10 lessons from opening month of 2018-19 NBA season

By David Kenyon
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

A new campaign has brought fresh observations.

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

One month into the 2018-19 NBA season, it’s too early to make grand proclamations. Noticeable trends make for important lessons, however.

Preseason expectations are a thing of the past, since teams and players are soaring past them or already falling well short. There are breakouts, slumps and visibly drastic changes compared to last season all around the league.

Yes, it’s early, but a new campaign has brought fresh observations. Each of the topics covered are worth monitoring as the season progresses. Whether these teams or players sustain the good or correct the bad will shape their performance.

Here’s what we’ve learned from opening month.

 

Whirlwind start for the Sixers

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons might be the next dynamic duo.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

What an adventurous month it’s been for the 76ers, who boast a 7-0 record when playing in Philadelphia yet are only 2-6 on the road. But forget about all that, right? The first blockbuster trade sent Jimmy Butler to Philly in exchange for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. And as hopeful as the Sixers remain about Markelle Fultz, his free-throw form is broken beyond belief. Can Philly really trust him to regain confidence in his shot? Outside of Golden State, the Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons/Butler trio might be the best Big Three in the NBA. But will that translate to an elite team?

 

Kevin Durant actually might leave Golden State

Kevin Durant is in line for a huge contract.

The rumors were already flying, but the reported scuffle between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant only supports the possibility of a breakup. When KD bolted from Oklahoma City Thunder, he went in search of rings. Well, now he has two. Even with this apparent turmoil, the Warriors will and should heavy favorites to win the NBA title. Head coach Steve Kerr says Durant’s impending free agency isn’t a concern. However, it would be foolish for us to suggest Golden State’s front office is ignorant about this situation. Maybe KD ultimately stays. At the very worst, Durant leaving the Dubs is realistic.

 

Portland is the early breakout team

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Thanks to the emergence of Donovan Mitchell and offseason full of re-signed players, the Utah Jazz seemed poised for a tremendous year. Perhaps that still happens, yet the Trail Blazers are actually the West’s biggest riser so far. Damian Lillard has propelled Portland to a 10-3 start while averaging 26 points and 5.8 assists. Second-year forward Zach Collins has been excellent, too. One important note is that no other franchise has played more at home, and it’s possible the friendly environment has boosted the Blazers. Right now, though, the West standings show an intriguing team in second place.

 

Gordon Hayward needs a minute

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

During the first quarter of the opening game of the 2017-18 campaign, a gruesome ankle injury ended Gordon Hayward’s season. One exhausting recovery later, the All-Star forward hasn’t reclaimed his previous form. By no means should anyone scramble for the panic button. Still, the early slump is peculiar. Hayward has managed just 9.9 points per game while shooting 31.9 percent from three-point range and 39.6 overall. His complementary numbers are on par with past seasons, but Hayward is searching for his shooting touch. Once that happens, expect a surge from the Celtics.

 

Kawhi Leonard is still that good

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

As the 2014 NBA Finals MVP dealt with an injury last season and refused to rejoin the San Antonio Spurs, there was a question of whether Kawhi Leonard would be the same player upon his return. Uh, yes. “The Klaw” has answered that in resounding fashion with the Toronto Raptors. He’s racked up 24 points per game while shooting 38.1 beyond the arc and 46.9 overall, comparable numbers to his career-best 2016-17 campaign. Leonard has posted averages of 7.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.6 steals, too. His presence has solidified the Raptors as a threat in the East.

 

Cavs are really, really bad

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LeBron James brought Cleveland an NBA title. He also left the franchise in bad shape when he headed to the Lakers. Though a foot injury to Kevin Love isn’t helping, the Cavs have trudged to a 2-11 record. Only the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns have a worse point differential than Cleveland’s minus-7.2. That’s to be expected when Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood are the leading players, but it’s an enormous drop from James leading the Cavs to four Eastern Conference crowns. Everyone knew this would be rebuild. This time, though, LeBron isn’t coming back to rescue the Cavs.

 

Kemba Walker has embraced threes

Will the Hornets trade Kemba Walker?

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

During his first seven seasons, Kemba Walker steadily raised the volume of his three-point attempts. But the Charlotte Hornets point guard has infringed on Stephen Curry and James Harden territory, and that’s not an overstatement. Heading into the season, those former MVPs were the only players in NBA history to launch nine triples per game, according to Basketball-Reference. So far in 2018-19, Walker has hoisted an even 10. While his 37.1 connection rate isn’t remarkable, it’s higher than any of Harden’s years at this volume. Walker’s efficiency will be fascinating to track.

 

Coach Bud has Bucks rolling

Courtesy of USA Today Images

Courtesy of USA Today Images

Who would’ve guessed that having a functional offensive system would benefit a talented roster? Funny how that works. Milwaukee made a terrific move hiring Mike Budenholzer this offseason. The Bucks rank fifth in pace and second in three-point attempts compared to 20th and 25th, respectively, last year. Giannis Antetokounmpo still doesn’t have a reliable jumper, but every single rotation player is averaging two triples per game. Given his combination of gravity (attracting extra attention) and passing ability, this is ideal roster construction for an ideal system. Milwaukee has exciting potential.

 

Luka Doncic is better than advertised

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a shocking statement: The versatile guard who excelled in EuroLeague as a teenager is still awesome in the NBA. Shouldn’t actually be shocking, right? But after hearing the pre-draft sentiments best described as anti-Euro bias, it certainly feels that way. The 19-year-old has amassed 19.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game during the first month of his NBA career. He’s shooting 38.6 percent from long distance and 47.4 overall. Though Doncic likely won’t be an All-Star in a stacked Western Conference, he’s making a strong case for Rookie of the Year.

 

Carmelo Anthony didn’t work for Houston

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The veteran’s time with the Rockets can be summed up in one easy phrase: At least you tried. From the beginning, Anthony’s presence on the roster seemed ill-fated. He’s a stationary player on offense and a subpar defender, and Mike D’Antoni’s system is built on rapid offense and competent perimeter defense. Well, it only took Houston 10 games to admit the experiment didn’t work. On the bright side, the Rockets never actually traded for the forward and merely signed Melo after the Hawks waived him. But those are 10 games — and six losses — Houston will never get back.

 

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