As some major changes occur around the NBA world, other things remain the same. The Golden State Warriors sit atop the Western Conference with a 20-3 mark while the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers boast the best record back east.
Neither of these developments are terribly significant. It is, however, rather significant how they got here. Kevin Durant is playing the best basketball of his career in his first season with the Warriors. Meanwhile, Kevin Love has rebounded from last year’s less-than-stellar performance and is playing at an All-Star level.
A bit further down the totem pole, the Milwaukee Bucks continue to play an entertaining brand of basketball back east. Could they give some of the top teams in that conference a run down the stretch?
These are among the 10-most significant developments thus far in the young NBA season.
1. Best basketball of Kevin Durant’s career
Not only are the Golden State Warriors 20-3 in Durant’s first season with the team, their newest star is playing the best basketball of his career. It is an amazing realization to come to considering just how good he was for so many years in Oklahoma City. And while it’s not necessarily showing up from a scoring standpoint, Durant is in the process of upping his game even more.
The former MVP is averaging over 26 points and what would be a career-high 8.4 rebounds per game. He’s also darn near matched DeAndre Jordan’s block total for the season. Durant plays primarily small forward, but the Warriors have actually used him at both the four and the five this season. That’s the first point we need to make.
It’s this versatility Durant has displayed that makes him such a dynamic figure. Not only can he guard the interior, the star has the ability to go out and defend the wing. This has had a direct impact on the Warriors’ elite-level defensive metrics thus far this season.
Offensively, Durant adds another dimension to the two-time defending Western Conference champs. Here’s a guy that’s shooting at a 55 percent clip from the field, including a remarkable 41 percent from distance. And on an offense that’s averaging over 30 assists per game, he’s proven to be more than a willing passer at near five helpers per outing.
We already knew Durant would be a difference maker. He’s a top-three player in the league. He’s a former MVP. That’s why the rest of the NBA community was so up in arms over him deciding to sign with Golden State. We just didn’t know that Durant would mesh so smoothly with his new team. We didn’t know it would take less than a handful of games for that to happen.
Both Draymond Green and Stephen Curry are still playing at their 2015-16 levels. And while he struggled early, Klay Thompson has picked it up (see the 60 points he scored in 29 minutes against Indiana). If these three continue to play at this level with Durant upping his game from what was already an all-world level, the Warriors will win the title. It’s that simple.
2. Kevin Love’s resurgence in Cleveland
The defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers sit at their usual place atop the Eastern Conference with a 15-5 record. If it wasn’t for a fluky three-game losing streak, we’d be talking about a team in contention with the aforementioned Warriors for the best record in the NBA.
Of course, most of the praise in Cleveland will go LeBron James’ way. That’s more sensible than somehow concluding Kevin Love is the reason for the Cavaliers’ success. Though, for a guy that was pretty much a forgotten member of last year’s title team, Love has rebounded in a big way.
Back in November, Love broke the NBA record for the most points in the first quarter of a game, scoring a whopping 34 against the Portland Trail Blazers. He’d end up finishing that game with 40 points, hitting 8-of-12 from distance in the process.
This is just a sign of the tremendous play we’ve seen from Love mere months after he was speculated to be on the trade block. Overall this season, the former All-Star is averaging 21.4 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting a robust 42 percent from the field. He’s also put up 13 double-doubles in 20 games.
With James still playing at an all-world level and Kyrie Irving showing himself to be 100 percent, Cleveland remains one of the top teams in the Association. That was more than evident when this squad came back from a 3-1 series deficit against Golden State in the 2016 NBA Finals.
But remember, Love was nowhere near the player we’ve seen thus far this season. He played a minimal role in last season’s Finals. Should the talented big continue to perform at this clip, there’s little doubt the Cavaliers will make their third consecutive trip to the title round. That really can’t be put in question right now.
3. Russell Westbrook’s Thunder
Russell Westbrook alert.
15 points, 11 rebounds & 10 assists w/ 6:19 in the 3Q, his 6th straight triple double. pic.twitter.com/mebOQECaLJ
— NBA (@NBA) December 6, 2016
No one is going to sit here and conclude that the Oklahoma City Thunder are better off without Kevin Durant. That would be absolutely asinine. What we do know is that Westbrook — now the unquestioned leader of the team — has taken his game to an entirely new level.
Here’s a guy that’s averaging 31.0 points, 10.9 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game. Yes, for those of you who aren’t well-versed in math, that’s a triple-double. In fact, Russ is in the midst of six consecutive games with a triple-double. Extending it even further, he’s accomplished this feat in eight of his past 10 games. That’s Oscar Robertson territory right there.
If Russ were doing this for a bad team, it would be a completely different story. An argument could be made that he’d be simply looking to get his own. But this is happening within the confines of what Billy Donovan is asking the MVP candidate to do. It’s also happening on a Thunder team that enters this weekend’s action with a 14-8 mark.
The Thunder can’t be considered serious title contenders. That’s likely not a realistic goal in the first year of the post-Durant era. They can, however, remain competitive and somehow find a way to grab a top-five seed. Should that happen, the 2016-17 campaign will be seen as a success. It will also be a harbinger of things to come.
In addition to Russ’s otherworldly play, the likes of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter have stepped it up big inside. Add in the play of the newly acquired Victor Oladipo, and there’s definitely a foundation to build on here. That could attract a top-end free agent to play with Westbrook and crew in what promises to be a busy summer.
4. Spurs’ road wizardry
If it wasn’t for the Warriors’ absolute domination at home last season, San Antonio itself would have made history. Here’s a squad that won 40 of its 41 homes games in 2015-16. Fast forward a year, and Gregg Popovich’s squad has flipped this. It enters the weekend having won 13 of its 14 road games on the season.
This isn’t atypical of a veteran-laden squad with one of the top coaches in the history of the Association. Road success should come natural to the Spurs. A near-perfect mark at the season’s quarter point is a completely different story. And in reality, it’s all about Pop’s handling of his star-studded roster.
With San Antonio’s starters coming out completely flat against the Timberwolves in Minnesota earlier this week, Pop pulled his entire starting-five. That includes Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The team’s response? Production from the bench. In the end, San Antonio’s second unit led the charge in what ended up being a blowout win over the struggling T’Wolves. This is a sign that Pop knows his roster well and exactly what to do with it.
Only two games behind Golden State for the best record in the NBA, the Spurs actually boast a 5-4 record at home. That would normally be a major question-mark heading into the second quarter of the season. Of course, this is until we realize San Antonio is 13-1 on the road.
Common logic seems to suggest the Spurs will right the ship at the AT&T Center. This really shouldn’t be in question. Should the team somehow find the magic it had at home last season while continuing to perform at a ridiculous clip on the road, it will surely challenge Golden State for the best record in the Western Conference.
5. Potential shake-up looming in D.C.?
Washington Wizards guard John Wall just recently aired his frustration about his teammates after scoring 50-plus points in a loss. The Wizards head into the weekend boasting an 8-13 record and clearly on the outside looking in back east. This all coming in a season that many expected Washington to challenge for a top-five seed.
While there’s surely enough time for Washington to put this together, one has to start wondering if the current nucleus will ever be able to contend with the big boys in the Eastern Conference.
Mere months after signing a max deal to remain with the Wizards, Bradley Beal is having himself a career season. He’s averaging over 21 points while shooting what would be a career best 42 percent from distance. Meanwhile, Wall continues to play at an All-Star level.
These two aren’t the issue. Instead, it’s all about the lack of production in the front court. Markieff Morris is shooting just 41 percent from the field.
Former top-15 pick Kelly Oubre is averaging just five points per outing. Meanwhile, Marcus Thornton is doing very little in a reserve role.
The issue here for Washington is that general manager Ernie Grunfeld has done a terrible job building this team around Wall and Beal. Short of that changing, the playoffs will continue to be a long shot.
Either the Wizards are going to have to fire Grunfeld or he must find a way to admit his mistakes and change up his philosophy midstream. Short of a shake up in the front office, that means making a trade or two to improve the front court. This could entail trading talented youngster Otto Porter and/or attempting to add quantity over quality by moving Marcin Gortat.
Let’s assume for second Wall and Beal are untouchable. This is the way Washington can build a core around the two. That is to say, it has to shake things up when it comes to the rest of the roster. And in reality, there are other teams will would definitely come calling under this hypothetical.
6. Pelicans continue to waste Anthony Davis’ talents
Following their 11-point home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, the New Orleans Pelicans have now hit rock bottom. It’s bad. It’s really bad. The team currently sits at 7-16 on the season and is closer to the bottom of the Western Conference than a playoff spot.
This is a crying shame with Anthony Davis wasting away on an otherwise talent-stricken roster. Sure general manager Dell Demps and head coach Alvin Gentry can blame injuries for the team’s lack of success since a first-round playoff exit back in 2014-15. That’s fine and dandy. That’s also a cop-out.
Even at 100 percent, the Pelicans as they are currently formed can’t be considered anywhere near a top contender out west. Heck, they’d be lucky to squeak in as an eighth seed. And that’s on the player personnel department as well as the coaching.
With the sixth pick in June’s draft, New Orleans had a real opportunity to flip that selection for a proven veteran to team up with AD. Instead, it decided to go with volume scorer Buddy Hield from Oklahoma.
Nothing against Hield, he might end up being a darn good player. But when you dish out the contract New Orleans gave to Davis and you have this young man just hitting his prime, you owe it to yourselves to think about the now. The Pelicans just didn’t do this. And it’s impacted the team a great deal in 2016-17.
And that’s the crux of the issue. New Orleans has failed to build a solid supporting cast around Davis. Jrue Holiday and his injury history isn’t that guy. Hield is probably nothing more than a three-point specialist at the two-guard. And outside of that, there’s not much going on here.
Davis isn’t going to pull a DeMarcus Cousins. He’s not going to speak out publicly against his organization. Instead, the soft-spoken generational talent will let his talking be done behind closed doors. And while it is pure conjecture on our part, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s already done that.
When you’re an all-world talent and have the ability to take over the NBA as one of its next great stars, you’re owed something by your organization. That is to say, the Pelicans owe it to Davis to build a contender around him, especially in today’s NBA where there are super teams in both conferences.
This isn’t to say Davis will request a trade, but it wouldn’t be surprising to hear reports of issues between him and the organization should things continue at this pace. If so, anything is possible.
7. Timberwolves regress
Following their 14-point loss to the Toronto Raptors on Thursday, the Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves at 6-16 on the season. That’s a far cry from a team that had legitimate playoff expectations heading into the year.
After all, Minnesota boasts two of the best young players in the Association — Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Wiggins — who seemed prepared to take that next step. Towns, last year’s Rookie of the Year, has definitely upped his game on offense. He’s averaging nearly 22 points and 10-plus rebounds on the season. Though, Towns and his fellow big men continue to be a primary reason Minnesota is yielding over 106 points per game under a defensive-minded head coach in Tom Thibodeau.
For his part, Wiggins continues to be that one-dimensional player. He’s continually abused on the defensive end and is averaging just 4.0 rebounds as well as 2.4 assists per outing. Sure the 22-plus points help, but it’s the rest of Wiggins’ game that’s failed to improve in his third NBA season.
The talent is most definitely here for Minnesota to compete for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, the pieces don’t seem to be meshing at the clip most of us expected. This has the team as one of the most disappointing at the NBA’s quarter-season mark.
There’s little reason to believe Minnesota isn’t going to build this young squad around Towns and Wiggins. We’re talking about two players with All-Star ability that should morph into top-level performers at their respective positions. But much like Washington, it might be all about the supporting cast here.
Sure Zach LaVine has joined both Towns and Wiggins in the 20-point club. But his game is extremely similar to what Wiggins does out on the perimeter. Will those two end up meshing well moving forward? If not, maybe Minnesota should consider flipping LaVine for a true pass-first point guard. Speaking of that, Ricky Rubio’s time in Minnesota should be coming to an end here. He might still be able to dish the ball, but his inability to shoot from the outside remains a major issue for the Wolves.
There’s a ton of secondary talent on the Wolves’ roster. Whether it comes together between now and the trade deadline in February remains to be seen. If not, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the team trade some of this talent to bring in an elite-level third option behind Towns and Wiggins. That would be significant for the NBA as a whole.
8. Entertaining Bucks entering contention
Giannis Antetokounmpo is an absolute freak. It’s not just his nickname that suggest this, the Greak Freak is now one of the top all-around players in the entire Association. This year alone, Antetokounmpois averaging 22.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Heck, he’s also putting up an average of 2.2 steals and 2.3 blocks while shooting at a 52 percent clip. Those are all-world numbers right there.
It’s not just Antetokounmpo’s performance that stands out for the suddenly contending Bucks. Instead, we have to give a shout out to former No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker for elevating his game to new levels. The Duke product is averaging a career-high 19.2 points while taking on a secondary scoring role behind Antetokounmpo. That’s big time in an Eastern Conference that’s just waiting for someone to challenge Cleveland.
Despite being just two games over .500, Milwaukee seems to be just now scratching the service. Continued excellence from the big two coupled with the progression we’ve seen from John Henson inside could really set this team apart moving forward.
Antetokounmpo and Parker could offer significant trouble for the Cleveland Cavaliers should Milwaukee find a way to grab a top-five seed and advance to the second round of the playoffs. After all, their size out on the wing could help counteract what King James brings to the table.
This isn’t to say that Milwaukee will somehow advance past Cleveland. Without Khris Middleton in the mix, that’s a near impossibility. It could, however, give the Cavaliers a series. That’s something we didn’t see during the Eastern Conference Playoffs a season ago.
9. Joel Embiid’s outstanding play
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) December 9, 2016
Embiid is still on a minutes limit. He’s not suiting up in back-to-back games. And he’s averaging just 23.3 minutes per outing. He’s also the early favorite to win NBA Rookie of the Year more than two years after Philadelphia made him the third overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Dealing with serious foot injuries in the past, Embiid is playing his first NBA season. And he’s playing it at an astonishingly high level. Here’s a talented young kid that’s averaging 18.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in less than 24 minutes of action.
More than the basic stats, Embiid’s game flows about as best as we’ve ever seen from a 22-year-old big man. He has multiple moves inside the paint, has a deadly mid-range jumper and can absolutely nail a three. How many 7-foot centers have you seen hit three-plus treys multiple times in a season? Embiid has done that on four different occassions in just 15 games.
Philadelphia may have received criticism for taking an injury-plagued big man and shutting him down for his entire rookie season. But it was part of the “process,” and it’s paying dividends in 2016-17.
At 5-18, the Sixers are headed directly towards another top-three pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. That much is known. There’s simply just not enough proven talent on this roster for the team to compete on a consistent basis. Maybe that’s why Embiid’s numbers are a tad inflated. Still, there’s a tremendous young core to build with in Philadelphia.
Assuming 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons isn’t yet another injury project after he’s missed the duration of his rookie season thus far. Let’s also assume for a second Philadelphia can get a couple decent pieces for the likes of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor. Should all that come to fruition, the Sixers aren’t too far away from being a bottom-rung playoff contender.
Embiid, Simmons and fellow rookie Dario Saric are all solid building blocks. Add in a few more talented young players, and there’s definitely something for fans in Philly to look forward to. That’s huge news considering the historical significance of this basketball city.
10. Luke Walton leading more competitive Lakers team
Despite being in the midst of a four-game losing streak heading into Friday’s action, first-year head coach Luke Walton has his Lakers playing the most-competitive basketball we’ve seen from this squad in years. Heck, the team boasts a 10-14 record after finishing last season with 17 wins.
The additions of veterans Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng and Jose Calderon have surely come in handy. A young Lakers team simply needed to add some experience to withstand the trials that individual games bring with them. The team’s front office recognized this and wasn’t adverse to spending the dough to upgrade that aspect of the roster.
Though, more than anything, it’s the progression we’ve seen from D’Angelo Russell and the Lakers’ young players that has this team playing more competitive basketball. Russell has improved ten-fold over his rookie campaign and is averaging over 16 points per game while shooting at a 37 percent clip from distance.
Add in the continued excellence of Jordan Clarkson as well as rookie Brandon Ingram playing an important role early in his career, and there’s a lot to like here.
More than anything, it’s the culture Walton has built after coming over from the two-time defending Western Conference champion Warriors. This is something we can’t see as much on the scoreboard. It won’t show up early in his tenure when it comes to wins and losses. And the Lakers might be lucky to inch into the playoffs, only to get swept out in the first round. None of this really matters.
Bringing a winning culture. A culture that forces players to accept responsibility. A culture that forces members of the entire organization to accept responsibility. A culture that brings everyone together. That’s what Walton had in Oakland. And that’s what he’s brought to Southern California.
We don’t need to be Lakers homers to understand that this franchise is among the most heralded in the professional sports world. That’s definitely taken a hit in recent seasons. But with this newfound culture and a slew of young players, the Lakers may once again become a top destination for the game’s best. That’s the most-significant aspect of the team’s early-season success.