The Early NBA Landscape

A few early thoughts on how the NBA landscape is developing…

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*The big question coming into the year was how LeBron’s Lakers would fare. A lot of analysts looked at the extremely young cast and the quality of the West and said this would be a tough year in LA. Others—including TheSportsNotebook—believe that LeBron finds ways to make his team a legit Finals contender and the NBA finds ways to assist that endeavor. So far, the skeptics are right. Even with LeBron putting up his usual numbers, Los Angeles is playing poor defense and there are reports Magic Johnson is getting antsy in the front office.

*Of the legitimate Finals contenders, the Houston Rockets are off to the slowest start. Yes, James Harden missed a few games, but he’s still been on the floor more often than not and his team is still 4-5 going into a three-games-in-four-days run to end this week. Houston’s subpar defense is not a surprise, but the offense is also struggling. If you want something to really hone on early in the year, watch and see how big of a hole the Rockets dig. And those aforementioned three games—against the Thunder, Spurs and Pacers will be telling.

Three teams entered the season as viable challengers to win the Eastern Conference and that number should have been four. Here’s a look at the Eastern Quartet…

*The Boston Celtics aren’t in any real trouble, at 6-4, but they have yet to look the part of the championship team that many expect. This is a classic case of a team needing time to work out the kinks in their lineup. Gordon Heyward missed all of last year and Kyrie Irving was out the last couple months and the playoffs. In the meantime, the Celts are still playing the good defense they are noted for. The offensive flow problems will turn themselves around. If they’re still hovering close to .500 at the New Year, we’ll rethink it.

*Philadelphia is another team with an NBA Finals goal and early record that lurks near the middle of the pack, at 6-5. The 76ers are getting MVP-caliber play from Joel Embid down low and Ben Simmons has picked up where he left off as the versatile playmaking force that will run this team for at least a decade. Some of the early shortcomings can be attributed to cold shooting from J.J. Redick, something that will turn around. A bigger issue is whether Robert Covington and Dario Saric are a good enough supporting cast to keep pace with other contenders.

*The Toronto Raptors won the offseason, in acquiring Kawhi Leonard. The significant question was whether Kawhi could recover from the leg injuries that sidelined him, and on a more intangible level, if he was really as a big of a quitter as the normally cautious Spurs medical & coaching staff seemed to imply Clearly, Kawhi was not happy in San Antonio. Just as clearly, he’s back playing at a superstar level. Toronto is off to a hot start and a franchise noted for its postseason failures is now led by a player with an NBA Finals MVP on his resume.

*Milwaukee is the fourth team, the one that should get respect, but doesn’t. Maybe the fast start they’re off to, running neck-and-neck with Toronto atop the East, will change that. The effects of hiring Mike Budenholzer as head coach is already having an impact. The Bucks, who struggled defensively last year, are among the league’s best on that end in the early going. They still have the MVP candidate that is Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 20-ppg scorer that is Khris Middleton and the underrated Malcolm Brogdon on the wings. To that core, they added Brook Lopez for some rim protection and drafted Final Four hero Donte DiVincenzo out of Villanova.

Out West, while the Rockets and Lakers struggle, the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers are taking up the mantle of challengers to Golden State…

*Denver is playing fantastic basketball on both ends, as they showed Monday night in pulling away from the Celtics. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris are putting up numbers in the backcourt and Nikola Jokic is emerging as one of the league’s most productive post players. He scores, rebounds and even racks up assist numbers. Paul Millsap is 33-years-old and the power forward spot and will have to be paced, but he rounds out the lineup nicely. Having said all that, I’m still in wait-and-see mode on this team, particularly if the strong defense sustains itself and the depth is sufficient.

*One of the league’s truly great backcourts, Portland’s Damian Lilliard and C.J. McCollum is again racking up numbers. The Trail Blazers are again getting strong play from Jusuf Nurkic down low, as he scores and hits the boards. That alone might make Portland interesting, but it won’t make them a serious contender. What is worth watching is the emergence of Zach Collins in the low post. In his second year at age 21, the 7-footer has become a double-digit scorer off the bench. If the Blazers get another weapon in the post, they get more serious.

And finally we close it out with the team that everyone is chasing…

*Golden State is off to a good start, but even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t take any regular season struggles seriously. As long as Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are on the floor, this is the team to beat. They’ll have their dry spells—after so many consecutive years playing deep into June, you have to assume they’ll need to pace themselves somewhat. They’ve proven they don’t need homecourt advantage to win in the playoffs. They’re the Alabama Crimson Tide of the NBA—until they actually get eliminated, you assume they’re going to win it all.