The NBA’s first quarter is essentially over, with every team playing at least 21 games. Shockingly, or perhaps not, it doesn’t feel like a slog of a 2021-22 campaign yet.
But even with so much to learn, there’s still plenty we’ve discovered thus far.
With apologies to Spencer Dinwiddie in the District and Alex Caruso in Chicago — no arguments to their positive contributions at all and they can be interchanged — there are some great newcomers who’ve shifted the landscape of the league in an understated way.
DeRozan keeps sneezing at the 3-point revolution and the changing rules, repeatedly getting to his spots as a mid-range master (55% shooting between 10-16 feet, per basketball-reference.com) who continues to draw legit fouls and is playing career-best ball (26.3 points).
His close friend and teammate from Toronto, Lowry, doesn’t have the same gaudy numbers, but you can see the effect. Taking Jimmy Butler off the ball and allowing him to be a finisher while also keeping defenses one step away from the space Butler and Bam Adebayo need to operate is a clear advantage. Plus, the randomness and pace pressing, it’s so hard to measure yet easy to see.
Harrell was almost an afterthought after the Lakers experiment didn’t work out, but since the trade to Washington, he’s returned to being a terror on the offensive glass and shooting a whopping 66% from the field. The entire crop of newcomers for the Wizards has fared well; in case you didn’t know, the Wizards won the Russell Westbrook trade handily.
Horford and Aldridge are remixed comebacks: Horford returning to Boston after a couple years and stops away; Aldridge returning from retirement following an irregular heartbeat last season. Horford did a number on Joel Embiid the other night, although Embiid is still struggling from COVID-19 effects. But he’s settling the back line of that Celtics defense, helping them to a top-five rating so far while Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown figure things out on the other end.
Aldridge is a lone bright spot in a Nets frontline that looks pretty thin. In his limited time, the Nets look stable with him on the floor, and he is one of the few reliable performers outside of Kevin Durant with 13.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per.
First-quarter MVP: Stephen Curry, Warriors
Somehow he’s not having a career year in most statistical categories, but he looks better than ever at the same time. He won Player of the Month the last two months of last season and for October/November after Golden State’s torrid start. He's the favorite to win MVP (+135), according to BetMGM.
It feels like it took him a week to adjust to the new defensive-friendly rules, and it’s actually helped him on the other end of the floor, allowing him to be more physical and handsy — staying away from the ticky-tack fouls that used to annoy him years ago.
He’s carrying the Warriors even though he’s not near his league-leading scoring pace from last season, and while those off-nights like the one against Phoenix can look ghastly, smart money says it won’t happen too often. And with Klay Thompson scheduled to return pretty soon, the quality of shots Curry takes will ease. Defenses must account for Thompson’s presence, no matter how he looks when he initially returns, so Curry will benefit. It seems to be a three-way battle for “best player alive”: Curry, Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Take your pick depending on the day.
Biggest obstacle: COVID-19
While it’s not at the same level of the last two years — a league shutdown in 2019-20, games being postponed in the first half of the 2020-21 season — this monster is still here and still scary.
Embiid gave a window into his bout with the virus after missing a chunk of time and secondarily, the 76ers couldn’t stay afloat without him. Yes, LeBron James beat the virus after a couple days or there was some discrepancy with the tests, but that’s a rare occurrence. The 76ers were hit hard, with Tobias Harris catching it in the same time period as Embiid, albeit a bit before. Jaylen Brown missed eight games being in health and safety protocols and hasn’t looked like himself at all since returning (14.6 points, 39% shooting).
It’s an assumption players will go through it, come out of it and perform as if nothing happened. But it hardly seems like the case, and the players who come away from it with very little side effects are the exception and not the rule. Perhaps it’s our collective naïveté or cavalier approach to COVID-19 as a whole that creates this fallacy. And as long as there’s just a semi-serious approach to vaccinations, it’ll be around for a very long time.
The season’s outcome could very well be guided by who’s in health and safety protocols and who isn’t, especially as the winter season approaches.
Biggest non-obstacle: The 2021 NBA Finals
Game 6 of the 2021 Finals ended on July 20, nearly a month after the Finals would usually conclude during a normal season — if there will ever be such a thing as normal again, but we digress.
It didn’t leave much time for the Milwaukee Bucks to truly celebrate before turning focus to the next season or for the Phoenix Suns to lick their wounds after a heartbreak.
But neither looks worse for wear.
The Bucks have clawed back to within two games of top spot in the East and the Suns are riding high on an (checks watch) 18-game winning streak. It’s not expected either team will run away and hide from the rest of the competition, but both have been emboldened by the Finals run.
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 get back there for a repeat showdown this June. BetMGM has the Bucks and Suns with the third- and fourth-best odds, respectively, to win the 2022 title. The Bucks bomb away from three and attack the glass while Antetokounmpo keeps expanding his game. The Suns make you uncomfortable because they never experience discomfort, switching wings and bigs interchangeably without giving up much and ranking second in defensive rating.
Mikal Bridges could damn near start on every team, even if he’s not an All-Star. But he makes that thing go. And Deandre Ayton is hushing any critic who believed he’s not worth max money.
It’s fun to see accomplished teams take the regular season seriously, it sets the pace for the rest of the league.
Of course it's the Los Angeles Lakers. They have built-in reasons, with James’ abdominal injury costing him crucial time to acclimate Westbrook into the team system — which was going to be a process in itself.
Westbrook is the easy scapegoat, and even though he got off to slow starts in Houston and Washington the last two seasons, he hasn’t been as much of an awkward piece as expected. He’s genuinely tried to assimilate to the franchise, but it’s hard to adjust to an ever-changing picture with no continuity.
We’ve all been expecting Anthony Davis to take over the mantle as the Lakers' headliner, but it doesn’t feel like something he’s comfortable doing. Will he play center? Does he want to? Can he anchor a defense every night or is Dwight Howard better at commanding a back line?
Consistency doesn’t seem part of this team’s makeup. It can play up to competition one night and down to it the next night. Sounds unfair to say, but it’s a fact: The Lakers lost two games to a team that lost by 73 points Thursday night.
That doesn’t give off championship vibes at all.