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The Biggest Surprises of the First Week-plus of the NBA Season

Is the Hawks’ hot start for real? What about the Warriors’ ugly beginnings? We run through the standouts—both good and bad—of the first returns from 2020-21.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just over a week of the 2020-21 season is in the books, and Orlando is the lone survivor. But how legit are the Magic, the only undefeated team left in the league? Should the winless Rockets or the .500 Warriors be more concerned? Our staff tackles those questions and nominates more early-season surprises.

1. Which bad East team off to a good start do you believe in most: Atlanta or Orlando?

Rob Mahoney: The one that actually changed the most: your new-and-improved Atlanta Hawks. We haven’t seen the entire range of Atlanta’s revamped rotation due to cascading injuries, but already the Hawks look the part of a fuller, more complete team. There are simply more—and more interesting—places for a possession to go; everything still starts with Trae Young, but could work through Bogdan Bogdanovic as a secondary creator, find its way to a wide open Danilo Gallinari, or fall back on a lob to an alarmingly open Clint Capela. There’s room for the Hawks to cool off and still have one of the most dangerous offenses in the league.

Justin Verrier: Atlanta. As encouraging as the early returns on Year 2 of the Markelle Fultz experiment in Orlando have been, Steve Clifford describing Dwayne Bacon as the linchpin to the Magic’s starting lineup is … troubling. Orlando’s tied for fourth-ranked offense is a nice early surprise, but playing the Wizards twice is the statistical version of the cream. The Hawks, meanwhile, are too damn talented—which could be a problem when everyone’s healthy and some of the pricey veterans or up-and-coming youngsters are squeezed out of shots, but right now is leading to Pop-A-Shot scoring totals. Racking up a couple of early wins—with more likely to come soon, as Cleveland, New York, and Charlotte all visit the Nü Highlight Factory soon—also could allow the team to play a little looser than if the win-now mandate was breathing down their neck from the jump.

Zach Kram: Can I say neither? They might turn out to be better than expected over the long haul, but it’s early enough that I’m not changing my priors for either team, which means I expect both to land a play-in spot but nothing more. Atlanta’s wins have come against the Bulls, Grizzlies, and Pistons; Orlando’s against the Heat, the Wizards twice, and the Thunder. There’s only one high-quality victory in that group.

Logan Murdock: The Hawks, for one reason and one reason only: Trae Young is blossoming into a superstar. He’s averaging 33 points, five rebounds, and eight assists as a 6-foot-1 point guard. Observers like to revisit the Young–Luka Doncic draft-day swap and debate which team got the better of it. But given the way Young is playing, it seems neither team lost in the transaction.

Dan Devine: I reject the premise! Atlanta’s offense will cool off eventually, and I’m not buying that this is a league-average defense, but even with some regression on both ends—say, top-seven on O, 20th-ish on D—that’s still a playoff team that can trade haymakers with good opponents. And even without Jonathan Isaac, I trust the combination of Nikola Vucevic and a characteristically stingy Clifford defense to give Orlando a chance to win most nights. The Hawks’ superior firepower probably gives them a higher ceiling, while Orlando still feels light on shot creation, though Cole Anthony has looked good. But I think the floor for both of these teams still comes in above “bad.” “Decent,” maybe. “Respectable,” even!

Paolo Uggetti: Atlanta. There is just so much firepower on this team. There’s no way they don’t end up with a top-three offense this season. John Collins looks renewed, Cam Reddish looks better, and the additions of Rajon Rondo, Gallinari, and Bogdanovic are already paying dividends. Tying it all together is Trae Young, who has taken another leap and has been a near-automatic 30-point, 10-assist player so far. Atlanta might not keep blowing everyone out, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hawks score 150 points in a couple of games and, at the very least, host a play-in game.

Houston Rockets v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

2. Which good West team off to a bad start do you believe in most: Golden State or Houston?

Uggetti: This is tricky because James Harden could be eating a cheesesteak in Philly hours after I write this. And yet … does it say something about the current state of the Warriors that I might still consider picking the Christian Wood Rockets in the event that Harden is traded? The Warriors’ situation is bleak aside from Stephen Curry and a few tantalizing glimpses of James Wiseman. The Rockets have vets and shooters. I’m sure Steph will go on a fiery run, but for now Golden State looks like it will struggle this season.

Murdock: I’m inclined to pick the Rockets, considering they’re months removed from a postseason berth and still have James Harden doing James Harden things on the floor. But the Warriors have much better chemistry inside their locker room. Plus, James Wiseman seems to be well on his way to Rookie of the Year. I’m going with the Warriors.

Devine: Golden State, if only because I’m still expecting James Harden to get traded at some point this season, and because the Warriors have shown some positive signs after opening the campaign with two blowout losses.

You can’t rely on Andrew Wiggins, but the aggressive version of him that showed up in Chicago and Detroit will help Golden State win some games. Kelly Oubre Jr. won’t keep shooting 21 percent on layups and 4 percent—not a misprint—on jumpers. Draymond Green’s due back soon. And, perhaps most importantly, after years of eschewing the modern game’s most popular play in favor of motion-heavy sets designed to get everybody involved, Steve Kerr has simplified Golden State’s offense by more frequently just giving Stephen Curry the ball and sending him a screener. Curry’s finishing 9.5 possessions per game as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll this season, way up from any of the previous five; those plays have produced a strong 1.13 points per possession. As Steph continues to find his stroke—13-for-38 in his first two games, 20-for-42 in the past two—I’d expect those numbers, and with them Golden State’s offensive efficiency and overall quality, to rise.

Kram: Houston. Over the past two seasons, the Warriors have allowed an average of 124.7 points in the nine games Steph Curry has played. I know Draymond Green will return to the court, and I know Kelly Oubre Jr. won’t shoot like Game 7 John Starks every night, but I can’t trust this team until it demonstrates an ability to guard anyone.

Mahoney: Golden State, if only because we have more reason to expect that its best players will still be on the roster a few weeks from now. Steve Kerr has a lot to work out if he’s going to bring this version of the Warriors to balance, but those designs start with Stephen Curry and the impending return of Draymond Green. Houston, by contrast, orients its offense around a player who wishes not to be a part of it. Until James Harden is eventually moved, everything the Rockets do has to run on a dual track—with one lane serving to maintain Harden’s production (and trade value) and the other nudging the franchise forward. Houston hasn’t even been that bad in its first few games, but its prospects are almost certain to get worse.

Verrier: Houston. If Harden ever bothers to learn his new teammates’ names, he’d be introduced to the most talented big man he’s ever played with in Christian Wood. If John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins prove as useful as they were in preseason when they return from quarantine, it’s hard to see this team being appreciably worse than last season’s above-.600 finish, even with all the Bad Vibes emanating.

3. Which other team—good or bad—has been the most surprising?

Devine: The 0-3 Raptors, sadly. I expected Toronto to scuffle a bit as Nick Nurse found a new frontcourt rotation after Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka gave way to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher. I did not expect a team that still features Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet to have far and away the NBA’s worst offense after a week. Lowry’s always been Toronto’s bellwether, but this is ridiculous: The Raptors are plus-14 in 111 minutes with the 34-year-old point guard on the floor, and minus-40 in the 33 minutes he’s sat. They need VanVleet, in particular, to get right—and fast.

Kram: Indiana. This early in the season, when one extreme game can drastically alter statistics, I pay more attention to changes in process than results. And look at the change in Indiana’s process! Cleaning the Glass tracks a stat called “location effective field goal percentage,” which looks at how efficiently a team would expect to score based solely on the location of its shots, and not whether they actually go in. Unsurprisingly, Houston’s 3s-and-layups offense has led the league in this stat in seven of the past eight seasons, and the Rockets lead again this year.

But no. 2 this season, with much more surprise, is the Pacers, who haven’t ranked in the top half of the league since 2009-10. Under new coach Nate Bjorkgren, the 3-1 Pacers are eschewing their usual midrange attempts and stampeding toward the rim at a league-best rate. This chart shows just how rapidly their shot profile has evolved this season, as compared to their previous campaigns since trading for Victor Oladipo and All-NBA candidate Domantas Sabonis.

Pacers’ Shot Profile Ranks

Range 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21 (so far)
Range 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21 (so far)
At rim 13 9 10 1
Midrange 6 4 4 26
3-point 27 29 29 25
Loc eFG% 24 20 21 2

Mahoney: The Cavaliers. Cleveland’s standing near the top of the East has all the makings of a mirage, but there have been some titillating developments in Sexland. The course of the franchise depends on whether Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, two highly drafted guards who until very recently had struggled to play good basketball together, can find their way to a real partnership. This electrifying start doubled as their most compelling case yet: a blueprint for what the Cavs could look like with Garland weaving through traffic to set up teammates and Sexton lighting up defenses at every opportunity.

Verrier: The Cavs. I may regret writing this in a week, maybe even a day, but Andre Drummond has been a stabilizing force for Cleveland. Playing through the Big Penguin is hardly a blueprint for season-long success, but he’s big enough and experienced enough to pick on overmatched frontcourts, and he and JaVale McGee have teamed up to give Cleveland 48 minutes of credible rim protection. It’s easier for Sexland to work its magic when there’s an absolute unit in the middle to do all the dirty work.

Uggetti: The Pacers. I shouldn’t be that surprised, but considering we treat this team like the new Spurs—acknowledge they are good, but never take them that seriously—they do deserve some credit. A new coach and a rocky offseason with Victor Oladipo could have led to a regression year, but so far they look like one of the more well-oiled teams out there with Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon playing like All-Stars. They might end up at their usual middle-of-the-East spot by season’s end, but they definitely don’t look like a team that’s sinking in any way.

Murdock: I didn’t have high hopes that the Washington Wizards would be world-beaters, but I at least figured the Bradley Beal–Russell Westbrook partnership would help them contend for a playoff berth. But the Wizards have been bad and outright lethargic through their first four games.

4. Which player—good or bad—has been the most surprising?

Murdock: When Kevin Durant tore his Achilles in the 2019 Finals, it was reasonable to expect Durant would never be the same. Now 18 months removed, he looks every bit of the top-five player he was in Golden State. Paired with Kyrie Irving, Durant has a strong chance to lead Brooklyn to the Finals this summer.

Devine: Before this season, Julius Randle had made two or more 3-pointers 42 times, and logged seven or more assists just 20 times, in 375 career games. This season, he’s done both three times in four games. Concrete jungle where dreams are made of; there’s nothing you can’t do.

I suspect Randle will not maintain a .661 true shooting percentage, a 34 percent assist rate, or per-game averages approaching 25 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists. But if Randle continues to show improvement as a more willing passer and a smoother shot-maker, the 26-year-old lefty—whose contract carries just a $4 million guarantee for next season—could either cement himself as a foundational piece for the rebuilding Knicks under Tom Thibodeau or, like former teammate Marcus Morris last season, make himself an attractive option for teams seeking more frontcourt scoring before the March 25 trade deadline.

Mahoney: I figured Jerami Grant would labor under the demands of a higher-usage role, but he’s acclimated himself well enough to at least put up a ton of points. How much that really matters is a thornier issue; the Pistons have been one of the worst teams in the early going of this season, and even in their minutes with Grant on the floor have been nowhere near solvent. Still, it’s something in and of itself that a career role player has been able to find the diversity in his game to score in a way he never has before, cranked up his attempts to become more of a volume 3-point shooter, and maintained his own individual scoring efficiency in the process.

Verrier: The real Skinny Jokic plays in Indiana:

Uggetti: Tyrese Haliburton. The Kings, at 3-1, are one of the early surprises and it’s in large part due to the fact that Haliburton and De’Aaron Fox already look like a backcourt in sync and with limitless potential (sorry, Buddy Hield). The measured pace of Haliburton’s game is the ideal complement to Fox’s speed, and his shot, well, it’s translating just fine so far:

Start writing up the lists of the teams that passed on him.

Kram: Lonnie Walker IV. I’m less interested in Walker’s statistical boost—though it is impressive, coming in twice as much playing time as last season—than his stylistic shift. In each of his first two seasons, Walker took 28 percent of his shots from 3-point range—a very low figure for a perimeter player in this era, especially one as potent from range as Walker, a career 41 percent 3-point shooter. This season, though, Walker’s dialing up nearly half of his shots from distance.

Not counting rookies and Kevin Durant, who didn’t play last season, 125 players had taken at least 30 shots through Tuesday. Walker ranks second among that group in his increase in 3-point rate, behind only Eric Bledsoe. On a vibrant, running Spurs team with a host of intriguing guards, Walker has played his way into the starting lineup—and potentially even more responsibility if he keeps taking, and making, all these new 3s.

5. Name one under-the-radar player or trend that’s jumped out to you so far.

Kram: Through Tuesday’s games, home teams are 26-28 and have been outscored by 0.7 points per game. It’s very early and individual lopsided results are skewing that average—take out the Clippers’ 51-point loss to Dallas and the Heat’s 47-point loss to the Bucks, and the home point differential is plus-1.1 per game—but I’m curious to track whether home-court advantage disappears entirely without stands full of fans.

Mahoney: Am I just supposed to sit here and pretend that Lu Dort isn’t averaging 19 a game?

Verrier: Why are so many teams burying lottery picks? Killian Hayes is being utilized more like Keith Bogans than Detroit’s point guard of the future, LaMelo Ball had played six fourth-quarter minutes before Charlotte’s blowout of the Mavs, and Kira Lewis Jr. has played 10 total minutes. I’m also getting increasingly worried about Randle’s revival diminishing the role of his Looper, 2019 no. 3 pick RJ Barrett. You don’t have to go full Process to develop a young core, but playing them also seems pretty important.

Uggetti: How travel affects certain teams will be fascinating given the baseball-style series that are being played now, with teams staying in certain cities to play multiple games. A day game in Los Angeles would have typically meant trouble for a road team like Dallas, given all of the extracurricular activities for players to explore. Instead, they were up by 50 on the Clippers by halftime. This season is going to get weird.

Murdock: Haliburton. The 12th pick in the 2020 draft is lighting it up in Sacramento. The other night, I was scrolling League Pass, saw the Kings-Nuggets matchup and figured, “What the hell?” For the next 20 minutes, I watched Haliburton light up Denver, helping Sac erase a double-digit lead and win. Haliburton is used to coming out of nowhere. He didn’t rank in the top 150 recruits coming out of high school despite being Wisconsin’s Gatorade Player of the Year. Following a stellar career at Iowa State, he dropped out of the top 10 in the NBA draft. Now, he’s firmly in the ROTY conversation.

Devine: I knew Mikal Bridges could do this:

It’s been fun, though, seeing him sprinkling a little bit more sugar on top of his game in the early going:

The third-year Villanova product’s averaging 15.5 points per game on 54 percent shooting, and looking like a surprisingly strong source of complementary offense for the 3-1 Suns. Nobody’s going to confuse Bridges with Kyrie Irving, but he looks to be stretching his legs a little bit on the ball, showing signs of dribble-drive and pull-up shooting development (he’s taking about three more shot attempts per 36 minutes of floor time, nudging his usage rate over 15 percent).

It’s unlikely it’ll creep up much higher than that; Bridges’s primary offensive role will still be to drill open spot-up 3s created by all the attention that Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton draw. But a version of Bridges who can beat closeouts off the dribble to collapse the defense and get to the rim, take a rebound and push tempo in transition, run a secondary pick-and-roll, and confidently use those long arms to raise up confidently for high-release, Shaun Livingston–ass jumpers—on top of his lockdown perimeter defense—could be an awfully useful contributor in Phoenix’s expected playoff run, and an even more interesting piece of the Suns’ big-picture puzzle.