We’re barely two weeks into the regular season and it feels like the NBA has been back in action for months. From the Lakers growing pains with LeBron James to the Jimmy Butler saga in Minnesota, there’s been an overload of early season storylines and information.
The reality is that positive trends and negative spirals have yet to regress to the mean. We know that scoring is up and defense is harder than ever, but give it a month or so of adjustments and the league will look much different than it does right now.
Weekly columns with nebulous hooks care not for considered timelines, however. It may be too soon for takes, but it’s still fun to spin around the Association and highlight the weird blips of information that have been collected under the radar.
With that in mind, let’s LIST the random stuff that has caught my attention.
Let’s start in San Antonio where I’m not ready to live in a world where the Spurs are in the bottom five in defensive rating. It’s not that shocking, given they lost arguably the best defensive player in the league in Kawhi Leonard, an excellent wing defender in Danny Green, and one of the best defensive point guards in Dejounte Murray. Still, this is the Spurs we’re talking about, so it’s at least a little surprising at how far they’ve fallen.
Their defense survived without Leonard last season, finishing fourth in defensive rating, but taking Green and Murray out of the mix is simply too much to withstand. Gregg Popovich is searching for the right combinations, and the biggest beneficiary has been Bryn Forbes who is getting starter minutes in the backcourt.
Forbes worked his way into the rotation last season and has been a revelation as a starter, knocking down almost 50 percent of his long-range shots. That’s important because the bizarro Spurs are still trying to rework the geometry of the court by working for quality shots in the mid-range.
They concentrate on it so much that they get to the rim less frequently than every team in the league, while shooting five fewer threes than their opponents. This goes against every tenet of modern offensive basketball, but it’s working! It helps to have premier midrange threats like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, but it’s still a tough way to live in an era when teams are trading twos for threes as much as possible.
Given the logjam of reasonably good teams out West, the Spurs will have serious competition to extend their postseason run into its third decade. Assuming they can get it together even a little bit defensively, there’s enough talent left in San Antonio to make that a reality.
The Hawks are not only not terrible, they’re actually kind of fun. Led by high-scoring rookie Trae Young, Atlanta’s perimeter-based attack features gunners at every position. The baby Hawks aren’t particularly efficient, but they are fast and that speed will catch a napping team or two off guard.
They’re also frisky on defense under first-year coach Lloyd Pierce, ranking sixth in turnover rate. That leaves plenty of room for error, and the Hawks make plenty of those, as well. The result is a sometimes chaotic jumble of learning experiences taking place each night.
The point of this Hawks season is not wins and losses, of course: it’s development. But development is more than just throwing the kids on the court. It’s also about having a plan and trying to execute it. Better to lose with a vision than just soak up losses like some teams we could mention (hello, Cleveland).
Young is getting a good share of the attention, and deservedly so after being subjected to so much scrutiny before he had even played a single regular-season minute. He’s going to struggle like all rookie guards, but there’s enough reason for optimism to suggest he’s going to be just fine once the game slows down for him.
Pierce has also been the beneficiary of a memoriam left behind by the outgoing president of Hawk University, Mike Budenholzer. Fourth-year man Taurean Prince has been tearing it up like a young Gerald Wallace with range, while third-year pro DeAndre Bembry appears to be coming into his own after two injury-plagued seasons. There’s talent here, or at least more than was originally expected.
Milwaukee was a trendy pick to sneak into the top three in the East, but perhaps we were underselling them a bit. We all wondered how the Bucks’ offense would look under Coach Bud — pretty good! — but we may have given short shrift to the defensive side of the floor. Turns out they might be even better on that end of the floor. Again, that’s coaching.
The old Bucks were known for an aggressive scrambling scheme that forced plenty of turnovers, but left them exposed all over the floor. Bud’s Bucks don’t scramble. They cover and use their length to force misses where they clean up on the defensive boards. (Added bonus: Not so much fouling.)
The biggest beneficiary has been Giannis Antetokounmpo who has been sweeping the glass at an absurd rate. Before dumping too much on outgoing coach Jason Kidd, it’s worth remembering that by not putting Antetokounmpo into a positional box, he allowed him to freak freely. Under Bud, the Bucks are creating the space to dominate on both ends of the court.
Bonus shoutout to Khris Middleton, who is finally being appreciated for his all-around offensive skillset. Like a modern day Ricky Pierce, Middleton just keeps getting a little bit better each season. If they’re not already, the rest of the East should be very afraid of the Bucks.
Of all the causes I have championed over the years, the one closest to my soul is that Kemba Walker is an elite guard. Walker has shown his mettle over the last few years, racking up all-star appearances and leading the Hornets to a surprising 48-win season just two years ago. Everyone respects the hell out of him, but Walker has resided in the Also Receiving Votes end of the best point guard conversation in recent years.
That may finally change this season. Is his 31.7 scoring average sustainable? Probably not, but that’s not really the point. New coach James Borrego has smartly moved Walker off the ball in certain situations and given the officiating emphasis on defensive tactics off the ball, that makes Walker unguardable.
With Walker’s sensational play and the lack of quality depth in the East, the Hornets should hang around the periphery of the playoff chase this season. Is it really so bad to try and remodel your franchise to be Portland East?
I’m not as concerned by the slow starts of Houston and Oklahoma City as some, but man those early season returns are at least disturbing. The Rockets are talking openly about their defensive issues and the Thunder look disorganized on the offensive end. With their firepower and track record, the Rockets have earned the benefit of the doubt for now. The Thunder simply can’t keep misfiring on so many open shots.
Early season predictions are as useless as preseason ones, but I’d be shocked if both teams haven’t corrected course by Thanksgiving. Even with changes to their respective supporting casts, there’s simply too much experienced talent to struggle like this for long.
There’s much less reason to be optimistic about the Wizards. This has disaster written all over it and not in the usual manner of Wizardy dysfunction. Usually it takes the Wiz a month to start arguing loudly amongst themselves. Perhaps it’s better for all involved to just get it out of their system now, rather than have it fester.
Sure. Anything’s possible.
More likely this is the beginning of an ugly end. Breaking up all-star backcourts in their prime is extremely difficult, but we’ve seen this play out year after year with Washington. The real question at hand is whether the front office has the wherewithal to execute an overhaul.