The league is filled with players who can catch fire for a game. But which lottery teams have players who can sustain that fire for a season?
Sustaining a fire takes the right sort of fuel. Using newspaper as the kindling can ignite a bright, warm flame, but one that will last only seconds. Using wet wood creates a fire, yes, but often a weak or heavily-smoking one. Dry, substantive wood is objectively the best way to sustain a warm, bright fire.
It is the same in the fireplace of the National Basketball Association.
As the NBA season nears the quarter-pole, the brilliance of individual games begins to fade and the consistently great rise to the surface. The Sean Kilpatricks and the Jordan Clarksons of the league may explode for a standout game, but they cannot bring exceptional performances night in and night out. These are the matches of the league.
Similarly, a player such as Harrison Barnes can support an offense; he has been forced to do so in the absence of Dallas’ other stars. But he brings warts (efficiency, range) that make him a poor choice to depend on. He is a piece of wood that burns but fills a room with smoke.
The thick, dry logs of the league are beginning to stand out, those players with sustained brilliance to contribute to a team’s success every night. They still have moments where the flame waxes and wanes, but a team can count on them to make a positive impact whenever they take the court.
The league’s most solid logs are clustered among its best teams, but even the lottery contains a few stars. Among the fourteen teams currently projected for the back end of the standings, which players are standing out through twenty games? Which players would make the “All-Lottery” Teams?
First, a few points of explanation. Only players who have suited up for 12 games or more are eligible for contention; this eliminates Jrue Holiday, among others, who may qualify for these teams down the road.
Secondly, these rankings are based on FiveThirtyEight’s projections through games played on 12/1, not the current standings. That means in the West we are including Minnesota, Denver, New Orleans, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Phoenix; in the East – Milwaukee, Washington, Miami, Indiana, Orlando, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.
Honorable Mentions: Jeff Teague, Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes (points per game), Otto Porter (top 20 in the league in RPM), Marcin Gortat, Nikola Vucevic, Myles Turner, Brook Lopez (first alternate – dominating on offense inside and out)
G: Goran Dragic – The main offensive engine on a defensive team, Dragic has been the only true creator for a Miami team that lost Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, and Luol Deng this summer. Dragic dropped 17 dimes in a game earlier this year, and he is averaging 17.0 points and 6.6 assists so far.
G: Nick Young – That’s right, Swaggy P! Luke Walton should be nicknamed the basketball whisperer, because what he has done in Los Angeles has been remarkable. Nick Young is absolutely locked in on defense, something he was probably introduced to this summer (as his track record contains no evidence of prior knowledge). Young has been oddly efficient on offense as well. #STATS
F: Andrew Wiggins – Few players on this list have burned as brightly as Wiggins, who came out of the gate absolutely on fire this year. He has already dropped 47 points in a game earlier this season, and he is averaging 22.5 points. The reason he falls to the third team are the poor shots he is taking of late, pull-up contested jumpers that are unecessary on a team so flush with offensive talent. If he can find his balance in the offense he will finish higher than this in the future.
F: Jabari Parker – Wiggins’ 2014 running mate, Jabari finally appears fully-healed from his ACL tear. He has been dominating less-athletic competition, often showing his speed off against slower bigs. Parker is dropping 18.8 points per game and 5.8 rebounds, has improved his 3-point shooting by 10 percent, and he’s sustaining a challenged Milwaukee offense when Giannis sits.
C: Hassan Whiteside – When it became clear that Miami’s decision to re-sign Hassan Whiteside played a part in Dwyane Wade leaving town (among many, to be clear plenty of people thought the Heat would go on to regret the decision.) While Wade’s Bulls have seen early success, Whiteside has done nothing to make Miami doubt the contract they gave him. He has been a monster at the pivot, averaging 17.0 points, 14.8 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks (third in the league). Despite their talent deficiencies and injuries, Whiteside has been crucial to a Heat defense ranking in the top 10 on the season.
G: Evan Fournier – Similar to Miami, the Magic have trotted out a good defense and an abysmal offense. The reason the Magic have pulled out a number of their wins is the work of Evan Fournier, the only volume three-point shooter on the team. He is putting up a team-high 17.9 points per game and shooting a passable 37 percent from distance. If Fournier gets hurt, the team likely won’t even be able to win 70-68 type contests.
G: Zach LaVine – How is a team with three 20-point scorers only 5-13? That’s a question for another piece, but LaVine is the Klay Thompson of this offensive juggernaut. His shooting stroke has developed from spotty to automatic, and he has the ability to explode for points at any moment. Wiggins may act like a primary scorer on this team, but LaVine is the better scorer at this point in their careers.
F: Karl-Anthony Towns – KAT is a future-MVP candidate, and this season he is showing the next step in that trajectory. Towns is putting up 22.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. He dominated the Knicks Wednesday night (albeit in a loss) to the tune of 47 points, including an eight-for-eight explosion from the field in the first quarter (and 17-of-20 from the free-throw line for the game). Add in a 37 percent three-point percentage and you have a player already contributing in every facet.
F: Paul George – This may seem like a long way to fall for a former MVP candidate, but George is behind the eight-ball in games played and on-court production. The Pacers have fought to remain relevant in the playoff picture, but current projections have them missing out. PG-13 has missed seven games due to lower leg ailments, and when on the court he is part of the problem on defense. With that being said, he is still filling up the box score and scoring at strong rates; his spot on this list is more a reflection of the players above him.
C: Joel Embiid – Every NBA fan wants to put Embiid on the first team, and it was tempting. Embiid is averaging close to a point a minute while flexing his muscles in the post, at the rim, and behind the arc – he’s been a force of nature for the Sixers. His per-36 numbers are staggering: 28.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 3.8 blocks, and two three-pointers made on 50 percent shooting. This from a rookie playing his first dozen games since multiple major injuries. There is reason to think he will not continue this level of play, but while he does he will be a national wonder.
G: John Wall – In a league filled with talented point guards, Wall has been one of the best thus far this season. He is putting up a line of 22.6 points, 9.3 assists, and 1.9 steals and leading a team that is completely helpless without him. His PER and plus/minus stats are at a career-high, and his ability to drive into the teeth of a defense and produce either a good shot or a great pass is second to none. Wall might be the best guard in the East right now.
G: Eric Bledsoe – The only player on the first team who won’t get consideration for the leaguewide All-NBA teams, Bledsoe has been a standout on a team that’s otherwise doing very little well. He is averaging 18.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.3 steals per game, all the more impressive given the pieces put around him. He is not without his warts – 28 percent from deep thus far – but Bledsoe is playing like he wants to win basketball games.
F: Anthony Davis – If this article were looking at the Lottery MVP instead of the top-15, Davis would be in a dead heat with the next player. The Brow is leading the league in points and blocks and ranks 13th in the league in real plus-minus despite starting alongside Omer Asik and playing with bargain-barrel rotation players to start the season. Davis is throwing up monster stat lines, and with Jrue Holiday back the Pelicans have been competitive and are clawing their way back into the edge of the playoff picture. Anthony Davis is having the season he was supposed to have last year, and it is glorious.
F: Giannis Antetokounpmo – The threat to Davis’ throne atop the lottery? Giannis Antetokounmpo is as long as his last name, and he is discovering exactly how to unleash that length on opponents. He has a solid stat line – 22.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists – that outside of Oklahoma City looks incredibly impressive. But there’s more than that – Antetokounmpo is putting up over two steals and two blocks a game as well. His combination of accomplishments stands alone – he is one of the most unique players to ever lace up his sneakers in the NBA. If the Bucks stay on the fringe of the playoff race until Middleton returns, it will be due to the herculean contributions of one Greek Freak.
C: DeMarcus Cousins – Every year voters want to discredit Cousins, pointing to team failure and a modicum of moodiness on and off the court. But the reality is that Sacramento cannot win games because their front office is incompetent and their coaches don’t last as long as ice cream in the Sahara. Cousins is the solution, not the problem, and he has been dominant thus far. Cousins ranks fifth in the league in soring, second only to Davis among lottery players. He also ranks 10th in RPM, the only lottery player who can claim such an accomplishment. 28.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, and a block a game with one of the best PERs in the league. Cousins deserves the First Team; whether he can challenge for it at the leaguewide level remains to be seen.