Buy/Sell: Early NBA Season Edition
As we near the end of the third week of this young NBA season, there are certain surprising trends and teams starting to emerge. Just like with any season, some of these trends will prove to be legitimate, while others will fall by the wayside and drift into NBA irrelevancy. The bright future Suns have made their presence felt in the Western Conference; while in the East, teams like the Magic and the Knicks have gotten off to surprisingly hot starts. Meanwhile, teams like the Toronto Raptors have struggled to find their footing early on. While all of these may look sustainable for the time being, we know that normalcy can take some time to be established in this league, especially with some teams having almost nine months of offseason to accumulate rust. While we don’t know for certain what the rest of the season will hold, I am here to run you through the most surprising storylines of the season and break down whether I believe these are sustainable, or if they will only be a blurb of this long and unpredictable season.
The New York Knicks as a Playoff Team
I wanted to write this one first so I didn’t talk myself out of it, but I’m reluctantly buying the Knicks as at least a play-in team this season. The Knicks haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, and since that point, there hasn’t been much for Knicks fans to hang their hat on. Their best season since that point came in 2014 when they flashed a very mediocre 37-45 record, and it’s been all downhill since. However, after a long offseason, it appears as if Madison Square Garden will finally be home to a competent basketball team (too bad there isn’t anyone there to see it). I didn’t want to believe this trend, and it’s hard to believe it still, but the Knicks have been playing pretty good basketball and have been beating good teams along the way. At 5-3, the Knicks currently sit at fifth place in the East and have already knocked off a number of perennial playoff teams in the Bucks (by 20 points), Jazz and Pacers. While their offensive numbers haven’t improved much from last season, it appears as if the Tom Thibodeau hiring is having the effect the Knicks organization hoped it would, as the team has jumped from 23rd in defensive rating last season to seventh in the early part of this season. They’re also forcing more missed shots, with their opponents’ effective field goal percentage sitting at 49% (good for fourth in the league) compared to 54% last season (23rd in the league). On top of this, the decision to move away from their excess of power forwards and give more minutes to Julius Randle has paid off handsomely. Randle, the 26-year-old entering his seventh season, is having a tremendous start to this season, averaging a career high in points per game, rebounds per game, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, and assists all while logging around 38 minutes per game (another career high). Thibs has been known to ride his star players and give them plenty of minutes, and without the crowded frontcourt consisting of Marcus Morris and Bobby Portis, he can afford to do this. Another player averaging 38 minutes is RJ Barrett, the former Duke standout who is starting his second year in the league. While it’s still early, it looks as if Barrett has made solid strides after his rookie season, averaging 17 PPG compared to just over 14 last season, while also upping his rebounding and assists averages, as well. I would like to see him convert his shot attempts at a higher rate (sitting at a 42% effective field goal percentage currently), but I feel much more confident about Barrett’s NBA future right now than I did during last season. The Knicks also have a solid group of role players including Austin Rivers, Alec Burks, and their beloved rookie guard Immanuel Quickley, that have provided sparks and play their roles nicely. While we have seen the Knicks crash and burn before—and they will absolutely encounter their fair share of ups and downs throughout the season—there is reason for optimism in New York, and that’s much more than you can say about the Knicks of the past decade.
Nikola Jokic is a Real MVP Candidate
This may not be entirely surprising to those that have watched any Nuggets basketball in recent years, but it appears as if The Joker has taken the next leap forward in his career and has emerged as a legit MVP candidate this season. After being an All-Star the past two seasons and considered as one of the best centers in the league, Jokic has made the case for being one of the best all-around players in the league to start the 2021 season. While the Nuggets have struggled out of the gate this season, the blame doesn’t fall on Jokic. The 7-foot Serbian has been on a tear to start this season, averaging a triple double and acting as the focal point for the Nuggets’ offense. He is averaging his most points per game by a significant margin, posting 24 PPG (with his next closest season being 19.9), all while averaging 11.9 assists per game and grabbing 11.7 rebounds. Jokic’s offensive game is on an entirely new level this season, as his next closest assist per game total prior to this season was 7.3 back in 2019. What’s more—he’s doing this while not losing any efficiency on that end of the floor. His usage percentage (which calculates the estimated percentage of team plays used by a certain player) is 26.8%, which is almost exactly what it was at last season (26.6%). This usage rate is 35th and is behind players like Goran Dragic and Jordan Clarkson, but Jokic is making more of those opportunities, as his player efficiency rating (which measures how efficient a player is based on their per-minute production) is at a league-leading 30.9. For reference, the league average is 15, and the next closest player is Joel Embiid at 29.1. What all of this means is that Jokic is one of the best values for what you’re getting. He has the best plus/minus total in the NBA at +10.5, and he has the highest win shares total (calculates the estimated number of wins a player adds to their team) at 1.5. I’m not entirely sure how sustainable his offensive numbers are throughout the course of this season, but if we’re looking at players that are the most valuable to the success of their team, there is not a doubt in my mind that Nikola Jokic is deserving of the MVP award, or at least a finalist. Hell, you could even make the case that he could win the Most Improved Player award if these stats more or less keep up.
The Philadelphia 76ers are a Legitimate Title Contender
The Daryl Morey era of the Sixers franchise is in full swing, and it looks as if the offseason moves are paying off. After getting swept in the first-round last year by the Celtics, it was clear some changes were needed for this team. This offseason, the Sixers fired Brent Brown and replaced him with Doc Rivers. They also went out and exchanged height for shooting, as they traded Al Horford and acquired Seth Curry and Danny Green. These moves have paid off early on, as Philly stands alone at the top of the Eastern Conference at 7-1 at the time I’m writing this article. There are a number of reasons for this early season success, such as the team’s improved defense, the modernized offensive approach, and the consistent play of their stars. Looking at the defensive end, through the first eight games of the season, the Sixers are number one in defensive rating, allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions. They are also holding opposing teams to a 49% effective field goal percentage, which ranks second in the NBA. This compares to the eighth overall defensive rating and 13th overall opponent effective field goal percentage in 2020. With two-way stars such as Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers have always been pretty good on the defensive end, but they have taken their play to a completely new level to begin this season. Looking at the other side, it looks as if the offseason moves and a new coach is exactly what the doctor (Doc Rivers pun intended) ordered for this team. Not only are the Sixers third in effective field goal percentage (56%), but they’ve increased the pace in which they’re playing at to allow for more fast breaks and offensive possessions; they’re attempting more threes per game and they’ve drastically improved the number of free throws attempted. Last season, it appeared as if this team had too many clunky pieces playing together at the same time. With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as your franchise cornerstones, you cannot play Al Horford and have a well-oiled offense. From the jump, it looked like the Horford signing was a bad idea, and it proved to be one of the many reasons Philadelphia left the Bubble disappointed. Finally, the stars are playing like stars for this team. As I mentioned above, Joel Embiid is second in the league in efficiency while averaging a career high in points, blocks, steals, and field goal percentage. Some of these averages may not hold throughout the course of the season, but it’s nice to see the big man play like he’s shown he can in flashes. Away from Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris are performing well, too. Simmons is only averaging 14 points per game, but he’s also leading the team in assists per game, he’s second in rebounds, and he’s 100% from beyond the arc (yes, he’s only taken one attempt, but still). Harris, meanwhile, has returned to the form of a player that deserves the big bucks. After somewhat of a disappointing 2020, Tobias Harris has performed well enough to be named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week last week. While it isn’t the personal accolade that many remember, it’s a great sign for the Sixers that the 28-year-old is producing right out of the gate. It remains to be seen if this production can remain throughout the course of the season and into the playoffs—which has been the bane of the Sixers’ existence recently—but if this team continues on the course that they’re on, I believe they’re a threat to make it out of a competitive Eastern Conference.
The Toronto Raptors Not Making the Playoffs
The Raptors have gotten off to a rough start this season, beginning 1-6 and finding themselves at the very bottom of the Eastern Conference. This is a bit of a surprise for a team that took Boston to seven games in the Conference Semifinals last year, exceeding expectations after losing Kawhi Leonard in the previous offseason. This Raptors team returned most of their top production from last year, but lost some crucial veteran experience at the center position when they lost both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol during free agency. Toronto attempted to fill that void this free agency with another pair of experienced veterans in Alex Len and Aron Baynes, but the duo hasn’t quite lived up to expectations. Chris Boucher has emerged as a likely successor, but he’s in a virtual minutes split with Baynes at 19 minutes per game, with Len also taking around 12 minutes. The biggest problem to me is their three-point shooting, though. Last season, the Raptors were ranked sixth in percentage of field goal attempts from three, and they were fifth in three-point percentage at around 37%. This season, the Raptors took their three-point shooting to the extreme, as they lead the league in field goal attempts from three at 49%, but they are 24th overall in three-point percentage at 34%. With almost half of the team’s offense coming from behind the arc, they need to be better at converting their attempts if they want to continue this offensive model. I would like to see that percentage of three-point attempts come down slightly to reboot the offense, which is desperately needed as the team ranks 26th in offensive rating and 24th in effective field goal percentage. It also doesn’t help that the Raptors have had a relatively difficult strength of schedule coming out of the gate, and in their first three games of the season, they squandered a double-digit lead in every game. With all this being said, I believe the Raptors will recover from their early season woes and put together a string of wins that will get them on the right track. To do this, though, I would like to see more minutes going to Boucher, who is second on the team in plus/minus, at the expense of Alex Len and Aron Baynes, and an adjustment to the offensive game plan that includes fewer three-point attempts. Nick Nurse and this organization are too smart to miss the playoffs, and I expect if things aren’t back on track by the trade deadline, the Raptors will absolutely be players in the trade market.
The Orlando Magic as a Competitive Playoff Team
Continuing the theme of bizarre Eastern Conference records, we’ll turn to the Orlando Magic, who after eight games, find themselves at 6-2 and second in the East. First and foremost, I want to extend my condolences to Markelle Fultz after learning that he tore his ACL. Fultz has had a brutal start to his NBA career, and it appeared as if he had found a solid role in Orlando and the lowkey development project that Philadelphia couldn’t take on. I also wanted to start by addressing this injury to highlight just how much this hurts the Magic and their quest to maintain this hot start they they’re on. While Fultz wasn’t the sole reason this team is humming along, I do believe losing him as the team’s main point guard will affect Orlando more than people think. On offense, Markelle Fultz was the primary facilitator on this team, rocking an assist percentage (percentage of field goals a player assisted on) of 30.3%. The next closest player to this mark on Orlando is Cole Anthony at 21.9%. Fultz also was heavily involved in the offense, as his usage rate was second highest on the team, only behind Terrence Ross. Fultz will be a key piece to the immediate future of the Magic, and it certainly hurts their rest-of-season projection to lose a player like him this early on. On top of this injury, however, I do not believe the Magic’s start is sustainable for the rest of the season. Five of their six wins came from teams that are either projected to be at the bottom of the league this year, or weren’t playoff teams last year (Washington, Oklahoma City, and Cleveland). Their strength of schedule so far has been in the bottom half of the league, so it would have been more telling if they had gotten off to a slow start than this hot start is. Their roster also didn’t improve at all going into this year, as they lost DJ Augustine and are playing without Jonathan Isaac for much of the year. Statistically speaking, this holds up as well. While Orlando has improved their offensive and defensive ratings to begin the season, they’re actually ranked worse in effective field goal percentage, and are relatively on pace with last year for almost every other advanced stat. It’s promising to see the progress that Terrance Ross has made this season, as shooting fewer threes per game has raised his field goal percentage and bumped him up to averaging around 20 points per game. Also, Vucevic is as consistent as they come when looking at the center position. But without any real signs of significant change, I’m not too confident that the Magic can keep this start up throughout the course of an entire season and the playoffs.
Bradley Beal isn’t a superstar
I’m not sure how many people are arguing against Bradley Beal at this point, but not enough people are arguing for Beal, either. In his first eight seasons in the league, Beal has only been named an All-Star twice and is criminally-underrated because of the team he plays for. Aside from making the All-Rookie team, Beal has never been honored as one of the top players in the NBA, and it’s about time he gets the respect he deserves. Last season, Beal averaged 30.5 points per game while shooting 52% on the season. For some reason, that wasn’t enough to be honored by an All-NBA team or an All-Star appearance. This season, Beal has been even better, averaging a league-high 34.3 points per game while actually improving his field goal percentage to 52.6%. While these numbers may be a tad unsustainable, Beal’s impact on the Wizards certainly is not. Beal leads the team in win shares at 1.0, logs an efficiency rating of 26.4 (also the highest on the team), and has the highest plus/minus on the team (aside from Anthony Gill who has a +/- of 5.2 but has played just 11 minutes). He is pretty much the only reason Washington is a watchable basketball team, and he just dropped 60 points in a losing effort against the Sixers. Beal has been one of the most productive and consistent guards in the league, and there’s not many people playing better basketball at this moment in time. For the love of god, give Bradley Beal the respect he deserves, or get him off of the Washington Wizards. #FreeBeal