NBA Season Catch-Up: Championship Contenders, MVP Frontrunners & Storylines for Every Team
Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: The Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny the Bull.
The NFL regular season is over, and college football has crowned its (SEC) champion yet again. Now is when you might pop over and be like “Hey, what’s up with the NBA this year?”
Let me catch you up on where the NBA is at as we begin the new year.
THE HEAVY HITTERS
1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
2. PHOENIX SUNS
There are no questions with these two teams. They are not unbeatable juggernauts, but you’re going to have to deal with one of them if you want to win the title. They have the best records in the league, they are the two best teams in net rating, and both are good-to-excellent on both sides of the ball.
Typically focusing on regular-season performance is a fool’s errand when it comes to gauging playoff success. However, both of these teams are what I would call “certified.”
The Suns are better built for the playoffs than the regular season. They can tailor their approach to your weakness. If your defense is sloppy and undisciplined, they can generate ball movement and generate open 3-pointers. If the opponent relies on ball movement, they can switch with their defense and gum up the works.
The Suns proved last year they are legit and a serious title threat; they were two wins away from the title. They haven’t just stayed at that level this year despite injuries to Dario Saric and both Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton missing time. They’ve improved. They have a better Adjusted Net Rating than last season.
Golden State is back back. Best defense in the league, second-best record, best Net Rating. Klay Thompson is back. What’s crazy with the Warriors is there’s so much runway in front of them.
Stephen Curry is the MVP favorite… and he’s in the midst of a massive slump. He’s shooting 42% from the field and less than 39% from 3-point range. He’s not shooting well… yet. Golden State is just 11th in Offensive Rating. There’s room for improvement.
They have, however, gotten great contributions from Andrew Wiggins, who looks like an All-Star based on his resume, no seriously, Jordan Poole, and Otto Porter.
Draymond Green is the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year and for good reason. The narrative and numbers are on his side.
The Warriors have been a little shaky on the road: they’re just 12-7 after losing to Memphis this week. They have the 18th-ranked strength of schedule so far. The Warriors aren’t perfect, but they have the most explosive team in the league.
The Suns and Warriors match up extremely evenly. That series would be incredible at full strength and both sides have advantages to exploit. There isn’t a clear and obvious edge between those two.
3. CHICAGO BULLS
Yes, the Bulls! The Bulls are good! Welcome to 2022. In the preseason, one league executive told me Chicago had the “ballsiest” offseason.
All of their gambles have worked out.
Not just adding DeMar DeRozan, who has worked his way into the MVP conversation, but how Alex Caruso has helped the defense, Lonzo Ball has brought everything together, and even how rookie Ayo Dosunmu has played off the bench.
Chicago doesn’t appear to be just a regular-season squad, either. They are 13-7 against teams .500 or better and have switched up their defensive coverages quite a bit. Their defense started off elite and has fallen off but still ranks 11th in Adjusted Net Rating.
The Bulls don’t shoot 3s; they rank 29th in 3-point attempts per game. But with DeRozan and Zach LaVine playing at the efficiency level they are, they have a combination that will be scary.
4. BROOKLYN NETS
I will put Brooklyn here because they are the title favorites, but I cannot stress enough how much I disagree with that cap. The Nets are second in the East because of three things: 1. Kevin Durant, 2. An early season defensive presence that has eroded 3. They are 15-3 vs. teams under .500.
Brooklyn was sixth in Defensive Rating on December 31 and sits 14th today. The devil’s bill came due. The good news for them is that James Harden looks more like James Harden, even if the rule changes this year have dimmed his light a little.
They get Kyrie Irving back, which is nice for their already good offense and does nothing for them defensively. Their frontcourt rotation is small and old outside of Nic Claxton. They have Kevin Durant who may very well win MVP.
The Nets can win a title. The Nets can lose in the second round. They’re not a juggernaut — they just have better offensive players than most teams.
5. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
A sleeping giant, no question. The Bucks stomped the Nets on opening night, and then Brook Lopez was injured, then Jrue Holiday, then Khris Middleton, and since it’s been a revolving door with guys in and out around Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has also missed time. The Bucks have had their run with COVID like every team has, as well.
When Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday play, they’re still the team that won the title, with a +9.6 Net Rating. Donte DiVincenzo just returned from injury, and quietly Jordan Nwora is giving them good minutes (39% from 3).
The latest reports indicate that the Bucks expect to get Lopez back before the playoffs. If Lopez is available, the Bucks should be the East favorites, and not the +300 bet they are currently. They are +750 to win the Finals.
6. UTAH JAZZ
The Jazz are here, again. Still running the same system. Still winning the majority of their games. Utah’s perspective is that if Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley were healthy, they win their second-round series with the Clippers. Never mind that the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard.
The Jazz have the potential to try some new things this year. They are running the same number of isolation possessions per game, but their efficiency is way up on them (.951 points per possession this year compared to .851 last season). They also have a small-ball option with Rudy Gay who allows them to counter small lineups.
But there’s some tension, too. After every loss, you’ll read quotes from the team split up between “Are we going to realize we can’t do the same thing every year and expect a different result?” and “Are we going to trust the system and buy in?”
The Jazz still have the best rim protector and one of the best finishers in the league and a crew of quality shooters. But they’re expected by league sources to be buyers at the deadline, looking for wing upgrades defensively as they look for the right combination to turn regular season success into a title.
7. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
The Sixers have snuck up to hang in the Eastern Conference race. Embiid is back in MVP form, and the Sixers are 8-3 since Dec. 15. Tobias Harris is in a huge shooting slump, averaging 29% from 3, but Seth Curry has been sensational: 16 points and 4 assists per game on 50-40 shooting splits.
No, the Sixers have not traded Ben Simmons yet. Conversations continue around the league with no expectation of a timeline. In the meantime, the Sixers have the third-best offense and second-best defense over the past month.
The Sixers are +1000 to win the Eastern Conference, and Embiid presents a huge playoff matchup problem for the Nets and Bulls (and Bucks if Brook Lopez does not play).
8. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Memphis is having a hell of a year. Not only are the Grizzlies fourth in the West, but they are just four back in the loss column from the 2-seed Golden State. Memphis is an outrageous 19-8 vs. teams that are .500 or better this season.
That number seems ripe for some regression; it’s difficult to rack up a .500-plus record vs. teams over .500, much less a 70% win percentage.
Memphis has picked up its defense. They’re 12th in defense for the season, adjusted for schedule, but fifth since Dec. 1.
The Grizzlies also have multiple weapons to hit you with. Desmond Bane might be the Most Improved leader if it weren’t for Ja Morant as Bane is averaging 18 points and five rebounds per game while shooting 42% from 3.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has emerged as a threat on both ends of the floor, and Steven Adams is having his best season in years.
There are 2011 Thunder vibes with this team, a squad that made the conference finals. They are likely outgunned by the very best, but bear in mind the success the Grizzlies have had vs. the Warriors over the past two years. Memphis is +1500 to win the West.
9. MIAMI HEAT
Can you be an upstart if you made the Finals two years ago? The Heat have been without Jimmy Butler for 17 of their 40 games played, Bam Adebayo has missed weeks after needing surgery, and they’ve had their own severe COVID outbreak.
Yet here they are at 25-15, third in the East, and 5-1 vs. the Bucks, Nets, Bulls, and Sixers. Miami has gotten a huge season from Tyler Herro, who is the runaway favorite for Sixth Man of the Year.
Miami got swept by Milwaukee last season but beat them the year before. Bam Adebayo is 6-3 against Joel Embiid lifetime, and Erik Spoelstra can scheme up a way to beat the big fella. The Heat have the shooting to hang with any team in the East and small-ball options to disrupt various offenses.
Miami is +600 to win the East.
THE MVP RACE
By the consensus odds
1. Steph Curry (+140): Best player on the best team, until recently. Curry hasn’t even shot well, as described above. He can play better and boost his case and is already in the top spot.
2. Kevin Durant (+200): If the Nets secure the No. 1 seed in the East with Durant leading the league in scoring with 29 points per game along with eight boards and six assists on 52-36 splits and with James Harden having come in out of shape and no Kyrie for half the year, Durant’s going to get a lot of pull.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo (+700): The two-time MVP lurks in the background, but the Bucks are just three back in the loss column from the Nets. He’s at 28-11-6 and is on the DPOY list again. Like with Durant, if the Bucks get the No. 1 seed with so many guys out, the reigning Finals MVP will get pull.
4. Nikola Jokic (+1000): The reigning MVP remains here because his numbers are berserk, and his advanced metrics are even wilder. But with the Nuggets so banged up and so little chance of their making a run to a top-3 seed, his odds are slightly overvalued at this point.
5. DeMar DeRozan (+4000): DeRozan certainly has the narrative edge, but even if the Bulls get the 1-seed, it’s going to be tough getting the No.1 votes over Durant, Antetokounmpo and Curry. If the Bulls finish first in the Eastern Conference, I could see this being the first time the votes are really split instead of homogenous for the first-place votes.
The Others: LeBron James (+3500) is bullying his way into the conversation, Embiid is trying to basically be the last guy standing the way Jokic was last year, and Ja Morant (+3000) has been spectacular but probably doesn’t have the stats (25-6-7).
THE BIG STORIES FOR EACH TEAM
1. Suns: Can Phoenix really keep CP3 healthy two full years in a row, and are they the most underrated team in the league?
2. Warriors: When will Steph start hitting shots? Can the offense sustain itself if teams focus on getting the ball out of Curry’s hands?
3. Bulls: Can they really keep this up? Is this the apex? Will DeRozan and Vucevic’s playoff foibles come calling?
4. Jazz: Can they win with the formula that’s been so good to them? Or do they need a change? Plus, can any of their wing guys defend, at all?
5. Grizzlies: Are the Grizzlies ready to jump into the top tier and make a playoff run, or is this just youthful exuberance and luck?
6. Nets: Can the Nets win a title with Kyrie Irving only playing in away games? Do you need to defend, like, at all to win an NBA title?
7. Heat: Will they ever get healthy? And is their offense able to stack up against the top teams?
8. Bucks: At full strength, are the Bucks still the best team in the league? Will Brook Lopez return?
9. 76ers: Ben Simmons. Ben Simmons. Ben Simmons.
10. Cavaliers: Can the Cavs keep a playoff spot after losing both Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio? Evan Mobley is the leader for Rookie of the Year, and Jarrett Allen is likely to make his first All-Star Team.
11. Mavericks: Is Luka Doncic going to look like himself at any point? How is this team over .500?! (We talked about it here.)
12. Hornets: LaMelo Ball has been good, but Miles Bridges has put himself in the MIP race by averaging 19.5 points per game. Don’t sleep on Terry Rozier. They can’t defend, at all, ever.
13. Raptors: They lost 10-of-13 in one stretch and have win streaks of five and six already. No one knows what to make of them.
14. Nuggets: Jokic is awesome. Everyone is hurt. Their bench is the worst in the league.
15. Lakers: Anthony Davis played badly and then got hurt. Russ doesn’t fit. LeBron is carrying a subpar roster he designed again.
16. Washington Wizards: After a great start, they fell back to Earth but are a solid, decent team.
17. Clippers: Both their stars are out so they can’t score, but they’re limping along. Will it be worth Kawhi and PG coming back?
18. Celtics: The Celtics are the second-worst clutch team in the league, and their schedule has been a horror show of collapses and close losses.
19. Timberwolves: They win when D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards all play. Better than you’d think but still flawed. A Ben Simmons suitor?
20. Knicks: Up and down, bing bong, no Rose, Randle struggling so bad there are trade rumors. RJ Barrett has made a leap.
21. Hawks: The most disappointing team in the league.
22. Blazers: A defensive disaster, Dame and CJ hurt, GM fired, big changes coming.
23. Spurs: Dejounte Murray has made a leap. No one else has.
24. Kings: An incredibly “Kangz” season.
25. Pacers: The worst clutch team in the league. A team that ran into adversity and just kind of gave into it.
26. Pelicans: No Zion. Ingram struggles. Josh Hart and Herb Jones have been good. Inconsequential.
27. Thunder: They lost by 70 one time, but this is generally a team that covers but doesn’t win. Everything according to plan.
28. Rockets: Jalen Green has disappointed, Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. have fought with their coach. Seems lost.
29. Pistons: Started the year as the worst offense in modern NBA history. Still bad. Saddiq Bey has been quietly really good. Cade is legit.
30. Magic: A bunch of players having good seasons individually who can’t do anything well on a team level.