Much of the NBA regular season’s opening week could be forecast. The Golden State Warriors lead the league in scoring. DeMarcus Cousins, last season’s league leader in technical fouls, flashed a thumbs-up sign at the referee who assessed the Sacramento King’s center his first tech of the new year. The deprived Philadelphia 76ers have yet to register a win, but the team’s strong-willed fans managed to chant “MVP!” at Joel Embiid, a player with less than 50 career minutes. Tyronn Lue’s defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers are undefeated and enjoying each other’s company at LeBron James-organized holiday parties.
A week’s worth of games also provided us with unexpected wrinkles, such as Beno Udrih’s blonde ponytail, Jonathan Simmons’s baptism of JaVale McGee and Marc Gasol dedicating a three-pointer — he’s already set a single-season career-high with six, by the way — to Johnny Cash.
Here are eight things we learned from opening week.
1. Chicago’s three-point shooting has the Bulls looking much better than advertised
Fred Hoiberg spent most of his offseason watching upper management shuffle the team’s deck and bring in nine new players, three of whom are starters. Most of the additions seemingly run counter to his pace-and-space schemes. Certainly he must have heard the pundits claiming he was on the hot seat, despite having just wrapped up his first year as an NBA head coach.
How did the 44-year-old respond? He coached his squad to wins over two playoff-qualifying Eastern Conference teams from a year ago and one win over, well, the lowly Brooklyn Nets. Chicago, a roster populated by maybe two reliable three-point shooters, has canned 31 thus far. Only five teams are averaging more per contest.
Here’s the team’s greenlit shot chart:
Dwyane Wade, a well-known midrange gunner who connected on seven three-pointers (yes, seven!) all of last season, drilled four in the season opener against a defense that ranked in the top five at defending the arc last year. Jimmy Butler is a career 32.9 percent shooter from the outside. He’s hit six of his 11 attempts this season.
Maybe the Bulls’ 42.5 percent clip (third-best) from three-point land cools down. Perhaps the team doesn’t have the luxury of sniping 6.5 treys per game when the closest defender is more than six feet away. But, at least for now, Chicago is far ahead of schedule and spacing the court better than it did at any point in last season’s 40-42 non-playoff campaign.
2. Steve Kerr was right; Damian Lillard is an MVP candidate
“I think [Kevin Durant] is kinda like Gary Johnson, a third-party guy who might come in and take a few votes from Steph [Curry], takes some votes from LeBron [James],” Kerr told the San Francisco Chronicle in an astonishingly accurate political comparison. “Then, Damian Lillard wins the election. That’s my forecast.”
The fifth-year guard hasn’t disappointed, piling up 43 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.6 assists per 100 possessions. He’s the first player in franchise history to score 100 points in the team’s first three games.
Lillard is the engine of an offense ranked seventh in points per 100 possessions (106). He’s attacking the basket more than any player in the league (14.7 drives per game) and pulling up for jumpers like he’s trapped in a permanent game of H-O-R-S-E.
Consider Game Score, a John Hollinger metric that attempts to quantify a player’s overall productivity in a given game, where a score of 40 is considered an outstanding performance and 10 is average. The part-time rapper has already produced two games in which his score exceeded 28.5, a mark he eclipsed six times all of last season.
3. Russell Westbrook is on pace for a historic season in more than one way
Oh yeah, there’s another Western Conference guard gunning for MVP. And he’s ticked off.
Four players — Magic Johnson, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook — have started a season with two triple-doubles in three games. Should he stay healthy, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Westbrook doesn’t do something unprecedented this season.
Frankly, considering that teams are playing much slower and thus producing far fewer possessions now than they did when Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson were carving up box scores, Westbrook’s ostentatious stat lines are absurd.
Oklahoma City’s larger-than-life point guard not only currently has the commercial with the most loaded subtext, he’s the first guy in NBA history to rack up 100 points, 30 rebounds and 30 assists through the first three games, per Elias.
Here are his two triple-doubles:
- 33 points, 12 rebounds, 16 assists
- 51 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists
Remember that Game Score metric? Since 2013-14, a player has strung together three consecutive games with a Game Score exceeding 28, with the longest streak being Westbrook’s five consecutive games in 2015. This season, he’s already re-stapled his name to that list through his team’s first three games. His usage rate, 40.4, if maintained, would best the all-time record by nearly two points.
Last season, Westbrook tied Magic Johnson’s 18 triple-doubles, the most any player has had in a single season in the past 40 years. Hard to imagine he doesn’t eclipse that this season, considering he has 96.3 percent of the season schedule to play.
4. Kawhi Leonard is picking everybody’s pocket
The reigning defensive player of the year has more or less picked up where he left off: leading the league in steals and Vines (R.I.P.) of an opponent helplessly watching as the ball is wrangled away by an athlete with a 7-foot-3 wingspan.
Yeah, Leonard leads the league in steal percentage (5.3), but he isn’t stopping there. He also leads the league in win shares, free throws and deflections. His top-10 scoring average has spearheaded a unit ranked third in offensive rating (108.4 points per contest), but more impressive is that he’s once again the linchpin of an elite defense.
5. James Harden very well may shatter some records
Only one player, Nate Archibald in 1972-73, has ever led the league in scoring and assists. Currently, Westbrook leads both categories, but my money’s on the Beard.
Harden decimated the preseason, piling up double-doubles in sparse minutes. Thus far, he’s one of two players (Westbrook being the other) averaging better than 31 points and 10 assists per contest. Attrition will come for the Thunder, a team relying so heavily on Westbrook’s athleticism to put up points that he has already set a career high by taking 44 shots in a game this season.
Harden, meanwhile, has shooters surrounding him, an offense calibrated to high-volume scoring and a coach with an ambivalent attitude toward defense. His numbers will flood box scores this season, and Harden will have a shot at adding his name alongside Archibald.
6. Despite a solid start, the Kings likely aren’t playoff ready
Sacramento has yet to implode, starting the season 2-2. And while a solid start under new Coach Dave Joerger is a bright spot for a franchise long mired in darkness, the Kings have managed to produce the fifth worst defensive rating in the league (108 points per 100 possessions). This is nothing new: Sacramento’s defense has ranked in the bottom eight the past five years.
For some teams (think: Golden State and Houston), this isn’t a death sentence, but for Sacramento, a team that is often inconsistent on the offensive end, these defensive deficiencies will keep them from where they want to go.
The Kings have a 26 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight, but that doesn’t take into account the importance of finding success in the early half of the season. Sacramento has the 12th easiest first-half schedule of any team, according to Nylon Calculus. Should the Kings wish to reach the postseason for the first time in more than a decade, the team will need to pile up early-season wins.
7. The Warriors are not the league’s top offense
Show of hands: Who predicted that teams like Memphis and Chicago would flaunt higher-scoring offenses than the Warriors in the league’s opening week?
Well, Golden State ranks outside the top 10 in offensive rating, scoring 103.9 points per 100 possessions. Some of this, of course, might be due to Kerr’s team accounting for 43.8 fewer passes per contest.
The Warriors still lead the league in assist percentage (69.7), but are holding the ball slightly more than they did a year ago (2.46 seconds per touch compared to 2.39 seconds a year ago, according to NBA tracking data). Will that keep up?
8. Big men are back!
In league saturated with guards and positionless players, some 7-footers are still managing to steal the spotlight.
Anthony Davis is manufacturing darn near all of New Orleans’ baskets this season. Myles Turner is a two-way monster, deftly swatting shots and showcasing a pure midrange jumper on the other end. Andre Drummond is going to rack up a mind-bending amount of double-doubles while Reggie Jackson works his way back to the court. Steven Adams is developing into perhaps Westbrook’s best pass-to option. Joel Embiid is displaying an uncanny athleticism and inspiring the city of Philadelphia. Kristaps Porzingis leads the Knicks in PER, chipping in 18.5 points per game. Rudy Gobert just inked a $102 million extension and is terrorizing the paint once again. Jusuf Nurkic is performing at a high rate for a Nuggets team that isn’t.