Roundtable: NBA’s Early Surprises and Disappointments – Sports Illustrated - Techy Hunters

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Friday, October 29, 2021

Roundtable: NBA’s Early Surprises and Disappointments – Sports Illustrated

The NBA season is only 10 days old, but it’s not too early to take a look at the biggest surprises and disappointments so far. Our writers weigh in.

1. Which team is off to the most surprising start?

Howard Beck: Warriors, at 4–1 (with an OT loss). Their renaissance was supposed to come in January—after Klay Thompson presumably returns to the lineup following a two-year absence. But Steph Curry apparently couldn’t wait. He’s putting up MVP numbers again: 30 points, 8 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game. Jordan Poole and Damion Lee are having early breakouts. And old man Andre Iguodala is still doing Iguodala things. This looks sustainable.

Robin Lundberg: Knicks. It’s not exactly surprising that New York would win some games to start after what they did last season, but considering the additions they made and the development of a few players they already had on the roster, being 4–1 and atop the East (at least for a day) is affirming. I no longer expect this squad to turn into a pumpkin.

Chris Mannix: Bulls. Their spending spree last summer made headlines, but I had them penciled into the bottom half of the playoff bracket, anyway. Lonzo Ball has been worth every nickel of his $85 million contract, Zach LaVine has looked like an (efficient) All-Star and DeMar DeRozan continues to put up numbers. Oh, and the defense has been top five in the NBA.

Michael Pina: Bulls. Even with Thursday night’s loss against the Knicks, the Bulls are too easy of an answer, after starting 4–0 with some ravenous defense. There are myriad signs that this fast start might be a mirage (Chicago ranks 30th in three-point rate and 30th in the percentage of opposing shots allowed at the rim), and their schedule is about to get bumpy. But this once-proud organization won its first four games for the first time since Michael Jordan was an employee. It’s cause for celebration.

Jeremy Woo: Cavs. They played Memphis and Charlotte close before ripping off three impressive wins against Atlanta (on a back-to-back), Denver and the Clippers (both on the road). The Cavs may have an ill-fitting roster, but they don’t look like a bottom-feeder. Ricky Rubio discovered the fountain of youth, Jarrett Allen has been terrific and I feel pretty good about my Evan Mobley Rookie of the Year pick. If this keeps going well, maybe LeBron will come back.


2. Which team is off to the most disappointing start?

Pina: Lakers. LeBron James is already injured, joining Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn, Talen Horton-Tucker and Wayne Ellington on the sideline for a humiliating loss in Oklahoma City on Wednesday. The Lakers rank 25th on defense and have the ninth-worst net rating in the league. Russell Westbrook has mostly looked catastrophic (though the spark he gave L.A. in its overtime win against the Spurs was big), and their offense with DeAndre Jordan on the floor is unsurprisingly inept. Even with Anthony Davis donning a cape for the season’s first five games, the Lakers are in trouble.

Kevin Durant, James Harden

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Beck: Nets. Sure, they’re missing their third star, Mr. Voice for the Voiceless (who hasn’t been heard from for two weeks). But they still have two former MVPs, which should be plenty. But James Harden is barely average at the moment. Maybe it’s the continued recovery from last season’s hamstring issues. Maybe it’s the NBA crackdown on ref-baiting, and the resulting decline in foul shots. Maybe he’s a bit out of shape. Maybe it’s all of it. But the Nets aren’t winning the East with this Harden.

Woo: Suns. They are facing real expectations for the first time in more than a decade but have sputtered out of the gate, suffering blowouts against the Nuggets and Blazers and losing to the Kings at the buzzer Wednesday. I expect them to sort things out—there’s too much experience on the roster—but Chris Paul has struggled, and the team may come to regret not getting Deandre Ayton’s deal done before the season. The Suns have four winnable home games coming up, which will be a useful barometer of how much panic is necessary.

Mannix: Celtics. It’s one thing to lose, but for the Celtics to be called out by their coach for a lack of effort five games into the season is awful. Boston looked largely lifeless in losses to Toronto and Washington. Jaylen Brown has struggled since his 46-point opening night and a roster full of solid individual defenders has looked indifferent at times defensively. Ime Udoka has some work to do.

Lundberg: Suns. After an unexpected run to the NBA Finals, one would hope Phoenix would continue to move in the right direction. However, a 1–3 start with two blowout losses doesn’t exactly qualify. When you add in some drama around Deandre Ayton’s contract status, you get the recipe for a disappointing beginning.


3. Which player is off to the most surprising start?

Woo: Miles Bridges. He deserves a ton of credit for making what looks like a mini-leap. He’s scoring the ball consistently, he’s become a reliable jump shooter, he’s competing defensively, and he looks on his way to becoming the best version of himself. He won’t average 26 points all year, but he fits extremely well next to LaMelo Ball. The Hornets may come to regret not getting an extension done before the October deadline.

Beck: Miles Bridges! That probably needs more exclamation marks. Have you seen this dude’s highlights? His sledgehammer dunks? The flurries of three-pointers? Oh my. Bridges is doing everything he did in his first three NBA seasons, just more often and more aggressively, and with ruthless efficiency. He’s on pace for career highs in points per game (26.2), rebounds per game (8), three-pointers per game (3), free throws per game (4), free-throw percentage (.909) and effective field-goal percentage (.610).

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Miles Bridges

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Lundberg: Ja Morant. We all knew Ja was good, but so far he’s been playing at an MVP level. His control in manipulating defenders has been impressive and he’s improved his passing and shooting to go along with the attacking style he already had in his bag. Ja looks like he’s making a leap.

Mannix: Miles Bridges. No one saw him coming. He has more than doubled his scoring average from last season while racking up three 30-plus point games in his first five. James Borrego told me this week that the silver lining to Charlotte’s injury-plagued second half of last season was it afforded Bridges more opportunities. He has built on that and looks like an All-Star early on.

Pina: Miles Bridges is the only answer to this question, and as much as the Hornets are enjoying a start that yielded this season’s first Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors, their front office probably regrets not signing the 23-year-old forward to an extension. He’s averaging 26.2 points with a 65.1 true shooting percentage. Nothing else needs to be said.


4. Which player is off to the most disappointing start?

Mannix: Is there an answer other than James Harden? Harden’s shooting percentages have tanked and the NBA’s James Harden Adjustment—what we will call referees’ instructions not to call the fouls that Harden has grown used to getting most of his career—has kept him off the free throw line. Harden is too good to struggle forever, but he has not looked good to start the season.

Beck: The aforementioned James Harden. If the season ended today (spoiler alert: it won’t), Harden would finish with his worst scoring average (16.6) since his second season, his fewest three-pointers per game since 2014–15, and career lows in free throw attempts per game (3), two-point shooting (.385) and three-point shooting (.333). Those numbers will all surely improve, but can Harden get himself going soon enough to avoid a massive early deficit in the standings?

Lundberg: James Harden. Let me first say, I believe Harden’s struggles are due to his still getting his legs under him after dealing with his hamstring injury all offseason and not the new rule changes. As a result, I expect him to get his burst back and round into superstar form again shortly. However, the Nets need him to be much better as a scorer than he has been, especially without Kyrie Irving.

Pina: De’Aaron Fox. The Kings aren’t a bad basketball team, which is wild considering their franchise point guard’s glaring struggle to look the part. He’s 4-for-24 behind the three-point line and turning the ball over like crazy when he takes it to the hole. But more worrisome is his general energy level. In Wednesday night’s win against the Suns, Fox looked lethargic. He died on screens and jogged back in transition. On paper, Sacramento can compete for the play-in this year. But snapping its playoff drought will be impossible unless Fox starts to look like the All-Star he can be.

Woo: Russell Westbrook. I take no joy in slinging mud at Westbrook, but any hope of his adjusting his game to fit in with the Lakers has already been scuttled to some extent. He’s averaging six turnovers per game, he’s struggling from three and from the foul line and—surprise—he’s not a great fit with LeBron, who has fashioned himself into more of a perimeter shooter to accommodate Westbrook. Russ is who he is, and his incredible motor is going to help the Lakers slog their way through a long season. But whether the stylistic personnel friction will bear any fruit in the playoffs is a serious question.


5. What’s the biggest takeaway from the season’s first 10 days?

Lundberg: The Eastern Conference has arrived. After years of jokes about how pathetic the East was in comparison to the West, that is no longer the case. Because not only has the East caught up, one can make a case it has even surpassed the West. It’s now a conference boasting title contenders and deep enough where every prospective playoff team feels legitimate.

Pina: Big picture, it’s James Harden not looking like an All-Star, let alone an MVP candidate, for the first time in a decade. Even after Kyrie Irving decided giving a voice to the voiceless was more important than getting vaccinated and playing for the Nets, it was O.K. to see Brooklyn as championship favorites. That goes out the window if Harden can’t adapt to the league’s new interpretation of what is and isn’t a foul. The 2021–22 title is up for grabs.

Woo: This might be a truly exceptional rookie class we’re watching. Cade Cunningham hasn’t even played yet, but so many guys are showing incredible flashes of ability. Evan Mobley, Chris Duarte and Davion Mitchell were always going to be impactful early and Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs will have some growing pains in high-usage roles. Lottery guys like Scottie Barnes, Josh Giddey and Franz Wagner all have major talent but have also been exceptionally quick studies. This was one of the most unique draft classes I’ve evaluated, and it looks like it has a chance to be one of the best.

Mannix: The NBA title might be more up for grabs than I originally thought. The Nets seemed like they were ready to bring the superteam back, and maybe they will. But Harden’s struggles, Kyrie’s absence and a defense that looks like the one Brooklyn had at the start of last season rather than the end has made them vulnerable. A lot of people assumed the Lakers would figure it out, and, again, maybe they will. But all the problems they had in the preseason—poor spacing and Westbrook looking like a square peg/round hole fit—are still there, and it’s hard to see that changing. The result: parity!

Beck: None. It’s been 10 days.

More NBA Coverage:
NBA Power Rankings: First Impressions for All 30 Teams
10 Early NBA Season Trends to Watch
Knicks Rising in the East With New-Look Offense
How Chicago Became the NBA’s Most Intriguing Team



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