Five Week 1 NBA Trends We're Buying
Not everything we see during the first week(ish) of the NBA regular season is permanent. Hot starts taper off. Cold streaks progress to the mean.
Things change. But not all things.
Some of what we're seeing now, in the infancy of the Association's 2019-20 schedule, is for real. Players are taking on more prominent roles that will hold all season. Offenses are continuing years-old trends. Load management might be forever, but minutes distributions are (maybe) taking a different turn.
A lot has happened since the NBA reopened its doors. Here's what we're betting will stick.
Moreyball Hasn't Yet Peaked
Debating whether the mid-range shot is dead, dying or living on continues to miss the mark. At the very least, it is an oversimplification of the NBA's offensive geometry.
Context is key. Sometimes, mid-rangers might actually be the best look available, if only because the shot clock determines they're the only reasonable look available, as Cleaning the Glass' Ben Falk wrote.
Complementary players are also "standing in more productive places," as The Athletic's Seth Partnow put it, so that engines of the offense have room to create their best attempt—which could, in fact, be a mid-range jumper.
Whatever side of the fence you land on, the evidence that teams are trading out other shots for more looks at the rim and beyond the arc remains overwhelming. And if you thought the league's Moreyball movement was close to peaking, well, think again.
Offenses are so far taking roughly 71.1 percent of their shots at the basket or from behind the three-point line. That is on pace for a nearly 2 percent jump over the last year. For reference, here's the five-season trend:
- 2015-16: 61.8 percent
- 2016-17: 64.4 percent
- 2017-18: 65.6 percent
- 2018-19: 69.3 percent
- 2019-20: 71.1 percent
The Houston Rockets are once again at the center of it all. A league-high 83 percent of their attempts are coming at the hoop or from long distance. But while they were the only team to cross the 80 percent threshold last season, they're currently joined by the Toronto Raptors (80.5 percent), and more squads are eclipsing the 75 percent mark.
Mid-range jumpers, meanwhile, continue to be on the decline. On average, they account for under 30 percent of a team's shots, a stark contrast compared to years past:
- 2015-16: 38.2 percent
- 2016-17: 35.6 percent
- 2017-18: 34.4 percent
- 2018-19: 30.8 percent
- 2019-20: 28.9 percent
This trend isn't new. But after such a massive swing between 2017-18 and 2018-19, it was fair to wonder whether the NBA's shot distribution would reach more of a stasis. It has not.
Deep 3s Are Becoming a Thing
Teams are shooting more three-pointers, yada, yada, yada. We know the drill by now (and just sort of talked about it).
Three-point-attempt rates continue to climb. So, too, are the number of players who use super-deep treys as a staple shot.
Relative to last season, the league as a whole isn't on pace to launch more looks from 28-plus feet. Players combined for 4,719 attempts from that range in 2018-19. Through the NBA's first 54 games of 2019-20, they're projected to total 4,715 shots from that same distance.
The increased popularity of souped-up spacing is more apparent when isolating the most frequent deep-three takers. Nine players attempted 60 or more shots from at least 28 feet last season; that group is poised to roughly double now.
Looking at only the players who have jacked three or more of these shots, we come up with 19 who are on track to clear 50 total attempts, assuming everyone who was healthy last year matches their total appearances, injured players from 2018-19 hit 60 games, and sparingly used players with larger roles and incoming rookies also crack 60 games.
Consider this a rough outline. Players critical to the forecasted volume will miss their projection by way of injury (Stephen Curry, who suffered a broken left hand Wednesday night, per The Athletic's Marcus Thompson) or late-season shutdowns.
But that margin of error works both ways. Someone like Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard or Kristaps Porzingis could easily exceed his projected appearances and enter the fold, and mid-season come-ups could possibly expand the sample further.
Don't take this to mean deep threes are the new regular triples. Among those most inclined to take them, though, they do seem to be even more in vogue.
More Parity = More Minutes for Starters
Take this with a grain of salt, but don't doubt its conviction.
Load management is still a thing. Most head coaches are not going to run their most important players aground before the playoffs. Early-season noise must likewise be taken into account. Kyle Lowry's playing time is skewed by an opening-night overtime duel with the New Orleans Pelicans. He won't finish the year averaging over 39 minutes per game.
Once more: This gaggle probably won't be so massive by year's end. It will fluctuate. Maybe it will outright drop. But the stage is set for more names to join the 35-plus-minute club.
Think about how many teams wouldn't, when pressed, fancy themselves playoff hopefuls right now. The Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks and Washington Wizards are all givens. Add a few of the slumpier squads in there for good measure, and we're still looking at around 20 to 22 franchises that can talk themselves into this season mattering.
Purpose is a driving force for extremes. Closer games and higher stakes should, in theory, amount to a greater sense of urgency. That, in turn, should invite teams to give more run to their best players.
Failing that, some of the league's premier postseason-chasers want for extensive depth. The Portland Trail Blazers need to lean on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Until Klay Thompson returns from his ACL injury, the Golden State Warriors have Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, D'Angelo Russell and a bunch of fringe-roster players. The Houston Rockets are still all James Harden everything when push comes to shove.
This isn't an exact science. Call it a hunch. Plenty of stars will still have their total appearances kept in check, but the league's newfound parity should make for a more top-heavy minutes distribution.
The 2019 Draft Class Is Deeper Than Advertised
June's draft class was derided for its dearth of star power more than anything, but the role-player range wasn't exactly celebrated to a significant degree. It turns out this year's pool of rookies may include more of everything.
The top three prospects continue to ferry the superstar upside.
Zion Williamson's right knee injury is a bummer, but he still has that once-in-a-generation ceiling. Ja Morant is an escape artist off the dribble and a playmaking visionary, even if his artistry currently tilts too far toward recklessness. RJ Barrett is doing a little of everything for the Knicks—except, of course, hitting his free throws. Zion's injury has opened the Rookie of the Year door for him.
Journey further down the board and the career ceilings begin to shrink. But the number of possible positive contributors more than makes up for that deficit.
Coby White is going to be an offensive standout. De'Andre Hunter might have more ball-handling chops than expected. Tyler Herro may already be one of the Miami Heat's three most important players. Nickeil Alexander-Walker has no fear and the green light to match.
Grant Williams has the makings of a net-rating god. Matisse Thybulle is a defensive weapon and already leads the league in deflections. Brandon Clarke can jump out of the arena. Darius Bazley is hitting threes, which is a little scary.
PJ Washington is this draft class' sleeping sniper. Now would be a good time to buy stock in his defensive IQ, too. Eric Paschall will give off a jack-of-all-trades vibe if he can defend and rebound in the frontcourt. Jarrett Culver and Cam Reddish aren't shattering expectations, but their mystique remains.
Optimists don't have to stop there.
Cleveland has three intriguing offensive rookies in Darius Garland, Kevin Porter Jr. and Dylan Windler (currently injured). What if Bol Bol turns into something when healthy? Or one of Goga Bitadze, Sekou Doumbouya, Rui Hachimura and Chuma Okeke hits? The Boston Celtics have two potential microwave scorers with Carsen Edwards and Romeo Langford. I haven't even mentioned Jaxson Hayes.
The list goes on and on.
This, too, is an inexact science. But the depth of possibilities is there. Based on the sheer number of could-be assets, the 2019 draft class just might churn out an unexpected star or four.
New No. 1s Who Are Here to Stay
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Anthony Davis is not new to the No. 1 role. But his place atop the Lakers' pecking order was far from guaranteed. While Kyrie Irving (for now) and Kawhi Leonard go unrivaled in their new digs, he has LeBron James.
It hasn't mattered. True to his word, James has passed the torch to Davis. And this isn't a subtle changing of the guard. It is obvious when watching the Lakers.
"Coming into Tuesday's game against the Grizzlies, [James] had used 30.7 percent of his team's possessions, the fifth-lowest mark of his career," Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey wrote. "When he's on the floor with Davis, that number drops all the way to 24.8. Meanwhile, AD has used 33.6 percent of the Lakers' possessions when the two stars are sharing the floor."
Some of the numbers have shifted since Los Angeles' win over Memphis. The crux of this transition remains the same. James continues to run the offense, but he's steering it straight through Davis.
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
What is life without a little risk?
Brandon Ingram is the shakiest bet among the new first options. He is notoriously inconsistent, and the Pelicans' depth implies their offensive hierarchy can shift on a whim.
Still, this feels right.
Ingram has New Orleans' highest usage rate by a mile and doesn't figure to meet much resistance down the road. Zion Williamson's return will cut into everyone's volume, but he's best suited to dominate within the flow of the offense until he unwraps a consistent jumper. A healthy Jrue Holiday has never wanted to monopolize offensive possessions, and Lonzo Ball, while less passive than before, remains deferential.
More than that, if Ingram keeps playing the way he is now, the Pelicans won't want to take the ball out of his hands. He's averaging 27.3 points and 4.8 assists on 60.2 percent true shooting while assuming control over the offense without actually straying as far outside it as he's been known to do. As Shamit Dua said on the In The N.O. podcast (3:18 mark)
"The biggest positive on this team...is Brandon Ingram. Brandon Ingram is performing at a very high level. He is shooting the ball confidently. He is attacking aggressively. And it's showing up in terms of his production. He's contributing in multiple areas of the game when it comes to rebounds and assists and even defensively.
"There was a moment against Dallas where he was checked up against Kristaps Porzingis—actually there were several moments—and he seemed to really own that matchup and get up for it. So it seems like Ingram is very much trying to take the leap, and the Pelicans are very much enabling him to take the leap."
Questioning the viability of Ingram's meteoric rise is fair. Will his three-point volume (7.4 attempts per 36 minutes) and efficiency (50 percent) hold? Probably not. Could his start to the season be a harbinger of what's to come and how much the Pelicans plan to lean on him? Given the relative absence of point-wings on their roster, absolutely.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry wasn't kidding when he called Pascal Siakam the Raptors' "go-to guy" at the beginning of October. Not only has the latter's usage rate exploded by more than 11 points, but he's also scoring in all forms.
To date, Siakam has:
- Used more post-up possessions per game than Karl-Anthony Towns
- Run more pick-and-rolls than Joe Ingles
- Drilled more above-the-break threes than Devin Booker
- Averaged more assists per 36 minutes than CJ McCollum and Donovan Mitchell
Siakam's turnovers have spiked, and Toronto is a so-so 16th in points scored per 100 possessions. Big deal. The Raptors are lighting it up when Siakam is on the floor, and growing pains are part and parcel of assuming a superstar's burden—which is, after all, exactly what he's doing.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Towns is on the fringes of new-No. 1 status. He has been the Timberwolves' best player before and finished with a team-high usage rate last season, but his place in the food chain never went unchallenged.
Minnesota has afforded Towns carte blanche on offense for the first time of his career. He has a higher usage rate than Stephen Curry and Luka Doncic, and it suits him. All the usual small-sample disclaimers apply, but Towns is averaging an absurd 32.0 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists on 65.9 percent true shooting while jacking more than 10 threes per 36 minutes.
Bigs aren't supposed to move like he does, even in the positionless era. He has dabbled in off-the-dribble threes and is throwing more complicated passes out of double-teams. He'll definitely tail off in the coming weeks, but he has room to spare.
The Timberwolves are his and his alone, and it's about damn time.