The NBA news cycle moves faster than De’Aaron Fox. So every Monday this season, we’ll be looking at the most important story lines, trends, and talking points for the week ahead. Welcome to the NBA’s Biggest Questions of the Week.
Below, we’ll touch on the Bucks dominating the NBA, James Harden’s high-flying ways, the Lakers’ chances against the meat of their schedule, and more. Let’s get to it.
Are the Bucks the Best Team in the League?
It’s your lucky day. I’m here to give you a short answer—yes—and a longer one, too. There are flashier teams, perhaps even more watchable and appealing ones, too. But right now, it’s the Bucks’ league, and we’re just living in it. Their 10.3 net rating? Best in the NBA. Their plus-10.8 point differential? Best in the NBA. And all three of their losses have come against would-be playoff teams.
Aside from adding another Lopez brother to the mix and removing Malcolm Brogdon, there’s not a lot that’s new in Milwaukee this season—which has made this team feel like somewhat of an afterthought compared to all the shiny new toys in L.A. But that should not prevent us from heaping praise on them, and especially Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has seemingly discovered a higher plane of existence after reaching the MVP mountaintop last season.
What Giannis is doing—averaging 30.9 points, 13.4 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game, plus holding a 33.3 PER—cannot be talked, written, or typed about enough. Not to mention, the 24-year-old (!) is shooting 32 percent from 3 in his last 13 games. The best player in the league is turning his team into the best team in the league, and Milwaukee’s rolling ways don’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. Only five of the team’s 15 games in December are against teams with a record over .500, which means they could easily finish the calendar year with anywhere from 27 to 30 wins (they were 25-10 through December last year).
Triple-doubles are nice, but Giannis is transcending box scores and stat lines. It’s like he’s decided to take it upon himself to make sure that there will be no regression from last season to this one. And so far, that sheer force of will has been more than enough.
How High Can James Harden Go?
No player makes me feel the need to track down a box score more than James Harden. On Saturday night, I was away from my TV, but as soon as someone on Twitter alerted me to Harden’s 31 points at the half against the Hawks, I kept checking my phone wondering how many points he’d end up with this time. The answer was 60, which led me to look at how few shots he took (only 24), which led me to see how many free throws he racked up (20-of-23), which led me to see how many 3s he hit (eight), which led me to wonder: What if he had hit a couple more of those? And what if the game had been more competitive and he would have played the fourth quarter?
Suddenly, a number like 70 points feels more than doable. And a number like 80 doesn’t seem unattainable. Harden’s volume is a magic trick: even if his technique is monotonous, there’s novelty in trying to understand how he ended up with 50-plus points on less than 25 shots—was it the free throws? Or did he have a hot night from 3? Every game brings a different computation that ends up producing a similar high-scoring result. This season already, Harden’s had eight games of 40 or more points. Back in 2006, it took Kobe Bryant 46 shots to get to 81 points. Harden just proved he can reach 60 with 24 shots (his average on the season)—but give him six more shots (he’s had three games of 30 or more attempts this season) and see what happens. One of these days, Harden, whose 38.9 points per game would be the third-highest in a season ever, will ride the perfect wave of shots, makes, free throws, 3s, and minutes to a historic game. If he ends up with 80 points in one contest, the marker would both be astounding and also feel like the natural next step for him—which sums up his feats in a nutshell.
Even Harden’s biggest detractors can’t fight what the box score spells out on a nightly basis. Stripped from the discussion over aesthetics, Harden is a basketball alien on paper. His numbers make no sense. And even though his plodding, free-throw-heavy strategy makes him grating and innovative at the same time, his numbers make him undeniable. What Harden is doing on the court is unprecedented. Is it fun? That question repeatedly comes up. And yet wherever your answer lands on the spectrum, it may not matter because either way, he’s got our attention.
Can the Nuggets Continue to Boast the Best Defense in the League?
This summer, Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr. interviewed for the Cavaliers head coaching job. While he didn’t end up getting the gig, it was confirmation that he’s on track towards a head coach position sometime soon. As the primary assistant tasked with heading up the Nuggets’ defense, the start of this season couldn’t be going any better for him or the team. The Nuggets are 13-4, winners of eight of their last 10, and their defense is the best in the league, allowing 101.9 points per 100 possessions. Sub-100 numbers on defense may as well be relics in this offense-heavy NBA economy, but the Nuggets—who were not known for this side of the ball before last season—are giving up 99.7 points per 100 possessions since Michael Malone ripped into his squad after they gave up 122 points in a loss to the Pelicans on October 31.
When I spoke with Unseld Jr. at the start of last season, he explained how Denver had altered its defensive scheme: Instead of leaving Nikola Jokic exposed in no-man’s land on pick-and-roll coverages, they had him move up to force the ball handler to make a quicker decision. In turn, this also forced all the Nuggets on the floor to scramble more and to rely on communication as the unit’s bonding agent. For a team that boasts more continuity than most in the league, this was a fine compromise. And it worked. The Nuggets jumped from the 23rd-ranked defensive team to the 10th last season. And while there was skepticism about whether Denver would be able to keep that pace up this season, Year 2 is already yielding a unit—with a healthy Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee as a reliable Jokic backup, and growth from both Gary Harris and Jamal Murray—that’s far more comfortable with their updated scheme and thriving in it.
Denver will always have its doubters come playoff time, but this is who the Nuggets are now—one of the better defensive teams in the league. On the other side of the ball, the Nuggets have actually regressed from a top-10 offensive unit to below middle of the pack. While that doesn’t all fall on Jokic’s shoulders, it’s notable that he’s already had six games this season where he has failed to reach 10 points (he had nine all of last season). The Nuggets offense will bounce back; they have too much firepower. But for now, they can rest easy on the fact their defense is carrying them.
Can the Lakers Flip Their Switch Against Good Teams?
It has been a rare sight so far this season: a resigned LeBron James slowly walking up the court to get set on defense with his team down 20 points. He appeared exhausted, both because he had already played 36 minutes and because he’d exercised all his mental and physical options trying to help the Lakers flip their switch. After winning 10 games in a row and posting a 17-2 record—the Lakers’ best 19-game start this century—all the electricity had been sapped, and L.A. lost to the Mavericks 114-100 on Sunday night.
For the last month, the Lakers have looked like one of the best teams in the league. Their defense has been suffocating (top five in defensive rating), their offense has been spearheaded by two of the five best players in the league (top five in offensive rating), and they have the ability to separate themselves from any opponent, thanks to the unique skill sets of Anthony Davis and Walking Fountain of Youth LeBron. Everything has been working, so in some ways, they were due for a loss. In other ways, though, even as they were down 20 in the fourth quarter, it wouldn’t have been shocking if they had still won the game. They have earned those kinds of expectations. The Mavericks, however, were the first team the Lakers faced in their last 11 games that had a winning record.
Coming into Sunday, the Lakers had played the seventh-easiest schedule in the league. Still, they had done what good teams do: beat bad teams. In some cases, the Lakers played down to their opponents and turned on the jets when necessary. Against those teams, they could afford to do that. Now, though, things begin to get interesting.
Ten of the Lakers’ 14 games in December will come against teams with records above .500. There will be taxes to pay against those teams if L.A. gets off to a slow start. Unlike last season, the Lakers have largely avoided any kind of on-court conflict. But this upcoming run will finally battle test them—and maybe that will be good in the long run.
Is This Raptors Team Real?
The 2018-19 NBA season finished with the basketball world kowtowing to Kawhi Leonard—and rightfully so. But while some credit was certainly given to the rest of the title-winning Raptors, it is fitting that this season has begun with a correction of sorts: Let the record show that the leftover Raptors are still damn good. Even after losing Kyle Lowry to a thumb injury, they have not stumbled. Instead, they are trouncing good teams like they did Sunday, as they beat the Jazz 130-110.
On this edition of Toronto’s team, Pascal Siakam is playing the part of Kawhi—even down to the personalized logo and merch. Siakam had 26 in the first half Sunday and finished with 35. Head coach Nick Nurse is showing that coaching still has value in a player-driven league, and the rest of the Raptors—from Fred VanVleet all the way down to Terence Davis—are outperforming any and all expectations. Toronto is thriving off a utopian reality and a distinct organizational culture that feeds into a well-oiled system. It doesn’t get any better than that.
This offseason, there was talk that the Raptors could begin a mild rebuild by trading away Marc Gasol and Lowry. Instead, they’ve doubled down and have all the makings of a contender in the East. They might be a move away from truly competing for the conference, but then again, why start doubting these guys now?