Josh’s early season NBA observations

The NBA is known for its volatility, whether it be teams, players, or styles — so how do you keep up with it? There are always games to watch, podcasts to listen to and articles to read, and I will try to summarize everything we saw in the previous week in one place. For this week, I want to set the bar on some of the most interesting stories that have transpired so far.

Competency is Sometimes Enough

This offseason many people, including myself, were skeptical on what the Phoenix Suns did by seemingly pushing their chips in to be a competitive team this year. This seemed unusual with Devin Booker only being 23 at the time, and the rest of their core outside of DeAndre Ayton feeling replaceable. However, upgrading to Ricky Rubio and filling out the roster with shooters and actual NBA players, and the Suns finally look like an actual NBA team. Phoenix truly is a 10-deep team when their franchise center isn’t failing drug tests, and with enough competent guys playing to their strengths, you have a team that is on the rise.

On the other hand, you have a team like the Golden State Warriors. The former champs stuttered out of the gate so far this season, and mainly for the opposite reason why the Suns succeeded — an absolute dearth of quality players. Yes, they do have Stephen Curry and Draymond Green while picking up D’Angelo Russell this offseason, but what else is there? With Klay Thompson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kevon Looney hurt, their next best player might be Eric Paschall? Marquese Chriss? Whoever it may be, it certainly does not bode for a successful team. And while I think their horrid start is mainly due to the team needing to mesh and grow, I do think that this slow start is prefacing a harsh season for the Warriors.

Another team in this poor situation is the Indiana Pacers. I completely missed the mark with them as I liked a ton of their pickups, but similar to the Warriors, it made them very top heavy. Guys like Sabonis, Turner, Brogdon and Warren are all good NBA players, but besides them, who do they have? Jeremy Lamb and Victor Oladipo are both hurt, so the remaining wings are Justin Holiday and Edmond Sumner. Even worse is the only big coming off the bench with consistent minutes is T.J. Leaf. Yeah . . . that doesn’t sound so great. Of course, if their team was fully healthy they might look better, but until that point, the Pacers are basically 4 deep of quality-NBA players, and even when healthy, 6-deep is not much better. This is another reason why playing good rotation pieces is sometimes enough to make a competent team.

So what does this mean? It sounds crazy how simple it is, but just having a good rotation of competent NBA players is enough to be good. Teams like the Suns won’t win the title, but when looking at games and matchups, I do think looking at the simple question “Do they have 8 guys who they can count on?” is important for judging and evaluating games.

A Fresh Start is Helpful

Once again, this seems like an extremely simple statement, but it is all too true. Every year, it appears there are a few high draft picks that are busts, but are the usually as bad as we think? Well, some are, but tons of other times, it is just a young, raw prospect is on a team that is just plain bad at either development or basketball in general. This young player then struggles and bounces team to team, or sometimes out of the league trying to find their way.

Now some of these guys were solid, but did not live up to their high draft slots, and many people will write them off. The biggest examples of this are two guys who got traded together to an up-and-coming team, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Both former Lakers spent a few years in Los Angeles where the bright lights and media might have got to them, as their playstyle became more conservative and they really did not look like themselves. However, both are now in New Orleans and seem to have gotten their swagger back. It is too early to toss out statistics to justify these statements, but watching both guys is drastically improved compared to earlier in their respective careers. Lonzo revamped his jumper and is no longer afraid to let it fly, helping the Pelicans’ spacing. Similarly, Brandon Ingram seems not to be afraid to take perimeter shots while still crashing the boards and helping in all aspects of the game.

Now there are other guys who are considered busts, but just never really had the right situation to play. And I will admit, I thought these guys were busts, but maybe it was not their fault. When coaches get a new rookie, the coach may try to mold them into the player they see, but not the player the guy is. For instance, if Karl Anthony-Towns was drafted to a coach like Tom Thibodeau who only wanted him to play defense and only get garbage baskets on offense, one of the most talented players of the 2000s would have been wasted. So what guys am I referring to?

Frank Kaminsky. Yes. Frank. Kaminsky. For the past few years, Frank the Tank was stuck in Charlotte where he was placed at the three-point line for four seasons. And while Frank is a good shooter for a big man, this is not who he is as an offensive player. Back in his college days at Wisconsin, Kaminsky spent time in the midrange where he would create shots for himself or find cutters and shooters around him. He is not good enough to do this as the number one option on an NBA team, but what did the Suns do? They gave him this responsibility off the bench. By having this responsibility against lesser NBA talent, Kaminsky can grow his confidence and keep the bench afloat when their starters get rest. Frank is proving himself as a real guy, and that his Charlotte tenure was a blip on the radar compared to the rest of his career.

Another guy in a similar boat is Markelle Fultz. After a tumultuous start to his career where no one really knew what was happening to him, Fultz was traded to the Magic last season, but never played. There was minimal news coming out of Orlando about the former top pick, and people thought that this was a sign things were going wrong and we may never see him capitalize on his potential. However, 3 games into the season, Fultz looks somewhat like his former self. His jumpshot is not effective as it was when he was in college, but it looks much better and more importantly, he is not afraid to shoot it. In Philadelphia, Fultz seemed timid on the offensive end, where he was stuck in a box and was reluctant to do anything besides going to the rim. With more responsibilities and more freedom, Fultz seems like the future point guard for the Magic, as he has showed his playmaking skills and ability to take control of the game’s pace and manipulate it to his liking. I doubt this would have ever been realized for the 76ers due to their championship aspirations, but the Magic are willing to let someone develop, and it is paying off greatly.

Let the Guys Play

One of my pet peeves in the NBA is the issues relating to sunk costs. There are tons of less competent players who get minutes over better, younger players for a multitude of reasons, but far too often it is because of their contract, experience or standing in the league. It’s baffling that teams will ignore young pieces since they overpaid for a veteran, and they don’t want to look dumb. However, when teams ignore the sunk costs of these players and play the guys who are worthy of minutes, it sure looks good.

The biggest proponent of this statement has to be Justise Winslow. When Goran Dragic got hurt last season, Winslow was thrown into the starting point guard role, something that seemed unusual considering he was always just a forward with the ability to handle and playmake a decent bit. This experiment ended up paying off well, as Winslow really became a good playmaker, and going into this season, seemed like he can handle the duty full time. But oh no, the Heat already have a point guard getting paid $19 million and cost them tons of assets to get, what should they do? Well, play the better guy, and it is paying off for everyone. Winslow is able to shine against superior competition and helping the Heat have a really good offense, and Dragic is able to punish weaker second unit competition.

Another situation is happening in Oklahoma City, and this time even more dramatic, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul. While CP3 was not as valued by the Thunder as Dragic was with the Heat when both trades occurred, they both have large contracts and respect throughout the league. Shai, on the other hand, is a very young point guard who only had one solid season so far. However, the Thunder decided to start Shai next to the veteran point guard and it is paying off well. Instead of tasking SGA with the playmaking duties, his energy is conserved for the defensive end and getting buckets for himself. I do think this is playing to his strengths as for right now, his playmaking skills are not the greatest, but I do like his scoring ability and instincts to become a real pest on both ends of the court. Shai could have withered away on the bench next to Dennis Schroder, as his streaky jumper is not the greatest fit in the Thunder’s starting lineup. But instead, OKC has empowered him to showcase his skills and become the player that many thought he could be coming out of Kentucky.

The Next Class is Here

While LeBron is still an absolute force, it does seem he is starting to take the back seat to Anthony Davis, and there are very few superstars left from the early to mid-2000’s drafts. With this transition, there has to be new young guys to take the reins and lead the NBA for the next decade. Younger players like Giannis, Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic are already doing so, but these guys are veterans and the really young guys still need to show up. Many believe Zion would lead this pack, but with his recent knee injury, we will need to wait to determine his value. However, there are a few guys who are breaking out and jumping to superstardom already.

The reigning Rookie of the Year is looking like an MVP candidate as Luka Doncic has a team built to his strengths and weaknesses. Doncic is not a great defender, but is excellent everywhere else on the court, and it appears that he has gone from very good to elite in nearly all of these categories. And while his three pointers have never gone in at the rate one may expect, he is a respected shooter with his step back and solid stroke. The Mavericks look like a solid playoff team with him at the helm, as Doncic is cutting out the inefficient mid-range game and replacing these shots with drives to the rim or even more three point attempts. And when he is not scoring, kicking it out to the many shooters around him is something he excels in. And yeah, they have Porzingis too. Kristaps looks healthy and is doing exactly what he should be doing on offense, stretching the floor and punishing guys down low. And while Porzingis does have skills to do this on his own, Doncic is certainly making it easier in comparison to the start of his career in New York. I do not want to rush Luka and say he needs to win an MVP or championship by a certain point, but the 20 year old looks more than capable to do both, and do so a few times in his career.

The other main pillar of the next generation of stars was the guy traded for Luka Doncic, Trae Young. The Atlanta point guard is hitting a level none of us expected, and he is looking like the next great playmaker. While he still turns the ball over a ton, I will never use this to discredit him too much, as these come from his up-tempo pace and high-risk, high-reward playstyle. Lloyd Pierce is giving Trae the greenest of lights from any spot on the court to do whatever he wants. Whether it be pulling from the logo, finding guys around him, or keeping their high tempo offense churning, Trae is turning himself into a bonafide star. His defense will always be an issue due to his smaller frame, but I do think that if he works on it, he can be a passible defensive player eventually. Regardless, we are seeing a star in the making, and I hope for health and complete freedom for Trae. If both things are true, I will not be surprised to see Trae match James Harden’s incredible stats, if not surpass them.

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