NBA Quarterly Report: Early Season Storylines

A recap of the first quarter of the season with a preview of what to watch for going forward.

Now that we are a quarter of the way through the season, the NBA is continuing to prove why it is the most exciting league in the world. It has continued to build off of the storylines that were created in the offseason while also establishing ones we never thought would happen. There have been devastating injuries that have collapsed some teams while also resulting in the unimaginable success of others. We have seen teams with high expectations struggle while others have been delightful surprises. Here is what has defined the first quarter of the season and what to watch for going forward.

Injury Plague

After one of the most active off-seasons in recent NBA history, the excitement level for this season was at peak levels. About five minutes into the opening game of the season between the heated rivals from Boston and Cleveland, we witnessed one of the worst ankle injuries conceivable. The Celtic’s All-Star small forward, Gordon Hayward, landed awkwardly after a poorly thrown alley-oop and a gentle nudge in his lower back that resulted in a fractured left tibia and dislocated left ankle. As the camera unknowingly zoomed in on the injury, the horrific images of the Kevin Ware injury were quickly resurrected as shock and horror quickly spread through the arena and NBA community. Many proceeded to write off the Celtics this season as they dropped their first two games to start at an unideal 0-2. While the organization was still surely rattled over the injury, they didn’t let it affect their play on the court as they have jumped out to a league-best 21-4. The Celtics haven’t given a timeline for Hayward's return but if he is able to somehow return by the playoffs then we may still get a glimpse of what we were so excited for at the beginning of the season.

Another of the league’s elite players has been hampered by an injury that hasn’t allowed him to step foot on the floor yet this season. The injury to Kawhi Leonard has been one of the most perplexing injuries in recent memory. Leonard entered the season with a strained quad and he was expected to miss a few weeks. This wasn’t great news for a prospective MVP candidate but better to be safe than sorry and take care of it now rather than in a few months. This is the same injury that guard Tony Parker sustained that required surgery yet Parker is still expected back before Leonard at this point. This is even more worrisome when Coach Popovich claims that he has “Never, Never” seen an injury that is similar to Leonard’s. The Spurs have been able to stay afloat with a 16-8 record but if they hope to contend in the West, they will have to get Leonard back on the court. Hopefully, this clears up and we are able to witness one of the most dynamic and intriguing players the league has to offer.

Besides Leonard and Hayward, there have been lengthy injuries to numerous other stars around the league. The injury-laden Blake Griffin will yet again miss an extended period of time after spraining his MCL and could miss two months. After suffering a bone bruise on his right knee, Rudy Gobert missed 11 games and has recently returned to action. We have also seen extended absences from Paul Millsap who will miss 2-3 months with a torn wrist ligament, Mike Conley who has no timeline to return from Achilles tendon soreness, John Wall who is expected to miss two weeks with knee inflammation, and Chis Paul who missed four weeks with a bruised knee but is back and playing well. This early season has been marred by injuries to some of the league’s best players. Hopefully, this trend curtails and we have these guys healthy for the much-anticipated playoff run.

New Faces in New Places

With the high volume of player movement since last year’s trade deadline, there have been some surprising results. Most notably has been the struggle experienced in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are currently 10-12 and in 9th place in the West. This Thunder team was thought of by many as the team that could dethrone the Warriors and create chaos in the West. That clearly has not happened, at least yet. The biggest issue with the Thunder is their late-game performance as they’ve gone 3-9 in games that are within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining. They have the second worst plus/minus at -3.8 while not getting the best looks. In these situations, 45.9% of their shots are threes (third highest in the league) despite shooting only 23.1% on these attempts. The Thunder’s overall point differential represents a team with a much better record than where they currently stand. When you combine that with the talent level they have it makes the situation that much more confusing. I do expect their struggles to subside eventually but as of now, this should be considered a failure.

  Photo taken by Keith Allison

While the Thunder have yet to figure it out, there has been a lot of player movement that has been successful. Jimmy Butler has helped the Timberwolves get out to a strong start while Chris Paul has fit nicely into the Rockets lineup. While Paul did miss 14 of the Rockets 15 games, he has come back strong and healthy to help the Rockets go 5-0. During this five-game win streak, Paul has had a plus/minus of 13.6 while averaging 13.6 points, 9.7 assists, and 1.9 steals. The “there’s only one ball” crowd can stow their criticisms and concerns away as the Rockets are thriving.

Most surprisingly though is the integration of Boogie and the Brow. Yes, I know that this trade happened last year but the results were mixed and the team continued to struggle. After a full off-season, the unlikely pairing of two big men in this pace-and-space era seems to have some levels of success as the Pelicans are 12-12. The thought was that these two would eat into each other’s numbers but they seem to just be feeding off of each other instead. Davis is averaging 25.2 points, 11 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 1.7 blocks, and is shooting 35.9% from three on 1.9 attempts a game. Even more impressive are the numbers from Cousins: 25.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.6 steals and blocks, and is shooting 33.1% from three on 6.7 attempts. Yes at first I also thought I was wrong but Cousins is shooting 6.7 attempts from three a game. This is incredible from a big man who has been considered one of the most dominant low-post players in the league. Teams are constantly looking to zig while everyone else zags so if the combination of two skilled big men works, don't be surprised if we see it more across the league.

Pleasant Surprises

Every year we get the diamonds in the rough. We are graced by performances by unlikely characters and successes by unlikely teams. Some of the best and more surprising performances this year have come from the Eastern Conference. Kristaps Porzingis is quickly becoming the king of New York as he has led the Knicks to a solid 11-12 start. While this team still isn’t “good”, they are out-performing expectations. Porzingis is averaging 25.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, and shooting 39.8% from three on 4.9 attempts per game. He has a usage rate of 34.1% (up from 24.3% last year) while posting improved offensive and defensive ratings of 111 and 106 respectively. Porzingis has the ability to stretch the floor, run in transition, and protect the rim. While his expectations were high, not many thought he would be able to lead this questionable roster to this level of success.

A few other impressive starts to the season come from Robert Covington and Victor Oladipo. Covington has been the real piece of trust the process as he joined the NBA as an undrafted free agent in 2013. Covington’s improvement is often overshadowed by the realization of Embiid and the transcendence of Simmons. Covington is one of the elite wing defenders with a defensive rating of 101.6. To add to that, he has also developed his outside shooting as he is shooting 40.8% on 7.8 attempts from three a game (up from 33.3% last year). Instead of consistently improving over the years, Victor Oladipo has seemed to completely turn his career around. After being traded to Indiana from Oklahoma City, many thought that he was nothing more than an overpaid rotation player. That sentiment has proven to be incredibly wrong as Oladipo is averaging 23.1 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.8 steals a game. His usage rate has jumped to 30.2% while also posting a 55.1 eFG%. After shedding some weight and being allowed to actually handle the ball, Oladipo is looking like the former second overall pick many expected him to turn into.

Fans are always enamored with rookie classes because they present the myth of what could be instead of what actually is. This year’s rookie class, however, appears to be the real deal. Ben Simmons is recording triple-doubles on a nightly basis. Jayson Tatum is playing a much larger, and needed, role than was expected but is averaging 13.9 points and 51.3% from three. Donovan Mitchell has been an absolute delight as the once thought of defensive specialist is emerging as one of the offensive focal points for the Jazz. Mitchell has a usage rate of 28.5% which is almost identical to LeBron’s rookie year of 28.2%. Obviously, they are very different players but it shows how important Mitchell has been and will be going forward for the Jazz. We are also getting solid rookie performances from Dennis Smith Jr, OG Anunoby, and Kyle Kuzma. While some stars like Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James (sort of) begin to approach the final run of their careers, the NBA will clearly be in good hands with the current young talent.

Biggest Disappointments

Where there is joy there is also sorrow. Despite this season being extremely enjoyable, there are still plots that are carrying out vastly different than what we hoped for. The point-Blake experience with the Clippers has been a massive let down. The Clippers were a preseason favorite to be a surprise team this year that could make a playoff run led by Blake Griffin. After starting off 4-0, the excitement for the point-Blake experience and Clippers contention was at a high. Griffin was talked as an MVP candidate and the idea that the Clippers could contend now relieved of the Chris Paul burden was the take to jump on. That didn’t last long as a team built on fragile players came tumbling down. Injuries to Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic, Patrick Beverly, and Blake Griffin led the Clippers to go 1-11 over their next twelve games. The Clippers are back to being the Clippers. Now with rumors of DeAndre Jordon being traded and Doc Rivers not making it through the season, are the Clippers really ready to restart?

Photo taken by Keith Allison

In a similar case of misfortune, the Memphis Grizzlies are nowhere near their expectations. The Conley, Gasol led Grizzlies got out to a solid 7-4 start with wins over the Warriors, Rockets (twice), and Trailblazers. They then went on a streak of losing 11 games in a row, losing Conley to injury with an undisclosed timetable, and firing their coach after just 101 games at the helm. After installing a solid foundation and culture that has led them to the league’s second-longest postseason appearance streak, the Grizzlies are headed to a horrible year that could lead them towards blowing it up.

One of the biggest criticisms of Tom Thibodeau in Chicago was that he way overplayed his starters. After being let go from the Bulls, Thibodeau did a national tour of different organizations. Many backed him on learning the process of staggering minutes and the importance of rest. Those are proving to be fabrications and Thibs has reverted right back to his old ways. The Timberwolves starting lineup has played 484 minutes (second highest five-man lineup has played 90 minutes) with all starters averaging over 33 minutes. For comparison, the next closest five-man lineup is in Detroit at 339 minutes. The Timberwolves do not have a strong or deep bench but that doesn’t mean the starters need to play the whole game. Thibs will need to start staggering minutes and resting guys if he wants to be making the playoff push and contend at the end of the year.

What to Watch For

With a lot of basketball left to play this year, here is what you need to keep your eyes on. James Harden has been playing some of the best basketball of his career which is saying something with his past two years of MVP contention. Harden is averaging 31.7 points, 9.7 assists, 5.1 rebounds, and a surprising 1.7 steals. He has improved his already outstanding offensive rating from 118 to 123 and also has stepped it up on defense as his defensive rating has dropped from 107 to 103. If Harden continues this extraordinary level of play and the Rockets remain near the top of the West there should be no reason Harden goes a third straight year without the MVP.

This year had an earlier start to help eliminate back-to-back games and help players rest as much as possible. This resulted in teams having a much shorter training camp and coming into the season a little rusty. The Warriors dropped a few early games while playing lackluster defense. They are now 19-6 with the league’s best offensive rating of 116.1 and seventh-best defensive rating of 105. On the other side of the league, the Cavaliers had a less than ideal start to the season as they started out 5-7 while playing horrendous defense. Since then they have won 12 games in a row and LeBron looks like, yet again, an MVP candidate. What’s the lesson here? Don’t freak out with early season results, the top teams are still really freaking good.

Entering this year all the talk was about how good the West was going to be and how awful the East looked. So far the East has been extremely entertaining with a lot of surprise teams that could make a playoff push. Detroit is overperforming expectations at 14-9 as well as Philly (13-10), Indiana (13-11), and New York (11-12). These teams have also been a lot of fun to watch. The race for the playoffs in the East is going to be really interesting to watch as some teams continue to develop and improve while others may sustain injuries that will derail their current path. While these teams have been a welcomed surprise, the real question remains on if it will be sustainable for a whole season.

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