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7 NBA storylines more people should be talking about

James Harden’s scoring like never before. Giannis is even better than his MVP season. The Raptors are amazing even without Kawhi. And more!

A collage of Pascal Siakam (left), Giannis Antetokounmpo (center), and James Harden (right)
These are the NBA storylines you need to know happening outside of LA.

We’re nearly a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season, and there’s been a helluva lot of greatness happening around the league. Luka Doncic’s explosion has taken center stage, the Lakers, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are dominating with 15 out of 17 possible wins, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are finally healthy and leading the Clippers together. For obvious reasons, those three franchises and their crop of superstars have taken the spotlight. But there’s a whole lot else we haven’t thought deeply enough about or appreciated enough.

Let’s just get right to it.

James Harden is scoring 38 points per game

I’m not interested in getting into debate over how or why this is happening because that’s boring. But this is happening. Harden is scoring 38 points per game. Thirty-eight. That is so beyond ridiculous I’m not sure what else to say, but I’ll try.

  • There is only one person in NBA history who’s averaged more than 38 points per game for a season, and his name is Wilt Chamberlain. Only one other player this decade has come within two points per game, and his name is James Harden.
  • Harden has made 203 free throws out of 241 tries in 17 games. The entire Indiana Pacers team has made 223 free throws in 16 games.
  • Harden has scored 645 points. The next-most is Giannis Antetokounmpo at 529 points, and they’ve played the same number of games (though Harden has played 74 more minutes.)

This is Harden’s shot chat. It’s absolute art:

The Beard is going absolutely wild, and the Rockets are 11-6 despite injuries and a struggling second star. It’s nuts.

Antetokounmpo was MVP last year and he’s playing even better now

Antetokounmpo took over the NBA last year, and deservingly won the MVP award in a tight race against the guy mentioned above. But now he’s playing better. Like noticeably better than last year.

  • After scoring 28 points per game with 13 rebounds and six assists, Antetokounmpo is scoring 31 points per game with 14 rebounds and six assists.
  • After shooting just 26 percent from deep last year, he’s improved to 30 percent so far this year.
  • His assist percentage and rebound percentage have gone up, while his turnover percentage has slightly dropped. And his usage rate has increased by four percent.
  • He’s getting to the free-throw line two more times per game (11.6). He’s shooting 12 percent worse from the line than he did last year too. If he returns to his average free-throw percentage, his numbers will improve even more.

Antetokounmpo is a legend in the making, and the Bucks are rolling at 14-3.

Russell Westbrook is building a brick house of his own

Harden is playing incredibly well and the Rockets are winning, but that’s sometimes in spite of Westbrook. The triple-double machine who won MVP two years ago hasn’t been good in Houston. There’s no other way to put it. He’s scoring 22 points with eight rebounds and seven assists, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

Westbrook has always been a mediocre shooter, but this season, he’s been brutal. At 41.4 percent shooting, he’s logging the worst accuracy since his rookie season. He’s making a miserable 23 percent of his four three-point attempts per game, and only converting on 71 percent of his free throw attempts.

Westbrook is at his best when he’s helping create scoring opportunities for others, but he’s playing alongside one of the game’s masters at creating buckets for himself. Right now, this fit isn’t working. The Rockets’ solid start to the season as a whole is masking the problem for now.

The Raptors are really good without Kawhi Leonard

It feels obvious to say “Yes, of course the Raptors are still good. They won the Finals last year!” But, holy crap, this team is still somehow very good without its best player.

Losing Leonard is a huge deal. The Spurs have been a wreck since he left, but Toronto hasn’t, even without an obvious stud to replace him. Looking at the current Raptors roster two years ago, you’d think they’d be a .500 team at best. But they’ve helped develop Pascal Siakam into a superstar (which wasn’t an inevitability even six months ago.) Fred VanVleet has turned into a really productive NBA player. Toronto’s flipped role players into more impactful players.

The Raptors are 12-4. They have the fourth-best net rating in the NBA, outscoring teams by 7.3 points per 100 possessions. They’ve been without both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka for half of the season so far (eight games.) Yet Nick Nurse has Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher filling in all the same. That’s bonkers y’all.

The Nets are on a roll without Kyrie Irving

Let’s not completely overreact, but the Nets are on their longest winning streak of the season (four games) since Irving went down with a shoulder injury. Granted the wins have come against four of the worst teams in the league (Knicks, Kings, Cavaliers and Hornets), but two of them came by double-digits, and this team was 5-8 beforehand.

The Nets are a net negative so far when Irving plays. They’re 0.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he’s on the floor than when he’s off it. Spencer Dinwiddie has been better, as the Nets are 9.7 points per 100 possessions better when he plays than when he doesn’t. Dinwiddie is averaging a career-best 20 points per game with five assists and two rebounds per game.

It should also be noted that Caris LeVert hasn’t played a game since Nov. 10. The Nets have played wacky lineups with so much talent in and out of the lineup, and maybe this is all a fluke. Maybe Irving comes back stronger, and a healthy LeVert makes his life easier.

But it is something to monitor. Right now, the Nets look decent without their best player and worse with him.

The Heat are really good?

Jimmy Butler’s decision to head to Miami instead of teaming up with another superstar was curious, and many questioned why he’d spend his last prime years as a “lone wolf”. So far, he’s been anything but.

The Miami Heat are really damn good. They’re 12-4 with the seventh-best net rating in the league, and it hasn’t been the Butler show. Not even close. Instead of racking up the scoring totals, Butler is having the best passing season of his career, averaging seven assists per game.

Rookie Kendrick Nunn is the team’s next-best scorer, averaging 17 per game on 40 percent three-point shooting. Goran Dragic is embracing a bench role, Bam Adebayo is a budding star, Justise Winslow’s defense has been key, and Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro are playing key roles.

The Heat are really good as a unit, like nobody thought.

Luke Kennard is a thing now

Kennard’s been known as the Pistons goof, picking him instead of Donovan Mitchell in the 2017 draft. Kennard’s been merely a so-so talent for his first two seasons, but now, with Detroit missing Reggie Jackson, Kennard’s been great.

In a career-high 34 minutes, he’s averaging a best-ever 17 points, five assists and four rebounds. He’s nailing 38 percent of his three-point looks (six per game), and 90 percent of his free throws per game. The Pistons still aren’t good, but Kennard is.

Maybe he should get more minutes even when Jackson returns.