- It's time for every NBA team to give thanks.
Every year, I swear I’m not going to do this story again. Then my editors wait until it’s close to the holidays, exploit the jovial spirit of Thanksgiving, and pull me back down into the vortex. So in the spirit of that one annoying cousin who needs a place to crash and somehow forces you to give up your bed for the couch, it’s time to go over what every NBA team should be thankful for.
Atlanta Hawks: Lack of Expectations
Living life under the watchful eye of no one is actually pretty refreshing. There’s no way the Hawks could underdeliver this year. If they won 11 games no one would be upset. Atlanta basically has no responsibilities for a whole season. Because those days in most of our lives are over, I hope the Hawks realize how good they have it.
Boston Celtics: The Long Regular Season
Somebody has already photoshopped Gordon Hayward’s and Kyrie Irving’s faces on the infamous “Now This is Going to be Fun” Sports Illustrated Lakers cover. Unlike most great teams who slog through the regular season, Boston apparently needs the time to figure itself out. I would still bet on that happening.
Brooklyn Nets: Sean Marks
This seems like a great time to plug my piece on Sean Marks from the offseason! The Nets GM has built a team that’s competitive, flush with cap space, and potentially appealing to free agents. Will Brooklyn score a superstar next summer? That’s always easier said than done. But the Nets’ process has been unassailable since Marks took over.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker’s Loyalty
Not often mentioned among the big names on the free-agent market in 2019, Kemba Walker has been playing like an MVP candidate to start the season. And whenever he’s asked about his contract status, Walker insists he wants to remain in Charlotte. Hopefully the Hornets feel the same way.
Chicago Bulls: Lauri Markkanen
Markannen is both a blue-chip prospect and someone who is taking a long time to return from a preseason injury. It would be great if Markannen were healthy, but for a lottery-bound team like the Bulls, having your potential stud miss a bunch of games while you try to lose your way to Zion Williamson is not the worst thing in the world. Take your time recovering, Lauri.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Kevin Love
Kevin Love won’t be on the court for the Cavs any time soon, but he’s a good dude who is using his platform to continue making conversations about mental health more normal in sports. That’s great! Who knows if Love will really finish out his contract in Cleveland, but as bad as the Cavs have been on the court, it’s helpful to have a guy like Love—who can still play!—as a face of your franchise.
Dallas Mavericks: Rick Carlisle
Carlisle is probably the most underrated coach in the NBA right now. He’s rarely talked about among the league’s best, but he always extracts the most from everyone on his roster. Amid reports that there’s some strife between the veterans and rookie Luka Dončić, Carlisle seems like the kind of person who can sort that stuff out.
Denver Nuggets: My Faith
The Nuggets have been on a backslide since their hot start to the season. My pick to make the NBA Finals! But guess what Denver? I haven’t given up hope. That’s right, the Nuggets should be thankful for me, the person who is trying really hard to make #NuggetsHive a thing. Denver may not actually be the second-best team in the West, but it should start playing a little better in close games when Will Barton returns. Also, Monte Morris is legit.
Detroit Pistons: Stan Van Gundy’s Impatience
Hey! That Blake Griffin trade doesn’t look so bad now, does it? The Pistons have been friskier than usual to start this season. They’ll likely be fighting for a playoff spot all season. Detroit’s long-term prospects still aren’t great, but at least Griffin has stepped up to the challenge of being the franchise’s No. 1 guy. Some good may come out of the Van Gundy era yet.
Golden State Warriors: Being So Much Better Than Everyone Else
Golden State apparently has some serious chemistry issues and Steph Curry needs to make his return yesterday. Still, when Curry’s healthy, the Warriors are so much further ahead than every other team in the NBA that this season they may prove they can still win with everyone hating each other. In fact, this may be the team that best represents the spirit of Thanksgiving.
Houston Rockets: Jeff Bzdelik
The assistant coach who was the architect of Houston’s defense last season has returned to the sideline after a mysterious retirement right before the start of the season. The Rockets haven’t turned back into a juggernaut, but they look much closer to last year’s team since Bzdelik’s return than at the start of the season. Bzdelik should get his first pick of all the food when this team sits down to eat.
Indiana Pacers: Domantas Sabonis’s Fearlessness
Sabonis is quickly turning into a League Pass gem. He’s a surprisingly feisty defender for his small frame, and he connects at an absurdly high clip offensively (nearly 70%!). It’s unfair to hold his rookie year against him, but Sabonis has seemingly transformed since his first season, when he often looked tentative at best (and downright nervous at worst) alongside Russell Westbrook. Now, Sabonis and Victor Oladipo look like the two most important building blocks in Indiana.
Los Angeles Clippers: Their Ability to Move On
The Clips didn’t want Chris Paul to leave, but they’ve made good moves since then, like putting Doc Rivers back in a coaching-only role, letting DeAndre Jordan walk, and (rather ruthlessly) trading Blake Griffin. The result is a well-balanced roster that’s playing incredibly hard and should be in the playoff mix. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a promising young talent, and L.A. has the cap space to command meetings with stars next July. By not holding on to the past, the Clips have a chance at a much better future.
Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron’s Desire to Live in L.A.
I still don’t quite understand why LeBron James wanted to play for the Lakers other than wanting to live in Hollywood. He had to think Paul George was coming, right? Look, the Lakers are fine. They are far from a disaster. And they are certainly entertaining. Ultimately, though, James is on a team that doesn’t look like it will be any kind of factor in the championship conversation. When’s the last time we could say that? LeBron deserves to be happy, but I still want to watch him in the league’s biggest moments.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley
Mike Conley may be the NBA’s greatest anti-tank mechanism. The Grizzlies basically fell apart without him on the floor last season. This year, with a healthy Conley, Memphis woke up in first place in the West on Thanksgiving. I won’t drag you into another conversation about Conley being underrated or overpaid. Right now, all that matters is that him and the Grizzlies are getting the job done.
Miami Heat: Erik Spoelstra
If anyone can figure out this mismatched roster, it’s Spo, who’s been saddled with too many guards, a lack of shooting, and Hassan Whiteside, and then asked to build a playoff team. Spoelstra hasn’t found the right combinations through the first six weeks of the season, but he’s shown in the past he’ll never stop tinkering until he finds what works. With the Heat searching for answers right now, they can at least take solace in the fact that Spo almost always finds the right ones.
Milwaukee Bucks: Modern Basketball
Milwaukee is spreading teams out this season, and the result is an MVP-esque Giannis and the No. 1 offense in the NBA. See what happens when teams embrace concepts like shooting and spacing? The Bucks made a great hire in Mike Budenholzer, and added nice pieces in Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. The payoff has been immediate. Make no mistake, Milwaukee is absolutely a threat to make the Finals in the East.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Jimmy Butler
In one small way, Butler did the Wolves a favor. Now, once and for all, Minnesota can find out exactly what it has in Karl Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Those two aren’t fighting for their careers, but they need to bounce back in a big way after the Butler debacle exposed them in different ways. Maybe the Butler fiasco will serve as a wake-up call for Towns and Wiggins to take more ownership of their shortcomings. If the pair improves as a result of Butler’s year-plus in Minnesota, some good can still come out of that whole ordeal.
New Orleans Pelicans: The Supermax
New Orleans would be in the dark if not for the Supermax contract. Either Anthony Davis signs his mega extension next summer, or the Pelicans know he’s probably not sticking around for the long haul, creating a bidding war for one the league’s best talents. It’s sad to be looking ahead like this, but even with Davis at his best, New Orleans is not a title contender. The Supermax has created all kinds of weird, unintended consequences. The Davis situation will be the first of its kind if he declines the deal. It’s far from perfect for New Orleans, but at least the team will know exactly where it stands with Davis when having to figure out its future.
New York Knicks: Patience
New York seems to be undergoing a normal tanking process this season, which is actually remarkable for this franchise, which typically self-sabotages in these situations with boneheaded short-term decisions. The Knicks should be thankful for the patience of those in charge right now, who seem okay letting the team lose, letting David Fizdale do his thing, and letting Kristaps Porzingis take his time rehabbing. As long as New York sticks to the plan, its latest rebuild has much better potential than nearly every other one attempted this millenium.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Paul George’s Agent…
...who apparently was so mad at the Lakers he didn’t want George to meet with them? Whatever the case, George decided to make a long-term commitment to OKC, and now the Thunder can at least be respectable and hope to strike if/when the Warriors break up. George is an important part of this team’s future. Westbrook’s health and athleticism will be major questions as his cap figure balloons. There may come a time when George has to become the leader of this team. Right now, the Thunder are on a bit of a hot streak. Remember: They become a different group when Andre Roberson is healthy.
Orlando Magic: Lineups That Make Sense
Long, long gone are the days of Orlando playing Nik Vucevic, Serge Ibaka and Aaron Gordon together at once. I’ve often worried about this team having too many big men. The Magic still might, but for now, their lineups have had better balance than I expected. And the Gordon-Mo Bamba frontcourt has a lot of potential on the defensive end. As long as Gordon doesn’t slide down to small forward, the Magic can put 21st century lineups on the court. Steve Clifford should have this team remain competitive all year long.
Philadelphia 76ers: Sam Hinkie and Bryan Colangelo’s Wife
Hinkie put this team in a position to be successful by tanking for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Colangelo’s wife saved the Sixers from more questionable moves like the Markelle Fultz trade.
Phoenix Suns: The Weather
I don’t know. At some point this organization needs to actually start winning basketball games.
Portland Trail Blazers: That Jinxes Aren’t Real
I wrote about the Blazers’ great defense last week, and since then they’ve slipped from sixth to 12th in defensive efficiency. Fortunately, there is no scientific proof that jinxes exist. So let’s agree the Blazers’ slip is nothing to worry about and Portland will return to its stingy identity on that end sooner rather than later.
Sacramento Kings: Dave Joerger
Don’t fire the coach who is actually making the team good!
San Antonio Spurs: All Those Years You Made the Playoffs
Because it’s clearly not going to be that easy this season. The Spurs are already on the outside looking in, and they’re already competing with the Jazz, Wolves, and Pelicans for the last spot in the playoff bracket. It’s going to be a tough year.
Toronto Raptors: Masai Ujiri
Toronto’s bold GM remade the team this summer. He put Nick Nurse in charge, and pounced on Kawhi Leonard when the disgruntled star was seemingly trying to make his way to L.A. Ujiri has put together a team that is once again No. 1 in the East despite some major changes. It’s now up to the players on the floor to prove that this iteration is truly different.
Utah Jazz: Jazz’s Improvisational Nature
Maybe this is one of the boring parts of the song? Utah has been disappointing early in the season. Donovan Mitchell is inefficient, and the defense has slipped from first to 17th. The beauty of Jazz, however, is that the band can snap into a sublime rhythm at any second. I mean, I think. I don‘t really listen to jazz like that.
Washington Wizards: Your Guess is As Good As Mine
Good luck to Scott Brooks, who is in charge of a team that’s every bit the disaster most assumed it would be before the season. At least for now Brooks has John Wall and Bradley Beal. Soon, all three of them could be in a different city.