After Wednesday’s slate of opening games, there’s enough evidence to crown an MVP, say definitively that Jimmy Butler will re-sign next summer in Minnesota, and give Coach of the Year to the Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer. Here are four early overreactions:
Anthony Davis Is the MVP After Two Days
It’s as easy to spot an NBA player laying the eggs for an MVP campaign as it is to notice a politician doing the same for the presidency. The NBA’s version of making a trip to Iowa is what Davis did Wednesday night against the Rockets: 32 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks, and three steals in a 131-112 win. Davis even outshone last year’s MVP on a night when James Harden was a rebound away from a triple-double (18 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds). Other elements of the game—Julius Randle having a positive debut, Carmelo Anthony not so much, Clint Capela looking limited, and Elfrid Payton and Jrue Holiday combining for 18 assists—all connected back to Davis. He caught and converted anything coming his way in the paint, shared the ball, and shut down Houston’s offense.
The timing makes sense for Davis to be in the MVP running: The Pelicans superstar is fully in the spotlight again after he had the best 33-game stretch of his career, lost his most high-profile running mate from last season, and was already the best power forward in the league even before the strong finish last season. He’s a fourth-term senator with distant ties to the Kennedys. It’s time to make the push.
Davis was saying all the right things before New Orleans opened its season in Houston. In an interview with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, he likened his mission to that of two former MVPs, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. Last season’s crisis—former teammate DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles in February—was much like Westbrook’s in 2014-15 when Durant was injured, Davis thought.
“I saw what Russ Westbrook did when Durant went down with that foot injury in OKC,” Davis said, “and that’s what I told Coach [Alvin] Gentry I have to be. If I have to be Westbrook, I will be Westbrook.”
Davis meant 2014-15 Westbrook, but his best shot at swaying MVP voters aligns more with 2016-17 Westbrook, which was the year the Thunder superstar won the award as a do-it-alone hero with a back broad enough to carry an uncompetitive roster toward becoming a competitive team and a head held high enough to give the franchise direction. After Durant left, Westbrook was someone OKC could follow. And if Davis has to be Westbrook, he has to be Westbrook.
The Pelicans are better positioned as a team than the 2016-17 Thunder, which gives Davis an excellent shot. Westbrook’s MVP vote was one of the most debatable of the decade; after the fact, it’s popular opinion that Harden should have won that year. Davis will likely need more than just stats to win the award, and he knows that too. Just look at how he talks about LeBron James:
“When you look at LeBron,” Davis said in the ESPN interview, “every year you know he’s going to be great and his team is going to have a chance to win the title. From here on out, I want to be in that conversation every year. Not every other year. Not every few years. Every year. If that’s going to happen, we’re going to have to win, and I’m going to have to be the most dominant player.” If Davis has to be LeBron, he has to be LeBron. But he might have a case as Davis.
Giannis Is Still Amazing—and His Supporting Cast Will Finally Help
If Nic Batum weren’t Nic Batum for one second (specifically 1.5 seconds, which is how much time was left in the Hornets-Bucks opener when Batum caught the ball wide open at the perimeter, shot it, and DIDN’T EVEN HIT THE RIM), Giannis Antetokounmpo’s stat line would’ve felt like more of the same. Had Milwaukee not won 113-112, his 25 points, 18 rebounds, and eight assists would tell the same story as last season: Giannis does it all, and the Bucks still lose.
But despite the tight final score, Milwaukee looked the more complete of the two teams, a testament to new coach Mike Budenholzer and a condemnation of Charlotte, whose starters not named Kemba Walker combined for 25 points, while Walker dropped 41. Giannis actually fell short at the 3-point line (going 0-for-3), but that’s exactly where his teammates surprisingly held their own. The Bucks shot better (41.2 percent) and shot more (34 total attempts) on Monday than their averages last season (35.5 percent and 24.7 attempts) that kept the offense so out of touch.
The hope behind bringing in Budenholzer was to introduce a well-balanced attack. Giannis is a clear star, but former coaches struggled to make sense of the teammates around him. Part of Milwaukee’s strategy this season … in 2018 … was for everyone to shoot 3s. They followed through with that plan in the opener; John Henson was the only Buck who didn’t attempt one.
Jimmy Butler and the Wolves Look … Normal?
Most of the time, we speculate endlessly about player body language and team chemistry because we have to—what goes on behind closed doors stays there. With the Wolves, we do know what goes on, even if the doors are closed. Jimmy Butler told us. And the last thing I expected from an out-of-shape veteran holding the team hostage and verbally sonning his teammates was that out-of-shape veteran high-fiving those sonned teammates one week later.
Seven days after Butler said the Wolves were “soft” and “ain’t shit” and told GM Scott Layden that the Wolves “fucking need me,” he was back in the half court with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. It was bizarre because it was normal—Butler still reportedly wants to be traded, and owner Glen Taylor still wants to trade him, but for 48 minutes, they had a foe to take on that wasn’t each other.
Unsurprisingly, since the Wolves were back to normal (if only for one night), they lost to San Antonio 112-108. Towns wasn’t much help, but he also wasn’t soft, fouling out 22 minutes in (and finishing with eight points). Wiggins shelled out a couple ugly on-brand jumpers, but he wasn’t soft either (20 points, six rebounds, three assists, one steal).
Butler even hit a 3 to tie it up 108-108 with 42.9 seconds left, but new Spur DeMar DeRozan answered by banking in a bucket on the other end. The two are a juxtaposition: DeRozan didn’t want to be traded but was anyway, and Butler wants to be traded but hasn’t yet. Maybe—judging from the high fives—that’s not what he wants anymore. I’m sure we’ll find out after a closed-doors practice this week.
Phoenix Is the Best 3-Point Team in the League
The Rockets 3-point shooting walked so the Suns could run. The former, led by Chris Paul and James Harden, shot Phoenix’s average last season (33.3 percent, 16-for-48) against the Pelicans, while actual Phoenix hit 55.9 percent of its 34 attempts from deep. Devin Booker (who might be forced to undergo a Hardenesque 2-guard-to-point-guard transformation this season) was responsible for six of the 3s, going 4-for-4 for 19 points in the fourth quarter alone, and five were made by Trevor Ariza—former Rocket. And much like Houston benefits from spacing the floor, if Phoenix can boast consistent threats on the perimeter, it’d open things up for rookie Deandre Ayton, who had the kind of night that didn’t make the Suns regret their first overall pick: 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, one steal, and one block.