Here is how strange the first month of the N.B.A. season has been: The Portland Trail Blazers, who have done O.K. offensively but poorly on defense, turned to Carmelo Anthony to solve their problems this week. They offered him a starting job right out of the gate, even though he is not known for defensive prowess and hasn’t played well in years.
There are scores of injured star players. Several teams that are usually in the playoff race have some of the worst records in the league. There is a player (James Harden) averaging nearly 40 — 40! — points a game, while shooting only 42.9 percent from the field and 34.6 percent from 3-point range. And speaking of unusual performances: Andrew Wiggins, in his sixth season, appears to be making the jump from disappointingly average to elite.
The strangeness of this season seems to be affecting viewership, with lackluster national television ratings so far. That is despite the largest field of championship contenders the N.B.A. has seen in decades. On paper, this parity should be interesting. Harden is putting together an offensive season that might be the greatest in more than 50 years. The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks are outscoring opponents at a level unseen from any team last season.
Blame the standings. Blame the injuries to stars. Blame the most popular players’ being on the West Coast, making them less visible to much of the country (which is asleep when they play). Whatever the reason: The N.B.A. has some issues that aren’t going away.
But even a “meh” N.B.A. season has its share of showmanship and intriguing early trends. So I’m going to combine my love of theater with basketball to present to you a Broadway-themed version of takeaways for the first month of the season.
All figures are reflective of statistics going into Thursday’s games.
‘Defying Gravity’ (Wicked)
Before the season, it was unclear who the top-tier teams would be. After a month, two franchises are separating themselves from the rest of the pack: the Lakers and the Bucks, both of whom are outscoring teams by almost 10 points a game and have each won five games in a row.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee’s star, is somehow even better than he was last season, when he won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. He’s averaging more points, rebounds, assists and steals while shooting better percentages. LeBron James, not to be outdone, is putting up some of the best numbers of his career with the Lakers, leading the league in assists per game (11.1) in his mid-30s. The last player to do that over an entire season was a 36-year-old Steve Nash in 2010-2011.
Many of the other teams in the league are works in progress because of injuries and general unfamiliarity with one another. And some teams with hot starts will surely fade, as has happened with the Phoenix Suns. But the Lakers and Bucks have lived up to the preseason hype.
‘Livin’ It Up on Top’ (Hadestown)
“Hadestown” is a musical about being in life’s cellar, Hell, and this particular tune is about joyfully singing and dancing trying to avoid it. That’s Broadway for you.
And also the Washington Wizards. Their record isn’t very good (4-8), close to the cellar of the Eastern Conference. But somehow, they are among the best offensive teams in the league. This makes them eminently watchable. They racked up more than 130 points in four different games. Once, the Wizards got as high as 158 points — and still lost.
Strangely, this team doesn’t drive to the basket very often or shoot many 3-pointers in comparison with the rest of the league. But the Wizards play fast, crash the offensive glass, move the ball and get into the paint often — ranking fifth in low post touches, according to the N.B.A.’s tracking numbers.
Their franchise player, Bradley Beal, is on pace to average career highs in points and assists. Thomas Bryant, a promising center whom the Lakers bafflingly waived in 2018, is having a career year as a full-time starter, with 14.1 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. Isaiah Thomas has been somewhat resurrected with the Wizards, and Rui Hachimura is a contender for the Rookie of the Year Award.
As good as they are offensively, the Wizards are one of the worst defensive teams in the N.B.A. That’s why they’ll lose lots of games. But they’ll go down shooting. Way down, Hadestown.
‘Too Darn Hot’ (Kiss Me Kate)
There are a handful of must-see performers on the N.B.A. stage each night. Several, like Golden State’s Stephen Curry and the Nets’ Kevin Durant, are injured. But Mavericks guard Luka Doncic is there now, along with Harden, James and some others. And Doncic is not even legally allowed to consume a beer in the United States. (For you non-theater folks, “Too Darn Hot” is a showstopping dance number in a classic show called “Kiss Me Kate.” The song has no real relevance to the plot, but again, that’s Broadway.)
On Wednesday night, Doncic notched 35 points in a triple-double over only 26 minutes against the Warriors. His step-back 3-pointers, which seem to occur in slow motion in real time, are a marvel to watch.
In Coach Rick Carlisle’s offense, Doncic runs the show. He has carried the Mavericks to a 9-5 record, while creating much of his own offense because Dallas lacks supplementary playmaking. The vast majority of his makes are unassisted. He has to work harder than most other superstars in the league to get his points, and Doncic gets lots of them, to the tune of almost 30 a game on a mixture of 3s and relentless drives to the basket. Not content with just scoring, he is almost averaging a triple-double. If Kristaps Porzingis returns to form and the Mavericks make a serious run at the top of the West, Doncic is going to get serious talk about the Most Valuable Player Award.
That is, of course, provided that Harden’s season takes a serious dip.
Harden is one of the most polarizing players in the history of the N.B.A. Many fans lament having to watch him play because of the way he draws fouls, which is understandable: No one wants to watch a game where much of the action is at the free-throw line. But Harden’s excellence is now being taken for granted, just as was that of his teammate, Russell Westbrook, during his triple-double runs in Oklahoma City.
I feel I must shout this from the rooftops: Harden, like James, is going to have a legacy that goes far beyond one season. He is a generational player, and this season is on its way to being his crown jewel.
We should appreciate it because this probably — my editor commented “famous last words” here — won’t happen again.