Written by: Jordan Vitkauskas
We’re almost at the midway point in what has been an exciting 2019-20 NBA season. We’ve seen breakout stars, more three-point attempts than ever, and a bevy of teams competing for playoff spots. I’m taking a look at some of the interesting storylines in each conference this year, beginning with the West…
The return of Carmelo is actually kind of fun
Who would’ve thought? I’ll admit I was never an advocate for Carmelo Anthony to come back into the NBA circle. His refusal to accept a bench role and play within offenses in Houston and OKC had drained me and it was time for him to ride off into the sunset and await his Hall of Fame fate (he will be selected in case you were wondering).
And yet, he’s made a respectable comeback in Portland by adding scoring at the forward position, something that the Trail Blazers have been lacking all season due to injuries and roster changes. Anthony’s 16.5 points per game are the most since his last season in New York, his field goal percentage is at its’ highest in almost six years and he’s hitting a career-high 41.1% of his three-point attempts. He’s been by all accounts a good teammate within the locker room and his 20-foot game-winner the other night against Toronto was vintage Melo, as he feigned a drive to the basket, only to stop on a dime with a pull-up jumper for the win.
It’s not a total match made in heaven (his advance numbers are in the trash and his PER has him slightly below league average at 13.9), but Anthony has been a semi-bright spot in an otherwise gloomy season for Portland. There’s still plenty of work to do, as the Trail Blazers are only 10-13 with Anthony in the lineup, and still do not have a winning record at home. But a career that was once thought over and gone has been revitalized (for now), and it’s nostalgically fun to watch.
Ja Morant and the Grizzlies are the next big thing
When Memphis took Morant with the second pick in the draft last June, we all assumed they were 2-3 years away from any real playoff contention as they were firmly in the middle of a rebuild after the grit and grind era. However, Morant and the Grizzlies’ 2018 first-round pick, Jaren Jackson Jr. are forming quite the 1-2 punch that could propel Memphis into the playoffs sooner than later.
Morant (17.8 ppg, 49/40/80 splits) has been as advertised – quick playmaking guard capable of scoring from anywhere on the court – while Jackson Jr. (17.8 ppg, 48/40/76 splits) is developing into a devastating scoring forward who is taking four more three-pointers per game than he did in his rookie year and hitting them at almost a 41% mark.
There is still a need for additional pieces around those two (two-way wings, a backup center and an actual decent shooting guard not named Dillon Brooks), but the foundation is set, which is always the most important part.
The Thunder have a 3-headed guard lineup that is working wonders
Billy Donovan started throwing out lineups featuring his top three guards – Chris Paul, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander (SGA) and Dennis Schröder- a few weeks ago and has seen immediate successful results. While Paul (added from Houston in the Russell Westbrook trade this summer) and second-year stud SGA (acquired in the Paul George trade) generally start games for the Thunder, they are joined by Schröder off the bench to finish contests. The numbers back it up too, as that trio has the highest true shooting percentage, best net rating and second-highest offensive rating of any three-man lineup that has played at least 230 min together this season.
The trio plays extremely fluid and comfortable playing off of each other and having three guys who can create plays off the dribble has done wonders for the Thunder late in close games. OKC has a league-high 17 clutch wins and it’s a matter of pick-your-poison trying to stop one of their three creators. Close off Paul and SGA simply uses his shiftiness to get into the lane and score. Double SGA and you risk Schröder taking a pass and scoring of finding another open team.
All three guards are shooting over 50% in what the NBA considers to be “clutch” time aka the last five minutes of a game where the score between two teams is within five points. No one else in the league can say that. Not to mention the Thunder also have Danilo Gallinari as a scoring option, as he is shooting almost 40% from three this year. OKC has won 10 of 12 and finds themselves seated firmly as the seventh seed in what has become a weird year for the Western Conference. Speaking of the West…
A wild race for the eighth seed
Currently, we have seven teams within four games of the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. The strange part is the San Antonio Spurs, who lead the pack for that final spot, are just 16-20, putting the conference in a position it hasn’t seen in over 20 years. Per Tim Bontemps of ESPN:
“The last time that a West team made the playoffs with a losing record was 1996-97, the same year (Greg) Popovich took over as coach for a lottery-bound San Antonio team that went on to draft current Spurs assistant coach Tim Duncan with the top overall pick. That season, the LA Clippers snagged the 8-seed with a 36-46 record and were swept in three games by the top-seeded Utah Jazz.”
That’s insane, and a testament to the talent level of the West over these last two decades. Now there’s still plenty of time for the Spurs or someone else to get to .500 and make it in. You have:
San Antonio (16-20) – The favorite based on prior talent level, chemistry and the fact that you just do not bet against Pop. Their main pieces in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are an awkward fit in today’s day and age, but Popovich will find a way to utilize everyone on this roster in the most effective way to win games. Worth mentioning – if the Marcus Morris/David Bertāns situations don’t go awry, the Spurs are probably 22-14 at this point.
Memphis (16-22) – Already mentioned above, but a spunky fun group to watch that is probably playing ahead of their timeline with two upcoming studs. They’ll most likely stay in this 10-13 seed range, but look out in about two years. I’d buy all the Morant/Jackson Jr. stock now.
Portland (16-22) – Still having no timetable for Jusuf Nurkić’s return from his gruesome leg injury last year is killing Portland on both ends, as he was such a crucial part of their offense and defense. The revival of the above-mentioned Carmelo Anthony, as well as established stars Dame Lillard and C.J. McCollum makes it hard to count Portland out but it will take some serious improvement if they want to make the postseason for the seventh consecutive year.
Sacramento (15-23) – A trendy pick to make it before the season, head coach Luke Walton has struggled to get the most from a talented, yet undisciplined group. Injuries to De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, and Harry Giles have hampered the Kings thus far. Throw in Buddy Hield, who whined and complained about getting more money, only to be shooting a career-low from the field and three-point range and you have a team that just isn’t all there this season. There’s an outside chance this team pulls it together in time, but I wouldn’t hold your breath on it.
Minnesota (14-22) – Your daily reminder that Minnesota was once 7-4, brimming with optimism of the playoffs. Since then, they have gone 7-18, including a pitiful two-win December. Karl-Anthony Towns has missed roughly a third of the season with nagging injuries but is playing the best ball of his career, while Andrew Wiggins is having the best statistical season of his career, but advanced metrics still show him as an average player in the league. Towns might not be Minnesota too much longer.
Phoenix (14-23) – After a surprisingly solid start to the year (7-4 after 11 contests), Phoenix has fallen back to Earth, going 7-19 in the last six weeks. Devin Booker is playing like he wants to make an All-NBA team and is shooting a career-high from the field and the foul line, but his and the team’s defensive issues are evident against any sort of good competition. The Suns are a fun NBA League Pass team with Booker, Ricky Rubio, and the always-feisty Kelly Oubre, but are still a few pieces away from making any noise.
New Orleans (13-25) – With their top pick Zion Williamson still waiting to make his debut, the young Pelicans are stuck in the classic rebuild phase – too many young guys and zero defense being played. Brandon Ingram has made the leap after escaping the pressures of LA, and Jrue Holiday is one of the most consistent two-way guards in the NBA, but we won’t know what to make of NOLA until next season when Williamson has some games under his belt. Speaking of the first overall pick…
Zion may make finally make his long-awaited debut in the coming weeks
Sidelined while recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus, the first overall pick Williamson appears to be closer and closer to making his much-anticipated NBA debut. He’s participated in a full 5-v-5 practice and has been seen dunking during the pregame layup line. While I’m not alone in my excitement and anticipation to see the debut of one of the biggest freaks of nature ever, I’m worried this half-season won’t be what we expect.
Williamson has missed so much time that could have been spent developing chemistry on the court that I feel we are going to see him look lost during most of his minutes as he tries to find his spots during the Pelicans’ set plays. Not to mention he will be trying to build that chemistry while adjusting to the speed, intelligence, and physicality of NBA defenses. This isn’t college where he will be playing half his games against teams like Eastern Michigan or Hartford. He’ll face long, athletic defenders keying on him every single night, looking to test him for 48 minutes. We’ll see what Williamson is really made of soon enough.
All statistics and records updated as of 1/9/2020
Feature image courtesy of Sports Illustrated.
All video highlights are courtesy of YouTube.
Shooting splits (i.e. 44/40/37) are in order of FG%/3PT%/FT%.