Even after just the first month of NBA basketball coming to a close, there are already storylines developing that we didn’t see coming. There have been many surprises so far, so it’s hard to pinpoint what specific stories come as the most shocking. Some may point to Luka Doncic’s and Trae Young’s sophomore emergence as a surprise, but we learned last year that this is what you should expect from two players who had some of the most impressive rookie seasons we have seen. The Sun’s hot start is something that should be noted, but the talent on that roster just needed a traditional point guard and a competent head coach for them to take the leap they’re currently taking. Kendrick Nunn’s scoring is something that wasn’t expected, but he fits the notion of college production leading to NBA success, regardless of competition. Nunn was second in the nation in scoring behind Trae Young when he was at Oakland, and to see him score at high rates on a Heat team that lakes scoring shouldn’t come as a major surprise. These storylines that I am exploring are focused on things going around the league that people didn’t see coming, and that can possibly change how things are handled in the league going forward.
Players NOT on the court are more impactful than players ON the court
Injuries happen, and with star players off the court to start the NBA season, the league may not be as wide open as we suspected prior to the season. The Nets are a year away without KD, the Warriors are no longer the dynasty they once were (more on that later) with Steph and Klay out, and teams that were expecting to compete may not be as good as we thought while some of their key pieces are out to start the year.
We mentioned some of those big-time names being out, but there are important pieces on middle of the road teams that are not playing, creating a hole left to be filled by these star players.
We know what the Clippers are expected to be, but until Paul George suits up they are still going to be a step behind the other team that plays in Staples Center. Luckily George will be back sooner than later, but without him, the Clippers will face potential losses as Kawhi Leonard continues to be sat due to load management. The Clippers case is a little different than other teams however, as they are still going to be in a spot to compete down the road.
For teams that weren’t pegged as finals favorites, missing a key piece can come as more of a burden. The Pacers, for example, will be without Victor Oladipo until December, maybe January. For a team that lacks scoring to begin with, losing your top offensive threat is going to hurt your team as we saw last season. The Pacers started last season 25-11 with Dipo, which put them on pace for a 57-win season. In the 36 games after he went down (we are looking at this frame for the sake of consistency) the Pacers were just 19-17, putting them on pace for a 43-win season. So far this season, the Pacers have had to play at a slow pace to counter their lackluster offense, as they’re only scoring 109 points a night while sitting at a 6-3 record. 6-3 may not seem bad, but factoring in that their losses came to the Hornets and the Pistons twice suggest that they could be doing much better. This was a team that was expected to be a competitive team out East, and until Oladipo comes back they may be looking at more of a middle of the pack record.
The same can be said for another team that was projected to be a top of the East. The Boston Celtics currently are sitting at 8-1, as it seems they have found a new identity. However, Gordon Hayward went down in a game against the Spurs with a broken left hand, and it’s looking like he will be out for 6 weeks. The Celtics have the depth to stay competitive while Hayward is out, but this injury is a shame as we were finally seeing who the player is that the Celtics gave a max contract to. Gordon Hayward was finally back to full strength after his gruesome injury at the start of the 2017 season. Before the injury, Hayward was averaging 18.9 points a night, 7.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists, while shooting 55% from the field and 43% from three. This won’t shoot the Celtics too far back in the East, but Hayward was a huge reason for the team’s fast start.
These injuries are also taking away one of the most exciting parts of the NBA, the new young talent. Zion Williamson was one of the most hyped prospects to enter the league in recent memory, and he won’t be suiting up for the Pelicans until mid-December. Two young teams who look like they were ready to take the next step, the Hawks and the Suns, are without their two young stars due to a 25 game suspension regarding the league’s policy on drug abuse. Devin Booker will be without DeAndre Ayton for a quarter of the season, and the Hawks will have to wait to see what Trae Young and John Collins do together in year two. The Kings also haven’t seen Marvin Bagley, last year’s number two pick. The Kings were a team that some believed could compete for an 8th seed in the west, but without Bagley and now De’Aaron Fox, it seems like they will be competing for a top-five pick in the upcoming draft.
In what was presumed to be a wide-open NBA this season with the distribution of talent, is completely ruined when that said talent isn’t on the floor. This was perhaps the most exciting storyline going into the season, and now with all these injuries, it seems that we will have to wait until next season for this narrative to become true.
DeVonte Graham looks like the point guard of the future in Charlotte, not Terry Rozier
The Hornets completed a sign and trade in the offseason where we saw Kemba Walker dealt to the Celtics, and Terry Rozier go to the Hornets. Rozier was then inked to a 3yr/$58 million contract, giving him the keys to the Hornets young offense. 10 games into the new season, and it seems that the Hornets may not be happy with the contract Rozier signed.
Although Terry Rozier is still starting for the Hornets, their backup floor general is outperforming their starter. DeVonte Graham is a second-year player out of Kansas, and after playing in 46 games for the Hornets last season, they decided to up his usage this year. Graham is up from 14.7 minutes last season to 31.3 minutes this year, about the same Rozier is seeing. Graham is putting up splits of 17.9 points a night, 3.6 rebounds, and 7.6 assists. This is in comparison to Rozier’s splits of 15.2 points a night, 3.8 rebounds, and 5.1 assists. These numbers may not seem too far off in even playing time, but Graham is by far the more efficient scorer. Graham is shooting 41% from the field and 42% from three, compared to Rozier’s 38% from the field and 33% from three. Graham is also posting a 20.6 PER rating, compared to Rozier’s 11.9 PER.
The point guard battle on a team that is going to be at the bottom of the league may not seem like that meaningful of a storyline to start the season, but it’s important because it may change how quickly bad teams are to offer unproven young talent big contracts. We see often teams tied to money that they have to pay to players who don’t live up to big contracts, but in Rozier’s case, he was a bench player who was given this contract in the hopes he would prove his worth when given a starting position.
If Rozier had been the starting point guard over the course of the season for the Celtics, this conversation would be absolute. Instead, here we are seeing a player not living up to his contract, who had arguably never been deserving of it in the first place. If Graham continues his play going forward, the Hornets will have no choice but to move Rozier to the bench, putting him in the same spot he was in Boston. This situation should bring light to and change how other rebuilding teams offer contracts to unproven players moving forward, especially with the anticipated change to the salary cap in future seasons. They will be more likely to evaluate what they already have on their roster and think a little longer before giving unproven players big contracts when they may already have a player of the same caliber on their roster already, signed to a cheaper price.
Karl-Anthony Town’s three-point usage
Going into the season we all were aware of KAT’s offensive capabilities. What we may not have known is how confident Town’s is in his three-point shot. With Ryan Saunders now the full-time head coach for the whole season, he has made KAT the focal point of the offense, basically giving him the green light whenever he touches the ball. Karl Anthony-Town’s told everyone before the season not to sleep on the Timberwolves, and so far he is waking everyone up.
Last year we saw Town’s shoot 4.6 three-pointers a game, shooting those at a rate of 40%. This year KAT not only has upped his percentage to 42% from three, but he is now shooting an astounding 9 three-pointers a game. This number may seem like a lot of attempts because it is. KAT is 5th in the NBA in three-pointers attempted this season, and 4th in the league with 3.8 threes made a game. The thing that separates Towns from the other players at the top of this list is that he is the only center to appear anywhere close to the top. The next closest center in three-point attempts a game is Brook Lopez at 5.4 attempts a game, ranked 49th. The next closest center in terms of threes made a game is Aron Baynes, making 2 a night, ranked 57 on that list.
This storyline is important because this season we are seeing KAT change how centers are fully utilized on the offensive end. It has become a necessity for centers to be able to shoot the ball in the NBA, but we have never seen centers shoot threes at such a high clip. It’s showing that if a player, regardless of the position, is able to shoot the three, they are going to do so at a high rate. With analytics driving how basketball is played today, KAT is trailblazing a path for it to be normal for centers to shoot three-pointers at the same rate as guards. With fewer traditional big men and more spacing, we are going to see this trend continue to grow as KAT continues to fire at such an immaculate rate.
The fall of the Golden State Warriors
All good things must come to an end, and for the Warriors, their dynasty ending may be a little uglier than they had hoped. The Warriors have made it to the NBA finals in each of the last five seasons, and now they currently hold the worst record in the NBA. Life comes at you fast.
Golden State was a true dynasty. They have three NBA championships to show for it, as well as the best regular-season record a team has ever posted. They did this by drafting two of the best shooters in league history in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, as well as drafting one of the league’s most versatile defenders in the second round, Draymond Green. Let’s also not forget that the Warriors added the best scorer in the league in Kevin Durant after they already had a team that was coming off a 73-win season. There is an argument to be made that this Warriors team was the best team in league history.
Fast forward one offseason and the Warriors two leading scorers are D’Angelo Russell and Eric Paschal. The outlook of this team is completely different for this season compared to previous years. Klay Thompson was going to be out for the whole season after tearing his ACL in the finals last year. Steph Curry suffered a broken hand early this season, and there are rumors that he may sit out the entire season. Kevin Durant is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets. The Warriors are not good this season, and they aren’t going to be.
They rank last in multiple team categories. They’re last in average score margin (-10.8), last in opponent field goal percentage (56.7%), opponent three-point percentage (39.1%), opponent shooting efficiency (1.182), and opponent field goals made per game (45). Not to mention they’re in the bottom five in almost every other team ranking.
This Warriors team is bad, and probably won’t be better this season. It’s probably in the team’s best interest to keep Curry out for the whole year as if they add a top-five draft pick this offseason, they could be competitive next year with a core of Curry, Thompson, Russell, Green, and that top pick. There are many rumors swirling around about D-Lo and Draymond possibly being dealt, but until it happens we will assume they’ll be on the roster next season.
This storyline is important not only because it marks the end of one of the NBA’s true dynasty’s, but it also should go to show how important team depth is. If Curry and Klay were healthy this season, the Warriors would probably make the playoffs in the west. Instead, they are hoping to hit the lottery. Going forward with all the new talent the league has to offer, making sure you have a roster that is 9-10 players deep is going to be crucial in sustaining success throughout an NBA season. One key injury to a playoff team with only 7-8 competent players can lead to a drastic plummet, as we are seeing with the Warriors this season.
David Fizdale will probably be fired
This may not seem like a surprise due to the Knicks’ poor start, but it should be. Fizdale is in the middle of a contract he signed with New York, and though the team isn’t competitive, he has done a lot of good things with the team’s young players, and it seemed like he was universally liked among his guys.
But of course, this is the Knicks we are talking about, and not competing usually leads to dismissal from the team. The only issue with this is that Fizdale is not a part of the issue. The issue with the Knicks has always started and ended with the front office, and after another offseason of misses, Fizdale is the easy scapegoat to blame for this failure.
The Knicks are in the biggest market in sports, and for them to attract a big-name free agent it shouldn’t take too much more than to mention they’ll be playing in New York City at MSG every night to lure them to sign. Instead, all big-name players stay away at all costs, and this is due to the awful management of the team. Until James Dolan sells the Knicks, this will continue to stay the same.
Fizdale was not responsible for signing multiple power forwards this past offseason and creating a log jam at the position. Julius Randle is a nice piece, but he isn’t Kevin Durant nor Kyrie Irving. It was management that made these moves, and if they set Fizdale up for failure, how are they going to expect him to succeed. The Knicks gave him this unorthodox roster, and unless he over exceeded and made the impossible happen, he more than likely would be removed. It really is a shame that the Knicks may have their head coach of the future, and they are already looking to move on without even giving him a good enough roster to compete.
The surprising part about this storyline isn’t that the Knicks are bad, but rather that the Knicks front office expected the team to be good. You can even argue that isn’t surprising based on just how incompetent the Knicks front office is, but if the average fan even though the Knicks had a chance of making the playoffs this season, they were lying to themselves.
The overlying piece of this storyline that needs to be emphasized is that David Fizdale is the scapegoat for the Knicks front office for their poor signings and unrealistic expectations. I understand that all teams have some sort of expectations, especially big market teams, but if you set those expectations unrealistically high, and then go ahead and fire your coach for not reaching those lofty goals, the rest of the league will notice. If the Knicks follow through and dismiss Fizdale of his position, their chances of landing a big-time free agent in the 2021 offseason are going to fall even more so. For as long as James Dolan is calling the shots in New York, it is going to be very hard to see the Knicks being anywhere close to a stable franchise.