Just about everywhere this week, folks celebrated New Year’s not so much with excitement for 2019 but with a firm good riddance to 2018, a year packed with disappointments and downsides. And, really, it was no different in the NBA.
We had another pointless regular season, and a bummer of a Finals, the fourth straight iteration of Cavaliers-Warriors. This one ended in a sweep. Ho-hum.
If folks were angry across the country, well, then they were angry across the league, too. Kawhi Leonard underwent a nasty divorce from the Spurs, who traded him for DeMar DeRozan, a move that left DeRozan ticked off. Jimmy Butler dramatically shredded his relationship with the Timberwolves after one season, bashing youngsters Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns on his way out.
Free agency was an utter dud. Paul George nixed the drama and decided to stay with the Thunder before July 1 hit. LeBron James, whose past free agencies have been packed with days and days of suspense and clue-hunting from Twitter sleuths, instead announced his move to the Lakers in a one-paragraph statement released in the opening hours of July.
DeMarcus Cousins and his banged-up Achilles went to Golden State, but the most important free-agent move might well have been Trevor (Yawn) Ariza leaving Houston. Stop the presses!
So, good riddance to 2018, NBA-style. Let’s see how things stack up as we enter 2019.
Sure, the 3-point explosion has been the story in Milwaukee. But don’t discount the defense.
The Bucks give up nothing easy — they’re No. 1 in fast-break points allowed (9.3) and points in the paint allowed (40.0) — and overall, the defense ranks No. 3 in the league with a 104.0 defensive rating. Remember, they were 18th defensively last year with much the same personnel.
The Nuggets’ opening-night lineup — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton with Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic — has been available for all of two games this season. Millsap was back on Saturday and Harris returned Tuesday. Barton could return this week.
Give credit to head coach Mike Malone, who has led Denver to the best record in the West.
Klay Thompson got back into his 3-point shooting groove in the last two games, hitting 6-for-9 from the arc. Still, he is shooting 34.4 percent from distance, and he would need to make 47 straight 3-pointers to get back to last year’s 44.0 shooting percentage.
At 12-3 in December, the Pacers had their best month since November 2015. The schedule was light — nine home games and two losses were to Cleveland and Sacramento — but Indiana consistently won big, with a margin of victory of 10.4 points. The Pacers start 2019 on a five-game road trip.
It is impressive that the Raptors, after their 20-4 start, have managed to go 8-7 in their last 15, mostly with Kyle Lowry struggling through multiple injuries. They have shot only 44.1 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from the 3-point line in that span, compared with 46.2 percent and 35.0 percent by their opponents.
Paul George in the month of December: 30.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, true shooting percentage of 63.1 (49.3 percent from the field, 43.2 from 3, 84.6 from the line) and a net rating of 11.2. It was the best month of his career.
The Celtics have given up 100 points in 11 straight games, and they are 6-5 in those games. That’s only happened one other time in Brad Stevens’ NBA career — a 13-game stretch in December and January of the 2016-17 season. But Boston was 10-3 in those games.
The Spurs offense has clicked in the last 12 games, averaging 115.1 points and shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from the 3-point line. LaMarcus Aldridge has been surging, but the key has been the surprising play of point guard Bryn Forbes, averaging 12.1 points this season.
The Sixers lost their first five road games, which was followed by a 6-4 road stretch thereafter. After beating the Clippers, they’re 2-2 on their current five-game trip. The good news is that the Sixers play seven of their next 10 games at home after the current road trip ends Wednesday night.
James Harden attempted 27 free throws in Houston’s win on Monday. Since he arrived in Houston in 2012, Harden has shot 15-plus free throws 85 times, and the Rockets have won 62 of those games. That’s a .729 winning mark. In all other games, the Rockets have a .621 winning percentage.
No team has played more close games this year than the Lakers, who have 23 games that have wound up in clutch situations (within five points with five minutes to play).
The games have not skewed their record, though, and the presence of LeBron James has not yielded a statistical advantage in tight games. The Lakers are 12-11 in clutch games, and their plus/minus is 0.4.
The Clips keep coming up with surprising wins and are in the midst of eight out of 10 games at home. But the numbers suggest their record is inflated and due for some snap-back, as their current two-game skid indicates. The Clips rank 14th in net rating (1.2), and in December that number really sagged, to minus-4.4.
13. Trail Blazers
The Blazers pummeled the Sixers on Monday, and CJ McCollum was 4-for-7 from the 3-point line. He had been in a tough six-game slump, shooting 16.1 percent on 31 deep attempts — and then went 0-for-5 in Tuesday’s thrilling win over the Kings.
He’s shooting only 32.9 percent from the arc, well below his 40.0 percent career average.
The Jazz have the second-best defensive rating in the league over their last 13 games (101.5 points per 100 possessions) and a net rating of 6.5. But they are only 6-7 in that stretch.
Part of the problem: They lost four of five games that had clutch situations (within five points in the final five minutes), shooting 38.1 percent from the field and failing to make a 3. Utah is just 5-10 overall in clutch games.
Over the last 15 games, the Heat are ranked fourth-worst in true shooting percentage, at 53.1. Yet they’re 10-5 in those games, tied for sixth-best in the league. They’re 3-1 in games when they’ve shot less than 40 percent in that span.
The Kings are 10-8 at home, but statistically, they’re a better road team. Their net rating is minus-2.5 at home, and minus-0.4 on the road, where they are 9-10.
When the Timberwolves traded away Jimmy Butler, their assist percentage was 55.8, which was 23rd in the league. Since then, it’s been 62.3, which is ninth. The Wolves are only 13-11 since the trade, but they were 4-9 with Butler and are just finishing the toughest stretch of their schedule.
The Mavs have been a nice story to this point, but they have the second-toughest remaining schedule in the league. They have lost nine straight on the road and are 2-16 overall away from American Airlines Center, with a road net rating of minus-7.4, 24th in the NBA.
Same as always, depth is killing the Grizzlies. The reserves were eighth-worst in plus/minus in December, at minus-2.6, which is a letdown from the beginning of the year, when they were a respectable 15th during their 12-5 start.
The hand injury that will keep Cody Zeller out a while comes at a dangerous time for the Hornets.
Starting Saturday, they play 10 of 13 on the road, a tough task considering they last won away from home on Dec. 9 in New York, and their last decent road win came on Nov. 11 against the Pistons. Only three of the teams they face in January are below .500.
The Pelicans have had this giant hole at small forward for what seems to be forever, yet the last time they used a draft pick on a small forward was second-rounder Darius Miller in 2012. This year, they’ve used Miller, Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore and Wesley Johnson at the position. This is why depth is a bit of an issue.
A two-game losing streak after nine wins in 10 games stings, especially with a tough run of the schedule ahead. But injuries — John Wall out for the year in Washington and Cody Zeller out in Charlotte — have finally caught up to the other teams the Nets are chasing for an East playoff spot.
Point guard depth is killing the Pistons. Reggie Jackson (15.0 points, 39.3 percent shooting, 33.3 percent 3-point shooting) has been brutal shooting the ball, and Ish Smith’s adductor injury has forced 37-year-old Jose Calderon to play more.
The Pistons are 10-1 when Calderon plays fewer than six minutes, 6-18 when he plays more. Detroit has lost 12 of 15.
The Magic are 4-8 in their last 12 games, and Aaron Gordon has struggled badly in that span. He’s scoring just 13.4 points per game on 38.8 percent shooting, after averaging 16.3 points on 48.3 percent shooting in 22 games to start the season.
With John Wall now out because of heel surgery, the Wizards’ best bet is to tank the rest of the way, unload salary and aim for a top-three pick. But management seems to remain committed to what it’s built, for better or worse.
One scout before last year’s draft said he’d pick Kevin Huerter and “just stick him in the corner and let him shoot.” He was right, it turns out.
As a rookie, 19.3 percent of Huerter’s 3s have come from the corners, and he makes 57.7 percent of them.
It’s only seven games, but the Suns’ overall rating goes up 11.2 points per 100 possessions with new guy Kelly Oubre on the floor. Still, they’re only 2-5 in those games, and he’s coming off the bench.
For all the bellyaching about Jim Boylen, the Bulls have managed to go 4-4 in their last eight games. Their defensive rating in that span is 104.2, which is sixth in the league (they were 23rd under Fred Hoiberg). As for the offense… it’s best to just focus on the defensive improvement.
Emmanuel Mudiay ranks No. 55 in assists this season, at 3.9. That leads the Knicks, who have four point guards, none of whom can seem to pass very well. In all, New York ranks last in the league in assist percentage, at 50.5.
What a miserable turn of events for Alec Burks, who started the year as a member of the Utah rotation, scoring 13 points in 18 minutes in the opener.
But he opens 2019 with the Cavaliers, traded for Kyle Korver, and shooting 36.8 percent from the field in 17 games (13 losses) with Cleveland. He’s averaging 11.2 points on 10.7 field-goal attempts. Oh, and he is a free agent this summer.