At long last, the NBA season is finally upon us.
Every team has played at least one game (some have even played two). And while that isn’t a big enough sample size to decide who will win the title, it is enough to start making some observations.
With that said, here are five thoughts from the first week of the NBA season.
1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could be a dark horse MVP candidate.
All summer, everyone has been talking about the Oklahoma City Thunder. And yes, they do have a ton of promising pieces. But if they are going to clinch a top-four seed in the Western Conference, Gilgeous-Alexander is going to be the one captaining the ship. And man, did he do that in their season premiere.
The Chicago Bulls ended last season third in our adjusted defensive rating (AOR) metric. But they looked like high schoolers trying to defend Gilgeous-Alexander. Patrick Williams, Alex Caruso, Javon Carter, Torrey Craig – none of them could keep the Canadian guard in front of them.
As the video above shows, eventually, the Bulls sold out to stop Gilgeous-Alexander from getting into the paint. Off-ball defenders left their assignments on the perimeter so that they could stunt/dig at his drives. And Gilgeous-Alexander proceeded to kick the ball out to his teammates for wide-open 3s. He’s a big reason why the team shot 48.7% from downtown in its 124-104 victory.
Wednesday showed us that Gilgeous-Alexander’s ability to consistently get two feet in the paint is a one-man offense in and of itself. If the Thunder have enough success, Gilgeous-Alexander’s brand of offense could turn him into a dark horse MVP candidate.
2. We were onto something with our “Immediate Impacts” series.
During the offseason, we ran a 10-part article series about incoming rookies who could make an immediate impact on their new teams. And while one game is too soon to know anything for certain, Dereck Lively II (the subject of the third part of our series) sure is making us look smart.
The best part is that Lively did exactly what we anticipated he would do: finish plays around the rim and safeguard the paint on the other end of the floor. In 31 minutes, Lively had 16 points, 10 rebounds, one assist, one block, and one steal on 7-for-8 shooting from the floor (he had a plus/minus of +20).
Lively II was so good that his play compelled hilarious memes about him and rookie phenom Victor Wembanyama. Be sure to keep tabs on Lively II because if he’s legit, he gives the Dallas Mavericks an element they were sorely lacking last year.
And if they now have that piece, it could make them the kind of team you don’t want to face in the playoffs.
3. Russell Westbrook breathes a new energy into the Los Angeles Clippers.
Ever since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George teamed up back in 2019, the Clippers have been lacking a floor general who can push the pace, facilitate, and spearhead the point-of-attack.
Westbrook looked like that guy after the Clippers acquired him in the buyout market, but we’ve seen this movie with him before. Westbrook tends to display promising flashes before ultimately crashing and burning.
With that in mind, in the Clippers home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers, Westbrook was everything the team needed him to be, and he might have figured out how to compensate for his lack of shooting.
Since the day Westbrook entered the league, he’s been hindered to a degree by his below-average outside shooting (career 30.5% 3-point shooter). Defenses will usually sag off of him to derail his drives or pack the paint on his teammates, and he usually can’t make them pay for disregarding him.
However, Westbrook may have found a way to remedy this issue: post-ups. When a player posts up, you have to guard them (duh). And because of his combination of size and speed, that is a very hard task to fulfill with Westbrook.
As the tweet above illustrates, these possessions typically end in a high value shot for either Westbrook or his teammates. Last season, Westbrook was in the 86th percentile in post-up efficiency after joining the Clippers (per NBA.com).
Knowing how efficient this type of offense is for the team, Los Angeles will likely lean into it more this year. That means the Clippers can mitigate the damage done by his lack of shooting and reap the benefits of all the other skills (the pace pushing, passing, and defense) he brings to the table.
4. A shaky start but promising ending for Zion Williamson in his return.
Before Wednesday, Williamson hadn’t played a regular-season game in 296 days. That, coupled with the fact that his opponent (the Memphis Grizzlies) tends to defend him pretty well (held him to 17 points per game on 51.1% true shooting in two games last year), seemed like a recipe for an underwhelming outing.
And early on, it looked like that would be exactly the case. Despite playing without Steven Adams, Brandon Clarke and Santi Aldama, the Grizzlies were able to use their size to close the gaps on Williamson’s driving lanes and completely disrupt his rhythm.
Through three quarters, Zion had just 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting from the floor. It’s a good thing they don’t play three quarters, though. In the fourth quarter, Williamson erupted for 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. In fact, he scored New Orleans’ final 12 points of the game (the third-highest total in franchise history).
Williamson still has some ramping up to do before he’s back to the dominant player we saw in the first half of last season, but his fourth quarter against Memphis was a promising first step.
5. Chris Paul still has some venom in his fangs.
When Paul was originally traded to the Golden State Warriors for Jordan Poole, most people didn’t know what to make of it. On one hand, he is “The Point God.” But on the other hand, he’s now 38 and entering his 19th season of NBA hoops. Is it a really good idea to trade someone with Poole’s potential for someone like that?
The shooting percentage wasn’t pretty (26.7% from the floor), but Paul’s Warriors debut showed he can still contribute to winning basketball. In 34 minutes (by the way, it’s impressive that he played that much), Paul had 14 points, nine assists and six rebounds – posting a +/- of +5.
He also flashed his midrange mastery, torching Jusuf Nurkic in pick-and-roll multiple times throughout the opener. And he reminded us that he still has his veteran guile, managing to grift a charge on Kevin Durant (despite the league making it a point to crack down on flopping).
Another thing to note is that the Warriors only turned the ball over 11 times. It’s a microscopic sample, but that mark is five turnovers fewer than their average from last year (which ranked 30th in the league). Paul’s ability to handle the ball and dictate the flow of the game enables him to limit the team’s overall turnover count.
Between that, his pick-and-roll prowess, and his unmatched institutional knowledge, Paul is looking like he still has plenty of gas left in the tank.