10 Big Picture Thoughts After the First 20 NBA Games
For the first six weeks of the NBA season, every basketball discussion comes with mandatory disclaimers. Don't get too excited. This is a small sample size. Be responsible. Be smart. So one of the best points in an NBA season comes right around now. As of last week, teams all over the league crossed the 20-game threshold. A quarter of the season is already behind us, and among other things, that means we can finally stop qualifying every opinion with a bunch of conditional language about sample sizes. This is a time for takes. The moratorium on meaningful conclusions is over.
To celebrate the occasion (and probably abuse these newfound privileges), here are some big picture thoughts on everything we've seen so far.
1. Joel Embiid is the best big man since Tim Duncan and Shaq. There are better players who are seven feet tall and technically "big"—Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant—but this is about the way Embiid dominates. In an era that has rendered big men mostly obsolete or otherwise demanded that they expand their skillset to play like wings, Embiid is overpowering teams. He is not a unicorn. He shoots threes, yes, but not particularly well. The most remarkable parts of his game (footwork, length, power, feathery touch) are the same hallmarks of all the greatest centers throughout NBA history. He's like Shaq and Hakeem, and that makes him unlike anyone we've seen in years.
His numbers as of this weekend: 27.5 PPG, 13.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, 2.0 BPG, 47% FG, 79% FT on 10.5 attempts per game. He's been incredible. He's played every game thus far, and he's leading the Sixers in minutes. That second part might be a bit concerning—let's not tempt fate, Brett Brown—but Embiid's start has been so good that it's hard to worry about the details. Aside from obvious value judgments in the midst of these first two months—Embiid is now one of the seven most valuable players in the sport and his rise continues to be one of the most incredible stories in modern NBA history—I think the most important thing to appreciate is how much fun this has been. In a very real way, that sets him apart from all his big men peers.
Plenty of centers across the league can succeed to varying degrees, but most of them make it look like a struggle. Their minutes are spent fighting for survival, wobbling around trying to guard pick-and-rolls, trying to score efficiently enough down to low to justify any modern offense passing up shots on the perimeter. Even when they're winning, you watch today's big men and grimace a little, knowing that the end of this story will leave them on the bench in any meaningful playoff game.
There's none of that stress with Embiid. There are still subconscious injury worries, sure. But when he's healthy and on the floor, it's pure spectacle. He puts defenses in the torture chamber. With his back to the rim, he can go to a dozen different moves and get whatever he wants. Facing up, he can put it on floor or pull-up and hit jumpers. I'm fairly certain he could draw a foul on every possession if he wanted to. He leaves grown professionals looking helpless. When he's not carrying the offense, he's one of the best defenders in the league, and he talks trash the entire time. You watch Embiid to see how mean he'll get, how much fun he'll have, and how hopeless the other team will be. On any given night, it's usually the best show in a league.
2. The throne is empty. Here's what we know about LeBron James two months into this Lakers season: He's no longer interested in playing defense every night. His offense is still unstoppable when he wants it to be, but his willingness to attack the rim varies by the game. Like Cleveland's offense last season, everything in L.A. has to run through James, and that can marginalize the skills of less-talented-but-still-valuable teammates. That seems to be happening with Brandon Ingram. He's allegedly ignoring play calls from Luke Walton. He's not necessarily someone other stars want to play with. The Lakers are probably not going to win a playoff series.
If all of this reads like some kind of LeBron takedown, that isn't how it's intended. He's still amazing. But the bargain with LeBron has become just complicated enough to make "best player alive" an open question. So ... Could Kevin Durant do enough in Golden State to stake his claim to the throne? That Raptors game last week was a pretty convincing argument. Meanwhile, Steph Curry began the season playing the best basketball of his entire career—in October: 33.0 PPG, 5.9 APG, 5.0 RPG, 54.9% FG, and 52.9% 3FG on 11.6 attempts per game—and the whole league saw the best version of the Warriors emerge right alongside him. He was the clear MVP choice after 10 games. Then he got hurt, the Warriors season got weird, and he missed every Golden State game until this past Saturday. We'll see where his story goes from here.
We've also seen Giannis Antetokounmpo dunking teams into submission every night for a killer Bucks team, and whether the Pelicans win or lose, Anthony Davis is still putting up obscene stat lines every night he takes the floor. And yes: LeBron has been pacing himself early on, but even so, he and the Lakers are probably further along than they should be. There's absolutely a chance that this season ends with LeBron taking over from February to May and reasserting his dominance all over again.
For now the answer is unclear, and the question—"Who will be the best player alive on July 1, 2019?"—is one of the best reasons to watch the NBA season.
3. The most interesting story of this Warriors Era will be how it ends. I was tempted to crank up the heat here and argue that the end of Hamptons Five will be the only interesting story of this Durant Warriors era. That can be a debate for a different day. For now, let's all agree that things have been strange in Golden State since the middle of last season, the dynamics are only getting stranger, and following these tensions as they resolve themselves will be significantly more entertaining than the NBA Finals for the past two years.
4. The Clippers are not a joke. It's strange that an overachieving Clippers team without a prayer at a title has done more to legitimize this franchise than Blake Griffin or Chris Paul ever did. This Clippers team might not even make the playoffs. Nevertheless, genuine respect for the Clippers might be at an all-time high.
Those Lob City teams began as an aberration and the by-product of a David Stern veto; eventually they were an ongoing chemistry experiment that everyone but the Clippers themselves could see was doomed. The current version of this team seems a lot more sustainable. The Clippers have scouted well and planned their future carefully. They went from one of the worst owners in the league to possibly one of the best. The players all seem to love playing there. Doc Rivers is pressing all the right buttons. Next summer they will have a ton of money to spend. And all of this is happening in the most attractive market in the league. LeBron James was supposed be the one who awakened a sleeping giant in L.A., but I don't know. Maybe Boban did.
5. Jaren Jackson Jr. could be the best prospect to hit the NBA in five years. There have been a dozen rookies worth watching so far. Everyone in the top five has shown flashes of something special, and each player's future comes with a few big questions that will make the next few seasons even more interesting to watch. In general, this year's rookies look better than last year's class, which was initially celebrated as one of the deepest fields in decades. The evolving consensus on the drafts speak to how impossible scouting can be, and how facile any expertise becomes when it's time to guess how any 18-year-old will develop. But the mysteries of mock draft life feel a little bit beside the point right now. There's a more important story emerging.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is the best prospect in basketball. Luka Doncic may be more skilled at the moment, Deandre Ayton is more athletic, and other rookies will have plenty of nice moments along way, but Jackson is in a different category. He might be the best prospect to hit the NBA since Giannis. To begin with, the defense. He covers an insane amount of ground, he can guard multiple positions, and he's already protecting the rim like a star. On offense, his skills inside and outside are way ahead of schedule. He's not going to dunk all over teams and his shooting is a bit unorthodox, but his timing, touch, footwork and hand-eye coordination are already off the charts. He's everything teams would want in a modern big man. Eight days ago, he went 6-of-6 from the floor, made four threes, and finished with 16 points, six rebounds, and seven blocks against the Knicks. Friday night in Brooklyn, he had 36 points and eight rebounds against the Nets, including a game-tying three that sent it to overtime. In the first five minutes of Sunday night's Sixers game, Jackson guarded Jimmy Butler and forced him into a turnover, stole the ball from Ben Simmons, blocked Joel Embiid on a breakaway dunk, and then blocked Simmons down low five seconds later. All of this is nuts.
Jackson is currently the second-youngest player in the league. We're only scratching the surface here, and if he continues on this trajectory, there will eventually be room to note that every other team in last year's top five had a chance to draft him. But despite how desperately I would love to see De'Aaron Fox spend the next 10 years throwing lobs to JJJ, most of that criticism will be unfair. Even the Grizzlies had no idea he was this special. And for all the thought, time, and money that goes into the scouting process every year, the best part of basketball is that some of these answers will always be unknowable. At least half the time, real greatness happens organically.
6. The Rockets will trade CP3 within 18 months. At .500 (11-11) and sitting in ninth place, the Rockets are too smart and too talented to write off in the West. When Chris Paul and James Harden are healthy and playing well, Houston can hang with anyone. The problem this year was that Harden and Paul started slowly, and after briefly righting the ship a few weeks ago, Paul missed a handful of games to injury. In three games without Paul last week, Harden had 40 points and 13 assists, 54 and 13, and 25, 17, and 11 rebounds. Houston lost all three nights.
The team is incredibly top heavy going forward (next year they will owe $90+ million to Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela) and the lack of depth is already hurting them. Tilman Fertitta, the new Houston owner, may not be thrilled about paying increasingly punitive luxury tax penalties in the years to come. It's true, he said in Septemeber: "I'm not going to let five or 10 or 15 or 20 million dollars make the difference [between winning and losing a title]." He also said in September: "at some point, you have to do some things so you're never in the repeater tax." We'll see. For now, Houston lost Trevor Ariza this summer and still hasn't used its mid-level exception. Somewhere baked into all of this, there's a lesson on the value of timing in team-building. The Warriors added three foundational stars on what would become below-market deals, and they will likely go to the Finals for a fifth straight year this June. The Rockets never got that lucky.
This summer or next, the endgame seems pretty clear. Harden's prime should extend for at least another four seasons. Paul's won't, and the first two months of this season have been a preview of what this team looks like if his game slips. Houston would be wise to wait and see what happens in Golden State this summer, but if the Rockets struggle more than expected this season or can't improve before next year, things will get interesting, and Daryl Morey will explore every option. If there's ever an opportunity to move Paul in exchange for a handful of cost-effective role players, it's hard to imagine they turn it down.
7. Michael Jordan would average 45 points per game if he played today. Around Thanksgiving, I saw a LeBron fan on Twitter arguing that Jordan had better numbers because he benefited from the illegal defense rules of the '90s. This was part of a bigger Jordan/LeBron discussion, but the particulars there are beside the point. What's important is that the discussion forced me to imagine what Jordan might look like in today's league.
If Michael Jordan played with today's rules, it would be inhumane. Every Bulls games would be a moral crisis. People would wonder whether he was ruining basketball. Some of those questions happened even in the '90s, and some of them have been asked of Steph and KD today, but Jordan would do the league-ruining by himself. Consider: in the 1989-90 season Jordan averaged 33.6 points per game. He shot 52% on 24.0 field goals, and he shot 37.6% on 3.0 three-pointers. That wasn't his most dominant scoring season (37.1 ppg in 1986) or his best shooting year (53% in '88), but it was something like a median for Jordan in his 20s.
Imagine that version of Jordan playing in a spread pick-and-roll system, like what the Rockets have put around Harden. If Jordan is shooting somewhere around 10 threes-a-game at 37.6%, that's probably an extra five to 10 points right there (and that assumes Jordan wouldn't improve his three-point shooting in today's climate). What's more, today's "freedom of movement" rules would end with Jordan at the line somewhere between 10 and 15 times per game (compared to 8.2 FTA in '89-90). Surrounded by shooters the way Harden has been in Houston, free of hand-checking, Jordan vs. today's defenses would be Wilt Chamberlain in the '60s. And that's before you consider the increased pace in every game, not to mention the astronomical usage rates that are now commonplace for players like Harden, Giannis, and Russell Westbrook. I want to say he'd score 50 per game, but I don't want this to sound too sensational. It's more important that everyone realize Jordan scoring 45 points per game would be entirely plausible, and probably the most likely outcome.
All of which is to say: there are plenty of directions to take the LeBron/MJ conversation, but comparing stats across eras is not the best place for LeBron fans to start.
8. Gregg Popovich has a point. From a story by Sam Smith at NBA.com last week:
“The inside game is kaputski,” Popovich explained without helping with the spelling. “You’ve got to have downhill players, you’ve got to have people that can penetrate and kick, you’ve got to have people who can switch, you’ve got to have big guys who can play little guys,” he said.
And mostly you have to have players who can shoot the three.
“These days there’s such an emphasis on the three because it’s proven to be analytically correct,” Popovich offered Monday with what appeared to be a sneer. “Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the threes. If you made threes and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition D was involved. You don’t even care. That’s how much an impact the three-point shot has and it’s evidenced by how everybody plays.”
Popovich is obviously correct here. The controversial part is that he went on to say, "I hate it, but I always have. I've hated the three for 20 years. ... There's no basketball anymore, there's no beauty in it. It's pretty boring."
Popovich isn't necessarily wrong there, either. Everyone who cares about basketball should have some misgivings about what three-point shooting has done to the game. When a bunch of mediocre shooters launching threes qualifies as a smarter approach than good shooters hitting mid-range jumpers, that's bizarre. It's frustrating. It's unseemly. It's only natural to be wary of where things are headed. Today's game can sometimes emphasize efficiency at the expense of imagination. Half the league is playing the same style now, and as Popovich said, once both teams are taking 30 and 40 threes per game, there's an element of randomness that occasionally cheapens the game. Anyone who's not a little bit uneasy with all of these trends is probably not paying close enough attention.
9. Anyone applauding Gregg Popovich is probably missing the point. Popovich almost certainly has more nuanced thoughts on today's style than last week's comments suggest. But there are lots of people who read his comments and probably got a little bit too excited to agree with him. Those people are missing the point.
It's possible to have misgivings with the three-point avalanche (and the blistering pace that's emerged this year) while also noting that basketball has never been better than it is right now. Anyone doing more of the former than the latter is probably overthinking things. Today's NBA has more talent from top to bottom than at any point in the league's history, players at all levels have never been more skilled, and there are mind-blowing performances every other night. Next time anyone yearns for the halcyon days of flex cuts and fundamentals, make them watch an hour of highlights from the Pistons-Spurs Finals in 2005. Nobody should miss the Bruce Bowen era of basketball.
10. Anthony Davis is all that matters. The Warriors are still untouchable when everyone is healthy. Beneath them, there are about 10 pretty good teams in the West. There is no coherent hierarchy, and all year long, those teams will be beating the crap out of each other and fighting for survival. It should be great. And back in the East, instead of depth, there are the four best challengers to Golden State (Boston, Toronto, Milwaukee, Philly) and we'll get to watch them battle all year long. In general, apart from the massive glitch that has reshaped an entire era, this is exactly the sort of parity the league has been hoping to generate with the past few collective bargaining agreements. There's a great game every night. But in the middle of all this, I have to admit, it's hard to think about anything but where Anthony Davis ends up.
If Kevin Durant leaves Golden State this summer, the door is open for everyone else. Then AD becomes the wild card. Kyrie Irving will be recruiting him to Boston, LeBron James will be trying to make a Brandon Ingram trade happen. The Kings lottery pick could play a role, and Klutch Sports will, too. Other teams will surely get involved along the way. In July Davis will be eligible to sign a supermax extension to stay in New Orleans for the long-term, but how many NBA fans think that's how this will end?
There's only so much anyone can say, because there's only so much anyone can know. But the whole league is thinking about this. Davis had 36 points, 19 boards, and eight assists for New Orleans Sunday night. I wonder where he'll be by this time next year.