After a historically hot offensive start to the new NBA season, it’s time to check in with the five most interesting teams in the league for the second week of 2018–19. But first, here’s a quick review of how last week’s choices panned out:
Milwaukee Bucks: 3–0, top-six offense, Giannis looks amazing.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 2–2, nobody’s been punched in the face or traded (yet), Jimmy Butler went from most hated in home-opener intros to MVP chants before halftime.
Toronto Raptors: 4–0, and they’re really freaking good.
New Orleans Pelicans: 3–0, far and away the NBA’s most devastating offense, and Anthony Davis’s MVP campaign is off and running.
Now, on to a new week and five new teams, starting with a reason to believe in the Motor City …
Detroit Pistons (3–0)
Heading into the season, my evaluation of the Pistons’ prospects amounted to a well-intentioned shrug of the shoulders. If Blake Griffin could stay healthy and flash back to the player he was three years ago, Detroit, despite all of its recent struggles, could surprise in the East.
So, about that:
Tuesday, Griffin delivered the signature individual performance of the opening week, scoring a career- and NBA-season-high 50 points on 20-for-35 shooting to drag the Pistons over the visiting (and Ben Simmons–less) 76ers. Early on, he kept Detroit within hailing distance of the hot-shooting Sixers, pouring in 28 points in a dominant first half that set the terms of engagement. He carried the load late, scoring or assisting on 23 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Griffin added 14 rebounds, six assists, a block, and just one turnover in 44 remarkable minutes in the Pistons’ 133–132 victory. As was right and just, given the totality of his effort, he scored the game-winning points by faking out Joel Embiid and Amir Johnson, slicing into the lane and finishing a twisting layup through the contact of Robert Covington, and then knocking down a free throw to put Detroit over the top.
Griffin is the 25th NBA player ever to go notch 50–10–5, according to Basketball-Reference, the first Piston to score 50 since Richard Hamilton did more than 12 years ago, and the first to put up 40 and 10 since Isiah Thomas did more than 35 years ago. It was pure, uncut, superstar shit: an extremely gifted dude loudly declaring what he’s going to do and rendering the opposition unable to do a thing about it.
#Sixers Dario Saric on Blake Griffin's 50 pts: "He was making problems in our defense all the time and we couldn't find a solution for him. Some of us tried to stop him and he just had an amazing day. We tried to do everything, but sometimes we can't, you know?"— Rod Beard (@detnewsRodBeard) October 24, 2018
That's a quote.
Detroit is one of just five teams (along with New Orleans, Toronto, Milwaukee, and Denver) still undefeated as the season enters its second week. The Pistons are far and away the least likely and most tenuous of the unbeatens, having won their three games by a total of just six points and needing last-second heroics in all of them to knock off Brooklyn, Chicago, and now Philadelphia. But here they are, thanks in large part to Griffin: 36.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game; shooting 53.3 percent from the field and a scorching 61.1 percent from 3 on a career-high six attempts a night; looking like the all-consuming fire of old.
Griffin, Drummond, and point guard Reggie Jackson, the trio who will determine how far the Pistons can go, are a modest plus-9 together. New head coach Dwane Casey seems to have found something in pairing Jackson and backup Ish Smith, too, with Detroit outscoring opponents by 26 points in 44 two-ball-handler minutes. The defense has a long way to go, but Detroit’s finding good shots playing through Griffin, whether in the pick-and-roll, in dribble handoffs at the elbows, facing up on the wing, or with his back to the basket on the block. The Pistons entered Wednesday ranked seventh in offensive efficiency; they haven’t finished a season that high since 2007–08 … which, coincidentally, was just about the last time they were relevant in the big picture.
Griffin can’t keep this up — not at 37.7 minutes per game, with the offensive workload and a laundry list of previously injured body parts. He’ll need more help; Casey would probably love it if former first-round picks Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard gave him reason to believe they could provide it. (Not much doing there so far, it seems.) But sustainable or not, Griffin doing it at all gives Detroit the opportunity to find its footing. Stan Van Gundy’s not around to watch it, but three games in, Griffin looks like precisely the guy he staked his job and the near-term fate of the franchise on: a bona fide star who can win games through sheer will, elevate a middling roster to respectability, and give a fan base browbeaten by a relentlessly drab decade a reason for hope.
Denver Nuggets (4–0)
The Nuggets are tied for first in the NBA in defense. No, seriously! In one of the season’s most delightful bits of small-sample-size theater, Denver, a team plagued by poor defense last season, sits next to the Boston Celtics atop the defensive rankings, allowing just 97.3 points per 100 possessions.
The Nuggets have succeeded on that side of the ball without elite individual defenders, thanks in part to head coach Mike Malone switching up his pick-and-roll scheme, as our own Kevin O’Connor broke down Monday. The early returns on the team’s dialed-up aggression have been positive: Denver has forced turnovers on 16.6 percent of opponents’ possessions, the sixth-highest rate in the NBA, up from 14 percent (tied for 21st overall) in 2017–18. The Nuggets haven’t scored more off those forced mistakes than they did last season, but not allowing a shot attempt of any kind (and grabbing the misses, which Denver is doing better than almost anyone else) is still an awfully good outcome. Anything the Nuggets can do to hand the ball to this dude on the other side of the court helps:
Ahead of the season, ESPN’s real plus-minus predicted that Jokic would be the single most valuable contributor in the NBA this year; you’d be forgiven if your response to that claim went something like this. After all, while the Nuggets did perform better on defense with Jokic on the court than when he sat in each of the past three seasons, they still didn’t perform well enough to break into the postseason. But with the return of Paul Millsap, the change in scheme, and more experience utilizing his 6-foot-10 frame and 7-foot-3 wingspan to plug up gaps and close off lanes, Jokic looks to be in position to be a steadier defensive presence in the middle. Combine that with the offensive tear he’s on to start the season — 23.3 points per game on 61.2 percent shooting from the field, 28-for-34 from the free throw line — and you’ve got the kind of holy terror that inspires hosannas from the cheap seats.
“I was just waiting for it to stop,” Jokic said after hearing MVP chants late in his “perfect game” triple-double (35 points on 11-for-11 shooting, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, four steals, zero turnovers) against the Suns. “I mean, thank you, but I thought it was a little silly. It’s early.”
He’s right. It is, and Denver’s lineups will already require some juggling with spark plug turned starting small forward Will Barton out for more than a month after surgery to repair a strained adductor. But the longer Jokic and the Nuggets look this good, the less laughable all the outsize projections and chants will seem.
San Antonio Spurs (2–1)
It’s kind of remarkable how exactly-to-form things are going in San Antonio. Just as everyone predicted, the Spurs lead the NBA in the share of their shots that come from the midrange, according to Cleaning the Glass, and in how much of their point production comes from those analytically unsexy attempts, according to NBA.com/Stats. Just as everyone predicted, they have responded to a catastrophic series of departures in the backcourt — Tony Parker signing in Charlotte, Manu Ginobili retiring, Dejounte Murray tearing his ACL, exciting rookie Lonnie Walker IV tearing his meniscus, second-year breakout candidate Derrick White tearing a ligament in his heel — by running nearly everything through new addition DeMar DeRozan and stalwart big man LaMarcus Aldridge.
And just as everyone predicted, they’re 2–1, with wins over the playoff-hopeful Wolves and Lakers, and the second-most-potent offense in the whole damn league.
The Spurs’ nice old man vibes are rich and hearty, possessed of no small amount of musk, factoids about how the Allies deployed submarines in the Pacific theater, and hard-earned wisdom about just how bad it is for your car to keep letting the gas get down below a quarter-tank, Phillip. They still move the ball — 312.3 passes per game, sixth in the league — but often with the goal of it sticking; San Antonio wants DeRozan drives and pull-ups, and Aldridge post- and face-ups. Gregg Popovich trusts both All-Stars to make positive plays for themselves and others without egregious, compromising errors. So far, so good: The Spurs have turned the ball over on a microscopic 8.8 percent of their offensive possessions, tops in the NBA, and allowed only 10.3 points per game off of turnovers, second behind only Detroit. As it turns out, not beating yourself gives you a decent head start on beating the other guys!
I’m not sure I’m totally sold yet on an emergency point guard rotation of Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills, especially on the defensive end. But they’re capable and willing shooters who can space the floor for Aldridge and DeRozan to go to work inside, and both made big shots in overtime on Monday to push the Spurs past the Lakers. Pop will need to get his defense in order if the Spurs hope to extend their streak of playoff appearances to 22 years, but that could come with some improved continuity after the spate of preseason injuries. In the meantime, they’ll have to rely on DeRozan and Aldridge to shoulder the offensive burden. Good thing they’re used to it.
(Also, briefly: Shouts to Rudy Gay. The guy ruptured his Achilles tendon in January 2017, and here he is, averaging 15 and seven on 60 percent shooting, tracking LeBron James in transition, and blocking him at the basket. What a great comeback story.)
Houston Rockets (1–2)
The first-blush, two-word germ of a feeling I had after watching the Rockets’ first week of play was, “Perhaps trash?” That’s a too-harsh oversimplification. I still believe Houston is the second-best team in the West, and expect they’ll figure things out after a rocky start.
That said: With the exception of some stretches against the defenseless and shooting-free Lakers, the Rockets haven’t looked quite like their 65-win selves yet. I think it’ll be very interesting to see how Houston’s defense responds after getting roundly stomped to start the season.
Nobody questions whether an offense led by the isolation magic of James Harden and Chris Paul, the rim-running of Clint Capela, and boatloads of 3-point shooting will be able to put up enough points to win just about every game it plays; losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute won’t change that. But Houston’s rise to the best regular-season record in the league came on the wings of a total defensive improvement — in terms of personnel, scheme, understanding, and execution — that made them the perfect foil for Golden State. Now, the architect of that scheme is gone, as are two valuable, versatile pieces that enabled Houston to effectively switch every on- and off-ball screen all season long and into the playoffs. And for all of Mike D’Antoni’s talk about how great P.J. Tucker is (totally on board!), and how ready James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams are to pick up the slack (a little more skeptical there, though Ennis is hitting 3s and MCW is definitely hustling on D), all Houston’s got to show for it is getting smashed by New Orleans, then giving up 115 to both the Lakers and Clippers.
Things aren’t going to get easier for Houston this week, with Paul suspended after Spitgate, Ennis injured, MCW plugged into the starting lineup, and dates with the full-strength Jazz and Clippers on deck. The Rockets might have to lean on their offense to make their way through their early-season turmoil so they can find an opportunity to exhale and regroup. They’re certainly capable of succeeding in shootouts. Their hopes of once again getting within striking distance of knocking off the Warriors, though, will depend on proving they’re capable of keeping their games from becoming shootouts.
Boston Celtics (2–2)
The most interesting thing right now about the East’s favorite is that it doesn’t really look like one. The Celtics are something like the inverse of Houston: They paid up to keep their most important perimeter defender and added two returning All-Stars to a rotation already good enough to push LeBron to a Game 7. Yet, through four games, they’re still off to an up-and-down start because they haven’t been able to consistently get or knock down good looks.
In a whirlwind start to the season in which everybody seems to be barreling to the front of the rim, only three teams are averaging fewer drives to the basket per game than Boston. Only seven teams have averaged fewer shots in the restricted area, and only five have converted a lower percentage. Nobody’s getting to the free throw line less often. Healthy offenses need those high-percentage looks and high-value opportunities to thrive. Despite the depth and breadth of talent on hand, the Celtics just aren’t creating them; as a result, they sit just one spot above the absolute basement in offensive efficiency after one week.
Some of this will come with time, as Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward work their ways back after prolonged stints on the shelf. Before long, Boston’s full corps of creators will be at full strength and ready to flex its collective muscle on the league. In the meantime, though, Brad Stevens is relying on elite defense and cycling through options to try to find one that can do the job on both ends; nine Celtics are averaging at least 15 minutes per game, and no single five-man unit has logged more than 26 minutes of shared floor time. As a result, Stevens isn’t the only one searching.
Jayson Tatum opened the season looking like he could be the best scorer on a team with title aspirations, but he’s still 20; 3-for-12 Mondays in Orlando should be closer to the rule than the exception. After a breakout postseason and a summer of comparisons to a Kawhi Leonard starter kit, how does Jaylen Brown get right with being the fourth or fifth option behind a still-rusty Irving and Hayward? Terry Rozier is handling the bump from “starting point guard in the conference finals” to “eighth man” admirably, but he’s also shooting 38 percent from the floor with seven assists in 88 minutes of second-unit burn.
No matter how willing a giving tree Al Horford is, the center sacrificing shots alone can’t open up enough opportunities for all parties involved to comfortably work their way into a flow. It’s on Stevens to settle on a rotation that can give its participants an opportunity to jell, and on Irving and Hayward to rediscover their form quickly enough to put Boston in position to get up to speed, because it sure looks like Toronto or Milwaukee plan to give themselves a head start in the race for the East’s top spot. The Celtics have more talent, top to bottom, than any other team in the conference, but just like their Thursday-night opponents, the Oklahoma City Thunder, persistent early-season misfiring could put them in a difficult spot come spring.