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Early observations of the 2021-22 NBA season.

We’re a little under a fortnight into the 2021-22 NBA season and whilst it’s clearly too soon to make definitive statements on what we’ve witnessed so far, there are more than enough interesting trends to make some early observations and predictions.

Let’s take a look at some of the more compelling story lines from the opening stages of the campaign.

Are the Knicks….legitimate?

Since the turn of the century NBA fans have become almost hard-wired to assume that the New York Knicks would be dysfunctional off the court and inept on it. For all the noise that came with last seasons 4th seeded playoff berth, there was the inevitable sting in the tail in the form of a 1st round flame out and Trae Young’s Heel Turn at Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks made some splashy moves in the off season, revamping their awful starting back court and inking new deals for a raft of last season’s contributors. Those moves were generally seen as locking the Knicks in as a perennial playoff team, but nothing more. Frankly, after two decades of generally depressing basketball, that was a win in and of itself. But something bigger looks to be brewing in New York.

The 4-1 Knicks currently sit atop the Eastern Conference and it looks for all the world like it’s sustainable. They’re sitting at 14th in the NBA on defense – low for a Tom Thibodeau team and something that should improve – but 4th on offense.

The new back court of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier have certainly helped, their shooting and play making poles apart from the men they replaced as indicated by the Knicks ranking 4th in the league in three point rate (they were 24th last season). They’ve made life so much easier for star man Julius Randle. Elfrid Payton’s lack of shooting and Reggie Bullocks inability to create off the bounce made a simple ball screen was a non-threat last year – this time around you pick your poison: double Randle and release a shooter, or close the jump shot and let the All NBA forward get downhill. That in turn creates easier shots for supporting players like Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett.

Ah, yes: Mr Barrett. The 3rd pick in the 2019 draft doesn’t get the same press as those selected before him (we’ll talk about one of them below) but he’s becoming every bit the player the Knicks had hoped. After expanding his offensive game last season, Barrett publicly announced that he wanted to push for All Defense honours this season. Whilst that can be the sort of meaningless platitude that players spout to show they ‘take their craft seriously’ Barrett appears to be backing his words with actions. He’s always been a potentially good on ball defender: big, strong and very much quick twitch. He’s starting to make game changing plays, now. He repeatedly stoned Celtics star Jayson Tatum down the stretch of their epic season opener. Barrett’s attention away from the ball had let him down previously though he’s noticeably improved in that area, keeping his hands high to interrupt passing lanes. His help defense is far better than it’s ever been. His improvement is perhaps the harbinger of the Knicks improvement so far this season.

As much as the Knicks fans are shouting, we’re still at the ‘whisper it’ stage but nonetheless, these Knicks are really, really good.

BING BONG!!!

Is it time to panic in Lakerland?

Well, you can’t accuse the Los Angeles Lakers of sitting tight. After last season’s opening round playoff loss to Phoenix, they completely changed tack. The team jettisoned practically everybody bar their two superstars, with it losing a plethora of three-and-D wings. In their stead they added a high profile star in Russell Westbrook and an army of low salaried sharp shooting role players.

The return so far has been less than ideal. The Lakers sit at 3-3 including an appalling fall-from-in-front loss to a Thunder squad that is not actively trying to win basketball games this season.

With a trio of high-wattage megastars and shooters dotted around them, the offense has been decent, however, the Lakers have been a sieve at the other end of the floor. Coach Frank Vogel – a noted defensive mastermind – is predictably struggling to take some string, a piece of chewing gum, and a tennis ball, and MacGyver a workable defense out of it.

Anthony Davis is a wonderful defender, but there’s not really another noted defensive player on the roster. Russell Westbrook has played, at best, inattentive defense for years; role players like Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Rajon Rondo and DeAndre Jordan are pronounced negatives at that end of the court.

Perhaps most concerning, LeBron James is looking awful on defense. Whilst the soon to be 37 year old isn’t the every possession lock down stopper of his prime, he’s still been able to step up when needed and his other-worldly reading of the play has made him an excellent off ball defender and defensive coach in the floor. This season, however, James’ defense away from the ball has been utterly appalling. Any player willing to make hard cuts off the ball is catching LeBron with his head turned and feet flat, allowing easy shots at the rim.

On offense, the Lakers have their issues, too. Chief among them is how to get the best out of Westbrook when he doesn’t have the ball. Encouragingly, he’s setting more ball screens than he ever has which should allow him to play off James and Davis, getting downhill where he can still be devastating despite his waning athleticism.

This writer doesn’t doubt that the Lakers will figure out their offense, but until they can ratchet up their defensive effectiveness, they’ll continue to struggle.

The Bulls hot start is a mirage.

Chicago won their opening four games for the first time since their final championship year in 1997, before a narrow loss to the aforementioned Knicks broke their perfect start. Unlike New York, however, it would be wise to ignore the hype.

Chicago’s opening wins came against a Pelicans team missing Zion Williamson, a pair of games against the moribund Pistons – themselves missing #1 pick Cade Cunningham – and the resurgent Raptors in a match that they almost threw away.

Now, take a look at their upcoming schedule:

  • Utah (home)
  • Boston (away)
  • Philadelphia (a)
  • Philadelphia (h)
  • Brooklyn (h)
  • Dallas (h)
  • Golden State (a)
  • LA Clippers (a)
  • LA Lakers (a)
  • Denver (a)
  • New York (h)

Do the Bulls start as favourite in literally any of the match-ups?

Over those eleven contests, Chicago would be thrilled to come out 6-5. Realistically, they could come away with merely a handful of wins. Should they finish that run at 2-9 (an 11-10 overall record) the Bulls will sit in the lower reaches of the playoff picture, which is probably about right, but doesn’t match the hype of their first week of the campaign.

This team has been fun on offense. The additions of Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan complimenting holdover stars Zach Lavine and Nikola Vucevic. Ball in particular has fit hand-in-glove with his teammates.

Most impressively, the Bulls are ranked 4th in the NBA in defense. Lakers import Alex Caruso, along with Ball and 2nd year wing Patrick Williams, have been the catalysts. They’re all long and active defenders who always seem to have a hand in a passing lane. Chicago is 4th in the league in deflections to this point against 26th last campaign. Those loose balls are leading to wave after wave of open floor offense, where Ball, Caruso and Lavine thrive. If the game slows down, they still have a dreadnought in Vucevic and a mid range wizard in DeRozan.

The Bulls have improved markedly, though the loss of Williams – out until at least February with a dislocated wrist – further stretches the already wafer thin Bulls rotation. Despite their improvement, their hot start will prove a false dawn.

Scottie Barnes, proving the doubters wrong.

The Toronto Raptors shocked the NBA world when they passed on a ‘sure thing’ prospect in Jalen Suggs to take wing Scottie Barnes in the recent draft. With long time point guard and franchise legend Kyle Lowry expected to be moved on and the team stocked with long armed wings, Suggs looked the obvious selection. It’s early days, of course, but it looks that yet again Raptors main man Masai Ujiri knows more than the rest of us.

Through six games – including a win over Suggs’ Orlando Magic – the man out of Florida State is putting up 17.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.5 combined steals/blocks and shooting 55% from the field. Most impressive, however, is his composure on the ball.

Coach Nick Nurse is already trusting Barnes’ decision making, allowing him to initiative offense through pick and rolls and dribble hand offs. This is the territory of creative guards or far more accomplished wings like LeBron James, Paul George or Kevin Durant. But Barnes’ patience and intelligence have proven to be remarkably well developed for 20 year old with a single season of college and a week of professional experience behind him.

At 6’7” and 225 lbs, Barnes was touted as a smooth moving athlete, able to glide around the court, but he’s shown that he’s more explosive in both his first step and ability to finish at the rim, which certainly helps him get into good positions with the ball.

As expected, Barnes’ defense has been very good. His size, speed and 7’2” wingspan make him a most versatile defender. He’s also extremely active, always looking to dig in and disrupt his man’s dribble or close a passing lane.

Barnes is the rare rookie that can challenge for All Defense honours. Impressively, he’s well on his way to proving himself more than just a defensive stopper. Ultimately the lesson is, as always: Trust Masai.

The more things change in Portland, the more they stay the same.

After years of butting their heads against a glass ceiling, the Blazers finally decided to make a serious change in the off season. Not so serious as to trade either of their back court stars for a defensive juggernaut (Hi Ben!), but serious enough to let long time coach Terry Stotts walk (to the displeasure of superstar Damian Lillard) and bring in the unproven Chauncey Billups. They also moved on from their all-offense bench units in favour of defensive aces in Cody Zeller and Larry Nance Jr in an effort to upgrade their problematic defense.

Schematically, we’ve seen the Blazers blitz or show when defending pick and rolls three times as often as they did last season, per Second Spectrum. The results, however, are inconclusive.

The Blazers are mid table in defensive rating, after consistently ranking at or near the bottom of the NBA for years under Stotts tutelage. On the surface, that looks a significant improvement, however the numbers are not as encouraging as they seem.

The Blazers increased trapping is, as expected, creating a few more turnovers but it is also leading to more open shots when that trap is broken. So far, the Blazers are benefiting from some opponent shooting luck (today’s game against the Clippers saw all non Paul George Clips shoot just 30%) and if/when that changes, combined with their opposition becoming increasingly familiar with the Blazers new scheme, that number could plummet.

As always, Portland simply lack the personnel to become a defensive force, no matter the scheme. Lillard and CJ McCollum offer all the resistance of a wet tissue, Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t been the same defensively since his devastating leg injury a couple of years back. Norman Powell is a fine defending other guards, but is over matched having to match up with forwards in Portland’s 3-guard lineup. Robert Covington is an excellent weak-side defender, but a help defender needs some initial resistance to allow himself to get into help positions. Nance is outstanding, but is not a team defense unto himself – he needs assistance.

As Dame and CJ begin to age out of their primes, the Blazers need to shake things up. Does that mean Lillard and/or McCollum will be on the market?

If Ja Morant is the future, then the future is here.

In his 3rd season, Ja Morant has arrived.

The ultra athletic point guard is tied for the league lead in scoring alongside Steph Curry at 30.4 point per game with outstanding 54/41/84 shooting splits. His 7.8 assists and 1.8 steals place him just in and outside of the top 10, respectively.

The most impressive aspect of Morant’s increased efficiency is that he’s producing it against increased volume, contrary to to popular convention. Morant has increased his total shots per game from 15 to over 20, his attempts beyond the arc from 3.8 to 6.4 and he’s shooting an extra free throw per contest, all exceeding his previous career highs by a big, big margin.

Morant is still getting to the rim with greatest of ease, but it’s his deep shooting – especially off the bounce – that is most exciting. If the early season shooting is real then there isn’t a single player on planet Earth that can stop Morant from getting to the basket.

It should be mentioned that Morant’s increased usage is partly by design, partly down to circumstance. The Grizzlies are missing Dillon Brooks due to injury and traded Jonas Valanciunas – both players averaged 17+ points last season – for the decidedly low usage Kiwi Steven Adams in the off season. Once Brooks returns, Morant’s shot attempts should drop to some degree.

The result is that the Grizz, who last season were the only NBA team to finish the season without a 20+ point scorer (Orlando traded Vucevic – their only player to hit that mark – at the deadline), now possess one of the most explosive offensive weapons in the world.

Why is James Harden struggling?

The Brooklyn Nets, expected to be an offensive juggernaut, are currently 27th in the NBA in offensive rating (a far cry from last seasons record breaking numbers), sporting a somewhat underwhelming 3-3 record. Sure, they’re missing Kyrie Irving, but the idea of having a 3rd superstar was to augment any injury related (or, in this case, vaccine related) absences to Irving or Kevin Durant.

So far, KD is carrying more than his fair share of the Net’s offensive burden. James Harden, though, is struggling mightily. Before today’s breakout game against the Pacers (29 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 blocks, 16-19 from the free throw line) Harden was averaging 16 points, seven boards, 8 assists and just on a block and steal per contest. Most players would give their first born for those numbers. James Harden is not most players.

The most prevalent theory for Harden’s struggles appears to revolve around the NBA’s crackdown on ‘unnatural’ fouls. Before today’s explosion Harden, who averages almost nine free throw attempts per game, was shooting just the three. Without a doubt, Harden is struggling to adapt to the new officiating conditions – though he has been on the receiving end of some terrible no calls – but he also seems to lack his usual burst off the dribble, his jumps shots drawing front iron, his passes over or under thrown.

To that end, the man himself has said that he’s suffering from not having any sort of significant preseason to speak of, thanks to the hamstring injury that robbed him of half of last season and that he then re-injured in the opening game of the playoffs. Not yet having his sea legs would at least partially explain Harden’s inability to hit the deep three or get to the basket with the same ease and regularity to which we’ve become accustomed. It would clearly explain why his usually pinpoint passes are not finding their targets.

There is an elephant in the room, though: Harden’s minutes.

Over the past decade, only Damian Lillard has played more minutes than The Beard. At age 32, with over 35,000 minutes on those legs, are we beginning to see the decline of one of the single greatest offensive players to grace the hardwood?

The next month of basketball will tell a story.

The Cavaliers 1980’s tribute act is somehow working.

Whilst the basketball world downsizes, looking to emphasise skill and speed at the expense of size, the Cleveland Cavaliers have gone the opposite way, choosing to start a trio of seven footers. None are especially proficient play makers, two of them can’t really shoot and playing big presents some obvious issues in as far as perimeter defense and switchability.

Yet, weirdly, it’s working.

The Cavaliers are using Lauri Markkanen’s shooting to create space for guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, who both prefer to get to the basket than spot up from deep, whilst allowing Jarrett Allen to thrive as a rim runner. That shooting is something that natural wing Isaac Okoro can’t provide. What Okoro does give the Cavs – something that Markkanen most certainly does not – is excellent perimeter defense. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff has come up with a novel solution to keep Markkanen on the floor with prized rookie Evan Mobley in this super sized front court: healthy doses of zone defense.

Inspired by how the late Flip Saunders used Kevin Garnett, the Cavs are using Mobley at the point of a 3-2 zone, where his seemingly endless arms and lateral mobility create all sorts of problems at the point of attack. It’s wreaked havoc on the usually potent Hawks, Nuggets and Clippers so far, though the league will prepare counters as the season progresses. How the Cavs adjust to those counters will be fascinating.

This jumbo sized front court may not pan out in the long run, but it’s unique, it’s fun and we should enjoy it whilst it lasts.

SHOP!

This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.

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