Happy New Year, y’all! I certainly hope this week’s edition finds all of you well.
Forgive me for taking the one-week newsletter hiatus to begin the calendar year. But it was for good reason: During the holidays, I capped the best, most fulfilling year of my adult life by asking the woman I love to marry me, and she said yes. In light of that, I couldn’t be more excited for all the surprises 2023 has in store.
With the regular season at the halfway mark this week, I figured it’d be worth running down the things I’ve been most surprised by and some questions I’m eagerly waiting to learn the answers to as we head into the second half of what seems like a wide-open NBA campaign.
What I really didn’t see happening
The Bucks’ offense falling off a cliff: We knew it might take a while for Milwaukee’s offense to hum without a major hub in Khris Middleton, whose playoff injury absence left the Bucks far too reliant on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday in that epic seven-game series loss to Boston. Middleton made it back to the floor early last month. But after seven games—in which he averaged 11 points on 32.5% shooting—a sprained ankle and now an apparent knee injury that’s kept him out for almost four weeks at this point, it remains a bit of an open question as to when he’ll be back, and once he is, how he’ll actually look and perform.
At one point, it didn’t feel like that big of a concern that the Bucks lacked firepower without him. Last regular season with Middleton on the sidelines and Giannis on the court, the Bucks notched a whopping 117.3 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, according to PBP Stats. (They were particularly lethal with both scorers playing, banking more than 120 points per 100.)
But this season has gone differently. Antetokounmpo is still an MVP candidate, but teams have been able to throw more attention at him, and his efficiency as a roll man has seen a considerable drop as he’s struggled mightily from deep and at the free throw line. All of a sudden the Bucks, who were rated as a top-three offense last year, ranked 25th this season. Some of that is the bench’s poor three-point shooting relative to last season. But there’s no denying much of it stems from the Middleton-sized hole in Milwaukee’s lineup.
You obviously don’t want to see Middleton come back before he’s ready and suffer another injury because his body is compromised. At the same time, I’m finding myself concerned about a group I believed was neck and neck with Boston, if not better.
The Cavs have the NBA’s best defense so far: It was fair from jump street to think that Cleveland could be a factor in the East this season. Taking a solid young core and then adding a relatively young star who can get you 71 points in a single game will put you in that conference-contender conversation.
What wasn’t as clear about the Cavs, though, was how their defense would look. Yes, they had a pair of incredible defensive bigs in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. But would those two be able to cover defensively for a pair of 6’1″ guards in Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell? (They’ve answered that call, with Allen holding shooters 8.7 percentage points below their averages near the rim, and Mobley holding players 6.5 points below theirs, according to NBA stats.) Cleveland came into the season with a question mark regarding who, exactly, would hold down the starting small forward spot, and for the time being it’s been almost a moot point. Despite the role being handled almost by committee, everyone who’s served there has generally worked hard defensively. The team ranks near the top of the league in most shots contested per game, even though it plays at one of the slowest paces in the NBA, meaning there are fewer shots to actually defend. Kevin Love leads The Association in charges taken. The hustle is there most nights, which is a great sign. And no team allows fewer points per 100 possessions than Cleveland.
A few of the teams we figured weren’t good have actually been decent: Even if Utah has lost seven of eight, it’s kind of amazing that the Jazz were in first place all by themselves in the West three weeks into November. Not bad for a team that dealt away its two franchise players.
In the midst of their recent struggles, the Jazz sit just one game out of 10th place for the final play-in spot, which is miles from where most of us figured they’d be at this point in the season. A half game behind Utah is Oklahoma City, which has managed to log an 18-22 mark with 10 of those victories being ones in which the young Thunder came back to win after trailing by double digits. Watch closely enough and you can start to see the makings of something real with that club. Next year could be really interesting.
Then you have Tyrese Haliburton, who would be a more-than-deserving first-time All-Star, and the Pacers, who stand at 23-18 and for the moment wouldn’t even need a play-in round to reach the postseason .
Myles Turner is in the middle of his best season. Bennedict Mathurin could finish No. 2 in the Rookie of the Year voting. Andrew Nembhard, who hit a game-winner against the Lakers earlier in the season, is deserving of All-Rookie consideration, too. The Pacers are incredibly fun in addition to being a winning club.
That all of these things are happening in a season many of us expected to be about Victor Wembanyama is wonderful, frankly.
What’s going to happen with the _______?
Timberwolves: When Karl-Anthony Towns went down, I thought Minnesota’s best-case scenario was trying to find elements that worked without him in hopes of having better rhythms in place once he’s back. Things looked bleak, to say the least, during a six-game slide to end the calendar year. But now, the T-Wolves have a chance to win a fifth-straight contest to start 2023 Wednesday against the lowly Pistons. D’Angelo Russell is playing much, much better after a head-scratching start to the season. Anthony Edwards looks fully in charge and as if he has a clearer sense of what he should be doing with one less big on the floor. And the defense, anchored by Rudy Gobert, is finally starting to lock in. It might be just enough to avoid some difficult questions for now and keep the team afloat until Towns can return later on in the season.
Raptors: Heading into this campaign, I thought Toronto was a safe bet to make a leap. Aside from the fact that they have both talent and experience, they are built far differently, have a coach who thinks differently, and seem relatively fearless as an organization. But with the slow start this season—even with Pascal Siakam having a fantastic year, they’re a game and a half behind the Bulls for 10th right now, at 17–23—that fearlessness could mean trading away parts to pivot toward a new direction. Any number of teams would take interest in what Toronto has to offer, while whatever the Raptors get back would arm Masai Ujiri with the assets necessary to make a play of his own down the line.
Suns: The past couple of years, Phoenix largely managed to stay healthier than just about everyone in the NBA when it came to the top end of its rotation. Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton started a total of 90 games while logging almost 1,500 minutes of regular-season action together. But that alignment fell by the wayside before the season started, when Crowder—perhaps upset with a pending lineup change—opted to sit out camp. Now add in the injuries to his replacement, Cam Johnson, Paul and Booker, and you have what the Suns avoided for so long: a season made much more difficult due to injury. But even once everyone returns, a question remains: How does this club find a way to get over the hump of the last two seasons, particularly after one of the strangest and perhaps flattest Game 7 performances of all time?
Two things that shouldn’t surprise me: Nikola Jokić’s MVP candidacy and Jacque Vaughn
I figured there was no real way The Joker could find himself in the running for a third-straight MVP, yet here we are, with Jokić logging career-best efficiency from the field and on the cusp of averaging a triple double—25 points, 10.8 boards, 9.7 assists—for a first-place Nuggets team. And as he’s doing that, MVP hopefuls Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson are all out missing considerable time, narrowing the pool of realistic contenders for the award.
I think it’ll take a herculean effort for him to earn it again, as Luka Dončić and Jayson Tatum have been great, too, and give potentially tired voters solid alternatives. But a Jokić three-peat is certainly more possible than I initially gave it credit for, and speaks to how incredible a player he is. He’d become the fourth player in league history to accomplish the feat, with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Larry Bird having been the only three to win three straight.
Separately, while I’m not in a rush to credit an organization that created one self-inflicted problem after another, Nets coach Jacque Vaughn deserves a massive shout-out for helping turn things around quickly in Brooklyn. The Nets, winners in 18 of their last 20, sit a game and a half out of first and look like contenders.
After everything—getting passed over for the job for a guy who hadn’t coached before, nearly watching the team bypass him again for a coach who’d just been under investigation with another team, helping jump-start a rusty Ben Simmons and all the unnecessary headlines swirling around Kyrie Irving to begin the season—it’s been really nice to see Vaughn having the success he is having. Particularly because he seems like someone who wants his work to speak for itself, which is refreshing after the never-ending rumblings that were coming out of the organization for the wrong reasons.
The coach now gets a big test in the form of having to game-plan for a while without having Durant, who’s played at an MVP level. Depending on how well he manages to navigate it, Vaughn should be near the top of most Coach of the Year lists at the end of the season.
Meat and potatoes: Good reading from SI and elsewhere this past week
Thanks for reading The Playmaker. Feel free to forward this email to a friend or tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any specific questions, just reply to this email or send a note to email@example.com and I may answer it in a future edition.