7 Thoughts About the NBA’s First 7 Weeks
By Ryan Patterson
Basketball is fun. The NBA is basketball played by grown men who are paid seven and eight figures annually. So, it stands to reason that the NBA is, on a nightly basis, the most fun basketball in the world. While some people may disagree with this, it is nearly impossible to argue that this season has been one of the most entertaining in recent memory.
Every team has played between 23 and 28 games, slightly more than one-fourth of a season. So you know what that means, right? Crazy conclusions about a season that has six months left! While this may seem arcane and silly, 23-28 games is a decent enough sample size to get an indication of the general direction teams are headed.
To commemorate the first seven weeks of the NBA season, here are seven thoughts, as of the morning of December 18.
1. Steph Curry is the front-runner for MVP. “But how can a guy who doesn’t play defense be the MVP???” You may ask, eyes bulging. Well, Curry is without a doubt the best player on the best team right now, scoring 23.5 points per game and dishing out 7.6 assists per game. Also, Golden State is first in the league in defensive efficiency, and Curry is part of that. Look, Curry is at best an average individual defender, but in this switching-heavy team defensive scheme, Curry knows his job and hasn’t been a total liability; he’s a perfectly decent team defender, and when you’re the best shooter on the planet, decent is good enough.
Speaking of no longer being a total defensive liability, James Harden is a close second in the MVP race right now. Yes, he may not play aesthetically pleasing basketball, but the results are undeniable. He is the only guy in the league averaging at least 26 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists per game, and has carried Houston to a 19-5 record. He is now actively trying on defense, and has improved to passable on that end of the floor. Harden’s doing most of this without Dwight Howard as well, so yeah, he’s really good.
Anthony Davis is probably third right now, but unless the Pelicans make the playoffs, he won’t win MVP. I think Davis has been pretty easily the best player so far, but New Orleans is 12-12 in a brutally tough conference. His stats are mind-boggling enough: 24.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, and 1.7 steals per game; he’s in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Then, you remember that the guy is only 21 freaking years old!!! If Davis stays healthy for his career, I think he has a chance to rival Tim Duncan for greatest power forward ever, and be a top-10 all time player. The rest of the league should thank their lucky stars that Monty Williams isn’t that good of a coach, because when Davis has the right mix of players around him and a coach who can maximize his unique talents, he will be utterly terrifying (if he isn’t already).
These guys are the clear top three, and I would put Marc Gasol of Memphis at fourth right now. He’s the best player on both ends of the court for a 21-4 Grizzlies team that no one ever talks about because they’re not super high-scoring or flashy to the casual fan. A career 14 points per game scorer, Gasol is suddenly putting up 20 points a night, and is still playing his normal terrific defense.
The usual suspects are also in the mix, of course. LeBron James is still playing great. After a rocky start, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are yet again terrorizing opponents. And even Kobe Bryant…(looks up Kobe’s field goal percentage and the Lakers’ record) actually, never mind.
2. The West is amazing, and the East is depressing. I think the top seven teams in the league are all in the West right now (sorry, Toronto and Washington); those seven teams’ combined record is 135-42 (76.3%). Every game in the West has something intriguing and exciting to look forward to (except perhaps a Denver-Utah matchup), while the East routinely gives us dumpster fires like “Brooklyn 88-Philadelphia 70.”
The West has so many fun teams like Golden State, Portland, San Antonio, LA Clippers, Memphis, Dallas, Phoenix, OKC, New Orleans, Sacramento, and even the Lakers to satisfy your morbid curiosity. Meanwhile, the East offers Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, Charlotte, Indiana, Brooklyn, and Miami. Chicago is good but sometimes painful to watch. Orlando and Boston are bad, but at least sort of fun to watch. Atlanta, who is in third, is not an exciting team and still can’t draw fans. Even Cleveland, whose offense everyone was ready to love, has been surprisingly dull to watch.
I’ll leave you with this: San Antonio, the defending champion, is in seventh place in the West with a 17-9 record, and Miami is in seventh place in the East with a 12-14 record.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo has the best chance to become the next legitimate superstar. I realize the term “superstar” is pretty vague, but I generally take it to mean that whatever team a guy is on, that team has a chance to win every night simply due to his greatness. LeBron, Durant and Davis are superstars, obviously. I put Curry, Harden, Paul and Griffin in there as well. Then there’s a lot of really, really good players slightly below superstar level. It’s been a great season, but there are surprisingly few “great” players. A ton of really good, really exciting players, but few who I consider great.
That’s where the Greek Freak comes in: if I could have one player for the next 10 years, of course I would take Davis first. Then I’d comfortably take Antetokounmpo second. (I’m not even sure who’s third- DeMarcus Cousins?). Giannis just turned 20, and is a main reason why the Bucks are respectable this year. His stats don’t jump out quite yet: 12.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 49 FG%; very impressive for a 20-year-old, but what’s even more impressive is the way he gets those stats. There’s at least one play, sometimes a couple, in a game where he does something extraordinary. Dunking ferociously over Chris Bosh; repeatedly driving past Marc Gasol to finish at the rim; taking one dribble past half-court and gliding in for a layup. This last one sounds impossible, but with Greek Freak, anything’s possible. This has become his signature move, the Gyro Step, where he takes two massive steps and either lays the ball in or dunks it. A few times, he has Gyro Stepped from outside the three point line. I repeat: the guy takes zero dribbles from 25 feet away and it’s seriously not traveling.
The NBA has never had a player with Antetokounmpo’s size, (he’s 6’11” and team doctors believe he’ll grow to be 7’1″) speed and athleticism rolled into one. With Jabari Parker now done for the year with an ACL tear, more of the offensive burden will fall to Giannis. Fortunately, Giannis’s ankle injury is only day-to-day. Parker’s loss is a huge hit for the Bucks and I feel terrible for Jabari, who was the Rookie of the Year favorite. The good news is that Parker is only 19, and should be back fully healthy next year. It’s definitely not the end of the world; remember, Blake Griffin missed his entire first year with a knee injury, and he’s been great since. This puts a bit of a damper on Milwaukee’s season, and they’ll now be likely fighting for a playoff spot. The bottom line is this: after so many years of mediocrity, there’s hope in Milwaukee.
4. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be fine. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are back and playing like their old selves, perhaps even better in Westbrook’s case. There was serious concern that OKC would miss the playoffs when both of their stars were out, but now, they’re only a half game behind New Orleans for the eighth seed. These injuries could turn out to be good for them in a weird way. With less minutes played, Durant and Westbrook will (most likely) be more fresh late in the season, and some role players like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Anthony Morrow and Lance Thomas got some valuable experience without Russ and KD. With 57 games remaining, OKC’s season is far from over.
5. The New York teams may not be relevant for another decade or more. It’s a basketball disaster in the Big Apple. Brooklyn is currently the East’s eighth seed with a dismal record of 10-14. Nets fans have to be second-guessing the decision to go with GM Billy King over Jason Kidd, but I’m not sure it would be much of a difference. They might be the league’s least exciting team to watch, and now they’ve put Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams on the trading block. It looks like Brooklyn management realizes they have no chance at being a contender and are starting the rebuilding process.
Obviously, this is not what the Nets had in mind when they traded and signed several high-priced, aging players. Here’s where it gets worse: as repercussions of all those trades, Brooklyn might not have a first-round pick until 2019! They gave up picks to Boston in the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett/Jason Terry trade, and might lose next year’s pick to Atlanta as part of the Joe Johnson deal. High draft picks are the most important part of a rebuild, and the Nets have none in the near future. Things are not looking up, to say the least.
As bad as the situation is in Brooklyn, it might be worse in New York. The Knicks are 5-22, the second-worst mark in the league. Carmelo Anthony’s huge extension might cripple their cap flexibility for years, and Phil Jackson’s triangle offense has struggled to say the least. Coach Derek Fischer has scrapped triangle principles for more pick and roll sets lately, which will probably continue. The Knicks are so dysfunctional and awful, despite having an obviously talented roster. At this point, everyone except Melo is available for a trade. I would like to see Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert leave New York, if only for their sanity. I think Houston would gladly take Amar’e, and Shumpert would be perfect for Oklahoma City. The only good news is that the Knicks have most of their future draft picks.
6. Kyle Korver might be a cyborg who only shoots jumpers in his spare time. Seriously, the guy is shooting 54.1 percent from behind the arc this year for Atlanta. 54.1 percent!!! This would be incredible for a high-schooler, much less an NBA rotation player averaging almost 33 minutes a game. Granted, Korver is a career 43% three-point shooter, but this is absurd. In addition, Korver has made 48 of 50 free throws. What’s even more impressive is that Korver is doing this at age 33, his 12th year in the league. He seemingly never tires of running around the floor and using screens to get open. I believe Steph Curry will go down as the greatest shooter of all time due to his off-the-dribble accuracy, but who would you take in a stand-still three-point contest between Korver and Curry?
7. The Playoffs might be better than last year. I’m not sure anything can top last year’s first two rounds in the West, but this year is sure going to try. The possible matchups are making me giddy. OKC at San Antonio or Golden State in Round 1? Dallas at Houston, AKA Chandler Parsons’ Revenge? Portland at LA Clippers (first to 120 wins)? Phoenix at Memphis, two diametrically opposed styles? Yes please, don’t mind if I do. There’s even hope in the East. Wouldn’t it be great to see Milwaukee at Cleveland, the team of the future against the team of the present? Or a Toronto-Washington second-round matchup featuring two incredible backcourts (John Wall and Bradley Beal vs. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan)? Or another Miami-Chicago series, for old time’s sake?
Man, I can’t wait until the playoffs start in April. Oh, actually I can, because there’s enough craziness every week to keep fans constantly entertained. I love the NBA.