The Knicks are, somehow, 5-4 through their first nine games. Almost everyone who follows the NBA outside of some diehard Knicks fans thought they would be one of the worst teams in the league this season (myself included). They are led by Kristaps Porzingis, who seemingly made a leap from “very good prospect and above average player” to “NBA superstar” in the course of one summer. Staps looks way better on defense than he has in years prior, and is truly making his presence felt around the rim. More significantly, he appears unstoppable on the offensive end: hitting threes, taking slower players off the dribble, draining turnaround jumpers, and slamming putbacks on offensive rebounds. However, the Knicks are winning games with more than just Porzingis’ greatness. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee are providing competent two-way play on the wings, and the duo of Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn are equally solid at center. The only missing link is at point guard, where the veteran combo of Ramon Sessions and Jarrett Jack have (predictably) struggled horribly to start the season. Rookie Frank Ntilikina will be starting sooner than later at that position, and even though his offense is a bit of a question mark, his defense along should make him an upgrade over the older players. The Knicks probably won’t be above .500 all season, but they sure don’t look like much of a pushover either.
The Cavs might be a miserable mess right now, but the King is not relinquishing his crown anytime soon. LeBron remains the NBA’s best player until further notice—just ask the Wizards, who saw James drop 57 on them casually a few nights ago. James is scoring more points per game than he has in eight seasons, an incredible stat considering he’s almost 33 years old and has played more minutes than any other player in that time frame. He’s doing that while also shooting his best percentage from the field in his entire career (60.5%), as well as averaging his highest ever mark in assists per game (9.7). It’s true that he doesn’t try much on defense anymore, but considering what he’s being asked to do on the offensive end… can you blame him? His outside shooting continues to be streaky, and he is getting to the free throw line far less than he used to. It doesn’t really matter. LeBron is still the scariest player to face on a game-in, game-out basis, and is the only reason the Cavs endure as the Eastern Conference champion favorite. He’s the second-best wing player of all time, and is somehow nearly as good as ever. That’s just insane.
Khris Middleton’s Shooting:
Despite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ascension to MVP-level player this season, the Bucks are a below .500 team nine games into the season (4-5). Perhaps the main reason for that is that Khris Middleton, their number two man behind the Greek Freak, has had a tremendous struggle shooting the basketball thus far. He’s hitting on just 41.8% of his field goal attempts, and a miserable 26.7% from three-point land. Both of those numbers would be by far career lows, and promise to correct themselves over time. He has a track record of being a fine outside shooter, and his excellent free throw shooting (88.6%) bodes well for a positive regression shooting-wise. Middleton is playing well in other facets of the game (rebounding, playmaking, defense), but his outside shooting returning to career norms is most important for the Bucks to get their offense back on track. Until that happens, however, the Bucks are going to struggle.
The season started with a bang for the Bulls when forward Bobby Portis broke the face of fellow Bull Nikola Mirotic with one punch. That has set the tone for a 2-6 start where the Bulls have looked (far) worse than their record. They are almost certainly the ugliest team to watch in the NBA, bringing no playmaking, flash, or even competency on the offensive end. Justin Holiday leads their team in shot attempts!! Justin Holiday is a fine NBA player, but a leading offensive option he is not. Ditto for Robin Lopez, who is second on the team in attempts, and is probably their best overall player. Only four of the Bulls’ 11 rotation players are shooting above 40% from the field: Lopez, rookie Lauri Markkanen, Cristiano Felicio, and David Nwaba (who is going to miss 2-4 weeks). That is positively atrocious. The Bulls have by far the worst point guard depth chart in the NBA, and can barely even get into offensive sets, much less generate open shots. They are just brutal to watch, and while their defense is actually quite good, they aren’t going to win many games with an offense this bad. Zach LaVine should help a bit when he returns, at least in terms of watchability, but he isn’t nearly good enough to carry this team to respectability. The Bulls probably won’t win 15 games, and it’s possible they don’t even get to 10.
While the Bulls are certainly the most painful team in the NBA, the Mavericks have the worst record in the league so far at 1-10. I thought they would finally be bad this season, but had no idea they would be this bad. Dirk Nowitzki has, finally, fallen off. He’s struggling to hit double digits in scoring, and he is shooting under 40% from the field. That isn’t even taking into account his statue-esque level of mobility. Wes Matthews has never quite recovered from that torn Achilles several seasons ago, and is essentially a replacement level NBA player at this point (outside of strong three-point shooting). After a breakout season last year, Harrison Barnes has taken a step back, and has been unable to hit from outside. He might improve on his current numbers, though even at his best last year was nowhere near good enough to carry a team. The hope for the Mavericks was in strong play for their youngsters, but that hasn’t happened so far. Nerlens Noel is clearly the Mavs’ best big man, yet is only getting 18.1 minutes per game, possibly due to the bitterness engendered in his contract negotiations this summer. If the Mavs really wanted to win, he should be playing 30+ minutes a night, despite his flaws on offense. Rookie point guard Dennis Smith has received minutes, he just hasn’t played well in them. He’s been suffering through some minor injuries to start the season, so there’s definitely a chance that his numbers will improve substantially as the season will go along. That probably won’t be enough to drag the Mavs anywhere close to the playoffs. Most of their rotation is old and mediocre, and there doesn’t appear to be much that Coach Rick Carlisle can do to change that. I would expect a firesale of useful veterans (Matthews, Devin Harris, JJ Barea) in the coming weeks, barring an unexpected turnaround in the Mavs’ fortunes.