Expert NBA Handicapping: Teams Different in New Year
The turn of the calendar doesn't have actual significance in the NBA, but it is still an interesting milestone. It comes close to the middle of the season, so it is a good time, as we make our own resolutions, to also assess where teams are at and where they might be going. For many teams, what we have seen so far will be some version of what we will see going forward - the Cavs and Bulls aren't going to suddenly learn how to play basketball, and the Thunder or Bucks aren't going anywhere. But in a lot of cases each year the team we see after New Year's is very different from the one that came before.
Here are four teams that have the chance to be significantly different going forward:
Philadelphia: This one is interesting because it is a good bet that this team is going to be different than they were last year, but it is very tough to know just how they might be. They could be much better, or solidly worse. They are fourth in the East right now, which is at least a spot worse than where they should be. Ben Simmons hasn't taken as big a step forward as many expected, and Markelle Fultz has been all sorts of needless drama with an absence of production. But the fate of this team all comes down to Jimmy Butler. They swung big to get him, and on paper it makes sense. But Butler is Butler, and there isn't a team chemistry that he can't destroy. And it seems like he is destroying this chemistry in no time flat. Joel Embiid isn't happy with his role. Butler reportedly had strong words with his coach about his role. And things just aren't working out nearly as they should be right now. If the big three here could get over themselves and realize that they are stronger together, then they could climb the standings and be poised to do same damage. But they could also tear themselves apart if they stay on the path that they are on. They have no risk of missing the playoffs, of course, and their range likely isn't that wide - third in the best-case scenario, and fifth in the conference if the bottom falls out. But the regular season matters less and less in the NBA. What matters is that contenders use the season to get ready for the postseason, and the Sixers are not on that path. Grab some popcorn and settle in, because there is a lot to watch in the former home of The Process.
Boston: This just isn't Boston. They are fifth in the East right now and have done very little of note. They have looked awkward and aren't frightening anyone. But there is upside almost everywhere on the roster compared to the first half given the generally flat performances, Gordon Hayward showed the most flashes of his old self he has in a very long time against Minnesota this week, and the team is still coached as well as any in the league. This team is just plain better than they have been, and they are experienced enough to know that things are starting to get serious. I see a lot of upside.
Utah: The Jazz are the most disappointing team in the league right now to my eyes. They were so good last year, and they seemed dangerous in a way that felt sustainable. And they largely stood pat in the offseason when other teams were chasing and tweaking. It seemed like they were, along with the Nuggets, ready to take a step forward into the true elite of the West. Denver is doing their job, but the Jazz are a dismal 18-20 and are three games out of the final playoff spot. Ricky Rubio has forgotten how to play, a team that was a joy to watch last year because they were having so much fun now looks like they are being tortured by being forced to play, and nothing is working with any consistency. This roster has some clear issues that aren't going to be fixed in any hurry, but they are not a sub-.500 team on paper, and I really struggle to believe that they will continue to be one in the second half. They are still only treading water over the last month or so, but they have gotten better at home the last few weeks, and that is a reason for at least some hope.
Toronto: The Raptors are in a slump right now, and they got their butts handed to them in San Antonio in humiliating fashion. They have lost eight of 16, and several of those losses have been hideous - losing to Orlando by 29 shouldn't even be possible. But none of that matters. They showed early on how good they can be, and they haven't put what is likely their ideal playoff rotation on the court in a very long time. At some point soon, they will hopefully get healthy, and then we will see them shift gears and start the long grind into what they hope is at least a finals appearance. They may not be dramatically better than the .700 record they have had over the first half, but they are going to be dramatically better than they have been in the last five or six weeks.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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