Contender or Pretender?

Originally posted on Larry Brown Sports 
By Darryn Albert  |  Last updated 11/20/17

Nothing really makes sense in our world any more. Rookies are playing like ten-year pros, Arthur memes are taking over the planet, and the president is feuding with LaVar Ball. In trying times like these, we need some real and concrete answers about what’s fact and what’s fiction, so let’s start by asking the only question that matters about eight NBA teams that have outperformed expectations to this point of the season: contender or pretender?

Detroit Pistons
Record: 11-5
The Verdict: PRETENDER

It’s difficult to believe going from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to Avery Bradley and getting slight improvements from the rest of the roster is a viable long-term winning strategy, and that’s probably because it isn’t. As good as Detroit has been, their first 16 games have felt incredibly fluky. Eight of their wins have come by single-digits, and they improved their three-point percentage by over five points from last season despite returning largely the same core. The NBA is fun when bigs like Andre Drummond are rampaging through the competition and dudes like Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith are running circles around everybody. But the Pistons’ own fun may be coming to an end soon.

Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 8-7
The Verdict: CONTENDER

Joel Embiid is better than any horror film out there and is playing like a top-ten guy in the league right now. His brilliance has been largely overshadowing the 18-9-8 stat line that fellow ’90s baby Ben Simmons has been hoisting up. The world is also awakening to how good Robert Covington is at the sport of basketball. JJ Redick is looking like one of the more underrated signings of the summer. Indeed, the Sixers are putting up 109 points per game at the NBA’s fourth-fastest pace, and Markelle Fultz (you know, the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft) is still hurt. It’s Process forever and I will not hear otherwise.

New York Knicks
Record: 8-7
The Verdict: PRETENDER

How hard can one ride His Majesty Lord Kristaps Porzingis, DDS? 30 points a night with enough threes and blocks to feed a starving country is worth a lot, and frontcourt mate Enes Kanter grabbing enough double-doubles to bankrupt In-N-Out certainly helps. But banking on career years from Tim Hardaway Jr. and the rest of the gang to continue is fool’s gold. The Knicks are a top-heavy team that knows few solutions other than to feed their unicorn. And while they have managed to get the Garden popping again like its 1999, this team is probably better suited for the later than they are for the now.

Denver Nuggets
Record: 9-7
The Verdict: CONTENDER

Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap are making big men great again. They have also had some help from the era of Point Guard Jamal Murray, Wilson “I’m Still Here” Chandler, and a surprisingly effective sixth man iteration of Emmanuel Mudiay. Denver owns the most prolific offense in the West behind Golden State and Houston, and they legitimately run nine or ten guys deep. Well-coached teams that move the ball and defend at an adequate level have a high ceiling in today’s game, so expect the Nuggets to jockey for their first playoff appearance since back when Furious George Karl was running the show.

Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 10-6
The Verdict: PRETENDER

The 107.0 offensive rating (seventh-best in the NBA) is nice. But I’m growing a full-on Merlin beard here as I continue to wait for Tom Thibodeau to fix this defense (still a bottom-ten unit just like they were last year in his first season in charge). Yes, Jimmy Butler’s willingness to sacrifice his counting stats for the sake of the team has been admirable, and who doesn’t love that adorable pair of rabid puppy dogs, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins? But with their offensive identity still evolving and their bench not much more than 76-year-old Jamal Crawford, Minnesota’s woes on the defensive end may sink them in the Western Conference totem pole before long despite the hot start.

New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 8-8
The Verdict: CONTENDER

Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are scorching the earth and are a safe bet for 50 points and 25 boards on any given night between the two of them. Elsewhere, Jrue Holiday is enjoying another season of quiet value and may be able to focus more on scoring the ball (his more natural abode) with his move to the 2 to accommodate the return of Rajon Rondo, who will take care of the playmaking. The rest of the roster fills out from there with E’Twaun Moore, Ian Clark, Jameer “Ponce De Leon” Nelson, and Tony Allen all focusing on defense and/or three-point shooting, giving us ample reason to believe the Pelicans can further improve as the calendar flips to December and onwards.

Indiana Pacers
Record: 9-8
The Verdict: PRETENDER

Paul George must have been holding them back because the Pacers look like they won the breakup. With Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis singing “Now I Do What I Want” and Myles Turner back from injury to swat away hopes and dreams, they are making their case to be America’s Team. But they have played an easy schedule so far (with wins over Brooklyn, Sacramento, Chicago and other assorted cream puffs), and their 48.2 team field goal percentage (third-best in the league) seems wholly unsustainable for a non-Warriors team that operates mainly from the perimeter. They don’t have a strong defense or an effective rebounding game to fall back on (rankings 20th in both respects), so brace yourself for Indy’s pride to cometh before their fall.

Boston Celtics
Record: 15-2
The Verdict: CONTENDER

The Celtics may never lose again, and their bid to dethrone The King and his army of Cavaliers is growing more and more formidable. Their league-best defense based around large switchable wings is asphyxiating. Kyrie Irving’s maturation has been riveting. Brad Stevens’ halfcourt sets are still delighting. And Boston’s total supremacy after Gordon Hayward’s injury sent them to the canvas on opening night has easily been the best story in the NBA this year. They’re young, they’re hungry, and [extremely Poltergeist voice] they’re heeeeeeeere. So look out 1927 Yankees, 1972 Dolphins, and 1996 Bulls — the 2018 Celtics are about to push you all off the edge of the flat earth.