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The Suns Are a Mess, Lonzo Is Ballin’, and Other Takeaways From the First Six Days of the 2017–18 NBA Season

Way-too-early analyses and observations on the league’s biggest story lines so far

A collage of Blake Griffin, Lonzo Ball, and Eric Bledsoe Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is back! And if you’re like me, you’re in the process of recovering from six days of basketball binge-watching. Only 40 games are officially in the books, but there’s already too much to talk about. Below is a look at some of the biggest story lines and takeaways beginning to emerge, as well as a very important bonus investigation.

The Falling Suns

The Suns gave up 386 points in three games to start off the season, and five players have already dropped at least 20 points on them: Blake Griffin (29), Lonzo Ball (29), Damian Lillard (27), Brandon Ingram (25), and Pat Connaughton (24). In only three freaking games! This team has been pathetic, and on Sunday afternoon, team owner Robert Sarver took action to try to correct it by firing head coach Earl Watson. Jay Triano, the former Raptors head man, will take over in the interim, according to ESPN. Sarver’s decision is absolutely the right call. Watson, in theory, has good ideas about how to build team culture, but the 38-year-old with about four years of coaching experience is not ready to be an NBA head coach.

Watson’s game management, lineup choices, and X’s and O’s are subpar, especially for a young team that needs to learn how to play the game, not just how to grow as people. Watson is a good man, but a change had to be made to help foster player development.

It’s not as if general manager Ryan McDonough is without fault. The organization has been in disarray ever since the summer of 2014. Isaiah Thomas, signed after that surprising 48-win campaign, blossomed into a star elsewhere. Goran Dragic is excelling with Miami. Eric Bledsoe, the only one left from Phoenix’s short-lived too-many-cooks era, tweeted Sunday: “I Dont wanna be here.”

The Suns also had an opportunity to trade Bledsoe, Josh Jackson, and perhaps others to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving, according to multiple reports, but passed on the opportunity in favor of maintaining the youth movement. It remains to be seen if not making the deal for Irving was a mistake, but the Jackson experiment isn’t off to a good start. In the fourth quarter of the Suns’ 42-point loss on Saturday, Jackson pointed in the direction of fans, appeared to make several trigger-pulling motions, and yelled “Fuck you.” Irving had his own moment with a fan recently that cost him $25,000, but at least he’s producing on the court. Jackson was a terrific college defender, but thus far he has adopted his teammates’ lazy approach.

Sheesh. There was little-to-no communication between Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler on the pick-and-roll, then Jackson didn’t rotate despite looking at Lonzo the entire time. Here’s another shameful moment, this time from Chandler and Alex Len:

To top it off, here’s rookie forward Alec Peters in what is a perfect visual representation of their entire team:

Peters flops. Everyone else stands and watches. Montrezl Harrell gets an easy look, putback dunks his own miss, swings on the rim, then stares Peters down.

Being an NBA general manager is no easy task. But if the Watson dismissal doesn’t fix anything, Sarver could look at McDonough’s swings and misses and the lack of player development and decide to make a drastic change to the front office. The odd thing is that McDonough has assembled some good, young talent. Jackson, Dragan Bender, and Marquese Chriss could all be very good players in the future. Devin Booker already looks like an offensive star. T.J. Warren, Davon Reed, and Tyler Ulis also offer hope for the future. McDonough might’ve blown some trades and signings, but his drafting has been relatively solid, even if the results haven’t shown yet.

It’s only Game 3, but the Suns’ season is already over. It looks like the team knows it, too. Watson is gone. McDonough could be next. It’s too bad Sarver can’t fire himself, because organizational issues start at the top.

Let Lonzo Be Lonzo

The Lakers lost to the Clippers 108-92 in their season opener. Lonzo Ball scored only three points on six shots, and tallied only four assists to two turnovers. Here’s a sampling of some of the headlines the day after:

The Washington Post: “Patrick Beverley Made Sure Lonzo Ball Didn’t Live Up to His Father’s Hype”

GQ: “Lonzo Ball Got Locked Up by Patrick Beverley, Who Talked All the Trash”

USA Today: “Lakers’ Lonzo Ball Gets Rude ‘Welcome’ to the NBA From Clippers’ Patrick Beverley”

Sports Illustrated: “Patrick Beverley Shuts Down Lonzo Ball in NBA Debut”

“I told him due to all the riffraff his dad brings, he’s gonna get a lot of people coming at him and he has to be ready for that,” Beverley said after the game. “He has to perform on a stage like this every night. It’s not only going to be me. It’s going to be a lot of people trying to go at his head.” Beverley certainly did set the tone with this push.

Many were already labeling Ball a bust. But the tape shows a different story than what some might be saying. I went back and watched every single one of Ball’s possessions against Beverley. Here’s a one-minute sampling:

Beverley pickpocketed Ball once, and Lonzo missed two open shots (a layup and a pull-up 3). Other than that, the rookie got where he wanted. Ball did a good job of using angles and changing directions, then delivering accurate passes. Despite running very few pick-and-rolls at UCLA, Ball already looks adept in the ball screen at the NBA level. His savvy play didn’t always show up in the assist column because his teammates didn’t make the shot, or they were fouled. But anybody watching the film will see that, if anything, Ball’s night was encouraging considering his opponent was an All-NBA defender out for blood.

LaVar put a target on Lonzo’s back, but the extra attention the 19-year-old receives may ultimately be the best thing for his development. Being challenged by people better than you is how you improve faster, no matter what you do in life. In fact, Lonzo himself used to play against eighth graders when he was in elementary school to challenge himself. “My boys have been playing like this since they were little,” LaVar told The Ringer’s Danny Chau in 2016.

Beverley didn’t “shut down” or “lock up” Ball in the season opener. Even if he did, the important thing is that Lonzo battled back. After Beverley stole the ball, Ball crossed him over the next time up the court and drew a foul. In Ball’s second game (against the aforementioned porous Suns defense), he had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists. On Sunday against the Pelicans, Lonzo finished with eight points, 13 assists, and eight rebounds.

The easy response will be that Ball can’t score against Beverley, only against bad teams like Phoenix. But the truth is Ball had good and bad moments in each game, and it will likely continue that way (as it does for most rookies).

There are better questions we should be asking about the rookie guard moving forward. The three big ones I have are: Can he shoot the 3? (Ball is shooting just 25.4 percent on 67 attempts from 3, including the summer league, preseason, and the regular season.) Can he score inside? (Ball’s shooting only 41.2 percent on shots within five feet and has been blocked six times in that area of the court.) And can he create space without a screen? (His handle needs to get tighter, and his first step needs to get quicker to be able to counter bigger defenders in future isolation opportunities.)

Long Live Stretch-Blake

Blake Griffin has always flirted with shooting 3s. He attempted 44 in 2013–14 and has taken no fewer than 16 a season over his first seven in the league. Meanwhile, his dunk rate plummeted as he began shooting more and more jumpers from midrange. The plan this season, it appears, is to eliminate those long 2s and instead have Griffin shoot 3-pointers. So far, it’s working.

Of the 26 3-point attempts Griffin has hoisted in the regular season and preseason, he is connecting on 50 percent of them. By comparison, he has attempted only 10 midrange jumpers from 16 feet or deeper in that same span. The Clippers now have Griffin spotting up in the corner and on the wing, areas of the floor he used sparingly in past seasons. He’s also now pick-and-popping behind the 3-point line, rather than settling for the midrange look.

Griffin shooting 3s also means his defenders need to extend an extra step or two to contest. As you can see in the clip above, sometimes they’re reluctant to even do that. But if Griffin proves himself from downtown, defenders will need to extend out to guard him, thus creating new lanes to work with.

It’s a trip watching Griffin dribble. It looks like he’s moving in slow motion. But he’s effective. There are few true big men that handle or pass the ball as well as he does. That means if he’s attacking closeouts from the 3-point line, he’s either getting to the bucket (where he’s an excellent finisher), or he’s drawing a foul, or he’s kicking it out to open teammates.

It’d be nice to see Griffin get out of the habit of pump-faking before driving, but isolations and post-ups are programmed into his DNA. It’s not such a bad thing for the Clippers to still feed Griffin in the post since he’s turned into such an efficient playmaker. But they can perhaps use him more on the wing, considering he’s made two step-back 3s already this season.

This is not the Blake we’ve come to know. But as long as he stays healthy, this new version could be the best version. He isn’t the dunk machine he once was, but give credit where credit is due: Blake has turned himself into a complete player.

Woe-rriors

The Warriors fell to 1-2 on the season on Saturday after losing 111-101 to the Grizzlies. Stephen Curry was ejected for throwing his mouthpiece in the direction of official Scott Wall. Kevin Durant was then ejected for shouting at Wall. Are the wheels falling off the Warriors wagon? Should Steve Kerr be on the hot seat? Is their season in jeopardy? Should the Warriors blow it up?

Don’t be so concerned. The Warriors aren’t. “In the locker room, the team was still cracking jokes and keeping the atmosphere upbeat,” ESPN’s Chris Haynes wrote after Saturday’s game. “This team isn’t in panic mode yet.”

The Warriors probably aren’t fretting because they’re still in preseason mode. Training camp was shortened this year in order to move up the regular season one whole week, which means real practice time has been limited. Every team in the league is behind schedule, but the extra time to develop chemistry with a few new players is especially important for one like Golden State, which relies heavily on crisp actions, timing, and ball movement. “We’re just not ready,” Kerr said on Friday. “We’re basically still in training camp.”

Even juggernauts need time to jell.

To 3 or Not to 3

Three-point shooting is on the rise once again across the league. Through Sunday, teams have attempted 32.5 percent of their shots from 3, up from 31.6 last season. Over half of Houston’s shots are 3s, while the Raptors have increased their 3-point attempt rate by 13.6 percentage points. Cleveland is going in reverse. The Cavs attempted 39.9 percent of their shots from 3-point range last season, which ranked second in the NBA behind only the Rockets. In three games this season, that number is 29.2 percent, which ranks 21st. A difference of 10.7 percentage points is the largest drop of any team.

Their personnel changes are to blame. Dwyane Wade is starting over J.R. Smith. Rather than just spotting up in the corner or wing, Kevin Love is playing more on the interior after a starting lineup shift to center. They went from Kyrie Irving to Derrick Rose (and now to Jose Calderon after Rose’s sprained left ankle). Kyle Korver and Channing Frye have seen their minutes slashed, while inferior shooters (yet better overall players) like Jae Crowder and Jeff Green have taken larger roles. The Cavs simply lack long-range threats to excel from downtown.

The decision to start Wade over Smith is emblematic of their changing ways. Smith excelled the past three seasons as a 3-and-D-style role player alongside LeBron James. Smith has shot 39.1 percent on 1,503 3s (regular season and playoffs) since being acquired by Cleveland, but he’s struggled to find a rhythm off the bench, missing 11 of 13 triples so far. Wade has been equally disastrous as a starter, missing 18 of his first 25 shots. After the Cavs got smoked, 114-93, by the Magic on Saturday, Wade said he’s used to being a “rhythm player” as the no. 1 or no. 2 option, and has had trouble finding his role with his third franchise.

Tyronn Lue has yet to figure out rotations. The team lacks chemistry. The Dubs need more practice time, and so do the Cavaliers. But it’s different for Cleveland. Even if Isaiah Thomas returns, stays healthy, and is at least 80 percent of what he was last season, the Cavs still lack the personnel to rain 3s. They’re going to have to find another way to maintain their elite offensive production if their defense doesn’t step up, and so far, it hasn’t. No one on their roster can shut down the perimeter. Love is being exposed playing center close to full-time. LeBron can’t be asked to do everything. It’s on Lue to figure out how to maximize the roster that he’s been given, but it won’t be easy based on the flawed personnel he’s been given.

Andre Drummond Is Now Hitting Free Throws

After five seasons of struggling from the free throw line, Drummond is finally showing progress. The Pistons center has thus far made all six of his free throws through six games, and is shooting 84.6 percent from the line on 26 attempts in the month of October, if you include the preseason. It’s hard to know for sure if this is an extreme outlier, or if it’s the new Drummond. One good sign is that the 24-year-old has clearly changed his shooting form. In this clip, the successful free throw is from this month, while the miss is from last season:

In the new form, Drummond’s right toe is now all the way up to the line. Then he bends over like the Mocking SpongeBob meme. He keeps his arms elongated out in front, and even as he brings the ball up, it always stays in front of his head. In past seasons, Drummond had a slight pause in his shot as he brought it back toward his forehead. The changes are subtle, but his form was never awful to begin with—just the percentages. Hopefully, a few small tweaks will finally have a big effect.

Did the Spurs Find Another Late-Round Gem?

Dejounte Murray is a physical specimen: 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and the quickness and agility of a honey badger. But Murray was a porous defender as a freshman at Washington. These were some of my scouting notes in my 2016 NBA Draft Guide: dies defending screens, lacks fundamentals, lacks efforts, unaware off-ball, loses his man, even lesser players beat him. I was a bit surprised when the Spurs drafted him 29th overall that year, but I should have known better. If any team can turn Murray into a real player, it’s San Antonio.

With Tony Parker out until midseason, Murray is starting over Patty Mills. He’s doing a fine job offensively, but on defense he’s turned into somewhat of a savant. Murray is flying around, staying engaged, and fighting over screens. It’s like watching a totally different player.

You might be wondering how a guy like this lasts until the end of the draft’s first round. But in another situation, Murray might still be the lazy defender he was in college who screamed potential but never lived up to it. Teams are often just as important a part of a player’s success as the player themselves. Murray looks to be a good example of this reality.

De’Aaron Ball Z

On Saturday morning, Reddit user chorcpe11 posted a clip of De’Aaron Fox, a noted Dragon Ball Z fan, yelling “Kameha!” after hitting the first 3-pointer of his NBA career. Despite the error (the correct term is “Kamehameha”), it was beautiful. This is my dream. This is Chris Vernon’s nightmare. But Fox later said on Twitter the video was edited.

I was truly shaken to the core. Why would someone do such a thing? Lonzo Ball released a song on Friday night called “Super Saiyan.” It was only appropriate that Fox have his moment, too. But I have no life, so I pulled up the video from both broadcasts. Here’s the game film from Dallas and Sacramento, unedited:

You can clearly hear someone yelling “Kameha.” It might not have been Fox. (I doubt Fox would make such an egregious mistake as saying “Kameha” instead of “Kamehameha” anyway.) But someone yelled it! A fan? A coach? Another player? Dirk from the bench? Who knows. But someone did.

Regardless, let’s make this a thing wherever Fox plays—except, next time, let’s get it right. Fox’s favorite DBZ character is Vegeta (who is now head coach of Oklahoma City), so it would be more appropriate to yell out Vegeta’s signature attacks, such as “Final flash!” (which is used at the end of the video above) or “Galick gun!”