With the NBA officially a quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season, we have seen several teams exceed expectations and several teams not live up to the hype just yet. This past offseason had many shocking trades and surprising acquisitions, which made this past summer one of the more thrilling offseasons in recent memory. Now, here we are in December and teams are beginning to jockey for playoff spots in the standings. So, who are the actual contenders that will make the NBA playoffs? And who is just pretending?
Oklahoma City Thunder – The Thunder have gotten off to a miserable start in 2017. New additions Carmelo Anthony and Paul George have played well, but they seriously lack depth on the bench and starting shooting guard Andre Roberson has not even come close to living up to his three-year, $30 million contract that he signed in the offseason.
But, they do still have reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, and a very good center in Steven Adams. The Thunder will be just fine. A relatively new roster is going to have a tough time coming together at first, but once they hit their stride, they will play well and make the playoffs. They have defeated the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and the Minnesota Timberwolves so far, and all within the last two weeks. The Thunder should look for veteran depth at the trade deadline and I see them ending up a five or six seed in the West.
Minnesota Timberwolves – I am all in on the Timberwolves. They have solid all-around depth and two All-Star talents in Karl Anthony-Towns and Jimmy Butler. Andrew Wiggins is a quality scorer and Jeff Teague is the perfect pass-first point guard they need to run the show.
The Wolves are a solid power forward away from being a top-four seed. Taj Gibson is a good player, but better suited coming off of the bench with center Gorgui Dieng and sixth man Jamal Crawford. Who could the perfect fit be? How about Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol? Gasol is unhappy in Memphis and being that he is already turning 33 in January may mean he may want to play for a team that could win now. Towns could slide to power forward, Gasol plugs in as starting center, and Gibson slides to the bench. This would make for a dangerous Timberwolves team.
Detroit Pistons – The Pistons have gotten off to a hot start in 2017 and a lot of the credit needs to go to Pistons’ President and head coach Stan Van Gundy. Adding former Boston Celtics shooting guard Avery Bradley has paid dividends for the defense. Long Island, New York native Tobias Harris is in the midst of one of his best seasons as a pro yet and big man Andre Drummond is a one man wrecking crew.
They can score, rebound, and are even in the top 10 of points per game allowed. They are playing a high quality two way game and even have recorded wins against the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Oklahoma City Thunder. I see the Pistons finishing as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Look for Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson to be the team’s X-factor. He cannot shoot his team out of the game and must be more of a consistent distributor to drive the team’s success.
New York Knicks – The Knicks have surprised virtually everyone by playing above and near .500 ball for their first 20 games of the season. The Knicks got off to a very sluggish 0-3 start and have turned it around to become a team that might be able to sneak into the playoffs.
However, I am not buying. The Knicks have been awful on the road, they play inconsistent defense, and have a few holes on their roster, particularly at both guard positions. Kristaps Porzingis has developed into a superstar, and a player that Knicks fans have been yearning for, for years. Enes Kanter has played excellent in his first season in New York.
But, the Knicks bench has struggled mightily so far. Lance Thomas, Frank Ntilikina, and Doug McDermott have played decent at best. For whatever reason, Michael Beasley has not gotten too many minutes and, when he does play, he scores. Willy Hernangomez was a bright spot in 2016-17, but can’t seem to get minutes this season at a crowded center position. The Knicks are a superstar away from being a legitimate contender in the future, but not right now. Stay the course, keep developing, and they will be a playoff team once again in a season or two.
Denver Nuggets – The Denver Nuggets are another team that has played well early on in 2017. Center Nikola Jokic has been an absolute steal since being drafted in 2014 in the second round of the draft. He leads the team in every offensive category and is a future NBA All-Star.
So, what are the issues for the Nuggets? Injuries. Power forward Paul Millsap suffered a wrist injury that will force him to miss several months. Jokic has been out battling an ankle sprain and desperately need him to be healthy and in the lineup.
Another issue is the lack of ball movement. The Nuggets leading passer is Jokic and, again, he is a center. That becomes an issue when your guards and ball handlers are not creating for others. The Nuggets need guards Jamal Murray and Will Barton to become better passers and guys who will space the floor and create.
Utah Jazz – I am not sold on the Jazz finishing the season as a playoff team. The Jazz are hot at the moment, winning five in a row prior to Monday’s matchup against the Washington Wizards. I spot two major issues: first, the division they play in; second, their offense.
I don’t see the Jazz being able to beat the Thunder, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, or Timberwolves consistently. On offense, they rank in the bottom 10 in points per game, field goal attempts, and free throws attempted per game. They are not putting up enough shots and have been fortunate to have their defense to bail them out. Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio, and Donovan Mitchell are all very good defenders.
They need to push the tempo more and a problem they are having with that is lack of athleticism. Rubio, Hood, Burkes, and Ingles are not fast, up-tempo players. They don’t have a Russell Westbrook, John Wall, or Kemba Walker type of explosive guard. They need to push the pace, get up more shots, and move the ball more if they want to have a shot at the playoffs.