Hey friends. Let’s check out what’s happening across the NBA, shall we?
Milwaukee Bucks (9-2)
What a difference a coach can make. The Bucks blew out the Warriors in Oakland last night to move to 9-2 on the season. They were expected to be a playoff team, but have started the season like one of the top teams in the league. Coach Mike Budenholzer has changed their approach for the better on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they have surrounded Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooters, and are second in the league in three point shooting rate. Defensively, they use their length to make everything tough, and rebound over 80 percent of opponents misses.
Toronto Raptors (10-1)
That trade for Kawhi Leonard is working out, at least for now. Though he’s played only eight of their 12 games, he’s looked like an MVP when he’s out there, dominating both sides of the ball. In addition, co-star Kyle Lowry has been playing terrific ball, and Serge Ibaka seems to have rejuvenated, at least for now. Add to those three one of the strongest benches in the league, and the Raptors are a serious East contender.
Denver Nuggets (9-2)
The Nuggets just lost only their second game of the season, in part because of the absence of Paul Millsap for the second half, whose health has made quite a difference for them this year. His injury isn’t serious happily. The huge difference for the Nuggets this season compared to last, when they fell just short of a playoff spot, is a vastly improved defense. Their Achilles heel in recent seasons, this year they are third in the league in defensive rating, thanks to a group that limits opportunities by forcing turnovers and rebounding misses. Center Nikola Jokic has taken his game to yet another level, reducing his turnovers and playing much better at the defensive end. A full season like this makes him an MVP candidate.
Portland Trail Blazers (9-3)
A terrific start for the Blazers, who are top ten in both offensive and defensive rating. They are still reliant on their two back court stars, of course, C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, but are getting contributions up and down the roster to start the season. Big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have both had good starts to the season. Defensively, they’ve been great at defending without fouling, sitting third in the league in both opponent eFG percentage and free throw rate.
Washington Wizards (2-8)
Along with the Wolves, the Wizards have emerged as the dysfunctional team in the league this year. Expected once again to compete for a playoff spot, and perhaps home court advantage in the first round, instead things have fallen apart early this season. They obviously have good talent, with All-Stars John Wall and Bradley Beal in the back court and Otto Porter on the wing, but their lack of quality size has sabotaged the defense (28th) and apparently nobody likes each other. They look like a team that has gone stale and needs change, but they have a ton of money tied up in the three aforementioned players.
Cleveland Cavaliers (1-10)
Despite losing LeBron James, they decided not to blow things up. Instead they re-signed Kevin Love (promptly injured) and kept several expensive veterans around, such as Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, and George Hill. It’s been a disaster. The Cavs look like the worst team in the league, and have a cap figure of $116M this year, with $124M owed in contracts for next season. They better hope Zion Williamson is really that good.
Houston Rockets (4-6)
It’s been a stumbling start for the Rockets, widely expected to once again be the second best team in the West. They still might get there, but it’s not been pretty so far. They got absolutely curb-stomped by the Thunder playing without Russell Westbrook last night. Both James Harden and Chris Paul have missed some games, but this has been an across the board poor start for the Rockets, who aren’t shooting well, aren’t getting to line like they usually do, and aren’t stopping anyone. The roster changes they made—losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, adding Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis, have not worked. Melo in particular has killed them—12.3 points per 100 possessions worse when he’s on the floor.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Doing everything for the Bucks. Flashing a 25.6/12.9/5.7 line, and currently has a league best DBPM leading one of the league’s best defenses. He still doesn’t shoot threes, but apparently doesn’t have to in order to be one of the dominant forces in the league.
Nikola Jokic: Improved defense, a career low turnover percentage and a career high assist percentage. League leading BPM. He might not be scoring enough to ultimately win the award (and it’s a long season) but he’s absolutely been one of the best players in the NBA so far this season. The Nuggets are much improved, and he’s a major part of it at both ends of the floor.
Stephen Curry: Him again. Merely leading the league in scoring, flirting with 50-50-90 (it’s early, he won’t do this.) Tops in the league in OBPM. The Warriors are 10-2 and only weren’t listed in the Whose Hot section because it’s what’s expected of them.
Other guys to keep an eye on: Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard if they stay healthy, Damian Lillard. And LeBron James, always.
There are 14 rookies who have played at least 200 minutes so far this season. Here are three who have caught my eye:
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) leads rookies in minutes, and has been handed the keys in Dallas. He’s responded by averaging 20.2/6.5/4.2, and has shot the ball quite well. Turnovers and defensive struggles have been his problems, but he’s also 19 years old and has the ball in his hands a lot. A strong start and one of the ROY favorites.
DeAndre Ayton (Suns) has perhaps been the most effective rookie. Scoring well and rebounding for the Suns, he’s also played reasonably good defense for a rookie big. Averaging a double-double and showing some passing chops as well, he’s been better than I expected early in his rookie year.
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Grizzlies): He hasn’t found his three point stroke yet, and he’s fouling too much, but he’s doing everything else pretty well for a resurgent Grizzlies team. He’s got obvious defensive gifts (2.3 steal percentage, 6.4 block percentage. One of only two players—not rookies—to be over 2 and 6. Montrez Harrell is the other) and is shooting 55 percent on two pointers. He just turned 19. He’s going to be a player.
What’s caught your eye around the league?