Charting a new course in 2014
With a little more than two months of the season completed, which teams and/or player are in worse or better shape than expected? After further review ...
1. The East team that has most changed its trajectory for the better?
Chad Ford, ESPN: Not sure there is one. I'm tempted to say the Raptors. Unintentional as it may be, Toronto's decision to dump Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay for spare parts has actually helped them. The problem for the Raptors is that GM Masai Ujiri actually wants the team to compete for the No. 1 pick, not a top-four seed in the playoffs.
Andrew Han, Clipper Blog: Toronto Raptors. The Raptors have to look no further than Dec. 8 to mark their dramatic shift in trajectory. It's more complicated than simply extracting Rudy Gay from Canada, but Toronto's more fluid offense and improved defense have been apparent (101.0/102.1 to 104.3/97.7 in offensive/defensive efficiency pre- and post-trade), punctuated with a win Wednesday night over conference-leading Indiana.
Curtis Harris, Hardwood Paroxysm: Toronto Raptors. Masai Ujiri may yet blow up the 15-15 squad, but getting out from Rudy Gay's contract and shadow has done the team wonders. Young players like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross have especially benefited since the Gay trade.
Andrew Lynch, Daily Dime Live: The Charlotte Bobcats. They are still in the midst of a fairly substantial rebuild, but they're winning games on the strength of one of the best defenses in the league. True, they get to take advantage of the weak offenses in the Eastern Conference, but coach Steve Clifford has the Bobcats pointed in the right direction.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Toronto now has a 12.8 percent chance at the Finals in Hollinger's Playoff Rater. It's incredible what losing Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani can do for a team. While the Raptors still lack a superstar talent, they defend well as a group. Masai Ujiri has demonstrated they're in great hands going forward.
2. The West team that has most changed its trajectory for the better?
Ford: The Blazers. I didn't think they'd make the playoffs. But this team looks for real. I'm not sure they are in the same league with the Thunder, Clippers and Spurs once the playoffs get underway, but the Blazers are young and dangerous now and still have flexibility to get better in the future. GM Neil Olshey has done a terrific job.
Han: Phoenix Suns. The Suns were supposed to compete with the Sixers, Jazz and Celtics for maximum pingpong balls in a draft lottery version of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Instead, new general manager Ryan McDonough has hit on every move, transitioning the Suns from a team biding its time for the draft to a playoff team looking to make an impact.
Harris: Phoenix Suns. Totally didn't see this torrid start from Phoenix. Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic are doing a mighty fine rendition of the old Jeff Hornacek and Kevin Johnson backcourt from the late 1980s. Probably not a coincidence, because Hornacek is currently coaching this team up with a purpose.
Lynch: Phoenix Suns. All hail general manager Ryan McDonough and coach Jeff Hornacek. Phoenix is in a great place, developing its young players and winning much, much sooner than anyone could have expected. The Suns might have as many as four first-round picks in the 2014 draft, and it feels as if they are set to be very good in the very near future.
Strauss: For the second time in basketball history, the Phoenix Suns are coming out of nowhere to put their own spin on how this sport is played. Much like the old "Seven Seconds or Less" era, this Phoenix squad is shooting 3-pointers from all over. The difference is this team is younger and generally more athletic than its predecessor. That much speed in that much space is too much for opposing teams to handle.
3. The East team that has most changed its trajectory for the worse?
Ford: The Nets and Knicks are locked in a two-way tie. Normally, I'm the guy that cheers the tankers -- especially in a great draft. But given that the Nets and Knicks don't have any draft picks, they have everything to lose and nothing to gain from what's gone down this season. Both teams thought they were title contenders -- not the second- and third-worst teams in the already lowly Eastern Conference. Overcoming some injury woes may help a little, but these teams seem stuck in purgatory for a while with little chance of improving.
Han: New Yorklyn Knets. Two teams whose nosedives have dovetailed so symmetrically, it's difficult to tell which borough is in a worse predicament. Both teams mortgaged the future for immediacy, so hope resides firmly in the present. New York City was supposed to house two title contenders. Instead, panic escalates as the would-be empires may already be in ruin.
Harris: Brooklyn Nets. Injuries have scuttled this season beyond repair (get well, Brook Lopez), but the gambit of giving away first-rounders for twilight stars has utterly backfired. What may have been a seasonal disaster is now a prolonged dreary future for Brooklyn.
Lynch: The Chicago Bulls. With Derrick Rose injured again, Chicago's future looks rather dim. Whether any of its major pieces, including coach Tom Thibodeau, will still be around next season remains to be seen, and the beginning of a rebuilding process looms. The Nets and Knicks deserve mention, but Brooklyn's age and New York's New York-ness always made their downturns a distinct possibility.
Strauss: Not even the New York media can overstate how bad this Nets situation is. All of the noise-canceling headphones in the world can't obscure how washed up Kevin Garnett has looked. Paul Pierce also hasn't played like the guy they envisioned. Franchise cornerstone Brook Lopez suffered another season-ending injury. Brutal beginning for a team without a no-strings-attached first-round draft pick till 2019.
4. The West team that has most changed its trajectory for the worse?
Ford: The Lakers are falling apart. Kobe Bryant isn't healthy and they don't have one other player on their roster to get excited about. They need the No. 1 pick as badly as anyone, but I'm not sure management is ready to throw their hands up and let that happen. It might be a much longer rebuild in L.A. than anyone expected.
Han: Denver Nuggets. It's always a curiosity to try and determine the value of the front office and staff for a franchise. In Denver's case, Masai Ujiri and George Karl, the former GM and coach, respectively, may have shaped a team too unique, immalleable in the hands of others. The Nuggets were pounding on the gates of contending last season. But now it's unclear how the roster fits the new regime's eye.
Harris: Memphis Grizzlies. The grit 'n' grind Grizzlies are looking more and more like the tail end of Muhammad Ali's boxing career. Their methodical, punishing style got them Rumble-in-the-Jungle-style upsets in the playoffs before. However, this season against their fellow Western Conference opponents, they're looking like the worn-down Ali in 1980 versus the faster and more skilled Larry Holmes.
Lynch: Memphis Grizzlies. They were in trouble even before Marc Gasol was injured, adjusting to a new coach and system. Zach Randolph continues his steady decline. They can't shoot. Their defense is lacking. Where the Grizzlies go from here seems like anyone's guess, and that uncertainty is kind of terrifying.
Strauss: The Lakers decided to make a 35-year-old the league's highest-paid player just as he was rushing himself back from an Achilles tear. He returned amid hype, and broke his shrunken leg. Pau Gasol hasn't bounced back from last season. Their guards keep getting hurt. At least the Lakers are in prime tanking position now.
5. The player who has most changed his trajectory for the better?
Ford: Paul George. Every year he takes another leap and this year he's moving into the top-5 player in the NBA discussion. It's been a remarkable ride for George. He's close to being a truly transcendent force in the NBA.
Han: Miles Plumlee. He averaged 3.9 minutes last season and was presumed to be a backup to Alex Len, Phoenix's 2013 first-round pick. Instead, "Sky Miles" has done his best Roy Hibbert impersonation, anchoring a top-10 defensive efficiency team and finishing at the rim with aplomb. The trajectory is as vertical as Hibbert to go from veritable benchwarmer to bona fide starter.
Harris: John Wall. The trajectory was hinted at last season, but it could have been a blip on the radar. This season, the 23-year-old Wall has proven even better and that the end of last season was no fluke. He's on course for his first All-Star Game selection and also on track for the point guard holy grail of averaging 20 points and 10 assists in a season.
Lynch: Jordan Crawford. Brad Stevens is a wizard; that's the only explanation for Crawford's productivity. By any measure, this has been his most efficient season by a long shot, and he's actively looking for teammates and initiating much of Boston's offense with Rajon Rondo out. Is it because Crawford's in a contract year? Maybe. But either way, he's earned a nice payday.
Strauss: Gerald Green is averaging nine 3-pointers per 36 minutes. That's 1.4 more than Stephen Curry tries per 36. But this isn't a story of how a team needs to corral a selfish player. No, it's a story of how a team finally optimized enigmatic talent. With Phoenix's blessing, Green's letting it fly and having the best year of his career.