It’s never too early to overanalyze what’s real and what’s not in the NBA season. So we’re doing exactly that with some data-driven observations surrounding what has gone down so far.
Each NBA team has played at least 10 games, so we can basically assume that these current standings and early-season storylines will continue at this exact pace for the next five months.
After all, that’s how it worked for the 2020-21 Orlando Magic, in first place after two handfuls of games, right?
Well, hey, at least they have Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner to show for the 15-49 finish that followed their 6-2 start.
So maybe we can’t infer everything based on these first three weeks, but who had the No. 1 net rating after 10 games last season? None other than the Milwaukee Bucks, who, *checks Larry O’Brien Trophy inscription*, had that turn out OK.
There have been surprises! There have been disappointments! Carmelo Anthony can’t miss! Damian Lillard couldn’t throw a Voodoo donut into the Willamette River from the Fremont Bridge!
Let’s take a look at 10 of the biggest stories of the NBA season thus far and see if we’ll be talking about them the same way in April as we are in November.
1. The Philadelphia 76ers are doing fine offensively without Ben Simmons (and others).
Simmons was accused of practicing with a cellphone in his pocket (it was a crumpled up practice jersey – or a Nintendo Switch) during his brief return to the 76ers in the week leading up to the season, and now he’s refusing to accept help from the team’s doctors regarding his mental health.
General manager Daryl Morey said the standoff could take four years to resolve.
And the 76ers responded by … looking like one of the league’s best offenses without their refuse-to-shoot star – at least until Joel Embiid’s positive COVID test earlier this week. Tobias Harris and Danny Green have missed time due to health and safety protocols, but when Embiid is healthy, Philadelphia is 7-2 even though he’s only averaged 21.4 points and shot 43.5% from the field. Even after an 0-3 stretch without him this week, the Sixers still have the league’s top offense (112.1 points per 100 possessions).
How are they doing it? With the incredible wing trio of Seth Curry, Georges Niang and Furkan Korkmaz, of course. Curry’s hot start (16.8 points per game, 56.1% shooting and 47.6% from 3) isn’t that much of a shocker, though his absolutely ludicrous 70.1 true shooting percentage should be somewhere around 62%, according to our DRIP model. Curry was a 45% 3-point shooter the last three seasons, but Niang’s and Korkmaz’s emergence qualify as big surprises.
Niang shot 40% from 3 in each of the last three seasons in Utah but played just 13 minutes a game. The Sixers’ net rating is a plus-8.4 when he’s on the court and a ridiculous plus-24.1 when he’s playing with Embiid. Korkmaz is an inconsistent shooter but has been an exceptional finisher (17 of 23 in the restricted area thus far), and his assist rate has gone from a paltry 11.1 last season to 20.2 in the early going of 2021-22.
2. The Memphis Grizzlies are asking Ja Morant to do way too much.
Morant was driving some of the way-too-early MVP conversation after totaling 105 points in his first three games – plays like this in a 40-point performance against the Los Angeles Lakers tend to help – but his ascension to All-Star talent isn’t really a surprise, as anyone on the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors or Utah Jazz could have told you last spring.
He’s one of the early favorites for Most Improved Player, with his jump from 19.1 points per game to 26.5 a major reason why. And he’s finishing at the rim more efficiently, converting 60.0% of his attempts at the rim after making just 54.8 a year ago. Morant has carried the Grizzlies while Jaren Jackson Jr. finds his game and Dillon Brooks, who made his season debut Wednesday night, recovered from a fractured left hand.
His scoring numbers aren’t likely to stick even as Memphis occasionally looks capable of earning a top-six spot in the West. Brooks’ return will eat into some of his scoring production, but it may give him a boost elsewhere. The Grizzlies are minus-3.6 and allowing 119.1 points per 100 possessions with Morant on the floor, and Morant’s a net negative (minus-0.5) in DRIP, which projects a player’s future contributions to a team’s plus/minus per 100 possessions.
Morant’s usage figures to eventually be closer to last season’s (26.7, 40th in the league) than this one’s (31.8, ninth) as Brooks takes over some secondary playmaking responsibilities, and his turnovers should drop from the 4.0 per game he’s currently giving away.
3. Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes aren’t messing around.
Star potential was why Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green went 1-2 in the draft, but the two potential unicorns of this class may have gone right behind them.
Mobley and Barnes are all limbs and athleticism, but each possesses an incredible feel for the game and basketball I.Q. that impacts winning. Take the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, two teams that no one expected to crack the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
Mobley’s averaging 15.3 points and 7.9 rebounds, but it’s the work he’s doing on defense that’s the real eye opener. Mobley is second in the league in contested 2-pointers per game (10.9), is second in contested 3-pointers per game (4.6) and has a significant overall lead in contested shots per game (15.5).
Mobley is also eighth in the league with a plus-1.7 defensive DRIP. He’s doing all that with just 2.3 fouls per game and he leads the Cavs in minutes.
“He plays the verticality game as well as anybody in our league,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff told The Athletic on Sunday. “And at his size, you see a lot of those shots that he’s contested have been on guards. So we have the flexibility to switch a lot of pick-and-rolls with him, and he can keep guys in front of him, and those guys want to take stepback contested 3s or challenge him at the rim; most times, it’s going to be an advantage of Evan. So I think, again, his flexibility and versatility gives him an opportunity to contest and be all over the floor, which is unique for a big guy. Most big guys just play at the rim, but he’s got the ability to contest shots on the perimeter as well.”
Barnes leads the rookie class in scoring (16.6 points per game) and rebounding (8.5), but it’s his ability to guard 1-5, play the passing lanes, find his teammates and attack the basket that stand out beyond the box score for the Toronto Raptors. Barnes had five steals in a loss to the Nets on Sunday, leaving another guy known for his lengthy limbs pretty impressed.
“You’ve got a lot of guys who love to compete and love to win, but what’s more rare about Scottie Barnes is his I.Q. for the game, his length, his enthusiasm for the game,” Kevin Durant said. “All of that stuff shines bright when you watch him play. You can tell he just wants to be there for his teammates, he makes winning basketball plays.
“I think a lot of young guys in the league have that competitive fire, but he has something a little extra as far as seeing the game a little slower, and that’s rare for a guy … how old is he, 19, 20? Sheesh.”
Mobley has by far the highest DELTA (the difference in DRIP from our preseason projections) in the league at plus-3.1, and Barnes (plus-0.7) is also in the top 25. Maybe the Cavs’ and Raptors’ hot starts will eventually fizzle, but both teams have found their franchise cornerstones.
4. The Boston Celtics are Team Wide Variance.
The early season often leaves us with some seemingly odd results, but Boston’s 32-point home loss to the Raptors on the fourth night of the season – a game in which it was outscored 64-36 after halftime – is definitely up there in the head-scratcher department.
Only to be surpassed by turning a 14-point lead to start the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 1 into a 14-point regulation loss, a collapse that seemed unfathomable only because it had never happened in the modern era. The Celtics didn’t have a defensive rebound in the fourth!
Marcus Smart criticized Jayson Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s lack of willingness to pass the ball after that loss, which resulted in a players-only meeting before a 92-79 win over Orlando. Both players’ assist numbers are down from last season, and the Celtics are relying largely on newcomers Dennis Schroder and Al Horford – the former to initiate offense and the latter to spot open shooters or cutters from the post.
They followed that victory over the Magic by drubbing the previously 6-1 Miami Heat the next night courtesy of a 33-9 second quarter. Now they’re playing without Brown, who’s dealing with a hamstring injury.
Tatum had a season-high seven assists in Wednesday’s win over Toronto, equaling his total from the previous three games, so perhaps he’s starting to find himself despite sub-40% shooting.
When Boston’s four most important players – Tatum, Brown, Smart and Robert Williams – are on the floor together, they’re plus-6.0 point per 100 possessions. They need Williams to stay out of foul trouble, Brown to stay healthy, and the other two to be able to consistently hit some outside shots.
When they’re rolling, this is a potentially elite team. When they’re not, this is a club that could struggle to make the playoffs.
5. A lack of Zion isn’t the only problem in New Orleans.
Unless you have Jonas Valanciunas on your fantasy basketball team (and if you do, congratulations), there isn’t much reason to tune into the Pelicans as they’re currently constructed.
Brandon Ingram has missed time with an injury, and there’s a Zion Williamson-sized cloud hanging over this franchise as he tries to get in shape and recover from the fractured bone in his foot that came as a media day surprise from David Griffin and the front office. But even if Williamson does get to a place where he can play effectively, there’s little on this roster to suggest that this team is capable of being competitive.
Kira Lewis Jr., the team’s 2020 lottery pick, is looking like a bust. Jaxson Hayes, a top-10 pick from 2019, has seen his playing time dwindle to almost nothing. The Pelicans’ already poor offense (fourth from the bottom of the league in team offensive DRIP), has put up just 95.8 points per 100 possessions when Trey Murphy III, this year’s first-rounder, is on the floor.
New Orleans keeps its 2022 pick if it’s in the lottery, but gives it to Charlotte as part of the Devonte’ Graham offseason sign-and-trade if it’s between 15 and 30. It’s safe to say that Griffin can confidently spend the winter months scouting for players who will struggle to find their way into the 2022-23 rotation.
6. The Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat might be juggernauts again.
For two teams that have appeared in five Finals each since 2011 – and combined to win five titles – 2020-21 was a major disappointment. The Heat followed their Finals loss to the Lakers in the bubble by getting swept by the Bucks in the first round, and the Warriors never made it to the tournament after play-in losses to the Lakers and Grizzlies.
They own top-five net ratings thus far despite reason to believe each could struggle a bit early. Miami is incorporating Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker into its starting lineup, while Golden State is relying heavily on Jordan Poole, waiting for the return of Klay Thompson and James Wiseman, and getting newcomers Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica up to speed.
The Heat are in the top seven in both offensive and defensive rating, while the Warriors have the No. 1 team defensive DRIP in the league and the No. 7 offensive DRIP.
In Miami, Lowry has fit in seamlessly, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo look locked in on both ends, and Tyler Herro is threatening to run away with the Sixth Man of the Year Award by Thanksgiving. Out in the Bay, Steph Curry isn’t having to shoulder the burden he did last year.
His usage is down to a more manageable 32.1% (it was a career-high 34.7% last season without Thompson), and the Warriors have the best record in the league even though he’s not shooting 40% from 3-point range yet.
How big of an impact will Steph have on winning as the season progresses? He’s No. 1 offensive DRIP at plus-6.0 and tops overall in DRIP at plus-6.2.
Despite all those Finals appearances over the last decade, Miami and Golden State have never played each other for the title. Is this the season that changes?
7. What’s happening to free-throw rates and 3-point shooting?
The new rules are working. The NBA made it a point over the summer to crack down on non-basketball moves, which is essentially any motion James Harden makes from the time he steps out of bed in the morning.
Teams are averaging just 19.9 free-throw attempts per game – the fewest in league history – nearly two fewer than last season (21.8) and more than three fewer than 2019-20 (23.1). How is that affecting some of the league’s favorite foul hunters?
Free Throw Attempts Per Game Difference, 2020-21 to 2021-22
|Player||FTAs Per Game, 2020-21||FTAs Per Game, 2021-22|
|Joel Embiid, PHI||10.7||8.6|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL||9.5||9.1|
|Zion Williamson, NO||8.7||N/A|
|Trae Young, ATL||8.7||5.3|
|Jimmy Butler, MIA||8.0||8.5|
|Bradley Beal, WAS||7.7||4.2|
|James Harden, BKN||7.3||4.7|
|Damian Lillard, POR||7.2||3.5|
|DeMar DeRozan, CHI||7.2||7.5|
|De’Aaron Fox, SAC||7.2||5.7|
|Luka Doncic, DAL||7.1||5.5|
Antetokounmpo, Butler and DeRozan are still drawing frequent contact, but the dips for Young, Beal, Harden and Lillard are staggering.
The decline in 3-point shooting percentage is a bit more curious. After the league connected on 36.7% of its record number of attempts last season – basically dead even with 1995-96 and 2008-09 for the most accurate season in NBA history, that make rate is down to 34.4% thus far.
What gives? The basketball has changed, with the league switching from Spalding to Wilson, and Paul George, Embiid and Nikola Jokic are among the high-profile stars who have complained about the lack of grip on the new rock.
The league briefly introduced a new synthetic ball prior to the 2006-07 season, but players complained that it caused splits on their fingertips and basically tore their hands apart. It lasted two months before David Stern switched back. The league shot 34.8% from 3-point range with the new ball and 36.4% thereafter.
“A lot of times great players, they want to get to the free-throw line for a rhythm, for touch,” Kuzma said. “Guys aren’t getting there and that’s not really allowing them to get that rhythm, to see the ball go through the rim. I think it’s a bunch of things maybe, but that could probably be the biggest thing I can see.”
Or maybe these guys are just tired from an NBA calendar that severely condensed the past two offseasons. Check back in a few months and that percentage will almost certainly have risen.
8. What’s the driving force behind the Atlanta Hawks’ slow start?
Atlanta went 27-11 once the calendar flipped to March last season, riding that wave all the way to the Eastern Conference finals – when, by the way, the Hawks found themselves tied heading into Game 5 with an eventual champion Bucks team that would be without Giannis for the rest of that series (granted, Young also missed Games 4 and 5).
Missed opportunities like that aren’t easy to immediately bounce back from, especially after a shortened offseason, but there’s more than that at play to Atlanta’s 4-8 start. For starters, the Hawks have played the league’s third-toughest schedule, drawing the Cavs, Washington Wizards, 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns, Jazz and Warriors on the road (and losing them all).
The defense has been about at the same level it was last regular season, but keep in mind that scoring is down. The 112.1 defensive rating Atlanta posted last season was good for 18th in the league, but the 112.2 it’s allowed so far this season is 27th.
The Hawks made their run last summer despite not having De’Andre Hunter for the final two rounds, and they didn’t have Cam Reddish until the Milwaukee series. Now Nate McMillan is trying to find minutes for 11-12 quality rotation pieces on a relatively healthy roster. If Onyeka Okongwu can return later in the season, add another to the mix.
Atlanta will be fine once it gets into a groove. But this slow start might make the play-in a reality rather than securing home-court advantage in Round 1. Speaking of play-in teams from last season…
9. The Los Angeles Lakers are off to a F.A.S.T. start.
Russell Westbrook arrived in Southern California and the Lakers adopted his late-career tendency to bring frenetic pace with him. The 2019-20 Houston Rockets (second) and 2020-21 Wizards (first) went as Westbrook did, and the Lakers lead the league in tempo (103.35 possessions per game).
What’s that speedy pace adding up to? Thus far, mediocrity. Los Angeles is a middle-of-the-pack team offensively and defensively, LeBron James has missed time with an abdominal strain and there are a lot of fresh faces aside from Westbrook that are still finding their footing in Frank Vogel’s offense.
At the end of the day, the Lakers will probably be content as long as they avoid last season’s slip to the play-in game and lock down a top-six seed. The regular season is for finding out what they have and which lineups they can count on once it’s playoff time.
And what do they have thus far in lineups of James, Westbrook and Anthony Davis. A net zero. In 113 minutes together, the Lakers’ Big 3 is exactly even.
F(inding) A(verage) S(uccess) T(ogether) indeed.
10. Can Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan coexist for 82 games?
DeRozan became more facilitator and less volume scorer the last few years in San Antonio than in his peak as a Raptor, but the man who loves himself a good midrange jumper is back in full force in Chicago.
The Bulls are now officially Team Midrange. DeRozan is taking 8.2 shots per game from between the paint and the 3-point line, far more than he did the last two seasons in San Antonio and more than anyone in the league but Ingram in New Orleans (8.5). Chicago leads the league in midrange attempts (19.0 per game) and is last in 3s (27.3) per game after being a middle-of-the-pack volume 3 team a year ago.
So far, the DeRozan/LaVine partnership is working. Both are averaging more than 25.0 points, and LaVine hasn’t had to reduce his overall volume, though he’s fallen victim to the league’s larger 3-point accuracy issues (from 41.9% to 33.8%). Nikola Vucevic is the one who’s had to adjust his offensive expectations, as he’s averaging five fewer shots per game and shooting just 44.6% at the rim – a rate that’s destined for improvement once he returns from health and safety protocols.
Chicago’s likely crunch-time five of LaVine, DeRozan, Vucevic, Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball is plus-10.1 in 64 minutes together – 37 of which have come in the fourth quarter. This team can work, but depth is the concern.
Patrick Williams might not return this season after having surgery to repair torn ligaments in his finger, and there’s a lot of Derrick Jones Jr., Javonte Green and rookie Ayo Dosunmu filling in the gaps between tip-off and that possible five-man closing rotation.
Billy Donovan is trusting that group of veterans to figure it out, and he’s got five more months for them to get used to each other and figure out the most efficient path forward for a playoff push. There might need to be a personnel push, though, if that run is going to last.
Data modeling provided by Matt Scott and Nathan Walker. Graphic Design by Briggs Clinard.