Los Angeles Lakers
Leading with the Lakers because every bloody other person does. I even heard the news about Kawhi Leonard’s (minor) framed as him missing out on the only opportunity he had all season to play the Lakers at Staple Centre. That was on ESPN, obviously. Home of the LeBron-centric narrative and I love LeBron but I do tire of the Lakers hype. Then again, I enjoy hating them so despite the difficulty in recasting LBJ as the villain, I’m embracing this new development where the Lakers are relevant enough to despise them again. (Also, isn’t angling Kawhi’s non-appearance in front of the Lakers fans just another way of enabling free agency corruption?).
Magic Johnson initially said that he’d give the Lakers time to sort things out, everybody sorta figured they’d need it with a mix of young players combined with a selection of one-year contracted veterans and LeBron James, who has famously taken a little while to settle in at each new team he’s played for. But after losing five of their first seven games ol’ Magic reportedly had a yarn with Luke Walton to tell him to start getting some Ws. That’s unfair on a few levels but such are the pressures of the Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s not like they’re playing awful though, they just have a terrible defence (120 points allowed per game!) and can’t make jump shots is all (hence only 3/10 shots are from three, which is 24th in the league in 3pt ratio). The fourth quarter stuff ain’t great either, plus their bench is average, and their roster is imbalanced. Tyson Chandler’s been brought in to help the culture and the defence, which is fine, but you get the feeling that even though it’ll all be alright in the long run, Luke Walton probably won’t get a long run because they’ll panic and fire him.
Panic Stations Level: 5/10… it should be 2 but we’re talking about the Lakers so everything is blown out of proportion
No, it is not all Carmelo Anthony’s fault, despite what some may say. Melo hasn’t helped but it’s reductive to blame him when he’s a symptom of a larger issue. First of all, the Rockets starting 1-5 has to be balanced with the context that James Harden missed three games with injury and Chris Paul also missed two games with suspension after the Rajon Rondo incident… yeah that was good fun. So if you consider that CP3/Harden/Ennis/Tucker/Capela is probably their best starting five and they were only able to utilise it twice in their first seven games, well that matters when it comes to judging them.
But it also matters that they lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency, two of their finest defenders, and replaced them with… what, Brandon Knight and Carmelo Anthony? I dunno, but the Rockets are six points worse off in points per possession allowed this season and that’s a killer. It was potentially only injuries that stopped them from giving the Warriors their biggest non-LeBron challenge since the Durant/Westbrook Thunder. Now we’re here.
What they have done is convinced defensive mastermind Jeff Bzdelik to come out of retirement, which is no small deal considering a) what a genius he is, and b) that he supposedly had some old beef with Melo after getting fired at the Nuggets back in the day. And he’s gonna need to work closely with Melo because you know how I said it’s not all Melo’s fault? I still stand by that… but it is a lot his fault because offences just target him over and over and the Rockets’ defensive rating is a very commendable 106.2 when he’s off the court, an abysmal 121.6 when he’s on.
Panic Stations Level: 7/10… because this is a championship calibre team with championship aspirations but no hope of competing with the Dubs in this current incarnation
The defeats would be bad enough, losing seven out of their first eight games. But the margin of defeat is what really cooks this lot. Busted by 22 points against the Warriors, 32 points against the Clippers, 12 points to the Grizzlies and 23 points to the Thunder all within the space of ten days. They’re shooting poorly and their defence is below average. They’re also one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, although Dwight Howard is back now and helping that a tad, he’ll get better as he gets his legs back.
Except consider the bubbling pressure the Wiz were already dealing with after so many disappointments in this John Wall era. Consider the pressure Scotty Brooks was already under. Consider the locker room tension of the last season and, sure they got rid of Marcin Gortat… but they replaced him with Dwight Howard. They have bugger all cap flexibility and no real choice but to try and work through this. Man, LeBron James finally leaves the Eastern Conference and John Wall still can’t catch a break.
Panic Stations Level: 6/10… this is a mess, however it should get better
Ty Lue’s sacking wasn’t all down to performances. It was as much to do with his toxic relationship with GM Koby Altman as anything else, clashing over franchise direction and rotations and all that. You get the feeling that Lue won’t be so disappointed to have left though. This team is a wreck without LeBron. Even with him it was a wreck and now the lynchpin is gone leaving behind all his old mates. Altman said they weren’t ready to tank but then he demanded Lue play the youngsters over the vets. They did for two games and they lost both. Lue then defied those orders and got sacked.
There’s talent here. JR Smith, Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson have their days when they can shoot. Larry Nance is a decent player. Tristan Thompson can at least rebound. Cedi Osman is a fan favourite. However Kevin Love is out for a couple months having just had surgery and the less said about their defence the better. JR Smith wants to be traded. Kyle Korver apparently re-signed on the agreement that he’d be allowed to leave if LeBron left… only LeBron did leave and then Altman blocked Korver’s request. They reckon Ty Lue got $15m as a buyout for getting fired from this team and now he gets to apply for the next available job with a resume that includes a championship ring. Mate, that is the good life.
Panic Stations Level: 0/10… because it’s already over
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder began 0-4 and panic was high. They then won four in a row and panic eased off. Obvious deficiencies remain with OKC and their shooting is top of that list, no team in the NBA has a worse 3P% and despite all the talk about ball-movement they still can’t rack up any assists. However this is not a bad unit and it’ll get a lot better when Andre Roberson eventually returns. They’ve also had to play time without Russell Westbrook this season and Paul George, it’s been revealed, is playing through a foot injury which explains a lot of his early struggles. Russ will get better as he plays more – remember he didn’t get a preseason – and Paul George will get healthier too. They evolved a lot as they went along last time and there’s no reason to panic here at all, not even in the crowded Western Conference. They’ve already turned 0-4 into 5-4.
Panic Stations Level: 1/10… though I’m a bit worried about Roberson’s recovery
Golden State Warriors
Because, honestly, who can stop them right now? The Rockets have taken a tumble, the Thunder are average, LeBron’s Lakers aren’t doing much yet… the rest of the supposedly stacked West is all fighting for second place. As if that wasn’t enough, the Dubs themselves seem to be getting better. Certainly Steph Curry is playing as well as he has since his second MVP season, shooting over 50% from deep, while Kevin Durant isn’t too far behind him in the scoring ranks. Klay Thompson was a weak link for a while… until he found his touch in scintillating fashion, hitting a record 14 triples in a game against the Bulls. They’re murdering teams. The dynasty lives on.
Premature Celebration Level: 10/10… gotta be pretty confident of a three-peat right now
When Kawhi Leonard ended up in Toronto there were questions. How could they do that to DeMar DeRozan? Is Kawhi even fit to play? Is this a panic move after already sacking Coach of the Year Dwane Casey?
I mean… looks pretty good from this angle. People sorta forgot just how good Kawhi is when he’s healthy, basically one of the two best defenders of the last five years and a super reliable offensive weapon capable of leading a team. Chuck him next to Kyle Lowry, which helps take pressure off Lowry to shoot more consistently than he’s comfortable with, and let the developing young guys on the bench emerge and develop. Probably a good time to remind people that this team won a franchise record 59 games a year ago. Now they’ve improved. They’re the best team in the East with nine wins outta their first ten. Of course, none of it will matter if they choke in the playoffs again.
Premature Celebration Level: 8/10… close to a perfect start but without the pedigree of certain other teams who’ve been there and done it before we can’t take too much for granted yet
Giannis Antetokounmpo. That much was beyond doubt. But Mike Budenholzer took over a team that had constantly failed to live up to the hype and expectation brought about by having one of the most unique talents in the sport. Curiously they’re coming out and just annihilating teams in the second quarter, Coach Bud making cash while the second units are out there thanks to his ability to balance line-up production like he did at the Hawks (remember when their entire starting five won player of the month?). Khris Middleton is doing damage off the bench. Giannis is getting his rest and coming back reenergised to close out halves. It’s beautiful to watch.
That’s one snapshot of how the Bucks were able to win their first seven games. They’re also better utilising their offensive scheme around Giannis, surrounding him with shooters to give him space to drive to the hoop like he does so well… but also encouraging him to kick it out to those open shooters once the defence collapses in on him. Fewer clangers from the mid-range in keeping with the modern NBA. They should be targeting 60 wins from here, health permitting.
Premature Celebration Level: 7/10… dunno how it’ll look in the playoffs but these are finally the Milwaukee Bucks that we wanted to see going back to the Jason Kidd days
Last season the Denver Nuggets were, at one stage, 26-25. That was at the end of January. From February onwards they went 20-11 and played some of the best stuff in the league. Nikola Jokic emerging as a star, Paul Millsap getting healthy, Gary Harris looking great. The blueprint was already there for them coming into this campaign so it was a matter of doing the same over the course of a whole season and proving that stretch was the real deal. Now here they are with nine wins from ten and they’ve got a top three defence and top ten offence in terms of points per possession and Jokic is within range of averaging 18/8/8. Yes I do believe that the Denver Nuggets are going to win a lot of games this season.
As for Jamal Murray…
Premature Celebration Level: 6/10… the West is ruthless but the Nuggets are close – they’re also the only team to have beaten the Warriors so far
San Antonio Spurs
How lovely that the Spurs can trade away their best player and still ball like a playoff team. DeMar DeRozan is looking sharp, scoring at least 25 methodical points in eight of his first nine games, it’s almost like he was a born and bred Spur from the beginning. LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t near his peak yet so that’s one area they can improve in, also their defence has looked better in the last week. Dejounte Murray’s injury sucked but Bryn Forbes has been delightfully better than expected at the point. Typical Spurs, aye?
The old saying rings as true as ever: If Gregg Popovich is there then just go ahead and assume they’ll make the playoffs. The Spurs dropped a dumb one to the Hornets recently to snap a four-game winning streak and they’re not good enough to avoid those dud games… but they’re good enough to be feared by basically anyone too – the demise of the Spurs now that Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have all left was, as we should have known, greatly exaggerated.
Premature Celebration Level: 3/10… because they’re still only gonna win 50-odd games and finish fourth or fifth or sixth in the West
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