6. The dominant Atlanta Hawks
It’s not that nobody saw the Hawks coming. They were a tough out last year, pushing the then-heavyweight Indiana Pacers to seven games in an arduous first-round playoff battle — and they did this despite losing arguably their best player, Al Horford, for the season.
But who can say they saw Atlanta coming this fast, and this hard? The Hawks have gone 19-2 after a bumpy start, and are now tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the league’s second-best record. A rejuvenated Horford is an All-Star candidate, as is frontcourt partner Paul Millsap.
Don’t sleep on their guards, either, though. Jeff Teague is demonically quick at the point, shrewdly beginning their Spurs-like sets as he knifes into the lane. The best possible result of their dynamite passing sequences? A three-pointer from Kyle Korver, who’s shooting an otherworldly 51 percent from beyond the arc.
5. The Detroit Pistons’ turnaround
Dropping Josh Smith has clearly done more than just free up the Pistons’ clogged-up big man rotation. When coach and team president Stan Van Gundy made an example of the sagging star by sending him out the door, it seemed to awaken the fight and focus in his whole roster. After a pitiful 5-23 kickoff to the year, Detroit is now undefeated since exiling Smith seven games ago.
And they’re not just beating patsies, either. The Pistons’ most recent action saw them sweep a dreaded Texas two-step, taking down the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in thrilling fashion, then beating Rajon Rondo and the rolling Dallas Mavericks the very next night. Keep your eyes turned to the ongoing basketball renaissance in Motor City.
4. Increased player movement
Newfound parity in the NBA is about a lot of things, but the largest factor of all is a set of financial rules that makes it hard for teams to keep rosters together, and encourages them to treat contracts and assets fluidly.
In other words: this season’s winter trading market has been piping hot. Dion Waiters, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, Rajon Rondo, Brandan Wright, Andrei Kirilenko and Jae Crowder have all switched teams, with more than a month to go before the deadline, and with plenty more rumblings out there. Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson, for starters, are both said to be on the block.
3. Cleveland’s shaky beginnings
Just as we didn’t see the Hawks getting so good, so quickly, it’s hard for anyone to convince the world they saw the Cleveland Cavaliers’ monstrous struggles in their crystal ball. LeBron James’ squad was, we knew, full of young talent and led by a rookie NBA head coach in David Blatt. It was never going to be easy.
The level of acrimony and upheaval in Cleveland has been astounding, though. Two mid-season trades (for Shumpert and Mozgov) point to a heightened level of urgency as the organization fights to retain James and Kevin Love this summer, both of whom can walk away. Considered title contenders before the season, the 19-17 Cavs are now working overtime just to get decent playoff positioning, and to make sure they don’t have to break the band up anytime soon.
2. Jimmy Butler’s surge into MVP territory
The Chicago Bulls have been kicking tail. If it weren’t for the Hawks’ unstoppable play, they’d have found their way to Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed by now. And the top source of their success is coming from an unlikely figure: shooting guard Jimmy Butler has become the Bulls’ best player.
Butler has long been a defensive menace, wearing his opponents’ thin with his brash, ceaseless hustle. But his sudden scoring touch has pushed him into the land of superstars. Most remaining doubters of Butler’s brilliance shut their lips when they saw him corner MVP front-runner James Harden into zero second-half field goals in a Bulls win over the Houston Rockets. Butler straight up made Harden look bad:
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1. The Sacramento Kings firing Mike Malone
Just when you thought the Western Conference was getting that much harder… it got a little bit easier.
The Sacramento Kings had been lost, directionless for years amid questions of ownership and a poor track record in the draft and free agency. Then, they did the unthinkable, and looked like a contender with a 9-5 start, behind the amazing work of big man DeMarcus Cousins and the best version yet of written-off forward Rudy Gay.
But when Cousins missed a string of games with viral meningitis and the Kings dropped eight out of 10 contests, their overzealous owner Vivek Ranadive lost his cool. He fired one of the leaders of his team’s turnaround, head coach Mike Malone. Malone wasn’t the best in the league by any means, but he was doing a damn good job, and had the difficult Cousins on his side.
Under the direction of Ty Corbin, the Kings have been a mediocre 4-6, even with DeMarcus healthy back in the rotation. Basketball optimism will probably have to keep waiting for another day, in California’s capital.
— John Wilmes