1.) What’s one surprise to the season that’s lasted longer than you expected, or hasn’t regressed as much?
Torkil Bang: Andre Drummond’s free throw shooting. While he started red hot from the free throw line, I thought he would regress to a way lower mean. He hit 70 percent in October and 58.6 percent in November. He has never hit over 42 percent in a season.
Usually when you hit that low a number of free throws, it’s not only about mechanics. You have to work hard on the mental aspect to keep it up. If he can stay at 60 percent it will be a tremendous boost to his career. The Hack-A-Drummond tactic becomes moot, so he can stay in games much longer. He can attack the rim without bothering about getting fouled, and he becomes a lot more valuable in Detroit’s offense because they can involve him a lot more (his assist numbers is up from 1.1/game last season to 3.4/game).
All in all. Drummond’s free throws might be the biggest reason why the Pistons has gone from 24th in offensive rating last season to 10th so far this season, because it changes so many things.
Bryan Toporek: The Eastern Conference is nowhere near as awful as expected. Given the talent deluge that happened this offseason — with Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George (among others) all heading West — the East looked like the JV to the West’s varsity heading into the season. Instead, heading into Friday, all but three Eastern Conference teams were within two games of .500, whereas seven Western Conference teams couldn’t say the same. The Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks have proved predictably awful, but many of the other East afterthoughts — namely the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Orlando Magic — have been far feistier than anticipated.
The Magic are currently riding a seven-game losing streak after their 8-4 start, but Aaron Gordon remains in the midst of a breakout campaign that should earn him a hefty payday next summer. Kristaps Porzingis has already quelled any concerns about his ability to serve as the Knicks’ No. 1 option, while Tim Hardaway Jr. looks like he’s worth every penny of the four-year, $71 million contract New York signed him to this summer. And remember when we all mocked the Pacers for getting only Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George? About that.
Whether these early-season upstarts can sustain their success throughout the coming months remains to be seen, but if nothing else, the talent disparity between the two conferences doesn’t appear to be as distinct as otherwise presumed heading into the year.
Brady Klopfer: Young players providing value. There’s a history of young players showing potential, but not really helping their teams win games. Guys like Devin Booker and Myles Turner spent their first two years proving why they were lottery picks, but not providing immediate value.
This year is a stark contrast. The Boston Celtics have been giving 59.5 minutes per game to rookies, plus another 32.5 per night to sophomore swingman Jaylen Brown. That had “regression” printed all over it after week one, but instead they rattled off 16 consecutive W’s en route to the league’s best record.
The Process is coming to fruition in Philadelphia, where the Sixers are relying on rookie point guard Ben Simmons and center Joel Embiid (who had all of 31 career games prior to this season). Teams relying on such young player aren’t supposed to be 10-7 and locking horns with the best teams in the league. Add in role players like Bulls’ rookie Lauri Markkanen, Raptors’ rookie OG Anunoby, and a host of second-year players, and it’s clear that youngsters are no longer a liability to teams trying to win.
There are still plenty of first and second-year players who are a ways away from providing value, and they deserve our patience. But it’s clear that 19 and 20-year olds can help NBA teams win.
Brandon Jefferson: The Boston Celtics lost star free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward only a couple of minutes into the opening game of the 2017-18 season. After starting the season 0-2, the new look Celtics have gone 18-1 since. Brad Stevens’ offense looks just as good with Kyrie Irving at the controls as it did when Isaiah Thomas ran it on the way to a career-season last year. They have not only been the hottest team in the league through the first quarter of the season, but they have cemented themselves as the best defensive team in the entire NBA.
When the Celtics traded Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder this offseason, the worry was they were sacrificing defense in their attempt to remake the roster. That couldn’t be any further from the truth. Through 21 games Boston has a defensive rating of 97.1 points per 100 possessions. To put that in perspective, only two teams (Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls) have posted offensive ratings below 97.1. The Celtics have gotten off to a better start than anyone could have imagined and their improvement defensively has spearheaded their strong play.
James Holas: I’m shocked by the turnaround by Andre Drummond. His offseason nasal surgery, weight loss, and coach Stan Van Gundy rejiggering the offense to have Drummond more engaged are all reasons for his resurgence, but him making 60.5 percent of his free throws really changes how we have to look at the 24 year old physical freak.
Drummond’s past free throw issues (it’s almost comedic how putrid his 38.1 career free throw shooting has been) meant he shied away from contact and couldn’t be on the floor late in games, two things that seemed to affect his aggression and confidence. This year, Drummond’s completely revamped free throw routine and stroke has him carrying himself like a completely new player.
Where he was once a one-dimensional liability late in games, Drummond has transformed into a key playmaker in the Pistons’ system; his career assist percentage of 4.1 has has almost quadrupled this year, up to 15.6 for the season.
I guess more than just the free throws, I’m impressed with Drummond overall as a player this season. It’s a treat to see him finally unlocking the potential NBA folks have been having raving about for his first five seasons.
2.) What’s one early season trend that fizzled out quicker, or more, than you expected?
Torkil Bang: You can say they are who we thought they were, but October made me believe the Orlando Magic had more going on. even if their shooting percentages weren’t sustainable. They played with joy and they played hard on both ends. Right now, they sit on a seven-game losing streak and it’s not been pretty.
Magics fans sorry we played that way tonight!!!! Y'all didn't deserve that
— Marreese Speights (@Mospeights16) November 19, 2017
In October they scored close to 117 points/game, in November they’re down to 101 points/game.
Bryan Toporek: The value of continuity. The Memphis Grizzlies stormed out to a 5-1 start, making all of us who predicted them to miss the playoffs look silly in the process. Since then, they’ve gone 2-9 over their past 11 games heading into Friday, and Mike Conley being out indefinitely with left heel and Achilles soreness won’t help them right the ship any time soon. If not for steady contributions from newcomers such as Tyreke Evans and Mario Chalmers, the Grizzlies’ tailspin could be fatal.
The Los Angeles Clippers lost Chris Paul this offseason, but gaining Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic, Danilo Gallinari, Willie Reed, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell made them look more well-rounded than they’ve been in years past. Alas, the injury bug has swept over Tinseltown, claiming Gallinari and Teodosic temporarily and knocking Beverley out for the year. While the Clippers continue to build around Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — at least for now — their complementary cast isn’t holding up its end of the bargain given the absence of a Big Three.
I expected the Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves to all make the playoffs in the West despite their respective offseason overhauls, and all three are in position to do just that. If anything, the first month of the season has underscored how fragile teams are when they don’t build around multiple superstars. Lose a Rudy Gobert, Paul Millsap or Mike Conley, and you’re liable to go into an irreversible tailspin.
Brady Klopfer: The Cavs’ demise. The beginning of the year wasn’t shocking for Cleveland. Their re-tooled bench may be new, but it’s not shiny. Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade are well past their prime, Jeff Green doesn’t offer much of anything, and Jose Calderon should not be getting minutes in the NBA.
Add in a few injuries, and LeBron James’ signature regular season coasting, and it was easy to see the Cavs struggling until Isaiah Thomas became healthy. While they started that way, the trend quickly fizzled. The defense is still bad, and the coaching still questionable, but the Cavs have re-established themselves as one of the league’s top teams. Everyone expected that to occur by May, but November is a lot earlier than the early trend would have suggested.
Brandon Jefferson: After forming a new Big Three that looked tailored made to take down the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder currently sit in a tie for ninth place in the Western Conference with the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell Westbrook has slightly adjusted his game in hopes of getting the new additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony into sync, but the results have mostly been hit or miss as their 8-11 record shows.
We saw what the Thunder look when they are performing at their best with their blowout victory over the Warriors last week. Yet, they followed that up with a disappointing 16-point loss to the last place Dallas Mavericks in their next game. Those two performances have defined the early season struggles for Oklahoma City. This team is too talented to not make the postseason, but if they don’t get their act together quickly they could face a tougher first round opponent than anyone expected heading into this season.
James Holas: The Orlando Magic have crashed down to earth faster than Big Baby Davis hitting an all you can eat buffet. I feel for Magic fans; the 8-4 start to the season seemed to be the fruition of the Rube Goldergian roster churn of the last few seasons.
We knew Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Nikolai Vucevic, and Jonathan Simmons all turning into Splash Brothers (they spent the first 12 games shooting 59.5, 43, 42.3, and 40.7 percent from 3, respectively, as the Magic were tops in the league in triple percentage during that torrid start) wouldn’t last, but Lordy, have they all cratered since. Gordon, Vucevic, and Simmons are all shooting under 30 percent from deep as Orlando has dropped eight straight games.
Not entirely coincidentally, Orlando’s slide started on the same day they lost rookie phenom Jonathan Isaac to a sprained ankle. Isaac’s underwhelming numbers don’t convey how much his length, defensive versatility, and threat of his shot added juice to what Orlando does.
But yeah, Orlando’s early season “resurgence” appears to be a fluke; the Magic need to figure it out before their playoff hopes disappear.
3.) What’s one thing you’ve learned about the state of the league from early season trends?
Torkil Bang: I don’t know whether LeBron James has another championship run in him. Considering the mileage, he’s still playing incredible basketball while leading the league in minutes played. And it will not be because of him if Cleveland fails this season.
He might actually be nuclear powered, but I still believe he will run out of gas at some point. And when he does, he will obviously be missed, but the game will not be lacking superstars.
We have a handful of players in their prime right now who will compete with LeBron for MVP, but it’s the upcoming generation that looks like they will change the way basketball is played.
I can’t help but smile when long players like Embiid, Antetokuonmpo, Simmons, Jokic, Porzingis, Towns and others show off their impressive skill sets while playing winning basketball. I
f this is the future of the NBA count me in for the next 10 years at least.
Bryan Toporek: I have to echo Torkil here: The future of the NBA looks more secure than ever. With LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul all on the wrong side of 30 and Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker all in the twilight of their respective careers, the league will soon be desperate for new star talent. Luckily, both the draft classes from the early 2010s and the past few years have delivered that in no short supply.
DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Giannis Antetokounmpo all look like they’ll eventually compete for an MVP award — perhaps as early as this year. Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Myles Turner and Devin Booker are rapidly approaching All-Star contention if they aren’t already there. And with rookies and second-year rising stars such as Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Dennis Smith Jr. and De’Aaron Fox, a new class of stars will soon rise to join their fellow 20-somethings in helping replace the superstars who’ve been fixtures of the league over the past decade.
The Golden State Warriors remain the unquestioned class of the NBA for the time being, but they’ll have no shortage of up-and-comers challenging their throne in the years to come. The Bay Area dynasty may not be nearly as secure as we once expected.
Brady Klopfer: The three is here to stay in an even bigger way than it first appeared. It seemed like the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, and Cleveland Cavaliers had ushered in the era of the three ball a few years ago, but things have reached an extreme this season. It’s not just the amount of threes that are being taken (though I need to mention that James Harden and Eric Gordon are combining to shoot 21.4 triples per game…21.4!), it’s that players are dedicating their gym time to taking and making threes.
Magic power forward Aaron Gordon never made more than 30 percent of his threes prior to this year . . . now he’s up to 42.0 percent while taking 5.1 per contest. His frontcourt partner, Nikola Vucevic, who had 30 made threes in his first six NBA seasons, is suddenly firing 4.4 per game, and making 40.5 percent of them. Another Nikola (Jokic) has nearly doubled his attempts per game from deep, while upping a below-average shot to 41.0 percent this year.
We’ve known for a while the league was trending towards more shots from distance, and more stretch 4s and 5s. What we didn’t know is how much current players would focus on that natural evolution, so they can get ahead of the curve.
Brandon Jefferson: The NBA is in a very good place right now. All the worry about Golden State being too good have been put to rest early. When the Warriors are at the top of their game, there aren’t many teams that can match them. However, the rest of the league hasn’t folded in response.
The Celtics, as I mentioned in the first answer, have been the story of the early season; and the Houston Rockets have been steadied by another MVP-caliber start from James Harden to lead the West. The process in Philadelphia has the rest of the league on notice just as the rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kristaps Porzingis into superstardom has. Meanwhile, teams like the Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, and Minnesota Timberwolves have quietly gotten off to good starts this year.
The Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers might once again meet in the NBA Finals this season, but it won’t be without any threat from their counterparts. The “superteam” era might just be launching, but there is still talent well spread out throughout the NBA. A premiere rookie class helps make the next batch of youngsters look more than capable of taking the baton from LeBron James if he ever decides to slow down. The present has looked good and the future is looking even brighter.
James Holas: Much has been made about the looming extinction of the NBA big man. Looking around the league, it seems that was a flawed projection. The NBA big man isn’t going extinct, he’s evolving.
From Karl-Anthony Towns to Kristaps Porzingis to Joel Embiid to Myles Turner, 7-footers have taken note of how modern defenses and the proliferation of three-point warfare has lessened the call for a low post technician and have adjusted.
Big men who can playmake on the perimeter and shoot it from deep will always have a place in the NBA. Even veteran traditional bigs like Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, and the above mentioned Vucevic have upgraded their skill sets to keep up with the newer models, stretching their range out to beyond the arc to keep up with “Space & Pace” offenses.
Back in 2014-2015, 6’10” Serge Ibaka’s ability to both defend and hit threes led to him being dubbed a “unicorn.” That year he was one of three bigs who attempted at least three three-pointers a game. This year, 13 big men are launching at least three triples a night. Five of those giants are also dishing out over three assists a game.
Howls over the NBA center being an endangered species were premature. Big men aren’t dying out, but the lumbering hulks of years past now stand erect and let threes fly.