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During the 2017-18 season, the Golden State Warriors lost three of their first seven games before going on to win a second consecutive title. The Orlando Magic, meanwhile, opened the year 8-4 before enduring a nine-game losing streak and eventually finishing No. 14 in the Eastern Conference.
Early-season results often lie.
Every year, the same stories ring true as quality outfits get off to slow starts while eventual lottery finishers capitalize on easier opportunities during the first few weeks. But if we dig into the numbers, narratives and expected trends, we can often figure out which hot or cold starters are bound to flip the scripts before long.
This season, it’s mostly those on the lower end of the temperature spectrum who are functioning as the league’s biggest aberrations. Only two teams with winning records seem like they’re pushing the expectations far too high with their early success, and we’re not talking about the undefeated Milwaukee Bucks (a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference) or the revamped Sacramento Kings (not a playoff lock, but emerging from the bottom-feeding tier behind De’Aaron Fox’s inspired play).
On the flip side, three squads that are falling down the standings should be expected to rise in expeditious fashion.
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No one’s taking the Detroit Pistons’ 4-2 start away from them, but it’s easy to poke holes in their remarkable early-season pace—one that puts them on a 55-win trajectory. For perspective, a 55-27 record would be the No. 5 win-loss mark in franchise history, better than even the 54-28 mark produced by the title-winning iteration in 2003-04.
On the most basic level, the four victories came against the 2-5 Brooklyn Nets, 2-4 Chicago Bulls, 4-4 Philadelphia 76ers (playing without Ben Simmons) and 1-6 Cleveland Cavaliers. The Sixers, who weren’t operating at full strength during their 133-132 overtime loss Oct. 23, are likely the only playoff squad among that bunch. Moreover, the Pistons’ victories came by a combined 13 points, whereas their first loss (to the Boston Celtics) featured a 20-point margin.
Basketball Reference’s simple rating system (SRS), which looks only at the strength of schedule and margin of victory, gives Detroit a score of minus-5.31. That leaves the Motor City at No. 23 overall and No. 11 in the Eastern Conference, sandwiched between the Orlando Magic (minus-5.18) and Washington Wizards (minus-5.52)
Sure, Blake Griffin could keep lighting up scoreboards after opening his 2018-19 campaign by averaging 27.7 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists while slashing 50.0/48.4/73.3. But offensive regression is likely, even if Andre Drummond can mitigate the ill effects by rounding back into his 2017-18 form.
Beyond the bigs, Reggie Bullock, Langston Galloway and Stanley Johnson could start shooting the ball more effectively, though they’re at least contributing in other areas. Luke Kennard, recovering from an AC joint sprain in his right shoulder that will keep him out of the lineup for at least two weeks, is the only man on the injury report. So even if everything breaks right and the guards/wings catch fire, there’s only so much higher this rotation can rise.
Detroit might have started hot, but the record from the opening salvo is a mirage. The fight to make the playoffs will be enough of an uphill battle by the time calendars are switching to 2019, even if the baseline will be slightly higher than we’ve seen thus far.
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Chris Paul has missed time while serving a suspension for his role in the fight with the Los Angeles Lakers. James Harden has watched from the sidelines with a balky hamstring, and that same muscle has kept James Ennis III out of the lineup for all but three games. Meanwhile, Eric Gordon has forgotten how to shoot, and the lack of depth has been a glaring issue during the 1-5 start.
Nothing seems to have gone right for the Rockets, but that should all normalize as the season progresses and healthy bodies begin to forge chemistry.
Of course, Houston has valid flaws.
The defense, which finished 2017-18 ranked No. 7, has taken a massive step backward. Now sitting at No. 24, it’s suffering from Trevor Ariza’s departure (by no means the only issue), Carmelo Anthony’s arrival and, perhaps most importantly, the retirement of point-preventing mastermind Jeff Bzdelik, who served as an assistant coach the last few years. Just take a gander at the progression in each of the defensive Four Factors between the two campaigns:
- Opponents’ effective field-goal percentage: 52.1 in 2017-18 (No. 13); 54.1 in 2018-19 (No. 25)
- Opponents’ turnover percentage: 13.4 in 2017-18 (No. 11); 12.6 in 2018-19 (No. 16)
- Defensive rebounding percentage: 79.9 in 2017-18 (No. 3); 76.2 in 2018-19 (No. 19)
- Opponents’ free throws per field-goal attempt: 0.171 in 2017-18 (No. 4); 0.25 in 2018-19 (No. 29)
That’s a troubling trend, but it also provides hope for an imminent turnaround.
Houston has the pieces to thrive on the defensive end. It just needs to play with discipline and effort, rather than flailing away in a vain pursuit of turnovers that leave it out of position to box out and prevent second-chance opportunities while sending more foes to the charity stripe. The team should improve as the year progresses and the system solidifies.
The Rockets have legitimate flaws, and they’ll have trouble replicating their 65-17 record from the prior go-around, which helped them topple the Golden State Warriors in the regular-season battle for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed. They’re far better than we’ve seen, though, as will become clear when the defense regresses toward a more reasonable mean and all the key pieces play together.
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As Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James said, per CBSSports.com’s Reid Forgrave, after his team dropped a close contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night: “You probably don’t want to be around when my patience runs out. I’m serious.”
Fortunately for everyone around him, that probably won’t happen.
The close losses are infuriating for a team that expected better than a 2-5 record at the start of the James era, but this is a process. Especially while boasting a roster filled with so many young players still learning how to win—some of whom haven’t been fully healthy throughout the offseason (Lonzo Ball) or have been suspended (Brandon Ingram)—the Lakers have to realize they’ll only trend upward.
Already, the Purple and Gold have been better than their record might indicate.
No doubt boosted by an 18-point victory at the expense of the Phoenix Suns, their SRS (minus-1.67) places them in the middle of the Western Conference pack, as they fall between the Oklahoma City Thunder (0.16) and Minnesota Timberwolves (minus-2.72) for the No. 10 spot in their half of the NBA. They haven’t been that bad, even if they’ve consistently struggled at the beginning of games and in the opening portions of final periods.
The offense is already chugging along, ranked No. 7 in the overall hierarchy. The defense should come around as the pieces coalesce, especially once head coach Luke Walton has the luxury of no longer shuffling bodies and instead playing an established rotation.
To that point, the league has already seen 203 unique quintets used for at least 10 minutes—an average of 6.8 per team. The Lakers have accounted for just five because they’ve been toying with different player combinations due both to a dearth of incumbent lineup options and the suspensions levied after the fight with the Houston Rockets.
Those five losses are already frustrating for a player who demands so much excellence from himself, his teammates and his organization. But they shouldn’t pile up at the same rate as the season progresses.
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Losing Andre Roberson for an indefinite period after a setback in his knee rehabilitation was a painful occurrence for an Oklahoma City Thunder squad that needs his perimeter defense. It’s not a death knell. The team still boasts the services of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams, even if they haven’t gotten off to the rip-roaring start that might have been expected.
The Thunder have already outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions when those three have shared the floor, per PBPStats.com. Right off the bat, that seems comparable to last year’s 6.6 net rating, which was a strong mark for a trio that logged a whopping 1,894 minutes together.
But the per-possession effectiveness shouldn’t be the only notable element at this stage. After all, 1,894 minutes during a full season comes out to an average of 23.1 minutes per game. This year, the results have been a little different. Since Westbrook missed time recovering from an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee, they’ve logged just 83 minutes together in the first six outings—a meager 13.8 minutes per contest.
Obviously, this number will trend up throughout the year. And as the sample size grows for the healthy triumvirate, its efficacy could, too. Westbrook will find his rhythm and continue to spearhead the offensive charge. George won’t keep slashing a disappointing 41.5/34.5/78.0. Adams might even get more involved in the pick-and-roll game.
None of these players are old enough that we should be worried about imminent declines, and it doesn’t help that the Thunder have played one of the league’s toughest schedules. Maybe they’re not true contenders in the Western Conference. Considering the depth of talent in the NBA’s tougher half, they might not even be postseason locks.
They’re still not bottom-feeders ready to make the most of a guaranteed lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft, even if Tankathon has them selecting Arkansas sophomore center Daniel Gafford at No. 12 overall.
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This is a painful selection. And considering Gregg Popovich is still pacing the sideline as the San Antonio Spurs head coach, it could easily backfire while the team makes the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season.
But while the perennial Western Conference power has seized a 4-2 record, the underlying numbers aren’t as rosy.
We could focus on the 2-4 Pythagorean record (based on points scored and allowed), the minus-3.77 SRS that leaves them between the Minnesota Timberwolves (minus-2.72) and Brooklyn Nets (minus-4.34) at No. 20 overall or the minus-3.5 net rating that ranks No. 19 despite their bottom-half strength of schedule.
If that’s not enough, maybe it’s more convincing that their victories have come against the struggling Los Angeles Lakers (twice by a combined five points with one overtime period), the tumultuous Minnesota Timberwolves (by four points) and the lottery-bound Dallas Mavericks (by five points in overtime).
DeMar DeRozan is playing inspired basketball, averaging 28.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and a career-best 8.0 assists per game while shooting 49.3 percent from the field. Rudy Gay (14.7 points on 52.1/66.7/66.7 shooting) and Bryn Forbes (14.5 points on 47.1/45.5/80.0 shooting) seem incapable of missing, picking up the proverbial slack while LaMarcus Aldridge and Marco Belinelli search for their games.
But this squad still has serious flaws—more serious than we’ve seen from any iteration over the last two decades. As covered in more detail here, the Spurs are struggling immensely on the defensive end, hemorrhaging 114.5 points per 100 possessions with a rotation that isn’t bound for much improvement. Even when Derrick White (plantar fascia) and Lonnie Walker IV (right knee) are healthy, the season-ending ACL tear suffered by Dejounte Murray might be too much to overcome.
Popovich could still work some of his magic, fostering unexpected breakouts from overlooked contributors. But at best, this feels like a team that won’t do anything more than sneak into the playoffs as first-round fodder for a true contender.
Even that, while a low bar for the Association’s model franchise, is asking a lot.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.