Two of my favorite TV programs returned last week. The NBA’s 75th season kicked off last October 19 while Season 3 of Succession premiered a few days earlier. When TNT released a Succession-style intro ahead of the opening night double-header, it naturally triggered a nerdgasm.
Succession’s third season has so far delivered the wry humor and equal parts clever and crude dialogue that have made the show a singular tour de force in today’s TV landscape. Its characters are an endless trove of witty insults and nonsensical buzzwords; my favorite from this season has been the constant ‘temperature checks’:
We’re all Cousin Greg here!
Now that we’re over a week into the NBA regular season, it feels like a good time to slide a thermometer up the Association’s ass. Fans were deprived of NBA basketball for three months and are tired of the news cycle being dominated by Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving, so they’ve talked themselves into freaking out and overreacting to every minor thing about their favorite teams and players based on a sample of 3 to 5 games. To help distinguish fact-ish from fiction, let’s do a temperature check of five storylines from Week 1.
1. The Brooklyn Nets need Kyrie Irving to contend
The Nets opened the season as heavy title favorites. But after 5 games, they’re below .500 with blowout losses to the Bucks, Hornets, and Heat.
Thermometer reading: COOL. The Nets are struggling offensively out of the gate, with an offensive rating of 100.6, which ranks 28th in the league. It’s a far cry from last season’s league-leading juggernaut which scored at a rate of 117.3 points per 100 possessions. Common sense tells us that Kyrie’s presence fixes the problem, but it’s not that simple.
When Kyrie, Kevin Durant, and James Harden shared the court together last season, the trio had an impressive offensive rating of 119.6. But when it’s just KD and Harden? The output goes up a notch to 122.1. This season, however, the KD-Harden pairing is yielding less than a point per possession, with a dismal offensive rating of 93.0. Much of it has to do with Harden’s offensive struggles, which he and coach Steve Nash have attributed to the new foul rules. Harden is only getting to the line three times per game this year, the lowest of his career and less than half of the 7.3 FTAs he averaged last year. (Daryl Morey’s proclamation that Harden was “factually” a better scorer than Michael Jordan is factually looking silly now. One of my 12 rules in life: never trust a guy who thinks this.)
No doubt Kyrie’s presence would help cover Harden’s ineffectiveness, but it wouldn’t address the Nets’ glaring defensive issues. They’re 19th in defensive rating through 5 games, allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions, while their net rating of -6.7 is 25th in the league. Last season, 7 of Brooklyn’s 10 worst three-man lineups on defense featured Kyrie.
If Brooklyn’s plan is to blitz its opponents on offense on its way to a title, then, absolutely, they need Kyrie. But if they prefer a more well-rounded team that can make stops in the postseason, then flipping Kyrie for an all-league defender makes sense. Either way, what the Nets need is to get meaningful production from the roster spot being occupied by Kyrie.
2. The Bulls and Hornets are this year’s Suns
The Balls, Lonzo and LaMelo, are balling out (pun absolutely intended). The Bulls are at the top of the East with a 4-0 record, while the Hornets are right behind at 4-1.
Thermometer reading: HOT. The Bulls look good defensively, limiting their opponents to 97.7 points per 100. But their games have come against the Pistons (twice), Pelicans, and Raptors, which sport a combined 2-9 record. As one of my colleagues pointed out, the Bulls are in for a tough 14-game stretch. We’ll find out if they can sustain their defense, which was a question mark in the offseason, but another thing to look out for is the Zach Lavine-Demar Derozan tandem. It’s all fun and games while they’re winning but the duo’s offensive rating of 99.0 when they share the floor is dead last among the Bulls’ two-man lineups so far.
The Hornets’ 16-point win against the Nets was impressive, but they barely escaped the Pacers (1-4) and their other victories were against the Cavs (2-2) and Magic (1-4). They’re second in points per game (121.2) but they’re 24th in points allowed (116.0). If you take away the Nets game, they’ve allowed 121.5 points against teams that were at the bottom half of offensive ratings last season.
3. The Lakers are pretenders
The Lakers dropped their first two games to teams with championship aspirations, the Warriors and the Suns. They scraped nerve-wracking wins against the upstart Grizzlies and the zero-all-stars Spurs in OT, then dropped their last one against the erstwhile winless Thunder. They’re currently 2-3 but they could’ve easily been 0-5.
Thermometer reading: COLD. In the other week’s NBA preview, I pegged the Lakers as this season’s Murphy’s Law; anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It’s only been 4 games, and (i) Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard had an altercation on the bench during a game and (ii) LeBron James has already missed a game due to a right ankle injury. I was expecting something to happen but I thought they’d wait until Christmas!
The Russell Westbrook fit is still weird AF and his 33-point performance against the Spurs can easily be chalked up to a hot hand (15/27). They’re middle of the pack on offense despite hot starts by AD and LeBron, but their bigger problem lies on defense. They’re 24th in defensive rating (111.4) and 21st in opponent shooting percentage (46.3%), and looked truly awful during their second-half collapse against OKC. Contrast this to their bubble run when they had a top 3 defensive rating (106.1) and held opponents to under 45% field goal shooting. When people say Lakers are old, what they actually mean is that old guys can’t defend. And there’s no quick fix for that.
But it’s too early, it’s a long season, and we can’t jump to conclusions based on a handful of games. Sure, if you’re a Lakers fan. Which is ironic because they’ve seen this before in 2012-13. Give it a couple of weeks and we’ll be talking about Frank Vogel’s job.
4. The Warriors are the best team in the West
The Warriors start 4-0 for the first time since their 73-win season—and they’re doing it without Klay Thompson.
Thermometer reading: WARM. Even though the Warriors have won all their games, the wins haven’t been pretty. They squeaked past the Lakers on opening night after a rough shooting night from Steph Curry. Then they blew a double-digit lead against the Clippers, which was followed by unexpectedly close games against the Kings and Thunder.
This is far from the dominant Warriors team that we saw at the start of the 2015-16 season. In fact, the team’s peripherals are almost identical to last season’s team that ended up in the play-in. Their pace, true shooting percentage, and effective field goal percentage are all within +/- one point from last season. The eye test backs it up and the Dubs have been painful to watch whenever Steph doesn’t have a hot hand.
Of course, any claim that the Warriors are the best in the West involves a projection that Klay Thompson will come back at near-full strength. He looks good in non-contact practice, but we’ll never really know until he finally partakes in a real NBA game again.
One more thing to watch out for is Curry’s shooting percentages. He’s on pace for career-worst numbers in both FG% (.434) and 3FG% (0.400). It could all be a blip and he’ll be tearing it up in a couple of weeks, but what if this is an inflection point like Mitch Richmond’s age-33 season? Richmond had never shot below 44.5% before that; he never shot above 42.6% after.
5. Ja Morant will finish in the top 3 of MVP voting
Morant looks to have picked up where he left off in the last postseason when he lit up the top-seeded Jazz in the first round. Through four regular season games, he is averaging 30.5 points, 8.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds, with a 29.4 PER and .556/.458/.808 shooting splits.
Thermometer reading: WARM. People are already comparing Morant to 2011 pre-injury Derrick Rose. It’s not difficult to see why. Ja’s been getting his points in the paint almost at will. Check out this insane shot chart:
He averages 25 drives per game and hits 73% of his shots at the rim, while also generating 4 assists in those situations. His layups are living works of arts and while the Rose comparison is quite apt, I’d throw in a bit of Iverson there too. The dark blue dots inside the paint point to his best strength, but the almost spotless midrange tells us that he knows exactly what he’s doing on the floor. Those drives aren’t as devil-may-care as they may sometimes seem.
It’s difficult to draw conclusions from his 3-point percentage given such a small sample. Is it real improvement or just a hot streak? I’m inclined to go with the latter just because his release still looks a little awkward, though that’s probably me nitpicking.
So why am I lukewarm about Morant finishing in the top 3 of the MVP voting? Because KD, Jokic, and Giannis are all beasting. AD will be right up there too if the Lakers prove me wrong. So will Steph if he gets out of his early season shooting woes. It’s crowded at the top and these other guys have proven they can deliver consistently over the course of an entire season.
If the storyline had been ‘Ja Morant will be an All-Star’, the thermometer would’ve read freezing cold.