NBA Debate: Bucks, Celtics continue to impress, and what to make of the Suns

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Are the contenders beginning to separate themselves from the pretenders? 

It appears that way, as several top squads in each conference are hitting their stride — specifically in Beantown and Cream City, as well as out in the desert.

This week, our panel of NBA reporters — Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman — takes a look at the East’s top dogs, if Phoenix can finish atop the West again, and if anyone can wrest the Rookie of the Year Award away from Orlando’s 20-year-old wunderkind.

1. The Celtics and Bucks are atop the East. What has surprised or impressed you most about each team so far?

Rohlin: With the Bucks, I’m impressed that even without Khris Middleton they’ve managed to have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Middleton is a three-time All-Star and is widely considered their best player behind Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s truly eyebrow raising that they haven’t lost a step without him. And now that he’s set to return, it makes you wonder how good this team could be. As for the Celtics, Jayson Tatum is proving he’s a real MVP contender. He has made major strides this season, averaging career-highs in points (30.8), field goal percentage (48.1) and assists (4.6). He’s showing that it’s no fluke that the Celtics reached the NBA Finals last season. In fact, if he continues playing at this level, it would be surprising if they didn’t reach that stage again. 

Bucher: I struggled answering this for the Bucks because this is the record I would expect them to have with the best two-way player in the game and a squad that returned pretty much intact save the injury absences of Middleton and Pat Connaughton. But to answer the question, I’ll go with the Bucks having the No. 1 rated defense as what I find most impressive. Teams that have had as much success as they have and expect to go deep into the postseason generally don’t come out of the gate playing with that kind of grit at that end of the floor. I attribute it to the leadership and focus of Antetokounmpo. He continues to play as if he has something to prove and the Bucks appear to be following his lead. 

The Celtics, on the other hand, have blown me away with how they’re playing — as if they weren’t coming off being upset in the Finals, then losing their head coach to sexual harassment allegations and having him replaced by someone who’d never been an NBA head coach before. It’s as if the offseason turmoil motivated the players to sharpen their focus on the task at hand rather than let it be a distraction or an excuse. That they’re doing all this with Robert Williams not having played a minute so far is also impressive. 

Weitzman: With the Celtics, it’s twofold. One is just how ridiculously good they’ve been on offense. They’re leading the league in offensive efficiency. Not only that, but the difference between them and the league’s second-ranked Phoenix Suns is equivalent to the gap between the Suns and the 16th-ranked Philadelphia 76ers! And not only that, but the 121.5 points per 100 possessions that the Celtics are racking up would represent an NBA record. And not only that, but it would shatter the previous record of 118.3, set by the Brooklyn Nets in 2021. All of which leads us to Impressive Feat No. 2: That the suspension of head coach Ime Udoka hasn’t affected them at all. It’s a testament to new head coach Joe Mazzulla, but also the skills and — even more so —savvy of the team’s veteran core. 

As for the Bucks, it’s their dominance on the other end of the ball. Thanks to the dominance of Antetokounmpo, but also the brilliance of Brook Lopez, Milwaukee owns the league’s best defensive rating. What’s interesting, though, is that the Bucks have done so while revamping their defensive scheme. In year’s past, head coach Mike Budenholzer has pushed the Bucks into conceding 3-pointers so that they could prevent shots at the rim. The strategy has mostly paid off, but the Bucks have also been burnt a few times (case in point: Grant Williams’ drilling seven of his 18 deep tries against the Bucks in a Game 7 last season). So this season, the Bucks decided to alter their approach. They now rank sixth in the league at limiting opponents’ shots from deep, according to Cleaning the Glass, a category in which last year they ranked 29th. What’s truly incredible, though, is that the Bucks have been able to do this while remaining elite at walling off the paint. And to think, they’ve done all this with Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s best defenders, missing time. 

2. The Phoenix Suns are back atop the West, even with Chris Paul out nearly a month. What’s your projection for their season?

Rohlin: The Suns could easily finish as the top-seed in the West again. But after talking to a couple of players earlier this season, I know that doesn’t mean that much to them. They’re still reeling from last season when they had the top record in the NBA but went on to lose to the Dallas Mavericks by 33 points in Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs. So, the real question is whether they have what it takes to go far in the postseason. They reached the NBA Finals in 2021, and they’re hungry to get back there. Devin Booker had a 51-point performance in 31 minutes earlier this week, shooting 20-for-25 from the field, including six-for-seven from beyond the arc. Deandre Ayton was named Western Conference Player of the Week after averaging 23.7 points on 67.4% shooting and 16 rebounds over three games from Nov. 21-27. Paul is going to be Paul when he returns. This team has what it takes to go all the way. The question is if they’ll have another disappointing collapse when it counts.

Bucher: I expect them to have the best record in the West. Whether they live up to it in the postseason or not will come down to health, both physical and emotional. Paul has to be good to go — that’s a given. Is Booker going to let his competitive fire overheat and get into some unnecessary 1-v-1 battle, as he did with Luka Dončić last year? Is Ayton going to see eye-to-eye with Monty Williams when it matters most? The only team that can keep the Suns from winning the West are the Suns — but they showed last year they are more than capable of doing just that.

Weitzman: To be honest, I figured this whole current Suns run was done after they collapsed against the Mavericks last season. Which is to say: I have no idea what to make of this team. I think they’ll finish with the best record in the Western Conference — partly because the rest of the conference is a bit of a mess — but do they have the toughness to avoid a collapse the moment things get dicey in the playoff? I’ll say this: I’m excited to find out. 

3. The Lakers appear to be warming up. What are they doing right all of a sudden, is it sustainable, and how do you see their season playing out from here?

Rohlin: Three of the Lakers’ recent wins were against a Spurs team that’s headed for the lottery, so let’s not get too excited here. The Lakers still have a long way to go. I was at the game the other night when they blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead against Indiana. Even though the Lakers have been struggling for a while, it’s still startling to see a superstar-studded lineup of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook unable to close, a phenomenon that has happened repeatedly throughout the season. The most encouraging sign for the Lakers has been Davis’ recent resurgence. If he can keep that up, this team could turn things around if everyone can stay healthy. 

Bucher: Are we sneaking this question in before they head out on a six-game roadie that includes facing four of the best teams in the East? Having Davis healthy and available has helped immensely, as has Westbrook settling into his role off the bench. But it’s the schedule, more than anything, that can be credited for the up-tick. Three games against the Spurs, one against the Pistons and one against a Nets’ team without either Ben Simmons or Kyrie Irving in uniform accounts for their five wins prior to beating the Blazers — who were playing the second game in as many nights without Damian Lillard. If they keep this going against the Bucks, Sixers, Cavs and Raptors, then we might have signs of a revival.

Weitzman: Davis has been the difference, and the difference there has mostly been that he’s stopped taking jump shots — which he hasn’t since the bubble — and started playing like a center. Some numbers, via Cleaning the Glass: Only 13% of his shots have been long 2s, a 10% dip from last season and by far the lowest mark of his career. He’s also only attempted 21 shots from deep. Meanwhile, 55% of his shots have come at the rim, also a career-high and a 9% jump from last season. Put it all together, and you have Davis playing like the top-five-player-in-the-world-stud (26.3 points and a league-leading 12.7 rebounds per game) the Lakers thought they were getting when they traded for him. THAT should be sustainable. Once again, however, we’re forced to look at the guys surrounding him and LeBron. Can you name the Lakers’ other three starters? Exactly. And there, my friends, is where the problem lies. 

4. Early rookie check-in: Who is your current Rookie of the Year pick and why?

Rohlin: Paolo Banchero gets my vote. He’s averaging 22.7 points on 45.8% shooting, 6.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists — remarkable stats for a 20-year-old. He has lived up to the hype and, if he can stay uninjured, the trophy should belong to him. 

Bucher: The award is still Banchero’s to lose, but I am liking my dark horse pick, Bennedict Mathurin. He walked into Arena having talked smack about LeBron on draft night and walked out having outscored, out-rebounded and, quite frankly, outplayed the King. Took a win with him, too. This wasn’t the first time he’s played with poise beyond his years, either. If the Pacers continue to overachieve and the Magic continue to struggle to collect wins, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Mathurin pulls an upset. Third spot on my ballot right now would be the KingsKeegan Murray — another incredibly mature first-year player.

Weitzman: Banchero, for all the reasons outlined above, is the answer. I’ll add one more note about him, the thing I find most impressive: He’s getting to the free-throw line 8.5 times per game, which is tied for sixth in the NBA and a mark we haven’t seen from a rookie since Blake Griffin’s first season on the court. So it’s not just the raw talent or strength. It’s that he has a savviness to his game, one which you rarely see in players this young. 

5. Several young stars look to be early candidates for Most Improved Player. Who is on your radar as the next breakout star? 

Rohlin: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been remarkable, Lauri Markkanen has come out of nowhere and Tyrese Haliburton is proving that he’s the real deal. My vote would go to one of those guys, depending on who remains consistent and if their respective teams can stay competitive. After watching Haliburton in person the other day, I was blown away by his speed, smart decision-making and playmaking abilities. He leads the league in assists with 11.2 per game, significantly ahead of Trae Young who is next with 9.6 assists per game. Haliburton is also averaging 19.3 points a game and has led the Pacers to the fourth-best record in the East (12-9). He’s really shining right now. 

Bucher: This is a crowded field. Gilgeous Alexander, Haliburton and Markkanen have played like legit All-Stars for teams that have registered wins. Bones Hyland has a chance to be in the mix as well if he can stay on the floor.  

Weitzman: Haliburton and Gilgeous-Alexander are my answers here as well, but if I need to add a third name, I’ll go with De’Aaron Fox. He’s averaging 24 points, six rebounds and 4.9 assists per game for an 11-9 (!) Sacramento Kings team that owns the league’s fifth-best offense. LIGHT! THE! BEAM!

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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