What if I told you, now that the NFL is over, that you could still watch athletes who are among the best tin the entire world, who compete at the top echelons of the sport, with the same kinds of drama, laughs, good guys and bad guys, all with the added benefits of teams changing year-after-year in bigger and more impressive ways than in football?
That's right, I'm talking about the NBA.
Yesterday, we covered what's been going on in CollegeTown, USA, but now it's time to focus on the professionals. This NBA season has been full of emerging young stars, player drama, dominant big-man play, and, of course, a healthy dose of LeBron James.
Even if you’re not a diehard NBA fan, at some point last season you probably saw highlights of James Harden, Chris Paul, or another guard hitting a step-back move, pump-faking, and leaning into a defender who was mid-air to draw a foul and shoot free throws. It was incredibly frustrating to watch.
Well, the NBA addressed this during the offseason and tweaked the rules to nearly eliminate this.
The result? A vastly improved product.
Basketball is far and away my favorite sport, and even I can admit that there were times over the past few years when the game was unwatchable. It seemed like every possession had the goal of getting a 3 point shot, either by iso ball or creating contact from a pump fake.
The rule change this season has resulted in an emphasis on defense, lower scoring, more ball movement, higher-quality shots, and yes, the return of the Big Man.
The Big Man Returns
It’s been a while since big men dominated the NBA like they’re doing now. Guard play is still central to nearly every team’s offense, but we’re seeing shades of the NBA of old. Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are currently the top 3 favorites for MVP, and are well deserving of being in that position (odds via OddsShark).
Embiid boasts a ridiculous 29.5 PPG, 11.2 RPG, and 4.5 APG statline, Jokic is averaging 25.8 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 7.9 assists, and The Greek Freak is averaging 29 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. Ridiculous numbers by all 3.
The bottom line is that the big man is all the way back. The 3 point shot will always be a central part of the game (thanks, Steph Curry), but we’re seeing more and more teams re-incorporate the guard/center pick and roll, play directly through their bigs, and try to wear out teams down low.
A New Crop of Teams Takes Over
Would you believe me if I told you the LeBron-less Cavs were sitting at the 3 seed in the East?
And that the Bulls, proud owners of the so-called "worst free agency signing of the offseason" are the 2 seed in the East with a 37-21 record?
I wouldn’t either. But it’s true. The NBA looks a lot different than in years past. Even from last year, things have shaken up. The 76ers, Nets, and Bucks led the East in 2021, and this year they hold the 4, 5, and 8 seeds respectively. These new contenders, led by my personal favorite Cleveland, have shown that they belong (the Cavs also have arguably the funniest fanbase on Twitter).
In the West, last year’s Finals representatives Phoenix lead again with an incredible 46-10 record, followed by Golden State at 42-16. Remember when people thought Steph and the Warriors were washed up last year? Me too.
Arguably the biggest surprise has been Memphis, who went from the play-in tournament last season to a 40-18 record this year. Ja Morant has been a human highlight factory, which he’s always been, but this season it’s translating to legit team success.
Let’s Talk About the Lakers
Now, I know that talking about LeBron and the Lakers is one of the easiest ways to get clicks, but this is completely justified. The Lakers opened the season with the 2nd best odds to win the NBA Finals at +350 and now sit at 26-31, good enough for the 9 seed in the West. The hype at the beginning of the season started with a questionable trade for Russell Westbrook, leading to plenty of graphics like this.
The Lakers have been plagued by injuries throughout the season, but by far the worst part of their season has been the play of Westbrook. The trade initially didn’t make a lot of sense to me, see: floor spacing, but many thought he’d find a way to make it work with LeBron and AD.
After all, shouldn’t 3 of the best players in the world figure out a way to play together? So far, they haven’t.
That isn’t even the worst highlight to come out of LA this season. There’s been a multitude of compilations of Westbrook throwing up wild shots, throwing the ball away, and firing the ball off the top of the backboard trying to hit a bank shot. This team is a mess.
2 years removed from being NBA champions, the Lakers are in a tough spot as they ride out the remaining years of LeBron’s ‘prime’.
The Bright Spots
The league isn’t all clownery and chaos. As we see new teams assert their dominance over the regular powerhouses, we’re seeing new players elevate their game as well.
I already mentioned Ja Morant, but some other young emerging stars include Darius Garland, Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, Desmond Bane, and my personal favorite, Josh Giddey. You can watch a lot of those guys during the All-Star break in the Rising Stars games.
The bottom line is, the league is in good hands. There’s a good balance of young stars at every position, they’re incredibly fun to watch, personable, and have the talent to shake up the league even beginning this year.
Same Faces, New Places
As I led with, the NBA is known for its blockbuster trades. Well boy did we get treated to some of those last week during the trade deadline. There were simply too many to list each one, but the biggest name from that list was clearly the James Harden for Ben Simmons swap. James Harden put on his fat suit once again and played his way off another team, while Ben Simmons racked up millions of dollars in fines by refusing to play for Philadelphia and found a new home in Brooklyn alongside KD and Kyrie Irving.
In the end, both players and teams got what they wanted, a fresh start. Harden and Embiid on the same team should frankly scare the rest of the Eastern Conference, while the new Big 3 in Brooklyn has some questioning about how they’ll all play together. Either way, both teams are primed for playoff runs with their new look squads.
Around the rest of the league, there were more shakeups. The Kings traded their best young asset in Tyreese Haliburton to Indiana for Damontas Sabonis, the once-coveted Kristaps Porzingis has a new home in DC, CJ McCollum got shipped out to New Orleans for a package of young players and picks, and the Cavs added a weapon in Caris LeVert.
I won’t bore you with official grades for each trade, but let’s just say there’s been a lot of ‘if I was a GM I would have never made that move’ discourse on the internet (looking at you, Sacramento).
Frankly, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited to finish up watching an NBA season. There is so much potential for new teams to win titles, players to cement their legacies, and young names to make their mark on the league.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.