oklahoma City Thunder, especially after Kevin Durant left the franchise, Westbrook is out to script a incredible story.
With a usage rate similar to Kobe Bryant’s dominant times at the LA Lakers, almost every play runs through Westbrook’s hands. He has been the architect and the clear captain of a Thunder team that not many thought would stand a chance this season. Every highlight reel contains at least one Westbrook beauty, and every game night, Russell Westbrook plays his heart out, raking in triple doubles and substantiating his position as a star point guard.
In Houston, James Harden has a similarly high usage rate. Playing as a clear point guard this season, Harden has assumed all ball handling and distribution responsibility. The Houston Rockets management has surrounded him with sharp shooters and Harden’s gifted passing abilities have been on full display. At the end of the season, Harden might just end up having the highest points and assists per game. Westbrook might end up averaging a triple double. Outside of NBA2K video games, that is unbelievable. A special mention also for Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo who is having a star season and is destined for greatness.
LeBron James is still a force to reckon with
Well, that is kind of obvious. Last year, James led the Cavaliers to a championship on the back of an unprecedented Finals performance. Everyone – pundit or fan – expected James to put up impressive numbers, like he has consistently for every year in his career. How, James has put up those numbers this season is interesting, however.
James leads his team on scoring and assists, and his passing game has been better than ever before. His assist per game stat this year is two points up from his career average which is a healthy increase. His willingness to share has benefitted his team who are shooting three-pointers effortlessly. Kevin Love, part of the superstar trio at Cleveland has fit nicely into the offence and is having a great season, especially in shooting the three pointers. Point Guard Kyrie Irving too is putting up career-high numbers, and James’s support cast is functioning efficiently.
Cleveland is well on its way to top the Eastern Conference, partly because of its ensemble of individual talent and partly due to the East having relatively weaker teams. The Raptors are having a good season so far. The Hornets and Celtics have shown glimpses of ability. But, over the course of a playoff series, it is highly unlikely that any of these teams will be able to overcome the collective might of the Cavaliers. Even in the regular season, Cleveland should top the group without much difficulty.
Flattering to deceive
The Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves have a roster full of young players and many were excited about the team’s prospects at the beginning of the season. While the talent on their roster is undeniable, both teams have largely flattered to deceive.
The Lakers have a young and dynamic coach in Luke Walton, who has filled his team with young talents and a couple of veterans. The Lakers had a great start but have found it hard to keep the momentum going. The Timberwolves boast of the next Tim Duncan (Karl Anthony Towns) and have a coach reputed for his defence. However, their inability to close games has often hurt them and the chances of them making the playoffs in a crowded Western Conference seem slim. Maybe in the coming years, these teams will reach a level of maturity needed to make them worthy playoff contenders. But currently, they are unfinished products – a work in progress.
Based on the first quarter both, the Warriors and Cavaliers do not seem to have a real contender and should emerge as top seeds in their respective conferences. The teams might lose an odd game – the Warriors can have a rare off night, the Cavaliers can resort to resting their big three. However as mentioned, the playoffs are a seven game series and it should be smooth sailing. Expect a rematch of last two year’s finals – Kevin Durant matching up against LeBron James. As of this moment, the Warriors are playing sublime basketball and have a stronger team on paper. The Cavaliers though have LeBron James who always reserves his best for when it really matters.
Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs has turned into a brilliant offensive player to add to his superb perimeter defence. The Spurs have been right on the Warriors’ heels, but when push comes to shove, the Warriors’ superior attack is likely to prevail. The Los Angeles Clippers have shown promise in the past, but if their two matchups are any indication, the Clippers will be categorically outplayed by the Warriors in a playoff series.
Lastly, Houston Rockets can prove to be the dark horse. They defeated the Warriors in a cliff-hanger this season and their offence is as potent if not better. The playoff scenario, especially in the East will look different this season with the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks poised to make a comeback based on their current performance. Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies are two not-high market value teams that are flying a little under the radar but they just might spring a surprise or two.
Shifting from team to individual predictions – it is the year for guards with Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and DeMar Derozan poised to have career-best seasons. Much has already been said about Westbrook and Harden, but they should topple a few records on their way to the end of the season. LeBron James should climb the all time lists for scoring, assists and triple doubles as well.
In all, we are in for a great season of NBA basketball. Most teams are transitioning to a game that prefers shooting and sharing over isolations and this makes for faster gameplay and better viewing. We are in midst of another golden age of the game. The era (and thus the season) has all the characters needed for an epic event – an ageing superstar (James), another thirsty for his first championship (Durant), a bullish workhorse out for revenge (Westbrook), a bearded magician looking for glory and redemption (Harden) and plenty of superstars in training, hoping to breakout and secure their names in the annals of greatness. For a basketball fan, it is a great time to be alive.