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What’s Real and What’s Not in the NBA Right Now

The surprises and disappointments are starting to emerge in the 2018-19 season. Which ones will persist, and which are just small-sample fakeouts? Let’s talk.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA’s 2018-19 season is beginning to take shape as teams creep toward the 10-game mark. How much stock should we put into some of the biggest risers and fallers so far? Our team weighs in on some of the most interesting early returns.

Real or Not Real: The Kings are good.

Danny Chau: Not real, but they certainly aren’t bad. In an accelerated, read-and-react league, all it takes to have a fighting chance in games is to construct lineups that make sense. The Kings have settled in to a very sensible lineup template: a fearless, athletic point guard; confident shooters on the wings; a playmaking, floor-spacing power forward; and a rim-protecting, vertical-spacing center. Their wins have been against teams still largely finding themselves amid injuries and other forms of disarray. We’ll see what they’re truly made of this coming week against the Bucks and Raptors.

Dan Devine: Real, though that probably depends on your definition of “good.” If you mean “50 wins and a berth in the second round, at minimum,” then no, that’s a bit much. But if you’re willing to consider something like “finally found a marriage of talent, system, pace, and development that makes sense and might actually get them over .500 for the first time since Rick Adelman left town,” then yeah, I think that’s about right. (Basically: my kingdom for a “pretty” between “are” and “good.”)

John Gonzalez: How are we defining “good” here? If we mean good in the same way that we apply it to the rest of the Western Conference, then the Kings are still not good. Not by comparison to the teams that are likely to factor into the playoff picture once the season is well underway. But if we mean good in the sense that this organization, which has been a lottery team for more than a decade, appears to have found some useful players, then the Kings might be good. And if we’re grading on a curve and accounting for the fact that the general manager has not recently been photographed in front of a whiteboard featuring proprietary information, then the Kings are better than they’ve been in weeks.

Jonathan Tjarks: Real. The Kings are playing NBA-style basketball for the first time … in a decade? Maybe even longer? They run a basic four-out offense with a slashing PG, a stretch 4, a rim-running 5, and wings who can shoot and defend. That’s really all it takes to not be bad. They won’t make the playoffs, but there’s no reason they can’t be competitive on their home court and steal the occasional game on the road.

Justin Verrier: Not real. They’re fine. More importantly, they finally picked an identity that fits all of their best young players. Even for this warp-speed era, the Kangz are playing fast; behind De’Aaron Fox, one of the quickest players in the league with the ball in his hands, Sacramento has the second-highest pace since the turn of the century. But they’re not shooting a lot of 3s, and their defense has been decidedly average. The league will catch up to them, but they’ll be watchable.

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Not real. Sacramento is not good. But for the first time in some time, they’re not hopeless. They finally have a sense of direction for the future in 20-year-old De’Aaron Fox, whose second-year bump is leading the way for the Kings’ 6-3 record.

Paolo Uggetti: Not real, but that’s OK! They are probably slightly below average, which, in Kings Land, is a huge moral victory. Sacramento is in the top half of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency—that counts for something. Fox, more than any of their other prospects hailing from blue-blood college programs, is also making a mini leap as we speak, which has keyed their nice start and given them an identity. They’ll come back down to earth eventually, but they won’t be in the bottom of the league anymore. I’m crediting Lady Bird for this.

Real or Not Real: The Rockets are bad.

Tjarks: Real. It’s funny how much expectations play a role in how we view teams. Bad for the Rockets is still a lot better than good for the Kings, but it doesn’t matter for a team with championship expectations. There are a lot of guys in the Houston rotation who don’t play any defense, and that’s not going to change without a trade.

Verrier: Not real. The Rockets are reliant on their three top-50 players far more than last season, and have been without one of them for all but the first two games (and Chris Paul was ejected before the finish of one of them). The defense has been putrid even at full strength, and James Harden’s return will hardly help matters. But it’s all connected. Not having Harden means Paul, at age 33, needs to make an impact on both ends, Carmelo Anthony becomes a go-to target (for Houston’s offense and the opposing offense), Michael Carter-Williams plays a starter’s minutes, etc. I’m worried, but I want to see this team healthy for more than one full game before I panic.

Uggetti: Not real, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about them. I wrote about how the Rockets could try to fix things (tl;dr: what the Cavs did in the middle of last season), but even if they make roster changes, it’s hard for me to believe they can pry open their championship window again. Last season, Houston looked like it was playing the same game as Golden State. This season, there’s only one team playing chess and it’s certainly not the Rockets.

Devine: Not real. Not incontrovertibly real, anyway. I refuse to believe that a team that went 54-7 with James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all in the lineup last season can’t find a way to get its head above water once those three are back on the floor. I’ve seen enough to be deeply unsure they’ll get anywhere near last season’s heights, but I haven’t seen enough to convince me they’re irredeemably bad. (Yet.)

O’Shaughnessy: Neither. It can’t be discounted that Houston is worse than it was last season, and is having trouble adjusting to a couple of role player tweaks. But it’s hard to envision a team with Harden, Paul, and Capela being this bad for a full season. It’s TBD right now.

Gonzalez: Not real. The Rockets have had a winning record in 11 of the past 12 seasons. The season they didn’t, they broke even. I refuse to believe this team — run by Daryl Morey, with two of the best guards of their generation, one of whom is the defending league MVP — is bad. The Rockets are not bad, they’re just having a bad run. [Fingers in ears I can’t hear you talking about the defense lalalalala.]

Chau: Real, and I don’t think that will change until they take that swing at Jimmy Butler. The Rockets aren’t just 1-5. They’re getting beat down, with a margin of victory of minus-10.5. The team that produced the best record in the league last season was built on the individual genius of players on both ends of the floor. A switch-heavy defense that loses its two most versatile defensive players in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute is a chair that’s missing a peg, and it’s become increasingly clear that the Rockets don’t have the personnel to change that without doing something drastic.

Real or Not Real: The Bucks are the best team in the East.

O’Shaughnessy: Real. So much changed so fast for Milwaukee that it feels premature to call them the best team in the East, but currently, no one outside of Toronto has a more complete picture of what they are. The Raptors are a very close second—these two will probably be switching spots with each other all season—only because one team has Giannis Antetokounmpo and one does not.

Devine: Real now; not real come May. Milwaukee has been monstrous on both ends of the floor to start in a way that feels pretty sustainable, even if the Bucks’ army of red-hot shooters eventually cools off from deep. But I’m still expecting the Celtics to wind up as the class of the conference once the rust’s fully off Gordon Hayward, the young wings find their shooting strokes, and Brad Stevens has had a few more months to tinker with the rotation.


(This marks the second straight group post where Kawhi’s laugh has come in handy. I’m gonna get so much use out of this.)

Chau: Real-ish. Mike Budenholzer crafted a 60-win season out of the 2014-15 Hawks, so it’s not surprising that these Bucks, which have a much higher talent ceiling than that Atlanta squad, is on this torrid run. The Bucks are having fun and finally playing a style conducive to their collective skill set. I wonder whether their firepower will hold up in a competitive best-of-seven against deeper teams like the Raptors or Celtics.

Uggetti: Not real. Look, the Bucks are great and all, but let’s chill for a second and remember that there’s a better team in Toronto and one that will be better in Boston. I love how Budenholzer has basically Steve Kerr’d the post–Jason Kidd Bucks into a high-powered offense, but I think we’ll see a bit of regression soon enough. I’m also a little worried about Giannis’s shooting, or lack thereof (he’s taken 16 3s and made only one of them). Regardless, Milwaukee getting the 3-seed would be a huge step forward for the Bucks after finishing seventh in the East last season. They don’t need to be the best team in the East to be a legitimate playoff threat.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Milwaukee Bucks Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Verrier: Not real. Top 10 on offense and defense is elite territory—the past three teams to do it all won more than 60 games: the 2017-18 Rockets and the Spurs and Warriors in 2016-17. But the Bucks are regular-season good. More than half of their most-used lineup (Giannis, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe) isn’t scaring me in a playoff series. You have to go five deep with two-way players to hang with the Celtics and Raptors.

Tjarks: Not real. Love the Bucks, but I’d still take the Raptors ahead of them. Toronto is probably the deepest team in the league, and I think there are still several spots in the Milwaukee rotation that can be exposed by an elite team in a seven-game series.

Real or Not Real: The Nuggets are the second-best team in the West.

Chau: Real! Or, at least, I really want to believe that they are. Their season thus far has been a sort of inversion of standards — their new schemes in the pick-and-roll and in recovery defense have been very fruitful early on, but their offense, especially in the half court, has been sluggish compared to the past two years. It’s been nice seeing the team pull out wins that they would have let slip away last season.

Gonzalez: Not real. Nikola Jokic has been incredible, but the West is obviously loaded. The Blazers, Jazz, Pelicans, Spurs, Clippers, Timberwolves, and Kings have been intermittently interesting. And even though they’re off to not-so-great starts, I can’t imagine that the Rockets, Thunder, and Lakers won’t fix their myriad issues and work back into the playoff mix. If I have to pick between the Nuggets and the field, I’ll take the field.

Tjarks: Not real. The Nuggets’ success has been fun, but I don’t trust their personnel to slow down LeBron James or Anthony Davis in a seven-game series. They will rack up plenty of regular-season wins, but they need to make some upgrades when it comes to the guys around Jokic if they are going to be competitive with the other teams in the rung below the Warriors.

O’Shaughnessy: Not real. Denver’s defensive turnaround is remarkable, but no. 4 in the league isn’t sustainable through the season, and other top teams in the West have more trustworthy veteran go-to presences than the Nuggets’ core.

Uggetti: I was skeptical of the Nuggets heading into this season, but they’ve proved me wrong so far. Their defense is revamped, and their offense hasn’t even scratched the surface of how good it was last season (it’s 12th overall through eight games). Continuity has helped them, too. I’m a believer now, but not quite enough to put them right below the Warriors just yet. It’s easy to forget that they are a young team, and there’s still room for mistakes as much as there is room for improvement and growth.

Verrier: Not real. Jokic is on another level on both ends, but it takes more imagination than I have to picture his specific brand of unicorndom dominating in the half court in crunch time. (For what it’s worth, Denver is 4-1 in “clutch” situations, with some muddy offensive numbers.) Their other best options are erratic (Jamal Murray), injured (Will Barton), and noticeably aging (Paul Millsap). They’re clearly good at a time when few teams in the West can say that, but I can easily see them ceding the title to the Jazz or Pelicans or Blazers a month from now.

Devine: Not real. Top-four? Yeah, I’d buy that. But I’ll need at least a few more weeks of that top-five defense holding up before I’d take them over Utah, New Orleans, and maybe even The Theoretical Version of Houston That I Believe Exists Even If I Have Not Seen It With My Own Eyes Yet.

Real or Not Real: Kawhi Leonard is the MVP front-runner.

Chau: Not real. The Raptors are glorious, and I love Leonard’s odds if they secure the best record in the East at the end of the season, but I’m riding this Steph Curry wave right now. Curry is currently averaging 33 points per game on 54.9 percent shooting from the field, 52.9 percent from 3, and 91.3 percent from the free throw line. The only player in history to finish a season with 50-50-90 splits is Curry’s coach, Steve Kerr, in 1995-96. Kerr had a usage rate of 12.9 that season. Curry is currently at 31.3. He’s in the midst of something truly historic.

Devine: Not real. I think I’d have Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis over him right now. Maybe Curry, too. That’s not to take anything away from Leonard; he’s been absolutely sensational, and if the Raptors wind up topping the Eastern Conference during the regular season — and they’ve got everything they need to be able to do that — he could easily wind up atop the leaderboard.

Gonzalez: Not real. The defending champs are off to a killer start thanks in large part to Curry, who has somehow made 55 3s (which, for reference, is same amount as all the Sixers starters combined). The Nuggets and Jokic have started hot. So have Giannis and the Bucks. And Davis is still a freak. I’m not sure there’s a front-runner, but if there is, Kawhi isn’t it. (I am restraining myself from reusing the Kawhi laugh video. Because I’m a professional.)

Verrier: Not real. Curry currently has a better statistical case, and Giannis’s revitalized Bucks are the shiny new narrative. For Leonard to get the inside edge, the Raptors would probably need to win significantly more than the Bucks and Celtics and last season’s Raptors, and Kawhi would need to start playing in both games of Toronto’s eight remaining back-to-backs to avoid double-digit missed games.

Tjarks: Not real. This goes back to question no. 3—Giannis is more important to Milwaukee than Kawhi is to Toronto because his team isn’t as good.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

O’Shaughnessy: Not real. Have you been watching Curry?

Uggetti: One hundred percent real. I never sold off my Kawhi stock and have brushed off any worry about him returning to his full powers after a year of injury and discord in San Antonio. He was also my preseason pick for MVP, so if anything, this start has made me more confident. Even though it’s clear he’s not yet fully healthy, Kawhi is back to being elite on both ends of the court. We have yet to see his peak, but even his journey toward that version of himself is so much fun to watch. The narrative is there for the taking, too; if the Raptors take the 1-seed in the East again, it will be hard to ignore the guy who is leading them.

Real or Not Real: Luka Doncic has been the most impressive rookie.

Uggetti: Real. Doncic has looked so much more comfortable than any other rookie. He’s smooth and methodical, like a veteran in a 19-year-old’s body. The former EuroLeague MVP is already shooting 40 percent from 3 on nearly seven attempts a game, and every time he steps back and launches one through the net, my heart flutters. I think I’m in love?

Devine: Real. The advanced stats (the offensive ones, at least) love Deandre Ayton, and Trae Young has definitely been as interesting as advertised, but Doncic has seemed the most like an instant go-to guy. (A special shout-out, though, to Jaren Jackson Jr. for being immediately capable of producing on both ends despite turning 19 a month before the season started.)

Tjarks: Real. I’m biased. Luka is the man.

Chau: Real. I’m not sure even the most pie-in-the-sky Doncic prognosticators expected the guy to flirt with a 20-points-per-game average in his rookie season. The Mavs haven’t quite handed him the reins to run the offense with impunity, but he’s been stellar in the moments when he’s taken control. He’ll be a problem all season long if he keeps hitting 3s at this clip.

Gonzalez: With apologies to Ayton and Young, really real.

Verrier: Real. Only seven other rookies have ever averaged 19 points, six rebounds, and four assists while attempting 14-plus shots a game; six are in the Hall of Fame, and the other one made four All-Star teams. And the only one to do all of that while regularly shooting 3s is Larry Bird. Seems good.

O’Shaughnessy: Real. Doncic has a swagger and certain hold on the game that young players typically do not. His numbers alone (19.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists) put him above the rest of his class.

Real or Not Real: LeBron’s Lakers will finish outside of the playoff field.

Gonzalez: Not real. LeBron hasn’t missed the playoffs since the 2004-05 campaign. It was his second season. He was 20. Last season, he took Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, George Hill, Jeff Green (!), and confused J.R. Smith to the Finals. Yeah, yeah, it was the Eastern Conference and now he’s in the West. I get it. But his teammates are infinitely more talented now than they were a season ago. But forget all that. Forget everything. This is the only part that matters: He’s still LeBron.

Tjarks: Not real. The Lakers have LeBron, and they have a lot of talent around him. They just have to figure out their rotation. Johnathan Williams, an undrafted free agent out of Gonzaga, has helped stabilize things as their backup 5. It shows you the baseline of talent on their roster that a guy with such a limited pedigree can help them by filling one very specific niche that puts everyone else back into their more natural roles.

Verrier: Not not real. It’s probably better that the young Lakers take their lumps now to figure out how to piece together lineups on a roster with a glut of ball handlers and a dearth of bigs. (JaVale McGee is maybe their third-most important player right now. That’s not a punch line.) But the pace plus the pounding of guarding down a position will add up, especially for the four rotation players with eight years or more of NBA games on their legs. The Lakers lost two of the three games that mattered when Brandon Ingram was out (sorry, Suns); prolonged absences like that ask a lot of an inexperienced core, and of the team as a whole physically. LeBron may have to flip his switch sooner than he wants to in order to keep his playoff streak alive.

Devine: Not real. I don’t think they’re going to last longer than the first round, but I think they’re more likely to make it that far than Memphis and Sacramento are, because as much as I like what both the Grizz and Kings have going, they still don’t have LeBron James, and the Lakers do. It’s not the most nuanced analysis, I’ll grant you, but I think I’m going to stick with it until it stops being right.

Chau: Not real. This feeling-out process was always going to take the first quarter of the season. The team needs to figure out just how dependable its youngsters are, and LeBron needs first-hand evidence given his aversion to playing with anyone under the age of 25 over the past few years.

O’Shaughnessy: Not real. The Lakers aren’t the only team with a superstar that is underperforming in the West. Houston and Oklahoma City are also experiencing rocky starts, and neither have the extensive history James does of carrying a team to the playoffs.

Uggetti: Not real. Wednesday’s win against the Mavericks was the first time I was slightly worried about the Lakers. They dominated a team they should beat for most of the game, but then they let them back in late and a had a tough time closing it out. If LeBron isn’t taking over, it’ll be hard to determine who else can be their closer, or even who can help them down the stretch. That said, I just don’t see any reality in which LeBron doesn’t turn on the jets and/or some moves aren’t made to get the Lakers into the playoffs. I’d rather be wrong than not trust LeBron.