7 New NBA Storylines We Didn't See Coming

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistOctober 27, 2021

7 New NBA Storylines We Didn't See Coming

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    The first week-plus of the 2021-22 NBA season has been filled with all sorts of fun surprises to go along with the big performances from the stars everyone expected.

    It's still early, and a lot of what happens now could be noise. But every year, there are storylines and trends that nobody (or at least, not most people) saw coming, and some of them stick.

    Here's what has stood out through the season's first eight days.

James Harden's Struggles

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    Everyone knew there would be intense focus on Harden this season with the league introducing a new set of officiating rules designed to curb the exact sort of foul-hunting that's become his calling card. And as expected, that part of his game has taken a hit—he's averaging just three free-throw attempts per game through the Nets' first four games, fewer than he's ever averaged in his career, even going back to when he was a rookie in Oklahoma City.

    What's surprising is how much this has affected the rest of his game—the assumption has been that the game's best players will quickly figure out how to adapt to rule changes. But Harden has struggled in other facets as well. He's shooting the worst he has in his entire career, both from the field (36.4 percent) and from three-point range (32.3 percent) on a similar number of attempts to last year.

    With no Kyrie Irving, the Nets need the best version of Harden if they want to contend. That player has thus far not shown up.

The Bulls Are Back

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    Chicago certainly had one of the league's splashier offseasons, spending big on Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan to complete a roster overhaul. But reactions were mixed over the summer as far as how these big names would fit together alongside Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. There were a lot of questions about how they'd look defensively and how DeRozan would function as a non-three-point shooter playing next to Ball and LaVine.

    Well, the Bulls are one of the league's three remaining unbeaten teams after squeaking out a win in Toronto on Monday. With the caveat that their other three wins came against Detroit (twice) and a Zion Williamson-less New Orleans team, the fit questions appear to be unfounded for now. Ball is an ideal backcourt complement to LaVine, and DeRozan has been able to find his offense just fine. And defensively, they've been great, allowing just 97.7 points per 100 possessions, tied for the fifth-best mark in the league. Fellow free-agent acquisition Alex Caruso has been huge in that regard.

    The Bulls have an incredibly tough stretch of the schedule coming up over the next month. If they can get through it while remaining competitive, we'll know they're the real deal. But for now, this is easily the most excited Bulls fans have been in at least five years.

Scottie Barnes Has Arrived

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    Barnes was a polarizing pick when the Raptors took him No. 4 overall in this year's draft, ahead of the more widely touted Jalen Suggs. But Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have thus far been vindicated for the risk they took.

    Starting all four games for the Raptors at small forward, Barnes has made an impact at both ends of the floor. He's shown an ability to get to the rim and draw contact, as well as a willingness to guard high-caliber wings.

    Barnes and OG Anunoby are looking like one of the toughest defensive duos in the league on the perimeter. Expectations for the Raptors are all over the place after a disastrous last season. They want to compete in the playoffs while still developing young talent, which is always a tough needle to thread in the NBA. However it all shakes out, their top lottery pick is looking like a keeper and a long-term core piece.

Damian Lillard's Shooting Slump

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    Outside of Stephen Curry, there's nobody that opposing defenses fear more from beyond the arc than Damian Lillard. His clutch shot-making ability is one of the most reliable things in the league and a big reason that a series of disappointing Blazers rosters have stayed competitive.

    That shot has left him completely over the first week of the season. Lillard is 2-of-24 from beyond the arc on the season, including 0-of-17 in Portland's two losses. In the season-opening loss to Sacramento, the Blazers staged a fourth-quarter comeback, and Lillard had a couple of chances to tie the game with a momentum-shifting three like he's hit so many dozens of times in his career. This time, it didn't fall.

    There's no doubt Lillard's shot will come back around at some point. Maybe he's still getting acclimated to a new system under new head coach Chauncey Billups. Maybe he's dealing with some of the physical ailments that limited him in the Olympics this summer. Or maybe he's just in a slump, the kind that happens at points throughout any season but draws more attention when it comes right out of the gate. It's not something to worry about long term, but with a tough schedule coming up, both Lillard and the Blazers are hoping he snaps out of this rough patch soon.

Charlotte Hornets Ahead of Schedule?

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    The Hornets are the early-season League Pass darlings, and it's not close.

    LaMelo Ball was one of last season's most electrifying rookies, and he's built on that in his second year with an even better start. The version of Ball that's shown up this season is fully realized and no longer playing through rookie mistakes, and the results are electrifying. The connection he's developed with forward Miles Bridges resulted in Bridges being named the year's first Eastern Conference Player of the Week.

    Charlotte is 3-1, with its one loss coming in overtime against the Celtics. The night before, the Hornets went into Brooklyn and outlasted the Nets behind Bridges' 32 points and 15 from Ish Smith off the bench.

    The Hornets could easily have been a playoff team last year if Ball hadn't missed a month with a thumb injury; this year, if he can stay healthy, they might get there.

Cavs' Jumbo Lineup Is Sort of Working

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    The Cavs' three biggest moves of the offseason involved big men: they took Evan Mobley with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, re-signed Jarrett Allen to a five-year, $100 million extension and brought in the talented but underachieving Lauri Markkanen on a surprising four-year, $67 million contract. It wasn't initially clear whether the plan was to start three bigs or if they paid Markkanen that kind of money to come off the bench.

    The answer is the former, and it's actually been effective. The Allen-Markkanen-Mobley trio has been the Cavs' second-most used three-man combo through four games, playing 69 minutes together and scoring 3.4 more points (101.4) than they're allowing (98) per 100 possessions.

    The Cavs are 2-2, with their two wins coming against playoff teams in Atlanta and Denver. It's certainly an unorthodox way to play given how the game has evolved, but sometimes there's value in zigging where others zag. So far, it looks like they might have something.

The Chris Duarte Experience

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    Taken No. 13 overall out of Oregon, Duarte is older at 24 than most lottery picks. He certainly wasn't seen coming in as a day-one difference-maker for a Pacers team that's hoping to remain a playoff contender. But with T.J. Warren still out, Duarte has been pushed into the starting lineup and he's earning those minutes. He turned heads with a 27-point debut against the Hornets, and he's continued to shoot well since then, getting up 7.3 three-point attempts per game and hitting them at a 44.8 percent clip.

    That Duarte is getting this much run early is especially impressive considering how reluctant new Pacers coach Rick Carlisle has been over the years to play rookies. But Duarte has delivered and shown he deserves a consistent role in his rookie season.

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