The first week of the NBA season has generated a number of way-too-early trends, from the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings seemingly switching places as possible playoff spoilers to Karl-Anthony Towns emerging as a bona fide MVP candidate. But their is one early season trend that is indicative of a decade’s worth of NBA evolution.
In a wide-ranging interview on Jemele Hill’s “Unbothered” podcast last week, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo counted an increased reliance on scoring point guards among the biggest changes he has seen over the past 10 years. It is virtually impossible to individually defend someone who has the green light to shoot 25 times per game.
The first week of the 2019-20 campaign has crystallized a side effect of building a roster around such a player: The team is almost entirely reliant on what he does with those 25 shots a night. Even if the shots are falling, opponents are increasingly better prepared to combat high-usage point guards, especially if he is not surrounded by other weapons. The NBA’s first week for Kyrie Irving, Trae Young and Stephen Curry gave us three different avenues this can take.
Kyrie Irving is still brilliant in defeat
Irving’s brilliance with the basketball has been as advertised through three games. Unfortunately, so has his team’s performance. His sensational shotmaking and unparalleled handle came to the Brooklyn Nets with a caveat from the Boston Celtics and LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers: That ball-dominance may leave his teammates standing around watching with the rest of us, and the opposite occurring on the other end is always a possibility, too.
The Nets have played three games and been in all of them until the buzzer. Two of them resulted in overtime losses. They could be 3-0, if only Irving’s unlikely game-winning attempt had found the net and Jae Crowder’s had not. As it is, the Nets have played a trio of likely lottery teams and only beat the New York Knicks, arguably the NBA’s worst team, in a game that required a pair of last-minute Irving buckets to salvage the 19-point lead his team blew in the second half.
Irving scored 50 and 37 points in the two losses. Both nights were respectively overshadowed by equally impressive efforts from Karl-Anthony Towns (36 points, 14 rebounds) and Ja Morant (30 points, 9 assists) in victory. The rhetoric coming from Irving was familiar after the loss to a Memphis Grizzlies team also expected to be among the NBA’s worst.
“Welcome to the big stage,” he told reporters after Sunday’s defeat, lamenting a lack of cohesion, physicality and defensive awareness he hopes comes with more experience together. “It’s going to be like that sometimes. You don’t have guys playing out of their comfort zone when they’re playing against certain players. I’m used to it. I’ve had game-winners shot on me down the stretch so many times, so it’s just throw one in the bank and try to get better from this.”
Only four players have had the ball in their hands more than Irving through three games: Luka Doncic, Trae Young, LeBron James and Ben Simmons. Irving has made a third fewer passes per game than those four on average, ranking 31st in that regard. The ball is sticking with Irving more than anyone in the league right now, and while he has been fairly efficient, you wonder if a reliance on his singular brilliance comes at the detriment of the team operating optimally.
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr famously pushed his record-setting offenses to pass 300 times per game, a number signifying that everyone is being included enough offensively to remain engaged on defense, too. The Nets currently rank 23rd in passes per game (260.7). They averaged 309 passes a night on last year’s surprising playoff run.
Trae Young is setting his precedent
The Atlanta Hawks second-year guard has been the better-case scenario for Irving, which makes you wonder whether he can maintain anything close to this first week’s excellence. Atlanta’s hopes of making the playoffs ahead of schedule may depend on it. Young scored 39 and 38 points in a pair of wins over the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons, two more fringe playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. What’s more: He has also been the league’s most efficient high-volume shooter, making 11 of his first 20 three-point attempts and submitting an effective field-goal percentage north of 70.
Like Irving, Young uses an incredibly high amount of his team’s offensive possessions. None of his teammates scored more than 10 points in a close season-opening win against Orlando, although he did assist on a third of their made field goals. Maybe a Hawks team with no established veterans who demand touches will be satisfied watching The Trae Young Show, more so than higher-usage guys like Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie might be in Brooklyn.
There is a precedent for what Young has done through two games: Stephen Curry, who led the league in scoring and efficiency among high-volume shooters during his unanimous MVP campaign for the 73-win Warriors. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk, formerly an assistant in Golden State, drafted Young to be their version of Curry, but it is too much to ask Young to replicate what the greatest shooter who ever lived accomplished at his peak, at least in his second year. But his ability to pull up from 30 feet could alter the offensive gravity enough to help the Hawks chase a playoff seed.
The Warriors are getting their comeuppance
Or, Young’s Hawks could begin to look more like Curry’s Warriors have through two games. Golden State got shellacked by both the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder over the past week, and Curry has made just four of his first 20 three-point attempts, submitting an effective field-goal percentage south of 45. It has been ugly.
Curry may be moving the ball more than Irving and Young, but who he is moving it to is of greater concern. He no longer has Kevin Durant or Andre Iguodala on his team, Klay Thompson will be recovering from ACL surgery through at least the All-Star break, and the Warriors were also without injured starting center Kevon Looney on Sunday. All-Stars Draymond Green and D’Angelo Russell are by Curry’s side, but the threat level on offense is just not the same. The floor is shrinking for Curry, and he has yet to shoot through it so far this season. The Nets, Hawks and Warriors are all severely reliant on the production of their slight point guards, so the variance from week to week will be eye-opening.
That we are putting the Warriors in the same conversation as the Hawks and Nets is troubling. Arguments in favor of Golden State’s ability to maintain its contender status may have been even more optimistic than we made them out to be, but the Warriors at least seemed like surefire playoff candidates with Curry and Green manning either side of the ball. Golden State currently owns the NBA’s worst defensive rating and the seventh-worst offense, but it is still early.
As The Athletic’s John Hollinger pointed out, the Warriors will look to make adjustments at every level of their organization, perhaps pulling a trade to add NBA-caliber talent around Curry, Green and Russell, tweaking the offense from a motion-heavy scheme to one more reliant on their three stars in the pick and roll, and relying on the anchors of their three championships to shake off the hangover of making five straight trips to the Finals sooner rather than later.
All of that may be moot in the less-forgiving Western Conference. The Warriors simply no longer have the firepower to survive off-shooting nights from Curry. Suddenly the team that just three years ago was boasting of being “light-years ahead” of the competition is working from the same starting point as formerly dreadful operations in Brooklyn and Atlanta. Maybe Curry was the one light-years ahead of the competition all along, and now the field has closed the gap.
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