Seven takeaways from this NBA season

A pre-All Star break recap of this NBA season.

This NBA season’s more than half-way over now. The 2015-2016 campaign has been filled with surprises, achievements, and unexpected shakeups. Here are my seven takeaways from this NBA season:

1. The Warriors might actually make history

As a Thunder fan it pains me to say it, but Golden State is the undisputed alpha-dog this season. It’s not even close. Coming into the season I knew Golden State would be good, but I never would’ve imagined they’d be this good. As of January 31st, Golden State has only four losses on the season through 43 games. Their winning percentage is 91.5%, and if you multiply 82 (the number of games in a season) by .915 (91.5%) you get 75. That number is a rough projection of Golden State’s season ending win total.

Now some might be pessimistic about Golden State reaching that total, but after their recent showings against Cleveland and San Antonio I’m led to believe it’s possible. In Cleveland on January 18th, the Warriors absolutely demolished the Cavs, 132-98. Stephen Curry had an efficient 35 points on 18 shots (7/12 from three), while Draymond Green flirted with a triple-double (16 pts.-7 asts.-10 rebs.) and held LeBron James to only 16 points. Against San Antonio the following week the Warriors had another decisive win, beating the Spurs 120-90. Against the Spurs, Stephen Curry dropped 37 points on 20 shots.

It’s hard to describe what makes Golden State so special. It’s a combination of unique players, great coaching, and a team that puts winning before personal goals. Last season, I had the privilege of watching the Warriors play in Golden State during a vacation and I could tell just by watching them warm-up that these guys genuinely love playing with each other. They may have stars like Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson, but this team plays selfless basketball. In the end, that selfless style of play might be what carries this team to yet another NBA title.

2. Mixed results from free agency moves

This has definitely been one of the stranger returns from a free agency class. For example, LaMarcus Aldridge left the Portland Trail Blazers for the San Antonio Spurs and has seen his stats drop significantly. As a member of the Spurs, playing with guys like Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan, along with a loaded bench, Aldridge no longer looks like as much of a star. He still managed to make the West All-Star team, and ironically, Aldridge has gone from somewhat overrated last season to being very underrated this season.

Then there’s Monta Ellis. When the Pacers inked him to a four-year, $43 million deal this past offseason, they expected Ellis to be that bonafide second scoring option next to their superstar forward Paul George. So far, the Pacers are still searching for that consistent second option, as Ellis is averaging only 14 points-per-game. Despite lacking that extra scoring punch, the Pacers are still sitting in 7th place in the Eastern Conference standings. However, I’m sure Pacers Team President Larry Bird wishes he could take back that money thrown at Ellis and use it on a better player.

3. Rookie class making an impressive showing thus far

You can’t talk about this year’s rookie class without mentioning Knicks rookie and fourth-overall pick Kristaps Porzingis.  Rookies like Kristaps have made critics rethink their pre-draft descriptions of this class. After a strong draft class from the previous year featuring promising prospects like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, and Julius Randle, the experts all said that this year’s class wouldn’t be as strong.

So far, that hasn’t been the case. Top pick Karl-Anthony Towns has been a beast for the Timberwolves, averaging 17 points, 1o rebounds, and two blocks per game. The seven-footer has proved to be a unique player, being both a rim-protector and a legitimate threat from behind the arc on offense (shooting 39% from three this season). One could argue Towns is already the best player on the T-Wolves right now–it’s only a matter of time before this guy becomes a superstar. It’s almost certain at this point that Towns will be named Rookie of the Year.

The three players picked after Towns (2. D’Angelo Russell, 3. Jahlil Okafor, and 4. Kristaps Porzingis) have also exceeded expectations. In Russell’s case, he was labeled by some as a bust earlier in the season. However, once Kobe started giving young Lakers like Russell the ball more often, Russell began to show why he was such a star in college. The 19-year-old Laker is currently averaging 12 points and three assists per game. Although those aren’t huge stats, they’re still impressive given the amount of players around him who need the ball in their hands in order to be effective. When asked whether or not he believed Russell is the Laker’s point guard of the future, Lakers fanatic Ryan Ruehl replied, “It’s tough to tell with it only being his rookie year, but I really hope he is. He has a lot of potential and reminds me of a young Damian Lillard.”

He (D’Angelo Russell) has a lot of potential and reminds me of a young Damian Lillard.

— Ryan Ruehl '17

For Jahlil Okafor, this season has been somewhat of a mixed bag. He’s been great on the court despite Philly’s horrendous record, putting up solid stats of 17 points and seven boards per game. However, Okafor has raised concerns about his maturity due to all of his off-court issues earlier this season. In December, Okafor was featured in two videos during his time in Boston after a loss to the Celtics. The first featured himself punching a fan, and the second featured himself bragging about his money and then proceeding to throw more punches. On top of all of that, Okafor was also pulled over for speeding on a highway after being clocked at 108 mph. Naturally, he was suspended by the Sixers, but only for two games. Okafor has a lot of potential; however, he’ll have to grow up and prove he’s capable of being a mature adult before any team considers saving him from the abyss known as Philadelphia.

4. Some teams have surprised and some have disappointed

Every year teams like to shake things up in the standings by either overachieving or underachieving–this year has been no different.

The biggest surprise this season would have to be the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland was pretty much written off by everyone, destined for a nice lottery pick to help aid their rebuilding process. Despite losing four of their five starters from last season’s playoff team, “Rip City” is currently sporting the West’s eighth-best record. Starting point guard Damian Lillard may not have made the All-Star team (maybe the biggest snub in the history of the game), but he’s been the driving force behind Portland’s success so far this season. Lillard’s been having a career year (24 points and seven assists per game), but so has his running mate in the backcourt, CJ McCollum. McCollum is currently averaging 21 points per game after having averaged just seven last season, leading many to consider him a no-brainer for Most Improved Player.

The biggest disappointment is undoubtedly the Phoenix Suns. This season couldn’t have gone any worse for Phoenix. They lost Eric Bledsoe early to injury for rest of the season, Tyson Chandler hasn’t been too effective.  Markieff Morris has no desire what so ever to continue playing for them, but they can’t seem to find a good deal for him. This was a team that nearly earned a playoff spot in a deep Western Conference just a season ago. Plain and simple, this team has self-destructed.

5. The true center isn’t dead yet

With a lot of teams adjusting their lineups in favor of a “small ball” approach, it seemed as if the center position was bound to become obsolete. However, this season has proved that notion wrong. Behemoths like Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, Pistons center Andre Drummond, and Clippers center DeAndre Jordan have been major features in their teams’ offensive schemes.

DeMarcus Cousins is the NBA’s best big man this season. He’s currently averaging 27 points and 11 rebounds per game as the primary scoring option in Sacramento’s offense. Guys like Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin might have a broader skill set than Cousins, but that doesn’t take away from his value as a go-to option down the stretch. Despite being constantly double-teamed in the post, Cousins has still managed to muscle his way to the NBA’s fourth-best overall scoring average as a center.

Andre Drummond has become a star this NBA season for the Pistons. The 6′-11″, 280-pound prodigy is currently averaging 17 points and 15 rebounds per game while leading Detroit’s playoff push. Drummond was named an All-Star for the Eastern Conference, and I don’t think anyone would argue that selection. Coming into the league, many  considered Drummond to be a project who would likely take a while to develop. I’d say being named an All-Star at just 22 years-old definitely squashes any notion of Drummond being named a project.

6. Less injuries this season

Overall, there have been very few injuries this year (knock on wood). That comes as a surprise, considering last year was filled with injuries. Players like Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Iriving were all hit by the injury bug last year, and the league wasn’t the same without them.

With Kevin Durant, foot injuries plagued him all last season, ultimately forcing him to end his season early due to surgery. Since then, Durant has bounced back admirably, returning to his role as a dominant member of the Thunder’s dynamic offense alongside Russell Westbrook

Kobe may be getting old, but I’m shocked by how well he’s holding up this season. He’s been less active, but he hasn’t missed nearly as much time as I thought he would. Hopefully he continues to stay healthy for the rest of his final season, he deserves it.

Carmelo’s injury was part of what sunk the Knicks last season. They still probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs with him, but without him they were atrocious. Since returning from injury, Melo, with the help of rookie Kristaps Porzingis, has turned the Knicks from the NBA’s laughingstock to a somewhat respectable team. The Knicks still need a lot of help, but at least they have Melo healthy.

If Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had been present for the entire NBA Finals, Cleveland could’ve won. Not saying they would’ve, but having their two best players not named “LeBron James” would’ve helped. When asked whether or not he believes the Cavs could’ve beaten the Warriors if they had Love and Irving healthy, Elder grad/Cavs fanatic Jake Frey replied, “The Cavs probably would’ve won. With the way LeBron was playing despite getting smothered by the Warriors, all they needed was a little extra offensive firepower.” Frey then went on to add that Curry would’ve had a tougher Finals if he’d had to guard Kyrie instead of Delly because Kyrie would’ve been much more active on offense.

The Cavs probably would’ve won. With the way LeBron was playing despite getting smothered by the Warriors, all they needed was a little extra offensive firepower.

— Jake Frey '15

7. All signs point to a Finals rematch between the Cavs and the Warriors

Both teams go unquestioned as the top teams in their respective conferences. Cleveland will likely have an easier path to the finals given the strength of their conference, but Golden State, despite the strength of the Western Conference, has proven that they can decisively win against any team in the NBA. I can see a team like San Antonio or Oklahoma City slowing them down, but realistically I just can’t see any Western Conference team beating Golden State in a seven-game series.

Something that could play a major part in disrupting this prediction could be something previously mentioned in this article: injuries. Last year, injuries throughout the playoffs decimated the Cavs, yet Cleveland still put up a fight. Now imagine if the tables turn and Golden State becomes the one who gets hit by injuries. Overall, Golden State has been pretty good at avoiding the injury bug. However, as we found out last year, anything can happen during the playoffs.