The Oscars gave everyone (with the exception of three dozen scorned Victoria’s Secret models) a feel good moment on Sunday night with Leo DiCaprio getting his first of film’s most prestigious award. That nice story, although I personally could have done without the climate change lecture, sparked me to think about some of the feel good stories around the NBA.
First, we need to establish criteria for our feel good stories, and give a few honorable mentions. The number one rule is that for a team to already be a feel good story they need to have accomplished everything reasonably expected of them so far this season. That pretty much excludes all teams with title expectations: Spurs, Warriors, Clippers, Cavs, Thunder, and going back to the preseason Bulls. Second, “tanking” is not an accomplishment (sorry Suns and Sixers). Third, “unintentional tanking” is even less of an accomplishment so the Lakers and Nets are out. Any team who had 50 win aspirations or an MVP candidate and fell short of expectations is clearly out (looking at you Pelicans and Rockets). The Jazz, Wizards, and Bucks also belong in that category to a much lesser extent. The Grizzlies and Mavs are out for now, although they could end up on this list after the postseason, only because one of those two teams has an upset in them and the other likely a playoff collapse.
That leaves us with a ton of East teams (Raptors, Celtics, Heat, Hawks, Hornets, Pacers, Pistons, Magic and Knicks) and a few West teams (Kings, Blazers, Nuggets and Timberwolves. The T’Wolves season started on too somber a note, and I’m adding a rule that your starting point guard cannot have publicly used a slur in the last six months. Honorable mentions will go the Raps, C’s, Hornets, and Pistons who are all having good seasons. Atlanta peaked 13 months ago and shopped their best players too vigorously at the deadline to be a feel good. The Knicks are still the Knicks. Orlando is still young and fairly irrelevant. So that leaves…
Mellow in the Mile High City
Note carefully the spelling in that header! And I also know what many of you may be thinking: Denver????? They are 23-37 and six games out of the playoff hunt currently, but are they any worse than expected? They opened the season at 300-1 to win the NBA title. Philly was at 350-1, and Charlotte had Denver tied at 300-1. For further reference, the freaking Lakers were 200-1! No, Denver has exceeded expectations and also has plenty to feel good about too.
For one, they gave Mike Malone the coaching job he deserves. Sacramento’s firing of him last year started the deluge of a rough season in California’s capital city. Boogie’s contraction of viral meningitis was the precipitating event, but that was a setback from which the Kings conceivably could have recovered (no pun intended). Malone is a good coach, although his coaching style is at odds with Denver’s personnel and setting. The Nuggets’ roster and location is conducive to an up-tempo, run-and-gun style of play, and Malone is very much a half-court, defensive coach. Nonetheless, the NBA’s “odd couple” keeps chugging along.
Secondly, Gallo is having a healthy and productive campaign. Something everyone can appreciate, or could until he sprained his ankle Friday and tore a few ankle ligaments. Anyway, he is still averaging 19.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game and shooting 36.4% from deep this season, which are career numbers even if he doesn’t play again this season. However, I think this is an injury he can recover from and play again later this year.
Emmanuel Mudiay was my favorite player in last June’s draft, with Stanley Johnson being a close second, and he couldn’t be in a better place. His tall, athletic, drive-and-kick game is perfect for the Rocky Mountain air. He needs to learn to shoot, but his actual mechanics don’t look all that broken so it’s a reasonable expectation. This is also a kid who is from Zaire, and skipped college to play in China for a year to provide for his family. The decision may have ultimately cost him five or more draft spots on draft day, but it’s hard to fault him all the same. On the contrary, he should be lauded for the selfless decision.
The last thing is that the Nuggets have a player on their team whose legal first name is “Joffrey”, so all of you GoT fans now have an NBA custom jersey to go buy.
The Ahead of Schedule Blazers
I’m not going to lie to you. Coming into this season, I was afraid that Portland was going to end up on the other end of this spectrum. They lost so much in the offseason: LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez, Nic Batum and Arron Afflalo. But, “Big Game Dame” proved to be ready to be a star when his team needed him to be. He has been an All-Star this season, regardless of whether or not he got to compete in a meaningless game in Toronto. He and C.J. McCollum are one of the most exciting backcourts in the NBA right now and Portland is currently tied with Dallas for the sixth best record in the West.
They are also scorching hot right now and they might be a really dangerous team come playoff time. Mason Plumlee is a banger down low, and Meyers Leonard continues to progress. Noah Vonleh, unfortunately, may never be what he was drafted to be, but at the same time he is twenty years old so it’s a little premature to write him off completely. Al-Farouq Aminu is a serviceable 3-and-D guy and Moe Harkless is giving them productive bench minutes, in spite of his poor shooting. Allen Crabbe, as the other rotation wing-piece, is averaging double figures and shooting 37.3% from deep, so he and Aminu more than account for Harkless’s shooting deficiencies on the wing.
If the season ended today, Portland would draw the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, and they would lose. However, I don’t think they would get swept either, and that’s saying something for a team that most didn’t expect to make the playoffs. Also, call me crazy, but if they could get to the five or six seed, then an upset over the Clippers or Thunder wouldn’t be that surprising would it? I think they are the scariest team (maybe Memphis) for any of the top seeds in the West, especially if they continue to stay this hot.
Paul George’s Comeback Trail
Paul George suffered one of the worst basketball injuries I’ve ever seen two summers ago playing for Team U.S.A. It’s probably second only to Shaun Livingston’s. So, to see him back and playing at this level is certainly enjoyable. George is averaging 23 and 7 right now and shooting 37% from three. His All-Star Game performance was also impressive, and the case could be made that he should have been the MVP. He is still young and arguably on the ascent in his career arc, and would be a tough matchup for Cleveland or anyone else in the East in a first round playoff series if the Pacers can hold on to the eight seed or move up.
Myles Turner is another one that deserves high praise. He was met on Draft Day with plenty of raised eyebrows and skepticism, but he actually looks like an NBA starter, despite still being a rookie. He’s averaging ten and five right now and still has some work to do, but he’s also nineteen and leaps and bounds ahead of most of the other big men his age. Let’s also give a shoutout to his frontcourt running mate, Ian Mahinmi, who has gone from “worst NBA frontcourt rotation piece” to “legitimate NBA center” in about a two-year span.
One last thing to feel good about before moving on is the fact that George Hill has finally said goodbye to his “Chris Brown” phase. It was time.