October 17, 2018

1.) Biggest takeaway from the first week of the season?

Brandon Jefferson: I could easily make mention of Giannis Antetokounmpo revealing himself to be a T-800 sent from the future to destroy the world, but for me the biggest takeaway has been the play (and transformation) of DeMarcus Cousins.

Cousins has long been one of the most talented big men in the NBA, yet immaturity and excess pounds always left the basketball world wanting more. Well the extra weight has been shed and Cousins looks like a new player, and even svelte in the new Nike uniforms.

The trots to the top of the key are at a minimum this year. He’s gone from taking charges at the rim to registering seven blocks in the season opener. Questions have persisted since the New Orleans Pelicans acquired Cousins during All-Star break whether or not he and Anthony Davis could co-exist. Well, they’ve been playing some of the best basketball of their careers during the opening week of the 2017-18 NBA season. If Cousins remains in shape and committed, New Orleans might overcome their lack of depth and make a real run at a postseason berth.

Brady Klopfer: Giannis Antetokounmpo is here to stay. Going into the season, it was clear the Greek Freak was an established star, but there were still questions about when he would break down the door of the elite tier. You know the tier I’m talking about: that invite-only club where the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Russell Westbrook lounge, drink red wine, and laugh about the league’s plebeian stars.

It only took a few games to make things unequivocally clear: Giannis Antetokounmpo is elite. Just as he made the leap last year from good player to star, he’s made the leap this year from star to superstar. Giannis appears to have unlocked a very important trait: the realization of just how good he is. We’re seeing the lightbulb flicker on in his mind, as he thinks, “Oh, I’m longer, stronger, faster, and more athletic than these guys, let me take advantage of that right here, right now.”

Through three games, Giannis is averaging 38.3 points with a .709 true shooting percentage. Those numbers will come down. His place among the league’s elite, however, will not. 

Bryan Toporek: The biggest one? Ban injuries. Between Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Lin likely lost for the season, Chris Paul being knocked out for the next few weeks with a knee injury and Nikola Mirotic being knocked out by his own teammate for the next month, it was a brutal start to the season. If this were an NBA2K sim, would anyone not be hitting reset by now?

Beyond that, the opening week was a firm reminder of how important roster continuity is at the beginning of the year. Teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors got off to hot starts, while the Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings are still feeling out all of their new pieces. Hell, the Cleveland Cavaliers only needed three games to give up on the “Dwyane Wade starting shooting guard experiment,” too. As players grow more accustomed to their new teammates, the benefits of continuity may begin to diminish, but early-season wins count just the same as any others later in the year.

Brooklyn Nets, Nets

2.) Biggest surprise of the first week?

Brandon Jefferson: Markelle Fultz’s slow start. The warning signs were there in the preseason when the Philadelphia 76ers rookie retooled his free throw form for the worse, but I didn’t think he would struggle once the bright lights came on. So far, the number one overall pick has yet to break double digits in his first three games. Fultz was deemed as a three-level scorer coming out of Washington, but teams have played off him daring him to shoot and, whether it’s a change of his own doing or due to an underreported shoulder issue, he hasn’t been able to make opposing teams pay for laying off him. Fultz even lost his starting slot to Jerryd Bayless, which no one would’ve guessed when the Sixers traded up from third overall to select him at the top of the

draft.

Brady Klopfer: The unfortunate but honest answer is the sheer number of serious injuries key players have sustained, but we don’t need to relive that.

Instead, it’s Ty Lue’s willingness to adapt his lineups. Through his first year and a half, Lue has been a bit of a dinosaur, relying on only two things: how things are traditionally done, and how LeBron James wants things done.

This year, he’s shown a willingness to adapt, innovate and mix things up. Not only did he bench Tristan Thompson and move to a small-ball starting lineup, it only took three games for Lue to send LeBron’s good buddy Dwyane Wade to the pine in favor of J.R. Smith (a necessary change). Lue has been willing to break away from the archaic traditional ways of doing things and been more than happy to ruffle his players’ feathers in the process. From a man whose only positive coaching attribute seemed to be that LeBron James liked him, that’s progress.

Bryan Toporek: I can’t tell what’s more surprising: The Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic each being 2-1, or the Golden State Warriors being 2-2.

Sure, Brooklyn feasted on a cake opening-week schedule (at IND, vs. ORL, vs. ATL), but Orlando opened the season by beating a legitimate playoff contender in the Miami Heat and then obliterated the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers despite missing Aaron Gordon. The Nets should fall back to their rightful place toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings once their schedule stiffens, but could the Magic work their way into contention for the East’s No. 8 seed? It isn’t out of the question.

The Warriors, meanwhile, shouldn’t be panicking. If Kevin Durant’s last-second game-winner against the Houston Rockets wasn’t a split-second late, they’d be 2-1. Losing to Memphis on the second night of a road back-to-back is entirely forgivable, especially after Marc Gasol took a career-high 17 free-throw attempts.

Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves

3.) Which team with significant addition(s) looks furthest along so far?

Brandon Jefferson: The power of Thibodeau is starting to bear out for the Minnesota Timberwolves. People railed on Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns for their lack of commitment to the defensive end a season ago, but after bringing in Thibs vets in Taj Gibson, Aaron Brooks and Jimmy Butler,  the pressure to produce defensively has been lightened on the two young pups. Towns and Wiggins are still producing at insanely high levels given their age, but Butler and co. have picked up the slack defensively. If things keep going this way, Minnesota could be on their way towards the 50-win total some predicted for them in Thibodeau’s first year as head coach.

Brady Klopfer: The honest answer here is “none”, but that’s not very fun, is it?

While I suspect the Houston Rockets would occupy this slot had Chris Paul played more than one game, I’ll go with the Brooklyn Nets for now. The Nets didn’t acquire any All-Stars like so many other teams did, but they did massively overhaul their roster while adding a potential franchise cornerstone.

Through three games, it’s clear the Nets will struggle this year, but it’s also clear that they’re moving in the right direction. While teams with bigger stars are struggling to find their identities, and players fight to find their roles, the Nets already look comfortable.

D’Angelo Russell looks freed from the shackles of the Lakers dysfunction, and he and his teammates are already on the same page. Beware of the small sample size and poor opponents, but the Nets have the sixth-best offensive rating in the league.

Everyone wearing a Brooklyn jersey seems to not only understand, but embrace their role. For a young team lacking roster continuity, that’s highly encouraging.

Bryan Toporek: The Rockets have the best record in basketball, but CP3 has been sidelined for the past two games, so that shouldn’t count. The Los Angeles Clippers beat up on two Western Conference lottery squads in the Lakers and Suns, so they’re out of the running, too. (That said, what Patrick Beverley did to Lonzo Ball on Thursday made him the NBA’s Player of the Week in my book.)

Thus, it’s a battle between the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves. While the T-Wolves notched the head-to-head win over Utah on Friday, I’m taking the Jazz here. Ricky Rubio has been a seamless fit as their new starting point guard, while Jinglin’ Joe Ingles has been flame-throwing from deep. Utah is already carving out its identity as the league’s top defensive squad and the new pieces—Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha, etc.—have been great in that regard. This Jazz team looks like a legitimate playoff contender even without Gordon Hayward.

Jaylen Brown, Celtics

4.) Which team with significant addition(s) looks to have the most work in fitting it all together?

Brandon Jefferson: The Boston Celtics are, unfairly, the answer to this question. After an active offseason left Marcus Smart as the longest tenured player on the team, the Celtics were dealt a huge blow, losing Gordon Hayward for the season barely halfway through the first quarter of opening night. They also have yet to get Marcus Morris, acquired from Detroit in a cost-cutting deal that allowed them to sign Hayward, in uniform for a game either.

Brad Stevens’ system is a complete change from anything Kyrie Irving has played in outside of Team USA and the roster Boston has now doesn’t come close to matching that allotment of star power. Irving and Stevens are too good at what they do for the Celtics’ season to go completely off the rails, but a season of promise has come crashing down pretty quickly in Boston.

Brady Klopfer: The Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder have talent in spades, but anyone questioning the fit is looking validated right about now. After three games, newcomers Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have amassed a combined 135 points . . . but it’s taken them 127 shots to get there.

Despite three reigning All-Stars, the Thunder have a paltry offensive rating of 99.3, tied with the Lakers for 21st in the league. While Russell Westbrook has done an excellent job trying to keep the offense running, George and Anthony clearly haven’t adjusted. They’re no longer the go-to options in an isolation-heavy offense and it’s clear the situation is foreign to them.

On the bright side, Carmelo has looked engaged defensively and the Thunder have put the clamps on their opponents thus far. But it’s worth wondering if that will remain if the offense continues to sputter.

Bryan Toporek: Through no fault of their own, it’s the Boston Celtics. Returning only four starters was already difficult enough, but losing Gordon Hayward to a likely season-ending ankle injury just five minutes into the season opener was a cruel twist of fate for the Shamrocks. There’s no shame in close losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks—both of whom are top-five Eastern Conference teams—but it’s going to take time for Boston to figure out its new hierarchy. Kyrie Irving is shooting just 37.3 percent over his first three games, Marcus Smart is currently sidelined by an ankle injury and they’re getting little offense out of their top six options. On the bright side, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both look like future cornerstones for the Celtics.

76ers, Joel Embiid

5.) In a battle for one of the final few playoff spots out east, would you take the Pistons or 76ers? Why?

Brandon Jefferson: Philadelphia 76ers. Because they beat the Pistons on the road last night. (This is a cop out answer because I’m not ready to answer this question after one week of action).

Brady Klopfer: 76ers, easily. Yes, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are rookies, and yes, Joel Embiid has played less than half a season, but the Sixers are simply a much more talented team than the Pistons.

Sure, maybe Tobias Harris continues to average an efficient 24.3 points per game. And yes, perhaps Andre Drummond keeps shooting free throws like Steph Curry. But I sure wouldn’t count on it. Assuming those players are who we think they are, Avery Bradley is the only Piston who projects to be notably above average at his position.

Philly will struggle at times and if Embiid misses a serious chunk of time, they can kiss their playoff dreams goodbye. But assuming Embiid plays at least 65 games, the Sixers will make noise. Embiid, Simmons, JJ Redick, and Robert Covington are an extremely solid core that meshes well together. Their bench is strong, their coaching is very good and, most importantly, they all seem to already be on the same page and in rhythm.

This isn’t the year Philly wins 55 games and competes in the East. But it is the year they’re must-watch TV, hover around .500 and sneak into the playoffs in the lesser conference. 

Bryan Toporek: I took the Pistons prior to the start of the season and nothing in the first week made me change my mind. I still don’t trust Joel Embiid to make it through a full season healthy, and he’s woefully out of shape right now. Sixers fans can only pray Markelle Fultz’s shoulder injury is the impetus for his horrendous free-throw shooting and reluctance to take a three-pointer; otherwise. He’s careening toward early five-alarm-fire status. The Sixers had a chance to steal the opener against the Wizards, but a few late-game boneheaded mistakes sabotaged them. Given how many young players they’re relying upon, it won’t be the last time that happens this season.

Meanwhile, Andre Drummond suddenly looks like he learned how to shoot free throws correctly, Reggie Jackson is no longer the shell of himself he wast last season, and Tobias Harris is emerging as the No. 1 scoring option this team badly needs. With Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson providing defensive toughness on the wings, there’s little quibbling with the Pistons’ starting five. This coming week will tell us just how seriously to take Detroit, as the Pistons draw the Minnesota Timberwolves, L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors after their home tilt against the Sixers on Monday.


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