De Loera: Quarter-season NBA takes
Carlos De Loera | Thursday, December 6, 2018
The NBA season is now just about a quarter of the way finished. The Bulls and Suns have fallen into their usual squalor. In a matter of days, the last light of hope shall be cast into darkness for the Knicks as they fall to 10 games under .500. And while we can rely on these teams to lay eggs with the type of frequency that makes even the Easter Bunny envious, there have been some surprising stories in this young season.
Are the Celtics good?
Before the start of the season, the Westgate Sportsbook in Las Vegas had the over/under on Boston’s wins at 59, the second-highest prediction behind only the Warriors at 62. For a lot of people, this was an easy wager — go for the over. This was a team, after all, that finished the 2017-18 season with 55 wins and played a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on its home court — all without its two superstar players. Now equipped with a healthy squad, the Celtics should be a shoo-in for a 60-plus-win season, right? Well, the team got off to a sluggish 10-10 start to the season, and I’m not a math major, but I don’t believe that puts them on pace for much more than a 40-win season.
But why is this? They have so many good players, many of whom are exceptional two-way players, and they have one of the best coaches in league. But could they have too many good players? With so much talent, is Brad Stevens so overwhelmed by the possibilities in front of him that he doesn’t know what to do? Maybe Kyrie and Gordon Hayward aren’t the right fit for Stevens’ system that worked so well last year. Kyrie plays a lot of isolation ball, which is contrary to Stevens’ team-basketball approach, and Hayward has looked like a shell of himself. And what’s the deal with Jaylen Brown? “Scary” Terry Rozier has been struggling to find his rhythm with a minimized role. And if you are able to find Al Horford, would you please let Brad Stevens know?
Well, at least they still have Jayson Tatum.
The Nuggets are the best team in the West (fight me)
The Denver Nuggets are at the top of the Western Conference with a 16-7 record.
Nikola Jokic is a 7-foot double-double machine who can pass and shoot. He got the fourth-most triple-doubles in the league last year, behind only Westbrook, LeBron and Ben Simmons. Oh, and did I forget to mention he is a 7-foot Serbian monster? Big men shouldn’t be able to do this.
Gary Harris and Jamal Murray make up one of the best backcourts in the league. The two are putting up over 30 points a game and have come up big in the clutch throughout this young season. They even have a certain swagger about them that is undeniably coming from their stellar playing.
Even old-man Paul Millsap has played well this year, averaging 13.3 points and 7.1 rebounds. Not bad for a guy with virtually no vertical.
But where the Nuggets separate themselves from the rest (yes, even the Warriors) is their defense and team chemistry. Denver is second in opponent points per game, showing that they are able and willing to play team defense throughout a game and not just when they want to (I’m looking at you, Warriors). They are also second in rebound differential, so you know they get those hustle points. And unlike the team by the Bay, the Nuggets look like they enjoy playing with each other and play with a high level of ease and a certain level of swagger that is essential for championship-level teams.
So far, this team is playing a mile higher than most others.
Luka Doncic is the second coming
Our Slovenian savior is here. Bow before him now.
The 19-year-old rookie has only played 21 games, but he plays beyond his years. At the age of 13, he signed with Real Madrid Baloncesto, a Spanish professional basketball team, so really he’s been a professional for six years. Sure, he wasn’t playing with the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Anthony Davis, but he was playing with fully formed players with fully formed egos. He knows how needy stars can be.
He plays with poise. Confident yet generous, with great court vision and an ability to help space out the floor. Doncic is averaging 18.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and shooting 3-pointers at 38.6 percent.
He even has a signature shot going for him: a beautiful step-back jumper that somehow never gets called for traveling.
He is the heartbeat of the team, the spiritual leader and new face of the franchise (sorry, Dirk).
How sustainable is this level of play by the anointed one, though?
Well, unlike most rookies, Doncic is more accustomed to dealing with longer seasons. In the NCAA, even the best teams will only play something like 40 games. In the Euroleague, the regular season is over 40 games, and if you include the out-of-league European competition play, it’s closer to 80 games. Last season with Real Madrid Baloncesto, Doncic led the team to a 38-5 regular-season record and a second-place finish in the Copa del Rey. That’s a big deal.
But what’s the ceiling for Doncic? Well, one NBA executive said he could end up being a 6-foot-8 Steve Nash.
That’s scary. And exciting. Watch out, league.
Praise be to Luka.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.