What players and teams have stood out the most over the first two weeks of NBA action, and will it last?
Our NBA Insiders go 5-on-5.
1. Which team has surprised you the most so far?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN.com: Anyone who doesn’t say Orlando is just being a basketball hipster. Regardless of whether you think it’s fool’s gold (second in the league in offensive efficiency fueled by an otherworldly improvement in perimeter shooting by Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic), for the Magic to sustain seven games of this productivity is nothing short of a miracle.
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Orlando Magic. The magicians have souped up and sped up their offense, and the results have been auspicious. They rank second in offensive efficiency, but more importantly, this looks like a team of players who finally understand their roles. Evan Fournier looks like a refined, all-purpose guard and Aaron Gordon a modern-day power forward who has added an elevated court awareness to his freaky athleticism, while Nikola Vucevic has been reliably Voochy. When it was time to buckle down in the fourth quarter Monday, the Magic got feisty and held the Pelicans to 15 points.
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight.com: The Celtics. I already thought they were a bit overrated going into the season, and had them pegged to finish behind the Raptors in the Atlantic. Then Gordon Hayward went down, seemingly ruining a season that began with high hopes. Now they’ve won five straight, even as an almost entirely new roster continues to jell.
Tim MacMahon, ESPN.com: I expected the Grizzlies to be playoff spectators for the first time since 2010, so I certainly can’t claim that I saw a 5-2 start coming, especially with wins over the Warriors and Rockets (twice). Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the remaining mainstays from the Grit ‘n Grind era, are as good as ever. Chandler Parsons, Memphis’ other max player, obviously wasn’t signed to play a limited role but is showing a lot of signs of life as part of the Grizzlies’ outstanding second unit.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: The Detroit Pistons, who are tied atop the East at 5-2, having started a three-game West Coast swing with victories over the LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors. The Pistons are getting the kind of playmaking from Reggie Jackson that he was never able to offer last season, and their bench has been surprisingly effective, improbably led by Anthony Tolliver.
2. Which player has surprised you the most so far?
Herring: Ben Simmons. There are a ton of good options here, from Porzingis to Giannis. But Simmons looking this dominant at times, while paired with a healthy Joel Embiid, could make the Sixers a threat sooner than many of us thought.
Pelton: Victor Oladipo, with apologies to his former Orlando teammate, Nikola Vucevic. Oladipo’s 3-point surge (from a career-best 36 percent last season to 47 percent so far) might not last, but he’s shooting more accurately than ever inside the arc (52 percent) despite shouldering an enormous share of the Indiana offense.
MacMahon: One executive told me that the Thunder’s trade for Paul George was “the world’s smartest salary dump,” referring to Oklahoma City’s shipping Victor Oladipo to Indiana before his four-year, $84 million contract extension kicked in. Well, Oladipo has been worth every penny so far, averaging 25.5 points and shooting 50 percent from the floor. He has also done something George never did for the Pacers: hit a game-winning shot in the final 20 seconds.
Elhassan: Aaron Gordon. We all saw the leaps and bounds Giannis Antetokounmpo was making. Kristaps Porzingis‘ increase in opportunity indicated that we would see an increase in productivity. Ben Simmons was a No. 1 overall pick a year ago for a good reason. But Gordon? Forget the scorching 3-point shooting above the break; the fact that he has been a bona fide offensive tour de force is nothing short of astonishing. Of course, the caveat of “so far” hangs heavily over his early season excellence.
Arnovitz: The Paul George trade from Indiana was almost unanimously thought to be grand larceny by OKC, yet two weeks into the season, Victor Oladipo has proven to be the best player in the deal. The book on Oladipo has historically been a sinewy shooting guard who can find his way to the rack and defend with strength, but one who didn’t do any one thing exceptionally well. So far for Indy, Oladipo has outperformed expectations in every capacity.
3. Which team has been the most disappointing so far?
Pelton: It’s got to be the Cavaliers, right? Even if we’re not necessarily concerned about the Cavaliers because of their long track record of underwhelming play in the regular season, it’s still disappointing for them to get blown out by the New York Knicks and be last in the league in defensive rating.
Herring: The Heat. A team that finished last season on fire, and came in with a fair amount of continuity (at a time when other East contenders saw slight overhauls), has struggled out of the gate — especially on defense. Miami was a top-five unit on that side of the ball last year, but currently sits in the bottom 10 to start this season.
Arnovitz: It wouldn’t be autumn if there weren’t weird-looking gourds at the front of every grocery store and if basketball nation weren’t extrapolating about Cleveland’s slow start to the NBA season. Yet it’s one thing to phone in the first month of a season and quite another to play a brand of defense so incompetent that the present-day New York Knicks look like the 1970s squad. Nobody expects the Cavs to play June-quality basketball in October, but could they at least demonstrate a little professional pride?
MacMahon: How could it not be the Cavaliers? They’re mediocre offensively and an absolute disaster defensively. And it isn’t like they’re playing the league’s premier teams. Their losses are to four teams (Magic, Nets, Pelicans and Knicks) that are likely headed to the lottery. Of course, a lack of early season urgency might be a factor in a slow start for a team that played in the previous three Finals.
Elhassan: Denver. A team I expected to take the next step with the addition of Paul Millsap has faltered out the gate, getting blown out by the Hornets, losing at home to the Wizards and losing to the lowly (but surging!) Knicks. Glass half-full: The defense has improved from last season. Glass half-empty: The Nuggets have slipped offensively.
4. Which player has been the most disappointing so far?
Arnovitz: Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Wiggins has been marginally better, but he still too often plays with tunnel vision and is absent on defense. Towns’ trajectory coming out of his rookie season suggested that he would quickly claim the mantle of “Best Player Under 25.” But like Wiggins, that growth curb has plateaued. For a heady player, he has been a poor defender, and there’s a risk that, with Towns at the 5, the Timberwolves will have trouble being anything more than an average defensive team. The talent is there, but the Wolves need more from both to climb into the West’s upper-middle class.
MacMahon: The experiment of Kevin Love as the Cavs’ starting center didn’t last long, primarily because of defensive problems. (Not that shifting him back to power forward has solved anything.) He has been about as bad as a guy averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds can be. He has the worst net rating on the team (minus-9.9 points per 100 possessions). Cleveland is plus-6.1 when Love sits.
Elhassan: Dion Waiters. Despite a strong game against the Wolves on Monday night, Waiters has started slowly in the early going, leading to a question he is bound to hear whenever he struggles from the field (42 percent overall and 31 percent from 3 entering Monday night): Was last season’s shooting improvement a contract year aberration? Although he shouldn’t be expected to be Miami’s sole offensive option, he can’t replace quality with quantity.
Pelton: J.R. Smith. As with Smith’s team, I’m not necessarily worried about Smith, who is going to shoot better than 17 percent on 3s even if doing so all season might not change his shot selection. But when a starter on a championship team is sporting a 2.9 PER, that’s certainly disappointing.
Herring: Paul Millsap has been a bit underwhelming thus far. Too early to be fully concerned about it, but one of the deals I was more excited about — paying big to put a well-rounded veteran alongside young players who seem ready to win — hasn’t shown dividends just yet. We’ll see whether that changes over time.
5. Fact or fiction: It’s too early to worry about the Cavs and Warriors.
MacMahon: Fact. Anyone searching for the panic button has a serious lack of short-term memory. The Warriors got blown out twice in their first six games last season, and they lost only once in the entire postseason. The Cavs were sub-.500 after the All-Star break but flipped the switch once the playoffs started. I sure won’t bet against a fourth straight Finals meeting.
Elhassan: Fact. Both teams are clearly dealing with the fatigue of long seasons three years in a row, and it’s hard to justify a pedal to the metal approach before even Halloween has rolled by. Having said that, the Cavs are the more vulnerable of the two, and should they survive the East, a laissez faire approach during the regular season is sure to only encourage bad habits that will come back to haunt them in June.
Arnovitz: Fact. Steve Kerr said it best prior to the Warriors’ game on Monday night when insisting that the Warriors would be fine. He quoted assistant Ron Adams quoting the late Chuck Daly: “Sometimes you have to wait on a champion.”
Herring: Faction. The Warriors, I’m not concerned about at all right now. But I don’t know what to think of the Cavs. Chances are they iron all this out. But there’s a lot of outdated talent on this roster, and parts that don’t fit. That puts more pressure on Ty Lue to figure out rotations, both now and once they get Isaiah Thomas back from injury after the start of 2018.
Pelton: Fact. Certainly so with the Warriors, who seem to be creating challenges for themselves to keep things interesting. I’d be more willing to entertain concern about the Cavaliers, but assuming Isaiah Thomas gets back to full strength, the version of them we see in the playoffs should be entirely different than the one splitting minutes between Jose Calderon and Iman Shumpert at point guard.