If you’re only now deciding to follow the NBA season because a certain, uh, other sport has ended, you should really consider starting earlier next year. Seriously! The NBA is great. The best players take vacations together, the commissioner is not widely hated and the coaches are delightfully woke.
Anyway, if you’re finally ready to sit down and really get into the current basketball season, here’s what you need to know.
Okay, in your defense, not much has changed since last season, or even the year before. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Warriors are the best team in the league, while the Cavaliers are favorites in the East despite incessant drama. There are some unique tweaks for 2017, though. Golden State has the added benefit of Kevin Durant, who has been playing like an MVP candidate since joining the Warriors last July. The Cavaliers’ championship honeymoon ended in January, when the team finished the month with a sub-.500 record and LeBron James called out the front office for (in his opinion) growing complacent. By most measures, these teams are barrelling toward a third straight matchup in the NBA Finals. The Warriors and Cavaliers have already split their regular season series, but Golden State would likely be a heavy favorite come June.
First, let’s talk about Westbrook, who has turned into the ultimate one-man show since Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City. Westbrook entered Monday averaging 31 points, 10.3 assists and 10.4 rebounds per game. Russ is the NBA’s scoring leader, and through 52 games, he’s on pace to average a triple double for an entire season for the first time since Oscar Robertson did so in 1962. (And Westbrook’s stats would be much higher than Robertson’s if adjusted for pace.)
So why is Harden the MVP favorite? Well, he’s been more efficient than Westbrook, he himself is nearly averaging a triple double (28.9-11.4-8.2), and the Rockets have been a surprising success, entering Monday with the third-most wins in the entire NBA. Harden has been incredible, and he’s helped turn Houston into a contender for a conference finals berth. The Rockets have a win on the Warriors’ home floor this season, as well as a victory at San Antonio. Houston may not be Finals material yet, but the Rockets’ shooting prowess makes them a tough matchup every single night.
The Knicks superstar has been embroiled in a public feud with team president Phil Jackson for much of the season, with Jackson taking shots at Melo through the media on multiple occasions. It’s clear that the Knicks want to trade Anthony, but the player holds much of the power in this situation thanks to a no-trade clause. Anthony has been linked in rumors to the Clippers and Cavaliers, though his massive salary will make any trade involving him fairly complicated.
New York is smart to want to move Melo, who, despite his love of the city, makes more sense on a contender at this point in his career. The Knicks made some baffling moves last summer, and moving Anthony would be the first step in fully committing to a rebuild around superstar-in-the-making Kristaps Porzingis.
*In the fourth quarter, on offense.
In all seriousness, Thomas has been the biggest reason for the Celtics’ climb to No. 2 in the East, where Boston resides entering Monday. The diminutive point guard has been a menace, averaging 29.9 points per game. Thomas does most of his damage when it counts the most, averaging 10.7 points in the fourth quarter alone. His heroics have mattered, as the Celtics are winners of seven straight and seem primed to return to the conference finals for the first time since 2012.
If there’s a knock on Thomas, it’s his defense. The advanced stats paint him as one of the poorest defenders in the league, though it’s tough to reconcile those numbers with what we’re watching on the court. In any event, Boston’s defense as a team has certainly slipped since last season, but Thomas has rendered those concerns irrelevant as of late.
Related: Joel Embiid: 'I'm The Process'
The 76ers center missed the first two seasons of his NBA career due to injuries, but he’s been a revelation for Philly fans on the court this season, living up to the hype and posting some ridiculous numbers. Embiid is the runaway favorite to win Rookie of the Year, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. The vivacious center doesn’t play a whole lot—he sits out back-to-backs and plays only 25.4 minutes per game—but so far this season, Embiid has been a more-than-solid justification for the 76ers blatant tanking strategy under former general manager Sam Hinkie.
• Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr always have something smart to say.
• The Spurs are still really good.
• The Miami Heat were one of the worst teams in the league, but entered Monday on a 10-game winning streak.
• The Chicago Bulls are a total mess, hanging on to a playoff spot while Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler are more or less feuding with the younger players and Rajon Rondo.
• The Lakers started the season respectably at 10–10, but have gone 7–26 since.
• Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has become one of the league’s most exciting young players.
• Teams that are sneaky good and/or fun: Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets.
• Teams that have disappointed: Portland Trail Blazers, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves.
Okay, that should definitely catch you up on a lot of what you need to know to get back in the NBA loop. Of course, the only way to stay truly informed on the ins and outs of the NBA are to check out The Crossover every single day for the rest of the season. (Feel free to join us in the off-season as well.)