The NBA has taught us a lot in just 17 days. The Ringer’s own NBA team explains the biggest epiphanies and most surprising lessons we’ve learned thus far.
Ben Simmons Is Better Than We Ever Hoped
Bill Simmons: Believe me, I’m treading carefully since it’s been only 17 days, he can’t really shoot, we don’t know if Simmons can play 35 straight games (much less 82)—and by the way, I’ve been waiting for an NBA All-Star named “Simmons” for my entire freaking life. But Young BS passed three We-Might-Have-A-Gem checkpoints already …
1. Does his game make way more sense in the pros than college? (Absolutely.)
2. Is he one of those feed-off-everyone-else playmakers who becomes noticeably better with better teammates who understand what he’s doing? (Good God, yes.)
3. Could you call him either a unicorn or an evolutionary version of someone who already worked? (Hell yes: He’s young Lamar Odom, but better.)
I know, I know: Odom probably goes down as the sixth man on the all-time Woulda Coulda Shoulda team. He never realized his potential on the Clippers or Heat, had substance use issues, became marginalized during Kobe’s three-year Tony Montana/“Look at me now!” shooting barrage, belatedly evolved into a crucial piece for three Finals teams, and peaked during the 2010 World Championships (remember that?). And then everything fell apart (and then some).
And yet, I loved him on those enchantingly young Clips teams—the first-ever Young Princes of League Pass—when Odom occasionally thrived as an unselfish, unconventional, inventive and surprisingly long creator. He corralled rebounds in traffic, took off Magic-style, went coast to coast and made everyone go, “Whoooooooooooa!” Whenever you checked box scores and saw Odom threw up 23, 11 and 10, you didn’t blink. There’s a reason Lamar Odom always went three rounds too early in every fantasy draft. We waited. We waited. We kept waiting.
That was the curse of Lamar. Simmons is blessed with a better foundation, fewer demons and one blessing that Odom never had: From day one, his team told Simmons, “It’s your ball.” The Clippers never imagined 6-foot-10 Lamar running the show because the 2000s NBA didn’t imagine anything that way, and besides, they were the Clippers. Of course they were fucking that up. I don’t believe Simmons could run the half-court offense of a real contender anytime soon; not when his jump shot makes Young Rondo look like Young Steph. But it also doesn’t matter, just like it never mattered two years ago when Jason Kidd unleashed Giannis.
It’s a simple concept: We’re not going anywhere, anyway. Put the ball in the young dude’s hands, give him reps and good things will happen eventually. Lamar Odom was special and never got there. Ben Simmons is special and absolutely might get there. He’s better than I thought. He’s breathtaking, actually. (And if he ever learns to shoot … Jesus.)
Kyrie Irving Is Too Woke for TV
Jason Concepcion: Here’s a revelation: Kyrie Irving just wants to open your mind. He wants to start a conversation. That’s all. He just wants to cross up your ignorance and break its stupid, unquestioning ankles. Is that so bad? Is that so wrong? To ask questions? Like, OK, for instance, who filmed the Apollo 11 moon lander taking off from the moon? You know what I’m saying? Kyrie Irving does.
Actually, maybe he doesn’t. After all, isn’t the true measure of greatness knowing what things you don’t know? I don’t know; I’m just asking the question. “What’s his name? Was it Neil Armstrong? I don’t even know,” Kyrie said recently on a podcast while talking about how Neil what’s-his-name probably never went to the moon. I mean, did he? I’m just asking.
Hey, remember when Kyrie Irving said the earth was flat? Then he kind of took it back, saying he was just joking? I’m just asking? Like did that actually happen? I’m just trying to have a conversation about this.
Lauri Markkanen Is Good
Kevin O’Connor: I gave the Bulls an “F+” after drafting Lauri Markkanen, and a lot of readers have been messaging me about it all season. I have a confession. Here it goes: Lauri has been absolutely terrific. If it weren’t for Ben Simmons, Markkanen would be the Rookie of the Year so far. Everyone knew Lauri could stroke 3s and score off the bounce with step-backs and pull-ups. But the fact that his offense has translated so soon—especially against quality defenders—is encouraging.
Markkanen’s defense has been inconsistent, but he’s giving effort. He’s been a better rebounder (9.3 per game) than he was at Arizona, but he’s grabbing only 30.4 percent of contested board chances, per NBA.com (which ranks in the same range last season as Jonas Jerebko).
But what matters is Markkanen’s offense. In The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide, Lauri’s player comparisons were Dirk Nowitzki, Ryan Anderson, and Channing Frye. It’s already clear that he’s going to be better than Frye, and Anderson is now a low-end outcome. The question now is how high he can reach as an offensive threat. Can he be so deadly on offense that weak defense or rebounding doesn’t matter? Does his finishing at the rim improve? Will he get better as a passer? That’s what it’ll take for Markkanen to be a new-age Dirk.
The “F+” was a reaction to the entire trade, which is still terrible. (I’m not a fan of Zach LaVine and still don’t get why Chicago gave up the no. 16 pick.) But if I could have a redo, and grade solely the selection itself, I’d give a “C.” Even then, Markkanen could still make me look like a dummy.
I Guess Danny Ainge Knew What He Was Doing
Justin Verrier: Ainge, a noted yarn-spinner of deals he didn’t make, reached peak smug this offseason. He traded out of the first overall pick soon after an up-close look at Markelle Fultz, indirectly impugning the long-term trajectory of the rookie guard—and the evaluation skills of the 76ers’ organization—in the process. Then, after missing out on possible moves for Paul George and Jimmy Butler to land Gordon Hayward in free agency, Ainge traded for Kyrie Irving, at that point a lightning rod more for his single-minded approach to the game than his simple-minded approach to objective facts. Trader Danny finally cashed in some of his most precious assets, and what he assembled seemed promising, albeit underwhelming.
Just seven games into the season, it’s pretty clear Ainge knew what he was doing. As Fultz takes some time off to figure out whether he needs fluid injected or removed, Jayson Tatum looks like Joe Johnson in an action figure’s body. Irving hasn’t lost his fastball on offense and has even flashed quick hands and renewed activity for the league’s top-ranked defense. Jaylen Brown might be a future star, and no worse than a starter on a title-contending team. And the Celtics, despite the loss of Hayward on opening night, are staring down at almost the entire league from atop the NBA standings.
In other words:
The Wolves Are Clutch
Chris Ryan: There’s something up with the Wolves. They are a lot like their coach, in that they do not seem to be particularly enjoying themselves. But they are unlike a Tom Thibodeau–coached team in that they are 28th in points allowed per 100 possessions. Karl-Anthony Towns is right around his eye-popping career averages, but has occasionally looked out of place on offense, and regularly looks like a liability on defense. They are young, but ... Jamal Crawford. They are deep, but … Nemanja Bjelica. They don’t look good, but they are 5-3. What’s up?
They are clutch. That’s what. The Wolves were really, really bad in clutch situations last season (28th in offensive rating, in fact), so much so that no lead felt safe, and no first-half performance felt valid. How many wasted KAT nights did we see? This season, they’re up to sixth in offensive rating, and that’s with a sample size of … pretty much all their games. These are the cardiac kids, and they keep getting brought back to life by Andrew “Flatliner” Wiggins:
He is tied for first in clutch points scored. He paddled them back to life against the Thunder in Oklahoma with this prayer, and then did a you-shall-not-pass act against the Heat in Miami a few games later. Part of this is down to his grown sense of assuredness in important moments, and part is due to Nu Wolf Jimmy Butler drawing some needed attention on the wing. These kinds of results, in these kinds of moments, will probably even out over time. But the experience is going to be huge for guys like Wiggins, when and if the Wolves finally get back into the postseason.
Frontman Blake Griffin Is the Blake That Was Promised
John Gonzalez: It’s all happening. The Blake Griffin we always wanted has finally arrived. He’s here.
After sharing various responsibilities with Chris Paul for years, Griffin’s got command of the Clippers. And what a masterful job he’s done so far. Through seven games, in which the Clippers are a West-leading 5-2, Griffin is posting career highs in PER, true shooting percentage, and box plus-minus.
It’s early, sure, but it’s hard not to notice the layers he’s added to his game. Griffin has taken 5.3 3-point attempts per game—more than double what he averaged last season. He’s hitting 43.2 percent from that range (!), and he’s made at least two 3-pointers in each game so far. As Doc Rivers said, “He’s shooting the heck out of the ball from the 3.” That includes the game winner he nailed to push the Clippers past Portland last week.
And if there was any lingering doubt about Griffin’s post-injury athleticism, well, just ask Rudy Gobert.
Still enjoying that Blake slam and the face pic.twitter.com/tVtSj8d3zn— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) October 25, 2017
The Spurs Are Human After All
Jonathan Tjarks: When the Spurs got off to a 4-0 start without Kawhi Leonard, it seemed like there were no limits to their “next man up” philosophy. No man is bigger than the team in San Antonio, which is on an unprecedented run of 18 consecutive 50-win seasons. Kawhi won two consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards and the Spurs played better defense without him last regular season. However, through the past week, it became clear that there are some limits to Gregg Popovich’s magic. After losing to the Warriors on Thursday, the Spurs have now lost four games in a row and have a tough matchup against a feisty Hornets team on Friday that could drop them below .500. This version of the Spurs doesn’t shoot 3s (28th in the league) and can’t score (27th-ranked offense), and their defense has slipped (12th in the league) from their usual lofty heights. As it turns out, losing one of the best two-way players in the NBA is a tough blow to overcome.
Kevin Pritchard Is Still the God I Always Believed Him to Be
I wrote about Larry Bird stepping down, but mainly about Kevin Pritchard, who was my god as a teenage draft nerd: https://t.co/SswJWSXBSz— Danny Chau (@dannychau) April 28, 2017
Danny Chau: Back when Pritchard was the general manager of the Blazers’ potential-laden reboot, he was known as the exec who won every trade he was involved in. The now-Pacers GM managed to land Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum in three years. We’re less than 10 games into the season and five months removed from one of the most puzzling, lopsided offseason trades in recent memory—Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis—and, uh, there’s maybe still a chance his pristine record is intact?
It’s been a stunning early showing from the Thunder Buddies in Exile. Vic and Domas have taken what on paper looks like a moribund roster and carried the team to wins against Minnesota, San Antonio, and Cleveland—all without budding star Myles Turner. Oladipo was a freshwater fish trying to keep pace in the torrid ocean last season playing alongside Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, but he’s thriving now that he’s back to the rivers and the lakes that he’s used to in Indiana. Sabonis has been a double-double machine, and he’s shown fantastic playmaking instincts in the short roll:
The Pacers currently have a top-five offense, and I can’t wait to see how Turner evens out the team’s dynamic once he returns from concussion protocol. Turner and Sabonis figure to be ideal complements, and Oladipo stands to benefit from not being the opponent’s primary target on defense. The East has been full of surprises, but maybe we should’ve seen this coming in Indiana. I’m not saying Sam Presti got Pritch Slapped. I’m just saying the team might have a brighter future than we were led to believe.
Kemba Walker Is the New Mike Conley
Paolo Uggetti: Conley has been called underrated for so long that it’s become a cliché. Soon, we could be saying the same about Walker.
Walker has elevated his game to the point where he’s hard to overlook. In eight games, the Hornets guard is averaging 24.6 points on 48.4 percent shooting from the field and 41.9 percent shooting from deep (all career highs). His 26.6 PER is 11th-best in the NBA, and the Hornets outscore opponents by 14.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.
Kemba’s ability to take games over and blow by guys with his deadly crossover, or shoot a step-back with ease, is magnetic. Like Isaiah Thomas, Walker is a basketball wizard packed in a compact frame. This has made him easy to look past, but this season, his play has been impossible to ignore.
The Wizards’ Core Has Yet to Evolve
Haley O’Shaughnessy: A benchless squad of young starlets made it to Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, and expectations for the Wizards were raised when key players from this roster re-upped last offseason. John Wall, signed to a new $170 million extension, entered 2017-18 with MVP heat. And with the Cavaliers a defensive mess and the Celtics operating without Gordon Hayward, Washington should have an opening to take a leap into the East’s upper crust.
But the Wizards (4-3) find themselves tied for sixth place in the East after seven games, thanks in large part to an inability to finish games. To wit: Wall missed 10 of his last 11 shots against the Lakers in a 102-99 loss on October 25, including this final one:
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
Wall then missed a last-second, game-tying 3-point attempt in a 120-117 loss to the Warriors on October 27. Washington also threw away a 22-point lead Wednesday, eventually losing 122-116 to the Suns. A combined $403 million for Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., and Wall should be able to buy you more than one game over .500.