Coming into their own

Published November 21, 2023, 8:00 AMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

NBA.com Philippines writer Polo Bustamante talks about three teams that are finally hitting their stride.

You know that scene in nature documentaries where a baby deer, fresh out of the womb, slowly learns how to walk. It stumbles at first, not fully understanding its own weight, but slowly, the deer finds its legs. It takes a few precarious steps before finally gaining enough confidence to trot around the forest.

That’s kind of like watching young NBA teams slowly figure out how to win in the league. 

There have been several teams with young cores that have stumbled at first, finding themselves repeatedly in the lottery. But slowly, the team begins to gel and finally figures out how to play together. They get a few precarious wins before gaining enough confidence to go all out for a spot in the playoffs.

Here are three teams that are slowly figuring things out this season.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Last season was a transition period for the young Timberwolves.

Karl-Anthony Towns had to carry the load in Minnesota for eight years, acting as the team’s alpha dog, even when he was too young to claim that role. But last season, the team got him some help, bringing in Rudy Gobert to bolster the defense and Mike Conley for a much-needed shot of veteran leadership.

The biggest move of the team last season was to allow Anthony Edwards to slowly ascend into the role as the pack’s new leader. It helped that Towns was out for most of last season and the Wolves needed Edwards to elevate his game. But even when Towns returned, there was a level of deference to Edwards that helped this team find their identity.

Towns is a very talented player but he’s not as vocal or emotional as Edwards. The team had talent, but what they really needed was a player to drive them forward.

Edwards is having a career year so far. He’s not only putting up the best numbers of his young career, he’s also putting the team on his back. He is also the emotional center of the team. The defiance he flashed as a young player is on full display now. Just watch as he takes over the game against the Golden State Warriors after being challenged by Draymond Green:

Edwards taking the lead role has allowed Towns to settle into a secondary role. He doesn’t have to worry about leading the team anymore. All Towns needs to focus on is to produce and support Edwards. This new dynamic is doing wonders for Minnesota. They’re currently at the top of the West and are looking like a legitimate playoff contender this season.

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers are a team that has both drafted well and have also sneakily stolen underutilized players from other teams via trades and free-agency signings. Because of that, they have an arsenal full of players who were waiting to be unleashed.

Even with all that talent, Indiana still ranked 19th in offensive rating and 26th in defensive rating last season. They were a middling team that didn’t have an identity. But all that has changed this season.

Indiana has decided to fully unleash all their weapons on the rest of the league, turning into the best offensive team in the NBA, scoring 122.2 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Sacramento Kings set the historic mark for offensive rating last season at 119.4. Indiana, if it continues at this pace, will blow that mark out of the water.

Leading the way is the Gen Z Point God Tyrese Haliburton. Acquired via trade from the Kings, it took a while for Hali to get comfortable in his role as the leader of the Pacers. Now, he’s fully accepted the role as the maestro of this offensive symphony.

Haliburton has so many toys to play with. He has shooters all over the floor which just opens up swaths of space for him to slither his way into dangerous positions. From here, he often makes the correct decision, whether to attack or create for the rest of the team.

Because of Haliburton’s mastery of the Pacers’ offense, seven other players are scoring in double figures for the team. Everyone has literally become a loaded gun and Haliburton has the freedom to fire from all over the court, making Indiana an unpredictable team. Because of this newfound identity, the Pacers are fourth in the East and above several teams who made the playoffs last season.

Houston Rockets

Another team that has found its identity this season is the Houston Rockets.

For the past few years, the Rockets have been content to just let the ball roll every night. They played without purpose knowing that making it back to the lottery was the goal. Because of that, this is a team that had young, skilled players with bad habits.

All of that changed when Ime Udoka was hired to coach the team. Udoka was known for the menacing defense he put together in his last head coaching gig in Boston. He’s brought that same mentality to Houston, giving this young team purpose and a clear goal.

The Rockets were clowned for giving huge contracts to Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks. The two players have not only brought veteran leadership to the young core of the team, but they also brought the same kind of defense-first mentality that Udoka had.

With Udoka, VanVleet, and Brooks leading the way, the rest of the roster got in line and followed.

From giving up 119.3 points per 100 possessions last season, raking 29th in the league, the Rockets now rank fourth, allowing a stingy 108.4. The young legs of Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Amen Thompson, Alperen Sengun, and Tari Eason are being put to good use defensively. Their speed, athleticism, and explosiveness allow them to keep in step defensively in a switch-happy scheme.

This new defensive intensity that the team is showing has them ranked sixth in the bloody West, above more established teams like the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, and Golden State Warriors.