One-month-in NBA overreactions!
A month's worth of regular-season games, in what the league bills as its 75th anniversary season, will be completed by week's end. Let's draw premature conclusions from what we've seen
As an NBA old-schooler, I most certainly endorse the trusty tenet that a true read on teams isn’t possible or even advisable until we’ve reached the 20-game mark.
You’ll recall that, in my ESPN days, I typically waited until the 27-game range, essentially one-third of the way through the regular season, to start seriously talking MVP and the other major individual hardware races in my old Trimester Awards columns.
Even us old heads, though, have to change with the times … at least a little bit. So I’m trying something new in the Substack Era: One-Month-In Overreactions!
Warriors vs. Nets is the new dream NBA Finals matchup for the league and its television partners.
After chafing from years of conspiracy theories about the NBA's supposed efforts to manipulate playoff outcomes to generate matchups that would lead to the highest TV ratings, then-Commissioner David Stern finally quipped in a 2004 radio interview that his office wouldn't actually be happy until the playoffs generated a Lakers vs. Lakers Finals.
The joke inevitably didn't go over well and, worse, did little to halt the commentary every year about which Finals pairing was, deep down, most coveted by the league for maximum marketability. The everlasting presumption is that the NBA is not-so-secretly rooting for the Lakers to reach the championship round every year.
Yet you can already see, even at this nascent stage of the season, another potential title showdown that surely looks plenty tantalizing for the Finals rights-holders in Bristol, Conn. — one which wouldn’t require LeBron James' involvement.
The preview takes place tonight at Barclays Center: Golden State at Brooklyn. Some of the hysteria about the Warriors' 11-2 start is premature, given that the West leaders have played only two games outside of California so far in a favorable early schedule, but the dominance they've flashed early at both ends with Klay Thompson still believed to be at least a month away from making his return after losing two consecutive seasons to injury has made the idea of teams led by the newly named co-Players of the Week Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant dueling for the league's ultimate prize so much more plausible.
It’s certainly easier than imagining the creaky Lakers, in their current state, getting that far.
In truth, perhaps as it should be after a mere month's worth of games, no team out there looks like championship material. Not one.
The East was supposed to deliver a two-team upper crust for the rest of the league to chase. It hasn't happened yet.
The Nets' 10-4 start has been far bumpier than the record sounds and is realistically that good only because the uber-efficient Kevin Durant is perhaps the most surgical scorer we've ever seen, averaging nearly 30 points per game while shooting nearly 60% from the field.
Milwaukee, meanwhile, finds itself submerged in an unexpected sub-.500 start alongside the team it beat in last season's Eastern Conference finals. At least the Bucks, unlike Atlanta, can point to a slew of injuries as the chief culprit. That said, with offenses so far behind defenses in these early days as everyone adjusts to the increased contact referees are allowing, nobody is running away from anybody in either conference.
Which actually makes things more fun.
The reigning MVP is better than ever.
Denver is another team playing short-handed, with Michael Porter Jr. (back) joining Jamal Murray (knee) on the sideline after a woeful start for Porter. To the Nuggets' relief, Nikola Jokić continues to compensate as needed.
While managing his temper remains a concern, as we covered last week, Jokić only seems to become more of an offensive maestro with age while blossoming into a plus defender along the way. Leave it to my pal (and relentless Jokić stan) Micah Adams of The Sporting News to note that Jokić recently reached 59 career triple-doubles in 464 career games … about half as many games as Larry Bird needed (897) for the same total.
The Bulls really are back.
The line flows too easily to resist, so we have to say it, but the instant impact Chicago has received from newcomers DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball also compels us to say it.
I had the same "fit" concerns about adding DeRozan after trading for Ball that so many fans and pundits voiced. What we all underestimated: Chicago appears to be a classic example of what happens when a team adds talent to talent. Good players have the ability to figure it out.
Cleveland's Evan Mobley is the best rookie.
This will clearly go down as the least reactionary of today's overreactions. Even after registering my fondness for Detroit's Cade Cunningham in our previous Tuesday Newsletter Extravaganza, who would dare deny the tremendous two-way presence Mobley has instantly become for the Cavaliers?
As the No. 3 pick after Cunningham and Houston's Jalen Green, Mobley has displayed elite promise as a defender complemented by a more varied game than advertised at the other end. Let's hope Mobley isn’t derailed too seriously by the sprained right elbow that he sustained Monday against Boston which is expected to sideline him at least 2-to-4 weeks.
Getting worked up about the Bucks' November woes is utter folly.
You certainly can, if so motivated, question why Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn't been able to drive more winning on his own without key injured teammates more like Jokić in Denver. But that oversimplifies things.
Milwaukee played nine of its first 14 games on the road. It has also had Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday on the floor together for less than 30 minutes of action, with Brook Lopez also missing almost the entire season to date. We've seen plenty of the Bucks, but we haven't really seen the champs.
Mashing the panic button on the Lakers’ behalf is utterly justified.
Judging the Lakers when LeBron James has been in uniform for only six of their 15 games might be branded foolish by some, but the nature of his latest injury — an abdominal strain that has sidelined him for L.A.’s past seven games — folds right into the panic. James turns 37 in six weeks. As hard as he works on his body, and as swiftly as he seems to be recovering from this particular strain, fears of a recurrence are inevitable. Core injuries are scary as players get older and LeBron has had to deal with a handful already since moving to Hollywood.
Most of the concern, mind you, stems from the team’s collective age and especially Russell Westbrook’s dreadful start as a Laker. The Lakers’ grand experiment — choosing to trade much of their depth for Westbrook over a smaller deal that would have landed a deadeye shooter in Sacramento’s Buddy Hield — is off to a haunting start, with Westbrook averaging close to a career high in turnovers (5.3 per game) and a career low in free-throw rate (just 4.9 attempts per game) while shooting 42.7% from the field and 29.2% on 3s.
Westbrook’s presumed ability to keep the Lakers competitive while James rests or nurses injuries was considered the surest thing he was going to provide. The LeBron-less Lakers blew leads of 26 and 19 points to Oklahoma City and lost both games with Westbrook at the controls. Worse yet for Lakers fans, they can now read extensive comments from Chicago’s resurgent DeRozan, via my pal Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, on how DeRozan was angling for the Lakers to complete a sign-and-trade for him before ultimately conceding that it was no longer an option once they acquired Westbrook.
Gulp. Westbrook over DeRozan and Hield?
Are we really overreacting here?
It would have been truly, truly dumb to print the "Oklahoma City won't win nine games" piece I was considering at the start of November.
It is easy to forget that the Thunder were 19-24 last season with a roster not dissimilar to the one they sport now. I know this because I clearly forgot it during a recent huddle with a wise and seasoned NBA observer I lean on for guidance who had me convinced that the Thunder, in the midst of their 0-4 start, were about to mount a serious challenge to Philadelphia’s all-time worst NBA record of 9-73 in the 1972-73.
I should have known that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort wouldn’t let it happen. Oklahoma City didn’t fully descend into its 3-26 slide to finish last season until plantar fasciitis shelved Gilgeous-Alexander while Al Horford was parked in the Thunder’s injury-prevention ward, and SGA has suddenly steered his team to a heady 31-51 pace after a four-game winning streak that included OKC’s second comeback victory over the Lakers from a big double-digit deficit.
Bonus Overreaction: Ben Simmons isn’t getting traded before 2022.
Things are moving so slowly on this front in Philadelphia, with the 76ers determined to hold out for an All-Star-level player in a trade for Simmons that no other team in the league appears inclined to offer, that it’s actually easier to picture Zion Williamson getting back on the floor in New Orleans before a palatable deal materializes to bring an end to the Simmons Saga.
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I start this section with an admission: Retail Therapy was the easy two-word setup to employ for what we'll be discussing here, but it's a bit of an exaggeration in this case.
The "therapy" in Retail Therapy implies that the person purchasing the retail needed a spiritual lift and turned to shopping to find it. I really didn't. I just couldn't stop myself from buying two pairs of this Adidas classic within seconds of becoming aware of them.
A glorious Rod Laver issue sporting the vintage royal blue colorway synonymous with Adidas’ Ilie Năstase model from the 1970s? Irresistible!
And, yes, I have fallen into the habit of buying two pairs of every shoe I like over the past several years (much to Mrs. Line's annoyance) after learning about the "one to rock, one to stock" philosophy from my oldest son, Alexander. Kids can teach their elders stuff, too.
In the director’s cut of Rocky IV covered extensively here Monday, Sylvester Stallone worked in 42 minutes of previously unseen footage by cutting 37 minutes from the 91-minute original.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ recent trip to the White House made them the NBA’s first reigning champions to cap a title with a visit to see the nation’s president since the Cleveland Cavaliers after the 2015-16 season.
The Knicks awoke Tuesday ranked 17th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 108.7 points per 100 possessions. They were fourth in the same category last season.
Stephen Curry's recent 50-point, 10-assist masterpiece for Golden State against Atlanta made him — at 33 years and 236 days — the oldest player in league history to hit those benchmarks in the same game. The previous oldest, according to Stathead, was Wilt Chamberlain, who was 31 years and 210 days old when he had a 53-point, 14-assist game for Philadelphia in 1967-68. Blocks and steals weren't officially recorded until 1973-74, but some accounts of that game credited Wilt with 24 blocks and 11 steals in addition to his 32 rebounds.
When I wrote about the Pistons a week ago, they were still shooting less than 40% from the floor as a team. They have since nudged that figure to 40.7 and will presumably keep it somewhere in the 40s for the rest of the season. No NBA team has shot less than 40% from the field, Stathead says, since the champion 1960-61 Boston Celtics (39.8%).
Only 13 more days until NBA TV shows the Nuggets-Heat rematch in Miami after last week's clash between Nikola Jokić and Markieff Morris. (My column on why both Jokić and Morris got off light is here.) The next Jazz-Pacers game, after Rudy Gobert and Myles Turner tangled Thursday night, is Jan. 8 in Indiana.