The NBA Season Has Begun! What Should and Shouldn't We Overreact To?
Excerpts From The End of The Bench
The Greek God has officially arrived in Milwaukee!
If the season ended today, Giannis Antetokounmpo would be your MVP. The Greek Freak has come flying out of the gate with three ridiculous games to lead off the campaign. Averaging 38.33 points, 9.66 rebounds, and 5 assists per game against good competition (reigning conference finals duo, Cavs and Celtics) thus far, he's had the best start of anyone in the NBA this season.
Despite the outlandish stat-lines, there is another reason for Giannis fans everywhere to be excited about this season. Giannis is doing something he hasn't done often enough in either of his two "breakout" seasons prior to this, and something the greatest players of all time did over and over during their careers; he's making statement plays.
Now I'm not talking about his highlight dunks or his transition eurosteps that seem to start from the parking lot. I'm talking about game-altering blocks like the one he had on Nurkic against the Trailblazers, go-ahead buckets in the waning moments of the game, and important defensive stops. These are the types of plays that you think of when you look back on the careers of every great NBA player, and this week Giannis took the next step to joining them.
Think about what plays you remember most from last year? The last decade? The last 50-plus years? KD's pull up jumper over LeBron in the Finals, LeBron's block on Iguodala the year before, Ray Allen's 3 against the Spurs, the Kobe Bryant lob to Shaq, MJ's game winner over the Jazz, and even Bill Russell's coast-to-coast layup that gets replayed over and over in black and white in every NBA montage ever. These are guys who were in the right place at the right time making the right spectacular play whenever their team needed them.
I believe Giannis is right on the cusp of being one of those guys for the Bucks. He's flashed that potential in this very early portion of the season and has given us all reason to be excited. It's too early to crown him MVP (although at 10-1 odds right now, he's not a bad bet), but I wouldn't be surprised to see him there at the end of the season. If he can drag this Bucks team anywhere close to 50 wins, we will have to entertain the thought of him as the best player in the league not too far down the line. Until then, consider the rest of the world put on notice that the Greek Freak is coming for the throne.
Don't judge this year's Baby Lakers too harshly
The opinions on Lonzo Ball after just two games vary wildly. Loads of people labeled him a bust after his less-than stellar performance against Pat Beverly and the Clippers to open the season. 3 points on 1 of 6 shooting with no drawn fouls is not something to write home about but the 2:1 turnover ratio and 9 rebounds certainly show he played well in a game the Lakers had no business being in. You can't overreact to the debut of a rookie who has the whole league gunning for him thanks to the overwhelming hype provided by his outspoken father.
Similarly, Lonzo's near triple double against the Suns the following night was impressive. Sure, if you want to use the argument that the Suns are possibly the worst team in the west, I'll bite. The Suns may be bad as a whole, but they boast some defenders who simply don't fit that mold. Eric Bledsoe is a good defender. He's a bulky point guard with strength and speed similar to Beverly that Lonzo should, at least in theory, struggle with this year until his body fills out. Tyson Chandler, once an elite rim protector, has not lost much in that department entering his 17th season, and Lonzo absolutely bullied him on this drive late in the game. Don't read too much into this type of game (or the Clippers game) until it starts to happen with any regularity.
Similarly, people were equally divided over second-year prospect, Brandon Ingram. The young forward reportedly grew 2 inches over the summer (Paul George, GIannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Durant all reportedly had the same growth spurt during the summer after their rookie year), and reworked his jumper to be more consistent upon release (the anti-Markelle Fultz, sorry not sorry Sixers fans). Still, people were calling for his head after his disappointing start against the Clippers.
It's important to point out that Ingram is still well under what his final playing weight will be someday, and stretching that length out another two inches didn't help him in terms of bulking up. He will struggle against physical defenders until that happens, there's no way around it. This is a project that will take time, and that was the plan all along. Nobody should've expected a 196lb teenager who is younger than half of this year's draft class to be a superstar right away.
But if you want to compare him to the great small forwards in this league already, fine! I'll indulge you. Let's do a little exercise in stat comparisons. The following stat lines are from the rookie years of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, reigning Most Improved Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, and Brandon Ingram. The only twist is I've mixed up the order a bit. See if you can guess what stats belong to each player.
If you guessed Giannis, Brandon Ingram, Kawhi, and then PG13, you'd be right. Brandon Ingram averaged more points and assists than any of those All-Stars. You could argue that Kawhi and George were better defenders at that age, except that they both came into the league a year older than Ingram. Or maybe that Giannis was surrounded by a bunch of volume shooters and didn't get enough looks, although Nick Young and De'angelo Russell who Ingram played last year with aren't exactly A+ distributors. The point I'm trying to make here is that nobody was right about these guys being busts, and they all took multiple seasons to develop. The least we can do is give Ingram the same and see what he does with it.
Joel Embiid hasn't changed a bit (for better and worse)
Joel is still the same dynamic player we sampled in 31 games last year. The Sixers played like a 50+ win team when he was on the floor last year and were a projected 12 win team when he was off of it. He puts up ridiculous numbers, shoots the 3 better than some guards, and talks a mean twitter game. His preseason exchange with Hassan Whiteside shows just how much he wins on and off the court.
The only real problem arose late this week when Joel was informed he would be sitting out the second night of back to back games. We all know that being cautious with the oft-injured big man is whats best for his and our future, but its so tempting to want to see what he can do right now. Joel has one of the biggest floor-to-ceiling potential gaps in NBA history. If he can't manage to stay healthy for a season, let alone a playoff run, He could be the next Greg Oden. If he can manage to avoid major injuries, we could be looking at the next Kareem, only with a jumper and a boatload of internet trash talk. Only time will tell (that's really cliche, I know, just deal with it), so lets just enjoy the flashes of Joel we get to see right now.
Are the Warriors in Trouble?
With losses to the Rockets and Grizzlies, a record below .500 for the first time since at least 2014, and the recent ejections of Steph and Durant, you might start to wonder if things are unraveling for Golden State. I'm sure nobody outside of Oakland wants to see them in a 4th straight finals, so maybe you're even cheering for them to fall apart. If thats the case, I have some bad news for you; the Warriors aren't going away that easily. Barring some injury setback, Golden State will be back in the Finals again.
No team out there has shown it can steal a 7 game series from them. The Rockets needed everything to break right for them to take a 1-point victory away from the Warriors. Their strategy is to put up 125 points every night and hope the other team misses shots. That can work for a game or a homestead, but not long-term against the best team around. The Grizzlies loss can be attributed to mounting frustrations after the Warriors played three games below their standard performance and it simply boiled over in that game. They have 79 more games to figure it out. They will be fine. I want to see an Oklahoma City-Boston Finals as much as the next guy but its simply not going to happen.
Don't read too much into what happens before January. Some teams will jump out to good starts, others will fall to the rear of the pack (See 2016-2017 Miami Heat), rookies will struggle against seasoned vets, and upsets will happen. Weird stuff happens. This is why we love the game. Just enjoy what you see, hope your team does well, and do not pass up an opportunity to watch Mavs rookie Dennis Smith Jr. on League Pass, because he tries to destroy backboards on every single possession. Heres a sample. You're welcome.