Jumping the gun on LeBron James' Lakers and a wide-open MVP race among top 10 NBA first-quarter takeaways
Also, the Rockets and Celtics' struggles have stood out as have the surprising starts from the Bucks, Grizzlies and Clippers
Going into the 2018-19 NBA season, it was presumed that the Golden State Warriors would (almost certainly) win another title, and that the rest of the season would just be filler.
Now, a quarter of the way through the regular season, it's still presumed the Warriors will (likely, probably, unless something really bad goes wrong) win another title. But the rest of the season? Not filler at all. Instead, it's been a thriller: From the dramas (Kevin Durant vs. Draymond Green, Rajon Rondo vs. Chris Paul, Wizards vs. themselves), to the surprises (the Bucks and Clippers are dominant, the Celtics and Jazz are not) to the uncertainties (how long would Jimmy Butler hold the Minnesota Timberwolves hostage, and wondering if Markelle Fultz will ever get right).
There's been a lot to take in to this point, but here are the top 10 storylines from the first quarter of the 2018-19 NBA season.
1. LeBron's Lakers really did need our patience.
LeBron James and Luke Walton told anyone who would listen (and we were all listening) during the lead-up to the season that this was going to take time. We were listening, but we didn't really hear them. So when things looked bad, we all freaked out. It has taken time for the Lakers. After they started off the season 2-5, what it would look like when he does finally lose his patience. ("You probably don't want to be around when my patience runs out," LeBron said. "I'm serious.") They've (mostly) turned it around since then, going 9-4, but it will continue to take time. It has taken LeBron teams time to adapt to his greatness each time he's changed teams. Two truths remain about this Lakers team: They will make the playoffs, because LeBron teams always make the playoffs. And they are at least one major piece away from contending (not to mention steady continued development of their young core). LeBron and Co. are back in action on Thursday when they host the Indiana Pacers (10:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension).
2. Kemba Walker is a top-five point guard in the NBA.
There's a player playing well during a contract year, and then there is whatever Kemba Walker has been doing during his season before unrestricted free agency. Walker's ascendance this season has been breathtaking. He rocked Kyrie Irving and the Celtics for 43 points last week -- two days after he went for a career-high 60 points against the Philadelphia 76ers. Walker is averaging career highs in assists (6.5 per game) and points (27.9 per game, good for fifth in the NBA).
3. The Warriors needn't worry about this season -- but should be really worried about next season.
The Kevin Durant-Draymond Green scuffle portends very bad things for the Warriors' future -- but ought not make much of a difference for this season. Yes, the Warriors are only 4-5 since their very public sideline spat in an overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. But the real reason for the Warriors' struggles has nothing to do with any simmering emotions in the locker room. The Warriors' nerve center has always run through Stephen Curry, and Curry's been out with an injury since Nov. 8. When he returns -- and Steve Kerr indicated -- the Warriors will again be dominant, barring future injuries. This team is just too talented not to win the title this year. But Bob Myers and Steve Kerr's worries should focus on 2019 free agency. The public and personal blowup between Green and Durant certainly doesn't help the Warriors' bid at retaining one of the greatest players of all time in Durant.
4. Celtics, Rockets proving there are no guarantees in basketball.
The Warriors were the preseason favorites to win the NBA title. Even with their November drama, that Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown, right? -- but this team still ranks an awful 25th in offensive rating. The Rockets defense, which last season was plenty good to go along with their historic offense, has sputtered badly. Jettisoning off Carmelo Anthony will help that, but not having Trevor Ariza or Luc Mbah a Moute has been a predictable drag on their defense. But who would have guessed their defense would be this bad (28th in the NBA)? Perhaps by the All-Star break both of these teams will get back to what we expected them to be. But it's far from guaranteed.. Next up in the preseason prediction game were the Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets. Both have struggled mightily despite being predicted for 60 or more wins. The Celtics are currently a game over .500, the Rockets are currently two games under .500. While losses in October and November don't matter all that much (other than for playoff seeding) for teams that are built for success in May and June, some of the results here are troubling. For the Celtics, a perplexing inability to score has really hurt them. That should start to normalize -- the shots must start falling for
5. Masai Ujiri looks like the gutsiest gambler in the NBA -- and the smartest one too.
It's tough to overstate the gamble Ujiri took this offseason: He traded the beloved face of the franchise in DeMar DeRozan for one season of Kawhi Leonard (which also doubles as a one-year tryout to prove to Kawhi that Toronto will be an excellent place to call home after he reaches unrestricted free agency). Ujiri went all in, and managed to finagle Danny Green in the bet too. (Oh yeah: He also fired his coach, who'd just won Coach of the Year, and replaced him with a first-time head coach.) We won't know until the playoffs whether this gamble will pay off. Even then, the real answer may not come until July, when we see if Kawhi stays in Toronto. But right now the Raptors can make a legit case for being the best team in the NBA. Kawhi has been the typically great two-way superstar that he was before last season's disaster, Kyle Lowry has lifted his point guard game to yet another level, Serge Ibaka has reinvented himself and Pascal Siakam continues to be a revelation. The rub on past Raptors teams is they were built for the regular season, not the postseason. This team has been great through one quarter of the regular season -- but it feels like this team is much better built for the postseason than any past Raptors team. If it doesn't work, and if Kawhi leaves, then Ujiri can execute an abbreviated rebuild in his own image where he keeps his young core intact.
6. Fast is fun, and threes are even more in.
Adam Silver's rule changes and emphases in the offseason -- the 14-second shot clock off of offensive rebounds, the freedom of movement emphasis -- has had its intended effect. The NBA has become an even more fast, fun, offense-oriented league. In the first quarter of the regular season, NBA teams are averaging more than 100 possessions per game for the first time since the 1988-89 season. And . Teams have shot more three-pointers every year for the past two decades. This season teams are averaging 31.3 three-point attempts per game, more than two attempts over last season's record-setting pace. This is a trend that won't stop any time soon. Offenses are more efficient than ever; this year's overall offensive rating of 109.8 would be the highest ever.
7. The MVP race is wide open.
MVP narratives develop over the first half of seasons. If Damian Lillard had flipped his season last year, and had the numbers he put up in the second half of the season during the first half, he would have gotten some serious buzz for MVP. But by the time Lillard turned on the jets, the James Harden narrative had already taken hold. Harden was awesome, and it was his time to wear the crown. If a clear narrative has emerged so far this season -- it hasn't -- it would be that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the MVP frontrunner. If the Bucks are able to be a top-four team in the East, and if Giannis keeps up his ridiculous pace, MVP voters will fall in line behind Giannis. But LeBron is right on his heels, and right now he might have my vote. (If he weren't judged on a LeBron curve, he'd win almost every year.) Joel Embiid has been a force of nature. So have Anthony Davis and Curry, when healthy (but "when healthy" has been a mighty big asterisk). Lillard has again been awesome, as have Walker, Leonard, Harden and Durant. That's 10 players who could win MVP. The list stops there.
8. The three most surprising teams have been the Bucks, Grizzlies and Clippers -- and they've done it in three completely different ways.
The Bucks have completely flipped their team under Mike Budenholzer with an offense that, like the Houston Rockets, prioritizes three-pointers and shots at the rim and not much else. They are the modern-day NBA encapsulated in one Greek Freak-led unit. The Grizzlies, however, have been an anachronism: The slowest-paced team in the league while the NBA is getting faster, and a defensive monster in a season where the league has prioritized offense. Meanwhile, the Clippers have displayed the best depth in the league, with Doc Rivers relying on his bench more than any other team. The common thread? Each of these surprise teams knew their identity heading into the season, and embraced it.
9. The kids are all right.
The past two draft classes have been much-hyped, and so far have mostly lived up to it. Early returns on the 2018 class show plenty of blue-chip talents that we expected to be great: Luka Doncic has perhaps , Deandre Ayton has been a physical beast as he's averaged 17.0 points and 10.5 rebounds, Jaren Jackson has looked like a prototypical versatile modern-day big man, and Trae Young, while , has as a passer. But there have been some nice surprises later in the draft as well: Aaron Holiday for the Pacers, Mitchell Robinson and Allonzo Trier for the Knicks and Josh Okogie for the Timberwolves. As for last year's draft class? Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Ben Simmons have struggled at times during their sophomore campaign, but all three are legit stars. De'Aaron Fox has made a huge jump this season.
10. Veteran stars who've fallen on hard times can reinvent and/or reinvigorate themselves.
There aren't many more surprising individual stories in the NBA this season than Derrick Rose rehabilitating his injury-ridden career in Minnesota, where he's currently averaging close to 20 points per game and shooting nearly 50 percent from three. His one-year, $2.4 million contract is one of the best value contracts in the NBA. Other stars who'd lost some of their shine have seen resurgences this season. Marc Gasol was visibly and vocally frustrated with the tanking Memphis Grizzlies last season, but he's led their early-season rally as one of the best defensive teams in the NBA; coach J.B. Bickerstaff recently told me he'd pick Gasol as the Defensive Player of the Year so far. (His teammate, Mike Conley, has had perhaps an even better comeback campaign.) Blake Griffin, whose declining athleticism indicated his career was declining as well, has reinvented himself as a three-point shooter, and is averaging a career-high 25.1 points. It's a young man's league, but the old guys can make it theirs when they adapt.
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