NBA basketball is back! No, really, it’s been back for roughly two weeks and if you’re like me you’re already trying to inject as much hoops as you can directly into your blood stream (author’s note: not recommended). Even though we’re not yet a full month into the NBA season, we still have enough information to look at that should give us a decent indication of some interesting story lines to follow throughout the year.
The Warriors still haven’t lost
Holy-freaking-crap the Warriors are so good. The reigning champions are 10-0, and somehow through it all – among the loads of other juicy breadcrumbs to follow – this is still the most exciting story in the league. Steph says that they’re even better than last year’s historically elite team. Everyone should be terrified and running for their goddamn lives.
The worst thing that a championship team can do is get complacent in the glowing aftermath of their recent success. In professional sports every individual and group around you is constantly evolving (except for maybe the Kings, who I’ll get to later). The only thing the league could have done to make the Warriors better would have been putting a chip on their shoulder, but nobody’s that stup- Wait, teams did that?? Why did they do that??
The Warriors entered this season pissed off, and it shows in the way they’ve mercilessly destroyed most of their worthy opponents. Doc Rivers, one of Golden State’s more grandiose rivals, went out of his way to say the Warriors were lucky “they didn’t have to play us or the Spurs.” It’s true that every team that has ever won a championship has required some sort of favorable circumstances to get there; but if you agree that’s the case then it’s silly to point out every time a team wins a ring. There is no way to reason around the immense difficulty of getting out of the Western Conference Playoffs alive.
I understand that this is part of the rivalry, but fueling Golden State’s insanely flammable championship embers was the wrong way to instigate them. Add on top of that Ty Lawson’s accusation of Steph Curry “chillin’ on defense” and Steve Kerr’s unfortunate health situation, and there’s enough lighter fluid to burn down the Oracle Arena. Or probably house it’s next championship.
Granted, all of the stats I reference in this article are of an insignificantly small sample size, but they’re fun to look at no less. They also still may provide insight as to what will happen as the season goes on, at least to some extent. Steph Curry currently leads the league in scoring at a hair over 33 per game (he’s second in steals too), and the Warriors as a team are shooting an insane 40% from three while hitting over 11 per game. They are first in assists, first in point differential by a wide margin, top-five in rebounding (a “weakness” last year), top-five in rebounding (a “weakness” last year) and first in effective field goal percentage. They’ve also done this largely without Andrew Bogut. Shame on you, Doc Rivers.
Kristaps Porzingis is already a thing
And he’s already better than Darko Milicic, which means Knicks fans can breath a sigh of relief. He still has a far way to go as an NBA player, but there seems to be a tangible path to stardom in front of him, displayed by his already impressive floor as a player. Even as scrawny as he is, he’s already put together a highlight real of putback dunks two weeks into the season. This phenomenon has aptly been dubbed “Porzingising,” which is a good name for the feeling one gets watching him effortlessly sky over three super tall dudes and hammer it home.
There’s a lot to like here, especially if you’re a Knicks fan. Porzingis has a clear knack for rebounding, and he’s been getting to the line a very healthy amount for a rookie. As he continues to build muscle and grow into his body, other teams should have even more trouble keeping him away from the rim. It’s just hard to keep someone who has a 7’6” wingspan from corralling in rebounds. He will have no trouble stretching the floor with his shot and his basketball IQ is high for a 20 year old. Interior defense is his biggest problem, but again, as he grows into his body and learns the nuances of the game, his work ethic will ensure he gets better. The league is on notice.
The Heat and Raptors can contend in the East… Right?
The answer to this question will have rippling effects across the Eastern Conference. Both teams are off to solid starts at 6-3, and both had very large question marks – and high ceilings – heading into the season.
I’m still inclined to believe that the Heat are legitimate contenders in the East, but I’m not sold on the Raps. Toronto has been a great regular season team for the last several years, only to choke in the playoffs. It’s true they still haven’t gotten to reap the complete benefits of new wing DeMarre Carroll due to him battling plantar fasciitis, but as we saw with the Hawks, you need more than Carroll to win, even in the East. Their bench is deeper this year with Cory Joseph, Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo, Norman Powell and the improved play of Terrence Ross, but the biggest bonuses have been Jonas Valančiūnas’ improvement and the play of a skinny Kyle Lowry.
Lowry is legit, and he’s somehow still one of the more underrated players in the Eastern Conference. He did not seem 100% healthy in the playoffs last year, and Toronto suffered severely as a result. With him, DeMar DeRozan, Valančiūnas and Carroll, offense will not be the problem. In years past, it’s been their mediocre defense, which has suffered due to Valančiūnas’ lack of rim protection and the absence of an elite wing defender.
Again, the sample size is small, but this year’s success can be attributed to the Raptors being top-ten in defensive efficiency. This may be hard to keep up, but they finally have their elite wing defender in Carroll and Biyombo’s rim protection off the bench is an added boost. So far they’re second in rebounding percentage, and keeping this up will help their defense a lot. They need to shoot better from three and share the ball more, especially when the playoffs come around and spaces get even tighter. It goes without saying that passing the ball more should create better looks from behind the arc, effectively addressing both issues. If they can do that, there’s no reason this team can’t compete in the East.
If Wade can stay healthy, the Heat are better geared to make a playoff run. They’re really the only team in the East with the star power to match Cleveland and they have more playoff experience to boot. They also have a good coach who knows how to best use his players’ strengths, and he too has more playoff coaching experience than any of his biggest threats in the East. If healthy, their starting lineup is one of the best in the league, with a great mix of shooting, rebounding, playmaking and interior scoring and defense.
The Heat have one of the best point differentials thus far, and they are similarly struggling with assists and three point percentage. Dragic, Wade and Bosh are all above-average passers, and Spoelstra runs a more pass-heavy system than the Raptors do, so I’m not worried about them figuring the passing part out. They absolutely won the Mario Chalmers trade, and having Beno Udrih off the bench will help create better looks for teammates.
Adding Udrih helped address Miami’s biggest weakness, which is their depth. Justice Winslow is a dynamite sixth man who will bring energy off the bench every single night. There are problems to work out with the second unit, but expect Pat Riley to make a move if he feels they can’t address these problems from within.
The biggest reason for Miami’s success has been their defense, which is currently first in defensive efficiency. A lot of this can be attributed to the bruising interior combination of Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside, whose skills make for a natural fit. It’s probably not realistic to expect them to have the best defense the league over the whole season, but having an elite defense is the best path to success in the East.
Add to that a borderline top-ten offense (they’re currently 11th), and this team can contend with the Cavs. Also, the Cavs have, you know, LeBron James. That’s the guy that left the Heat and disbanded one of the best trios ever to go back and bring his home town a victory. It’s often too easy to use the chip-on-the-shoulder cliché, but it’s reasonable to believe there’s no team the Heat would rather beat than the Cavaliers. This is the series basketball fans deserve, not the one we need.
The Kings are a mess
This should surprise approximately zero people. When you think about it, there’s not really a whole to update about this dreadful situation, except for maybe they’re 2-7 record. Boogie Cousins is still eternally pissed off that he’s on the Kings (you would be too, right?), George Karl still ostracizes his star players and is a terrible fit in Sacramento, and the upper management continues to run this organization like a chicken with its head cut off. They still look silly for trading last year’s first round pick and getting basically nothing in return in a salary dump, only to use that extra cap room to sign a 29 year-old version of that draft pick. Oh, and all of the sudden Ben McLemore can’t even start for this team anymore.
I should probably just stop here before I feel any worse for the good people of Sacramento. It shouldn’t be that hard to find a way to make your franchise player at least not constantly pissed off, but the Kings have yet to figure that out.
Some fun stats
Andre Drummond has more 20-point 20-rebound games than the rest of the league. So far he’s averaging an absurd 19.3 rebounds per game, which is 7 more than anyone else. It’s obvious he and Monroe were never meant to fit, and Drummond is reaching his true potential with the basket all to himself.
Jae Crowder is averaging 3.4 steals per game, easily the most in the league. This isn’t sustainable, but it’s nice to see the Marquette product has finally earned himself a steady role as a starter.
Steph Curry has more 20-point quarters (4) than the rest of the league combined. He is beyond words, so I’ll stop.
Rondo already has two triple-doubles in Sacramento, and he should be able to fill the stat sheet on the Kings. He’s also shooting 22% from three, so he should probably stop doing that. Haven’t Kings fans suffered enough?
TJ McConnell is one of the nicer story lines of the young season. The Arizona product was a scrappy, do-it-all point guard in college, but he went undrafted and most didn’t project him having an NBA career. Granted he’s playing for the Sixers, whose roster looks like the Island of Misfit Undrafted Players, but he’s still fifth in the NBA with 8.3 APG. As a good passer, a smart player and a solid defender, it seems like he has a career as a backup point guard. Good for him.
The Trailblazers are clearly rebounding, but they should be happy to know Damian Lillard has validated their opinion of him as a true franchise player. He looks more than ready to carry a team on his own.
Kawhi Leonard might somehow be underrated. Teams are trying to focus on him more and more, and yet he’s becoming a better and better scorer all the same. He’s finally scoring over 20 a game, yet he’s doing it with a very efficient 55.6 field goal percentage while also shooting 38% from three. He’s also probably the best defender in the league. I’ll stick with my pick of Rudy Gobert for DPOY, but I’m increasingly regretting not picking Leonard.
Sources: espn.com; stats.nba.com