The first two weeks of the NBA season began to reveal the new state of the NBA landscape after one of the most hectic summers in recent memory. Some things have gone as anticipated. The Lakers and Clippers look every bit the title contenders everyone believes them to be and will have L.A. buzzing the entire season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has the Bucks looking like the team to beat in the East. This does not mean there have not been curveballs thrown our way.
The Phoenix Suns are ahead of schedule on their rebuild and eagerly await the return of Deandre Ayton so they can continue to build on what they saw during their promising start. The Golden State Warriors have gone from 100-0 and look like a long shot to make the playoffs after five years of dominance. Not to mention, we continue to be robbed of seeing Zion Williamson in large doses.
Justin Kirkland and Felix John-Baptiste are back to tackle five thoughts based on trends from the first sip of the season.
1. The 76ers are the best team in the East.
Kirkland: Big Facts. The Milwaukee Bucks were my early favorite for the number one seed because I had confidence that Giannis Antetokounmpo would come back more polished and that the Bucks were deep enough to maintain their perimeter scoring despite losing Malcolm Brogdon. The Bucks are still dangerous but have some kinks to work out after an uneven start to the season.
My worry with Philadelphia was their ability to space the floor since they lost JJ Redick and deploy a non-shooter in Ben Simmons at point guard. Their shooting is still a problem. They are averaging only 33.5% from 3 as a team and need to find some shooting to keep them in games against opposing defenses that can successfully shrink the floor on them. Despite their issues, this team is huge and plays real defense. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are two elite defensive players at their position and Josh Richardson is no slouch either. The only player averaging more steals this season than Simmons is rookie Matisse Thybulle. Good luck scoring on these guys. They’ll figure it out on offense.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. The Sixers have a little bit of everything. They defend (top-10 in the league in opponents’ points per game at 106), they spread the floor (third in the league in assists per game at 27.2), and they clean up the glass (fourth in the league in rebounds per game at 50.2). Although they can use some improvement on three-point shooting efficiency, it hasn’t hampered them thus far.
While the nature of the playoffs can slow down the pace of the game, the Sixers will need to worry about the outside shot later in the season. With the moves Elton Brand ha made so far as General Manager, I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a move for one more shooter before the trade deadline.
2. The D’Angelo Russell experiment in Golden State is over.
Kirkland: Big Facts. It’s been a very small sample size, but a backcourt with Stephen Curry and Russell is nowhere near strong enough defensively to make Golden State true title contenders. Even with more superior defensive talent around them, I don’t think that the duo is going to give everything a team needs on that end of the floor to beat the elite teams. Golden State could continue to see what happens when Steph returns from injury, but I wonder if they would benefit more by dealing him and setting up with additional youth and/or draft assets to bolster what looks like will be a lottery pick opportunity after season’s end.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. The idea of D’Angelo Russell running the point guard while Stephen Curry has more responsiblity off the ball is still intriguing. Sure, they were absolutely ran off the court defensively in the limited action we saw to start the season, but with more teams going small, who’s to say they don’t attempt that backcourt with Klay Thompson at the small forward spot when he comes back?
Prior to Russell ever playing a game, the idea was that Golden State would test the trade waters before the deadline. They haven’t been huge players in the trade market in recent years, and something tells me they will experiement some more before going in a different direction.
3. Brandon Ingram will be a top-20 NBA Scorer this season.
Kirkland: Fake News. Ingram is better this season and that is because he is more decisive and has a more mature shot profile. He is taking a career-low 13.1 % of his attempts from the long two-point range beyond 16 feet. He has also more than doubled his amount of three-point attempts. Ingram is playing a more decisive game and his numbers reflect that through his first six games played. The faster he makes decisions with the ball, the better off the Pelicans will be. Despite this, Zion Williamson will be returning and will demand a bunch of looks if he is healthy. Ingram may best be served as a number two offensive option and I expect him to cool off a bit as teams continue to gameplan against him with Zion out.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. Ingram is currently sitting at 14th in points per game with 25.9. He’s averaging 16.8 field goal attempts per game, good for first on his team. I don’t expect his attempts to dwindle when Zion Williamson returns, however, I anticipate fewer shots for Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball. The Pelicans will not force Zion into a number 1 role immediately and will still need Ingram to set the tone offensively. He’s shooting 51.5 percent from the field, and 50 percent from three. If that efficiency holds up, look out, a Most Improved Player candidate is on the horizon.
4. The Miami Heat will be a top 4 seed in the East.
Kirkland: Fake News. Miami has been one of the stories of the season after a surprisingly good start behind the stellar play of the bulk of their rotation. Kendrick Nunn is the breakout star of the league so far and leads all rookies in scoring after spending last year in the G-League. Jimmy Butler fits Miami perfectly and this is a bonafide playoff team. The problem is the Bucks, 76ers, Nets, and Pacers are all better when at full strength than this largely young Miami team that I expect them to have ups and downs despite this quick start.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. It’s a cute story, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. It’s not totally out of the realm for the Heat to battle for the 4th seed, but I would give the proven Toronto Raptors the slight edge even without Kawhi Leonard. Pascal Siakam looks every bit of an elite talent to start the season, and Fred VanVleet picked up right where he left off in The Finals. I’ll put my money on the team that went 17-5 in the regular season without Leonard.
5. The Kings are the biggest disappointment of the season so far.
Kirkland: Fake News. It has been a rough start but the Kings have won two straight and will right the ship when their three-point shooting returns to form. This roster is full of shooters that have struggled uncharacteristically to hit the long ball. After shooting 37.8% as a team last year Sacramento is down to 33.3%. Harrison Barnes (33.3%), Dewayne Deadmon (16.7%), and Bogdan Bogdanovic (30.2%) should all see their numbers rise as the season progresses. Zion Williamson’s injury or the rapid demise of the Golden State Warriors take the crown in this category for me.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. To put it plain and simply, injuries once again have been the biggest disappointment this season. Kevin Durant is out for the year, Klay Thompson is likely out for the year, Stephen Curry broke his hand and is out for at least three months, Zion Williamson had knee surgery and will miss at least 6-8 weeks, Paul George and Victor Oladipo have yet to play a game this season. Top tier talent not being able to perform will take the cake most times.