- With half of the season behind us, it's time to check on the state of the league. Where does every team stand? Who is thriving and who is struggling? We take stock of the NBA.
As of late last week, teams all over the NBA officially have hit the halfway point of the season. So where does everyone stand? Who's thriving as the year unfolds? Who's struggling? It's time to take a look around the landscape with a quick NBA stock watch.
Stock Up: Lakers Haters
The Lakers have a rhythm this year. They look underwhelming and dysfunctional for a few weeks, then they look surprisingly decent and fun, and then they crash back to earth. That was true even with LeBron James in the lineup. Now that LeBron is hurt, things are getting particularly dicey. L.A. is nearing the end of a seven-game stretch against the Knicks, Wolves, Mavs, Pistons, Jazz, Cavs, and Bulls. Two weeks ago, six of those seven games looked like Lakers wins; the Lakers have now lost four of the first six on that stretch, including Sunday's night home loss to a 9–35 Cavs team that came to L.A. having lost 12 straight.
It's a good time to be a Lakers hater. Even if you assume the team will stabilize from here—currently tied with the Jazz for eighth place in the West—the past few weeks have been the most sobering stretch of the season. The young players (Kuzma, Ingram, Hart, Lonzo) have been a step short of disastrous, but they're still generally underwhelming. Each player's game has gaping holes that still haven't been addressed, and it's not clear that any of them has improved in any meaningful way over the past 12 months. The stagnated stars will hurt L.A.'s bid for Anthony Davis or any other star; it may also be an indictment of the development infrastructure in L.A. If none of the young players are improving as much as the team hoped, maybe it's too simplistic to blame everything on the players themselves. And along those lines, there are now renewed questions about whether Luke Walton is the right coach for this team, plus all the usual questions about what the hell the Lakers front office was thinking with all of the non-LeBron offseason decisions.
It's hard to say where this is going, but knowing the Lakers rhythm that's been established so far, they will probably charge back to the middle of the West sometime soon. LeBron has been sitting out with a groin injury and he's set to be reevaluated on Wednesday. We'll see. One thing is certain in the meantime: the Lakers just flunked one of the softest parts of this year's season, and the team has the third toughest remaining schedule in the league. The Boylen Bulls should provide some welcome relief Tuesday, but then things gets pretty real:
1/17 - @ Thunder
1/19 - @ Rockets
1/21 - vs. Warriors
1/24 - vs. Wolves
1/27 - vs. Suns
1/29 - vs. Sixers
1/31 - @ Clippers
2/2 - @ Warriors
2/5 - @ Pacers
2/7 - @ Celtics
Of those 10 games, L.A. will be favored in less than half. There's still plenty of room to silence critics and make a run to the middle of the West, but whenever LeBron comes back, it won't be easy.
Stock Down: Kyrie Irving's leadership experiment
The Celtics have been wildly inconsistent all year, but one constant has been Kyrie Irving taking every opportunity to tell the media about his new role as team leader. “It’s an every-day job,” Irving said in December. “It’s part of the next step of evolution for me in my career, of just learning what that means for me and what type of leader I want to be. I’ve reached out to a few people, just asked questions, learning more about how to kind of manage being in a group like this. Even for myself, I think at this point in my career it’s not necessarily about my skills or my talent, it’s more about how do I echo greatness to our group every single day and figure out what that looks like for us?”
Last week, after the Celtics throttled the Pacers for a fourth-straight win, Irving credited a team meeting for the turnaround. "It's just good to get stuff out in the air," he said. "As grown men and guys that have expectations for themselves, it was good to hear guys talk about what they wanted for themselves and what they wanted for this team. ... You want to see that translate into situations where we're in a tight game and we all still feel good. No one goes their own ways, and that's how you build a team, and that's how you build a championship culture."
From there, Boston lost back-to-back games to the Heat and Magic. Against Miami, there was a brief shoving match on the sidelines between Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown. Against Orlando, the point-guard, himself, was throwing his hands up at a last-second play that went to Jayson Tatum. And then came another locker room summit on leadership that featured no less than 600 words from Irving explaining to his teammates what it takes to win. Kyrie is dictating a brand new Medium post on self-improvement after every Celtics loss; it isn't working.
Kyrie Irving had a lot to say postgame but what stood out was “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship level team. What it takes every day. And if they think it is hard now, what do they think it will be like when we’re trying to get to the Finals?”— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) January 13, 2019
The Kyrie growing pains are probably the most interesting development to emerge from this Boston season. On the court, he's having the best season of his career—he's fifth overall in ESPN's real-plus minus and the current starting lineup has a net-rating of +12.6 with Kyrie at the center. He's been far and away the most reliable player on the Celtics. The problem has been synthesizing everyone else. Kyrie's abilities as a creator and a unifying presence were openly questioned when he arrived in Boston, and despite volunteering himself as the team's emotional fulcrum this season, the past few months have cast more doubt than ever on whether that's actually his best role. Kyrie isn't the problem in Boston, but so far, his leadership hasn't been the solution. And even if it's still a safe bet that the Celtics figure things out in time for the playoffs, Kyrie's role as a leader will be its own subplot all year long.
Stock Up: Bradley Beal
When John Wall announced that he would be getting season-ending surgery to repair bone spurs in his heel, that was supposed to mark the merciful conclusion of an already-miserable year for the Wizards. Most D.C. fans started clamoring for tanking, the media agreed, and that was supposed to be the end of any Wizards discussion until the NBA Lottery. However...
Bradley Beal in nine games since Wall went down for the year:— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) January 14, 2019
• 30.2 PPG
• 5.4 RPG
• 6.4 APG
• 2.4 SPG
• 47-41-80 shooting
Bradley Beal is very good at basketball.
Consider this a public service announcement for anyone who (rightfully) stopped watching Wizards games two months ago: Bradley Beal has been out of his mind since Wall went down. On Sunday against the Raptors he put up 43 points, 15 assists, and 10 rebounds, including 21 fourth-quarter points as the shorthanded Wiz pushed the Raptors to double overtime.
Sunday was the loudest reminder yet that Beal is not only the best player on the Wizards, but one of the best young players in the league. He's improved as a creator year after year in D.C., and since Wall's departure, the Wizards are moving the ball better than ever and scoring more effectively than they have all season. Not all of the recent progress is a credit to Beal—Thomas Bryant, Otto Porter, and Tomas Satoransky have all stepped up, while Trevor Ariza has arrived to help stabilize the wing—but the recent Wiz surge is indicative of a superstar whose offense can also empower his teammates. Everyone is more comfortable when the ball runs through Beal, a player who can attack a defense from the perimeter, the midrange, or at the rim.
The implications of Beal's progress are less clear. If the Wizards are better with everything running through Beal, where does that leave Wall? And even if the Wiz are better now than they were a month ago, does it really make sense to push for an eighth seed instead of a lottery pick? And then there's the rest of the league: if the Wizards ever decide to blow things up, how many trade assets are more attractive than the 25-year-old shooting guard who's spent the past month playing at an All-NBA level? All of these questions will take longer to answer, but the longer Beal stays at this level, the more interesting the rest of the story becomes.
Stock Down: Jimmy Butler in Philadelphia
The Sixers are 28–16 and a game behind the Pacers for third in the East, yet anytime this team is discussed, it sounds like they're in the midst of an existential crisis. Maybe everyone needs to relax and see what happens; that's certainly the most conservative and responsible way to approach the situation in Philadelphia. But amid the now-weekly debates over what to do with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, whether they can work together long-term, and whether everyone just needs to relax and stop having these conversations, it's important to note that so much of the angst surrounding the Sixers is directly correlated to paying Jimmy Butler this summer and the pressure that comes with that decision.
Butler could command as much as five years, $190 million this summer. He'll turn 30 years old before next season. Some of his athleticism appears to be declining already, and his window as an NBA star should close sometime within the next few seasons (and before the end of that massive new contract). Which is to say: Butler is a big gamble, and paying him will put pressure on the Sixers to win as soon as possible. That's why concerns over the Simmons and Embiid aren't necessarily misplaced. If the plan is to pay Jimmy, everyone in Philadelphia is on an accelerated timetable, and fit questions begin to matter more. And the longer the world debates Ben Simmons's place in Philadelphia—he had 20 points, 22 rebounds, and nine assists on Sunday—it's hard not to wonder about an alternative move. What if the Sixers could move Jimmy Butler? Or, if they can't, are we 100 percent sure they should pay him?
Stock up: Blake Griffin
He returned to face the Clippers Saturday and he put up 44 points, eight rebounds, and six assists to beat his former team. He reminded everyone of just how great he can be when he's healthy and he owned the game from start to finish. If Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio was a C+, Blake in L.A. was an A+. On the other hand...
Stock down: Blake Griffin
Before that Clippers game began, Griffin ran off the court and ignored Clips owner Steve Ballmer, who was trying to shake his hand. That part is fine. After the Clippers pulled out the Clipper-for-life package to re-sign Blake and then traded him to Detroit less than nine months later, some bad blood is appropriate.
Pistons’ Blake Griffin denies he intentionally snubbed Clippers owner Steve Ballmer & said running off was his normal routine for nine years: “To tweet out something like that is bulls—-... It wasn’t anything planned.” Still, wasn’t sure he’d shake hands if given another chance. pic.twitter.com/FLvR18mZrj— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) January 12, 2019
The problem was that after the game, Blake denied ignoring Ballmer, claimed that he was merely staying true to his pregame routine, and called out a local reporter who (correctly) reported on the pregame weirdness. Then, when pressed on whether he'd shake Ballmer's hands under different circumstances, Blake scoffed and said, "I'm honestly not here to answer hypothetical questions, to be honest." Altogether, if Blake Griffin was an A+ on the court Saturday, he was a D+ with the media. It's not a big deal, and some confused emotions are understandable, but the dumb controversy with Ballmer sullied a day that should've been a perfect opportunity to appreciate how great Blake has always been.
Stock up: Boogie Cousins
The world lost its mind when he signed with Golden State this summer, but in the six months since then, there's been a strange lack of buzz surrounding Boogie's place on this Warriors team. Maybe that's because no one can imagine what, exactly, he'll look like next to four other All-Stars. No one has any idea how healthy he'll be, so that's probably another factor. And of course, the Warriors have provided plenty of other stories to focus on during Boogie's rehab. It's understandable if everyone simply forgot that one of the most dominant offensive players in the league will be joining the most dominant lineup the NBA has ever seen.
In any case, the wait is almost over. DeMarcus Cousins is set to return Friday. He will be starting immediately. It's going to be incredibly weird, it may not work, or it may work far better than anyone is prepared for. I can't wait.