FOX Sports NBA reporter
FOX Sports NBA Analyst
While the usual suspects remain at the top of the Eastern Conference table, a new contender is emerging in the West.
This week our panel of NBA reporters – Rick Bucher and Melissa Rohlin — takes a look at the sudden arrival of New Orleans, whether the Brooklyn Nets have regained their mojo, and what new face in a new city has taken their game to new heights.
1. New Orleans is ranked #1 in the Western Conference. Are the Pelicans a real title contender?
Rohlin: I don’t know if the Pelicans are true title contenders, but I could see they have a deep playoff run. Without Zion Williamson last season, they surprised everyone by reaching the first round of the playoffs behind CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram. And with Williamson back in the lineup, averaging 23.9 points and 7.2 rebounds, the Pelicans are a real threat. The problem is that the Western Conference is so overwhelmed right now that it’s hard to tell which teams are outstanding. After all, the top-seeded Pelicans are only 3.5 games ahead of the ninth-placed LA Clippers. So the conference is wide open. Other than that, I really like what Willie Green is doing over in NE. And with Williamson playing the dominant ball, this team could really make some noise. What is there to say that they won’t surprise us again by playing in June?
Books: No, but they’re insanely entertaining, and I’d expect them to win a decent number of games in the regular season. They’re not great in tight games or against winning teams, which is what they’ll see in the playoffs. And Zion poses as great a problem to the pelicans as it does to their opponents. He’s too good not to put the ball in his hands, but he has the team’s highest utilization rate and fourth-highest total assist per 100 possessions, just a tick ahead of Devonte Graham. Translation: He doesn’t record for others. When he’s attacking the basket, whether it’s from dribbling or putbacks, he’s electrified—if he can reach his left hand. Good teams, playoff teams, don’t let him, at least not consistently. If he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, he’s not much of a threat other than cleaning up the glass, which creates a distance issue. And then there’s the defensive end of the floor. How do I put that in a friendly way? he is cruel Doesn’t box out, doesn’t stay in front of his man, doesn’t block shots. As amazing as he is – and I think he’s a special talent – the Pelicans don’t miss a beat without him. But you have to play it. I can’t wait to see how this develops.
2. The intense heat finished first in the East last season and was just one game away from the NBA Finals. This season they are ranked 10th in the conference. What went wrong in Miami?
Rohlin: Their biggest problem: The Heat are in the bottom five in the offensive rating. Of course, injuries didn’t help. Jimmy Butler has missed 10 games and reigning sixth man of the year Tyler Herro has missed eight. But the funny thing about this team is that even though their record is terrifying, it’s still hard to count. There are nights when they look like a team that made the Eastern Conference Finals last season and has a chance to compete again, like when they beat the Boston Celtics last Friday. But they’ve also had so many inexplicable breakdowns, like Monday’s when they fell to a Memphis Grizzlies team with no four starters, including superstar Ja Morant. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team has a late resurgence.
Books: I’ll never count them because few teams maximize what they have as well as the Heat, but they need their core – Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry – available and playing at a high level to compete with the best in the league to be able to keep up. Butler, who has missed 10 games out of 25 (they went 4-6 without him), is hurting, as is Lowry’s demise. These two are also their lone playmakers, hence the offensive struggles.
3. Boston by up to 45 points Phoenix On Wednesday. What do you think of the Celtics’ blowout win over the Suns? Is Boston that far ahead of the pack?
Rohlin: This loss was bad. But I’m not sure if we can read the much in. First up, Chris Paul returned after 14 games against the Celtics and was far from himself in that game, ending with as many turnovers (four) as points and assists. Second, Devin Booker, who had been on 40-plus and 50-plus point performances just a week earlier, had a super bad night against the Celtics, finishing with 17 points on 35.3% shooting. That being said, the Celtics could be the best team in the league right now. And there’s no question they’re hungry after finally making the NBA Finals for the first time in 12 years last season before losing to the Golden State Warriors. They have the highest rated offense (119.9) and are among the top 10 teams in defensive rating. But the Milwaukee Bucks are hot on their heels, just two games behind. And there are several other teams that would rival them, possibly even the Suns barring another collapse.
Books: no, maybe The Celts are currently the best team in the league and not just because of their record. They’re also a terrible matchup for the Suns, whose strength lies in their wings and point guard plays against most teams. The problem: That’s Boston’s forte as well and right now nobody’s taking Booker, CP3 and Mikal Bridges over Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Throw in Malcolm Brogdon coming off the bench against Cam Payne and it’s not a fair fight. Which indicated the bottom line. And then there’s the chemistry. The Cs have that about the Suns too. How else can DeAndre Ayton get off just three shots in the first quarter against a front line of Blake Griffin and Grant Williams?
4. Several big names have found new homes this off-season. Which big name in a new city has been the best so far this season?
Rohlin: I like what Donovan Mitchell is doing in Cleveland. He averages career-best points (29) and field goal percentage (49.6) and leads the Cavaliers to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference (16-9). After five seasons with the Utah Jazz, it’s clear a move has done him good. He makes the Cavaliers relevant for the first time since LeBron James led the team to the 2018 NBA Finals and then left by free hand. Since then, they have missed the playoffs four straight seasons. Behind Mitchell, this streak could end very soon.
Books: It sure is hard to look past Mitchell, but just to spread the love I’m going to Portland with Jerami Grant. He might not even be a big name, which makes his performance for the Blazers even more sensational. Best known for his defense, he’s averaging a career-high 23 points, in part because he’s become a mind-blowing three-point shooter. He had never shot the 3 better than 39% before this season; yet he shoots 46.1%. He’s even hit a game-winning baseline jumper, and I’m pretty confident that this isn’t just the first game-winning buzzer-beater he’s made, it’s the first he’s hit in the NBA. Brogdon also deserves a nod. I’m confident Smart will play as efficiently as he does because he knows Brogdon, a master of efficiency, is over there waiting for him.
5. Brooklyn has won five of its last six and eight of its last 11 and is now fourth in the East. Are the nets back? Can they still challenge in the East?
Rohlin: How quickly storylines change in the NBA. In a blink of an eye, the Nets were in more drama than a telenovela. Now they’re in the headlines for a different reason: they’re winning. The biggest difference was that they actually chose to play defense. They have gone from being the worst defense in the league to eighth in the category over the past 10 games. Funny what playing a little defense does, huh? The Nets have been relevant again since Kyrie Irving came back from suspension. If they keep playing like this, things could get very interesting in April.
Books: I look at her list and think, “Why not?” Then I look at the burden Kevin Durant and Irving are carrying – both playing 37 minutes a night – and I think about their injury history and I’m like, ‘This isn’t sustainable.’ And then there’s their appetite for drama; everything is relatively quiet, but I’m just not sure they can help themselves, especially Kyrie, to do something that’s going to be a distraction. They don’t beat the Celtics or the Bucks, so no, they won’t challenge in the East.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has authored two books, Rebound, about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with early-onset Parkinson’s disease, and Yao: A Life In Two Worlds. He also has a daily podcast, On The Ball with Ric Bucher. Follow him on Twitter @Ric Bucher.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Refueling to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boldest Trial in Professional Sports History.”.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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