Remember when people were proposing to abolish playoff seeding by conference because the East was way too weak compared to the West? That cause has certainly run out of steam.
As the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets can attest, these things are cyclical. Tomorrow's matchup between the two, which you can watch live on League Pass at 8:00 AM, already holds so much bearing because there are 10 to 11 teams in the East that can realistically make the playoffs. It wouldn’t be a surprise if by April we were talking about the Wizards and Hornets fighting for home-court advantage or to get out of the play-in tournament.
The Wizards, who are seeking their sixth straight win, were only supposed to sort of be this good. When they traded away Russell Westbrook and got back three pieces and a pick, they immediately added depth while freeing up more possessions to funnel through their true superstar in Bradley Beal. But no one probably saw them improving into the East-leading, 10-3 (their best start since 1975) Wizards.
Beal hasn’t even been that good. He’s probably been the most affected by the rule changes as his scoring has come down from 31.3 points per game last season to 23.3 so far this season. His free throw attempts are down and his efficiency from everywhere on the court is down.
Usually, teams that experience plenty of turnover during the offseason need time to gel, but the Wizards have adapted quite quickly. Much of the credit should go to first-year head coach Wes Unseld Jr., who has taken the Wizards from the 29th best defensive team by rating last year to fourth this season.
They’ve also gotten a rejuvenated effort from all three of their Lakers acquisitions in Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Harrell, in particular, has looked a lot like his peak Sixth Man of the Year form back when he was with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Even crypto bro/point guard Spencer Dinwiddie has been terrific as the Wizards’ key off-season signing. Then you go down the Wizards’ bench mob, which includes Harrell, Raul Neto, and the much-improved Deni Avdija who has stifled opposing bench units.
Are the Wizards really this good? Their depth is a tremendous boon in the regular season when the 82-game grind requires as many players stepping up on any given night. It remains to be seen whether this approach can lead to postseason success.
Depth has also been a strong suit for the Charlotte Hornets, though they have a touch more star power in their lineup. At 8-7, Charlotte has been inconsistent this season, but it does look like it has two All-Stars on their squad.
LaMelo Ball, for one, has been stuffing the stats sheet while still showing there are plenty of areas for growth in his game. His passing and unselfishness were always going to carry him through his career, but his rebounding and scoring have come along in ways not a lot of scouts saw coming. He’s averaging 19.3 points, on 43 percent shooting with 7.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists, so far. His shot selection and defense still need improvement, but this version of LaMelo already looks like a superstar.
Then you have Miles Bridges, the early favorite for Most Improved Player of the Year. The best thing about Bridges’ breakout season is he hasn’t done it by taking away possessions from his teammates. He's still at around a 23 percent usage rate. He’s just done more with the touches the Hornets have afforded him. Bridges is shooting more 3s and is getting to the rim at an elite level, bumping his scoring average from 12.7 from last year to 21.5 this season. He’s also averaging career-bests in rebounds and assists. The Dunk Contest is a no-brainer for Bridges but don’t be surprised if he also plays on Sunday during All-Star week.
When those two don’t have it going, the Hornets have quite a safety net with Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward rounding out their killer starting rotation. They even have guys like Kelly Oubre and Coby Martin doing damage from the bench.
Charlotte’s been fun ever since LaMelo’s first game last season. Whether they can be good with this configuration is still to be determined. It’s early, but there’s just a three-game separating them and the Wizards in the standings.
Any sort of cushion will be a luxury in the East. Currently, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks sit in 11th place and last season’s Eastern Conference runners-up Atlanta Hawks in 12th. We’ve yet to see the best out of some of the East’s upper crust teams so the Wizards and Hornets need to gather as many wins as they can now. A late catch-up attempt in March and April might be futile with the way the East is shaking out.
On NBA TV Philippines (available on Smart’s GigaPlay app and Cignal TV), you can catch what should be a heated game between the red-hot Chicago Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers at 11:30 AM. The Bulls just swept both Los Angeles teams and are making the vaunted trip up north to try and quell the Blazers. Damian Lillard hasn’t been himself lately but that could just mean Dame Time arriving a little later this season.