We’ve hit mid-December and NBA teams are officially nearing the unofficial first-third (27 games) of the 2017–18 season. Let’s go through three at a time, discussing some of the more intriguing questions each team looks to answer as we move on toward the half-way point of the marathon 82.
7. Washington Wizards (14–12)
The Wizards were without Markieff Morris for the first 7 games of the season, going 4–3 out of the gate. They’ve been without the blindingly quick John Wall for the last 8. Over the 11 games in which they were fully healthy, Washington went 6–5. Home losses to Phoenix and Dallas, two of the NBA’s weakest foes this year, stand out. 16–10 looks much better than 14–12.
John Wall’s sore knee is bothering him enough to have to missed the last four and likely the next half-dozen games. If Wall returns less-than-healthy, the Wizards aren’t moving up the ladder toward home court.
Still, Washington has proved that it plays well against the best competition. They did it again on Friday, beating the surprising Pistons handily, propelled by Morris’ best game of the year, and their collective ability to shut down Reggie Jackson. That Christmas Day match-up with Boston is a rematch of last year’s highly suspenseful 7-game second round series. If both teams are healthy on the 25th, we should have a better sense of where both are headed after that.
5. Indiana Pacers (15–11)
The Pacers have pushed the pace whenever possible, and they’ve stayed above water with a vengeance-fueled start by Victor Oladipo. Most observers viewed the Paul George-to-OKC trade as a whiff on the part of Indiana’s front office. After the PG-to-Boston rumors, and Oladipo’s less-than-enticing 2016–17 season in Oklahoma City, nobody was congratulating Kevin Pritchard on the return. As any prideful and skilled NBA player — especially one who is still developing — should, Oladipo must’ve used all of it as motivation. Over his first 22 games back in Indiana (he played college ball at IU for three years), Oladipo is shooting a career-shattering 43.3% from deep. When you consider he’s only now 25, and he played with Elfrid Payton and Russell Westbrook as his point guards in previous years (neither is known for their spacing ability), its easier to understand why the Pacers might have seen more in him. Darren Collison may not have elite range, but the ball is moving all around in Indianapolis, and the pace allows everyone to get some good looks.
Oladipo’s overall line: 23.4 points on 48%, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals per game.
Indiana is bombing away from deep, with six players averaging over 2.5 attempts per game. Only one of those six (Thaddeus Young) is under 38%. That shooting has Indiana above the .500 mark, and hoping to sneak into the playoffs, if they can fend off the Knicks, Heat, and Hornets.
Can Indiana keep limiting their turnovers as the season wears on?
The sure-handedness of Collison/Joseph/Oladipo have allowed them to sustain the 9th-best pace and the 2nd best assist-to-turnover ratio.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (15–10)
Giannis started the year like a man bent on proving something to the world. Something about being the future of the NBA. Kidd’s perfectionist tendencies may be wearing thin. Defensive guru Sean Sweeney, largely credited with teaching the swarming scheme that surprised offenses two years ago, may be gone with Kidd if the Bucks don’t get a top 5 seed and win a playoff series. It was a trend the Bucks were no longer surprising teams with. The Bledsoe trade may be key to a necessary scheme adjustment. Less blitzing the high pick and more staying home and switching. Perhaps more importantly, more Giannis playing off the ball, using his extreme length to catch on the move and find fewer obstacles en route to the iron.
Eric Bledsoe is capable of making the Bucks more dynamic offensively and getting them out in transition. Giannis goes from great to unstoppable in open space. Bledsoe pushes Brogdon to the bench, where they hope he can boost the second unit now that low post force Greg Monroe is gone. Brogdon complements Giannis well, but isn’t dynamic with the ball, part of what pushed him to the 2nd round. Brogdon is great as a complementary player, knocking down 43%?? from deep last year with smart, physical defense. Will Brogdon adjust well to the diminished role? In a small sample, the results are mixed.
Jabari Parker’s February return looms large. If Parker can replicate last year and is healthy heading into April, the Bucks won’t lack as much depth as they currently do.
It’s simple to say they’ll go as far as Giannis takes them. Will he get his 10 free-throws per game in the playoffs when physicality rules the day? If not, Middleton, Bledsoe and Jabari will have to carry more weight off the bounce. Giannis can’t follow Harden and use up 80% of his energy attacking the rim throughout the season. That’s part of why the defense has slipped to 16th. Look for the Bucks to emphasize rest in March and April, as long as they can avoid the 7th/8th spots. That makes the middle of their season even more important.