Irrational Conclusions from First Week of NBA Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 26, 2017

Irrational Conclusions from First Week of NBA Season

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    Approach the early portion of the NBA regular-season with extreme caution, they say. Don't get caught up in premature hype, they advise. Small samples will burn you in the end, they claim.

    Well, to hell with them.

    Indulging your inner-most provocateur is a hoot. What else are you supposed to do this early in the year? Ignore everything and anything just because it runs counter to expectations and pre-established norms?

    Why don't we swim laps in puddles with floaties on while we're at it?

    The forthcoming overreactions, as you may have guessed, intentionally stray from the beaten path. These conclusions may not hold true by season's end. They are, by their very nature, takeaways generated from microscopic samples. 

    But they're also developments worth watching, because if they're not reversed or disproven as the schedule wears on, they'll play a pivotal role in defining the season. So we might as well get in front of them now, if only to see whether they're still relevant later.

Basketball Gods Hate Healthy Stars

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    What other conclusion are we supposed to draw?

    Marquee names like Nicolas Batum, Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas began the year on the shelf. Contract-year youngsters Dante Exum, Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker joined them. The NBA wasn't exactly overdue for a slew of extra absences. 

    The totally real, not-at-all-hypothetical basketball gods don't care.

    Gordon Hayward lost his entire year less than six minutes into his Boston Celtics debut. Chris Paul was 33 minutes into his Houston Rockets tenure and now sidelined for a few weeks with a bruised left knee. Jeremy Lin's season is over after he suffered a ruptured patellar tendon in his right knee.

    Myles Turner (neck/concussion) and Hassan Whiteside (knee) have missed multiple games following opening-night injuries. Markelle Fultz's shoulder has (mercifully) forced him out of the Philadelphia 76ers lineup. Rodney Hood has gone from low-key Most Improved Player hopeful to "Is his calf alright?" watch.

    Derrick Rose and Dennis Schroder are dealing with ankle injuries. Dwyane Wade's left knee has already required a maintenance day. D'Angelo Russell has a sprained right knee. Nikola Mirotic basically has a broken face. Rookie highlight reel Milos Teodosic is out indefinitely with a plantar fascia injury in his left foot. 

    Jimmy Butler has missed a couple games with an illness. Avid supporters of Seth Curry (leg), Kris Dunn (finger), JaMychal Green (ankle), Richaun Holmes (wrist), Rodney McGruder (leg), Marcus Morris (knee) Markieff Morris (sports hernia), Tony Parker (quadriceps), Rajon Rondo (groin) and Alan Williams (knee) are all going through withdrawals.

    In one of the cruelest twists yet, Anthony Davis left the New Orleans Pelicans' Oct. 24 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers with a knee injury that required an MRI and left him day-to-day.

    Will the madness never end? Why do the round-ball deities hate awesome, and fun, and awesomely fun, players? And, finally, is the NBA accepting limb (and immune system) donations from its most hard-core fans?

    More Rational Take: Basketball gods don't exist. Injuries are just, and will forever remain the absolute worst. 

Kawhi Leonard Is Still a System Player

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    Speaking of fallen NBA superstars, the San Antonio Spurs don't need theirs. Kawhi Leonard has yet to play this season while recovering from a quad injury, and the team doesn't seem too interested in offering a timetable for his return.

    "Sure, anything is possible," head coach Gregg Popovich said when asked if Leonard would be ready to rock by the Spurs' early-November homestand, per the San Antonio-Express News' Tom Osborn. "But I don't spend a lot of time thinking about when somebody is going to come back. Because they are going to come back when they are ready, when the docs say they are ready. So when that happens, that happens."

    Spoken like a head honcho who doesn't have to worry about the absence of any one individual. And here most of us were thinking that Leonard had transcended the system-player trope.

    All the evidence pointed to the Spurs, following a very un-Spurs summer, needing him more than ever. Their offense went from scoring like a top-two attack to a bottom-five liability whenever he took a seat last season. That reliance only became more pronounced during the playoffs. Their point differential per 100 possessions with him (plus-10.9) plummeted by 21.6 when he left the floor (minus-10.7).

    It didn't look like the Spurs had anywhere else to turn entering 2017-18. Tony Parker is on the sidelines dealing with his own quad injury. His replacement, Dejounte Murray, is a sophomore. LaMarcus Aldridge spearheaded a league-worst offense last year when he played without Leonard. The Spurs, it seemed, wouldn't survive to start the year.

    And they haven't. They've thrived.

    The Spurs are one of two undefeated teams, because of course they are. They own a top-five defense, without a two-time Defensive Player of the year, because of course they do. Aldridge is playing like a first-rate offensive fulcrum, because of course he is. Their starting lineup is blitzing opponents by almost 12 points per 100 possessions despite featuring Murray and afterthought Kyle Anderson, because why wouldn't it?

    No one should want Leonard to miss extended time. He's too fun to watch. And he's definitely integral to the offense. But are we about to pretend the Spurs need him to flirt with another 50-plus victories and 21st consecutive playoff berth?

    More Rational Take: Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs are amazing, both separately and together.

The Magic, Nets and Pacers Are the Warriors of the East

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    The Golden State Warriors are one of three teams that rank inside the top seven of offensive efficiency, true shooting percentage and pace. Their company: the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic. 

    Naturally.

    Tweak the parameters to allow for top-eight placement across the board, and two more teams join the party—one of which is the Indiana Pacers. (The Toronto Raptors are, half-surprisingly, the other one.)

    Talk about your complete about-faces. Neither the Magic nor Pacers secured top-10 finishes in any of these departments last season. The Nets played with league-leading pace, but that was it. 

    Now look at them. All of them. They've used the early portion of the season to reveal new—or just newly efficient—identities.

    Odd are at least one of them will sustain their three-headed rank, right?

    Sure, the Nets lost Jeremy Lin for the season, and D'Angelo Russell is dealing with a sprained knee. Yes, the Pacers thus far stink at shooting threes and are posting the second highest two-point success rate of all time. Indeed, the Magic probably aren't going to shoot an NBA-bestand record-setting—45.5 percent from downtown forever.

    But...but...but some small-sample boons have to be harbingers of a new normal! One of these onset explosions might stick! We could be witnessing the birth of one or more surprise playoff contenders!

    Four-game samplings are larger than three-tilt spans! 

    More Rational Take: At least one of the Magic, Nets and Pacers will cobble together an above-average offense for the entire season. 

Oklahoma City's Offense Is Doomed to Underachievement

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder wrapped 2016-17 with three distinctly damning flaws: shoddy spacing, shallow secondary playmaking and a general dearth of supporting star power.

    Adding Carmelo Anthony and Paul George addressed all of them. Both are lethal catch-and-shoot options. Both have All-Star cachet attached to their names. And George is among the best accessory ball-handlers in the league.

    Oklahoma City's offense, which placed 17th in points scored per 100 possessions last season and couldn't tread water without Russell Westbrook, was now a force. And while all three of the team's stars ranked 12th or higher in total isolation possessions for 2016-17, the spot-up ceilings on Anthony and George would make for an abridged, if nonexistent, learning curve.

    So much for that.

    This group hasn't translated to instant success. The Thunder are hovering just outside the bottom 10 of points scored per 100 possessions, and entering their Oct. 25 win over Indy, they barely performed like a top-15 offense when their Big Three was on the court. Both Anthony and George are shooting under 32 percent from beyond the arc, and not one member of the trio is putting down even 30 percent of his spot-up attempts. 

    George and Westbrook have ditched isolation sets, but Anthony is churning through more now than he did last season. Everyone seems overly aware that they're playing together. Westbrook has shown momentary hesitation on jumpers, even when he's cooking.

    Splitting them up hasn't done anything to alleviate the mediocrity. No two-man combination stands out as dominant. The defense is fine, but one has to wonder whether that can hold with Anthony playing more than 35 minutes per game and Andre Roberson seeing around 20.

    More Rational Take: Superstar chemistry isn't forged overnight.

Boston Fleeced Philly in the Markelle Fultz-Jayson Tatum Trade

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    Rookie A's averages through four appearances: 34.3 minutes, 14.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks, 47.6 percent shooting, 45.5 percent three-point clip, 82.4 percent at the free-throw line.

    Rookie B's numbers through four appearances: 19.0 minutes, 6.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 33.3 percent shooting, zero three-point attempts, 50.0 percent at the free-throw line.

    Can you figure out which newbie is Jayson Tatum and which is Markelle Fultz? Of course you can. I didn't hide it very well (or at all). 

    Injuries to Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris have Tatum starting out of the gate, and he looks more polished than advertised on offense. He's facing the expected challenges at the defensive end, but the Celtics have the personnel to cover up for them, and he's made some impressive plays against the pick-and-roll.

    Fultz, meanwhile, began the year coming off the bench. And now his shoulder injury has forced him out of the lineup altogether. The Sixers announced on Wednesday he would miss a minimum of three games—news that comes after an awkward he-said, they-said debacle over the severity of his problems.

    As The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote:

    "If the injury is serious enough to cause Fultz to change his freaking shooting form and get a cortisone shot, why is he even playing? We don't have an answer because there's still so much that we don't know, such as how Fultz sustained the injury, what the injury even is, or when he'll be fully recovered. Time and time again, the Sixers have mismanaged the injuries of their players—or, at best, bungled the public relations around them."

    Celtics president Danny Ainge is flexing right now. He landed the player he (apparently) wanted to take at No. 1 anyway, and who is healthier than the actual top pick, while receiving another high-end first-round selection in 2018 or 2019. 

    Small samples are dangerous, and Boston needs Tatum's production to culminate in more offensive substance before releasing the confetti. But, at the moment, it looks like he'll spend the season contending for Rookie of the Year dap, while Fultz is being subjected to Sixers drama and, as he recovers, potential role marginalization.

    More Rational Take: Maybe, just maybe, the Sixers shouldn't have tried playing Fultz through his shoulder injury.

This Whole Rockets-CP3 Marriage Isn't Going to End Well

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Houston should in no way be regretting the Chris Paul trade. Whenever you get the chance to consolidate role players, salary fodder and a low-end first-rounder into a top-10 talent, you pounce on it.

    Still, Paul's knee injury puts the Rockets in shaky territory.

    James Harden is megahuman enough to carry the offense in his absence. The Rockets score with top-seven efficiency during his solo acts. But they no longer have the luxury of deploying a superstar point guard for a full 48 minutes, and the offense is, as of now, tanking accordingly in these situations. 

    No one's coming to the rescue, either. Bobby Brown, Isaiah Canaan and Demetrius Jackson are barely emergency options, and Eric Gordon's lone-wolf experiments aren't going well at the team level.

    Whatever, though. Paul will eventually rejoin the fold. Harden needn't revert to 2016-17 mode for more than a few weeks. The Rockets remain one of the Western Conference's foremost title contenders until lasting disaster strikes.

    Except, then what? 

    Paul is a free agent after this season. He left a four- or five-year max deal on the table with the Los Angeles Clippers to play for the Rockets, presumably under the guise he'd get that money from them this July. 

    Can the Rockets really pay him to the hilt through his mid-30s? When this is the first taste of life with him? Do they even have a choice? What does this team look like three seasons down the line in that scenario, when Paul is 35 and earning more than $40 million per year?

    This marriage isn't so cut and dried beyond 2017-18. The Rockets better enjoy the simplicity and returns from this season—assuming Paul's knee lets them.

    More Rational Conclusion: The Rockets better hope Chris Paul gets Kyle Lowry'd in his next contract—maxish money, over a shorter term.

The MVP Race Is over

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Shut down the MVP race.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo has already won it.

    Four games is all it has taken for Antetokounmpo to become the odds-on favorite to win the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, per OddsShark.com. And his case, while perhaps a tad premature, is not unsubstantiated.

    Never mind that Antetokounmpo's four-game stretch to open the season is the first of its kind (since at least 1983-84). He'll regress, because averaging 36.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals on 65.9 percent shooting isn't even sustainable in video games. But the numbers will still come. He proved that much last year, when he became the fifth player to ever lead his team in all five major stat categories.

    Antetokounmpo has to win the anecdotal argument, which previously meant you needed to be the best player on a superpower. The Milwaukee Bucks don't profile as a juggernaut, even after their relatively hot start. They'll be lucky to rack up 48 wins.

    And that's fine.

    Russell Westbrook opened the door for superstars to win over MVP voters while playing for non-contenders. Antetokounmpo won't average a triple-double as Westbrook did, but he can defend every position and ranks among the five or seven best players in the Association. The Bucks may even bear statistical resemblance to a 50-win team with him on the floor—though they're not there yet.

    Besides, if not Antetokounmpo, then who? LeBron James and all his voter fatigue? Superstars like Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and James Harden with teammates who'll detract from their final tally? Kawhi Leonard and a sample size that, at this point, doesn't look like it'll include 65 appearances?

    Just as the NBA is leaning into the superstar-gaggle era, the MVP process seems poised to reward those who go it alone. No player in the league is better equipped to capitalize on that potential shift than Antetokounmpo.

    More Rational Take: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo will duke it out for top MVP positioning all year.

                 

    Statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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