By: Dan Grant
The NBA season is about two weeks old, and already, some primary suspicions have been confirmed. In the West, it appears unlikely that the Golden State Warriors will win 74 games, as they go through the growing process that even super-teams need. The Dallas Mavericks appear to be dead. Everything else is up in the air.
In the East, it appears that the Cleveland Cavaliers, unless LeBron James should suffer significant injury, will cruise to another Conference title. Their primary challengers, the Toronto Raptors, yet again have a hole at power forward, despite some interesting youngsters and an en fuego start from DeMar DeRozan. The Boston Celtics — shocker — are maybe not quite as good as their rabid fans thought.
Beyond that? There’s still no way to tell. Good starts and bad starts are still so rudimentary at this point that they can be erased by one good home stand or one bad road trip.
At the Same Page last week, we previewed both the Eastern and Western Conferences. You can check those previews out here and here. We looked not for the traditional story lines, but for the things that might have flown under the radar — the players and teams set up to surprise us most.
I actually feel pretty good about most of our selections. I’m not going to rehash them here, but I don’t see any huge swings and misses just yet. What I do see, however, is that we missed some things. Things that are going to be significant NBA storylines for the immediate future.
Here are the top seven. It’s your Post-Preview Preview!
The Orlando Tragic
The Orlando off-season was a confusing one at first glance, and so far the results haven’t been much better. They’re 3-4, but have done so in ugly fashion, winning games over the lowly 76ers and Kings, and just barely squeaking out a home win over the struggling Wizards. Their losses include an expected one to the Cavs, but also blowouts to the Heat, Pistons and Bulls, teams they’d have to compete with directly to have any shot at the 8 seed. While +/- can be a fickle stat, particularly in small sample sizes, it’s worth noting that through seven games, the Magic don’t have a single rotation player in the black, and only two players on the roster (Ibaka and Nikola Vucevic) are shooting above 45% from the field.
Serge Ibaka, their prize off-season acquisition, is currently the worst player in the NBA by defensive rating at 113.9 points allowed per 100 — his net rating of -13.2 ranks behind only 3 Sixers players, Evan Turner and Brandon Knight in the entire league. Ibaka has shot the ball reasonably well, but looks like a statue on defense, and if he’s not close to the player he was for Oklahoma City, giving up Victor Oladipo and young Sabonis (or whoever Orlando might have taken with the pick, given their glut of big men) for his expiring deal already looks like a monumental misstep for a franchise that’s prone to them.
Free Anthony Davis
I mean, please. I don’t care how you do it. Get him help, trade him, plug him into the Matrix so he doesn’t realize what’s happening to him right now. Just give this unibrowed unicorn some comfort.
Damian Lillard Somewhat Valuable Player
Look, Damian Lillard is good. He’s fun, he hits crazy shots and he’s Curry-lite on the nights when Steph isn’t firing on all cylinders. I get the appeal.
However, for an NBA Twitter-verse and blogosphere that seems dead-set on crucifying James Harden for his effort, DeMar DeRozan for his poor defense and lack of a three point shot, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond for their free throw shooting and DeMarcus Cousins for just about everything, surprisingly little is said about Lillard’s absolutely atrocious defense. The narrative was being pushed early this year that he’d worked on it over the summer and was showing improvement on that end, but so far the results haven’t borne that out. Despite the offense created by Lillard’s ungodly 65.4% True Shooting number through seven games, the Blazers have allowed 105.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor — and scored just 105.4.
Now Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner have even worse ratings for the 4-3 Blazers, and these numbers might even out. But Lillard had a team worst 107.3 defensive rating last year as well, and was just a +0.9 in net rating. He’s not a good defender. And he doesn’t necessarily need to be! It’s not his role. But miss me with that MVP talk until he at least gives a crap on that end of the floor.
Russell and James Play in One-Man Bands
I mean, we knew this would be the case, but watching it happen in reality borders on insanity. The former Thunder teammates are doing their best dual Human Torch impression through 7 games.
Harden has put up 31.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and a league leading 12.7 assists per game, coupled with crazy 50.0/41.0/84.1 shooting splits. Westbrook has put up 30.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 9.9 assists, with less impressive 43.0/37.5/78.3 splits. However, the Rockets are 4-3 and the Thunder are a 6-1. That Thunder record might be smoke and mirrors, though, as they’ve played one of the easiest schedules in the league, playing only two surefire playoff opponents, the Clippers and Warriors, to a 1-1 record. Both teams look to be dancing around the edges of the Western Conference playoff picture, but it says here that the Rockets will have the better record when all is said and done.
That Is Some Bull
What is happening in Chicago? Most thought the Bulls would struggle with perimeter shooting and rely on their veteran savvy, with an 8 seed the best possible result for a poorly constructed squad.
Instead, Chicago got off to a hot start, vanquishing the pre-season darling Celtics and Pacers in their first two games. Dwyane Wade appeared to have taken Jason Kidd’s secret stuff from his time in Dallas, and figured out how to hit three pointers consistently late in his career. Jimmy Butler seemed to be drinking the long-distance Kool-Aid as well. Both are hitting exactly 43.5% of their threes so far this season, a number Bulls fans could only have dreamed of before the season began. The Bulls were up!
They then dropped three straight games, to the formerly bested Boston and Indiana, and an ugly one to the Knicks. The Bulls were down!
A win over Orlando on Monday put them at 4-3, and makes them nearly impossible to gauge. The Bulls are… what, exactly? It’s hard to tell.
The Baby Lakers Take Their First Steps
I kissed off the Baby Lakers at the end of our Western Conference preview, saying that I’d see them in a couple of years. They appear not to have taken kindly to that, and have made sure that everyone, including me, knows exactly who they are right now.
Coach Luke Walton has taken the three-wheeled jalopy Byron Scott skidded across the finish line last year and turned it, if not into a Ferrari, then at least into a Toyota Matrix. The Baby Lakes are 4-3, with all their losses coming on the road and to likely playoff teams (Jazz, Thunder, Pacers). Big wins over the Rockets, Warriors and Hawks — legitimate playoff teams, and one title contender — signify that the Lakers aren’t going to be pushovers any longer. It’s truly been a team effort, with nine players averaging between Brandon Ingram’s 19.6 and Julius Randle’s 27.8 minutes per game. They’re third in the league, currently scoring 110.3 points per game while playing at the fastest pace (105.3 possessions per game). They also lead the league in turnovers, and while that drops to third worst when you adjust for pace, it’s something a young team will have to correct as they grow.
Still, the Baby Lakers are fun to watch, and if D’Angelo Russell and Ingram can join Randle in developing significantly this year, they have the foundation of a contender for years to come.
The early season MVP race is one that’s wide open. We’ve got the aforementioned Harden and Westbrook, we’ve got Steph and KD doing their thing in Golden State and we’ve got LeBron James chasing the Oscar Robertson triple double. But for me, the front runner is the player that’s again taken the biggest leap forward this year, the man known as the Sharktopus.
Kawhi Leonard has taken the leap from star to superstar to franchise player over the past three seasons. He finished second in MVP voting a year ago, so many would say that he was already there, but I don’t think so. This year is a huge one — the first for the Spurs without Tim Duncan since 1996-97. I wondered about Leonard a few seasons ago, thinking maybe he was the San Antonio version of Rondo on the 2008 Celtics — a superb complementary piece that was aided in his development by the structure and skill of an established Big Three. Could he carry the load once that Big Three couldn’t anymore? The answer for Rondo, was no. The answer for Leonard, so far, is an overwhelming yes.
His numbers (26.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.4 steals) are fantastic, but that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is that the Spurs are now his team, and haven’t missed a beat. Somehow we went our entire West Preview without mentioning them– the Spurs have achieved a kind of fatigue, as they’re so consistently good. The only story out of their camp was that LaMarcus Aldridge might be unhappy, rumours that have been completely squelched now. An opening night trashing of the vaunted Warriors made certain that nobody will forget San Antonio again this season.
Especially not this guy.