CLEVELAND, OH – NOVEMBER 21: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers recognizes the fans after the Cleveland Cavaliers honored James during a time-out during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on November 21, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
The NBA season is just a couple of months old, but it’s already given us a season’s worth of storylines with some more shocking than others.
The two-time defending-champion Golden State Warriors, it turns out, are mere mortals and capable of the same struggles as any other team. And yes, LeBron James has had the impact everyone expected on the Los Angeles Lakers (they are relevant again, but still have a long ways to go).
Almost everything we expected, however, is still in flux. Teams we thought would be juggernauts haven’t quite achieved that status, or anything close to it. On the flip side, some teams we didn’t see coming have made the biggest splashes early this season.
The quarter mark is as good a time as any to take stock of what’s gone on around the league to date, both the good and bad.
The Bud[enholzer] Effect is real
What if it was a coach, and not a player, whose arrival in a new city was the biggest game-changer this NBA season? What if it’s Mike Budenholzer, and not James, who was the biggest offseason get for any team in the league? Sounds crazy, huh? Agreed. Crazy clearly works for the Milwaukee Bucks, whose major offseason move was turning to the 2015 NBA Coach of the Year to help reconstitute their group and show them how to play “Bud Ball.” They own the league’s best net rating (+10.5), best offensive rating (115.6) and a top-six defensive rating (105.1). Giannis Antetokounmpo is leading the pack in the race for the Kia MVP and the Bucks sit atop NBA.com’s Week 7 Power Rankings due in large part to their marked improvement on offense and defense. Perhaps more important is the culture shift that Bud brought with him. These Bucks play with a confidence that simply didn’t exist last season.
Sacramento turning the corner
Raise your hand if you predicted the Sacramento Kings would be in the top eight of the Western Conference standings after Thanksgiving. I didn’t think so. But they’re 10-10 and sitting in that eighth spot for at least the next few hours. Coach Dave Joerger has done a masterful job of putting the right players in the right positions to make the Kings competitive. Sure, they are a feast-or-famine bunch (they’re either winning by a slim margin or getting bounced by double digits). But that’s usually the case for a young squad still trying to find its place in the larger landscape. The Kings sitting at .500 at this point of the season, though, is a corner turn no one saw coming. They’re playing at a pace (106.2) that ranks second in the league and caters beautifully to the talents of catalyst De’Aaron Fox and rising youngsters Willie Cauley-Stein and Buddy Hield. The good start has allowed Joerger to resist the organizational urge of pressing prized rookie Marvin Bagley III into a bigger role before he’s ready for it. Any suggestions that Joerger isn’t the right man for the job in Sacramento should be silenced by this solid start.
Butler trade grants Sixers’ wish
The Markelle Fultz melodrama would dominate the headlines in Philadelphia if it wasn’t for Jimmy Butler showing up and showing off his crunch-time closer skills (two game-winning shots eight days apart). The Sixers already had a great foundation with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They needed a third piece for their version of a “Big Three”. Fultz was being groomed for that role, but his shoulder and shooting issues stymied that process. Credit the Sixers for making the right deal to acquire a player of Butler’s caliber. Give Butler credit for showing up and making an immediate impact on a team that certainly looks the part of the Eastern Conference contender they professed themselves to be in the offseason. Where the Fultz drama goes from here is anyone’s guess. But it shouldn’t matter anyway, not with Butler taking over the space once reserved for Fultz.
Keep it moving
Just check the scoreboard most nights, folks. It’s real. The added emphasis on freedom of movement by game officials this season has produced some early season fireworks. Teams are averaging 110.6 points per game, the highest in 34 years. The pace of play certainly has an impact there as well. The bottom line? Teams are just playing faster in today’s NBA.
Houston, do we still have a problem?
Carmelo Anthony was gone before Thanksgiving. James Harden is back to scoring like few others on the planet can (a season-best 54 points Tuesday, PHL time). And defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik is back in the mix. Yet somehow, the Rockets are still a sub-.500 team after Monday night’s (Tuesday, PHL time) overtime loss to the Washington Wizards. So yes, there is still plenty of work to do. Rockets fans need to file the 2017-18 season away for good. That offensive-defensive synergy by a group outside of Oakland doesn’t happen often and is difficult to duplicate in back-to-back seasons. That perfect chemistry the Rockets had as they roared to a league-best 65 wins and the top overall seed in the playoffs was a flash. Perhaps this season, and the hard road ahead, is reality.
Slow start for Celtics
The Rockets have company in the failing-to-live-up-to-expectations department as Boston was the consensus pick to reign in the Eastern Conference. No team — on paper at least — is stocked with better quality depth. Toss in coach Brad Stevens (heralded by many as the brightest young coach in the game) and there wasn’t supposed to be any holes in Danny Ainge’s operation. Then the season started and it became clear that these Celtics, with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back, weren’t playing up to what many had planned. The Celtics have recorded quality wins, but seem disjointed on most nights. There’s time to figure it all out, but the rest of the East won’t for them to do so. The Celtics must iron out whatever issues are getting in the way of their consistency.
Wrong notes in Salt Lake City
We all fell in love with the Jazz we saw in the 2018 playoffs last season. The emergence of Donovan Mitchell came with all sorts of fireworks built-in. Rudy Gobert snagging his first Kia Defensive Player of the Year award was validation for the Jazz, who meticulously crafted a roster that plays to coach Quin Snyder’s ideals. Injuries have slowed Mitchell’s season, but Utah’s issues are bigger than just one player. This a team that was a trendy preseason pick to supplant the Portland Trail Blazers for No. 3 in the Western Conference (behind the Golden State Warriors and Rockets). Today, they are behind the Rockets – and just ahead of the Phoenix Suns — at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
Stop worrying about the Warriors
To borrow a word from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers about the Golden State Warriors, R-E-L-A-X. The Warriors are not in the sort of trouble that can sink a season just because Draymond Green and Kevin Durant had a little bench dust-up that preceded the franchise’s first four-game losing streak in the Steve Kerr era. It was great timing, of course. Stephen Curry goes down with a groin injury just as the fabric of this team is being stretched in ways it hasn’t been since Durant arrived. The Warriors went 5-5 in the 10 games Curry missed (Green has missed six straight with a toe injury, by the way). There will be more adversity as they attempt to repair the spirit of the team that Kerr admitted was broken in the aftermath of the Green-Durant craziness. But does anyone really believe they’ve seen a team capable of taking a fully healthy Warriors squad down in the playoffs? The Warriors feel the reality of the West parity now, but we’re a long way from the finish line to 2018-19. There were bound to be a few bumps along the way for the champs. We’ll reserve the right to judge them when they are closer to full strength. In the meantime, just relax.
It’s too early to tell if there is a Mitchell, Jayson Tatum or Ben Simmons among this current crop of rookies. But the extremely early returns are promising for several guys. Luka Doncic looks the part in Dallas. Deandre Ayton has been steady for Phoenix. And Trae Young has been spectacular at times (and struggled mightily) in Atlanta. But it’s the work of some of the other members of the NBA freshmen class that should have you excited about the future. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a future superstar in Memphis. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a franchise point guard for the LA Clippers. Wendell Carter Jr. has been as good as advertised in Chicago. Boosting the class of late is Collin Sexton, whose improved shooting has helped him shake off some early hiccups in Cleveland, and Marvin Bagley III surging in Sacramento. There is star power among this group, potentially much more than initially projected.
The Clippers run LA, for now
If we were handing out hardware now instead of in April, Doc Rivers would be the runaway favorite for Coach of the Year. In an early season full of surprises, no one has shocked the system more than that “other” team in Los Angeles. The Clippers are winning without a superstar anchor (sorry Lou Williams, sixth-man extraordinaire) and without the hype that has accompanied the start of this season for their Staples Center roommates in purple and gold. LeBron has everyone in his orbit captivated wherever he plays. But while all eyes are on LeBron’s Lakers, the Clippers have gone about their business and become a team of real substance. They’ve already scored wins over the Warriors, Bucks, Trail Blazers, Grizzlies, Spurs and Rockets (twice). That’s solid work for a team that was an afterthought in their own city heading into this season. The Lakers are looking up at the Clippers in the Pacific Division today and it will be interesting to see how long that all lasts.
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