The opening lines of NBA history: missing stars, high-profile bulls, Jokic
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After two seasons drastically disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA believed it was returning to a version of normal this year. Instead, a wave of infections over the past few weeks has had a major impact on rosters and schedules, causing games to be postponed and sidelining key players.
Prior to that, however, several key storylines had started to emerge on the pitch.
Golden State and Phoenix established themselves as the best teams in the Western Conference, while the Lakers, laden with former All-Stars, struggled to find their way. And even though injuries thwarted the Nuggets as a team, their big man Nikola Jokic pleaded for winning the MVP award again.
The Chicago Bulls have proven to be surprising contenders with a team of former rejects who have played brilliantly together. In the East, only the Nets have a better record than the Bulls, despite playing without Kyrie Irving so far this season.
While Irving’s absence is linked to his vaccine status, two other stars have been absent for contract reasons – John Wall of Houston and Ben Simmons of Philadelphia. The way their situations resolve could have implications for the way players and teams resolve conflicts in the future.
With Christmas Day – what some see as the unofficial start of the NBA season – looming, here’s a look at three important storylines so far this season.
The stars go MIA
Even before teams started scouring replacement players to deal with Covid-related absences, some big names were missing this season.
There’s, of course, the Philadelphia soap opera, where Ben Simmons asked – demanded? – a 76ers trade over the summer. A stalemate ensued before Simmons, a three-time All-Star and team playmaker, made a few cameos during preseason practice. The 76ers later suspended him for conduct detrimental to the team. 76ers general manager Daryl Morey has said he will only trade Simmons for a “difference factor,” and he has clearly been methodical in his approach to weighting offers.
In Houston, the Rockets are being rebuilt – and John Wall is not in their plans. Wall said in September that he and the Rockets had agreed he would not play while the team searched for a new team for him. But Wall is 31 with a surgically repaired Achilles tendon, and his expensive contract includes a player option worth more than $ 47 million next season. The search for a business partner continues.
And in New Orleans, the Pelicans are still awaiting Zion Williamson’s return to the field – a theme that has become all too familiar to fans. After undergoing off-season surgery to repair a broken right foot, Williamson suffered a series of setbacks. His scheduled return to training this month was cut short when he reported pain in his foot. Medical imaging later revealed a “regression” in the healing process, which led the team to abandon any sort of targeted schedule. He stays away indefinitely.
When in good health, Williamson is one of the most dynamic young players in the league. The No.1 pick in the 2019 draft, he was named to his first all-team all-star last season. But he only appeared 24 games as a rookie with a torn meniscus in his right knee and played just 85 career games while missing more than 90. Without Williamson, a bruised 6 forward. feet 6 inches and not particularly thin, the Pelicans broke one of the worst records in the league.
Surprise success: the Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls’ resurgence season was halted last week when a coronavirus outbreak sent 10 of their players into league health protocols and the NBA postponed two of their games.
They returned to play Sunday, still exhausted, in a game against the Lakers, and immediately returned to victory.
The Bulls were led by DeMar DeRozan, whose focus on mid-range jumpers led him to be treated like a relic. DeRozan is averaging 26.8 points per game this season, placing fifth in the league. He missed 10 days after entering coronavirus protocols with what he told reporters in Chicago was an asymptomatic case.
During his absence, the Bulls have relied more on goaltender Lonzo Ball, who has provided dazzling assists all season and is leading the team’s offense beautifully. Chicago recently lost a second-round pick after the NBA concluded the Bulls had tampered with in order to sign Ball in free agency over the summer. But that penalty might have been worth it: Ball shoots better than ever, especially from the 3-point range, where he’s hitting over 40 percent of his shots.
Zach LaVine, who starts at guard alongside Ball, had almost identical statistical output at DeRozan, including averaging 26 points per game. Meanwhile, center Nikola Vucevic is averaging double-digit rebounds.
Off the bench, Alex Caruso changed the game thanks to his defensive intensity and averages two interceptions per game, the second best in the league. Caruso’s defense is what landed him a shot in the NBA to start.
The success so far is a welcome change for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2017. The Bulls last appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, led by Derrick Rose. and Joakim Noah.
They won’t be playing with big-name teams this Christmas, as few saw that start happen. But they will have plenty of chances to prove that they are among the best in the league.
An underrated MVP?
Nikola Jokic cannot jump particularly high or move that fast. He is rarely the most muscular player on the pitch.
But Jokic is enjoying the best season in the NBA While players like Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are often cited as the top contenders to wear the crown of the best player of this era, Jokic outshines them all. He’s playing somehow even better than last season, when he won the MVP award.
For context, explore his advanced numbers: entering this week, Jokic was at 0.312 winning shares per 48 minutes, a measure of how many wins a player can be awarded. He was the best in the league and on the verge of being the 10th best in NBA history. Another figure: Jokic’s player efficiency index, a measure of contributions per minute, was 34.22 entrants this week, the highest in the league. He was even better in defense.
When we watch Jokic play basketball, we don’t just see one of the best in the NBA in his prime. We are looking at one of the best players of the past 30 years. But he hasn’t done a lot of talk with MVPs this season. After Denver’s run to the Western Conference semifinals last season, the Nuggets have been mired around 0.500 for most of this season, largely because two of their best players, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr ., have been hurt.
It’s a shame, because when Jokic is on the floor, the Nuggets are among the best teams in the NBA statistically. When it isn’t, they are among the worst on both sides of the court. It’s hard to have more value than that.
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