Giannis Antetokounmpo's MVP Rise and More Early-Season NBA Takeaways

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 27, 2017

Giannis Antetokounmpo's MVP Rise and More Early-Season NBA Takeaways

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    How do you analyze the beginning of an NBA season? 

    Small samples are rife with pitfalls, forcing you to buy into trends that can't be sustained. But ignoring early-season results is problematic as well, since the data produced by the opening games does shine significant light on what will come next. Figuring out which takeaways fall into each category is crucial, even if that's a monumentally difficult task. 

    Don't worry. We've done it for you.

    The Golden State Warriors aren't going to struggle in their pursuit of home-court advantage in the Western Conference after opening with a 3-2 record. The Philadelphia 76ers aren't going to lose every close game imaginable and finish near the top of the 2018 NBA draft's pecking order. D.J. Augustin isn't going to lead all qualified in true shooting percentage and emerge as a superstar just before celebrating his 30th birthday. 

    But Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to remain in the MVP hunt, Ben Simmons will keep doing his thing while pursuing 2017-18 Rookie of the Year and defense will be a major thorn in the side of the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

    We'll expand on all those claims...and a whole lot more. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo Is Ready to Compete for MVP

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo established himself as a statistical wonder last season, but he didn't yet factor into the MVP race.

    The Milwaukee Bucks simply weren't winning enough games as they marched toward a 42-40 record and No. 6 finish in the Eastern Conference. He finished behind Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and Stephen Curry when the ballots were finally tallied, tied with John Wall.

    That won't be the case this year. 

    Even without forcing defenders to respect his perimeter jumper—he's taken just nine three-pointers in five games—he's put on a clinic around the basket, using his lanky strides and jarring speed to finish through all kinds of traffic. The wording there is important: not "in," but "through." 

    Defenders can't contain Antetokounmpo. He's too agile. He's too skilled. He's too smart. He's too athletic. Their best efforts have marginal impact, since he's now fully aware of how he can take over a game on both ends of the floor while constantly involving his teammates. 

    Through those first five outings, the Greek Freak is averaging a whopping 35.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.0 blocks. He's shooting 62.4 percent from the field and 76.6 percent from the charity stripe on 9.4 attempts per game, which combine to give him an inhuman level of efficiency. 

    Those numbers will certainly decline as the sample grows larger, but Antetokounmpo's usage rate should remain sky-high on a Bucks squad that wants him to do all of the heavy lifting. He's on track to submit the 19th season in the modern era with a usage rate north of 35 percent, and his true shooting percentage (67.5 percent) would dwarf that of the group's current record-holder: 1984-85 Bernard King (58.5 percent). 

    Even if he cedes some responsibilities to his teammates, this positionless standout has left little doubt he's a dominant figure. Thus far, he's been the most dominant figure, allowing the 22-year-old to throw his hat firmly into the "best player in the world" conversation. 

    Maybe he won't wrest that title away from LeBron James. Perhaps he won't surpass Kevin Durant or a healthy Kawhi Leonard. He's not a lock to win MVP, even if he's now the odds-on favorite, per SportsInsights.

    He has, however, arrived as a legitimate threat to accomplish all those lofty endeavors.    

This Isn't the Year LeBron James Declines

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    Perhaps the most impressive aspect of LeBron James' career isn't what he did at his peak. You can argue about whether he reached a level that surpassed Michael Jordan's best days, but that's a discussion for another time and place. We're more concerned with longevity here, since that's pushed the 32-year-old superstar into a class of his own. 

    Just consider these indisputable facts. 

    Looking at everyone since 1973 with a certain experience level—i.e. all rookies, sophomores, eighth-year players, etc.—James hasn't finished outside the top 10 in NBA Math's total points added since his rookie campaign in 2003-04.

    He had the No. 7 season among fourth-year contributors, trailing Jordan, Chris Paul, Bob Lanier, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. He finished No. 2 among seventh-year players, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In his 10th go-round, no one was better. 

    But lately, he's taken his superiority to a different stratosphere. 

    During his 13th season, he submitted 484.47 TPA, outpacing second-place Karl Malone (399.8) by a wide margin. One year later in 2016-17's follow-up efforts, he again set the record for that experience level (470.37), thoroughly destroying No. 2 Clyde Drexler (242.71), No. 3 Malone (225.83) and No. 4 Abdul-Jabbar (215.4). The gap between him and the rest of his predecessors with equivalent mileage (and really, less mileage because of James' perennially deep playoff runs) is only growing. 

    That trend seems to be continuing in 2017-18. 

    Right now, Malone is the standard-bearer for 15th-year players with 379.57 TPA. James is on pace to surpass him during a Jan. 6 contest against the Orlando Magic in what would be his 39th game of the season.

    He's on track to move past third-place Kobe Bryant (199.54) before the end of November and second-place Jason Kidd (253.04) in a Dec. 8 showdown with the Indiana Pacers, assuming he maintains his current level and doesn't take any recovery days. 

    Of course, this shouldn't be shocking to anyone who has watched the Cavaliers—a team that increasingly resembles a one-man show while Kevin Love is finding his bearings and Isaiah Thomas is still rehabilitating his hip injury.

    James is averaging 27.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.6 blocks while slashing 61.1/45.0/76.0, and it sure looks like he's capable of just deciding he doesn't feel like losing on any given night. 

    If you've been covertly coveting a decline from James (or making your fervent wishes more public), you're going to have to wait a while longer. 

Some Western Conference Teams Refuse to Die

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    The San Antonio Spurs were supposed to take a step back, finally ending their long-standing dominance of the Western Conference. Maybe they'd win "only" 54 games this year, which would be the first time they'd fail to hit the magical 55 in a non-lockout season since 2009-10. 

    Playing without Kawhi Leonard at the beginning of the year was only going to compound their potential downfall, as the clear-cut best player and lone MVP candidate was nursing a lingering right quadriceps injury that left him without a definitive timetable to return. 

    Instead, the Spurs are one of the last two teams left without a blemish on their record. They've swept through their first four opponents in definitive fashion, earning a net rating (10.32) that lags behind only the Los Angeles Clippers (19.29) and Portland Trail Blazers (14.54). 

    While Leonard has been absent, Rudy Gay has shown no signs of a post-Achilles decline. LaMarcus Aldridge has decided to validate his extension by playing All-Star basketball. Dejounte Murray has functioned as one of the league's biggest breakouts, averaging an efficient 10.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists while playing stellar defense in his first four appearances. 

    Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies are traveling down a similar road, even after an inexplicable loss—but, if you've followed the play-down-to-the-opponents history of the organization in recent years, not at all inexplicable—to the Dallas Mavericks. Behind heroics from Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, as well as yet another stifling defense, they're sitting pretty at 4-1. 

    This wasn't supposed to happen. At best, the Grizzlies were supposed to be in the same class as the Clippers (another early-season surprise, though a bit inflated by an easy schedule) and Utah Jazz in the competition for a back-end playoff spot in the brutal Western Conference. 

    They'd lost the grit-and-grind identity after the departures of Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and Tony Allen. They'd failed to add much upside to the roster and were too reliant on aging contributors. They'd overachieved in 2016-17 already, winning close games at an unsustainable rate. 

    Whoops. 

    If there's a lesson from these two teams, it's this one: Don't doubt entrenched culture from successful organizations. 

Ben Simmons Is Unfair

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    Sometimes a player just has "it." 

    "It" is something that can't quite be defined or quantified. A special ingredient used to bump someone from good to great or great to legendary, "it" is a certain level of feel for the game.

    Contributors with that gene just look like they're playing a different sport, operating in slow-motion while the rest of the proceedings unfold around them. They seem comfortable and in full control of every set. They dictate the action at all times. 

    Ben Simmons has "it." 

    We don't need to point toward his triple-double against the Detroit Pistons or efficient early-season per-game averages of 16.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 7.4 assists for proof. The numbers—basic and advanced stats alike—are all impressive and indicate he's become the prohibitive front-runner in the Rookie of the Year race, but they're not as impressive as just watching him play. 

    Players with 6'10" frames (honestly, that feels like an underestimate) aren't supposed to move so quickly or change direction as seamlessly. They certainly shouldn't be accelerating with possession of the rock to the extent that they can outrun far smaller guards. But Simmons mixes size and speed masterfully, allowing him to flat-out torture opponents in transition. 

    In the half-court set, he's been able to overcome sagging defenders with his pinpoint passing precision and constant willingness to involve everyone. He rarely makes the wrong decisions, and every correct choice is quickly followed by proper execution. 

    And we still haven't even talked about his stifling defense. Simmons is constantly engaged, using his lanky frame and quick feet to stay in front of his man while displaying a willingness to switch to multiple positions. 

    Maybe it's unfair to consider him a true rookie after he spent a year on the sidelines learning about the rigors of NBA life in 2016-17. But that redshirt season didn't take away his rookie eligibility, and it now seems he'll be making a mockery of the rest of the first-year competition. 

    Simmons looks every bit the part of not just a future superstar, but a current one as well. 

The Washington Wizards Are Eastern Conference Contenders

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    The Washington Wizards may not be ready for the big stage quite yet, but that doesn't mean they can't get there by the time the playoffs roll around.

    They first need to learn how to treat every opponent with respect, since a lethargic showing against the Los Angeles Lakers negated a distinct talent advantage and led to their first loss of the year. 

    But prior to dropping a game against a version of the Purple and Gold clad in powder blue, the Wizards had taken down the Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons and Denver Nuggets in succession. None of those outings are particularly impressive when viewed in a vacuum, unless you dig into how they achieved the victories. 

    Last year, Washington's bench was a huge issue. The starting five comprised of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat was dominant and capable of hanging with any other quintet featured throughout the Association, but the second unit routinely squandered the leads it earned. 

    Now, that might change. 

    Washington didn't have a single reliable bench contributor in 2016-17, but Kelly Oubre Jr. is ready to turn that on its head. He's flashed explosiveness on both ends of the floor during this season's opening salvo, looking like a confident player who understands how to leverage his gifts into actual production.

    Consistency, however, has eluded him, as Alan Jenkins wrote for SB Nation's Bullets Forever:

    "Oubre hasn't 'arrived' nor is he 'underperforming'. He's still in the midst of his development and Wizards' fans as well as the franchise needs to be patient as there will be many more bumps as he continues to develop. His NBA maturation is more likely to mimic Maurice Harkless' slow, bumpy ride than say, Kawhi Leonard or Paul George's fast-track to stardom."

    But even inconsistent growth would be a huge positive for a Wizards second unit that was consistently poor last go-round.

    Whether he or Markieff Morris slots in with the backups when last year's starting power forward recovers from sports hernia surgery, they'll be beneficial presences. Couple that with a healthy Ian Mahinmi playing quality defense, an improved Tomas Satoransky in his sophomore season and Jodie Meeks splashing in some triples, and you no longer have a glaring liability. 

    Porter's hot shooting and continued all-around excellence help justify his max contract and should get him some All-Star hype. While that's important, the growth of the bench is even more crucial—the key metamorphosis allowing Washington to emerge as a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference. 

Defense Could Keep Minnesota Timberwolves from Making the Leap

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    Everything seems set up for the Minnesota Timberwolves to make a substantial leap up the Western Conference standings. 

    Andrew Wiggins is scoring the basketball better than ever, improving both his shot selection and his three-point stroke. Karl-Anthony Towns remains one of the most versatile offensive players the NBA has witnessed in quite some time, capable of destroying defenders from all over the half-court set.

    Jeff Teague is a high-quality point producer who can call his own number of set up his running mates. Jimmy Butler, though he's struggled thus far and had to fight through illness, is unquestionably one of the league's 20 greatest talents.

    Head coach Tom Thibodeau even has significant depth at his disposal. 

    And yet, the 'Wolves are just 2-3. Though they've scored the ball fairly well, they've dropped games to the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons while squeezing out one-possession victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz. 

    Defense, as so often seems to be the case, is the culprit. 

    Minnesota is dead last in defensive rating (116.3), trailing the No. 29 Pacers (113.5) by a substantial amount. Worse still, its adjusted defensive rating of 91.14—adjusted to the era such that 100 is league-average and higher is better—would overtake the 1998-99 Denver Nuggets (92.57) for the worst mark in league history, per NBA Math. It's been that bad. 

    No one is allowing opponents to shoot at a higher clip. Only seven teams are forcing turnovers less frequently. So while Minnesota hasn't allowed much damage at the free-throw line and cleans the glass fairly well, it's still getting wrecked by failing to properly contest shots, gambling at ill-advised times and demonstrating porosity around the rim. 

    Seriously, we already have far too many examples of Towns looking atrocious on defense, and Wiggins is still routinely falling asleep off the ball. The unit as a whole should trend up when Butler is healthy and the pieces develop more chemistry, but neither effort nor effectiveness has presented itself thus far.

    Frankly, the defense has been so woeful that it might already be time to write off a leap into anything more than a competition for the West's No. 8 seed, small samples be damned. 

The Boston Celtics' Youngsters Are Mega-Exciting

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    Though the Boston Celtics' season was permanently marred by the unfortunate injury to Gordon Hayward in the season-opener (check out Bleacher Report's Dan Favale for more on the basketball gods and their lack of injury sensitivity), the absence of the marquee free agent has allowed some other players to start strutting their stuff. 

    Jaylen Brown has taken on more offensive responsibility and responded by averaging 16.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.4 blocks. Those aren't empty numbers either. The breakout sophomore has slashed 43.8/35.7/52.6 while playing hounding defense, looking far more comfortable in a featured two-way role and frequently bursting to the hoop for thunderous finishes. 

    Jayson Tatum's shooting stroke has transferred from Duke to the Association. Not only has the 19-year-old more than held his own on the preventing end, but he's knocked down 47.9 percent of his field-goal attempts and 42.9 percent of his triples while thriving on the glass. 

    Terry Rozier has justified general manager Danny Ainge's refusal to include him in any blockbuster trade by posting 10.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.0 steals per game. Whether he's hitting 38.1 percent of his treys, bodying up against multiple positions on defense or thriving as a facilitator when Kyrie Irving isn't in the game, he's been an unrelenting positive. 

    Behind those three, the Celtics suddenly have one of the more impressive cores in either half of the NBA. And best of all, the widespread growth allows them to remain quite competitive while Hayward rehabs and continue to grow in future seasons. Skirting the gap between present and future prowess is a tricky task, but having so many youthful contributors asserting themselves simultaneously goes a long way. 

    Head coach Brad Stevens spoke about exactly that, courtesy of NBA.com's Ian Thomsen:

    "We're in a situation right now where we're going to expect a lot out of those guys and we need them to be great, we need them to be able to respond to adversity, and we need to be able to respond to pats on the back just the same. We have high expectations for them; they should have high expectations for themselves, and they're getting a great opportunity. So, we need them to continue to be good, and there's a lot of fun in that, I think."

    Read the last sentence again. 

    "Continue" would be the operative word. Not "start to be good," but "continue to be good."

Blake Griffin: Still a Superstar

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    Lost in the wake of Chris Paul's departure to the Houston Rockets was one simple truth: This Blake Griffin guy is still pretty good. 

    Writing off the Los Angeles Clippers as nothing more than a fringe playoff contender was apparently foolish and not because they added plenty of depth as recompense for Paul's departure. Even as the team has worked to seamlessly incorporate players such as Danilo Gallinari (great on defense thus far, not so much on the scoring end) and Patrick Beverley (phenomenal on both sides), it's just kept winning games. 

    Thank you, Griffin. 

    The power forward has averaged 26.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 53.6 percent from the field and 43.5 percent from downtown, but his impact goes well beyond those basic numbers.

    His willingness to take shots from beyond the arc—as well as his ability to knock them down—has stretched out defenses and made life so much easier for his teammates. His knack for serving as a distributing hub has the same effect, though he has yet to post a game-winning dime quite like his buzzer-beating triple to keep the Clippers undefeated with a win over the Portland Trail Blazers.  

    "We have new players. To me, transitional makes it seem like it's a rebuilding year or something like that. I guess it would be rebuilding if we had done something. We haven't really done anything over the past five, six years." Griffin explained about the mentality heading into the year, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Elliott Teaford. "It's a different team. It's a different look. I don't know about transitional."

    Behind Griffin's efforts, the Clippers have functioned as an offensive machine that can strike in a variety of ways.

    But he's actually had an even bigger impact on defense, where his presence has helped Los Angeles allow 23 fewer points per 100 possessions heading into Thursday night's victory over the Blazers.

    We're working with a small sample, but that's still a monumental discrepancy for a team that's posted a 101.6 defensive rating even when he isn't playing. For perspective, that would be the No. 11 overall mark

    Though Griffin's numbers will eventually trend back toward normalcy, he's already left an indelible impression. Forgetting about him when discussing the league's leading superstars is a glaring mistake.  

Tobias Harris Could Factor into the All-Star Race

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    We saw hints of this last season. 

    After the All-Star break, the Detroit Pistons began to feature Tobias Harris with increasing frequency. Over his last 25 appearances, he averaged 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 36.4 percent on his downtown looks. 

    But this year, he's been even better. 

    Everything begins with a deadlier stroke from beyond the arc. Harris is taking 6.4 deep attempts per game and connecting at a 46.9 percent clip, which forces opponents to respect him well away from the basket. They're biting on virtually every pump fake out of sheer necessity, and he's able to make them pay as soon as they're thrown the tiniest bit off balance. 

    Harris is deadly operating in space, capable of contorting his body to slice through opposing schemes while scoring in a variety of ways. Best of all, he keeps his eyes up in search of open teammates, which has helped him not just average 1.2 dimes per contest, but also compel the Pistons to start swinging the ball around the perimeter in search of the best shot.

    All of this factors into his helping improve the Detroit offense by 20.1 points per 100 possessions while he's on the floor. 

    Will the Tennessee product continue averaging 23.6 points while shooting a career-best 52.2 percent from the field? Probably not. But he's still established himself as a go-to player in the Motor City, and his improvements have helped suck defensive attention away from other key players. 

    While patrolling the perimeter, he's opened up driving lanes for Reggie Jackson rather than allowing his man to help from the weak side. He's dragged the opposition away from Andre Drummond, which helps the starting center continue to attack the offensive glass with indefatigable enthusiasm.

    His play goes well beyond his individual numbers, as evidenced by the scoring schemes basically falling apart when he's not leading the charge.

    Given the overall weakness of the Eastern Conference, this 25-year-old may keep making a push toward the first All-Star appearance of his career. He's gone from underrated but effective in just about every area to a jack-of-all-trades with supreme scoring skills. 

The Phoenix Suns Are a Disaster with a Few Bright Spots

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    Rarely has a team spiraled out of control quite like this. 

    Before the first week of the 2017-18 season ended, the Phoenix Suns had lost three games by a combined 92 points, fired head coach Earl Watson, seen highly touted rookie Josh Jackson fined after allegedly miming shooting a fan and watched as Eric Bledsoe ambiguously tweeted about a hair salon his discontent before being dismissed from the team and put firmly on the trade block

    Yikes. 

    Since then, interim head coach Jay Triano has pushed his troops to win back-to-back contests against the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz, but it's not like we're expecting a sudden surge toward competency.

    Teams regularly make short-lived strides after regime changes both free them up to play with reckless abandon and motivate them to try harder or else risk losing prominent spots in the rotation. 

    Fortunately, the Suns have at least seen a few bright spots. Negativity is the ultimate takeaway for this organization's early-season disaster, but we'll at least leave its fanbase with a small dose of optimism. 

    Though Jackson has struggled on defense and can't finish plays around the basket, he's knocked down his fair share of triples. On 3.2 attempts per game, he's connected 37.5 percent of the time. As he grows more accustomed to the speed of the NBA, the rest of his abilities should trend toward a much more positive level. 

    And yet, he hasn't been the team's most impressive rookie. 

    That would be 27-year-old point guard Mike James, who has used Bledsoe's absence to make a name for himself. A score-first (and second) player with a nose for creating his own looks off the bounce, James has demonstrated his shooting acumen all over the floor. He was an entertainingly effective offensive guard while playing abroad, and it sure looks like that ability could translate to the sport's highest level. 

    With James and Jackson learning on the job while Devin Booker continues to post big counting stats on the scoring end, the Suns at least have a few things to feel good about. Whenever they get too down, they can just watch replays of James' game-winner against the Kings. 

                   

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and current heading into games on October 26.