Pouring Cold Water on NBA's Early-Season Feel-Good Stories
Contrary to popular belief, not all good things have to meet their bitter, unfortunate, buzz-killing end.
But these feel-good stories from the first part of the NBA season should.
This dissection of unforeseen success and convenient positions of hope cover a wide scope. It doesn't consist solely of teams eventually crumbling beneath an outsized performance. Overachievers will be part of the inclusions, but this exercise seeks to explore the bigger pictures.
Should we be celebrating hot starts from rebuilding squads that need high-end draft picks? Must we place stock in a team identity that runs counter to its roster makeup? Does a cushy future outlook warrant unbridled optimism?
Appearing on this list doesn't mark a fundamental failure. Good teams will make a cameo for different reasons. They are not doomed. Aspects of their performance to date or trajectory just carry certain flaws.
Relaying this news stinks. No one wants to be a party-crashing Debbie Downer. Pointing out the cold, hard, oft-unspoken, always-unpopular truth is a dirty job. But somebody has to do it.
Cleveland Cavaliers' Ageless LeBron James
Draymond Green is concerned about the Cleveland Cavaliers overworking LeBron James into mortality.
As he told USA Today's Sam Amick: "Yeah, he's superhuman, but eventually his superhuman powers go away, so that would be more of my concern if I'm a Cavs fan or somebody with the Cavs or a player, is like 'Man, he's been playing a lot of 40 minute [nights], and it's only Nov. 12.'"
James, in his 15th season, is posting a career-best assist rate, block rate and true shooting percentage. And he's averaging more minutes per game (37.9) than he has since 2012-13, as a member of the Miami Heat, when he was 28.
Playing him this much as he nears his 33rd birthday isn't ideal. He has logged more than 40 minutes in seven of the Cavaliers' first 17 games for crying out loud. Surely he won't maintain unplumbed efficiency, at this stage of his career, without breaking down.
Then again, he's LeBron James. The rules and laws of Father Time and whatnot don't apply. We are in no position to question the durability and general performance of a G.O.A.T. candidate.
Memphis Grizzlies' Bench Production
The Memphis Grizzlies' otherworldly bench is ebbing fast. The second unit outscored opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions through the first eight games—by far and away the best mark in the league. That ranking has plunged to 22nd over the past eight games, through which Memphis is an alarming 2-6.
Writing off the Grizzlies' depth as an early-season aberration is too easy. It might even be the correct course of action. But let the freezing-cold water chill for a bit longer.
The Grizzlies have been dealing with mass injuries. JaMychal Green and Ben McLemore are back, but Mike Conley is on the shelf with Achilles issues. Head coach David Fizdale has cycled through six different starting fives, which has butchered a backups-only lineup that was blitzing opponents to begin the year.
This rotation's depth needs to fail at full strength before we treat its happy beginning to an unsavory ending...again.
Portland Trail Blazers Defense
Believe it. At least have semi-faith in its sustainability. The Blazers are trotting out five-man combinations designed to defend all 94 feet, often at the expense of the offense. They don't force a lot of turnovers, but they run shooters off the three-point line and goad them into low-percentage long twos.
The Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers are the only teams coaxing opponents into more attempts between 15-19 feet. And the Blazers, unlike them, don't do this while compromising their rim protection. They sometimes let drivers jerk their way toward the basket, but they are the best team in the league at contesting those looks and will sooner foul than give up bunnies at the rim.
Perhaps they don't finish with a top-two defense. Still, with the way they're playing, the drop-off between where they end up and where they are now shouldn't be all that stark.
Boston Celtics' November Title Push
Early-bird critics who questioned almost everything about the Boston Celtics defense should be sheepishly admitting their follies (like me).
Opponents' shooting on wide-open threes has mostly normalized, and the Celtics still rank first in points allowed per 100 possessions. Will they finish the season atop the league's defensive pedestal? Committing to that now feels premature. But the gap between them and the second-placed Blazers (2.4 points per 100 possessions) is substantial.
Boston is switchy as hell. Only two teams are allowing fewer looks around the rim, and head coach Brad Stevens has turned Kyrie Irving into an effort-obsessed pest. Leaning on so many youngsters and newbies—Jaylen Brown, Semi Ojeleye, Daniel Theis, Jayson Tatum—suddenly doesn't seem so precarious. Brown, Ojeleye and Theis all use defense as their calling card, and Tatum should remain more than serviceable when Stevens has the personnel to pick and choose and swap and toggle matchups to his liking.
Honeymoons never last forever, though. These peachy-keen vibes will fade once a sobering reality sets in: LeBron James exists. And not only does he exist, but he's playing out of his mind at a time when Cleveland has, collectively, failed to play its best basketball.
Question the Cavaliers' defensive integrity all you like. They've earned it. They're dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions—eighth over their five-game win streak—and 25th in preventive measures at the rim. The Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets are the only teams surrendering more wide-open threes, while just five squads do a poorer job of forcing turnovers.
Whatever switch the Cavaliers used to flip when games started mattering doesn't appear accessible anymore. Yet, even if you believe they cannot tighten up their defense, the notion that Boston has anything more than a pipe-dream's chance of beating them four times in seven tries during the postseason is misinformed.
Cleveland gets up for big games. It just does. James and crew are a combined 4-0 versus the Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards—three of the four biggest immediate threats to the Cavaliers' Eastern Conference reign.
These Celtics aren't the same new-to-each-other outfit the Cavaliers faced on opening night, but take off the emerald-colored goggles for a moment. Boston is a stunning, and untenable, 11-2 in games during which neither side trails by more than five points entering the final five minutes. It ranks 21st in offensive efficiency. Its league-best defense has squared off with just three top-10 offenses and won't face another until game No. 21 (Indiana Pacers).
Give the Celtics props. Gordon Hayward, their best player, is out of the fold and they're still competing. Just don't confuse this sweltering start with lasting alpha status in the East. They'll have to play this well into 2018 for that to become a real conversation—and even then, the LeBron bugaboo isn't going anywhere.
Los Angeles Lakers Defense
Lonzo Ball's offensive struggles got you down? Don't worry. The Los Angeles Lakers have plenty of other silver linings to pick up the slack—including their defense.
Los Angeles is fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions, much to the surprise of everyone with a pulse. All five of its most-used lineups would fall no lower than 10th in that same category. Everyone is closing out hard, and the kiddies are getting their hands dirty.
Brandon Ingram knows he's long. Ball has made breaking up plays from behind a saving grace. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is waging open rebellion against screen-setters. Julius Randle is trying.
But, like, no. Just no. This defense is a mirage. It has to be.
No team is allowing more looks at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Lakers do a nice job limiting corner three-point attempts, but their NBA-best defense from beyond the arc is boosted by luck. Opponents are shooting 33.6 percent against them on wide-open triples—the second-lowest mark in the league. That won't hold. It would be the lowest success rate on gimme treys since at least 2013-14 if it did.
Only four teams are coughing up more points per possession when guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers: Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns. Not one of them ranks better than 15th in defensive efficiency.
Some of the individual performances the Lakers enjoy are just plain blasphemous. Randle has defended the second-most isolation sets in the league and is limiting opponents to 28.1 percent shooting in those situations. Brook Lopez leads the NBA in shots contested per game despite averaging under 25 minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo and DeMarcus Cousins are the only players with as many steals (25) and blocks (16) as Ball.
This defensive success won't last. Not on a top-10 level, let alone a top-five. It can't. It wouldn't make sense. The Lakers have faced more elite offenses than the Celtics, but they've also gone up against the Suns three times. And Nikola Jokic, along with head coach Mike Malone, was ejected in their latest victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Cobbling together a league-average defense with this group would represent quite the achievement. Maybe the Lakers end the season inside the top 15. That could happen. But they're the youngest team in league. We cannot reasonably expect them to float among the most elite defenses all season.
The New York Knicks Not Sucking
Hey! The Knicks are hovering above .500! Kristaps Porzingis looks like a shoo-in for an All-Star nod, even after accounting for his recent downtick! Tim Hardaway Jr. found his shot for a minute! And he's averaging a career-high in assists per 36 minutes!
Enes Kanter is shooting 58.7 percent on post-ups—tops among players to burn through 25 or more back-to-the-basket possessions! The offense is 11th in efficiency! Four Knicks rank in the top 10 of crunch-time plus-minus! New York plays like a 50-something-win team when Porzingis is on the court, according to NBA Math's FATS calculator! Frank Ntilikina won't willingly submit to being part of Dennis Smith Jr.'s legacy!
And now, with all that out of the way, let's slow our roll, shall we?
The Knicks haven't schlepped through an especially difficult schedule. They're treading water above .500, but they only don't have a bottom-10 net rating thanks to their drubbing of the imploding Clippers. Although they've held their ground at home, they're a train wreck on the road. They're 1-4 away from Madison Square Garden while getting blasted by 12.4 points per 100 possessions—third-worst hostile-territory differential in the NBA, beating out only the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings.
And yes, on top of all this, Porzingis is slumping amid elbow issues, shooting a mere 39.2 percent over his past four games. (He's knocking down 50 percent of his threebies during this time, because, sure.)
"I got to fix all the little details," he said, per Newsday's Al Iannazzone. "Look at the film, look at my shots and not overthink about it. Sometimes there are good shots, but it's just in and out. The elbow is not bothering me at all. I don't want to blame it on the elbow."
Right. Sure. Everything's fine. Whatever. What are the Knicks doing here? Honestly, what are they doing? Their competitive efforts against good and great teams have been fun. Their fourth-quarter magic is at times mesmerizing. But are they about to have Porzingis, a top-10 star in waiting, play with a bocce ball-sized elbow so they can maybe, possibly, if they're lucky, earn a first-round playoff exit?
Finishing in the middle of the Eastern Conference registers as the Knicks' worst-case scenario. They don't have any forthcoming cap flexibility. They'll have more than $90 million committed to next year's ledger after Kanter and Ron Baker opt into their deals. Their obligations will blow past $100 million if Kyle O'Quinn does the same and they carry Doug McDermott's restricted free-agent hold. And that doesn't even include their first-round pick.
Ah, yes. Their first-round pick. They have it. And they could sure use another top-seven prospect before the lottery format changes in 2019 and they (presumably) ink Porzingis to a max extension. The draft is all they have right now.
They cannot even count on extra flexibility in 2019, when Kanter comes off the books, because Porzingis' new salary should be kicking in. They're looking toward 2020 at the earliest...by which time Frankie Smokes could have earned himself a lucrative extension.
Stretching Joakim Noah at some point or using a future first to grease the wheels of a salary dump can dredge up breathing room before then, but the Knicks have no business leashing themselves to dead money or auctioning off picks. They should instead be looking to hit the seller's button ahead of this year's trade deadline.
Shutting down Porzingis after the All-Star break to fix his elbow shouldn't be out of the question, either. Something, anything, to ensure the Knicks don't play themselves out of a premier lottery choice must be done. Because right now, playoff berth or not, they've charted course for No Man's Land.
The Orlando Magic Also Not Sucking
The Orlando Magic have returned to solid ground after a blazing 8-4 start, a brutal wake-up call unto itself.
They're still playing fast and getting quality seasons from Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jonathon Simmons and Nikola Vucevic. Rookie Jonathan Isaac has shown flashes when he's not dealing with an ankle injury.
Much like the Knicks, though, the Magic are dangerously flirting with illusory competence.
Sure, on the one hand, the offense might be pretty good. Watching Gordon and Vucevic get the unconditional green light from three is fun. But what is Orlando working toward by hanging around the peripherals of the playoff conversation?
Gordon is ticketed for restricted free agency this summer and set to land a massive raise. He might broker himself a max offer sheet in a player-unfriendly market if he keeps this up. Just two other players have ever cleared 20 points, eight rebounds and two assists per 36 minutes while shooting 40 percent or better from long range before their 23rd birthday: Larry Bird and Kevin Love.
Paying whatever it takes to retain Gordon is a no-brainer. The same cannot be said for where the Magic go from there. Elfrid Payon will be a restricted free agent as well. Re-signing him hamstrings what will already be limited cap flexibility after hashing out an agreement with Gordon.
Vucevic himself will be due for another contract in 2019. Bismack Biyombo is owed $17 million per year through 2019-20. Evan Fournier is commanding the same annual rate through 2020-21.
Failing to net a high draft pick this year puts an awful lot of pressure on Isaac to be a cornerstone talent. And maybe he is. That doesn't mean he's enough. The Magic need a path to more picks and worthwhile prospects, and they don't have one.
Entering seller's mode ahead of the trade deadline could be difficult.
Vucevic shouldn't be shipped out unless he's bringing back a small ransom, yet the NBA's depth charts are oversaturated with bigs. The two years, including this one, and $21 million left on Terrence Ross' deal remain digestible, but he's been up and down from three this season. Biyombo is immovable without a sweetener. Suitors won't beat down the door to pay star money for Fournier when it's not yet known whether he can be the No. 2 option on a playoff team.
Even if the Magic chisel out a bunch of cap space between now and 2019, they aren't known for poaching top-flight free agents—hence the importance of the draft. And what they've done thus far, while fairly entertaining, is disingenuous to what should be an all-out rebuilding year.
Philadelphia 76ers' Cushy Cap Situation
Enjoy the Sixers' rise through the NBA ranks. Seriously, enjoy it. Their future is blindingly bright so long as everyone stays healthy. They are officially playoff locks and will scrap their way toward contender's status in time.
Have they already played themselves into being a superstar free-agent destination? That seems to be their hope.
As Philly Voice's Kyle Neubeck wrote just after the Sixers declined Jahlil Okafor's fourth-year option: "Multiple members of the organization insisted privately that cap flexibility next summer is a major priority for the team, and they are hopeful they can bring max-level players to the negotiation table."
The Sixers are poised to do just this following extensions for Robert Covington and Joel Embiid.
Renouncing all their own free agents brings them within a breath of $25 million in cap space—assuming the Lakers pick falls within its protected range and conveys to them. Stretching the final year of Jerryd Bayless' contract gets them past the $30 million benchmark. Finding a taker for his salary altogether, while perhaps using their own first-round pick to do it, drags them oh-so-close to $35 million of spending power—almost enough to sign, say, LeBron James.
Certain factors can mess with this projection. The Sixers have overseas prospects they'll need to keep stashed, and Embiid's salary will balloon if he receives All-NBA honors. But the skeleton of this point stands: They can peddle max money in free agency if they want to.
Except, should they want to?
Not one prospective superstar target fits with the Sixers—other than James. Paul George works, but leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for somewhere other than Los Angeles would be a shock. The Sixers' options are bone-dry after that.
They have no use for bigs like DeAndre Jordan (player option) and DeMarcus Cousins. Kevin Durant (player option) isn't abandoning the Golden State Warriors. Chris Paul is old and doesn't mesh with developing Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons.
Philly only has room for a starry wing—an option available in limited supply this summer, if at all. Waiting for 2019, when A-plus options like Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton and Klay Thompson all hold escape clauses, will make far more sense.
Well that, or the Sixers can pivot to signing multiple second-tier guys or surfing the trade market for disgruntled dignitaries.
Champagne problems, we know. The Sixers have two budding superstars in Embiid and Simmons. Fultz might be a third. They don't technically need to sign another marquee talent—which is good, because next summer isn't the offseason to get one.