The NBA’s best players are currently in Los Angeles taking part in the pageantry of All-Star weekend. While it all appears to be fun and games in Southern California, these players and their teams are soon going to be returning to the grind of the regular season. Once they do return, they’ll be less than two months of action remaining before the playoffs.
From a team up north that looks to be legitimate championship contenders to another out in Salt Lake making a big push, there’s been some major surprises heading into All-Star weekend. On the other hand, we have seen a ton of injuries to star players take a toll around the league. And in Cleveland, a recent about-face has sought to save an otherwise lost season.
These are among the biggest surprises and disappointments heading into the NBA All-Star Break.
Surprise: Toronto Raptors
When Toronto lost the likes of Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph from last season’s team, there was some question about who might step up. This ownership group wasn’t willing to get into the luxury tax, so internal improvements were key. That’s where youngsters Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have come up huge in 2017-18. The four are averaging a combined 28 points per game on the season.
Not only does Toronto enter All-Star weekend with the Eastern Conference’s best record, it’s a much deeper version than we saw last season. Add in the continued excellent performances of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and this could be the year Toronto breaks through back east. It’s now all about those young players continuing to step up.
Disappointment: Warriors bench
Golden State may look to the buyout market for an upgrade here. But until then, it’s vital that what seemed to be a strong bench finds a way to improve. David West is the only member of the second unit averaging north of 7.0 points per game. Coincidentally enough, he’s playing some of the finest basketball of his career. Outside of that, there’s not a whole lot to see.
Free agent additions Omri Casspi and Nick Young have done very little, averaging a combined 12.9 points per game. For his part, Casspi just nailed his first three-pointer since mid December in Monday’s win over Phoenix. Meanwhile, youngster Patrick McCaw has struggled to the tune of a 25 percent mark from distance and was just sent down to the G-League for some fine-tuning. The defending champs have four All-Stars and two former MVPs. They remain favored to win the title. But this second unit needs to step up for that to come to fruition.
Surprise: Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum
When Gordon Hayward went down to a season-ending ankle injury in the opener, we were left wondering who would provide a spark for the Celtics behind Kyrie Irving. These two youngsters have answered that question in more ways than one. Brown and Tatum head into the All-Star Break averaging a combined 27.7 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting at a near 40 percent mark from distance. This has helped Boston remain among the top teams in the Eastern Conference despite losing its huge free agent addition from the summer. If Brown and Tatum continue to perform at the level we’ve seen this season, there’s no reason to believe the Celtics can’t enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed for a second consecutive season. Not only that, the future is glowingly bright for these two youngsters.
Disappointment: Team building in Charlotte
Adding lottery pick Malik Monk and former All-Star center Dwight Howard to team up with Kemba Walker was expected to build a playoff squad in Charlotte this season. Instead, these Hornets head into the break nine games under .500 and coming off a trade deadline in which Walker was bandied about as trade bait. Said trade would have been the start of a complete rebuild for this team — something that will likely have to happen sooner rather than later. Monk is averaging just 5.0 points and shooting at 34 percent from the field. Walker has regressed in terms of efficiency. Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have also regressed. This has all led to a complete lack of team building for Michael Jordan’s Hornets.
Surprise: Rockets supporting cast
James Harden and Chris Paul draw most of the spotlight for Houston’s surprising success this season. That’s fine. But if it wasn’t for the Rockets’ supporting cast, this team wouldn’t be the Warriors’ chief competition out west. General manager Daryl Morey has done a brilliant job finding pieces that fit in perfectly in Mike D’Antonis scheme.
This past summer alone, he brought in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to give this squad more identity on defense. Both have provided the goods. Gerald Green has added anther perimeter threat to a three-point reliant game. Meanwhile, the decision not to move Clint Capela in the Paul trade has paid major dividends. Houston now has a legit shot to unseat Golden State out west, and its supporting cast deserves a lot of the credit.
Disappointment: Markelle Fultz situation
For the second consecutive season and third time over the past four years, Philadelphia is dealing with a major injury to a top pick. It started with Joel Embiid after he was selected No. 3 overall back in 2014. The center missed his first two NBA seasons. Then, in 2017, No. 1 pick Ben Simmons sat out his initial campaign with a leg injury. When Philadelphia made Markelle Fultz the first pick in last year’s draft, most weren’t worried about the same injuries that had plagued Embiid and Simmons prior to turning pro. Sadly, that has not been the case.
Dealing with a continued shoulder issue, Fultz has played in a grand total of four games and has not suited up since October 23. Reports from Philly’s camp are mixed, but it seemingly unlikely he’ll be able to make much of an impact as a rookie this season. In fact, suggests are that he might not play this season at all. For a Sixers team that enters the break in playoff positioning, that’s most definitely not good news. The only hope here is that this injury doesn’t have wide-ranging ramifications for the talented young guard down the line.
Surprise: Minnesota Timberwolves
It seemed clear that Minnesota would improve this season after adding the likes of Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and All-NBA performer Jimmy Butler to the mix. But an improvement off last season’s 31-51 mark might have included flirting with .500. Instead, the Wolves head into All-Star weekend with a 36-25 record and tied with San Antonio for the third seed out west. Who would’ve figured?
The new threesome as well as Jamal Crawford have done a tremendous job meshing with the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in Tom Thibodeau’s system. The only real issue here is that Minnesota is yielding nearly 107 points per game. It still has issues on the defensive end of the court, with Towns and Wiggins being the main culprits. That could lead to an early playoff exit. Even then, the 2017-18 season would be seen as a success for this up-and-coming squad.
Disappoinment: LeBron James’ Cavaliers
The ship might have been righted following three blockbuster trades on deadline day last week. That doesn’t make Cleveland’s pre-break performance and less disappointing. After adding the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder and Dwyane Wade during the summer, most figured the Cavs would cakewalk to a fourth consecutive Eastern Conference Title. Heading into All-Star weekend none of these four players are even with the team anymore. That’s disappointing by itself.
Let’s now consider the fact that Cleveland is currently the No. 3 seed back east, 6.5 games behind Toronto for the top spot. They’ll enter the final two-plus dozen games having to find an identity with George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson still looking to fit into Tyronn Lue’s system. Oh, and All-Star Kevin Love is still out an undetermined amount of time to injury. Cleveland could very well still win the East, but it’s no longer going to be as easy as most anticipated.
Surprise: Utah Jazz’ current run
Don’t look now but these Jazz enter the weekend with an NBA-best 11-game winning streak and are right in the thick of the Western Conference Playoff race. Shockingly, they’re doing this without last year’s leading scorer Gordon Hayward and this year’s second leading scorer Rodney Hood, the latter of whom was traded at the deadline.
It’s pretty much been the Donovan Mitchell show. The rookie is averaging nearly 20 points per game heading into the break. Meanwhile, five other players are averaging double-digits in a balanced scoring effort. In no way does this mean Utah stands much of a chance should it make the playoffs. But a season that started with a lottery pick on the team’s mind could ultimately lead to the Jazz playing postseason basketball. Not too shabby at all.
Sadly, the NFL season was defined by the same type of injuries we’re seeing around the NBA right now. Hopefully it’s not a trend that we’ll become accustomed to. It started with Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward suffering a gruesome ankle injury in his debut with the team on opening night. From there, it has snowballed. DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending ruptured Achilles. Unfortunately, that came in a contract year for the All-Star big man.
Let’s not forget about Kevin Love missing a couple months with a wrist injury and Kawhi Leonard having to be shut down once again after he suffered an injury in last year’s playoffs. Most recently, one of the brightest stars in the game, New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, went down to a season-ending torn ACL. In between all of this, Paul Millsap (Nuggets), Patrick Beverley (Clippers) and Mike Conley (Grizzlies) have all been lost for extended periods of times. More so than how this has impacted individual players, teams themselves have had to scramble to make do without some of their best players.