After an electric start to the season, it is time to re-calibrate (again) what we think about the NBA, teams and players. While some things seem to be going the way we expected, there are more surprises than ever before. Let’s try to look at some more trends that showed this past week and that may continue for the rest of the season.
Yeah, starting off real controversial here. But really, injuries do suck. Not only for the players, but for teams too. While a few stars have been out before the season began with their respective injuries, we have seen quite a few notable players go down in-season too. Steph Curry broke his hand, Trae Young sprained his ankle, Myles Turner also is dealing with an ankle injury, Zach Collins dislocated his shoulder, Marvin Bagley broke a finger. This is me just listing off a few of the more notable injuries that we have seen in the past two weeks. And while injuries suck to deal with as a person, I want to look at this from a team perspective.
Of course, it is nearly impossible to prevent injuries, but I do think teams do not prepare and prevent them far enough. Prevention has become better through load management and proper training, but teams may implement too many practices and too much work that can push players to their “breaking point”. Even worse is the preparation for inevitable injuries. While no one should wish for injuries, everyone experiences them.
Large or small, injuries or time off is inevitable, as only 21 players last season were able to suit up for all 82 games. And considering 530 players were in the NBA last year, this shows over 96% of players miss time.
Sure, not everyone who misses time is a superstar, but I do believe the trickledown effect of injuries is the most devastating part. I will use Atlanta for this example as I believe that their situation might be the best, or worst, example of preparation. Going into this season, their only traditional point guard was Trae Young. Young sprained his ankle and what happens next? Not only do they lose their best scorer and playmaker, but now they need someone to step into the main playmaking duties while also taking more shots. And like I said, they don’t have another point guard so who manned these duties? DeAndre’ Bembry, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish.
Yeah, not great. Luckily, Young’s injury only lasted one game, so it is possible for them to stay afloat, but a long term injury could have easily killed their season.
Another aspect of injuries that is also overlooked that can certainly kill the team is it harms the player beyond the physical sense. Let’s take a guy like Dante Exum. Coming into the 2014 draft, people loved Dante for his size and all around playstyle. However, he never actualized his potential, only playing in 204 regular season games in what is now his sixth season. And when he does play, he seems to be the same player he was, if not worse, back in 2014. I do think he works hard, but it is nearly impossible for him to improve.
Instead of spending the offseason working on his game, far too often Exum has to spend those months rehabbing his injuries and just trying to get back to the point he was before. Each large injury also steals that player’s athleticism little by little, so pairing that with not being able to work on their game, a player can see their potential fly out the window.
And while from a team perspective it is hard to prepare what is usually freak injuries, I do think allocating more assets into injury prevention is smart, and something most teams are doing. Luckily, no young player has sustained a large season-ending injury yet this season, but at the rate we are going, it is unfortunately inevitable to see someone sit the season or ultimately ruin a promising career.
You Want Parity? You Got Parity.
So transitioning off of such a glum note, parity is officially back. While I think the lack of parity was overblown the past few years, seeing the Warriors or LeBron in every Finals since 2011 did kind of kill the idea of many teams having real championship chances. With the Warriors looking like a G-League squad and LeBron missing the playoffs last year, it does feel that this season is somewhat of a refreshing one, where quite a few teams have real championship chances. And even more than that, every regular season game feels like a coin flip. Maybe I am just still shocked that the Suns are a top ten offensive and defensive team, but it does really seem that anyone can compete with anyone.
This NBA season does have a much larger middle class compared to previous years. Statistically, it is nearly impossible to prove right now as most teams have only played 6-7 games. Therefore, one blowout can severely alter the data, while over the course of the season it should normalize. I hate jumping to conclusions so early, but at least for now, it appears that only two teams, the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks, are not good and bringing up the rear. And with both teams looking at rebuilds rather than contention for right now, I do not blame them for doing so either.
On the other hand, there are plenty of really good teams, but no one “superpower”. Some may argue the Milwaukee Bucks or the Los Angeles Lakers might be the two best teams right now, but the Bucks have lost two games (Boston and Miami) while the Lakers have had the 9th easiest schedule so far.
Of course, Boston and Philadelphia are also up there too in terms of competition, but neither have been dominant against good competition yet.
It is hard for now to really see who will become the top team in the NBA, while there are some favorites. Personally, I like the NBA the most when you cannot really predict the future and don’t have a championship wrapped up before the season begins.
Basketball is a hectic sport and is best when the stakes are high and anyone can win (I mean, the NCAA Tournament is easily the best tournament in all of sports).Therefore, this season really seems like a fun one, and for those who really were clamoring for parity, your wish has been granted.
Pump the Brakes
Regarding all I said, I think we need to pump the brakes. The NBA season is long, and too often we overlook that. While this seems simple now, think about all the times we made radical conclusions in a 6-7 game span. Without context, Christian Wood’s tenure with the Pelicans last year would have warranted him a massive contract as in the last 7 games of the 2019 season, he averaged 18 points and 9 rebounds a night. I like Wood and certainly believe in him as a rotation player, but a few strong games can skew one’s statistics from an okay role player to a legitimate starter.
With that being said, who or what should we really pump the brakes on?
From the team perspective, I do believe there are a few teams who are over or under performing unsustainably. First off, the New Orleans Pelicans. Starting off as the darling of the NBA, many expected the Pelicans to be a powerhouse and win in the low-40s this year. However, the Pelicans are 1-6, so should they give up and just tank the season? Absolutely not. Their current predicted win-loss (which removes luck and factors in point differential more) has them at 3-4. Nothing great, but considering Jrue Holiday has already missed two games, Derrick Favors has missed three and Zion has yet to play, it is understandable that they do not look their best. Now will they jump back to a playoff hopeful? I doubt it, but they are playing unsustainably poor and I would expect them to hit the mid to high 30’s in wins when they are healthier and have more time to gel.
For over-performing, as much hate I might get, I do think the Lakers are playing way above their heads. I do think that they are a championship contender, but being the number 1 team with the 2nd highest point differential, does not seem sustainable in the slightest. The Lakers have played a fairly weak schedule and should have another loss after the referees missed an illegal screen in the Dallas gave that forced overtime.
Throw in the top-heavy building of this team, and I think the Lakers are at their peak right now. Maybe I am being pessimistic, but I do think there is potential for their stars in Anthony Davis and LeBron James to miss a good bit of games, as they have done in the past. Throw in the fact that Dwight Howard somehow turned back the clock by a decade and their team is not the deepest, they are prime to fall back to earth sooner than later.
And from the player side, it is hard to really guess who is over or underperforming too much, mainly due to improvement or decline in one’s actual game. One guy I think we will see major regression from his hot start is Malcolm Brogdon. The Pacer guard is averaging right around 24 points and 9 assists a night and has lived up to his large contract. But in reality, it seems he is just capitalizing on an opportunity that will not be there forever. Brogdon is the number one option with three of their best players already missing time (Oladpio, Sabonis, Turner) as well as playing pretty putrid defenses (Detroit/25th ranked, Cleveland/24th ranked, Brooklyn/19th ranked, Chicago/20th ranked and Charlotte/27th ranked).
Once Brogdon has to go up against more talented defensive teams and has other scoring options around him, I think he will cool down considerably. Yes, his horrid 31.6% from deep he is shooting now will go closer to his standard of around 40%, but I think his shots will not only become less available, but even harder to hit, ultimately resulting in him turning back to the guy we all saw in Milwaukee. Still a good player, but not this stat sheet stuffing star.
On the flip side, we are watching another point guard on a new team struggle, but this time it’s Mike Conley looking horrible for the Utah Jazz. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, Conley has been horrid. His 7.2 PER would be the lowest of his career and he is just bricking shots, killing Utah’s offense. However, inverse to the Brogdon situation, Conley is dealing with having less responsibility than he has had since his early days for the Grizzlies while also playing some solid defenses. While his usage and shot attempts are not far off most of his career, he never had to share the ball with someone who needs it as much as Donovan Mitchell. Because of this, he is taking less shots at the rim and relying more on his jumper. Conley has been a good shooter for quite a while now, and his dip in accuracy can be attributed to a small sample size really swaying it. And as mentioned earlier, his tough slate of opponents (Thunder/3rd ranked, Lakers/2nd ranked, Kings/22nd ranked, Suns/5th ranked and Clippers/16th ranked) certainly does not help either.
Give Conley some time and the Jazz to heat up, as they usually do start slow as a group, and I really do think Conley’s struggles will be diminished, and we won’t be overreacting come April.
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