The 2020-21 NBA season has been in action for almost a week, and mind-boggling results have already taken place. The Clippers started out dominant with wins over the Lakers and Nuggets, only to be down by 50 (!) at half against the Mavericks. The Brooklyn Nets look like an offensive juggernaut, only then to be slowed down by the Hornets. That same Charlotte team lost to the Cavaliers, who are 3-0 with a blowout win over the 76ers. Oh, and the Knicks beat the Bucks by 20.
With the season just underway, many are trying to make sense of what’s happened so far. Below are five storylines coming out of the first week of NBA action, and whether I believe they are merely overreactions or something worth watching:
The Golden State Warriors will miss the playoffs
Verdict: NOT an overreaction
Golden State is fresh off its first win of the season, but it required a game winner from Damion Lee to beat the Chicago Bulls. The Warriors lost by a combined 65 points in their first two games. Yikes. Granted, they are without star Draymond Green, who is crucial to so many things Steve Kerr wants his team to do. Another common retort thus far is that they’ve played the Nets and Bucks, who appear to be the top two teams in the Eastern Conference to begin the season. However, much of what was concerning regarding the Warriors was not dependent on the opponent.
During their dynasty, the Warriors offense was one that was very fluid. It incorporated lots of ball movement, and more importantly, player movement. This worked very well with great passers and high IQ guys such as Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Andrew Bogut, and of course Steph, Klay, and Draymond.
Steve Kerr has attempted to run this same system with a new supporting cast, and it has been disastrous thus far. Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre haven’t shown the ability to recreate the quick decision making of Warriors past. Take this play by Oubre for example, where he attempts to use a Wiseman screen, eventually wandering into a shot surrounded by three Milwaukee players:
The Warriors have not shown any potential to create sustainable offense when Curry doesn’t have the ball in his hands. Getting Draymond Green back is a must for Steve Kerr’s team, as Green will help facilitate and hopefully improve what has been a dreadful offense so far.
On the other end, the Warriors defense has been almost equally concerning. Granted, they have played two of the best offenses in the league, but the issue I’m watching most closely is their tendency to foul.
At the time of this writing, the Warriors have seven players averaging 4 or more fouls per 36 minutes. They’ve allowed an average of almost 30 free throws per game. If the Warriors have any hopes of improving their defense, it will start with a) the return of Draymond Green, and b) playing a far more disciplined brand of basketball.
I think it’s time we reset our expectations for what the Warriors will be this season.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are actually good?
The Cavaliers are fun. They are off to a 3-0 start, and the backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland (referred to as “SexLand” by Cavs fans) are scorching to begin the season. Sexton is averaging 29.5 points per game across these three starts, on 61.5% from the field. Garland has been equally impressive given his expectations, scoring 21.5 a game on almost 60% from the floor.
JaVale McGee is shooting threes. Andre Drummond continues his box score dominance. Cleveland is most certainly worth your time to watch.
However, this team is still relatively weak at the wing, with rookie Isaac Okoro and Cedi Osman getting almost all of the minutes at that position. Larry Nance has had some run at the 3, but he’s primarily a power forward or center. They’ve played the Hornets and Pistons, who do not project to be strong competition for the league as the season continues, and a 76ers team without Joel Embiid.
I’m still waiting to see more from Cleveland before I can declare them a “good” team. However, I’ve seen enough to declare them fun.
The Pacers will finish above the Raptors
Verdict: NOT an overreaction
Toronto came into the season without some familiar faces. Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson left the Raptors, and Masai Ujiri filled the holes with Aron Baynes, Alex Len, and Deandre’ Bembry. After re-signing a few important pieces, the Raptors decided to preserve cap flexibility at the expense of on-court talent for this season.
As a result, Nick Nurse’s squad has experienced some growing pains. The Raptors have dropped their first two games of the season, and with a shallow 8-man rotation thus far, Toronto doesn’t appear to be as potent and deep as past years.
Many expected the Pacers to take a step back this season as well, but don’t tell new head coach Nate Bjorkgren that.
Bjorkgren, a former Raptors assistant himself, has guided Indiana to an undefeated start to their campaign, including a one-point victory without Victor Oladipo over the Boston Celtics.
But why is the Pacers 3-0 start different from teams like the Cavaliers or Magic? To start, the Pacers were already very good last season. Indiana took a 45-28 record to the playoffs as the 4th seed in the East, and they returned every single player that was top 13 in minutes played. Victor Oladipo is sitting on the 2nd leg of back-to-backs, but their core 5 is healthy. That alone should inspire confidence.
While their shot profile remains largely similar to last year, the Pacers seem to be playing faster under Bjorkgren. Indiana ranked 22nd in pace last season, and jumping to 8th to begin this year. In addition, questions about the fit of Sabonis and Myles Turner in the front court have been silenced for now, as Sabonis is averaging 24 and 11, with Turner adding 17 (!) blocked shots in 3 games.
The Pacers will be competitive night in and night out, and with a rotation that is quite literally the exact same as last year, they won’t have as many growing pains to sort out as Toronto. The Pacers are deeper, arguably more talented this season, and should finish ahead of the Raptors when it’s all said and done.
The Orlando Magic have turned a corner and are a legitimate playoff team
Like the Cavaliers, Orlando is off to a 3-0 start themselves, with an impressive win over the Miami Heat and a pair of victories against the Wizards.
However, a look under the hood suggests some regression due for Steve Clifford’s squad. At the time of this writing, the Magic are 10th in effective field goal percentage (eFG%), which is a measure of shooting percentage but accounts for threes being worth more than twos. However, according to PBP Stats, Orlando ranks 2nd worst in “Shot Quality” rating, which is a measure of expected eFG% using a number of difference pieces of data, such as shot distance, angle, and play-type.
This means Orlando is shooting far better than their shot profile would suggest. This is almost the exact same team as last year’s 33-40 group. They added Dwayne Bacon, and are working in recent draftees Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony. With that said, the East will have 6-7 very good teams, and it’s hard to imagine the recent acquisitions moving the needle for the Magic.
The Sacramento Kings could contend for a playoff spot
Verdict: NOT an overreaction
I will qualify my answer by classifying “playoffs” as making the play-in tournament. For the first time since 2003-04, the Sacramento Kings started 2-0, with close wins over the Nuggets and Suns. Phoenix took the second leg of their back-to-back on Sunday night, but that shouldn’t take away from how Sacramento started the season.
Jamal Murray was only able to score 9 points on 1-9 shooting, and Sacramento held the Suns bench to 28.1% from the floor as a whole.
I don’t believe anyone anticipates the Kings being one of the best defensive teams in the league this season. However, they are currently 5th in rebounding percentage, and Monty Williams said his Suns team was “outworked” by Luke Walton’s squad. This franchise hasn’t finished in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency since 2006. It’s possible that changes this year.
While the Kings absolutely have room to improve on offense, this team should be competitive in a lot more games than people think, and I believe they are talented enough to steal a spot in the play-in.