By Mikee Salud
LeBron James plays for the Lakers. Kawhi Leonard plays for the Raptors. Carmelo Anthony looks like he might be out of the league. DeMarcus Cousins has yet to play for the Warriors, and Kevin Durant looks like he is on his way out.
The NBA season is already about a month in, and after the flurry of moves that happened within the offseason, I figured now would be as good of a time as ever to give a little check-in to see how the the regular season is shaping up.
LeBron's Lakers: Consistently Inconsistent
When the LeBron chose to sign with the Lakers this summer, a collective sigh of relief and excitement was heard all over Los Angeles (ignore the moans — the Kobe die-hards don't count). What ensued next were questionable — and meme-able -- signings, constant media attention, and an incredibly inconsistent start.
Every flaw the media claimed the Lakers had have been true. They are 20th in three point percentage, and this is with Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and Lonzo Ball -- all historically bad three point shooters -- being among their best three point shooters thus far. Their defense has dropped off significantly since last year, as they now rank 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating, 11 spots lower than where they placed last season. While JaVale McGee has shined past his Shaqtin’ A Fool lowlights to become a vital piece to the Lakers’ success, their strategy of utilizing LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma as his backup in the center position failed miserably, which prompted them to sign 36 year-old Tyson Chandler. With all things considered, it's been both a surprising and frustrating start to LABron.
In my opinion, their lack of half-court offense is their most troubling struggle. It seems as if they are content to go out and run for the first 43 minutes of the game, but during those last five minutes, it appears like they cannot form any type of offense, instead relying on LeBron and Brandon Ingram iso’s that are clearly not working.
Even more concerning, however, is that Lebron does not seem like the same LeBron of old. His three-point percentage has dropped to almost 10 percent (36.7 to 26.5), as has his percentage below the rim (73.7 to 62.6). While the season is still young, this seems to be something that is mere nitpicking.
There are bright sides to the team however. Coming into the season, head coach Luke Walton has stressed that the team is going to run. They have followed his lead and then some, leading the league in transition points and fueling their offense to the 7th best offensive rating in the NBA. Bear in mind that the season is still new and fresh enough for the Lakers to pull themselves together, but it is not unreasonable to expect much more headlines, soundbites, and media-induced chaos as the season progresses for the league’s most prominent franchise.
Trae Young vs. Luka Doncic: Forever Intertwined
The biggest thing to come out of this year’s draft was the draft-night trade which had the Atlanta Hawks send Slovenian basketball prodigy Luka Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for college sensation Trae Young and Dallas’ 2019 first round pick. The consensus opinion was that Dallas clearly won the trade, including myself. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by how well Young’s game has transferred from Oklahoma to Atlanta.
When looking at basic counting stats, it appears that Young and Doncic are on even ground. Trae Young is averaging 16.8 points, 8.3 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game, while Luka Doncic 19.2 points, 4.1 assists, and 6.8 rebounds per game. However, when looking at more advanced analytics, it is clear who is having the better: Doncic is shooting the ball much more efficiently, is less of a defensive-sieve (although neither is what you would consider good at defense) and is more of a net positive on the court for his team. That being said, Young has proven to be the more apt ball-handler and play maker, as his assist percentage is much higher than Doncic's while also turning the ball over less.
Despite Doncic outplaying Young thus far, adding context is every bit important here. Dallas has a better team with better players surrounding Luka, such as Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, and the ultimate veteran presence in Dirk Nowitzki. Trae Young, on the otherhand, is expected to be the main offensive talent of an Atlanta team that is still trying to add more young talent through these next couple of drafts. After one month, I would say Dallas has the better rookie, but when you add in the fact that Atlanta has Dallas’ first round pick next year, maybe the Hawks did not get fleeced as some (such as yours truly) thought they did. If anything, both rookies are performing at a high level and both franchises should be happy with their trade thus far.
Early MVP Favorites
Las Vegas put the odds on LeBron James nabbing his 5th(!!!!) MVP award this season. However, after one month, it feels wide-open. LeBron is still heavily involved with the race, but we have already looked at his impact with the Lakers. Here are some other strong MVP candidates right now.
If I had to pinpoint the favorite, it'd have to be the Greek Freak in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been rapidly improving every single year, but this time, his rise as a top-five player in the league has coincided with the Milwaukee Bucks' emergence toward the front of the Eastern Conference. While much of this can be attributed to their new head coach Mike Budenholzer and his Popovich-ian offense, the offense does not work nearly as well without Giannis. Giannis is averaging 26.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game thus far. When someone is pretty much a team’s main ball handler, rim protector, scorer, rebounder, and leader all while being on a team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, it pretty much spells MVP.
Out in the West, despite missing the last 5 games, Stephen Curry was having an explosive start to the season, with each game feeling reminiscent of his career-defining 2016 MVP season. Curry is averaging 29.5 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game, all while shooting an insane 49.5 % from the three-point line on 10.5 attempts. Without Curry, the team has been looking flat in all aspects. Curry's three-point prowess and gravity allows the team to play their signature free-flowing offense; his absence has makes the team more reliant on isolation attempts while ruining their spacing, especially with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant struggling from three. The team is a whole 14.4 points worse without him on the floor (13.5 net rating with Curry vs. -0.9 without Curry), and have been 1-4 since his injury. However, more important than his statistical on-court production is his off-court contributions as the leader of the team. The beef between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green has seriously ruined the Warriors' chemistry and it does not look anywhere close to being fixed. Steph's disappearance has left the Warriors without an important voice and peacemaker in the locker room (shoutout to DeMarcus Cousins for at least trying). Curry is still looking to recover from his injury, but if he comes back without missing a beat and happens to right the ship in the bay, Curry could be looking at his third MVP award.
Mentions should be given to guys like Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, but these guys are carrying the torch in these irrationally early MVP talks.
Time to Hit the Panic Button?
There are teams like the Lakers, who are struggling to find their footing, and there are teams like the Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns, who are purposefully bad, but then there are teams that expected to be much better in the early going and are clearly in disarray.
In what may be my favorite take during the offseason, Tristan Thompson claimed during media day that the East still runs through them. It took about one game to realize how much of mess that team is and how much of a mess Thompson’s head is at. Tyronn Lue is out as head coach, Kevin Love is injured (again), and Jordan Clarkson’s neck tattoos are starting to gross me out (google it), all leading to the worst record in the NBA thus far.
If there was anything positive going into their season, it was supposed to be that the Cavs would be able to play a more free-flowing, pass-happy offense now that LeBron and his Iso’s were gone. Instead, they are making three less passes per game without James and are still in the bottom of the pack. Furthermore, without James’ gravity, their three-point percentage has fallen from 37% to 35%. This all leads to having a team that does not move the ball, plays little defense, shoot with league average efficiency, or essentially, a team that thrived solely due to the heroics of LeBron, without LeBron. Colin Sexton has also struggled amidst locker room issues and inefficiency, but his growth is still vital for the franchise. All in all, if I were the Cavaliers front office and their fans, I would be tuning into every Duke game possible and imagining how RJ Barrett or Zion Williamson could fit in as a future centerpiece.
The Washington Wizards could be argued as an even bigger mess. Their team is much more talented in comparison to the Cavaliers, yet their are close to even in the Eastern Conference standings. While their issues most likely stem from arguments between the players, it still doesn’t hurt to see what are they statistically lacking.
The team starts and ends with their backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. Offensively, most of Wall’s numbers have not taken a hit, but the most alarmingly, albeit fixable, issue is his drop in three-point attempts and percentage. Hovering around 35% the past three years, he’s shooting below 30% right now, and his lack of three-pointer has really hurt the Wizards’ spacing. Defensively, it seems like Wall and Beal have taken a big dip. Wall’s defensive rating is 112.7 and Beal’s is 111.6. Both numbers are really bad, especially for someone of Wall’s caliber and reputation. With their two star players playing little defense, opposing backcourts are eating them up. Leaving them with one of the worst defenses in the league. Many analysts and players say that a great NBA defense starts with communication, and it is no secret that Washington’s chemistry is a mess. They’ve been one the East’s best teams for a good portion of the decade, but it does feel like their team now has a shelf life that they are increasingly approaching. Keep a close eye on them during the trade deadline, they might let go of some major pieces.
Early Season Success Stories
Finally, let’s wrap this up with some feel good stories. The Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies, and Los Angeles Clippers have all performed tremendously during the early portion of the season, and all of their successes seem to sustainable enough to believe their hype.
The Milwaukee Bucks made only small changes with their actual roster, adding floor-spacing big men in Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. Their most prominent move came in the form of their head coach, changing from Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty to Greg Popovich disciple Mike Budenholzer. The new system that Milwaukee runs is much more in line with new-age NBA offenses, and it has led to an invigorated Giannis Antetokounmpo, and better results. Their offense has completely flipped to becoming a three-point focused system. They are shooting the second most three-pointers in the NBA while still converting them in an efficient 38%. Furthermore, their defense has become incredibly staunch as well, holding opponents to the lowest defensive field goal percentage and having the lowest defensive rating in the NBA; for comparison, the Bucks were middle of the pack last year in defensive rating.
As of this writing, the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers are the two top teams in the wild, wild Western Conference. After an injury-riddled 17-18 season, Memphis has come out better than ever, and they have even retained their signature Grit and Grind nature. Memphis has done a tremendous job of zigging while the rest of the league is zagging; as the league has increasingly become faster, Memphis is still playing at their glacial, last-place pace. This has allowed Memphis to get other teams out of their comfort zone and play slow, defensive, and in a halfcourt set, which is to their own benefit. They are third in the league in defensive rating (103.4), so teams are unable to score on them. Carrying Memphis' return are Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, two aging stars who look to be finally healthy again. Gasol is averaging 17.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game and looks to reinvigorated to be playing meaningful basketball again. Conley is perennially known as one of the most underrated, yet overpaid players in the game, but is roaring with a vengeance this season, averaging 20.2 points and 6.3 points per game. Even Jaren Jackson Jr. is proving his worth as the 4th overall pick in this year's draft, with 12.9 points and 1.9 blocks. With those three leading, maybe there's hope for Memphis to make a meaningful run this season.
LA's other team has been such a surprise considering their lack of star power. But what they lack in star power, they have in quality players. I would argue that the Clippers have one of the deepest teams in the league. All 15 players on their roster could be justifiable rotation players, and that gives a reinvigorated Doc Rivers multiple options for his attack. The interesting thing about their offense, which scores the third most points in the league, is that the bulk of their points come without a bunch of three-point attempts, with only 28.6% of their field goal attempts are three point shots. That being said, they make their three-point attempts matter, as they are shooting 38.3 % from three, good for fourth in the league. They also get to the free throw line a ton, shooting an NBA-high 29.3 free throws a game and converting them at a second-best clip at 82.5 %. While I previously mentioned their lack of star power, Tobias Harris is putting together potential All-Star campaigns. Harris is averaging 20.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game with a shooting slash line of .516/.434/.817. Add in other standout role players in Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Clippers are looking to continue their early success.