- In the latest Weekend Read, we examine three key storylines that have emerged this season, provide some help for last-minute gift shoppers and pick our favorite stories of the week.
Christmas used to mark the unofficial start of the NBA season. That’s not really the case anymore. With the regular season now tipping off in mid-October, by Thanksgiving we usually have a feel for the identity of every team. By Christmas, it feels as if the season has lasted a lifetime. So with the new year quickly approaching, here are three things we’ve definitively learned almost halfway through the NBA calendar.
1. The Nuggets are the best non-Warriors team out West
Denver is 21–9 through its first 30 games, and is actually leading the conference (as of 12/21). The Warriors are clearly better when they actually need to try, but the Nuggets have a genuine chance at the conference finals this year. (Just like I predicted!) Denver has a top-10 offense, and more impressively, a top-five defense. They’ve piled up wins even with injuries to 60% of their starting lineup. That’s right, without Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, or Will Barton, the Nuggets still put away peers like the Raptors and Thunder.
Denver has a 13–4 conference record, and is tied for the third-best net rating in the league (as of 12/21). The Nuggets will be a factor in the postseason—count on it. And Nikola Jokic should receive some votes on the ends of MVP ballots.
2. Offense is more important than ever
Yes, I know, scoring is fundamental to the game of basketball. And while defense becomes more important in the playoffs, for now, how well you can shoot and how fast you can play have become bigger factors in winning than ever before. This season, 11 teams have an offensive rating of at least 110; last year there were only six. This season, 22 teams are playing with a pace of over 100; last year there were only five.
Defense is just a completely different animal in today’s game. Literally slowing down your opponent, particularly for offensively challenged teams, is now just as critical as stopping them from putting the ball in the basket. Teams hoping to succeed not only have to be able to score at a high volume, but also fly up and down the court. That could explain why teams who liked to grind it out last year—like the Heat or Jazz—have struggled much of this season.
3. The supermax is bad for players and teams
The supermax contract is my biggest pet peeve in the NBA. A provision in the collective bargaining agreement allows teams to offer players who meet certain criteria massive extensions with more years and money than they can yield on the open market. It’s crippling the league. On one hand, you have guys like Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, who in order to leave their teams, have had or will have to give up large amounts of money. Why is it fair to make Davis choose between earning what he’s worth or competing for a championship? The supermax “deadline” has also helped to fuel the trade speculation around Davis, because if he declines the deal, the Pelicans essentially have no choice but to deal him, possibly not receiving teams’ best offers.
On the other hand, you have a player like John Wall, who signed the extension but isn't really a franchise guy. Were the Wizards supposed to let him walk? Will he be worth over $40 million three years from now?
The NBA needs a solution the next time it's bargaining with the NBA Players’ Association, both to allow players to make the money they deserve on the open market, and to save teams from handing out cap-killing deals to homegrown stars. — By Rohan Nadkarni
• More than 50 years after Lisa Lane became one of the most compelling chess stars of the ‘60s, women are still fighting for equality in their sport. (By Emma Baccellieri)
• The final episode of Fall of a Titan: The Steve McNair Story is out. Give a listen to our serialized SI True Crime podcast.
• While the reality is far from it, Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter make 40 years old look easy. (By Jake Fischer)
• Kyle Turley was an All-Pro suddenly staring at retirement before turning 30. His post-football life is filled with uncontrollable fits of rage, fistfuls of pills and suicidal thoughts. Here's how he and his wife have gotten through it. (By Andy Benoit)
• More disturbing allegations were leveled against Cubs shortstop Addison Russell. This is how MLB may go about its investigation. (By Michael McCann)
Vault Photo of the Week: Merry Christmas From Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis
Well, this is a different spin on a Christmas card. Leading up to their March 1999 fight, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield posed in the photo above with promoter Don King sandwiched in the middle as Santa Claus. Their cheery mood didn't last long. The highly anticipated clash between Lewis and Holyfield ended in controversey as the judges ruled it a split draw. We called it an "unconscionable draw."
Photograph taken by Neil Leifer.
Best of the Rest
Editor's note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week's list is curated by Rohan Nadkarni.
• My old Deadspin colleague Drew Magary is feeling better after a health issue. Here’s a great tribute he put together for the late Anthony Bourdain.
• Someone I can never read enough about is NFL star Michael Bennett, and this New Yorker profile from Louisa Thomas is one of the better sports profiles from the back-half of the year.
• How old were you when you found out (spoiler alert) that Santa wasn’t real? For families who believe in reality, the holidays can be a stressful time, writes Ashley Fetters of The Atlantic.
• As someone with friends who have lived in weird Los Angeles bubbles for too long, this Op-Ed from from Haider Warraich of the New York Times really hit home for me: Dr. Google Is a Liar.
• Every morning when I wake up, I think about how I’m one day closer to watching Avengers: Endgame. Chris Hewitt and Helen O'Hara of Empire did a great job breaking down that epic teaser trailer on their film podcast.
• I got some love on Instagram for some pork chops I made recently, so I want to share the recipe from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt on Serious Eats. Remember, everyone, dry out your meats.
Gift Guide Season
Still have some last-second shopping to do? The newsletter has featured several gift guides over the past few weeks. We've got ideas for foodies, tech geeks, fitness freaks and the Man Who Has Everything. Our last gift guide to share is luxury items for that special someone.
Don’t buy a cheap watch just because it’s cheap. Spending an extra bit of cash pays off for this black leather watch that features Roman numerals and automatic movements, all powered by the motion of the wrist—no battery required. Plus, it’s timeless enough for formal events, but durable enough for everyday wear.
Editor's note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.