We're now a quarter of the way into another unprecedented season in the NBA, where COVID-19 outbreaks have impacted every team in the league to some extent, and watching games without fans has become more normal. It's difficult to make heads or tails about what we've seen so far this season, given the number of games that have been postponed due to league health and safety protocols and players being held out for weeks which disrupts a team's flow and chemistry.
However, we can still sift through what we've seen so far and try to make sense of it. So let's look at some of the league's recent trends and storylines and break down what's real, and what isn't worth giving a second thought.
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Buy or Sell: LeBron James is the frontrunner for league MVP
If we're being honest, LeBron should win Most Valuable Player in the NBA pretty much every season. No one impacts the game more than he does on both ends of the floor. Still, the MVP award has notoriously been about narrative just as much as it is about play, and since James won his last MVP trophy in his penultimate season with the Miami Heat, he's fallen short of winning that award every year, mainly because of the narrative.
This season, though, James is making it difficult to not consider him as one of the top MVP candidates. And after Monday night's performance against the Cavaliers, he's perhaps even the frontrunner. A 46-point performance, in which he outscored the Cavaliers by himself 26-19 in the fourth quarter, will certainly boost his campaign.
Aside from that absurd performance against Cleveland, though, what James is doing this season is unprecedented. In NBA history, there have only been two players to average more than 20 points a game in their 18th season: LeBron and Karl Malone. James is even in a class of his own in that regard as he's the only player in NBA history to average 25 or more points in Year 18 in the league, while also putting up 7.9 rebounds and 7.4 assists.
Many expected LeBron to load manage at the start of the 2020-21 campaign following the shortest offseason in league history after the Lakers played into October. But instead, he's played in all 18 of L.A.'s games while remaining dominant, efficient and the Lakers' most important player.
L.A. outscores opponents by 12.5 points with LeBron on the floor, per NBA Advanced Stats, compared to just 1.2 with him on the bench. He's shooting a career-high 6.6 3-pointers per game, and making them at a 41.2 percent clip -- also the highest of his career. What's even crazier, he's doing all this while playing the fewest minutes per game of his career (32.7).
There's still plenty of games left for this to change, especially considering there are several other worthy contenders in this conversation, namely Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. But right now, LeBron has been playing better than all of the other names who have been brought up in that conversation and looks like the early-season MVP.
Buy or Sell: The Knicks are legitimate playoff contenders
If the season ended today, the Knicks would be the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It's no fluke, either. Tom Thibodeau has New York playing hard this season, and it all starts with Julius Randle. The seventh-year forward is having the best season of his career, averaging 22.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists, while shooting a career-high 34.8 percent from 3-point range. Those are All-Star numbers, something that is very tangible for him this season.
Then there's the great production the Knicks are getting out of second-year player RJ Barrett, who is proving that the 2019 NBA Draft was more than just Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Barrett has upped his averages across the board, though his efficiency still isn't where it needs to be to make a significant impact on offense. Rookie Immanuel Quickley, who was considered a terrible draft selection by many, including our own experts, is silencing everyone as he ranks in the 89th percentile of pick-and-roll scorers, generating 1.129 points per possession.
New York's offense might be bottom of the barrel, ranking No. 25 in offensive efficiency, but their defense ranks fifth in the league, which shouldn't be surprising for a Thibodeau-led team. There's still the possibility that several teams beneath the Knicks bump them out of the playoff picture, as the Raptors and Heat have gotten off to slow starts and the Bulls are starting to piece things together. However, given the league's decision to keep play-in games for the final playoff spot this season, the Knicks look like a team that could be in the mix.
They aren't a lock by any means the way the teams near the top of the East are, but for the first time since the 2012-13 season, the Knicks look like a team with a legitimate shot at reaching the postseason.
Buy or Sell: The Jazz are the biggest threat to the Lakers
Before taking on the Utah Jazz recently, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said the Jazz are capable of winning a championship, and that Utah is where the Warriors were at the beginning of their dynastic run. High praise from Kerr, and it isn't completely unwarranted. The Jazz are currently on a nine-game winning steak, own the second-best record in the league and sit just a half-game back of the first-place Lakers in the West.
They have the third-best net rating in the league, the sixth-best transition offense, which generates 1.16 points per possession, and Donovan Mitchell is having the most efficient year of his career, where he ranks in the 98th percentile in spot-up jumpers. There's a lot to like about this Utah team: They have depth, play tough defense and can shoot the lights out from deep.
But the biggest threat to the Lakers? I don't know about that just yet. That would be grossly overlooking a Clippers team that is just below Utah in the standings, and in net rating, and have come out looking more cohesive this season. Instead, I'd say the Jazz are the biggest threat to everyone else in the West trying to make the Western Conference finals because Kerr is right, this team can burn you in so many ways on offense, especially in transition, and will also get out and defend the heck out of you on the other end, similar to the Warriors a few years ago.
Buy or Sell: The Sixers are the team to beat in the East
There was some skepticism on how this Philly team would look out of the gates with new coach Doc Rivers in tow. So far, though, that skepticism has turned into blind optimism for this team going forward. The Sixers have the fifth-best defense in the league, Joel Embiid looks ridiculously dominant and worthy of the MVP buzz he's been receiving and Seth Curry ranks second in the league in 3-point percentage.
The 76ers have done all of this, despite a COVID-19 outbreak that caused them to be without several players for chunks of time. They desperately needed shooters and depth going into this season, and so far those have been several of the team's strengths. Dwight Howard continues his comeback tour around the league and rookie Tyrese Maxey has been given more opportunities as he continues to excel.
With a quarter of the season in the books, Philly looks like a well-oiled machine, and that's with Ben Simmons averaging a career low in points (12.8) and a middling offense. Yet the Sixers asserting themselves early on in the season says more about how wide open the East is than it does about Philadelphia being the team to beat in that conference. The Celtics and Bucks are just a game behind them, the former of which was without Jayson Tatum for a little over two weeks. The Brooklyn Nets are still trying to feel each other out as Harden gets acclimated with his new teammates on a juggernaut team and the Raptors have gotten back on track after a shaky start.
The Sixers have been impressive, and have taken care of business against short-handed teams and a relatively easy schedule out of the gate. But Philadelphia isn't the team to beat in the East, because that's still getting figured out.
Buy or Sell: It's time to worry about the Miami Heat
The Heat have been struggling to start the season, staring at a 6-10 record, which is worse than the Hornets, Knicks, Cavaliers and Hawks. Pretty shocking for a team that made a run to the Finals a season ago, and returned the majority of the same players that got them there. But taking the Heat's record for face value and saying it's time to worry about them would be a completely unfair judgment to make considering Jimmy Butler has played in just six games and Miami is still overcoming a COVID-19 outbreak that caused several of their games to get postponed.
Avery Bradley has only played in seven games, Tyler Herro hasn't suited up since Jan. 14 and only Duncan Robinson and Precious Achiuwa have played in all 16 games for the Heat. Miami still has time to right this ship and getting healthy will give it a significant boost to push ahead of some of these teams that are inferior to it.
Although they're struggling right now, Bam Adebayo has been excellent so far this season. He's averaging 20.7 points, nine boards and 5.4 assists while also improving his mid-range game where he's shooting 49 percent. It's too early to say the Heat are in trouble, but they'll have some serious ground to make up once their roster is at full strength.