NBA future bets: Why the Kings and Bulls are two teams to keep an eye on and more

We’ve arrived at the midway point of the 2022-23 season and crossed over into the new year. The season is flying by and after one week of basketball in 2023, I’ve got some things to talk about.

Teams deserving of a shoutout

Sacramento Kings

By now, the Sacramento Kings aren’t flying under the radar or catching anyone by surprise. They’ve gone from one of the bottom-tier teams of the league in years past to a surprisingly good team to begin this season, and now lead the Pacific Division. But not only has Sacramento’s rise been rapid, quickly zapping away the skepticism and pessimistic tones of others, but the Kings are also giving us some truly entertaining basketball to watch along the way.

I’m a West Coast guy, so I’ve stayed up many nights this season watching Sacramento go down to the wire against all sorts of opponents. And, for lack of better words — it’s been a freakin’ blast.

The Kings have already played 23 games involving “clutch time” minutes, which is when the game’s point differential is no more than five points with five or fewer minutes remaining. Sixteen of those games have been decided by two or fewer possessions (eight wins, eight losses) and 10 concluded as one-score games (five wins, five losses). Ultimately, wins and losses matter most, but the offense Sacramento displays during these situations is worth mentioning. The Kings’ 130.3 offensive rating during the clutch ranks at the top of the NBA, and they can thank De’Aaron Fox’s 5.0 points per game in those minutes, which is the second-most of any player whose been in at least five clutch- game situations this season.

If Mike Brown can get his team to tighten up their bottom-5 clutch defense (121.2 defensive rating), the Kings might be a scary playoff opponent.

LIGHT THE BEAM.

The Pacific Division is incredibly tight with three games separating first from last and the Kings are not given much love in the futures odds.

Chicago Bulls

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Three weeks ago, the vibes in Chicago were not where they needed to be. The Bulls were 11-18, losers of four straight games and had dug themselves deep into a hole they seemingly wouldn’t climb out of. Today, they’ve won eight of 12 games, including a recent four-game winning streak, to claw back to near .500.

What’s changed? The offense is awake. DeMar DeRozan’s contributions have been consistent throughout (although he left during the third quarter of Monday’s loss with a quad injury), but now others are rounding into form after an uneven start to the season. Specifically, Zach LaVine looks like the Zach LaVine of old as he inches farther and farther away from offseason knee surgery.

LaVine’s scoring numbers, efficiency and impact on the offensive end are surging. In November, he averaged just 20.5 points on 39.9/31.8/82.0 splits, but is up to 24.5 points on 52.1/42.9/82.8 splits in December. While still early in the month, his January stats of 28.6 points per game on efficient 50.5/49.0.3/92.3 shooting splits suggest the All-Star version of LaVine is back. And if the Bulls are going to ride this thing out, they’ll need that version of him to hang around throughout the season.

The Bulls did drop a close game to the Celtics on Monday night, but there’s no shame in that. So, shout out to them for turning it around a bit. Let’s see where it goes from here.

The LA Clippers put all their eggs in the championship basketball years ago when they acquired Paul George via trade and signed Kawhi Leonard as a free agent. Unlike the Clippers, the Houston Rockets pivoted away from their championship pursuit nearly two full years ago by shipping James Harden to Brooklyn as part of a three-team trade that returned four first-round picks and four first-round pick swaps in total. Lastly, San Antonio said farewell to DeRozan during the 2021 free agency period and traded away Dejounte Murray to Atlanta the following offseason, signaling a rebuild.

So, what could one team with championship aspirations possibly have in common with two of the NBA’s three youngest teams? The Athletic‘s very own Law Murray dropped this gem last Friday night via Twitter — the Clippers, Spurs and Rockets are the only teams in the Western Conference that haven’t yet won more than three games in a row.

How much that stat matters in the grand scheme may vary depending on who you ask, but there’s no doubt it’s nothing LA should be proud of. Personally, it tells me just how bad things have been for the Clippers this season in what was supposed to be the season for them. They’re still battling the injury bug and have an aging and imbalanced roster that still hasn’t clicked this season. As a result, they have a disappointing 21-21 record that leaves them on the verge of dropping down into the play-in seeds.

Questions for the Clippers that need answers are: What will the trade deadline bring, if anything, for this roster? Can their stars stay on the court together for an extended period? Will the Clippers figure this thing out before it’s too late?

Stay tuned.

Based on how the season had gone for the defending champs up until their Dec. 14 date with the Indiana Pacers, pessimism towards the Warriors’ making a legitimate playoff run seemed justified. The locker room stuff from the preseason was a distraction, the bench wasn’t cutting it and the usually reliable contributors like Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole were struggling out of the gate. And whatever bit of hope those optimistic few were holding out for Golden State to regain its form surely reduced that night in Indianapolis after Stephen Curry suffered a shoulder injury that would sideline him for multiple weeks.

Already under .500 and owning the 10th spot in the West, two blowout losses in New York ensued shortly after and the Dubs dropped to 11th place in the conference. But a statement win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Christmas may have changed the course of their season. Even without Curry, they’ve chipped away and managed to somehow climb from out of the Play-In Tournament (11th place) to in the playoffs (tied for sixth).

The Warriors’ weathering of the storm to go 6-5 without Curry may be the turning point in the season they look back on later this year. You can give them all the credit for improving their positioning in the standings, or you can argue some of their fortunes could also come from the majority of the Western Conference being mediocre and unable to separate from one another. Regardless of how you slice it, the Warriors aren’t dead and buried as many thought they might be following their best player’s injury. Instead, they’re on an upward trend as Curry, listed as probable, potentially returns to action for Tuesday night’s game vs. Phoenix, which should scare the rest of the West.

(Photo of De’Aaron Fox: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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