Believe it or not, we’re a quarter of the way through the NBA season already. As with any season, there have been a number of surprises, both good and bad, after the first 20 games. Around the All-Star break, we’ll know which surprises were real things and which were merely early-season aberrations.
Here are 10 of the more interesting trends and what to expect with them moving forward:
1. Is this league-wide pace and scoring increase here for good?
Yes, and yes. The overall pace and scoring hasn’t just increased this season, but it’s exploded. The NBA’s emphasis on freedom of movement (not allowing as much off-ball contact) has allowed teams to play with more pace and has made it difficult to calibrate what even constitutes a good defensive effort because every team in the NBA is averaging at least 100 points per game. Last season the Pelicans had what was thought to be a blistering pace of 104.9 possessions per game. This season? That pace would be in a five-way tie for 12th. The Hawks are leading the league with 109.3 possessions per game.
With teams averaging an extra five or so possessions a game, the scoring has risen in a similar manner. Last season, the Warriors scored a league-high 112.8 points per game. That would put them at 10th this season. Meanwhile, the Bucks are leading the league in scoring with 121.4 points per game. Remember in the early 2000s when playoff games were often a race to 80? Yeah, those days are long gone.
2. Are there really 14 playoff contenders in the West?
Yes, until injuries and/or trades occur. The Jazz currently sit in 14th place in the West with an 11-13 record. However, they’re only a game out of the playoffs. Besides the Suns, who are horrendous, none of the usual suspects has any incentive to tank. The Kings are competitive for the first time in more than a decade and don’t own their 2019 draft pick. The Mavericks’ 2019 pick goes to the Hawks if it’s not in the top-five, and Mark Cuban wants to make the playoffs. The Grizzlies are too good to tank the way Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Jaren Jackson Jr. are playing. The rest of the teams who are struggling, the Timberwolves, Spurs and Jazz, have way too much talent on their rosters to not make a playoff push. Welcome to the Wild West.
3. Are the playoffs in the East basically set?
Pretty much. It’s a different story out East, where the conference is top-heavy. The Raptors, Bucks, 76ers and Pacers are in a class of their own in terms of talent. The Celtics will presumably straighten things out (more on that below) and join that group too. The Cavaliers, Hawks, Bulls and Knicks are going to tank. That leaves six teams for three playoff slots. If Blake Griffin and Kemba Walker stay healthy, the Pistons and Hornets should make the postseason, leaving only one spot for the Magic, Wizards, Nets and Heat to fight over. It doesn’t really matter which of those teams makes it as it will get waxed by the top seed. So yes, barring major injuries or trades, the Eastern Conference playoffs are basically set.
4. Can we give Doc Rivers the Coach of the Year, already?
Not quite, but it’ll be a wrap if the Clippers continue to play this way. Despite not having a single “star” on the roster, the Clippers are 15-7 and tied for first place in the Western Conference. Who saw that one coming? Rivers has Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams all playing some of the best basketball of their careers. He’s developed Montrezl “Silent L” Harrell into a front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year – the dude is averaging 16 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks in less than 26 minutes per game with a 26.9 Player Efficiency Rating. Know who else has a 26.9 PER? LeBron James.
Speaking of development, have you seen Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play this season? Allow me to enlighten you about the player with the longest last name ever on his jersey. This kid can PLAY. He’s a smooth 6-foot-6 point guard who has an awesome feel for the game. For those who are old enough to remember Shaun Livingston before his horrific knee injury, SGA is a reincarnated version. If the 2018 NBA Draft were held today, SGA would easily go in the top five. (He went No. 11 this past summer.) Credit Rivers for some of SGA’s emergence.
5. Which sophomore slump is real?
Probably none of them. One of the biggest surprises of the first quarter of this season has been the stagnation of last season’s Rookie of the Year contenders: Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell.
Instead of expanding his game over the summer, Simmons came back the exact same player as he was last season. Seriously, he had a 16-8-8-1-2 points-rebounds-assists-blocks-steals stat line last season and currently has a 15-9-8-1-1 stat line with nearly identical shooting splits. While Simmons possesses an elite combination of size, power and playmaking ability that ensures he’ll have a Lamar Odom-type career at worst, he really needs to develop a consistent jumper to make the next leap.
After averaging almost 19 points per game and having his share of moments in last spring’s playoffs, Tatum trained with Kobe Bryant this summer and entered this season playing like the post-Achilles tear version of Bryant, chucking up inefficient, contested mid-range jumpers. That said, Tatum has started to play more efficiently as of late and is far too talented not snap out of this slump.
Mitchell, who is generously listed at 6-foot-3, is not blessed with the same physical gifts as Simmons and Tatum. Thus, his slump is a little more worrisome because, at a certain point, shooting 29 percent from three on seven attempts per game becomes detrimental to your team, even if you are their best offensive player. Nevertheless, I’m still holding onto my Mitchell stock. Despite averaging only four assists per game, he has good vision, he’s a bouncy athlete, a hard worker and by all accounts, a great kid. That combination usually pans out in the NBA.
6. Is this one of the deepest rookie classes ever?
Yes!! In addition to the aforementioned SGA, almost every lottery pick has impressed. Luka Doncic has been an absolute revelation in Dallas and has the Mavericks ready to build their franchise around him. Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley and Trae Young have been as good as advertised on offense. Same goes for Wendell Carter on defense. After a monstrous 36-point, eight-rebound effort on Friday, Jackson Jr. has folks questioning what the hell Tom Izzo was doing with him at Michigan State last season. Even some non-lottery and undrafted guys like Josh Okogie, Landry Shamet, Mitchell Robinson, Hamidou Diallo and Allonzo Trier have shown the potential to be impact players for years to come. And if all that weren’t enough, the hottest song in hip-hop is named after the No. 5 pick in the draft: Mo Bamba.
7. Is Giannis Antetokounmpo officially the best regular-season player in the NBA?
Probably, but there are seven other players who can make that same claim. Obviously, LeBron has a gear that no other player can get to and is still arguably the best player in the league while on autopilot. If Steph Curry hadn’t already missed 11 games, he’d be running away with the MVP award right now. Kevin Durant, while ornery as ever, is at the peak of his powers. Kawhi Leonard is playing at the top of his game. James Harden and Anthony Davis are excellent as well.
However, the two guys absolutely bringing it every single night this season are Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. Antetokounmpo is doing a combination of things that no player has ever done before: running a spread-out offense built around his playmaking skills like LeBron while dominating the restricted area like Shaquille O’Neal, averaging 28 points, 13 rebounds and six assists per game. Speaking of prime-Shaq, Joel Embiid is averaging 28 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two blocks a night while playing every game this season. If the MVP vote were today, Giannis would probably win in a close race over Embiid.
8. Is Kemba Walker the second-best point guard in the NBA?
(Ignore the Kemba Walker UConn jersey I’m wearing.) Yes!! Walker is averaging 27 points and six assists per game and single-handedly has the Hornets in the playoff mix. Curry is in a tier by himself (not considering Harden a point guard for the purpose of this question), but that second tier of point guards, including Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, and now, Walker, is still quite impressive. Of that group, only Lillard can argue that he’s played as well as Walker this season. Ironically, a side-by-side comparison of the two 28-year old guards yields some eerily similar production. Walker gets the tiebreaker as second-best after his two game, 103-point explosion a few weeks ago.
9. Is the Celtics offense really this bad?
Probably not. Despite their prestigious talent, the Celtics are currently 21st in the league in scoring. Furthermore, their lineup of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford has, by far, the worst offensive rating (90.5 points per 100 possessions) of any lineup that has played at least than 100 minutes together. How is that even possible?
For one, Hayward is still a shell of his former self. For two, there’s too many chefs and not enough waiters. Tatum, Brown, and Terry Rozier all were major contributors on a team that nearly made the Finals last spring. Now there aren’t as many shots to go around with Irving and Hayward back. Change is on the way though, as Hayward has moved to the bench in favor of Marcus Morris, and Rozier is likely to be traded before February. Expect the Celtics to turn it around. Brad Stevens is too good of a coach not to.
10. Are the Rockets in trouble?
Not yet, but they had better make a move for a three-and-D wing pretty soon because, as discussed above, the West is loaded and there won’t be many easy wins to come by. When they weren’t able to retain Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute this offseason, everyone predicted that the Rockets’ sixth-ranked defensive rating would suffer; they probably didn’t realize it would drop to 28th though. And while Harden has showed-out and Clint Capela has improved, Paul and Eric Gordon have either started to regress or are still getting into shape. They’re also flirting with disaster by playing a 33-year old PJ Tucker a career-high 35 minutes per game. It’s not time to panic yet, but it’s time for the Rockets to get serious.
Bonus: Are the Warriors vulnerable?
The Phoenix Suns are apparently shopping small forward Trevor Ariza, and several teams hav…