If the Cavaliers don’t start playing better defense, they won’t finish as one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference: Right now, they have the worst defense in the league, allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions. LeBron James rarely makes a big deal about securing the top seed, saying you need to win on the road in the playoffs anyway. During his seven consecutive trips to the Finals, James’ teams have been the No. 1 seed in the East just twice and had home-court in the Finals just twice. But they’ve always had home-court advantage in the first two rounds. If they don’t finish with at least the second seed, they will only have home-court advantage in the playoffs for the first round if the higher seed wins each round. That would make their road to the Finals more difficult. Now, the Cavs have plenty of time. The 2010-11 Miami Heat started the season 9-8 and finished with a 58-24 record with the second seed in the East, and the 2014-15 Cavs started 19-20 and ended up 53-29 with the No. 2 seed in the East.
The Thunder aren’t winning the title this season: This prediction was coming even if the Thunder had taken care of the lowly Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night. But since they didn’t, instead falling 94-86 in a game that was as ugly as we’ve seen this season, there’s now this bit of historical context to support that stance.
Teams that start this slow simply don’t win titles.
In the past two decades, only the 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs won a championship without having a winning record in the first 10 games (they were 5-5). From last season’s Warriors (8-2) to the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers (8-2) to the 2014-15 Warriors (8-2) on down the line, the recent history has been steady when it comes to early dominance. That doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony won’t mesh enough to make a serious mark come playoff time, but the prospect of ripping the Larry O’Brien trophy out of the Warriors’ hands looks grim – for them and every other team, for that matter.
If the Boston Celtics finish with the top seed in the East and win close to 60 games, Brad Stevens will win the coach of the year award: With a revamped lineup, Stevens’ Celtics have the No. 1 defensive rating in the NBA, allowing 95.9 points per 100 possessions through Tuesday’s games. When the Celtics traded solid defenders Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley to make room for Kyrie Irving, they weren’t expected to be better defensively. Well, they are better, and that’s with rookie forward Jayson Tatum, 19, and second-year forward Jaylen Brown, 21, in the starting lineup, and Irving playing better defense than he did in Cleveland. All this, too, without Gordon Hayward, who sustained an injury in the season-opener.
Lonzo Ball won’t win Rookie of the Year, and that’s OK: This rookie class is something special, and the early odds are that – as our USA TODAY Sports panel predicted heading into the season – Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers will be the winner.
But even with Ball having a roller coaster type of start, averaging 8.8 points per game on 29.9% shooting to go with 6.9 assists per (second among rookies behind Simmons) – the Lakers (5-5 entering Wednesday) have been a pleasant surprise. Now if Ball can’t even break into the top five of our rankings – as was the case in the debut offering this week as he trailed the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma, the Chicago Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen and the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell – then that’s a problem for the Lakers future. Lest anyone forgot, he’s an X-factor this summer when it comes to wooing prospective free agents like the one and only LeBron James.
Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard will flirt with an unexpected All-Star appearance if he keeps this up: He is averaging 15.2 points, 13.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks and shooting 59.3% from the field. When Howard is on the court, the Hornets score 110.8 points and allow 101.5 points per 100 possessions for a plus-9.3 net rating. When he is on the bench, the Hornets have a minus-15.1 net rating. While he isn’t the offensive force he once was, he’s efficient at the rim, collecting rebounds at a strong rate and anchoring the defense.
The New Orleans Pelicans will make the playoffs: That might not sound like a bold proclamation, but the Western Conference is loaded yet again and there are at least 11 teams that are widely seen as good enough to secure one of the eight postseason spots.
But not only have the Pelicans won five of their last seven games, they’ve managed to do so while making the most of the eye-popping production from big men Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Beyond their absurd individual stat lines – 28.9 points, 13.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists per game for Cousins; 28.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game for Davis – is the reality that they’re functioning well during their time together on the floor.
Of the Pelicans’ 19 two-man lineup combinations thus far this season, the Davis and Cousins pairing (276 minutes) is the best (net rating of 10.2, per NBA.com/stats). What’s more, concerns about Cousins’ defensive shortcomings aren’t supported by the stats: New Orleans’ defensive rating of 97.1 during that time would be, hypothetically speaking, good enough for third-best in the NBA if it were the team-wide mark (as it stands, they’re 10th overall at 102.4).
If this comes to pass, of course, it should help the Pelicans this summer when Cousins will be one of the most sought-after free agents of the bunch.
Either Bobby Portis or Nikola Mirotic of the Chicago Bulls will be traded this season: Portis and Mirotic were involved in an altercation that resulted in Portis throwing a punch during practice that gave Mirotic a concussion and broken facial bones. Portis, who was suspended eight games for the incident, has expressed his remorse, but Mirotic hasn’t responded to Portis’ texts and calls. It could be Mirotic who is moved because it’s been reported by the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and NBCSportsChicago.com that Mirotic doesn’t want to play alongside Portis. In his season debut on Tuesday following the suspension, Portis had 21 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. Mirotic, who signed a two-year, $27 million contract in September, can’t be traded until Jan. 15.