The NBA season has officially hit the first quarter mark and it is already shaping up to be one of the most competitive in recent memory. In the East, only 4.5 games separate the top-seeded Nets from the 11th place Sixers. Meanwhile, Dallas, Memphis, Minnesota, the two Los Angeles teams, Portland, and Denver are all within a game and a half of each other in the wild West.
Our Ballers writing crew digs into some of the surprises—and disappointments—around the league so far.
1. What has been the biggest surprise so far?
ALDO: The strong start of the Washington Wizards has been a pleasant surprise. They traded a former MVP in Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal is having a down year by his standards, yet they’re right in the thick of the playoff race in the East.
What helps is that they have a bunch of players who have fully embraced their roles and play within their limitations which is often an overlooked aspect in the NBA. In addition, Spencer Dinwiddie’s strong play coming off a torn ACL, Kyle Kuzma’s willingness to consistently compete on defense, and Montrezl Harrell’s significant improvement as a free throw shooter have given them an unexpected boost.
Realistically, the best case scenario for Washington is a second round appearance which might not seem so enticing at first glance, but is a promising development for a team that was deemed rudderless as recently as a year ago. In a superstar-driven league filled with super teams, it’s nice to see the Wizards succeeding with a more balanced approach.
CARLO: The return of the ‘Fuck You’ Golden State Warriors, as Bill Simmons eloquently put it, is my biggest surprise this season. I knew Steph would still make a splash this year, especially considering he won the scoring title last year, but what’s shocked me is how well all of their pieces have come together. From bringing back Andre Iguodala, to acquiring former Euroleague MVP Nemanja Bjelica to add even more ball-handling, to getting solid contributions from players like Gary Payton II, Chris Chiozza, Damion Lee, Kevon Looney, Otto Porter Jr., and Juan Toscano-Anderson, the Warriors are just such a deep team.
That doesn’t even take into account the resurgence of Andrew Wiggins, or Jordan Poole’s continued development into a fearless scorer who takes some shitty shots sometimes but is never afraid of the big moment.
The Warriors once again becoming the best show on the court is great for basketball. I just didn’t picture it happening.
GIO: Easily the Chicago Bulls, a team full of interesting narratives. The midrange isn’t dead and a motivated DeMar DeRozan on this squad seems like the best offseason addition apart from Alex Caruso. The NBA is a 3-pointer driven league but they have thrived despite that and could make some noise in the postseason. Billy Donovan getting a chance at redemption is a good story too.
Player-wise, I gotta go with Scottie Barnes. I was surprised to see him go to the Toronto Raptors with the fourth pick but he has fit seamlessly. Never doubt the genius that is Masai Ujiri.
FT: Golden State. They weren’t supposed to be good until Klay Thompson came back, but not only are they on pace to win north of 60 games without him playing a single minute, they’re beating opponents by an average margin of 12.6 points per game. For comparison, the 73-win Warriors had a point differential of +10.8 during their record-breaking season. Not saying they’ll be able to maintain it for the rest of the season—they’ll have a challenging start to 2022 when they play Utah, Miami, Dallas, Milwaukee, and Chicago in the first two weeks of the new year—but it’s usually the best big-picture indicator of how dominant a team is.
2. What has been the biggest disappointment?
ALDO: Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons still haven’t played. These two players have slowly faded into the background thanks to the league’s 24/7 news cycle and all indications are that their situations are likely to remain unchanged in the near future.
Personally, I was expecting at least Simmons to have already suited up for the Philadelphia 76ers at this point, especially when taking into consideration how much money he has lost because of his strike. I also thought that the Brooklyn Nets would have found a way to sway Irving, but it seems like no progress has been made on this front either.
It’s a shame that we’ve been deprived of watching these two electrifying stars play this season and I hope that they can get back on the court sooner rather than later.
CARLO: I am a Sacramento Kings fan, so my biggest disappointment is always our inability to figure out how to best utilize the talents of players like De’Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes, Richaun Holmes, Buddy Hield, and the rest of our squad. Luke Walton might be a great scapegoat, but organizationally we’ve never recovered from drafting Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic. If Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell can coincide with Fox, you can’t fucking tell me that Doncic wouldn’t have figured it out.
And as usual, we started the season playing well, before finding our way back to forgetting how to play basketball in the second half of most of the games we play in.
GIO: Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Yes, we’re a quarter into the season but considering their atrocious third quarters, the losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder (twice!!) and the Minnesota Timberwolves, teams with lottery aspirations(intentional or not), are tough to swallow. The Celtics easily have more continuity than the Lakers and it seems that there’s always that missing piece preventing the Celtics from feeling like a bonafide contender. Ime Udoka is the head coach and hopefully they turn things around as the season continues. It would be tough to see Jayson Tatum’s best years go to waste.
From a player perspective, I’ve got Zion Williamson and Kyrie Irving. Williamson has yet to get on the court but I feel he hasn’t taken the necessary steps to be the best player he could be. Irving may have his reasons but him not taking the shot really puts Kevin Durant and James Harden in a tougher position with a heavier workload. The longer he sits, the harder it will be for him to get back into game shape, to the point that the Brooklyn Nets won’t worry about his health.
FT: Damian Lillard. For someone whose inclusion in the NBA’s 75th anniversary team has been questioned by some quarters (including yours truly), he sure is proving doubters right. He’s averaging 21.5 points (lowest since 2015), shooting 39.7% from the field and 30.2% from three (both career-worst), with a PER of 18.6 (lowest since 2014). As a result, Portland is at 0.500 through the quarter-mark when they should’ve been fighting for best of the rest in the West outside of Golden State and Phoenix, especially with injuries affecting the other teams.
Over the last 2-3 years, there were colorable debates to be had whether you’d take Dame over Steph, but it all looks silly now. Speaking of, I wrote in an earlier column to keep an eye out for Steph’s shooting splits, referencing Mitch Richmond’s age-32 season when his shot fell off the cliff (permanently). It ended up being a false alarm, though the Richmond analogy might be applicable to Lillard instead.
3. Who’s the MVP so far?
ALDO: Stephen Curry is the MVP and it’s not even close. The Golden State Warriors are back in peak form and Curry has been the driving force behind this. When he gets going on one of his hot streaks, he is still the most entertaining basketball player on the planet by a mile.
What helps boost his case is that their Western Conference rival Phoenix Suns have Chris Paul and Devin Booker leading the way while the Eastern Conference leading Brooklyn Nets have Kevin Durant and James Harden sharing the load. These star duos naturally cannibalize each other’s MVP case which only helps the narrative around Curry who is most likely going to be the only player on Golden State that even gets All-Star consideration this season.
CARLO: Steph Curry is currently my MVP. The Warriors aren’t supposed to have the best damn record in the league without Klay Thompson and James Wiseman. We’ve also already witnessed Steph single-handedly snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and that 20-point fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers was a goddamn dream to watch. Like I said earlier, I’m a Kings fan and watch all their games, but I watch every single game the Dubs play too. Curry might have a famous smile and happiness on the court, but make no mistake: he’s a killer and one of the most competitive people to grace an NBA court.
GIO: Giannis Antetokounmpo, who somehow continues to get better. He seems to have added a jump shot and continues to carry the Milwaukee Bucks with ease, leading them in nearly every statistical category. Yeah, the record isn’t as palatable as the others, but he will continue to get better as the season progresses. His team should follow suit.
FT: Gotta go with Steph. Best player on the best team. It’s a 4-horse race, with Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all in the mix. Forecasting the rest of the season, Steph will also have the narrative going for him on top of team success: he is on pace to pass Ray Allen as the career leader in 3-pointers made. So it might take an insane scoring binge from KD or Jokic dragging an injury-depleted Nuggets to a top-4 seed or Giannis going full Pegasus (I’m trademarking this one: Pegasus = attributes of a unicorn + DPOY frontrunner status; also, the Greek mythology reference) to knock Steph off the perch.
4. Which teams are tier-1 contenders?
ALDO: Golden State and Phoenix in the West; Brooklyn and Milwaukee in the East.
The Warriors and the Suns have been a cut above the rest of the league and their respective systems give them an unmatched edge that is akin to having a sixth player on the floor.
Meanwhile, the Nets will be in the mix for the title as long as Durant and Harden can remain healthy. The fact that they are still the top seed in the East even without Irving is a testament to how good these two superstars are.
The defending champion Bucks cannot be counted out, despite their slow start due to a myriad of injuries to their key players, and they have actually bounced back over the past few weeks. Giannis Antetokounmpo remains the most dominant physical force in the league and now that their team is freed of the pressure to win their first title as a group, they will only be more dangerous come playoff time.
CARLO: This is such a tough question, because this is one of the most competitive seasons I’ve seen for both conferences that I can remember. There are so many surprises, plus the play-in tournament adds another layer of madness and competition.
For my money, I think the three tier-1 contenders for each conference are:
West: Golden State, Phoenix, LA Clippers
East: Brooklyn, Miami, Chicago
GIO: The tier-1 contenders for me are the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, and the Miami Heat. There’s a certain semblance of continuity with these teams, who have cornerstones who’ve played with them for quite some time. These teams could be even better as the season progresses.
FT: Barring any major injuries, I’ve got my Final Four set: Warriors, Suns, Nets, and Bucks. The Heat and Jazz are a cut below because I have questions about their ceiling. I’m not buying that Jimmy Butler can be the best player on a title team because I don’t buy anything from the fluky bubble; plus, their bench beyond Tyler Herro is awful. Ditto for Donovan Mitchell, though I may have been willing to sneak the Jazz into tier-1 if Rudy Gobert had maintained his 18-18 pace from the start of the season.
5. What’s your biggest takeaway from the season’s first quarter?
ALDO: Don’t count out the vets.
The two teams leading the Western Conference (Golden State and Phoenix) are led by point guards who are over the age of 30 and continue to defy Father Time. Stephen Curry (33 years old) and Chris Paul (36 years old) are still two of the best at what they do and it seems like they don’t have plans of stepping aside for the next generation of young point guards. They have aged gracefully and seem to have only grown more dangerous with the wisdom that they have acquired through the years.
The Eastern Conference tells a similar story. Kevin Durant (33 years old) and DeMar DeRozan (32 years old) are the leading scorers of the top two seeds in the East (Brooklyn and Chicago). While these two lanky wings are no longer as athletic as they used to be, their veteran savvy has made up for and even amplified their ability to put the ball in the basket at an elite level.
The future crop of stars is bright, but it seems like the present generation isn’t quite ready to turn over the mantle to them.
CARLO: My biggest takeaway so far is that the league is in a great place.
The rule changes against bullshit fouls is a net positive in my book, and it’s not like players like James Harden and Trae Young no longer have games where they’re shooting 10 or more free throws per contest. They just have to work harder for those free throws and not rely on nonsensical fouls from unnatural contact, especially beyond the arc. I think this allows them to show everyone around the globe that they’re still world-class ballers, and don’t need to rely on cheesy tactics to win. Harden and Young aren’t the only ones guilty of this, but it feels like everyone is starting to adjust to having to play basketball a bit more properly.
There’s also a great succession line in place for the league as some of this generation’s biggest stars start to make their way out. Players like LeBron James and Chris Paul are on their last legs (although both of them are still among the league’s very best), and in half a decade or so we’re going to start seeing the tail-end of the careers of players like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. However, there are excellent young stars in the league that will carry the mantle, from Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Anthony Edwards, Devin Booker, LaMelo Ball, Ja Morant, Cade Cunningham, Jordan Poole, and many more that have the potential to be true superstars.
GIO: The best ability is availability. The struggles of the likes of the Lakers, Celtics, Bucks, and Denver Nuggets have been tied to injuries. In fact, the Nuggets may have had a better season outlook if not for Jamal Murray’s ACL injury. Same goes for Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers. My tier-1 contenders have so far come out unscathed and it has allowed them to generate momentum this early into the season. Managing the health of players can be difficult in a long season and how teams will handle injuries as the games pile on could affect their postseason chances too.
FT: Never completely trust the “experts.” Before the start of the season, major sports media outlets pegged the Lakers as the best team in the West: ESPN, SI, The Athletic, and Sporting News all had them at no. 3 overall behind the Nets and Bucks. Even writers I respect, Zach Lowe and Marc Stein had them third, while Bill Simmons mentioned in one of his podcasts that they’re the team to beat in the West by default (in another, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor embarrassed himself fawning over the Lakers). Then ESPN and SI published their annual player rankings and had LeBron at no. 3 behind KD and Giannis, conspicuously ahead of Steph and Jokic (thankfully, BS was not having any of that).
I feel like basketball fans worldwide deserve an apology from those who fumbled what should’ve been an easy call. When you know, you know. No need to overanalyze. “The Lakers are old” wasn’t just some joke; they are, factually, the oldest team in the NBA—and it shows on the floor. LeBron’s injuries aren’t random occurrences; all the minutes, the wear and tear are finally catching up. He’d need a near 5-month midseason break to fully recover (wait, that actually happened). The so-called experts all committed the mortal sin of ignoring the only bankable guarantee in professional basketball: Father Time is undefeated.