The first week of the 2020-21 NBA season is officially in the books, and it has offered no shortage of entertainment as the league embarks on another unprecedented season amidst a global pandemic. Instead of playing inside a bubble like it did earlier this year in Orlando, the NBA opted to play in home arenas and try to get back to a “normal” season as much as possible by starting on Dec. 22 to keep the traditional timeline on track.
Since the league decided to start up the season so quickly, it led to the shortest offseason in NBA history, and because fans are prohibited at most arenas, it’s made the games feel like the early morning matchups of an AAU tournament. Nevertheless, the season is under way, and the first week of action has had plenty of head-scratching moments. One example, the Clippers — who were without Kawhi Leonard — lost by 51 points to the Dallas Mavericks. Another is how the Sacramento Kings are currently in a three-way tie for first place in the West after a 3-1 start.
Consider those two honorable mentions, because these five storylines below have been the five biggest surprises through the first week of the 2020-21 NBA season.
1. Back from serious injury, Kevin Durant already in midseason form
I don’t care what anyone says — no one could’ve predicted that Durant would look this good after rupturing his Achilles tendon during the 2019 NBA Finals. That’s already a devastating injury to come back from, then throw in his wiry 7-foot frame and that adds more concern. Yet, here we are, a week into the season and K.D. looks to be picking up right where he left off as a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate capable of easily averaging 30 points a night, around seven boards and being an absolute monster on defense.
His silky smooth jumper hasn’t been impacted at all after the injury, he appears to be getting the same lift in his shots as before and he’s showing no fear in attacking the rim and finishing through contact. Durant’s getting whatever he wants just like he was before he went down in June 2019, and he looks every bit the unstoppable player he was back then, too. What’s even scarier is this is just the beginning for him. Imagine what he’ll look like after 40 games under his belt this season, or in the postseason when he’s far more comfortable being back on the court again and on a new team.
How he’s played in the opening week of the season should be terrifying for the rest of the Eastern Conference, because Durant looks like he hasn’t missed a step at all.
2. The winless Raptors
So the Raptors are 0-3 to start the season, and while there’s no reason to hit the panic button yet, it’s pretty shocking and a bit confusing as to why this has happened. They suffered a close loss to a Spurs team that no one thinks will even get close to the play-in game in the West, an opening-night loss to the young, up-and-coming Pelicans team and a third loss to a 76ers team that looks like a dangerous team in the East right now. Against the Sixers, it was the lack of size that this team once possessed with both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol that cost them a win, as Joel Embiid got whatever he wanted inside against Toronto.
However, there’s more going on here than just lack of size on defense. The Raptors have notoriously let their defense lead to offense, but so far this season that’s not been the case. In the fourth quarter of that Sixers loss, Toronto managed to put up just 17 points, and Fred VanVleet continues to struggle in the first three games. If it weren’t for his 27-point performance against the Spurs, his averages would be far lower after combining for just 18 points in the other two games.
Kyle Lowry said the team is “not on the same page right now,” and attributed the early season woes to the addition of several new players and trying to find this squad’s identity. The addition of Aron Baynes and Alex Len are the most notable additions, as those two are ideally supposed to make up for the loss of Ibaka and Gasol. However, through three games, Baynes and Len haven’t impressed and have gotten bullied down in the post. It probably also doesn’t help that the Raptors were forced to relocate and play home games in Tampa, Florida because of travel restrictions by the Canadian government due to COVID-19. It’s a long season, and if any coach can get a team back on the right track surely reigning Coach of the Year Nick Nurse can. But in a shortened season with so many games happening every other day or on back-to-backs, the Raptors will have to course correct quickly to get back in the playoff running in the East.
After being traded to the Orlando Magic from Philadelphia before the start of 2019-20, many wondered if a change in scenery would do Fultz some good after having a tumultuous two years with the Sixers where he play in just 33 games due to injuries. In his first season with the Magic, while his stats were average (12.1 points and 5.1 assists), the fact he played in 72 games was a huge step in the right direction. He was already written off as a bust after his time in Philadelphia when he couldn’t stay healthy and his change in shooting form greatly alarmed people.
But early on in this season, Fultz is silencing those doubters. Through four games with the Magic — all of which he’s started — the former No. 1 overall pick is averaging 18.3 points, 5.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds. Even better, he’s helped lead the Magic to an undefeated record, which is a surprise in itself. In a close win over the Wizards, Fultz became the closer for the Magic, putting up 10 points in the fourth quarter alone to lead them to a win. His shooting form is still questionable, but he’s making it work for him. He’s also using his size to bully smaller defenders and get to the rim where he’s shooting 66.7 percent. It’s still too early to tell if Fultz’s performance will stick over the course of the season, or if it’s just a flash in the pan. But right now, he’s making the Magic look smart in signing him to a four-year, $37.4 million contract prior to the start of the season.
4. The Magic and Hawks remain unbeaten in the East
Speaking of the Magic, they currently have the best record in the NBA at 4-0, and along with the Hawks are the only two unbeaten teams left standing in the league. No one saw this coming, quite frankly, whether it’s real or just a product of a shorter offseason, it’s kind of making the East look a lot deeper than some initially thought. Of the two teams, Atlanta is probably not as surprising, given that it loaded up on shooting talent in the offseason that could outscore any team on a given night. It also may not be that shocking considering the three teams the Hawks beat are the Bulls, Grizzlies and Pistons, none of which made the playoffs last season. Memphis was the toughest opponent Atlanta has faced, and the Grizzlies weren’t even at full strength as Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow haven’t even made their season debuts due to injuries. We’ll have to see the Hawks face some of the tougher teams in the East before we start crowning them a lock to make the postseason
Among Orlando’s four wins this season, the Heat was the most impressive one as the Magic simply outplayed the reigning Eastern Conference champions. Four of the Magic’s five starters scored 15 or more points, with Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon both crossing 20 points apiece. But that win was on opening night, which can’t be read into that much as teams are still getting acclimated to another weird season. Similar to the Hawks, the Magic beat up on the bottom-of-the-barrel teams with two wins against the Wizards, and another against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Unlike the Hawks, though, the Magic were a playoff team a season ago, and they could get there again with the majority of the same roster. Plus, if Fultz is going to play like he has to start the season, then there’s no reason to count this team out of the playoffs in the East. Still, it’s incredibly shocking to look at the standings and see Orlando and Atlanta at the top of not just the East, but the entire league right now.
5. Trae Young looking like an MVP candidate
To go along with the Hawks being 3-0, Young has performed to a level worthy of mentioning him in the too-early-to-tell MVP race. He’s second in the league in scoring, putting up 34 points, to go along with 7.3 assists and four rebounds, while shooting 42.1 percent from deep, and 53.1 percent from the field. His improvement goes hand-in-hand with the fact that Atlanta surrounded Young with quality players this offseason, taking some of the burden off him to be the sole focus of the offense for the Hawks. That weight lifted off him has allowed Young to unlock another level of his game, and its paying off for the Hawks so far this season.
Now that the defense has to focus on other players around him like Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, Young has been given more space to operate and is seeing less on-ball pressure from the defense to start the season. It also helps that the Hawks went out and got Rajon Rondo to act as a secondary ball-handler, so if Atlanta wanted to it could take the ball out of Young’s hands and have him operate off the ball. Imagine him flying around screens and unloading a 25-foot bomb, which sounds eerily similar to how the Warriors would use Stephen Curry in spurts when this team was at the height of its powers. It’s no secret that Atlanta has been trying to mold its team in the image of the Warriors, with Young as Curry. So far, he’s looked like an MVP candidate, now we’ll have to see if he can sustain this over the course of a full season.