The NBA season is still very young, but already preseason storylines are being proven and disproven on a nightly basis. There are certain notions that surprises no one, the Golden State Warriors are excellent and the Chicago Bulls are, well, not excellent. The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the most dramatic team in the first month and a half, with media members clinging to every social media post trying to find out what is wrong with the reigning Eastern Conference champions. “The Process” is yielding results in Philadelphia, and they have no problem telling everyone who will listen just how well it is going, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has asserted himself as one of the NBA’s elite. Milwaukee’s Greek superstar has gone from highlight reel specialist to arguably the next face of the league. These are all fascinating storylines, but there are three headlines that have surprised me more than any others.
- Boston thriving even without Gordon Hayward
Coming into the season Boston was the trendy pick to unseat the Cavs in the East, but even die-hard fans had to have their doubts about a team that had four new starters. Then five minutes into the season they lost arguably their best player in one of the most gruesome injuries ever seen on live television, and proceeded to start 0-2. Having rattled off 16 straight wins, now the most shocking thing about this Boston team is how quickly the parts have meshed defensively more so than on the other end. Boston has the highest rated defense in the league at 95.9 per NBA.com and that is in part due to the rapid development of young wing players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Brown has gone from a little-used sub playing spot minutes to a massive contributor and one of Boston’s most important players. He showed defensive flashes last season, but this year he has been everywhere on that end, switching across multiple positions and swallowing opponents whole. It was assumed that Tatum would struggle defensively, as most rookies do, but he has been more than serviceable. Couple that with an offensive game that is unbelievably polished for someone who does not turn 20 till March and he has been one the most positive surprises in the league. The other key ingredient for the Celtics has been the magic between new point guard Kyrie Irving and center Al Horford. Irving was the crown jewel of the offseason, and while his counting numbers are down from a year ago, he has quickly developed chemistry with his new big man. Horford is one of the most versatile big men in basketball, and he has an uncanny ability to understand what Kyrie wants to do in the pick and roll and act accordingly. Horford is canning 42% of his three-point attempts and is still one of the best defensive centers in basketball. The Celtics will undoubtedly cool down at some point, but the development of their young wings and play of their two All-Stars has them looking like the team to beat out East.
- The Lonzo Ball hype-roller coaster
Every top draft pick comes in with fanfare, but few if any in the history of basketball have had a hype parade quite like Ball. Part of this is due to his father, who if you haven’t heard loves to run his mouth. Ball has the perfect storm of the Los Angeles media market and a flashy game reminiscent of great Lakers past to make comparisons to hall of famers a possibility. While it is all well and good for him to be a media darling, Lonzo has largely flopped on the court. His passing numbers have been predictably good (7.1 assists/game), but he has shot the ball terribly. He is shooting 31.3% from the floor, including a putrid 22.8% from beyond the arc. Ball has shown flashes of brilliance, posting two triple-doubles and showing excellent court vision in the open court, but he has thrown up several high profile clunkers. He was held scoreless in a national TV matchup against Portland and was completely shown up by fellow rookie Ben Simmons in a home game against Philly that saw him benched for the entire fourth quarter. There was also a bizarre incident against Phoenix where he showed absolutely no interest in defending his teammates during a scrum. While I’m not advocating for him to throw fisticuffs, Ball slinking away to the bench when literally every other player on the court at least moved toward the pile is a bad visual for a young player. In all likelihood, Ball will find his footing in the NBA and have a fine rookie season, but the shooting issues do not appear to be going anywhere. His funky release combined with his inability to get to the rim make him a non-threat in the half court. As the season goes on, do not be surprised if teams start daring him to shoot more and leave him unguarded. For most rookies, struggling through 17 games is par for the course, and in fairness to Lonzo the target on his back was not put there by him. With that being said, when every media outlet and talking head has declared you a hybrid between Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd and your father has declared basketball war on every superstar in the league, the spotlight will always be a little bit brighter on Lonzo Ball.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder growing pains
This year the Western Conference was billed as a scene out of Tarantino film that would see mass chaos and juggernauts battling it out for playoff spots. That so far has not been the case. The Warriors and Rockets have been predictably excellent, but outside of those two teams there has been a great deal of inconsistency. San Antonio is trying to stay afloat without Kawhi Leonard, and through a mixture of black magic, voodoo, and Greg Popovich they are four games above .500. The team that was supposed to be among the rising powers in the West was Oklahoma City, and thus far they have yet to live up to that billing. The Thunder are trying to incorporate two former alpha-dogs into their system in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to go along with the reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. Their defense has been great thus far, posting a 98.6 rating per NBA.com, good for third in the league. Offensively they have been clunky with all three stars trying to split the scoring equitably. Much like in the beginning when LeBron James went to Miami, there is a desire to keep everyone happy by distributing touches evenly. After a year of Westbrook dominating the ball at a historic rate, he has struggled to find balance offensively. Couple that with surprising bounce back seasons from Victor Oladipo and Domantis Sabonis, the players jettisoned for George, and the narrative that Westbrook just needed some help has had serious holes poked in it. There is too much talent on this team for them to not be a playoff contender, but without major improvements they are far from contenders for the conference crown.