Opening night overreactions are a staple of NBA discourse. Months without basketball make our first morsels seem that much more important. What happened in those games must be what will happen in every game because, for the first time since the previous Finals, these debates are no longer theoretical. They are playing out on the court, and even a small sample is better than no sample at all.
In practice, opening night rarely tells us much of anything. Last season started with Kawhi Leonard embarrassing LeBron James on national television and ended with James hoisting a championship trophy Leonard didn't even get to challenge him for. Anything can happen in one game. But our thirst for basketball often fools us into pretending otherwise. So with nearly each NBA team now having played a single game, let's look at five of the overreactions that could sprout out of the opening slate, and how much legitimacy they might have, if any.
1. We're getting a new MVP
Giannis Antetokounmpo won the last two MVP awards handily. He deserved to, and in all likelihood, he'll deserve to win a third. Playoff foibles aside, no player provides more night-to-night value than Antetokounmpo. He averaged more points per minute than James Harden, posted Shaquille O'Neal-caliber efficiency numbers and won Defensive Player of the Year. Realistically, that sort of production isn't going to be topped.
But MVP is a narrative-driven award, and the sentiment entering the season was that Antetokounmpo's playoff problems would scare voters off in his third straight campaign. Those playoff issues were driven by his lackluster shooting, and how it limited Milwaukee's late-game offense. Well, what happened in Milwaukee's opening night loss to Boston? Antetokounmpo missed a game-tying free-throw with 0.4 seconds remaining. Game over. Narrative refreshed in the minds of voters.
Does it make sense? No. Giannis should have entered the season with the same clean slate every other player gets. But he didn't enter the season as the award favorite—Luka Doncic did—and that speaks to the unfair standard he has to reach. His opener told the exact same story his detractors will hold against him: great numbers, loss against a contender because of his late-game flaws. It's not fair, but it was just further proof that someone not named Antetokounmpo is going to win MVP this season.
2. Washed Watch
The following players are on Washed Watch:
- Chris Paul. Age: 35. Opening night stats: 8 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 3-of-9 shooting, -10 plus-minus.
- Damian Lillard. Age: 30. Opening night stats: 9 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 4-of-12 shooting, -21 plus-minus.
- Stephen Curry. Age: 32. Opening night stats: 20 points, 10 assists, 4 rebounds, 7-of-21 shooting, -23 plus-minus.
This is, obviously, ludicrous, but they're the players most likely to draw the opening night ire of critics. Paul is the closest to having credence, especially after an underwhelming preseason, but he made some of the biggest plays of Phoenix's opening night victory with a big late steal and jumper in the final minutes. That speaks to what his likely role will be with the Suns. He's not going to be asked to be a star on a nightly basis. Devin Booker will carry the load for the majority of games. But having Paul as a steady hand on the wheel when necessary, especially late in games, is how he will provide his value. It's too early to say he's washed, though admittedly, at this stage, another All-Star berth doesn't seem overly likely.
Lillard was, frankly, due for a bit of regression. He has essentially improved every year he's been in the NBA without a single shooting outlier year or bizarre injury. Some bad luck was going to hit him eventually, and this was just one game of it. He's going to be fine. Curry's fate isn't as clear. A younger version of him might have been comfortable in this situation. After all, he scored 47 points in nearly beating the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the 2019 Finals just 18 months ago, and as he is now, he played that game without Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson. But at 32 and with his leaner frame, Curry might not have it in him to play the way James Harden does night-in, night-out anymore. He might be best-suited playing off of a star teammate that he doesn't currently have, and that's going to cut into his efficiency on a weak team. Defenses can key in on him like never before. That doesn't mean that he's washed. It means that his team is.
3. The unfair schedule
Let's talk about meaningless stats for a moment. Both NBA finalists, the Lakers and Heat, lost their season-openers as favorites. The Western Conference runner-up Denver Nuggets also lost their opener as a favorite at home to the lowly Sacramento Kings, and their loss came in overtime, when endurance could feasibly be viewed as a factor. The Eastern Conference runner-up Boston Celtics needed a miracle Jayson Tatum shot to escape their opening night duel with the Milwaukee Bucks as victors. Their reward is a date with Durant and the apparently unstoppable Nets on Christmas. The Lakers, Heat and Nuggets all have difficult Christmas games ahead of them as well.
Let's be clear: the four of them are playing at a competitive disadvantage. Even if they did get an extended rest before the bubble, their limited break afterward is going to force all of them to make difficult choices about how they manage their rosters in a condensed regular season. For the sake of health, they are probably going to lose more games than they otherwise should. and that is going to hurt their postseason seed. These are four of the best teams in the NBA. They can all win road games. But this is going to be a delayed overreaction. In May and June, one of these teams is going to get bounced in the playoffs and people are going to wonder if their lack of rest was the culprit. Opening night could pad those arguments a bit. But ultimately, the odds of any of these teams being a month of rest short of the championship are slim. The Lakers are heavy favorites even under the circumstances. The other three are fighting uphill battles.
4. Who's ready for a Hawks-Jazz Finals?
We knew the Clippers would be good. Brooklyn was a riskier bet, but the upside was enormous. But let's fawn over Wednesday's biggest winners: the Hawks and Jazz, who both crushed their opponents en route to 20-point wins.
Trae Young has been carrying the NBA's worst roster for the past two seasons. Atlanta splurged on upgrades in free agency, and the results were historic. Young scored 37 points on 12 shots, a first in post-merger NBA history. More importantly, non-Young Hawks actually held up their end of the bargain. Seven Atlanta players in total reached double figures, two of whom, critically, came off the bench. The Hawks were bad in Young's minutes last season but mind-bogglingly dreadful when he went to the bench. Garbage time skewed the opening night plus-minus, but Atlanta's bench actually held up without its best player. With him? The Hawks looked unstoppable.
So did a Utah team that seemingly sacrificed offense for defense in adding Derrick Favors this offseason. When they initially let him go in 2019, it was done in order to maximize spacing around Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert by bringing in Bojan Bogdanovic to shoot more 3-pointers. Well, Favors played on Wednesday, and Utah still attempted 50 3-pointers. That space helped Favors shoot 100 percent from the field in 16 bench minutes, and the Jazz stifled one of the best offenses in basketball by holding the Portland Trail Blazers to 100 points (and Damian Lillard to nine). This is the vision Utah has had since drafting Mitchell: strike enough of a roster balance to play elite offense without giving away the defense that formed their identity. Opening night was the closest they've ever come to doing so.
The Finals are probably a bit ambitious for either group, but a recalibration of expectations might be in order for both sides. Utah has typically been viewed, at a minimum, outside of the top Western tier occupied by the two Los Angeles teams. Atlanta has been relegated to seventh or worse in most East preseason rankings. But no season is surprise-proof, and if these two play as they did on opening night, they might need to be bumped up a tier in their respective conferences.
5. COVID is going to ruin the season
Two games. We made it through two games on Tuesday night before the first wave of COVID-related issues postponed a game. There's no telling when the Rockets will be able to take the floor again. There's no telling whether any of the players currently registering positive tests could have infected others during the preseason. The NBA needed a bubble to make it through last season. Without one? Starting a season in the middle of a pandemic was simply too dangerous.
This is an overreaction based on what happened in Houston, but not what's happening in the country. Infection rates are still high. The vaccine, for most of us, is still months away. As optimistic as the NBA may be in the health and fitness of its players, the league has already had one player deal with extended symptoms in Mo Bamba. It's hard to say anything definitively about the coronavirus. At this point, we just don't know what impact it is going to have on the season. The "sky is falling" crowd might be a tad premature, but the dangers of playing basketball in the middle of a pandemic are real.