Buying or Selling NBA's Most Surprising Starts
We knew coming into the 2020-21 NBA season that a perfect storm of weirdness was brewing.
The bubble hangover, wildly disparate offseason lengths ranging from two months to nine, the unknown impact of mostly fan-less arenas, baseball-style back-to-backs against the same opponent, the uncertainty of COVID-19 protocols, a Dec. 22 start date when many players expected the action to begin a month later than that—all of it meant the early results of this campaign would be strange and difficult to judge.
That said, a handful of clubs stick out in a "which one of these doesn't belong?" kind of way. Whether they're far higher or lower in the standings than most would have imagined or performing at unforeseen levels on offense or defense, several of them have grabbed attention in the early going.
We're here to figure out which surprising starts signal something real and which ones are just noise.
The apparently mighty Cleveland Cavaliers are 4-3 through their first seven games, propelled by what's been the league's second-best defense.
Before we even get into whether that's sustainable, understand just how stunning it is that last year's No. 30 defense, with most of the same personnel, has done what it's done through nearly 10 percent of this season.
However, Cleveland's success on D stems from a pair of unsustainable sources.
First, the Cavs are forcing turnovers at a historic rate. Cleveland is inducing giveaways on 17.8 percent of opponent possessions, which would be the highest figure recorded since the 1997-98 Boston Celtics, a team that employed a basically unheard of full-court press under head coach Rick Pitino. They coerced cough-ups at a 19.0 percent clip.
The Cavaliers have been aggressive, and they've got a team full of players with good hands who should generate plenty of steals. But they're not employing a gimmicky scheme like that Boston team, and as ESPN's Kevin Pelton pointed out, we've never seen a year-over-year jump in opponent turnover percentage like the one Cleveland is engineering right now. Regression is imminent.
Cleveland is also allowing an encouraging shot profile, ranking among the 10 stingiest teams in shot frequency allowed at the rim and from deep. However, opponents aren't converting their looks at the rates you'd expect.
You could argue that's the result of fatigue in the face of Cleveland's handsy, dialed-up pressure, but luck seems to be the safer assumption. If opponents were converting their looks at league-average rates, the Cavs would be allowing the NBA's fourth-highest opponent effective field-goal percentage. Because teams have been clankier than expected, they currently sit just outside the top 10 in that category.
The Cavaliers have yet to establish much offensive punch and have been outscored on the season despite their defensive performance. This 4-3 start makes for a nice story, particularly because some of the team's younger cornerstones appear to have made real improvements (we see you, Darius Garland).
But when Cleveland's D levels off, the losses will mount en masse.
Like the Cavs, the Atlanta Hawks are 4-3 through their first seven games. Unlike the Cavs, this solid start feels real.
That's not to say De'Andre Hunter will continue to hit 48.6 percent of his threes or that the Hawks will inexplicably keep defending better with John Collins at center than with Clint Capela. But even if those and a few other isolated anomalies normalize, Atlanta has the personnel to sustain what's been the league's third-best offense.
That starts with Trae Young, whose foul-drawing craft has reached arch-villain levels.
Though he's shooting only 33.3 percent from deep, Young is currently on pace to exceed 60.0 percent true shooting, basically the dividing line between good and great volume scorers. And if he doesn't continue to lead the league in attempts and makes from the line, it's fair to expect an offsetting uptick in accuracy from the field and beyond the arc.
In addition to Young's step forward, Atlanta is getting high-end shooting from several other sources.
Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic are both at 40.0 percent or better on threes, while Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo have striped it from deep in smaller samples. That the Hawks have played this well with those two veteran additions and Capela all missing time suggests that whatever regression lies ahead will be balanced out by sheer depth.
In short, nothing feels out of whack or luck-based with these guys. The offense is humming, and the defense is passable. The Hawks entered the season gunning for the playoffs, but their hot (but sustainable) start currently has them just outside the line for home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason.
Maybe that's too fanciful a dream, but Atlanta's early play is for real.
New York Knicks
On opening night, FiveThirtyEight's projections had the New York Knicks finishing 23-49, tied for the league's fifth-worst record. They're currently sitting at 4-3 with wins over the Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers and "verified as legit in the last section" Atlanta Hawks.
So, are the Knicks finally getting their act together under head coach Tom Thibodeau? Do they really profile as a playoff threat?
This one will be short and sweet: New York has benefited from poor opponent shooting luck to a staggering degree. So far, teams have shot a league-low 30.9 percent on wide-open threes against the Knicks. That's the lowest opponent conversion rate in the league, and it's doubly ominous because New York allows the second-most wide-open threes per game.
Thibodeau has the Knicks playing with more discipline and purpose, they don't permit much at the rim, and Julius Randle is playing the best ball of his life, posting averages of 22.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists. But when teams inevitably start canning more of the copious open treys New York allows, a standings free fall will follow.
FiveThirtyEight again sets our baseline with a preseason projection that forecasted a 37-35 record and a plus-0.2 net differential (16th in the league) for the Indiana Pacers. That's out of step with what Indy has done so far in running up a 5-2 mark that ties it for second in the East.
Several factors suggest early forecasts got the Pacers all wrong.
New head coach Nate Bjorkgren, who fell off the Nick Nurse coaching tree, plucked the low-hanging fruit by updating Indiana's shot profile. The Pacers attempted mid-rangers at the league's fourth-highest rate last year, and only the Knicks took a lower share of their shots from deep. Indiana's modernized approach now includes the second-lowest mid-range attempt frequency in the NBA, which looks even better with a mid-pack long-range rate and, critically, the league's highest share of shots at the rim.
Getting the strategic math right was step one, but the Pacers' legitimacy is also the product of talent.
Domantas Sabonis is unlocking new dimensions by the day, and his 6.7 assists per game trail only Malcolm Brogdon's 7.0 on the team. Brogdon is also a couple of missed foul shots away from being on pace for his second 50/40/90 season, and Victor Oladipo looks tantalizingly close to the player who made an All-NBA team in 2017-18.
His two-way sequence to help force overtime in Monday's win against the New Orleans Pelicans was full of the guts, confidence and skill that produced that career season. It's probably unrealistic to think he'll reach all the way to that level after so much time missed with injury, but it seems Indiana has at least an All-Star version of Oladipo back in the fold.
Help-side eraser Myles Turner leads the NBA in blocked shots by a ridiculous margin, Justin Holiday is reprising his role as one of the best bench forwards in the game, and Doug McDermott hasn't even heated up from deep yet.
We sleep on the Pacers every year. Not this time.
Pascal Siakam, averaging 17.6 points and struggling to get to the rim, looks just as shook as he did during his ghastly stretch in the bubble. And the Toronto Raptors' frontcourt punch took a hit with Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes moving into the minutes vacated by Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.
Don't forget Norman Powell, who, from a conditioning perspective, appears to be among the large group of players who weren't ready for the season to start so quickly. The Raps' lack of wing depth is glaring when he's not himself.
The list continues: Toronto is jacking threes at nearly a league-high pace, not hitting them and also failing to generate close-range looks and free throws. Defensively, the pep just isn't there, either.
Kyle Lowry believes the Raps have lost their swagger, which makes sense considering they're playing 1,300 miles (or 2,050 kilometers; shout out Canada and the metric system) away from home. Maybe it got re-routed on a layover and will arrive in Tampa Bay soon.
This team made a grueling Finals run in 2019, had to get to the bubble earlier than anyone last year, produced another gutsy playoff run and is now in the unique situation of essentially never playing a home game. That's a lot to overcome.
It's true none of those factors will change, but Toronto is still getting a pass. It has too much championship cache, is too well-coached and has too many high-level competitors for a shocking 1-5 start to doom its season.
The Raps' shot luck will normalize, the swagger will return, and Siakam won't continue to look like he forgot how to play. In Toronto we trust.