What is the biggest surprise so far this season?
Mitchell: Is it too self-serving to go with the Milwaukee Bucks? The tops of both conferences is about what we expected, and while the bottoms are populated by teams that may be underachieving (looking at you, Minnesota and Washington), their lack of early success isn’t shocking. Individually, the league is littered with high-performers and young players taking their next steps, but the Bucks have both defied team expectations and watched Giannis Antetokounmpo go from “possible All Star” to “possible All-NBA player”, and it could still be argued that Giannis has improved more from last year than any other NBA player. Not to mention the strides that Jabari Parker has taken!
Homerism aside, the Memphis Grizzlies have been amazingly successful despite a litany of setbacks, injuries, and general meh-ness, in no small part because Marc Gasol can apparently hit threes now. Crazy.
Eric B: Honorable mention to the fun Bucks and fun Rockets, but I’m amazed that the Toronto Raptors have the best ORtg in the league. We all gush when we watch the Golden State Warriors make basketball...and the Raptors are better! It doesn’t make sense, even though I’ve seen them average 600 points/game against the Bucks this year. It’s wild. I don’t understand how it’s working.
Adam: I didn’t expect the Rockets to rocket (sorry) to the near top of the West with so many wins so early, and the Lakers would’ve won this if it were a month earlier, but their recent eight-game losing streak coughed it away. I’ll go with Memphis, who while Mike Conley was out didn’t just tread water, they hopped on a motorboat and skidded past fellow Western Conference contenders with a 7-2 record during his absence. Marc Gasol is beasting on opponents, with 19.8 ppg and after casually picking up three-point shooting in the offseason, he’s nailing 44% on 3.6 attempts per game. Chandler Parsons is also still just a husk, having played in only six games so far.
Corey: With all due respect to the peeps above me, while the Bucks have been entertaining for many stretches this season, they’re a game under .500. That doesn’t come close to qualifying as a surprise to me. I’m also not shocked that Memphis continues to be successful despite all the changes they’ve had because it seems few in the NBA care to admit how well-oiled that machine is. The Rockets, on the other hand, were a dysfunctional, hilarious mess last season and look radically different this season.
What has been the biggest disappointment this season?
Mitchell: For me, it has to be the perennially-disappointing-but-supposed-to-be-trending-upwards Minnesota Timberwolves. You’ve got Karl Anthony-Towns, who’s a monster. You’ve got Andrew Wiggins, who even if he under-delivers on his first overall pick expectations is still a talented contributor. You’ve got Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, and a bunch of other interesting players, all playing for the well-respected Tom Thibodeau...and one of the worst records in the league. What is it about the Wolves where they just can’t win?
Eric B: Yeah, I’ll go with Minnesota, too. It was probably premature to hand them 40+ wins before the season, but it’s also surprising with how miserable they’ve been maintaining leads in the second half. As Bucks fans know, it’s tough to close out games as a young team, but the Wolves seem to find a new way to do it every week. Also, it’s uncharacteristic of a Thibodeau coached team to be 27th in DRtg. That’s gross.
Adam: It’s probably the Wolves, but I’ve been pretty disappointed by Denver. They’ve mucked around with weird Nurkic/Nokic frontlines instead of unleashing Nokic after his stellar Olympic summer. Jamal Murray’s been fun to watch, but he probably won’t be an on-court plus for another two years, and Emmanuel Mudiay is still throwing rocks at the hoop to the tune of 42 eFG% with worse assist numbers than last year. Maybe they’re too young, but they have reliable vets like Gallo, Will Barton and a scorching hot Wilson Chandler. These guys seemed like one of the most prevalent hipster teams in the preseason, so it’s possible this is just an act to maintain their cool cred.
Corey: A Tom Thibodeau team being run into the ground and looking lost for long stretches is not a shock to me, regardless of the talent there. So, I’ll throw Detroit in the mix. This was a team that showed a pretty solid sense of clarity last season and should be taking a step up this season. Instead, they’re a discombulated group in the bottom edge of the conference, and Stan Van Gundy is getting punchy. What was a pretty solid pick to make a jump up this season is close to exploding just as quickly.
Overall, where do you rank the Milwaukee Bucks out of all 30 NBA teams?
Mitchell: They’re obviously not in the top tiers of the Eastern Conference (populated by CLE, then TOR, BOS, and CHA, respectively), and you can safely place them beneath the giants of the West (GSW, LAC, SAS, and HOU) and their current subordinates (UTA, MEM, and OKC). But they simply seem better than a lot of their Eastern contemporaries. Head-to-head, I would put them above the Knicks, and the Bulls, and the Pacers, and the W/L column puts them ahead of other teams that they’ve already lost to. So if I had to slap a numeric label on the Bucks...I guess I would put them at 13th.
Eric B: I would be terrible at a Power Rankings column. I have no idea how to rank teams and the numbers are so fluid week-to-week. That being said, I’ll say 12th because I want to be that much more optimistic than Mitchell.
Adam: I’d agree with Mitchell’s take on the Western conference, Portland looking below average and the disappointing dropoff of Minnesota and Dallas has weakened that field to the point only the above mentioned seven teams are probably better than Milwaukee. The malaise of the East is what really makes this difficult to parse out. I think they’re better than Orlando, Brooklyn, Miami and Philadelphia, but I think they probably still fall into the middle of that mediocre cluster of teams. I’ll say 15th.
Corey: They are fun. They are exciting. They play hard for big games and play soft for small games. hey are precisely where they should be in the league right now. It’s hard to slap a number on them, 1-30, with how flabby the East is. You could flip a six-sided coin to sort out the middle of the conference is, honestly. But they don’t creep any higher than 14.
Now we’ll take a minute to hand out some awards based on the first third of the season:
NBA - Most Valuable Player
Mitchell: Russell Westbrook. The league seems remarkably star-heavy so far this season (which is a good problem to have!), but I can’t not recognize the guy who is averaging a triple-double on the season and BUST OUT A DAMN SHAMMGOD IN AN NBA GAME:
Is this real?! ( @NBA) https://t.co/GT7sQKHmBD— SB Nation (@SBNation) December 18, 2016
It’s a shame that the Thunder aren’t winning enough for Westbrook to get consideration at the end of the season, but he’s carrying the team on his back like few other players ever have.
Eric B: James Harden. 27.7/11.8/8.0 is a stupid good stat line and the Rockets are third in the West behind the two usual suspects. Some of those stats can be attributed to Harden being heavily featured in D’Antoni’s offense, but the production and results are hard to ignore. Westbrook is ridiculous, but the Rockets are much better. Harden wins.
Adam: Westbrook. I’ve always fallen in line with the, “take this player off their team and how do they perform,” sort of thinking for MVP, and what Westbrook is doing with a gang of misfits is crazy. He has a freaking 40% usage and still has a 54% true shooting. Harden is a frenetic freak who plays like he has Spidey sense, but he’s surrounded by more competency. Pat Beverley is a fully realized Oladipo, Eric Gordon is shooting fireballs and Ryan Anderson strokes it from deep faster and better than Sabonis. They both stir their team’s respective drinks, but I think OKC tastes more like prison wine than Houston does without their star.
Eric B: Fun Brew Hoop fact: the blog roster initiation ceremony involves heavy Good Land Green-colored robes, a large bonfire, and the drinking of prison wine out of the cup that Jason Kidd spilled on the court.
Corey: Eric is right. Westbrook has been astonishing now that he’s in charge, but advantage will always go to the superstar who’s team is a competitor. Harden.
NBA - Least Valuable Player
Mitchell: Evan Turner. He was never signed to be a franchise cornerstone, but after landing a $70m deal over the next four years, I’m sure Portland expected more from The Villain. His production is down across the board, and his 25 minutes per game is simply not helping the Trailblazers.
Adam: Chandler Parsons. He’s played in six games this year. He’s a porcelain doll covered in tissue paper. His four-year, $94.8M contract might be the scariest in the league.
Eric B: These are both good answers.
Corey: Those are very good answers. Let me throw Omer Asik into the mix as well. Has exactly one double-double this season for a team that needs absolutely everything you could think of.
NBA - Most Improved Player
Eric B: I think this is Giannis’ award. There are other solid candidates (DeRozan, G. Hill, Barnes), but if the Bucks continue to impress and Giannis keeps up his gaudy production, he’ll be rewarded with some hardware. Marc Stein is already on board! I don’t have cold hard facts that elevate Giannis above the others, but also consider that I can do and say whatever I want.
Mitchell: DeMar DeRozan. I think an argument could be made for Harrison Barnes, who has nearly doubled his scoring average in only six additional minutes of playing time per game, but Dallas is bad enough to dissuade the notion that he’s having a substantial impact on the game. DeMar, however, has improved his TS% even as his 3pt% has gone down, and is a league-leading scorer for (as Eric noted above) an elite Toronto offense.
And yes, it hurts not arguing for Giannis to win this one. But I don’t think his improvement has translated to wins the same way DeRozan’s has...at least not yet.
Adam: I’ll agree with Eric B, who unlike homer-hating Mitchell, cares about this Bucks team so much he’s willing to look past his homerism to objectively give Giannis this award. (Editor’s note: Now hold on...) Giannis’ year-by-year statistic ascension is practically unprecedented, and for a team that lost last season’s arguably most important player before the season, they’ve stayed afloat because of Giannis’ leap this season. That feels more monumental than anything other candidates have done.
Corey: GIANNIS. I honestly don’t think it’s that close. DeRozan is a good pick. I’d even put Westbrook in this discussion. But Giannis has become a force far earlier than I expected, without Middleton and while Jabari improves alongside him. The league has no choice but to notice him now.
NBA - Defensive Player of the Year
Mitchell: Giannis Antetokounmpo. This is where I redeem myself! I searched on basketball-reference.com for all seasons where a player averaged 2 blocks and 2 steals, while tossing in a baseline for defensive rebounding (DRB% <= 22.0%). The list is David Robinson (once) and Hakeem Olajuwon (four times). His impact on the defensive end has been a revelation; the Bucks’ system has put Giannis in a position to be anywhere on the court, and boy has he delivered.
Eric B: Giannis might have a chance here, too, but I think it will go to a more “conventional” guy like Kawhi or Draymond. I don’t think Giannis can generate enough momentum to win what I consider a “reputation award.”
Adam: Draymond Green. The Warriors are back up to fifth in defensive rating, he’s third in defensive RPM and while he doesn’t have the same numbers as Giannis, his strength allows him to guard fives more reliably than Giannis and he’s a better lockdown one-on-one defender. Kawhi is obviously there too, but I think Giannis defensive accolades come next season. People still seem too enamored with his offensive highlights and being a 6’11” point guard(!!!!) to notice his defensive impact.
Corey: Oh, I’ll say Kawhi for the hell of it.
NBA - Offensive Player of the Year
Eric B: Harden.
Mitchell: James Harden. The sheer amount of production he creates for Houston is unprecedented, even with Mike D’Antoni calling the shots from the sideline.
Adam: James Harden. I gave Westbrook my MVP, and just like in the NFL, this award is effectively made for the MVP runner-up.
Corey: It’s Harden, with a tip of that cap to DeRozan.