We’re six days into the 2019-20 NBA season and it already feels like a whole new world. The Timberwolves may be good. The Warriors may be bad. And the Kings … well, the Kings are still the Kings. Our staff takes a long, hard look at the new landscape and picks out the winners and losers of what we’ve seen so far.
1. What’s the most important thing to know from the first almost-week of the 2019-20 season?
Jonathan Tjarks: The Clippers look every bit as good as advertised and Paul George hasn’t even played yet. This is a team with two legitimate stars, a 10-man rotation, and no weaknesses on either end of the floor. They may not have quite the ceiling of the Kevin Durant–Steph Curry Warriors, but they have an incredibly high floor. This is going to be a really difficult team to beat in a seven-game series because they have the flexibility to attack any holes in the opposing team without having any of their own. I don’t think the title race is as open as everyone is saying.
John Gonzalez: In fairness, the Houston Rockets have had a lot going on recently, but I’m not entirely sure they know how to make the new James Harden–Russell Westbrook buddy-cop reboot work. Before they lost their season opener, at home, on national television to the Bucks, they were asked about the pairing and Harden said the quiet part out loud: “We don’t know yet. Just figure it out.” About that: Against Milwaukee, Harden and Westbrook shot a combined 9-for-30 from the floor. Oof. The Rockets managed to beat New Orleans at home on Saturday—but only just barely, eking out a three-point win against a Pelicans team that was without Jrue Holiday and Zion Williamson. Westbrook and Harden combined for 57 points in that outing, but they went just 17-for-46 from the field. They still have some serious figuring to do.
Danny Chau: The Suns are … good? The once-perennial floor mats, now without Deandre Ayton for roughly a third of the season because of an antidoping policy suspension, have been shockingly competitive against some of the best competition in the league: a one-point overtime loss to the Nuggets, followed by a decisive win against the front-running Clippers the next night. A nothing-to-lose, swarming defense coupled with offensive wild cards up and down the roster will make the Suns a tough out all season—which could make the Western Conference all the more compelling. The biggest thing to know about the NBA at the very beginning of the 2019-20 season is that a Frank Kaminsky–Dario Saric frontcourt is much better than you think it is.
Justin Verrier: A Clippers-Sixers Finals may be inevitable. The Clippers ran the Lakers and Warriors off the court in their first two games, with Kawhi Leonard flaunting his Best Player in the World belt in front of LeBron and Steph, and a loss in Phoenix isn’t as important in the big picture as how complete the Clips look, even without Paul George. But don’t overlook Philly—Ben Simmons looks like the original-recipe version with all that extra room to run, and the defensive talent up and down the roster is staggering.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Markelle Fultz is, statistically speaking, a superior shooter to Mike Conley.
Dan Devine: An iffy performance at Phoenix on Saturday aside, the Clippers still look pretty friggin’ good, and George hasn’t even traded his suit for a uniform yet. Nobody’s going to run away and hide in this season’s title race, but of the likeliest contenders for the crown, the Clips look strongest out of the gate to me.
Paolo Uggetti: Ben Simmons is must-watch TV. I love 3-pointers as much as the next guy, but I’m here for any and all players who stray from the norm. Simmons isn’t considered by the basketball intelligentsia (present company included) to be a “unicorn,” but he is a very rare type of player in today’s NBA. There’s so much talk about whether he can hit a 3-point shot that I fear we may have forgotten about what he can do.
Through two games, Simmons looks more polished and aggressive, especially in attacking the rim. With Al Horford spacing the floor for him, Simmons has been able to use his combination of size and speed to become an unstoppable force. You never know what you’re going to get when he takes off, but you know it’s going to be good.
Zach Kram: The Thunder entered Sunday’s matchup with Golden State with the 30th-ranked offense in the league. Then they scored 11 points within the first two minutes, and 70 in the first half, and 120 in the game. The Warriors tried a man defense and it didn’t work, and they tried a zone defense and it didn’t work—and this showing came after they allowed 141 points in their season opener against the Clippers. Steph Curry can enjoy the greatest offensive season in league history and it won’t matter if the Warriors continue to defend like they have so far.
2. Who’s the biggest winner of the first almost-week of the season?
Chau: Trae Young, who has channeled the highest highs of Steph Curry’s 2015-16 campaign and distilled it into pure long-range carnage. After two games, Young is already 3-for-4 from 30-plus feet out and averaging 38.5 points per game on 58.7 percent shooting; he has been everything the Warriors presently need Curry to be. The biggest stars of the 2018 NBA draft are showing out to start their sophomore campaigns, but Luka Doncic’s steady progression felt preordained. Young’s historic output thus far is both startling and heartening: Curry disciples exist, and they can thrive at the highest level. It won’t last, but Young has already proved that the model is sound.
Devine: Sticking with my answer from after free agency: It’s still Kawhi Leonard. He got the max deal to go home ... to play on a roster packed to the gills with interchangeable quality NBA talent ... that already had a bona fide bread-and-butter offensive tandem in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell to pick up the slack when necessary … with another MVP-caliber perimeter player on deck to join the crew. Leonard opened the season as the best player on the floor in games that featured LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Curry, and it didn’t seem especially close. It’s increasingly feeling like it’s Kawhi’s league right now, and the rest of us are just watching it.
Verrier: Karl-Anthony Towns. Y’know, maybe asking one of the most talented players in basketball to take a back seat to a War Boy wasn’t the best idea. Towns has been a monster since the Timberwolves cut bait with Jimmy Butler, and he’s been even better now that the new regime in Minnesota is leaning into his inner Steph Curry: Through three games—all Wolves wins—Towns is averaging 32 points and shooting 10 3s a game at a 51.7 percent clip. Perhaps even more impressively, Towns may have gotten Andrew Wiggins to care again.
O’Shaughnessy: Phoenix has been so refreshingly capable and exciting that it wins the week, in spite of the bad news that Deandre Ayton has been suspended for 25 games for testing positive for a diuretic. Normally when the Suns surprise us, it’s because they’ve hit a new low. This season, they’ve broken that narrative—on Saturday, they beat the Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back without Ayton or Ricky Rubio.
Kram: Markelle Fultz. In the case of almost every NBA player, the first week of a season is no reason to drastically change one’s opinion. The sample simply isn’t large enough to be meaningful. But the fact that Fultz, after two seasons in the Philadelphia wilderness, looks like a real rotation player—even if that player doesn’t befit a no. 1 pick—is reason enough for excitement. For only the second time in his career, Fultz has scored in double digits in consecutive games. He’s converted a handful of jump shots and looked comfortable in transition. And even if his jump shot form still lacks some smoothness, he’s at least displayed a willingness to shoot. It’s only two games with the Magic, but Fultz may have already jump-started his career.
Gonzalez: I was ready to coronate the Clippers, but then the Suns—who were without Ayton and Ricky Rubio—beat them on Saturday and ruined everything. So let’s go with the super fun, surprising, undefeated Atlanta Hawks. Trae Young has been a human heat check so far. Through the first two games, he’s averaging 38.5 points (58.7 FG percentage), nine assists, seven rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 5.5 3s on 10 attempts. The Hawks—and this is not a sentence I expected to type this season, let alone so soon—are appointment viewing.
Tjarks: The Suns, who have a 2-1 record, including a win over the Clippers and an OT loss to the Nuggets. It’s amazing what a bunch of competent veterans can do for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs this decade. Losing Ayton for 25 games hurts, but Phoenix finally has a foundation in place that allows its young players to develop good habits in a winning environment. Devin Booker is 22 and Ayton is 21, so this team has plenty of upside even if it no longer surrounds its two cornerstones with quite as much youth.
Uggetti: Young. It took only two games for the sophomore guard to upgrade from rookie phenom to possible All-Star in the East. In his first game against the Pistons, he put up 38 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists. Against the Magic in Game 2, he had 39 with the same amount of rebounds and assists. Those are “Russell Westbrook on a good day” numbers. Young’s been more willing to take the from-the-midcourt-logo 3s he took back at Oklahoma, and he’s hit more than half of his 3s in total. The opponents will get tougher, but if Young can keep some version of this up and get the Hawks into fringe playoff contention, it will be impossible to keep him away even bigger honors this season.
3. Who’s the biggest loser of the first almost-week of the season?
Kram: The Kings. There are only three teams with an 0-3 record, but the Knicks and Pelicans are in various early stages of rebuilding. Sacramento is not, or it wasn’t supposed to be, anyway, after winning 39 games last season—the franchise’s best in 13 years—and signing Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes to long-term extensions. But Marvin Bagley III is out for at least a month with a broken thumb, the team has recorded more turnovers than assists, and both the offense and defense rank in the league’s bottom five in points per possession. What’s the result of all those discouraging factors? The two biggest blowout losses in the NBA thus far.
Uggetti: Luke Walton. I don’t think we talked enough about what a downgrade going from Dave Joerger to Walton would be. The Kings have lost two of their games by 25 points or more; the Warriors are the only other team to have lost a game by that much so far. With basically the same team from last season returning, the only plausible scapegoat is Walton. As if that weren’t enough, Walton’s former team, the Lakers, are now living their best lives without him, while his former players, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart, are all thriving in New Orleans.
Verrier: The Warriors. I think it’s safe to say the dynasty is over. There was mild optimism in the preseason that Steph Curry’s offense and Draymond Green’s defense and the infusion of D’Angelo Russell would be enough to paper over the absences of Durant and Klay Thompson and keep Golden State in the title hunt. Through two games, the Warriors look like they couldn’t even hang with the Santa Cruz Warriors. Golden State’s once revolutionary defense has been reduced to a dumpster fire—it surrendered 141 points against the Clippers, and the sole reason the Thunder got to only 120 was because they hit cruise control after amounting a 33-point lead at halftime. Curry and Green are generational talents, but there’s only so much they can do when they’re playing alongside Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall, and Ky Bowman, instead of Durant, Thompson, and Andre Iguodala.
Devine: The Kings, who opened the season by losing Bagley for at least a month and losing their first three games. Already having two 25-plus-point defeats has invited questions about the decision to replace Joerger, steward of the franchise’s most successful campaign in more than a decade, with erstwhile Lakers coach Luke Walton, and about whether Sacramento has lost the mojo that made it so fun and exciting last season.
Gonzalez: Adam Silver and the league office. The commissioner was really hoping that the start of the season would steer the off-court focus away from the conflict between the NBA and China and allow all of us to get “back to basketball.” So much for all that. On opening night, a Hong Kong flag was flown outside Staples Center in full view of the TNT cameras. That prompted the Inside the NBA panel to have a spirited debate on the topic, during which Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley landed on decidedly different sides. Protesters also popped up outside and inside Toyota Center in Houston for the Rockets’ first two games. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence criticized the NBA and accused the league of being “a wholly owned subsidiary of that authoritarian regime.” And then, to top it all off, Silver was on the Inside the NBA set on Thursday evening’s big national broadcast to discuss the matter when Barkley helpfully suggested that “Pence needs to shut the hell up.” This isn’t going away anytime soon—no matter how much Silver wants us to “move on with our lives.”
Tjarks: The Kings, who have an 0-3 record and lost their two road games by a combined 61 points. The longest playoff drought in the NBA appears no closer to ending. None of their new additions are meshing with De’Aaron Fox, and Walton looks like a huge downgrade from Joerger. The worst part of it all is they have spent so much money on this team that they don’t have much flexibility to tweak the roster. This group could be locked in place for a long time to come, for better or worse.
Chau: The Kings. Sacramento has lost its first three games by an average of 23.7 points. That probably isn’t enough to get new head coach Luke Walton fired as quickly as Earl Watson in 2017-18, when the doomed Suns lost their first three games by an average of 30.7 points and Watson was canned in record time. There already wasn’t much breathing room in the Western Conference playoff race, and even though we’re less than a handful of games in, it seems like the Kings might be better suited looking toward next season. Congrats to Hield for securing his extension money, but, uh, maybe Sacramento isn’t the best long-term situation.
O’Shaughnessy: I’m actively setting up a GoFundMe to buy the Warriors locker room one of those motivational posters that reads: “The higher you climb, the harder you fall.” Golden State’s two losses feel much, much worse than they should because we’re used to seeing this team in the Finals. Now, after terrible L’s against the Clippers and Thunder, the Warriors have been humbled into a playoff hopeful.
4. Which take are you already reconsidering?
Gonzalez: That the Wolves will be bad because they’re the Wolves and that’s how things go for them. When Karl-Anthony Towns told everyone to “keep sleeping” on Minnesota, I thought “yeah, man, that’s the plan.” And then I watched him absolutely ruin the Nets—and Kyrie Irving’s monster 50-point debut in Brooklyn—with a ridiculous opening-night performance. Did you see his line from that evening? Here it is, but it’s so hot I advise you to wear eclipse glasses when looking at it to avoid burning your retina: 36 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals, three blocks, 7-for-8 from the free throw line and … someone hold me … seven 3s! As Ringer teammate Zach Kram pointed out, KAT is the first player in NBA history to score 70 or more points and add 10 or more 3s through the first two games of the season. Also, in that same “keep sleeping” interview, KAT said he’s “always been confident” because “I am from Jersey.” Which, as a neighbor from Philadelphia, all the LOLs on that one. I am suddenly in on KAT and the weird, wonderful Wolves.
Chau: The Warriors being a playoff lock. Golden State’s defense has already shown signs of leakage, and it will only get worse with news of Kevin Looney having neuropathic issues, causing weakness and numbness in his body, which will surely affect him for longer than the two games he is slated to miss. That leaves Draymond Green, predictably, to cover for his teammates as much as possible. The Warriors’ perimeter talent is either too small or too young to take over for the kind of defensive impact that either Klay Thompson or Andre Iguodala presented over the past five seasons. And given his early struggles, it might be worth wondering whether Curry, 31, maybe isn’t built to play like his Davidson days against elite NBA defenses. That might be the only thing that can save this season. It’s a whole lot to ask.
Devine: That the Hawks are probably still a year away from really pushing for a playoff spot in the East. If Trae Young’s going to hit closer to 50 percent of his 3s than 35 percent of them and flirt with nightly triple-doubles, Atlanta’s offense should be good enough to carry it a hell of a lot further than the 10th seed.
Tjarks: Steph and Draymond will be enough to get the Warriors into the playoffs. You never want to underestimate the heart of a champion blah, blah, blah, but it’s tough to watch them get blown off the floor in the first two games and have much confidence in this team. It’s just really hard to go from flying first class to slumming in coach. Do Curry and Green want to kill themselves to grind out 45 wins after going to five straight Finals, or will they start thinking about saving themselves for 2020-21, when Klay Thompson is back? They only have so many miles left on their bodies. There might not be any point in wasting them on this season.
O’Shaughnessy: I kept the Mavericks out of my postseason predictions for the same reason anyone keeps a pretty decent Western Conference team of their postseason predictions: The conference is too deep with talent. But, you fools (I’m projecting), Luka Doncic is an unignorable talent. It’s a shame that I ever forgot in the first place; I’ll take 80 more appointment-viewing Mavs games as punishment.
Uggetti: The Warriors will still be really good. Far be it from me to doubt Curry’s ability to carry a team that started Marquese Chriss at center Sunday, but Golden State’s situation looks darker by the day. Not only did they get blown off their own, shiny-new floor by the Clippers on their opening night, but they were down by 33 points at halftime against OKC on Sunday and lost by 28. They are going to lose Kevon Looney to a neuropathic condition injury, and the team has recently said it won’t rush Thompson back from ACL surgery. “The reality is we fucking suck right now,” Green said after the OKC loss. Don’t ask Steve Kerr for any motivational speeches, either. After Sunday’s blowout, he said he needed a postgame Modelo.
Verrier: The Raptors are just fine without Kawhi. With so many key veterans headed for free agency, and an offseason headlined by Stanley Johnson, one may have expected Toronto to undergo a post-title hangover season. But Kyle Lowry signed an extension before the season began, and Masai Ujiri’s system keeps churning: OG Anunoby looks spry and healthy (41.7 percent from 3) in extended minutes, Fred VanVleet has been too good (19.3 points per game) to keep out of the starting lineup, and Pascal Siakam already looks like a bona fide no. 1 option (28.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists). Sorry, Toronto. Tim Hortons on me.
Kram: Never regret a take. That’s a core tenet of blogger behavior. (But, uh, I also thought the Kings would make a real push for a playoff spot, so maybe just this once.)
5. Which new take would you like to get behind?
Tjarks: Doncic and Young might both make an All-NBA team this season. The NBA is changing, and the ability to shoot 3s off the dribble and generate 3s off passing is the most important combination of skills in the game. Forget that they’re only NBA sophomores. There aren’t many players in the league who can do those two things as well these two second-year guards. The Mavs and Hawks have built everything around Luka and Trae, and their confidence in them is paying off so far.
Devine: Towns will be the first player to average 30 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists per game in about 45 years. Whether that’s enough to lead the Wolves to the playoffs, I don’t know, but holy shit, does he look great.
Uggetti: The Suns are what we thought the Kings would be. Sign me all the way up for the sneaky-good Suns. Phoenix finally has competent players up and down their roster, and new head coach Monty Williams seems to be establishing an identity. Deandre Ayton’s 25-game suspension is less than ideal, but having an actual point guard in Ricky Rubio has been a godsend for Booker. So far their only loss is a one-point defeat in overtime against the Nuggets. Let’s hope Robert Sarver doesn’t somehow mess this up.
Verrier: The Wolves are making the playoffs. Their schedule has hardly been a gantlet (at Brooklyn and Charlotte, vs. Miami), and a defense stuck in the league’s basement for a half-decade is always a worry, but MVP candidates don’t miss the playoffs—not even Russell Westbrook—and Towns is playing like Giannis with a 3-pointer.
Gonzalez: All hail Shaker Samman, mighty Troll King.
Chau: Davis Bertans will win the 2019-20 3-point shootout. I guess that’s not really a take, more a propagandist prediction. There has been only one big man 6-foot-10 or taller to win the 3-point shootout: Dirk Nowitzki. There will be a second this season—whether it’s Bertans or a sharpshooter like Towns. Big men are shooting 3s at a higher rate than ever. The 3-point shootout might soon resemble the Skills Challenge, where novelty has, in recent years, shifted toward the big man. But it won’t necessarily be a novelty this time around—some of the best 3-point shooters in the league are big men.
Kram: None! It’s too early for new takes—the league’s best team by net rating is the Suns; the worst is the Warriors. At least wait until the World Series is over to bring out the spice.
O’Shaughnessy: Karl-Anthony Towns is an All-Star lock. Some players stay in the “good stats, bad team guy” stage forever. Some get exposed after signing with a better team. But KAT is scoring so much already—96 points in three games, all Wolves wins—that he’s on Change Agent watch.