Four games into the 2020-21 season, the New York Knicks were somehow the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the league. Then they shot 3 for 36 from 3-point range in a New Year’s Eve loss in Tampa Bay, which is where the Toronto Raptors play now.
Two weeks in, that is the Raptors’ only victory. The Knicks, meanwhile, are 4-3, coming off victories against the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers, two teams that have otherwise looked impressive. The 5-2 Orlando Magic are tied with the Pacers for the East’s second-best record, and the 4-3 Cleveland Cavaliers have the second-best defense in the NBA.
In other words, the NBA is extremely confusing right now. It is not the time to make sweeping conclusions about almost anything, and I know you don’t want my thoughts on awards races or Stephen Curry’s legacy. But may I interest you in some early-season observations?
The remixed Sixers: You’ve probably heard people liken the Philadelphia 76ers‘ current roster to the one they had three years ago, before the Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris trades and the ill-fated bully-ball experiment. Team president Daryl Morey has made the comparison himself, and it’s apt in terms of the way the starting lineup works: Seth Curry and JJ Redick are both A+++ shooters, Danny Green was the prototypical 3-and-D guy before Robert Covington and Harris is … well, he’s not all that similar to Dario Saric, really, but he’s in the stretch/playmaking 4 role now.
The 2017-18 Sixers didn’t have Shake Milton and Tyrese Maxey coming off the bench, though, and they didn’t have a perimeter playmaker like Curry in the starting five. This is why then-coach Brett Brown took Covington out of the starting lineup before Game 4 of their series against the Boston Celtics, setting the stage for The T.J. McConnell Game. Look at all these guys getting into the teeth of the defense and making stuff happen:
Yes, that’s a Milton skyhook in there. Anyway, Philadelphia has the best record in the league (6-1). There are a lot of good things happening — the spacing is immaculate relative to last season, the defense has been dominant, Joel Embiid has been awesome, Harris is on a tear — but it’s hard to tell how much the team has benefited from its weak early schedule. All I know is the Sixers finally have a few guys who can dribble and shoot.
Doc Rivers has even played Curry, Milton and Maxey together a little bit! This isn’t the same as having a star wing like Butler, but it has helped Philadelphia find some flow.
I didn’t put that here just because it’s a cool highlight. It also is a tidy representation of how different the Pacers are this season, despite bringing back a virtually identical roster. Under coach Nate Bjorkgren, they are fifth in transition frequency, per Cleaning The Glass, and they have drastically changed their approach.
Turner is still Indiana’s defensive anchor, and he’s easily leading the league in blocks (3.6 per game!). It is playing a much more aggressive style, though, forcing turnovers and mixing in some zone. Bjorkgren even used the aforementioned McConnell as the “one” in a box-and-1 against Jayson Tatum.
And on the offensive end, the Houston Rockets are the only team taking fewer midrange shots than the Pacers. (Last season, only four teams took more.) Domantas Sabonis is shooting 2.5 3s a game now — and he’s made most of them — and Turner has taken just one single midrange jumper. This one:
If that looks weird to you, it’s because you’re seeing a center coming off a dribble-handoff with another center like a guard. In Indiana’s offense, though, Turner isn’t really a center, especially when he’s on the court with Sabonis. Functionally, he’s a wing, empowered to launch 3s and attack closeouts. Defenses are not used to him putting the ball on the floor yet:
As a League Pass team, I cannot recommend the Pacers enough. Sabonis is destroying people in the post and picking teams apart with his passing. Victor Oladipo is healthy and rejuvenated. You can tell that Malcolm Brogdon is feeling good because he’s constantly making these weird runners:
Brogdon raves about Bjorkgren every chance he gets, but I’m not sure anyone is having more fun in the new system than Doug McDermott, even though McBuckets hasn’t shot particularly well. Rather than standing around on the perimeter, he is in constant motion, using screens, setting screens and attacking the rim more often than you’d think. He and Sabonis are doing a dance similar to the one Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo have mastered:
The awe-inspiring Jaylen Brown: It’s not supposed to work like this, not with Kemba Walker out and the Celtics starting two bigs. Everything Brown is doing is harder, and he’s doing much more, with more efficiency, while making it look easy. He reminds me of Paul George every time he casually drains a tough jumper against good defense:
It’s getting to the point where I expect every shot Brown takes to go in. He has made a hilariously unsustainable 72.7 percent of his midrange shots, per NBA.com.
Hail Hali: Tyrese Haliburton is a maestro when it comes to jump passes:
At 20 years old, Haliburton is already an expert at manipulating defenders. He is the rare rookie who makes his teammates better, and the Sacramento Kings have clearly missed him in the two games he has been forced to sit out with a wrist injury. His funky 3-point shot is falling, too, and if you can look away from the dumb drama around the team, you can see him and De’Aaron Fox forming an ideal backcourt duo.
A point forward grows in OKC: Darius Bazley was one of the most improved players in the bubble, mostly because he shot the ball way better than he did in the first part of his rookie season. This year, he has made a bigger jump, but it’s not about shooting.
The Oklahoma City Thunder do not have an abundance of playmakers, so the 20-year-old Bazley has room to stretch his game. He’s added some strength to his wiry frame and upped his rebounding numbers, but what stands out most is the point-forward stuff:
So much upside.
A monster grows in Phoenix: Mikal Bridges‘ defense has been out of this world, but there was an argument that he should have made All-Defense last season. His growth has come on the other end, where he is fulfilling his destiny as a 3-and-D-and-more guy.
Let’s focus on the 3 part. He has made 46.3 percent of his shots from long range through seven games, but everyone knows such a sample is unreliable. The significant thing is that he’s taking 3s he wouldn’t have taken before — above the break, contested, in transition, early in the shot clock, you name it.
This is what confidence looks like. The Suns should be ecstatic.
Watch out: Bam Adebayo’s jumper continues to come along. He has made 59 percent of his long 2s, per CTG, and seems particularly comfortable going up for his shot after a jab step:
The league took note of Adebayo’s improved touch in the Miami Heat‘s Finals run, but opponents would still prefer him to shoot than to put pressure on their interior defense. These shots suggest he’ll eventually extend his range beyond the 3-point line.
Watch this: After posting a career-low 14.5 percent usage rate with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, JaVale McGee is up to 25.7 percent usage through seven games with the Cavaliers. McGee is shooting 3 for 7 from 3-point range (!) and, on Saturday, pulled off this crazy lefty and-one:
Unfortunately, his adventures have not always ended so well:
Wild, wild stuff.
Easy money: Joe Harris‘ primary weapon is his jump shot. It earned him a $72 million-plus contract in the offseason, and it makes him a perfect fit next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. But the jumper is not the only reason he got the contract and fits so well. As a cutter, he is finding easy buckets all over the place:
Harris has been scoring this way for years, and it’s even more dangerous now that the Brooklyn Nets are much harder to guard. Defenses have to keep track of the stars, account for the shooters and not get distracted by the off-ball movement. Remember how everybody seemed bewildered by the Golden State Warriors‘ well-timed cuts? Same principle.
By the horns: There is a lot to love about Patrick Williams. The Chicago Bulls rookie is making spot-up 3s, holding his own defensively and generally living up to his draft position. Here he is chasing point guard Jalen Brunson around and stuffing center Willie Cauley-Stein at the rim:
Williams is also showing off a more-advanced-than-advertised offensive game. If everyone could make these T.J. Warren-style midrange shots consistently, more players would take them:
To be continued on Friday.