Nearly three weeks into the season, here’s a look around the NBA landscape, with ten observations ranging in impact from having a direct effect on the chase for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, teams who are exceeding or failing to meet expectations, examining the play of some of the league’s top rookies, taking note of milestone accomplishments and much more.
1. The Return of the Slim Reaper
In the Brooklyn Nets’ preseason opener against the Washington Wizards, it quickly became evident Kevin Durant is the same player he was before tearing his Achilles. He was slithering through the defense, stopping on a dime for pull-up jump shots and getting to the rim in a couple of strides.
Then, during a Christmas matchup against the Boston Celtics, Durant erupted for 16 points in the third quarter. He finished with 29 points, helping the Nets earn a 123-95 win. In Brooklyn’s next game, the former MVP poured in a season-high 33 points, en route to a 145-141 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
The only questions Durant has left to answer are how he’ll hold up as we get deeper into the season, and later, as the Nets advance further into the playoffs. Those questions are matters of durability. In terms of performance, Durant’s playing like an MVP candidate.
2. Joel Embiid, Early-Season MVP
The early-season front runners for MVP are Joel Embiid and Durant. You can certainly argue the latter’s in the lead, but the former is an offensive force who’s also making a compelling opening statement in his case for Defensive Player of the Year.
Defensive stats are flawed, so it’s best to avoid relying on one or two of them to paint the entire picture of how a team or individual is performing on that end. Yet, across the board, Embiid’s registering numbers that speak glowingly about the impact he’s making defensively. According to Basketball-Reference, Embiid’s yielding the third-fewest points per 100 possessions.
Additionally, he ranks fifth in defensive win shares and eighth in defensive box plus-minus. Embiid’s blocking 1.8 shots per game this season, the seventh-most in the NBA, and he’s corralling 10 defensive rebounds per game, which are the third-most in the league.
Offensively, Embiid’s producing 24.6 points per game while shooting 52.5 percent from the field and averaging nine free-throw attempts per contest, which are the fourth-most in the NBA, and he’s converting them at an 83.3 percent clip. Though the sample size is small, Embiid’s shooting 45.8 percent from beyond the arc while taking a respectable three attempts per game. For the last three years, he’s been a below-average three-point shooter.
What matters more for Embiid’s development and the Philadelphia 76ers’ title chances is his improvement in passing out of double teams in the low post. In previous years, he’s struggled to read where the second defender was coming from or how the defense would subsequently rotate. Last season, he lost confidence his teammates would make opponents pay when he kicked it out to them after drawing two defenders.
Now, Embiid is flanked by Seth Curry, who’s a career 44.9 percent three-point shooter that’s splashing 59.5 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc this season. He’s also showing trust in Danny Green, a career 40 percent three-point shooter that is converting 37.7 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc this season.
This season is in its infancy and the Sixers have mostly feasted on bad teams. But surrounded by players who are well-suited to complement Embiid’s game, he’s playing the best ball of his career, turning in an MVP-caliber performance that’s helped place Philadelphia in a four-way tie atop the NBA standings. For further reading, that’s even why Basketball Insiders’ Drew Maresca is calling to speed up the process.
3. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are Evolving
Jayson Tatum has an impressive ability to get significantly better at weaker parts of his game during the season. Last November, he shot 51.9 percent at the rim, and he took considerable flak for it. The next month, Tatum improved by 11 percent.
Being named an All-Star lifted a weight off Tatum’s shoulders, and his game subsequently soared to new heights. As his scoring average rose to over 25 points per game after receiving that validation, Tatum had to adapt to regularly dealing with double teams; especially, when operating out of the pick-and-roll.
Here’s an update on how that’s going:
Tatum’s also working on breaking his habit of settling for step-back three-pointers with the game on the line. Fortunately for him, a week after that exact shot clanked off the rim, sealing a 108-107 loss to the Indiana Pacers, Tatum got an opportunity to redeem himself.
As for the other half of Boston’s burgeoning duo, Jaylen Brown, who’s even more impressive off the court than he is on it, continues to maximize his time in the offseason to achieve significant growth every year.
With Kemba Walker injured and Gordon Hayward now on the Charlotte Hornets, the Celtics rely more heavily on Brown to facilitate their offense. He’s risen to the challenge, demonstrating improved handles and better court vision, allowing him to create quality scoring chances for himself and his teammates.
Brown’s averaging 26.3 points per game; shooting 59 percent from inside the arc, while taking 5.7 three-point attempts per game and connecting on 42.1 percent of them. After never dishing out more than 2.1 assists per game in the first four years of his career, the 24-year-old is averaging 3.5 assists per contest to start this season.
All four of those teams made it to the Finals, and three of them won championships.
Just sayin’ 🤷♂️https://t.co/iRJnq8tsXT
— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) January 9, 2021
4. The Improving New York Knicks
One of Tom Thibodeau’s strengths is he can immediately change the culture of a franchise. In his first season with the Chicago Bulls, the team won 62 games, tying the NBA record for the most wins by a rookie head coach. He was named Coach of the Year, and the Bulls won their first division title since Michael Jordan was on their roster.
In 2018, in his second season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he helped guide the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
Fast forward to this season, and while it’s early in the campaign, it’s clear the New York Knicks are reaping the benefits of buying into what Thibs is preaching.
They beat the Milwaukee Bucks by 20 points and came from behind to earn road wins against the Pacers and the Hawks. Those two victories away from Madison Square Garden, along with their home win over the Utah Jazz, meet NBA.com’s definition of clutch wins, meaning the game was within five points in the final five minutes.
The Knicks performed so well in crunch time of those games, their plus-minus rate in the clutch is seven, which is second-best in the category.
That is the result of a stingy defense yielding 3.7 points per game in its first three opportunities of the season to play in contests that came down to the wire. Furthermore, New York has yet to allow a point off a turnover, fast break, or surrendered a second-chance basket in the clutch. The Knicks’ late-game success is also a testament to an offense that ranks in the top 10 in crunch-time scoring, averaging 10.7 points in those wins against Indiana, Atlanta and Utah.
In terms of individual performances, RJ Barrett is averaging 17.3 points per game, and opponents can’t keep him out of the paint, where he’s scoring 55.1 percent of his buckets. Those drives to the paint are often getting Barrett to the foul line – and he’s averaging 5.1 free-throw attempts per game and converting on those opportunities at a 71.7 percent clip.
As for the rest of his game, the former third overall pick is averaging 7.2 rebounds per game, 3.2 assists per contest and he’s contesting 4.6 three-point attempts per game, which ranks fifth in the association, and is a sure-fire way to win over his new head coach.
Barrett’s also forming an effective tandem with Julius Randle:
Speaking of Randle, he is playing like an All-Star, averaging 22.6 points, 12 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game, which is a testament to him passing up shots to play a more unselfish brand of basketball. Randle’s also exerting more energy defensively, limiting opponents to 105 points per 100 possessions. The sample size is small right now, New York has played nine games, but his defensive rating is lower than it has ever been in his career.
The Knicks are also getting quality minutes from their point guards: Elfrid Payton’s producing 14.8 points, 4.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. Austin Rivers is generating 13 points per contest while shooting 48.1 percent from beyond the arc, providing much-needed spacing for the likes of Barrett and Randle. And rookie point guard, Immanuel Quickley, is off to an impressive start to his NBA career, including a 16-point performance against the Hawks, a game he played 18:47 minutes.
Barrett and Randle ranking first and second in minutes per game, respectively, is concerning, yet not a surprise, considering who their coach is. However, the Knicks are off to an expectation-defying start to the season, and Thibodeau appears to be living up to his reputation as a head coach who can quickly change a franchise’s culture.
5. Standout Rookies
Anthony Edwards: 15.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists
The decision to make Anthony Edwards a part of the second unit is paying off for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s shooting 51.4 percent from inside the arc, and while he has a lot of work to do to round out his game, averaging 26.3 minutes and not having to deal with the opposition’s starters as often as he would be if he were starting, helps that cause.
James Wiseman: 11 points, 6 rebounds, 1.7 blocks
James Wiseman’s NBA career is off to an impressive start. As a shot blocker, he times his leap well, and he can quickly cover a lot of ground around the rim. Wiseman runs the floor well in transition, and he generates easy points for the Golden State Warriors when he dives to the cup. If the defense leaves him open from beyond the arc, he’ll make them pay for that decision, as evidenced by him shooting 42.9 percent on 1.6 three-point attempts per game. And as if that wasn’t enough to earn the second overall pick rave reviews, he’s also comfortable making plays off the dribble.
Simply put, Wiseman looks like the total package.
LaMelo Ball: 12.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists
On Jan. 9, Ball became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, putting together a 22-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist performance.
Ball’s three-point shooting and his defense are noticeable blemishes, but he’s a 19-year-old rookie who’s ten games into his NBA career. He has a preternatural feel for the game and delivers highlight-reel passes with regularity.
Deni Avdija: 7.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists
The ninth pick in the draft has started every game for the Washington Wizards, making a positive impact on both ends of the floor.
Deni Avdija’s 6-foot-9, he sets his feet quickly and he has a fast release. That combination makes it difficult for defenders to challenge his shot. What’s worse for his opponents is he’s knocking down 45.7 percent of his three-point attempts. Shortly, expect him to increase his current average of 3.5 shots from beyond the arc per game.
The other part of Avdija’s offensive repertoire that requires mentioning is he’s a flashy passer, especially off the dribble.
Defensively, Avdija’s effort doesn’t wane. According to NBA.com, he’s contesting 7.5 shots per game, which is the fourth-most among rookies this season. He’s also averaging 1.9 deflections and 1.1 steals per game.
The Wizards have gotten off to a slow start this season, and even their most optimistic fans probably don’t envision them getting past the first round of the playoffs. However, Avdija’s play has been a bright spot, and he’s quickly proving he can be a part of this team’s turnaround.
Tyrese Haliburton: 12.1 points, 5.5 assists, 1.4 steals
Tyrese Haliburton is playing like he’s a 10-year veteran. He has a tremendous feel for the game, he’s decisive, and he’s a threat with and without the ball.
At 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-7.5 wingspan, Haliburton’s long strides allow him to quickly get to the basket, where he effectively utilizes his length to finish at the rim. As a shooter, despite unorthodox mechanics, the former Iowa State Cyclone is averaging 4.8 three-point attempts per game and making 50 percent of them. His deep range permits him plenty of space when he shoots, but when defenders close in on him, he’s unfazed.
Defensively, even when shooters create space against Haliburton, his length typically allows him to recover quickly enough to challenge their shots.
Payton Pritchard: 8.6 points, 3.1 assists, 1.3 steals
The most surprising name on this list is Payton Pritchard. He plays like a veteran point guard, rarely picking up his dribble, patiently probing the defense until he finds a weakness to exploit.
Pritchard’s provided the Boston Celtics with a much-needed boost off the bench, serving as the catalyst for their comeback win over the Pacers and tipping in the game-winning shot against the Miami HEAT.
For more on how this season’s freshman class is performing, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco wrote in-depth about the race for Rookie of the Year.
6. Steph Curry’s 62-Point Bonanza
In a Jan. 3 showdown with the Portland Trail Blazers, Steph Curry put on a scoring clinic en route to a career-high 62 points, which remains the highest individual scoring output in the NBA this season.
Curry was in rhythm from the opening tip, setting the tone for his milestone performance by scoring 21 points in the first quarter. The two-time MVP had 31 at the half and 45 after three quarters. Curry scored 17 points in the final frame, guiding the Warriors to a 137-122 win.
The anatomy of Curry’s career night is as follows: He shot 58.1 percent from the field, made eight of his 16 three-pointers and converted 18 of his 19 free-throw attempts. This season is in its infancy stage, yet it would hardly be a surprise if no one tops Curry’s performance.
7. Bradley Beal’s Career Night
The Washington Wizards don’t win many games, but no matter how much they’re trailing by, they seem capable of making the matchup competitive. That is mostly thanks to Bradley Beal, who in a Jan. 6 tilt with the Sixers, nearly helped his team overcome what at one point was a 21-point deficit by going supernova for the first three-quarters of a career-high, 60-point performance.
In the opening frame, Beal had 13 points. He finished the first half with 32. Entering the fourth quarter, Beal had 57 and seemed poised to break Gilbert Arenas’ franchise scoring record of 60 points. Surprisingly, in the final frame, Beal shot 1-for-6 from the field, missed all three of his three-point attempts and he went just 1-for-2 in his lone trip to the free-throw line, meaning he had to settle for tying rather than surpassing the franchise’s single-game scoring record.
At the end of the Wizards’ nearly miraculous comeback win in Philadelphia, Beal had made 20 of his 35 field goals, good for 57.1 percent. He hit 7-for-10 on three-point attempts and 13 of his 15 free throws. For good measure, Beal also chipped in seven rebounds and five assists – but will he end the year as a Wizard?
8. The Chris Paul Effect
Where Chris Paul goes, winning follows. After missing the playoffs his first two seasons in the NBA, his team has only failed to make the postseason once in the last 12 years. Now, the future Hall of Fame floor general is elevating the Phoenix Suns, who are in a tie for the league’s best record.
Paul is averaging 13.2 points, 8.5 assists, the fourth-most in the league, and 4.6 rebounds per game. The stingy Suns are yielding just 106.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranks seventh in the association. Offensively, they’re scoring 112.5 points per 100 possessions, the ninth-most in the league. That two-way production has led to Phoenix having the fourth-highest net rating in the NBA.
Paul is an ideal option to run the point alongside the Suns’ young cornerstones, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, and catch-and-shoot three-point threats such as Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder. They’re making the 15-year veteran’s job easier; in turn, each one of them is benefitting from playing off the nine-time All-NBA point guard.
9. Toronto Raptors Stumbling Out of the Gates
Even those anticipating the Toronto Raptors would regress after finishing with the second-best record in the NBA last season probably didn’t forecast them losing six of their first seven games to start the 2020-21 campaign.
Eight games into their season, they have the fourth-worst record.
As the first team to arrive at the Orlando bubble, the Raptors spent two grueling months there. They had little time to recover, thanks to a condensed offseason, and they’re playing their home games in Tampa Bay this season, creating more strain than usual for organization members who didn’t bring their families with them.
In the offseason, Serge Ibaka signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Marc Gasol joined the Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors signed Aron Baynes to start at center, yet he’s getting outplayed by Chris Boucher, who’s slender frame restricts how head coach Nick Nurse can utilize him.
While Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet continue to perform at a high level, Pascal Siakam is yet to shake off the struggles that plagued him in the bubble. The Raptors need Siakam, whose $130 million maximum contract extension kicked in this season, to snap out of his funk. Perhaps, his 32-point performance against the Suns is a sign he’s thawing out from his ice-cold start to the season.
10. Los Angeles Lakers’ New Additions Fitting in Seamlessly
LeBron James and Anthony Davis are wisely pacing themselves with the big picture in mind. They’re also two of the best players in the league, meaning they can still average over 20 points and eight rebounds per game.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ new additions, Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, and Wesley Matthews, are veterans who know their roles, helping them mesh quickly with James and Davis.
Though Talen Horton-Tucker isn’t new to the team, he’s already played in more games than he did as a rookie, and he’s contributing quality minutes as well as 7.1 points per game this season. He’s another new member of the Lakers’ rotation, helping keep them atop the Western Conference standings without taxing its superstar duo, which should pay dividends in the postseason.
While the season is still in the early goings, there’s plenty of worthwhile tidbits to dig through. From impressive rookies to future all-timers, the NBA and it’s revolving carousel of parity never fails to disappoint – and it hasn’t thus far through a fraction of the frantic 2020-21 campaign.