Though a bit dubious in origin, Thanksgiving is still a holiday filled with appreciation, family, and loved ones, and it features the added bonus of being one of the strongest food holidays on the American calendar. While languidly taking in the second half of a probably dreadful NFL game Thursday afternoon, your tryptophan-laden mind might wander to your favorite NBA team and, in the spirit of the holiday, ruminate on what it has to be thankful for just under two months into the season. So, to aid you in your efforts to avoid family, here’s what each NBA team should be grateful for this Thanksgiving.
Atlanta Hawks: Ice Trae
Trae Young is leading the Hawks’ rebuild, and there's nothing fans of a non-contender can be more thankful for than seeing their young star shine. He came storming out of the gate to the tune of 26.6/4.5/8.7 per night with the absurd dribble combos to match. Maybe not this year (that defense, woof), but soon for the A.
Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge
Just when it looked like the Celtics might try to sell the farm for Anthony Davis, Trader Danny acquired the only comparable Kyrie replacement in Kemba Walker, chose to bet on Brown-Tatum-Smart, trimmed some fat and filled in the gaps using, surprise-surprise, his utility belt of draft picks. Lo and behold, the Celtics sit second in the East at 12-4 with “happy” floating as the new buzzword (for now). Ainge long ago established himself as beyond reproach from the fanbase, but if Boston keeps it pushing, this may be some of his finest work yet.
Brooklyn Nets: 2020-21
At this point, it seems appropriate to remind over-enthusiastic Nets/Kyrie haters (read: Celtics fans, Knicks fans) that Kevin Durant will be playing for this team next year. But given the current state of affairs—injured Kyrie Irving, injured Caris LeVert, 9-8 start, the same whispers that followed Irving in Boston—the endless possibilities of 2020-21 are headlining the list of things for which to give thanks in Brooklyn.
Charlotte Hornets: Honestly? Nothing
If I were a Hornets fan, I’d be throwing a fit this Thanksgiving (and every other day of the year). The payroll remains one of the biggest travesties in the modern NBA—Nicolas Batum at $25 million a year? Bismack Biyombo at $17 million? Marvin Williams at a shade over $15 million? That’s awful. And the cherry on top is a de facto point guard swap with the Celtics during the offseason, getting their backup—on a three-year, $56.7 million deal—for one of the best, if not the best, players in franchise history still in his prime. Kemba Walker was the only glimmer of hope and happiness since Charlotte killed off the Bobcat, and the Hornets let him walk so they could pay Terry Rozier almost $20 million a year to be his replacement (and because a max deal would probably cause the payroll to combust).
Chicago Bulls: Jim Boylen’s expiring contract
On paper, the Bulls should be better. They started 4-14 last year and are 6-12 through 18 games this year. The roster is significantly improved (Coby White, Thad Young, Tomas Satoransky, a full year of Otto Porter, better reserves), but Jim Boylen is still a bad coach. The fact that he has the full support of Gar Forman and John Paxson means Jimbo is clearly the wrong man for the job, but the good news is his contract expires at the end of the year.
Cleveland Cavaliers: John Beilein
Somebody needed to come in and clean up this mess, and the Cavs are extremely lucky they found a 66-year-old rookie head coach well-prepared to wrangle a roster of underachieving youngsters. John Beilein was one of the best college basketball coaches of the 2000s. He’s got the Cavs working harder, playing faster, communicating better and offering input on how to make their team better. The record isn’t there yet, but Cleveland finally has the all-important coaching component locked in for its rebuild.
Dallas Mavericks: Luka The Superstar
Fluka? No sir! The Slovenia point guard is half an assist away from averaging a triple-double per night in the early season (30.1/10.0/9.5 per game) and is the sole reason the Mavs are sitting fourth in the West. Reminder, this is Luka Doncic’s second season, and he is 20 years old. That said, having a rejuvenated Kristaps Porzingis in the fold as a legitimate bucket-getter in his own right is an asset Luka did not have last season, and the kid is using the newfound floor space to blaze a path to superstardom.
Denver Nuggets: Not Overreacting
While the rest of the West scurried around in the offseason trying to position themselves to take over the Warriors vacated throne, the Nuggets… bet on themselves? In a way, yes. They made no flashy offseason moves and opened the season emphasizing what worked for them in 2018-19. The pace is still deliberate (27 both years), the team defensive rating got even lower (from 10 to 1) and the focus on limited opponents’ scoring is similarly elite (from 6 to 1 in O PTS/G). After a 13-3 start, sticking to the script seems like the right choice for Denver.
Detroit Pistons: Percentages
Sitting at 6-11 after an ill-fated playoff run last year, the Pistons have all the makings of a mediocre NBA team. However, there’s one statistical anomaly; Detroit has the second-best team three-point shooting percentage in the league. The Pistons take and make an average number of threes but are hitting precisely 39% of them, and that’s with their best player and capable outside shooter Blake Griffin posting a stinky 24% from range through just five games. For a team that isn’t good at much else, it’s a start.
Golden State Warriors: Banners, Memories, More Banners
Warriors fans, just take this season on the chin and point at the rafters of the (brand-spanking new) Chase Center anytime you get trolled. Pardon me for not feeling sympathetic, but hopefully a lottery pick soothes the pain of not watching a team bound for the Finals.
Houston Rockets: The 82-Game Regular Season
The Russ-Harden experiment isn’t failing, but it also isn’t clicking just yet. James Harden continues to amaze while hunting the 40-per-game club, but the Rockets remain in the red when he’s off the floor. Part of that is due to Eric Gordon’s injury, but Russell Westbrook hasn’t played well enough to draw the waves of double-teams off Harden or keep Houston afloat with The Beard benched. Luckily, it’s November, this team is 11-6, Gordon isn’t done for the year and Westbrook still has time to adjust in his first NBA season outside Oklahoma City.
Indiana Pacers: Midwestern Sensibility
The Midwest isn’t flashy, and neither are the Pacers. Inefficient iso-kings Wesley Matthews and Tyreke Evans are gone, replaced by the versatile T.J. Warren, the silky Jeremy Lamb and an upgrade at point guard in Malcolm Brogdon. With Victor Oladipo on his way back, Domantas Sabonis continuing his yearly growth and Myles Turner coming off a solid Team USA stint this summer, Indiana is a quiet but effective 10-6 with room to grow and probably destined for a playoff seed in the East. Sensible, practical, effective retool.
Los Angeles Clippers: Depth
Hard to say anything that hasn’t already been said about this group, so I’ll ignore the obvious and go with bench depth. Keeping Kawhi Leonard and Paul George fresh for the playoffs means those regular-season minutes need to go to someone, and Clippers fans should be thankful management realized they needed experience in those spots. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are a given, but offseason acquisitions like Mo Harkless, Patrick Patterson and Rodney McGruder have rounded out one of the best secondary units in the league nicely.
Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis has been predictably destructive alongside LeBron James in his early Lakers career (25.1/9.0/3.8), but his impact is magnified by the fact that the Lakers have the personnel to play him at the four, where he is a consistent mismatch (he’d be one at the five too, but never mind). The Lakeshow can thank a pair of resurrected, much-maligned, oddball centers keeping the big man legacy alive in 2019—JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Both are sporting DRtgs below 100, and Lakers fans should leave an offering aside to the center gods while prematurely celebrating their 17 title this holiday.
Memphis Grizzlies: The Two Js
Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are the future in Memphis (you too, Dylan Brooks, but I don’t see any j’s in your name). Grizzlies fans, start brainstorming your tandem nicknames now and file for those trademarks. Memphis must still cycle out a couple useless vets, do some more lottery picking and add a free agent or two, but the foundation is shaping up.
Miami Heat: Their Rookies
When word surfaced of a preseason bromance between Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, you had to know the kid was going to be good. With Herro going for 14.3 a night (38% from three), fellow rook Kendrick Nunn is nipping at Jimmy’s heels for the team scoring lead at 17.3 per night as Michigan product Duncan Robinson is hitting triples at a 40% clip. Winning basketball and rookies who stepped up calmed the waters from the Dion Waiters gummy incident and propelled Miami to a 12-4 start.
Milwaukee Bucks: Consistency
It’s not a stretch to say many were surprised with the Bucks’ ECF capitulation at the hands of the Raptors last season. There was some bellyaching about Malcolm Brogdon’s departure, questions about Eric Bledsoe’s propensity for playing like a starting-caliber PG for a full season and doubts that the bench could keep up their stellar play. But to this point, the Bucks have not skipped a beat from 2018-19. Giannis is up to 31 a night, Khris Middleton is still deadly from three (39%), Bledsoe is adding 17 per game and the bench appears to be a solid seven players deep. It’s Milwaukee’s conference to lose once again.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Dr. Dish
After years of underdelivering, producing efficiency numbers that would make your eyes bleed and looking generally uninterested in becoming better at basketball, the Timberwolves hit the shooting machine hard in the offseason. The result? 44% from three for Karl-Anthony Towns, a career-high 19.9 PER for Andrew Wiggins and a T-Wolves squad scoring the seventh-most points per game in the league.
New Orleans Pelicans: Hustle Plays
Though 6-11 doesn’t flatter to deceive, Alvin Gentry has the Pels playing hard. They sit top-10 in every hustle stat category (except screen assists), a good M.O. to have for a young, rebuilt team developing chemistry and waiting for that kid they drafted first overall to get healthy. The year one playoff talk was probably a little overstated, but then again, we wait for Zion Williamson.
New York Knicks: Spare Parts
When you build a car out of spare parts, it looks and runs like crap. When you build a basketball team out of spare parts, they look like the Knicks. It’s almost as if the franchise is run by a man-child, but the Knicks wouldn’t be able to put a team on the floor without the misfit odds and ends they’ve accumulated from various NBA rebuilds and retools.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Apprenticeship
OKC is developing its point guard of the future with the point guard it didn’t want. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could do much worse in the mentor market than Chris Paul, and the out-to-pasture vet seems to appreciate his youthful sidekick. It’s a lost season anyway, so the Thunder should be thankful Shai can soak up as much of the CP3 playbook as possible.
Orlando Magic: Gen Z
Jonathan Isaac (22) looks to finally be taking the jump in year three (13.1/7.1/1.6), Markelle Fultz (21) has started 11 games and seems to be piecing his confidence back together, Mo Bamba (21) is gobbling up boards in increased minutes and even old man Aaron Gordon (24) is steady as ever, completing a formidable frontcourt trio alongside Isaac and Nikola Vucevic. The Magic stumbled out of the gate (6-10) but could easily earn more playoff seasoning for their young core with another springtime run in a weak East.
Philadelphia 76ers: Glass Cleaner
Former NBA center and current Sixers GM Elton Brand is shorter than all but one of his starters, and while the early returns on the offense generated by his sky-scraping starting five are mixed, there’s no denying their domination of the boards. Philly leads the league in defensive rebounding percentage and total rebound percentage and gobbling up opponents’ misses will help keep this talented team in the mix on a nightly basis while the kinks are hammered out.
Phoenix Suns: Basketball, the Global Game
Raise your hand if you penned the Bayniac in for 14.5/5.6/3.1 and 44% from deep in 24 minutes a night for the Suns the season. Nobody? Aron Baynes, the Australian big man, was quietly shipped out of Boston on draft night only to pop up with a vengeance with the Valley Boys, who are off to an 8-8 start. Spaniard Ricky Rubio has given Phoenix stability as an actual NBA-caliber point guard running the offense for Phoenix, the first since Eric Bledsoe.
Portland Trail Blazers: Urgency (and Melo)
Just when it looked like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum might get their shot after a strong run to the Western Conference Finals, the Clippers, Lakers and Jazz powered up while the Blazers stayed mostly the same. Add in a 6-12 start and a small margin of error in the West, and everyone in Rip City is acutely aware they need to move quickly to get this core in position for a run. That urgency could fuel a season-changing surge for Portland, but regardless, it’s great to have Melo back.
Sacramento Kings: The Brake Pedal
The Kings found success last year pushing the pace, so naturally the first move was to fire the coach that made that happen. Luke Walton also harbors visions of a purple blur, but after an 0-5 start he eased off the gas to allow his young charges time to master a new system. The Princes are learning, as they’ve bounced back nicely with a 7-4 stretch that included wins over the Jazz and Celtics. Sacramento currently sits No. 28 in the NBA in pace, so it will be interesting to see how and when Walton chooses to hit the accelerator.
San Antonio Spurs: Again, All Those Playoff Years
Seriously, 22 in a row is impressive. But when a Popovich team is near the bottom in the league in many defensive and hustle stats, that’s a troubling sign. And when you stack DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge up against some of the other top tandems in the West, that’s also troubling. I’ll never count San Antonio out until the math says it's out, but Spurs fans should be prepared for the streak to end.
Toronto Raptors: Those Who Remained
The Kawhi Leonard dine-and-dash hurt, but the Raptors don’t win the Finals without breakout supporting cast members Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are still playing well along with OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, but the team is turning to its future stars more often. Siakam is quickly asserting himself as one of the games best at 25.7 points per game, while Van Vleet hits 38% of his threes and leads the team in minutes per game.
Utah Jazz: Salt Lake City, Free Agency Destination
The Jazz, of all teams, were a hot spot for free agents this offseason. Seeing the rest of the Western Conference clubs bolstering their rosters, Utah made the necessary moves to ascend. Mike Conley finally gets to quarterback a team with deep playoff potential, while Bojan Bogdanovic is shooting a ludicrous 46% from three and scoring almost 21 points per game. Those are considerable upgrades over Ricky Rubio and Jae Crowder, and the Jazz can still defend with the league’s best.
Washington Wizards: Penny-Pinching
The Wizards aren’t good, but they’re pouring in the points (third most per game in the league) at a rate disproportionate to their payroll. Beyond Bradley Beal, nobody who has suited up for Washington for this year will make over $9 million. The Wizards can kick back, watch their reclamation projects (Isaiah Thomas, C.J. Miles, Ish Smith, Davis Bertans) bring along the kids (Mo Wagner, Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant, Admiral Schofield) and wait for the books to open up even more.