Hype: Welcome Back, Nikola Jokic
Jokic is anti–East Coast bias. Exhibit A:
Exhibit B: After a two-game struggle against the Jazz and Kings to start the season (in which he shot 3-of-13—total), Jokic put up 29 points, nine rebounds, and five assists against Washington, then averaged 19 points and 13.3 rebounds in a three-game road trip on the other side of the country. The rough beginning seemed ominous for the Paul Millsap pairing; we might have thought too soon.
Concern: The Heat Are Heated
Solid chemistry is not a substitute for superstars, but Miami came close to figuring out the solution last season, when the team was superglued by collective hustle and aggression. Now, after an underwhelming 2-3 start, the re-signed roster—which seemed to spend the summer together—says that connection’s been lost.
“It’s not like we expected to have immediately that chemistry like we finished the season,” Goran Dragic said after a team meeting Sunday. James Johnson did sound hopeful, though: “That’s what this culture is about, that’s what we’re about—staring guys in the eyes, telling guys the truth and that’s how you show you really love somebody.” Couples counseling might be a worthwhile post-playing career pursuit for the big man.
The Heat have played their past four games without Hassan Whiteside, who is nursing a bruised left knee. But his return—again, on a team of non-superstars—won’t automatically carry Miami back to the squad that finished last season 30-11. Erik Spoelstra benched Dion Waiters in the final minutes of a competitive 96-90 loss against Boston on Saturday. Waiters is dealing with a recurring ankle issue, but for a player re-signed to be the closer he was last season, his start has Miami fans scrambling to find a $52 million receipt.
Oh, and how did the Sunday meeting go for Dion? Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel said media requested to speak with him that day, but were told he “already left.”
Concern: Golden State
What is to be made of the Warriors shooting 57 percent from the field at home on Sunday night only to give up a 14-point lead and lose to the Detroit Pistons?
How about two losses at Oracle Arena in four games, the same number of home L’s the team accrued in all of 2014-15 or 2015-16? (Last season’s Warriors lost five at home; this squad is on track to outpace that number by … a lot.)
Or should we focus on Golden State’s turnovers, giving away the third most (18.4) in the NBA so far?
Nuance, in this situation, is accepting their early-season falter while also acknowledging that the defending champions are still, by far, the best team in the league. (Sorry, Detroit!) Only the similarly struggling Cavaliers (who are in a worse spot right now) have played the same number of games as the Warriors have the past three years. A record number of those have been wins, but even in a win, a game is still a 48-minute grind.
The Cavaliers’ strategy for the past couple of seasons has been effectively riding on cruise control for 82 games, then hitting accelerate in the postseason. They’ve visited three consecutive Finals and won a ring, squarely on the back of LeBron James. The Warriors have chased history before. It gets tiring. I’ve got to think a squad with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant might be able to adopt the Cavs’ nonchalance without any real worry.
Concern: Lonzo Ball’s Defense
Six games and 210 minutes into his rookie season, Ball still can’t sink a shot. He has the second-worst shooting percentage of all players on pace for 300 or more attempts, though his assist average (7.7) tops all rookies, and his rebounding numbers among rookies trail only Lauri Markkanen and Ben Simmons, who both have at least 4 inches on the guard. Lonzo's been an offensive catalyst at every stop in his basketball career. He might just need more time getting up to NBA speed. More worrying is his defense.
Luke Walton yanked Ball and the rest of the starters in the third quarter of Friday’s loss to the Raptors after the lineup failed to get back in transition; in the fourth quarter, Ball and the first unit were benched again when the team went down eight with 3:42 remaining.
Obviously it's still early, and Walton is trying to instill discipline in his young team, but we can also cut Lonzo some slack. In two consecutive games, he got burned by two of the best point guards in the East in Kyle Lowry and John Wall (whom Ball arguably defended perfectly in the game’s most important moment by not guarding—or fouling—at all):
Bradley Beal wide open in the corner. John Wall worried about getting the shot against Lonzo Ball. pic.twitter.com/tzdsLpIJst— Clever Hoops (@CleverHoops) October 26, 2017
After Saturday’s 96-81 loss to Utah, Walton said that “the thing I have been most impressed with Lonzo is the way he has been playing defense,” citing his knack for swiping bigs and being “all over the glass.” Bringing up Ball’s rebounding was ill-timed, as he was held to two boards against the Jazz.
Hype: Donovan Mitchell
Speaking of Ball’s defense, a sequence of back-to-back lapses in the third quarter of Saturday’s Lakers-Jazz game made clear which rookie point guard had the upper hand. Ball was poised to grab a defensive rebound in the third when the Lakers were down just six; Donovan Mitchell thought otherwise, snagging the board, then turning the Jazz’s second chance into an all-you-can-get-up buffet:
Ball turned over the following Lakers possession (in all fairness, I, too, would be deeply shook), which resulted in Mitchell hitting a 3-pointer.
If you're wondering what Donovan Mitchell's future looks like.. this happened in 90 seconds. And 1, Dunk of the Year, 3 pointer,draws charge pic.twitter.com/FbDQtVCOSX— Dave Noriega (@davenoriega) October 29, 2017
At 32.4 percent, the Jazz rookie is shooting nearly as poorly as Ball from the field—on one fewer attempt per game and in 12 fewer minutes. (A nod to Utah’s incessant need for offense.) Mitchell’s had his first-year struggles, but his highs have been astronomical.