The NBA’s first quarter is virtually over, with each team playing at least 21 games. Surprisingly, or maybe not, it doesn’t yet feel like the drudgery of a 2021-22 campaign.
But even with so much to learn, there is still a lot that we have discovered so far.
G: DeMar DeRozan, bulls
G: Kyle Lowry, Heat
F: Montrezl Harrell, Wizards
F: LaMarcus Aldridge, Nets
C: Al Horford, Celtics
With our apologies to Spencer Dinwiddie in the District and Alex Caruso in Chicago – no argument for their positive contributions and they can be redeemed – there are some great newcomers who have changed the landscape of the league in quiet ways.
DeRozan keeps sneezing at the 3-point revolution and changing rules, repeatedly reaching his positions as a midrange master (55% shooting between 10 and 16 feet, per basketball-reference.com) who continues to commit legitimate fouls and is playing the best career ball (26.3 points).
His close friend and Toronto teammate Lowry doesn’t have the same garish numbers, but you can see the effect. Taking Jimmy Butler off the ball and allowing him to be a finisher while keeping the defenses one step away from the space that Butler and Bam Adebayo need to operate is a clear advantage. Plus, the randomness and rushing pace, it’s so hard to measure but easy to see.
Harrell was almost an afterthought after the Lakers’ experiment didn’t work out, but since the trade with Washington he’s once again become a terror on the offensive glass and shot 66 percent from the field. The whole crop of new arrivals for wizards has done well; in case you didn’t know, the Wizards handily won Russell Westbrook’s trade.
Horford and Aldridge are remixed comebacks: Horford returns to Boston after a few years and quits; Aldridge is coming back from retirement after an irregular heartbeat last season. Horford did an issue on Joel Embiid the other night, although Embiid is still grappling with the effects of COVID-19. But he rules the back line of that Celtics’ defense, helping them to place in the top five so far while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown scramble on the other end.
Aldridge is a lone bright spot in a Nets frontline that looks pretty slim. In his limited time, the Nets appear stable with him on the ground, and he’s one of the few reliable performers outside of Kevin Durant with 13.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per person.
First Quarter MVP: Stephen Curry, Warriors
Somehow, he doesn’t have a career year in most statistical categories, but he looks better than ever at the same time. He won the Player of the Month award the last two months of last season and for October / November after Golden State’s scorching start. He is the favorite to win the MVP title (+135), according to BetMGM.
Looks like it took him a week to adjust to the new friendly defensive rules, and it actually helped him on the other end of the pitch, allowing him to be more physical and maneuverable – staying out away from the ticking faults that used to annoy him years ago.
He wears the Warriors even though he’s not close to his league-leading pace last season, and while nights like the one against Phoenix may look horrible, smart money says it won’t. too often. And with Klay Thompson’s return slated for very soon, the quality of Curry’s shots will improve. Defenses have to accommodate Thompson’s presence no matter what he looks like on his initial return, so Curry will benefit. It seems like a three-way battle for the “best player alive”: Curry, Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Make your choice depending on the day.
Biggest obstacle: COVID-19
While not at the same level of the past two years – a league stoppage in 2019-20, games postponed into the first half of the 2020-21 season – this monster is still around and still scary.
Embiid opened a window to his fight with the virus after missing a while and secondarily, the 76ers couldn’t stay afloat without him. Yes, LeBron James overcame the virus after a few days of discrepancies with the tests, but this is a rare event. The 76ers were hit hard, with Tobias Harris catching it in the same period as Embiid, albeit a little earlier. Jaylen Brown has missed eight games due to health and safety protocols and hasn’t looked the same at all since his return (14.6 points, 39% shots).
It’s an assumption that players will go through it, get out of it, and play like nothing has happened. But that hardly seems to be the case, and players who get away with very few side effects are the exception, not the rule. Perhaps it is our collective naivety or our cavalier approach to COVID-19 as a whole that creates this fallacy. And as long as there is only a semi-serious approach to vaccinations, it will last a very long time.
The outcome of the season could very well be guided by who is in health and safety protocols and who is not, especially as the winter season approaches.
Biggest non-obstacle: the 2021 NBA Finals
Game 6 of the 2021 Finals ended on July 20, almost a month after the Finals usually ended in a normal season – whether there will be such a thing as normal again, but we we move away.
That didn’t leave much time for the Milwaukee Bucks to really celebrate before focusing on the next season or for the Phoenix Suns to heal their wounds after a heartache.
But neither looks worse for wear.
The Bucks have recovered within two games of first place in the East and the Suns are off to a good start on an 18-game winning streak. Either team is not expected to run away and hide from the rest of the competition, but both have been emboldened by the race to the finals.
Wearing a combination of youth and experience, it’s safe to say the Bucks and Suns are better than they were last season, and likely determined to return there for another showdown in June. BetMGM has the Bucks and Suns with the third and fourth best chances, respectively, of winning the 2022 title. The Bucks bomb all three and attack the glass as Antetokounmpo continues to expand his game. Comfortable as they never feel any discomfort, changing wings and fat interchangeably without giving up a lot and coming in second in the defensive standings.
Mikal Bridges could very well start on either team, even though he’s not an All-Star. But he makes that thing go. And Deandre Ayton silences any critic who thinks he’s not worth the maximum amount of money.
It’s fun to see accomplished teams take the regular season seriously, it sets the tone for the rest of the league.
Of course, it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. They have intrinsic reasons, with James’ abdominal injury costing him crucial time to acclimate Westbrook to the team system – which was going to be a process in itself.
Westbrook is the easy scapegoat, and while he’s had slow starts in Houston and Washington over the past two seasons, he hasn’t been as clumsy as expected. He’s really tried to assimilate into the franchise, but it’s hard to adapt to an ever-changing image without continuity.
We all expected Anthony Davis to take over as the Lakers headliner, but that doesn’t sound like something he’s comfortable doing. Will he play in the center? Does he want to? Can he anchor a defense every night or is Dwight Howard better at commanding a back line?
Coherence does not seem to be part of the makeup of this team. He can play until the competition one night and until the following night. It seems unfair to say, but it’s a fact: The Lakers lost two games to a team that dropped 73 points on Thursday night.
It doesn’t give off any championship vibes.