I’d usually wait until after the N.B.A. season to take stock of all the basketball takes I got wrong and issue a mea culpa. But with slightly less than half of this campaign completed, I am finding that the season has flummoxed me more than any other in my years of watching basketball. So many trends I thought I was seeing have already reversed themselves, some in spectacular fashion.
So I need to come clean. New year, new me, as they say.
There was the time I predicted the Knicks would make the playoffs. I considered out loud whether the Toronto Raptors were that much better than the Knicks after they lost Kawhi Leonard. I speculated that Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns would become a candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award after his hot start. I wrote that the Philadelphia 76ers “look like a top contender” with their approach of valuing height over shooting and starting four players at least 6-foot-8. I unironically wondered if the Phoenix Suns were for real.
It’s easy — and fair — to laugh at me now. And many of you have! The Raptors appear to be resilient and deep. The Knicks were 10-24 (and minus one head coach) going into Friday night’s game after a three-game winning streak. The Timberwolves are in the midst of yet another disappointing season, and the chatter is that Towns wants out.
The Suns are the Suns, and the Sixers, tall as they are, have been just O.K.
I’ve been trying to figure out where I went wrong. With the Knicks, I overlooked how much fit matters and put too much weight on new talent. With the Suns, I thought a new culture under Monty Williams and the addition of solid veterans like Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio would reverse years of lackadaisical franchise building.
But more than all of that, the game has been harder to predict because of greater parity than usual. And injuries — lots of them. They have affected league standings more than in any season in recent memory.
I’ve been more Nostradonotbelieveme than Nostradamus. But here’s a fresh batch of takeaways as we enter a new decade, and along with that, hopefully more accuracy.
Don’t trust the Bucks.
The Milwaukee Bucks are 31-5, easily the best record in the league. They are beating teams by an average of almost 13 points a game. They have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has only improved, especially as a shooter, since his M.V.P. Award-winning campaign last year. They are the best defensive team in the N.B.A. and play at the fastest pace. They have several fun role players, including Donte DiVincenzo, George Hill and the Lopez brothers. There is an outside chance that the Bucks win 70 games.
I predicted the Bucks would make the finals this year. And now I’m taking it back, especially after watching their Christmas Day loss to the Sixers. I underestimated how much better the rest of the Eastern Conference is compared with previous seasons. And I’m skeptical of a team with only one elite playmaker.
In the playoffs, as games slow down and defenses key in more on Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton won’t be a strong enough secondary playmaker to take much pressure off Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee reminds me too much of the 2009-10 Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James: a world-beating superstar surrounded by O.K.-to-good role players who fizzled out in the second round.
The Bucks are sixth in the N.B.A. in running isolation plays, according to the league’s tracking stats, further fueling my skepticism. Antetokounmpo’s usage rate is nearly 38 percent — on pace for a career high, by far. That’s a lot to put on him in the playoffs. A miffed Bucks fan would point out that Antetokounmpo plays only 31 minutes a game and that the offense barely dips with him on the bench. Or that no team has outscored its opponents by as many points, on average, as the Bucks since the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, one of the greatest teams of all time. All true! But I surmise that this will change in the playoffs.
(I pre-emptively apologize for being totally wrong about this.)
The Nuggets are disappointing — but not a disappointment.
The early national television games featuring the Denver Nuggets were filled with pronouncements of disappointment, in spite of their 10-3 start. It was noted that there was something missing from this team. That Nikola Jokic wasn’t himself. That once again, the Nuggets needed more from Jamal Murray and Will Barton.
And yet, Denver finds itself in second place in the Western Conference. It has won 10 of its last 12 games. Jokic, after a less-than-stellar beginning to the season, reasserted himself in December, averaging 20.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists on an efficient 62.9 true shooting percentage. The Nuggets have done all this despite playing below-average defense since Dec. 1. And much of their recent schedule has been soft, including a double-digit win at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Lakers, who were missing James that night. But there’s no discounting a road win on Thursday against the Indiana Pacers, who have been dominant at home.
The Nuggets are one of those teams that are extraordinarily difficult to gauge. They have a bona fide M.V.P. talent in Jokic, and every top-tier contender needs one of those. They have solid surrounding talent, with Murray, Barton and Paul Millsap, and productive players who don’t try to do too much, like Mason Plumlee. The rookie Michael Porter Jr. is making the most of his recently expanded playing time (due to the team’s injuries), averaging 15.5 points a game in his last four contests on 74 percent shooting. If he gets comfortable on the court, watch out.
The Nuggets are second in the West — only three games behind the Lakers before Friday’s action — and on pace for more wins than last season.
Yet, you want more from the Nuggets. You expect them to have made a leap the way the Bucks have. Sure, they’re in second place in a tough conference. But while the Nuggets are outscoring their opponents on average by about 4 points a game — more than last season and good for ninth in the league — they’re not dominant. They do just enough to get by. For the third straight season, they are playing at one of the league’s slower paces. They don’t drive to the basket often, but they move the ball well.
The team is not especially great at anything, but after struggling to score to start the season, Denver has had a top-five offense since the beginning of December. That’s a start.
The Nuggets aren’t disappointing per se, but this season is another second-round playoff exit in the making. Still, not to worry, Denver fans. Before you take up the pitchforks, remember that given my recent track record, I will most likely be toasting the N.B.A. champion Nuggets come June.