The NBA was full of surprises in the month of October, so as the calendar turns to the second month of the 2019-20 season, we examined five unforeseen early trends to find out what is real and what is not.
The Golden State Warriors should tank
The five-time defending Western Conference champions already owned the fourth-worst net rating before losing by double digits to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. Their porous defense was at the bottom of the NBA barrel, allowing 120 points per 100 possessions, and they were rounding out the rotation with heavy minutes from Glenn Robinson III, Eric Paschall, Jordan Poole and Omari Spellman.
There was hope that the healthy returns of centers Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein would bring order to a lineup that featured a trio of All-Stars, including the greatest shooter ever and a transcendent defensive talent. Then, Stephen Curry broke his non-shooting hand, and the two-time MVP will miss at least three months, the organization announced on Friday. That takes the Warriors through January, when more than half the season is complete, and then you can throw dirt on even a proud champion.
I was among those who wildly underestimated the dramatic impact that the losses of Kevin Durant (free agent), Klay Thompson (torn ACL) and Andre Iguodala (trade) would have on Golden State’s perimeter defense. Incredibly, their opponents are making 3-pointers at a rate (43 percent on 37 attempts per game) greater than the Warriors did during their 73-win campaign (42 percent on 32 attempts per game).
Draymond Green, now nearing 30 years old and yet to begin the $100 million extension he signed this past summer, cannot hold the fort on his own. He is trying to plug too many holes, and his defensive assignments have been feasting as a result, shooting 55 percent opposite him (50 percent from distance on 26 attempts), per Second Spectrum. Meanwhile, Green’s own shooting woes have continued.
Everything is now on the table for the Warriors, from fielding trade offers for Green to extending Curry’s rehab and keeping Thompson out the whole season, even if he is fully healthy by the All-Star break. Warriors owner Joe Lacob may have told Shelburne that tanking “is against every single thing I and we stand for,” but he may not have a choice. Curry’s injury forced their hand. The Warriors are broken, too.
Mike Conley is washed
The Utah Jazz have survived a disastrous start to the season for Mike Conley, who made just nine of his 45 shots in his first four games for his new team, including two of the worst offensive nights of his career in narrow victories over Oklahoma City and Phoenix. But the Jazz were not meant to merely survive in the stacked West. Conley’s arrival was supposed to cement Utah as a true championship contender.
Conley turned 32 in October and is two seasons removed from a heel injury that cost him all but 12 games. He missed 12 games last season while battling hamstring, knee, thigh and ankle soreness, and he is playing fewer minutes through five games in Utah than he has in any season since his rookie year in Memphis. There is at least the chance that all those factors could force us to rethink Conley’s impact.
Then came Wednesday night’s meeting with a Clippers team that is the class of the conference.
“It’s unique for Conley ’cause he was in one place for so long,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said in his pregame press conference, according to The Salt Lake Tribune’s Eric Walden. “I mean, he drove to the arena the same way, he had probably all his rituals — everything has been uprooted. Now everything’s new for him. He’s playing, as I say, home road games for a while. Eventually Utah will become home, and he’ll be back to being Mike Conley. Tell him to take his time! At least one more night.”
Conley did not afford them that night. He broke out in a big way, scoring 29 points on 17 shots (5-for-8 from 3-point range) in a season-high 32 minutes. He added five assists and a pair of steals during a decisive win in front of a raucous Salt Lake City crowd. It was everything we envisioned, and then some.
“I hit one, then hit two and just kind of feel it going and feel the energy from the crowd, then your teammates,” Conley told reporters afterward. “It’s like, all right, I guess this is the game. I knew it was going to come. Hate that it had to start this way, but hopefully it’s the beginning of the positive Mike.”
There is reason to believe his first four games on the Jazz were an aberration, as opposed to Wednesday being the exception. The fact that Utah’s defense has never been better with Conley off the floor and never been worse with him on it is also misleading. The Jazz are still operating at an elite defensive level with Conley on the floor, allowing fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions, and the lockdown point guard slowed De’Aaron Fox and Chris Paul in his most high-profile matchups to date.
Verdict: Not Real
History is repeating itself for Kyrie Irving
Kyrie Irving’s NBA stops in Cleveland and Boston both ended in communication breakdowns, and while he joined the Brooklyn Nets with the promise of improved leadership, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan revealed that Irving had similarly distanced himself from members of the organization at least once before the season even started. It is a pattern of behavior that raises concern both on and off the court.
I have been among Irving’s harshest critics, but I was hopeful that a move closer to home with a few friends in the destination of his choice would lend itself to greater trust with the Nets. That does not appear to be the case, at least not yet, and there are signs that Brooklyn could fall prey to the same underachieving fate Boston suffered when the Celtics handed the organization’s keys to Irving. The 1-3 start is reflective of a disjointed team that is trying to figure out the best way to play in Irving’s orbit.
Brooklyn owns a bottom-10 defensive rating after ranking squarely in the middle of the pack during last season’s surprise playoff run. Swapping D’Angelo Russell for Irving, neither of whom are plus defenders, should not have that effect, especially not when two-time All-Defensive First-Team center DeAndre Jordan was also another offseason addition, but it does speak to a malaise that could potentially infect the roster in the absence of beloved veteran teammates Jared Dudley, DeMarre Caroll and Ed Davis.
Offensively, Irving has the ball in his hands more often and is using more possessions than Russell did last season, which accounts for fewer assists per 100 possessions and lower usage rates for returning Nets Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert and Joe Harris. Given his volume, Irving has been remarkably efficient, but there is always the risk that less ball movement leads to more stagnation on both ends.
If the Nets are relying on Kevin Durant to harness Irving’s mood swings, that is a tall task for someone who will not share the floor with him until next season. It is still early in Brooklyn, and there is hope that the Nets will at least be afforded a honeymoon phase that yielded positive results at the start of his partnerships with LeBron James in Cleveland and a promising young core in Boston. But the greater concern is that Irving does not sound all that interested in recognizing his approach as a potential flaw.
The Denver Nuggets will be just fine
The Nuggets, another West team expected to vie for the title, have lost consecutive games to Dallas and New Orleans after narrow victories against Phoenix and Sacramento came down to the final minute. Expected MVP candidate Nikola Jokic has looked out of shape, disinterested and at times downright frustrated, and newly extended $170 million man Jamal Murray has a sub-50 percent effective field-goal percentage through five games. A team that played so connected last season has looked the opposite.
“We're a great talk team,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said after a loss to the Pelicans on Thursday night in which they allowed 122 points, per ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. “We can talk before the season starts about all the things we want to accomplish, and we want to be a contending team. It’s all bulls---. Don't tell me about it, show me. And right now we've got a lot of guys that aren’t showing me much.”
The Nuggets are getting production from the depth that made them a surprise 54-win team last season, one that came within a C.J. McCollum barrage of the Western Conference finals, and talented wing Michael Porter Jr. finally made his NBA debut on Thursday, scoring 15 points on eight shots in the loss. Jerami Grant has not given Denver the boost many imagined from an underrated trade acquisition.
Much of the problem falls on Jokic and Murray, two wildly talented and well-compensated players who have long faced questions about whether they can be the tandem at the top of a true title contender. You would think they would both return this season extra motivated after tasting success in a season that ultimately ended in disappointment. Jokic may play his way into shape, but Murray has never been a model of efficiency, and that combination has potential for volatile results the Nuggets can ill afford.
Denver started last season 9-1, setting the tone for a season that saw them rank top 10 both offensively and defensively on their way to the second seed. Given their home-court advantage in the altitude, which was their path to greater success in the playoffs, things were supposed to improve, but early returns suggest they could be the contender that takes a step backward as teams like the Clippers, Jazz and Lakers all push forward.
The Nuggets rank middle of the pack on both ends of the floor, registering a net rating that ranked 11th in the West during October. They are average to below average in almost every hustle stat the NBA tracks, as opponents shoot more uncontested shots and score more fast-break points against Denver than they do all but a handful of teams. There is plenty of time to turn things around, but to what end?
Verdict: Not Real
Monty Williams is a wizard in Phoenix
The Suns are the biggest surprise so far, owners of a 3-2 record and the NBA’s fourth-best net rating (plus 8.5 points per 100 possessions). New additions Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, Aron Baynes and Jevon Carter have all acquitted themselves well, but coach Monty Williams has been their biggest upgrade, tying it all together. He has a team that has never known how to win convinced it can.
The suspension of stud young center Deandre Ayton may have been a blessing in disguise, as Baynes was forced into the starting lineup, and Phoenix has found a defensive identity. They are engaged on that end, and that is a credit to Williams. Their offense also ranks in the top 10, and nobody outside Carter is shooting especially above their means. They are just finding good shots. Again, credit Williams.
Williams submitted a sub-.500 record in his first stint as a head coach, bridging the gap between the Chris Paul and Anthony Davis eras in New Orleans. He sandwiched assistant coaching stints with playoff teams in Oklahoma City and Philadelphia around two years away from the bench in the aftermath of his wife’s shocking death. It was then that he picked up the key to his successful return to running a team, serving as vice president of basketball operations for the well-oiled San Antonio Spurs machine.
“One of the things I did learn in San Antonio was that they’ve got a wear-down effect,” Williams said at his introductory press conference in Phoenix. “The ball movement, player movement, would wear teams out. And then in the fourth quarter they would take that Spurs push, and they’d be up 10, 15, and the game would be over. And you can see that with Golden State, the way they beat Portland. The ball movement, player movement, it just wears you out. And so we want to adopt some of those things.”
The ball is not moving a ton, but the players are off it, and the Suns are making the right passes to the tune of the NBA’s second-best assist rate. Rubio is always an injury risk, and it will be difficult for a team that is currently relying on Kelly Oubre as a primary option to maintain a top-10 offense, but the things Phoenix is doing well are sustainable, and Ayton’s return should only provide reinforcements.
Their win over the Clippers may have been a fluke, and their other two victories came against reeling rosters in Sacramento and Golden State, but the Suns hung tough in close losses to Denver and Utah, too. We will see some regression now that they are not surprising anyone, and I am not convinced this is a playoff team, but they are at least no longer a pushover and have already exceeded my expectations.
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