From Antetokounmpo to Zaza: 13 encouraging signs from NBA's first month
Let's all dance like a Warriors role player
A month into the season, we have learned some things about the NBA that we didn't know before. Brook Lopez was always meant to be a 3-point shooter and Zaza Pachulia was always meant to be a dancer, for example. Not every trend around the league is as eye-popping as, say, Andrew Wiggins obliterating JaVale McGee , but here are 13 encouraging signs:
1. D'Antoni-ball is back
Say what you will about his stunning lack of a mustache, Mike D'Antoni's presence makes the NBA a fun place. The Houston Rockets aren't running quite the same way that the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns did, but he has given them the same sense of purpose. James Harden has the ball in his hands more than anybody else in the league, per NBA.com's SportVU stats, and he is doing brilliant things with it. Surrounded by shooters like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon , and with Clint Capela serving as a professional alley-ooper, Harden is an impossible problem for defenses to solve. Houston's ability to stop people will determine how far it can go, but for now, who cares about all that? The Rockets are always worth watching, and that's a major change from last year.
2. In the East, some stars are shining even brighter than expected
Toronto Raptors swingman DeMar DeRozan started things off on a historical scoring tear, devouring midrange jumpers and dismantling the idea that his game couldn't get to the next level without a reliable 3-point shot. Fellow 27-year-old All-Star and gold medalist Jimmy Butler has also taken a remarkable step forward, increasing his scoring average by almost five points and becoming almost automatic on in-between shots from behind the 3-point line as the Chicago Bulls exceed their modest expectations. And in Charlotte, Kemba Walker has transformed his game in his sixth season by improving as a finisher and a jump shooter. Keep these guys in mind when wondering if players in their early-to-mid-20s have peaked.
3. The kids are alright
There are examples of promising young players everywhere, but let's focus on three places where there were incredible expectations. In Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo has built on his inspiring second half of last season, averaging 22 points, 8.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.9 steals while sometimes functioning as a point center. In Philadelphia, Joel Embiid has been the clear front-runner for Rookie of the Year since dropping 20 points in 22 minutes in his debut, and he looks every bit the part of a future Hall of Famer. In Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau's young pups are not quite winning as much as some predicted, but Andrew Wiggins has polished up his offensive game, Karl-Anthony Towns is making 39.4 percent of his 4.1 3-pointers per game and Zach LaVine remains ridiculous.
4. The Golden State Warriors are harmonious
Those who predicted historical greatness on offense from this super team are patting themselves on the back -- Golden State casually has the best offensive rating in NBA history right now, and it still seems like it can get better. Through 18 games, the Warriors have only had one truly transcendent performance -- their 149-point eruption against the Los Angeles Lakers last week. And for all the talk about Golden State's supposedly slipping defense, its numbers are pretty similar to last year and nobody seems to care that the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers are 15th in defensive rating.
5. The Utah Jazz are weathering the storm
At 9-8, their record is a bit of a disappointment, but they're fifth in net rating and have been without Gordon Hayward , George Hill and Derrick Favors for significant stretches. In the three games that Hayward and Hill have played together, Utah has looked as good as all the preseason optimism suggested. Both are producing like All-Stars, and the Jazz's defensive rating is second in the league. Do not jump off the bandwagon.
6. The New Orleans Pelicans look like a real team now that their point guard is back
Jrue Holiday missed the start of the season to be with his wife, Lauren, who had surgery to remove a brain tumor in October, about six weeks removed from giving birth to their daughter. When Holiday returned to the lineup, the impact was immediate -- New Orleans went on a four-game winning streak. At 6-12, the team is still a longshot to get into the playoff picture, but it has been nice to see Holiday back on the court and running the show.
7. Marc and Mike are making Memphis dangerous
Quietly, the Memphis Grizzlies have won seven of their last eight games, quelling the concerns that came with their slowish start under new coach David Fizdale. Most of the credit here should go to franchise players Marc Gasol and Mike Conley -- as well as being two of the best defensive players at their respective positions, Gasol has become a true 3-point threat and Conley is playing the most efficient basketball of his career. As ESPN's Zach Lowe noted, Memphis is destroying teams in the minutes that they're on the floor together.
8. It's safe to watch the Lakers again
No longer must you groan when you see them listed on the national TV schedule, and no longer do the players look utterly miserable to be under Los Angeles' bright lights. Under Luke Walton, this team has been rejuvenated, from the exuberant (and starting!) Nick Young to the handsomely compensated (and healthy!) Timofey Mozgov. Luke Walton is an early favorite for Coach of the Year, and he could actually win it if he manages to get some defense out of these guys before the end of the season.
9. The Oklahoma City Thunder are who we thought they were
Russell Westbrook has an outrageous 41.3 percent usage rate, and he's basically averaging a triple-double: 31.2 points, 11.1 assists and 9.9 rebounds. Only The Brow is averaging more points and only The Beard is averaging more assists. Beyond Westbrook, the Thunder are still in the process of figuring out their identity, but Victor Oladipo been a reliable second banana and they almost never get blown out. It would have been a real bummer if they were not competitive.
10. The Detroit Pistons are hanging around
Despite a road-heavy schedule and the absence of the guy who makes most of their plays, Detroit has kept afloat with an 8-10 record by winning the games they're supposed to (and stealing one from the Los Angeles Clippers !) at home. Reggie Jackson participated fully in Monday's practice and, when he returns, he will join a group that ranks sixth in the league in defensive rating.
11. The Clippers might be a legitimate threat to Golden State
I can't shake the memory of their humiliating preseason loss at Oracle Arena, but it's impossible to ignore how they've started the regular season. While some adversity has hit Los Angeles recently, it has been the second-best team in the league this year and its four-headed monster -- Chris Paul , Blake Griffin , DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick -- has never been scarier. It will take size and athleticism to give the Warriors a run for their money, and the Clippers certainly have that.
12. The Bulls are beating teams up
For all the attention paid to Chicago's new backcourt, its under-the-radar frontcourt has been winning the battle on the boards almost every night. Finally a full-time starter, Taj Gibson is having the best year of his career at the age of 31, and Robin Lopez has beefed up the Bulls' interior defense. This version of the team doesn't play the same style as it did under Tom Thibodeau, but the toughness that defined that era has returned.
13. Let's talk about Love
The Cavaliers are still the class of the East, and they're still tinkering in order to get the most out of their star-studded roster. There's no better example of this than the numbers Kevin Love has put up through 15 games -- you can forget about "sacrifice" because he is averaging 25.3 points on 17.3 shot attempts per 36 minutes, which is about on par with his last season in Minnesota. Cleveland has made a concerted effort to make Love more comfortable, and it's paying off.
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