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Opening Arguments

Brow scores 50, Joel debuts, Myles is miles ahead, AND THE NBA IS BACK!

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Anthony Davis Is a Superhero, but He Needs Some Superfriends

Micah Peters: Remember that scene in the first Avengers movie when the Hulk punches that giant flying eel right in its grill? That was Anthony Davis against the Nuggets on Wednesday night.

Actually that’s not quite right. Remember that scene in The Matrix Reloaded, in which Agent Smith figures out how to print endless digital copies of himself and Neo has to fight off hundreds of Agent Smiths using nothing but his encyclopedic knowledge of kung fu and the “No Parking” sign he ripped from the concrete with his bare hands?

That was Anthony Davis against the Nuggets on Wednesday night.

Davis’s final stat line is, I mean, well … just look at this shit:

50 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, seven steals, four blocks.

With his Wednesday-night performance, Davis became the fourth player to put up 50 points or more in a season opener. Hakeem Olajuwon was the closest historical precedent for this nonsense, but the Brow broke away somewhere inside of five minutes left.

Of course, New Orleans still lost, 107–102, because all the Pelicans not named Anthony Davis managed 52 points on 36 percent shooting — collectively. The Hulk had the rest of the Avengers. Neo had Trinity. Dell Demps, if you’re reading this: ANTHONY DAVIS CANNOT DO THIS SHIT BY HIMSELF.

Joel Embiid, Your Life Is Calling

Chris Ryan: In his first competitive NBA game, a 103–97 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday night, Joel Embiid scored 20 points and grabbed seven boards in just 22 minutes. He dribbled too much on offense, tried a few too many Dream Shakes, and seemed confused in defensive situations away from the basket. But he played like he knew he was the guy. He drove Steven Adams crazy whenever they were matched up together, and almost got Adams fouled out of the game.

But you want to know what Joel Embiid did with his two summers of vacation? He didn’t just rehabilitate his foot or develop a 3-pointer (1-of-3 Wednesday night!). He developed a persona. For the most part, it’s an affable, phone-camera-friendly character who is dying to be streamed and memed.

But something funny happened while Embiid was getting healthy. The Sixers never filled the empty job of savior. Lucky for them, Joel Embiid also worked on becoming “Joel Embiid,” the Sixers’ franchise player (“I’m the process,” Embiid told Lee Jenkins for his Sports Illustrated profile), the guy whom they can throw the ball to in the last few minutes when they need a bucket. He is a player the crowd can chant “M-V-P” about, and only kind of sort of be joking.

May all of our rehabs be this successful.

Are We Sure He Wasn’t Talking to Kyle Singler?

Just checking!

Do You Know Who You Are?

Jason Concepcion: One game into the NBA season, and I am prepared to make the following irresponsible proclamations about the Hornets and the Bucks:

  • The Hornets are who they were last season. They’re an exceptionally well-coached team of guys who, on an elite team, would be role players and lower-rung bench denizens. Their best player is Kemba Walker, who should be their third-best guy. The Hornets were in the top 10 for in offensive and defensive rating last season, and were the sixth seed in the playoffs. Barring injuries or a devastating zombie invasion, that’s what they will be this season.
  • The Bucks have no identity and no discernable path to developing one besides brute repetition and time. This is not a surprise. Milwaukee has seven new players and a bunch of pieces that don’t quite fit. Khris Middleton, their most reliable 3-point shooter, is out recovering from surgery to repair a torn hamstring. Six-foot-11 Gyro Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t shoot outside 3 feet and is the Bucks’ best option at point guard. Greg Monroe provides needed scoring and creativity, but couldn’t guard a lamp post. Jabari Parker has shown flashes, but is still working out the kinks.
  • Twenty-three-year-old Bucks rookie Malcolm Brogdon, the 36th pick in the 2016 draft, is maybe better than Matthew Dellavedova.

The last bit was the most interesting thing about this game not counting Mike Beasley’s hair (more on this later).

The Hornets led from the tip to the horn, winning 107–96, and looked very much like a team with an established, stable core playing against a group mostly made up of guys who had just met each other. On defense, Charlotte was unafraid of the Bucks’ deep shooting, using Roy Hibbert or Cody Zeller to build a wall around the paint. They just waited for Giannis or Henson or Jabari to run smack into the battlements. The Bucks shot 19 percent from beyond the arc.

In the second quarter, with the Hornets up 46–37, Bucks swingman Mirza Teletovic (six points, 25 percent from the floor, 0-for-5 on 3s) took a contested 30-footer with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. The Bucks announcers were basically like, “Well, he has to take that shot.” They’re weren’t wrong.

The bright spot for the Bucks, besides Giannis (31 points, nine rebounds, five assists) was Brogdon; he seems to know exactly what he can and can’t do. Brogdon made simple, incisive passes, took good shots, and played defense. In the third quarter, after yet another Hornets layup, he huddled up the team and exhorted them to try harder. Not bad for the 36th pick in the draft.

Say No More

Concepcion: Shout-out to one of my best dudes, Mike Beasley, on getting his hair done up into the physical embodiment of every “say no more” barber joke.

BEAS: Give me the relaxed scrotum.
BARBER: Say no more.

BEAS: Give me the irrigation canal.
BARBER: Say no more.

BEAS: Give me the Nazca lines.
BARBER: Say no more.

BEAS: Give me the Mississippi River Delta.
BARBER: Say no more.

BEAS: Give me the brain.
BARBER: Say no more.

BEAS: Give me the Westworld scalp map.
BARBER: You mean the “follow the Blood Arroyo to the place where the snake lays its eggs”?
BEAS: Yeah.
BARBER: Say no more.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Shea Serrano: In the 2014–15 season, the Rockets were mostly league darlings. James Harden was a legit MVP candidate (he lost the award to Steph, but he won the award that the players vote on, the NBPA Players Awards MVP); Dwight Howard had not yet Dwight Howarded all over everyone; the team fury-fought its way back from a 3–1 deficit in the second round of the playoffs against a more talented Clippers team to advance to the conference finals, a thing they’d not done in nearly two decades. It was great. It was so much fun to watch (even if you were only watching them to root against them, which I absolutely was).

But then 2015–16 happened. And it was just a very big poo-poo.

These are headlines from some of the stories written about the team last year:

It was not that good of a year. It was listless, loveless basketball. But let me tell you a thing, and maybe you knew this but maybe you didn’t: This year is not last year. Dwight Howard is gone. The Rockets have a new coach — a coach with a history of revolutionizing positions and roles and revitalizing players. Dwight Howard is gone. And Dwight Howard is gone. And Dwight Howard is gone.

By the end of the first half of the first game of this season, against the Lakers, James Harden had more assists (14) than he had in all but five games last year. He finished with 17 assists and 34 points, which, let me tell you another thing: That’s pretty fucking good.

The Rockets offense turned into a bunch of quarters in a dryer at the end of the game, just sort of clanking around and doing a lot of nothing, and it was bad, and they lost, 120–114, but it didn’t feel miserable, or depressing, or frustrating, so that’s good. I was watching, watching, watching; waiting for the seams to show; waiting for Harden to roll his eyes or his team to roll over. But he didn’t, and they didn’t. I don’t know if they’re going to hate playing basketball with each other again. But even not knowing that is a pretty big improvement over last year.

Grizzlies of the New Arc

Jonathan Tjarks: After falling behind by 17 to the Wolves in the first quarter, the Grizzlies got back in the game with 3s from Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Most of the band is still there in Memphis, but they are trying to play a different tune under new coach David Fizdale. It’s pace and space instead of Grit ’n’ Grind for the Grizzlies, who attempted 24 3-pointers and looked to push the ball at almost every opportunity in a 102–98 victory. When he was hired, Fizdale told Gasol to play more like Chris Bosh, and Gasol took as many 3s on Wednesday as he did all of last season.

It’s a big change for Gasol and Randolph, who have spent the past seven seasons taking turns operating out of the elbows and bludgeoning smaller defenders in the post. The key will be finding a balance between adapting to the changing style of play in the NBA and not losing what made them great in the first place. When the team hits a rough patch, will it respond by returning to what it knows best? The Grizzlies started every season under Dave Joerger talking about spreading the floor and playing faster before finishing as one of the worst teams in the league in both pace and 3-pointers attempted. The NBA’s last dinosaurs are still learning how to evolve.

New Uniform, Same Old Al Horford

Kevin O’Connor: Maybe it’s best to understand Al Horford as Tim Duncan Lite, a player who can fill the stat sheet, but whose numbers don’t exactly capture his total impact. In his Celtics debut, the $113 million man tallied 11 points, six assists, five rebounds, and four blocks in 27 minutes in a 122–117 win over the Nets. “He’s just the same old Al doing the same old stuff,” said Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, who coached Horford for four years in Atlanta.

You have to look beyond the box score to understand Horford’s impact. For seven straight seasons, Horford’s Hawks outscored opponents by more points per possession with him on the floor than they did without him. On Wednesday, in his first competitive game with the Celtics, it wasn’t a surprise he led with a plus-21.4 net rating. This, after all, is Same Old Al, creating that effect with smart defensive rotations, communication, box outs, and screens. All the little things that often go unnoticed. And he isn’t dull. He makes plays like this:

More and more bigs entering the NBA have 3-point range, but not all of them can penetrate a scrambling defense and pass on the move with the accuracy of a professional dart thrower. So far, Horford has enhanced his Celtics teammates in the same old way he did for nine years in Atlanta.

‘Harrison Barnes,’ a Film by M. Night Shyamalan

Jason Gallagher: Every time I watch an M. Night Shyamalan film, there’s a hint of hope deep within my cerebral cortex that maybe … just maybe, he’ll give me something good. It seems ridiculous given the towering losing streak he’s been on.

But damn. Remember how good he used to be?

Shyamalan is a genius. I have to see all of his movies now.

Swing and a miss. It’s fine. Remember those bangers from before? The next one will be great for sure.

I’m worried about M. Night.

Oh god.

And here we are. Rock bottom.

Harrison Barnes played basketball on Wednesday night, and expectations were Shyamalan-low. But Barnes did something. He didn’t suck. He entertained that glimmer of hope and put up 19 points on 8–14 shooting with nine rebounds to boot. He also hit the game-tying 3 that sent Dallas’s opener against the Pacers into OT. The Mavs wasted his heroism in a 130–121 loss because they didn’t account for Myles Turner turning into a hulk.

Nevertheless, Barnes made progress and I found myself thinking, “You know what. This isn’t terrible.”

Myles Ahead

Danny Chau: If the first Wednesday-night slate of the season has showed us anything, it’s that we all nailed our summertime trend pieces about the next era of big men. This is the Year of the Unicorn, and a unicorn is exactly what Indiana has now in Myles Turner, who had the best game of his career on Pacers opening night, racking up 30 points (13-of-19 shooting, and 1-of-2 from behind the arc), 16 rebounds, four blocks, and two steals in about 37 and a half minutes. This side of Kevin Durant and Kristaps Porzingis, there might not be a player his height with as quick a release on his shot.

Turner, standing 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, plays at center, flanked by Paul George and Thaddeus Young at small forward and power forward. The Pacers, in effect, have three power forwards in their starting lineup with maximum screen-switching potential, and complementary skill sets. George is as classic a wing as you’ll find in the league, but his physique means he won’t get punished easily if he’s matched onto a burlier opponent; Myles’s ability to operate in the high post gives Young the room inside to do what he is elite at, which is getting easy baskets around the rim on cuts; Young’s adroitness in defending the pick-and-roll means Turner can be the mobile rim protector nature intended him to be. It also means the Pacers can roll with Jeff Teague and Monta Ellis, two players generously listed at 6-foot-3 or shorter, in the backcourt without too much fear of repercussion.

We see modern roster construction as a puzzle, as a gradual process of gathering and identifying with a fixed endgame. We’re supposed to know what a good team is going to look like when it’s done. But when you have an omnitalented player like that, it doesn’t really matter if pieces don’t fit in a traditional sense — they become the super glue that allows teams to create unconventional designs. Turner doesn’t have the same amount of notoriety as players like Karl-Anthony Towns, Davis, or Embiid, but let’s add him to the short list.

The Eternal Flame

Ben Detrick: Even after LeBron James left Miami, the Heat kept the menacing snarl of a champion. They were like a wounded alpha dog, hobbled but not defanged. With Dwyane Wade having his own homecoming in Chicago, Chris Bosh sidelined with health problems, and role players strewn throughout the league, the Heat are all but unrecognizable — except for Udonis Haslem, who seems like he’s been in Miami since Jeff Van Gundy was clinging to Alonzo Mourning’s calf.

On Wednesday, the new-look Heat debuted against the similarly new-look Orlando Magic and cruised to a 12-point win, 108–96, on the strength of a dominating 30–16 third quarter. It was not a statement game; both teams are in the thick part of the Eastern Conference, neither contenders nor dingy bottom-dwellers. Still, Goran Dragic, a bit stifled last season, looked more like the point guard who won Most Improved Player in 2014 — in the fourth frame, he froze a defender with a behind-the-back move in transition before finding Willie Reed for a lob.

Justise Winslow and Tyler Johnson each scored 15, offering evidence that it’s possible to restock the talent reservoir without humiliation.

But this is Hassan Whiteside’s team. It’s an odd title for a player who moves with such ambivalent languidity. He casually plucked 14 rebounds from the sky, swatted four shots as if shooing away gnats, and took a couple of jumpers because he kinda felt like it. The Heat thrived in the paint, muscling the ball into the gullet of the defense and letting Whiteside clean up the mess.

It was unfamiliar and, finally, felt like the turning of a page.

Ish Happens

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Something felt off during Detroit’s season opener at Toronto. It wasn’t Beno Udrih’s hair, which, by the way, has evolved, from “my mom cut this,” to sixth Backstreet Boy, to off-the-deep-end Biebs.

It wasn’t Drake’s “For Free” playing in warm-ups. And it wasn’t even Aron Baynes’s Bane face mask, which wasn’t that off-putting.

It was the 6-foot, 175-pound character taking the ball down the court for the Pistons. Ish Smith, picked up in the offseason for a very cheap three-year, $18 million contract, was supposed to be padding for the NBA’s worst bench. Instead, he’s the Detroit starter until Reggie Jackson can recuperate from tendinitis in his left knee. This should’ve been a dream matchup for Kyle Lowry, whose sturdiness can allow him to body past guards like Smith easily. But Lowry finished with a dismal 10 points on 23 percent shooting, and it was his teammates Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan who lit up Air Canada Centre en route to a 109–91 win.

The duo went 13-for-13 in free throws before the Pistons even made it to the line. DeRozan had 40 points by the end of the third, all without hitting a single 3-pointer. Valanciunas supplied a double-double, finishing with 32 points and 11 rebounds.

And, after outright elbowing Andre Drummond in the face, then proceeding to dunk the nastiest of dunks, he’s also leading the league in blatant disrespect.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly included a YouTube video of Goran Dragic highlights from a game against the Orlando Magic last season.