Winners And Losers From NBA’s First Month
As of this week, we're officially one month into the NBA season. This is important because it's the first time we can abandon the term “small sample size” from our basketball arguments. As of this week, I think we can officially say we're working with a “medium sample size.” So let's celebrate the occasion and look around the NBA. Who's been impressive so far? Who's disappointed?
Here are some winners and losers from the first 30 days.
Bulls skeptics. If you talked to an NBA fan at any point between July and October, chances are, you made Bulls jokes. We all did. John Paxson and Gar Forman responded to a league full of three-point shooting and motion offenses by going all in with three high–usage guards who couldn't shoot threes. They even traded for Michael Carter-Williams in October, just to double down on everything.
"Why don't they build the whole plane out of missed jumpers?" – Chicago Bulls
— Andrew Sharp (@andrewsharp) October 17, 2016
It might have seemed like a fun aberration when the Bulls started hot, but it's been a month now. The Bulls just went out West and blew out the Jazz and Blazers on the road, played the Clippers close, and beat the suddenly frisky Lakers a day later. Chicago's 10–6, which is good for third in the East as of Tuesday. Maybe this is real? Maybe everyone is stupid? Both are distinct possibilities.
For now, I love the Bulls because they are living proof that regardless of how smart today's NBA community becomes, basketball will still find a way to baffle everyone. It happened in the Finals last year, and it's happening every time Dwyane Wade makes a contested 18-footer at 34 years old.
Wolves believers. This is what I had predicted for the Wolves before the season:
• Karl Towns was going to turn into a 25 and 12 monster who runs the offense from the high post, and anchors the defense on the other end.
• Tom Thibodeau would turn Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins into stars on the wing.
• Ricky Rubio is serviceable, and Kris Dunn would emerge as a starting-caliber guard midway through the year.
• Tom Thibodeau is a magical creature who produces top 10 defenses as a rule, and Minnesota would be no different.
• Aside from the young guys, veterans like Cole Aldrich and Brandon Rush would be sneaky helpful additions off the bench.
Alas, after beginning the year with one of the league's easiest schedules, the Wolves are now 5-12, including Monday night's loss to the Jazz. So here's where things stand:
• KAT has been a B+ instead of an A+ on offense, and he's spending too much time on the perimeter. The Wolves are also (somehow) struggling to protect the rim even though they start two centers.
• LaVine and Wiggins have been generally terrific, but not good enough to change things.
• Between Rubio's injuries and Kris Dunn looking completely overwhelmed, point guard is still a question mark.
• Tom Thibodeau's still a great coach, but the Wolves are routinely disemboweled in third quarters. This is probably our best evidence that they're an
extremely young team that doesn't quite know how to manage games yet.
• If your argument relies on Brandon Rush and Cole Aldrich, there's a good chance you've already lost.
The Wolves will be fine. KAT and the offense will find a rhythm in close games, the defense will improve, and even by February, things should very different. But for now, yeah, it's probably time to press pause on the Thibs Wolves revolution.
Anthony Davis. Looking at his game log is like staring into the sun. 38 and 16 to beat the Hornets. 45 and 10 against KAT last week. 31 and 13 and 5 blocks in a loss to the Blazers. It's out of control.
Davis is only in this category because of the Jrue Holiday absence that handicapped the Pelicans through the first month, and the struggles early on may ultimately cost them a playoff spot. Also, there is the cosmic injustice of a player this good having to count on guys like Buddy Hield and Solomon Hill. Still, watch Anthony Davis. Whether they can make a playoff push or not, he's doing Hakeem Olajuwon things.
Teams that passed on Jamal Murray. Murray has looked fantastic over the past two weeks as a 19 year old, and he's already playing 20 minute sa night on a crowded Nuggets team. Not to pile on the Wolves and Pelicans, but …
For Minnesota, taking 22-year-old, NBA-ready Kris Dunn over Murray was debatable, but most considered it the smart play at the time. For New Orleans, taking 23 year-old Buddy Hield was questionable the minute it happened. Either way, both those decisions may sting even more by the end of the year. It's one thing to swing for the playoffs and miss, but they also passed on the guy who had the highest upside of any guard on the board—and the guy who's already outplaying his “NBA-ready” peers.
Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow. Coming into the year, there were two major X-factors in Miami. The first was Winslow, who could raise the ceiling for everyone if his offense developed quickly enough. The second was whether Goran Dragic could bounce back to his old Suns form without Wade, giving the Heat a chance to sneak up on some teams.
One month in, it just hasn't happened for either one. Winslow still has plenty of long-term potential, but his jumper has been dreadful early on, and now he's injured. Meanwhile, Dragic's battled nagging injuries of his own, and he hasn't been consistent enough to give the Heat a chance against good teams (although he did have 27 points and 17 assists in Monday's loss). Coming into this year, the Heat were one of the most interesting tanking candidates in the league. The only question was whether Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley would have the stomach to pull the trigger. Now it looks like that might be an easier decision.
Wizards and Magic. Fun thought experiment: Would you rather be the team with no superstars and no plan, or the team with one great superstar, and a very questionable plan through the end of that star's prime? Dark times for the Hogwarts Division.
Suns. They are 5-13, and headed for another lottery pick in a draft that's full of elite point guards who can grow with Booker, Bender, Chriss, et al. So where should Eric Bledsoe go? To the Kings for a reunion with Boogie? To the Sixers to help his brother-in-Klutch-Sports-arms Ben Simmons? Could the Mavs steal him somehow? Bledsoe has always been overlooked, but at 19/6/5 with very good defense, he really might be one of the most underrated players in the league.
Blazers. It says a lot about the Blazers history of competence that so many outsiders were willing to buy into their off-season. “They were just retaining assets” is a decent explanation for overpaying Allen Crabbe and giving $106 million to C.J. McCollum, but nothing explains Evan Turner at $75 million, especially as the paper thin frontcourt turns every opposing big man into Bill Russell. The Blazers are still fun as hell and I'd be amazed if Damian Lillard lets them miss playoffs, but they're under-.500 and currently sitting outside the playoffs in the West. It's been a sobering month.
Speaking of Turner and the free agent class…
Big spenders. Looking around the league, it's starting to look like teams spent a historic amount of money on one of the worst free agent classes in recent memory. Yes, the market inflated everyone's numbers, but that rationale only goes so far. Things got out of hand. Some of these teams locked themselves into very expensive non-superstars, and it's going to handicap them down the line. That includes the Blazers ($145 million for Crabbe and Turner), the Wizards ($190 million for Beal and Mahinmi), the Grizzlies ($94 million for Parsons), the Hawks ($70 million for Bazemore), the Rockets ($133 million for Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson), and obviously, the Knicks ($72 million for Noah).
Think of it this way: Would you rather your team signed any of the above free agents at those prices, or Marreese Speights for $2.8 million per year? We may look back at the Summer of 2016 and agree with the hot takers who were aghast at the new NBA numbers. We just need to qualify their logic: the problem wasn't that NBA players don't deserve that kind of money, it's that a lot of these NBA players didn't.
Giannis Antetokounmpo. It's pretty incredible how far Giannis has come in the past few years. Giannis has gone from a fun, mysterious project, to helpful role player, to full-blown All-Star. He's finishing plays at the rim better than he ever has, he's gotten more comfortable running the offense, and he's still a terror on defense. He operates a little bit like the Westbrook of Big Ten country. He's putting up 22, 8, and 6, plus 2 steals and 2 blocks per game, and he's carried the Bucks to within spitting distance of a playoff spot. Also, he's still 21 years old!
Kidd was asked why Antetokounmpo is not getting more recognition around the league. "It's hard to pronounce," Kidd said.
— cfgardner (@cf_gardner) November 27, 2016
I assume Kidd was joking about the name, but it's a good question. He's playing point guard and guarding centers, and it's working. Shouldn't everyone be freaking out?
If the Bucks can surround him with capable shooters—this would have been the perfect team for Jamal Murray—he'll be twice as dangerous, but for now it's just as impressive to watch him make this work with Tony Snell. One serious theory for the lack of Giannis hype: after the Bucks made the playoffs his second year, expectations went crazy, things fell apart last season, and everyone is cautious about making the getting too excited again. Don't be. The Bucks might not be very good, but Giannis in Year Four is legitimately great.
Jimmy Butler. For every baffled “How are the Bulls doing this?” question around the NBA, I think the simplest and most accurate answer is “Jimmy Butler.”
Through the first month, he's been the second-best player in the East. He's averaging 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 4.8 assists, on 49% shooting. If the Bulls keep this going, he should be an MVP candidate.
Kemba Walker. All due respect to Eric Bledsoe, but Kemba Walker's still the most underrated guard in the league. This was true last year, but through the first month he's hit a level that even Hornets fans wouldn't have thought possible. He's always had the most wonderfully abusive crossovers in the league, but his jumper's improved every year, and now he's a full-time problem for everyone.
Through 30 days he's averaging 24 points on 47% shooting (42% from three), and he's basically playing the Steph Curry role for a Hornets team that has a quarter of the talent that Golden State has. Think back to this playoff game last year—the one where he had 37 points and five assists. He's basically turned into that player full time. Charlotte's sitting at 10-7 in the middle of the East, and they'll have an uphill battle to get much higher, but betting against Kemba is currently scarier than it's ever been.
DeMar DeRozan. Here's a quote for you, via the Toronto Sun: “I didn't get to enjoy the summer. Outside of being on the Olympic team and winning a gold medal, that was awesome, but socially, fun-wise and all that, it was really one of them summers where it was just a sickening dedication to where I had a lot of days where it was just s—. It was really tough to be that self-motivated.”
That is how you describe your off-season when you want people to pay attention. Not “I gained 15 pounds of muscle.” Not “I stopped eating fast food.” Not “I met with Hakeem Olajuwon to work on post moves.” Tell me your life was s—. Tell me it was sickening.
And to his credit, the improvement has been pretty staggering. He's still taking all kinds of contested twos, but he's routinely draining them. His footwork and ability to glide to wherever he wants in the halfcourt is beautiful, and as he's gotten more consistent, he's turned into one of the most dependable scorers in the league. Sports Illustrated ranked DeRozan the 46th-best player in the league back in September, and my friend and podcast partner Ben Golliver hears about this daily from Raptors fans, and it's become my favorite subplot of the season. Even the Raptors themselves talk about it.
DeRozan was asked if he's feeling a new level of confidence. JV yells "Still 46th". DeMar, under his breath: "That has a lot to do with it"
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) November 5, 2016
I think this season has taught us that DeRozan is infinitely more fun as an underdog. If you're expecting him to be Canadian Durant or even Canadian Paul George, disappointment is inevitable. But if the rest of the world wants to call him overrated, it's a lot of fun to watch him prove everybody wrong.
Some quick hitters now…
Joel Embiid. Per-36 Wilt! Sixers games are actually fun now, and Embiid gets at least 85% of the credit.
Canada. Aside from the revenge for DeRozan and millions of Raptors fans, it's been a great month overall for the Canadians. Andrew Wiggins looks better than ever. Jamal Murray is breaking out in Denver. Tristan Thompson's still holding things down in Cleveland. And there are even signs of life from Nik Stauskas in Philly. Viva Canada!
Wilson Chandler and the Nuggets. Chandler missed all of last year with injuries, and Denver hasn't been relevant as a team since George Karl and Andre Iguodala left. But Chandler's back, and over the past two weeks he's averaged 22 and 8 for a sneaky fun Nuggets team that's competitive in just about every game they play.
Kenny Atkinson. Nets games are almost fun, and Kenny Atkinson deserves 95% of the credit.
Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glen Robinson III. Hardaway has been transformed into a useful wing off the bench in Atlanta, and Glenn Robinson III just had two fantastic games for the Pacers as Paul George's replacement. Is it a stretch to include them in this column? Absolutely, but we're doing it anyway. Shoutout to everyone who never stopped believing in the power of NBA heritage and the power of the 2013 Michigan Wolverines.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers. There were about 10 days of Clippers love around the NBA media community, and all of it was deserved, but this next week will be a fun test. On Thursday they play at Cleveland, on Friday they play at New Orleans, and next Wednesday they host the Warriors. How good are the Clippers? We will know soon.
Luke Walton and the Lakers. Discussed in depth here. The church of Luke is filling up!
Nike. Look at Steph Curry's shoe numbers and Under Armour's stock price. I'm not saying that Nike definitely pushed Kevin Durant to sign with Golden State to undercut Steph Curry's appeal. What I'm saying is if Nike had been financially invested in the Democrats this November, Donald Trump would not be President right now. Nike's Illuminati powers always win.
Klay Thompson. Remember when Klay Thompson was struggling? Because Klay doesn't.
— Janie McCauley (@JanieMcCAP) November 29, 2016
After a slow start, he's averaging 23 points on 49.6% shooting over the past two weeks. The Klay trajectory is a good metaphor for what's happening with the Warriors. They struggled for roughly 10 days and everyone agreed to temper expectations and dial back the hype. Now they're quietly blowing the doors off of everyone (16-2), and this is getting scary. Meanwhile, the Cavs are 13-2, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have never looked better, and LeBron is stacking up bored triple doubles.
All of which is to say, the NBA's in a fun place. This has been a fantastic month of basketball, and almost every night there's a game worth watching. There are more great players across the league than I've ever seen. And at least twice a week, I forget about all of them and start dreaming of the Finals in June.
James Harden. The Rockets are 11-6, fourth in the West, and routinely excellent. The difference between Harden and Westbrook is that while Russ always looks like he's pulling off something impossible, Harden makes 30, 8, and 12 look effortless. The two of them have spent the past month alternating back and forth as the most impressive player in the league. But the Thunder played last night, so…
Russell Westbrook. Confession time. I was excited for the Year of Russ, but deep down, I thought this Jordan commercial from opening night would be the peak this year.
OKC's pieces didn't fit, there was no shooting, and Westbrook's kamikaze ethos had already shown its limits without Durant two years ago. It just seemed like this was setting up for a grim ending. But if that's coming, it hasn't happened yet. The Thunder are sitting 11-8, fifth in the West, and Westbrook is putting up 30.9 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 11.1 assists per night. He's living the fan fiction we all wrote for him. There are too many dunks to highlight, and even his rebounds have become art. He had 27 points, 18 rebounds, and 14 assists to beat the Knicks Monday. Nothing he does is even surprising anymore—he could have 16 points, 22 rebounds, and 18 assists against the Wizards tomorrow, and everyone would just nod their head.
The best thing you can say about Westbrook is that he's the NBA player most likely to inspire wild, crazy passionate lectures to future generations about everything they don't understand because they didn't see it live. Even moreso than LeBron or Kobe. One day millennial basketball fans are going to talk to their kids about Westbrook the way baby boomers talk about LSD. I'm just happy to be here for the experience.