The new NBA season is just a few games old, with all the teams having completed about 12 percent of the total number of their regular-season games. And, while some things have remained as they were last season, others have changed.
The apexes of the conferences look like a copy of about the same time last season – Golden State sit atop the West, and the Toronto Raptors very comfortable at the summit of the East. This is normal. That Phoenix are propping up the Western Conference also almost mirrors last season: the Suns’ light has drastically dimmed over the past few years.
And the abnormal? Denver sitting comfortably in second place in the West. The Nuggets haven’t finished higher than ninth in the Western Conference in five seasons, but here they are. Should the playoffs start today, they hold the second seed in the tough West. Then, consider the Houston Rockets who have been a top-three team in the West three times in the past four years, and had the best regular-season record in the West last term. They are in ninth place, but there’s no panic at Toyota Center just yet.
That’s not the case in Cleveland, where a level-four danger level alert was activated two weeks ago and the coach who gave the franchise the only title in its history was fired. The Cavaliers are known to be slow starters, even when LeBron James was leading the team. But a 1-10 start meant the franchise have slithered to their worst start in recent memory, and the departure of Tyronn Lue meant they’ve already pushed the panic button.
Cleveland have played in the last four NBA Finals, finished top of the Central Division and haven’t finished lower than fourth seed in the East in those four seasons. Now, they prop up both the division and the entire league—this justifies the panic mode activation. Verdict: Already panicking.
Utah Jazz were 6-4 after 10 games the last two seasons, and 5-5, 4-6 and 1-9 the three seasons before those. They made the playoffs the two seasons they were 6-4 and missed the postseason party in the others. Utah Jazz are now 5-6, and even though they have better personnel than in those three non-playoff years, they need to be wary.
The battle in the West will be filled with intrigue this year. Every game – both those played and to be played—will become crucial as the season unfolds. The surprising rise of the Nuggets and the Kings, and the ‘false position’ of the Rockets, mean that Utah need to start winning with all their stars staying healthy. No need to panic yet, but front-office hands should be poised on that button. Verdict: No need to panic.
Washington Wizards are currently in the same position as two seasons ago. The Wizards started 2016-17 poorly and were 2-8 after 10 games. They went on to amass 49 wins and finished top of the Southeast Division and fourth in the East. In fact, that has been their best season total since they arrived in Washington, and their best finish since they ended the regular season with 54 wins to lead the Eastern Conference in the 1978-79 season.
That bit of history may calm some nerves in Washington, but with the Wizards in the bottom five in the league in points allowed, rebounding and assists, there may well be an interesting scenario before the trade deadline. Verdict: Time to panic.
New Orleans Pelicans looked the real deal when the new season tipped off. They won their first four games on the back of strong performances by Anthony Davis. There was talk of “a new order” in the West, and early chants of MVP! for ‘The Brow’. Then Davis got injured, and the wheels fell off the Pelicans wagon; his subsequent return has not fixed the problem.
Davis averaged a franchise-leading 27.3 points and 13.3 rebounds in the four games he played before he got injured. Since his return, his average is 18 points and 9.3 rebounds in three games and he’s averaging more minutes than before his enforced absence. Alvin Gentry will need to help his All-Star find the groove he occupied before the slump, otherwise the Pelicans better start looking for the best way to get the most out of their prize asset in a trade. Verdict: Don’t panic.
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