Evaluating the First Dozen Days of the NBA Season

From Anthony Davis's remarkable run to the Golden State Warriors' slow-ish start, we sort through a few emerging narratives from the first few games of the NBA season to see if they actually mean anything.
November 7, 2016, 5:28pm
Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The first dozen days of the 2016-17 NBA season came and went like a clap of thunder.

We've already seen historic numbers put forth by some of the game's brightest stars, fantastic performances that already make regular season NBA basketball well worth watching.

But beyond sheer entertainment value, do a team's first four or five games of the season actually mean anything? Can we learn nothing from numbers that have "small sample size theatre!" tattooed across their forehead?

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A number of narratives have emerged from these first few games already. Some may be able to sustain themselves over the rest of the season, while others will surely crumble. Let's sort through a few to try and figure out what's what, or at least what to watch for the next dozen days and beyond.

Anthony Davis Is Officially an Alien

Before we dive into some of the more unthinkable stats Davis unleashed in the first few games of his fourth year in the league, let's all stare, mouth agape, at his raw numbers.

Over six games, Davis has averaged 30.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.5 steals, and a league-leading 3.2 blocks a night against some stiff, disciplined defensive competition. Again, those are averages: he got 50 points and 16 rebounds in the season opener against Denver.

And yet the New Orleans Pelicans still have yet to win.

When you are literally carrying your team. Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Early indications are that the best 23-year-old in the NBA needs to do everything every night or his team will embarrass themselves. That's a sad but accurate truth, and we've already seen it at work: when Davis only scored 18 on 15 shots against San Antonio, his team lost by 19. He currently has more Win Shares than LeBron James, whose team is undefeated.

There are several other candidates on better teams who deserve early MVP consideration (Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, etc.), but Davis's ability to stay efficient while producing numbers that don't seem real means he deserves recognition, even while everything around him burns to the ground.

Golden State's Transition Defense Must Recover

During the Warriors' season-opening home blowout loss against the San Antonio Spurs, an infuriated Steve Kerr called timeout to chastise Draymond Green for failing to get back on defense.

The moment may not have meaning if Golden State wins its second title in three years, but for right now it's a bit telling. The Warriors have unprecedented talent doing battle with unprecedented pressure. Some think the only thing that can stop them is themselves, so it's not so great to see them open their campaign with half the effort put forth from a team like the Brooklyn Nets.

When someone tells you to work on fundamentals. Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Remove that ghastly performance against San Antonio from a six-game sample size and Golden State's defense ranks tenth, despite three of those games coming against a trio of lottery teams in New Orleans, the Phoenix Suns, and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Communication across the board has been spotty, and Zaza Pachulia is having a particularly rough time making people forget all the little things Andrew Bogut did so well. Here he is in no man's land—neither high enough to pressure the ball, nor low enough to erase cutting/passing lanes to the basket—and the result is an easy layup for Brandon Knight.

This stuff is excusable, considering how early we are in the season and how many new pieces the Warriors have to incorporate. But transition defense isn't the most complicated thing in the world, and Golden State has come across several issues even when they hustle back.

Here are two examples from Sunday night's game against the Suns.

First, the Suns set a stagger screen in secondary transition for Eric Bledsoe, with Jared Dudley picking Steph Curry followed by Tyson Chandler dislodging Kevin Durant. But instead of sticking to Dudley on the switch, Curry fights over and continues to pursue Bledsoe.

Meanwhile, Durant thinks Bledsoe is his assignment, so he tries to drop under Chandler's screen. Pachulia stays in the paint and assumes Chandler is his responsibility. The result is Golden State completely ignoring a career 40 percent three-point shooter.

Then, in a more basic, instinctual sequence, Green and Pachulia both try to stop Bledsoe as he races up the court, and neither of them checks Chandler, which leads to an easy lob. The Warriors will sort this stuff out because they're too smart and experienced not to—they looked fine in Portland on Tuesday night. But until they're consistent, the rest of the league has no reason to view them as more than mortal.

The Lakers sure didn't.

T.J. Warren Already Won Most Improved Player

The Minnesota Timberwolves, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Los Angeles Lakers arguably possess the three most exciting young cores in the league. T.J. Warren's opening week suggests the Suns need to be in that conversation.

Inserting yourself into the conversation like. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The 23-year-old forward is averaging 21.3 points (20th in the league) and 6.1 boards per game while scoring from all over the floor and even establishing a solid lob-to-dunk relationship with Chandler, who was frustrated last year by poorly timed passing at the rim.

Warren's mid-range shooting is unsustainably high and he's fouling everything in sight, but Suns head coach Earl Watson clearly trusts him. While everyone fawns over Devin Booker, and Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss remain in the honeymoon stage of their careers, Warren momentarily stands in as a significant reason the Suns deserve your attention.

The Atlanta Hawks Don't Look Like the Atlanta Hawks on the Glass

Last year, the Hawks were the worst offensive rebounding team in NBA history. Some of that was intentional—Mike Budenholzer subscribes to Gregg Popovich's school of "transition defense over everything"—but second possessions have value, so they waved goodbye to Al Horford and brought in Dwight Howard.

Howard's 31 offensive rebounds lead the league, and the Hawks rank eighth in offensive rebound rate. If this keeps up—Howard's offensive rebound rate is nearly double his career average—it would be a one-season turnaround for the ages, do wonders for Atlanta's disappointing offense and validate the unexpected decision to acquire Howard in the first place.

Rudy Gay: Resurrected All-Star Candidate or Guy Who Really, Really Wants Out of Sacramento?

Everyone knows Rudy Gay hates playing in Sacramento because he's reportedly said as much multiple times in various ways, but he's off to the best start of his career—drawing free-throws, knocking down contested shots.

"Get me outta here, get me outta here, get me outta here." Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Kings look like a NBA team when he's on the floor and don't when he's on the bench. But where is this going? Gay is 30 years old. His basketball DNA has not evolved with the league's. If you frowned at what he brought to the table four years ago, your facial expression has not changed.

Does his surprisingly stellar play mean a trade is looming? The Oklahoma City Thunder may kick the tires after dumping Ersan Ilyasova for Jerami Grant, clearing some cap space and acquiring a valuable trade exception. That organization is too smart to think Gay's current production is sustainable, but the mere fact that he has this level of play still in him should be enough.

The Thunder have yet to stagger Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo, and when both sit nobody else can create offense by himself. Gay isn't a permanent solution, but he'd make them a better team in 2017.

The Dallas Mavericks Are Dead

Is this finally the year that Dirk Nowitzki + Rick Carlisle = a trip to the lottery for Dallas? It sure looks like it. The Mavericks are 1-5, and Nowitzki is already dealing with a sore Achilles; he's started the season 4-for-14 behind the three-point line—unthinkable for a legend who's knocked down the 15th most threes in NBA history.

Nothing is coming easy for Dallas so far this season. Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Wesley Matthews is averaging a borderline irresponsible 37.7 minutes per game, and playing with an absurd green light; he went 3-for-14 behind the three-point line in Sunday night's win against the Milwaukee Bucks. Harrison Barnes has bounced back from an atrocious preseason with some stable shot-making, particularly out of isolations, but nothing comes easy for this team. They're a snail, with only 5.6 percent (!!!) of their points coming on the fast break—nearly half as many as the 23rd-ranked Portland Trail Blazers. They aren't scoring in the paint and only half their baskets have been assisted.

Andrew Bogut needs to remember he's in a contract year, or this could be a long season—long enough that it may finally convince Mark Cuban to tank (Dallas actually has its own first-round pick this year!).

The Grizzlies Need to Stop Placating Z-Bo

Zach Randolph spent most of the past six years as a symbol of the Grizzlies' brutish bully-ball persona, so it's still a little strange to watch him assume a permanent reserve role this season, spending so much time without Marc Gasol or Mike Conley by his side. But that's what happens when you're a declining 35-year-old franchise icon who can't defend pick-and-rolls or exist within the fast, ball-hopping offense Memphis is trying to establish.

So far, Memphis' strategy is just to feed Z-Bo as much as possible. It's been a disaster. The two-time All-Star currently ranks seventh among all players in usage percentage, even though he's arguably the worst iso-player in the league right now and too often settles for contested jumpers that just aren't falling. Randolph's rebounding the crap out of the ball, but his total lack of lift is finally outweighing the craftiness around the basket that made him so dangerous for so long. The return of Chandler Parsons will hopefully help the Grizzlies balance everything out.

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