1. The Process demands patience
Over the past week, Philadelphia secured an impressive win on the road in Detroit, suffered a tough home loss on an Eric Gordon buzzer-beater against Houston and then gritted out another hard-fought road win in Dallas. The week-to-week growth alone (they started the season 0-3) is enough encouragement for 76ers fans. But this is still a very young team.
Ben Simmons is having an outstanding start to his rookie campaign and is every bit as good as advertised. Joel Embiid is becoming a force on both the offensive and defensive ends and developing his inside-outside game nicely. Robert Covington and J. J. Redick are spacing the floor and shooting 49% and 40% from 3-point range, respectively. These are signs of promise for the future, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
Simmons’ incredible start is only a start, he’s just six games into his career. Embiid is only shooting 25% from 3-point range and is still missing second nights of back-to-back sets. Jahlil Okafor has only seen the court once this season. Dario Saric is backing up a great rookie season with an awful start to his sophomore campaign, averaging 6.7 points, 4 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. Markelle Fultz struggled in his four games before being ruled out indefinitely to fix his shoulder.
Playoffs this season might be a stretch, but with enough patience it won’t be long before the ‘P’ word in Philadelphia is playoffs, not process.
2. The struggle is real for the Cavs
Cleveland fans may not be worried about their current position after a 3-4 start, but it’s their efforts on the court that should cause concern. They’re riding a three-game losing streak to teams they should have dismantled easily in Brooklyn, New Orleans and New York. The remaining members of last season’s big three aren’t the problem. LeBron James is still being LeBron James, averaging 27/7/8.8. Kevin Love is still being Kevin Love with 18.7 points and 11.2 rebounds an outing. The support cast are thereafter non-existent.
The Cavs have had no consistent play at the point guard position. Derrick Rose has missed four games with an ankle injury and one wonders with his injury history how many more times this season he’ll miss out. Isaiah Thomas is still not expected back until December, with LeBron having to start at point guard in the game against the Pelicans. Dwyane Wade struggled mightily in the starting line-up and was moved to run the second-unit offense, resulting in a marginal improvement in his form but no improvement in his team’s fortunes.
Jae Crowder and Tristan Thompson look like shells of their former selves. The good news is that we are still in October and Cleveland have a whole season to fix these issues. But in spite of Golden State’s woes, several other key title contenders are looking ominous; the Cavs better steady the ship soon.
3. Orlando and Detroit are surprise playoff contenders
Anyone pick the Detroit Pistons to be sitting atop the Eastern Conference at this stage? Didn't think so. With a 5-2 record in hand, Detroit have, remarkably, joined the postseason discussion.
Week 2 saw the Pistons reel off comprehensive victories over title contenders Minnesota, the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State. Their tough defense, led by anchor Andre Drummond and off-season acquisition Avery Bradley, has held some of the league’s most prolific offenses to scores well below their average. Offensively they’re getting contributions all throughout the line-up with Tobias Harris averaging a career high 21.7 points per game, while Reggie Jackson, Bradley, Langston Galloway, Stanley Johnson, Ish Smith and Anthony Tolliver all provide constant perimeter scoring threats.
On the topic of punching above your weight, half of the Orlando Magic players are having career years to this point. Aaron Gordon is averaging 23.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, up on his career numbers of 12.7/6.5. Nikola Vucevic is averaging 22.0 points and 2.0 blocks per contest, an improvement of previous averages of 19.3/1.1. Evan Fournier is also putting up career-best numbers, as is offseason pickup Jonathan Simmons.
It’s difficult to see this six-game sample size extending over an entire season, but for a team predicted to be vying for ping pong balls again, it’s a welcome change and a good foundation for the Magic to build towards a playoff push.
4. Chris who?
Obviously, the Rockets will be a better team with Chris Paul healthy and doing what he’s done for over ten seasons in this league. But both the Rockets and the Clippers, who traded him to Houston in the offseason, are playing excellent basketball without the seasoned point guard.
The Clippers have started the season 4-1 on the back of impressive performances from Patrick Beverley and Blake Griffin, who has embraced the greater ball handling responsibilities in his role as the team’s leader. Doc Rivers' side is more evenly spread scoring wise with Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Austin Rivers joining Beverley and Griffin in holding double-digit scoring averages. They are 26th in the league in assists, an area Paul excelled in, but they have been executing their offense well, regardless.
The Rockets, meanwhile, only had one game to enjoy their prized offseason acquisition before he was put on ice with a knee injury, with Houston opting for a more cautious approach. This could be a trend we see throughout the season as their long-term goal for Paul is to help come playoff time. With a 5-2 record to start the season you can see why they have taken this route.
James Harden is back to dominating the ball-handling duties, Eric Gordon is scoring at a ridiculous rate (24.8 points per game), Clint Capela is solidifying himself as a quality big man, and the likes of Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Nene, Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker are fulfilling their support duties. Assuming they continue with this form, there’s no reason to rush Paul back.
5. Hard-luck stories set for some
If the season ended today, the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder would miss out on playoffs. Luckily for them, we’re still in October and there will be a fair bit of movement in the standings between now and then. But the point is there will be a handful of solid Western Conference teams not playing in the playoffs.
For even one of the aforementioned teams to make the playoffs they would have to take another team’s place. Maybe Utah just slip come season's end, Portland have a dip in form, or Memphis can’t sustain their early season success. Either way, as it stands Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap will watch the playoffs from home.
This could be the final straw that sees the NBA abandon the conferences format altogether.
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