Top NBA storylines heading into December

By David Kenyon

The excitement of a new NBA season has started to shift into determining what storylines deserve the basketball world’s attention in a pivotal month of play.

As much as we like to suggest “there’s a long way to go,” the standings at the end of December typically look similar when mid-April arrives. Last season, for example, 13 of the 16 playoff qualifiers were top-eight teams in their respective conference on Dec. 31.

Individual players matter, but the most impactful stories are centered on whether teams can set themselves up in December for a postseason charge.

The Cavs aren’t broken

Following a 3-1 start to the campaign, Cleveland lost seven of the next nine contests. That negative spiral included a four-game skid — which contained three losses of 17-plus points — and a shortcoming at home to the Atlanta Hawks, the league’s second-worst team. Though doom, gloom and panic soon followed, the portion of the NBA world expecting an inevitable recovery from LeBron James and Co. has been rewarded. Since the Cavs fell to 5-7, they’ve notched eight consecutive wins. By no means is Cleveland a perfect team, but the concerns should be evaluated within reason.

Isaiah Thomas could return soon

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Cavs are hopeful Isaiah Thomas will return earlier than anticipated. The All-Star guard has been working back from a hip injury, which ended his 2016-17 before the Boston Celtics, his former team, were eliminated from the postseason. Thomas won’t supply much help defensively, but his scoring impact will boost an offense that has received little impact from point guards so far. Derrick Rose is hurt, and Jose Calderon isn’t a major threat. Cleveland will be relieved to have Thomas in the lineup.

James Harden, Rockets cruising atop West

Basketball fans knew Houston would score a bunch, but improved defense has made Mike D’Antoni’s team a serious threat to Golden State. The Rockets ended the 2016-17 season ranked 18th in defensive rating, per NBA.com, but have opened 2017-18 at a commendable seventh. Their net rating has nearly doubled, climbing from 5.4 to 10.5. James Harden has poured in a league-best 31.4 points per game while guiding Houston to a 16-4 mark. The Rockets and Warriors may occasionally trade the No. 1 spot, but it’s clear that Houston is an upgraded force in the West this season.

No Gordon Hayward, no problem in Boston 

Kyrie Irving Celtic Pride

Unfortunately for Celtics fans, 80-2 won’t be happening. You can hardly blame them for getting carried away, though. Boston lost Gordon Hayward in the season opener, dropping that outing to Cleveland and the following game against the Milwaukee Bucks. But then, the Celtics knocked off the San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors during a span of 16 consecutive wins. That consistent success is reflected in Boston recording the league’s best defensive rating, per NBA.com. Hayward’s absence may sting in the playoffs, but Kyrie Irving and the Celtics are rolling through the regular season without him.

Spurs still waiting on Kawhi Leonard, still winning

Longtime coach Gregg Popovich recently said he’d never seen the issue that is sidelining All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard. What seemed like an innocuous injury has turned into a long absence for Leonard, who will end up returning after Tony Parker. That seemed unfathomable earlier in the season. Yet even without a superstar and veteran point guard, the Spurs keep on Spurs-ing. They’re 13-7 and in third place in the Western Conference. Parker will be a part of the active roster moving forward, and he’ll help San Antonio continue to win — not just metaphorically tread water in the standings.

Get ready for a Golden State surge

It says something special about a team when a 15-6 start is met with, “oh, that’s all?” For those of us who take the Warriors for granted, don’t worry, because December is awfully kind to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the reigning champions. Of the month’s 15 games, only five are against teams currently .500 or above. While the opening five contests are part of a six-game road trip, Golden State also closes the month with seven straight outings at home. The schedule will tighten up in January, but the Warriors have a favorable stretch approaching.

76ers look like a playoff team

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons might be the next dynamic duo.

Knock on wood, cross your fingers, do whatever you’d like, but the Sixers are a playoff contender when healthy. Joel Embiid is a two-way monster providing 22.8 points and 1.7 blocks, and Ben Simmons regularly stuffs the stat sheet despite not having a jumper. Seriously, he still hasn’t made a three as an NBA player. Nevertheless, Philly has posted an 11-8 record and is averaging the seventh-most points in the league. The Sixers can improve their efficiency on both ends, but they’re a fun team with an entertaining superstar. The postseason would be better with Philadelphia making an appearance.

What is the level of concern for OKC?

We shouldn’t panic about the Thunder, but it’s reasonable if you’re not entirely sold on this roster. Oklahoma City went from emphatically taking down Durant and the Warriors to blowing a 15-point lead in a loss at home against the Pistons and falling to the Dallas Mavericks within a four-day stretch. While that type of volatility can be overcome to reach the playoffs, it’s certainly not the makeup of a real contender. Now, nobody should expect excellence 19 games into the Big Three era of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. But 8-11 isn’t great, either. OKC needs to show progress in the upcoming month; otherwise, we might begin worrying.

Pacers surviving without Paul George

One of the most intriguing surprises of 2017-18 is how Indiana has fared with Victor Oladipo as the centerpiece. Oladipo is the league’s No. 12 scorer, while trade partner Domantas Sabonis is supplying 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in his sophomore season. The Pacers are safely behind the East’s top-tier clubs, yet they’re hanging around the middle of the East standings with an 12-9 record. Whether the team can navigate a favorable, home-heavy month should reveal if Indiana is an actual playoff threat or destined to be forgotten this year.

When will Rudy Gobert return?

Given the initial timeline of Rudy Gobert’s recovery, the earliest time he’ll play is mid-December. There’s no guarantee he’s healthy that quickly, and any further absence could be the dagger for the Jazz this season. Although Utah holds the No. 8 spot in Western Conference, the slim advantage hardly matters because of what’s coming. The Jazz have an absolutely brutal slate in December and could be without Gobert the whole time. They play 15 games, and 10 are opposite the Thunder, Rockets, Celtics, Cavs, Spurs or Warriors. Only the Chicago Bulls are a sub-.400 team. December can’t make Utah’s season, but the month could break it.

Struggling, injured Clippers might be finished

While a 4-0 start offered hope, a massive skid combined with injury concerns has put Los Angeles in panic mode. The Clippers endured nine consecutive losses before a victory over the hapless Hawks finally ended the streak. They have on-court problems, but the largest issue is having players on the court. Blake Griffin could be seriously hurt, oft-injured Danilo Gallinari is sidelined again, Patrick Beverley is out for the season and Miles Teodosic won’t be available for most of December, at best. The Clips might be approaching the end of a six-year postseason streak.

Nuggets begin months without Paul Millsap

Paul Millsap is such a valuable piece for Denver. To date, he’s a top-90 player in every major statistical category — points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Due to a left wrist injury, however, the All-Star acquisition is out indefinitely. Replacing his production is not a one-man job, yet the 11-8 Nuggets face that collective task while trying to remain a playoff contender. If there is a bright side, Denver’s roster has experience largely remained intact over the summer. That familiarity needs to show during a month that includes 10 road games, lest the first of multiple months sans Millsap be a failure.

When will the Bucks start winning?

Giannis Antetokounmpo deserved the early attention for his insane production. And now that the Bucks have acquired Eric Bledsoe, they’ve built a roster capable of shaking up the Eastern Conference. But when is that going to start happening? Although a 9-9 record itself isn’t worrisome, Milwaukee’s inconsistency is cause for concern. Among the NBA’s 13 teams with a negative net rating, the Bucks are one of only three clubs holding a winning percentage .500 or better. The team’s talent suggests victories are coming, but winning on paper is far easier than doing it on the court.

Lonzo Ball’s shooting struggles

Looking at his per-game averages alone, it would appear Lonzo Ball is having a decent season. Providing 8.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists is no easy feat. After all, only LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Ben Simmons are doing the same right now, according to Basketball-Reference. Ball, however, is only shooting 24.5 percent from three-point range and 30.9 overall, also connecting on just 42.9 percent of his free throws. Those are historically bad numbers. The Lakers continue to trust Ball as a starter, but it’s worth wondering if Jordan Clarkson might eventually supplant the rookie if these struggles continue.

What will larger sample show about Detroit?

Detroit entered the campaign viewed as a playoff possibility, but Stan Van Gundy’s crew is performing like it should be considered a lock. December will provide a bit more evidence to whether the Pistons are more than an early winner. The upcoming month is loaded with matchups against “middle of the pack” opponents, such as Philly, Milwaukee, Denver, Indiana and New York. Detroit could assert itself as an upper-tier East club if it wins a majority of those games. Throw in a total of four games opposite Golden State, Boston and San Antonio, and the Pistons could sprinkle in a couple of marquee victories, too.

Where does Memphis go from here?

In a wildly unexpected move, Memphis fired second-year coach David Fizdale. The former Heat assistant guided the Grizzlies to the playoffs last season and oversaw a hard-fought six-game exit to the Spurs. Fizdale is a highly-regarded coach who seemed like a perfect fit in the “grit and grind” style Memphis advertises, but some marriages aren’t meant to last, apparently. The franchise has turned to J.B. Bickerstaff, who served as an interim coach for the 2015-16 Houston Rockets. The Grizz probably weren’t a playoff team anyway, but an eight-game losing skid spelled the end of Fizdale’s tenure. Will the change help or hurt Memphis?

Washington hits the road without John Wall

John Wall

The Wizards recently decided to shut down John Wall for two weeks because of a knee injury. Surviving the upcoming stretch without the All-Star guard will be a considerable challenge. Including the final two outings of November, Washington will play on the road seven times in an eight-game span. As long as the Wizards don’t completely collapse, there’s no reason for concern. But if Washington is fighting to snatch a top-four seed come April, we might remember the Wall-less portion of December as a major factor.

Charlotte slipping at problematic time

After alternating losses and wins in the first six games of the campaign, Charlotte has become a streaky squad. The 8-11 Hornets picked up three straight victories, dropped six in a row and won three consecutive outings again before dropping the next two contests. If that trend continues, the concern is it’ll feature more losses in a precarious December. Charlotte only travels for six games but encounter the Warriors, Heat and Bucks twice, as well as the Thunder, Rockets, Blazers, Raptors and Celtics once. The Hornets could have trouble climbing the standings if they drop 10 games in the month.

Will Portland keep playing defense?

One year after registered a 107.8 defensive rating — 21st in the league, per NBA.com — the Blazers have soared to No. 3. They’ve posted a 99.3 mark and are currently one of only three sub-100 teams. That’s a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that last finished as a top-10 defense three seasons ago. Al-Farouq Aminu was a significant part of that early on, yet he’s essentially been sidelined for all of November. His return could bolster an already-encouraging for the Blazers. Will a larger sample expose Portland, or will this improvement be sustained?

Deadline buyers, sellers to slowly emerge

Whether due to pride, patience or a combination of both, franchises usually won’t shake up the roster before the end of the calendar year. Bledsoe’s move to Milwaukee was an exception, and that only happened because of a disconnect between the player and the front office. Another month of inconsistency for NBA clubs could result in decision-makers committing to win-now or win-later mode. Some near-.500 teams — like OKC and Washington — will intend to compete in 2018 no matter what, but others could accept their low ceiling and move on from key pieces. Might the Clippers or Pelicans reach that conclusion as February approaches?