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Five Overreactions to the NBA's Opening Week – Sports Illustrated

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We are only a couple days into the NBA season, but early storylines across league are starting to develop.

We’re just three days into the NBA season, but there’s been no shortage of intrigue less than 72 hours removed from the Raptors’ banner raising to kick off 2019-20. Kyrie Irving shined, the Bulls struggled, and Russell Westbrook flourished, returning us right into the flow of another eight-month sprint to the Finals.

Our opening slate of games won’t provide a complete picture of how the season will play out, but it’s never too early to draw some early conclusions. Check out our (potentially irresponsible!) overreactions to the season’s opening week below.

Kyrie Irving Will Lead the East in Scoring

The former Cavaliers and Celtics point guard shined in his pseudo-homecoming on Wednesday night, dropping 50 points in Brooklyn’s overtime loss to the Timberwolves. Irving was in classic form in the Nets’ home opener, skating past Minnesota defenders and unleashing a flurry of impressive finishes at the tin. Irving is perhaps the league’s top showman at the point guard position. He thrived in front of the home fans on opening night.

We could be in store for additional 50-point efforts from Irving in 2019-20. He’ll have free reign to cannibalize Brooklyn’s shot attempts with Kevin Durant likely out for the year, with Irving potentially posting a career-high usage rate. Irving averaged a career-high 25.2 points per game in 2016-17. He should finish closer to 30 per game this season. James Harden is a near-lock to average 30, and Steph Curry should do the same as the solo superstar in Golden State. But the Eastern Conference provides (as usual) lighter competition. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are the favorites for the conference scoring title, though there isn’t a long line of competitors for the crown. Irving could pull off the upset.

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Luka Doncic Will Earn an All-Star Appearance

It’s going to be an uphill battle to earn a Western Conference All-Star spot in February 2020. The established slate of All-Stars will snag eight spots given good health (Harden, Curry, Leonard, LeBron, Davis, Jokic, Lillard and Westbrook), leaving four spots to an impressive list of options. We haven’t mentioned Paul George who will return in November, nor Karl-Anthony Towns, who erupted for 36 points against Brooklyn on opening night. Utah has a pair of candidates. Devin Booker and De’Aaron Fox could snag an appearance. But make sure to reserve a slot for Luka Doncic.

The Slovenian sensation dominated the Wizards on opening night with 34 points on 12-19 of the field, picking right up where he left off after winning Rookie of the Year last season. Doncic appears thinner than last season, sleeker when snaking around screens. He remains an elite shot maker and a savvy playmaker. Dallas should hang in playoff contention well into 2019-20, likely netting Doncic an All-Star appearance at just 20-years-old.

The Clippers Will Win 60 Games

The Clippers entered 2019-20 as favorites to win the Finals in June, though skeptics slowed the hype train due to injury concerns and a crowded Western Conference. Those individuals don’t have much to say after Los Angeles’ first two games. Leonard and Co. slowed LeBron and the Lakers on opening night, then absolutely shredded the Warriors in the Chase Center opener on Thursday. This version of the Clippers remains the favorite for the No. 1 seed out West. Add Paul George, and 60 wins is the new expectation.

Los Angeles’ rotation is far deeper than its Staples Center counterpart, boasting one of the league’s deepest supporting casts. The Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell pick-and-roll remains unstoppable. Patrick Beverley is a defensive menace, while Landry Shamet and Patrick Patterson add scoring punch off the bench. Oh, and the Clippers also have the best player in basketball. Leonard’s game remains in peak form after a dominant Finals run, and his playmaking appears to improve by the day. Leonard’s nine assists against the Warriors were a career-high. He could creep toward five assists per game this season. An improved Kawhi and healthy George is a terrifying combination for the rest of the league. The West may need to duck and cover when the Clippers’ dynamic duo takes the floor.

Markelle Fultz Will Be a Legitimate Rotation Player

On one hand, rotation player is a bit of a depressing ceiling for Markelle Fultz. This is the same player that was selected with the No. 1 overall 2017 draft, one owed $9.7 million in 2019-20 and $12 million 2020-21. But Fultz is obviously anything but a standard No. 1 pick. He’s never played 20 games in a season. He experienced perhaps the worst case of the yips of any player this century. His NBA career was in doubt as the calendar turned to 2019.

Perhaps a change in scenery has altered the trajectory of Fultz’ career. The Washington product was spry in Orlando’s 94-85 win over the Cavs on Wednesday, adding 12 points in 23 minutes off the bench. Such production throughout the season would be a godsend for Magic head coach Steve Clifford. Fultz ran a functional pick-and-roll and darted into passing lanes, showing off his impressive length and defensive instincts.

Fultz’ shot remains a serious work in progress; he’ll still have some viral airballs over the course of a full season. But Fultz is looking like a legitimate asset for the first time in his career. Solid play through 2019-20 would go a long way toward solving Orlando’s point guard problem.

KAT Will Carry Minnesota Toward Playoff Contention

Karl-Anthony Towns entered 2017-18 as the league’s most valuable asset per the NBA’s annual GM survey, topping Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James as the most coveted player for starting a franchise. Towns has lost that mantle over the last two seasons, but make no mistake: there isn’t a more talented offensive big in basketball.

Towns torched the Nets in Minnesota’s opening-night win on Wednesday with 36 points and 14 rebounds, canning seven threes in the Timberwolves’ overtime victory. KAT’s full offensive arsenal was on display in the win. He bullied Jarrett Allen down low, then stepped out to the arc when Brooklyn sent in DeAndre Jordan. Towns is light on his feet and efficient from beyond the three-point line. His post prowess is among the league’s best. Towns is saddled with a poor supporting cast–nice minus-26 from Andrew Wiggins in the opener–though the 23-year-old should bring Minnesota closer to 40 wins than 30 given his offensive brilliance. There are few more valuable building blocks in the NBA. 

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