Basketball is back, and in the early part of the 2016 season, some NBA teams have already shown flashes of major change from last year–some for the better, some for the worse. Young players have proven their worth, remodeled teams have flexed their new talent, and Derrick Rose isn’t hurt yet. There is plenty of food for thought after just a few contests, so we boiled it all down into seven eyebrow-raisers after one week of play in the new season.
1. The Warriors have growing pains, but teams should still be nervous.
Golden State’s infamous NBA Finals flop a year ago brought tumultuous change to the NBA’s landscape of superstars, as Kevin Durant landed with the Warriors during free agency. Their newly acquired offensive firepower is lethal, but wins and rings do not come from paper. The Warriors are 2-1 after falling to the new-look San Antonio Spurs on opening night and downing the underwhelming Pelicans and Suns. Not all is bad in Oakland as the Warriors are still averaging 111 points per contest in the early stages of the season, but their efficiency and defense have wavered. The Warriors allowed 129 and 122 points in their first two games, with only 13 total blocks through all three. The loss of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli inside the paint is evident already, and the Dubs have some adjustments to make on the defensive end if they want to head back to the NBA Finals to redeem their fumble last year. However, Kevin Durant has looked spectacular, tossing up nearly 31-10-5 with two blocks and two steals a game. Assuming he meshes with Steve Kerr’s system throughout the year, Durant could be the last push make a triumphant return to the Finals and make add another banner to Oracle Arena. This is not the first time a “super team” has begun slowly after uber-high expectations; when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up in Miami, they began the 2011 season 9-8 and still found themselves in the NBA Finals later that year. Don’t fret quite yet over the Warriors, but look for some changes in lineups as Kerr tries to find a good combination to cut down on the defense breakdowns.
2. Paul Pierce officially wins this season’s “Player…but Really More of a Coach” Award
Pierce, who has sat out the first two games with an ankle injury, averaged 6.3 point per game in 18.1 minutes and 36.3% shooting last season. The Clippers need a lot of help at small forward and have for some time, but it has been increasingly more evident that The Truth may just be Doc Rivers’ right-hand man this season instead of a force on the court. Pierce decided to ride the pine on Halloween dressed as Rick James because he just doesn’t give a f***.
— J.A. Adande (@jadande) November 1, 2016
For the record, Kevin Garnett won this completely made-up title last season, with other former winners including Juwan Howard and Kevin Willis.
3. The Spurs will never die.
This narrative has seemingly been written every single year of recent history, but it applies more than ever now. The Spurs are 4-0 after blitzing the reigning Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors and holding off the Kings, Pelicans, and Heat. The Spurs surrendered only 372 points over their first four contests in classic Popovich style. Kawhi Leonard’s 38.0 PER ranks second in the NBA, and his 28.0 PPG has kept the offense running in San Antonio. After the retirement of franchise centerpiece Tim Duncan, many were skeptical as to whether the Spurs could patch together another successful season after acquiring free agents like Pau Gasol and David Lee, but the retooled team ranks third in point differential per game at +15.8. As long as Gregg Popovich mans the reigns to the most successful NBA franchise of the new millennium, it seems that the Spurs will be en route to another 50+ win season.
4. Russell Westbrook might not be as MVP-worthy as his stats would suggest.
Throwing shade at Russell Westbrook is not a good move: he doesn’t take it lightly. However, Westbrook’s historic 51-point triple double in the season opener and his subsequent 32-12-9 need to be taken in better context. The Thunder star’s explosion in game one came with a cumbersome win in which Westbrook forced 44 shots and made only 11 as Oklahoma City trailed heading into the fourth quarter. After a missed layup from Joel Embiid in the final minute, the Thunder secured a win against the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that won a league-worst 10 games last season. Admittedly, any performance that stuffed on the stat sheet deserves high-praise, but Westbrook’s league-high 42.2 usage percentage might spell out why his MVP chances could be lower than everyone expects. Unfortunately, this is déjà vu for the Thunder guard. Two seasons ago, when Kevin Durant was sidelined with a foot injury, Russell Westbrook posted 28.1 points, 8.6 assists, and 7.3 rebounds per game and finished fourth in MVP voting as the Thunder failed to make the playoffs. Russ also missed a league-leading 844 field goal attempts in 2015 and could be on pace for a similar season this year, which could leave the star on the outskirts of Most Valuable Player voting yet again this year.
5. Teams will not shy away from opening up the checkbook moving forward.
The deadline for contract extensions on rookie contracts from the 2013 draft class passed on the 31st, and many were able to net big deals just before time ran out. Dennis Schroder, Victor Oladipo, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, and Gorgui Dieng signed four-year contract extensions worth a combined total of $420 million. Numbers of this magnitude come as no surprise considering the extreme amounts of cash that got tossed around this offseason, but the upcoming free agency periods will likely take salaries to unprecedented heights. The salary cap for the 2016-2017 season is over $94 million, $24 million higher than last season. The salary floor has also risen to $84 million for this season, literally forcing teams to spend money in the offseason (which makes contracts like Timofey Mozgov’s 4-year, $64 million deal understandable). With star talent like Steph Curry and Chris Paul available in the market and nearly every team having money available, green will start getting tossed around at high rates.
6. The Hawks are nothing to sneeze at in the east.
After Atlanta’s fall from grace as a one-seed in the 2015 playoffs, the Hawks refuse to take a backseat in the Eastern Conference. The east is essentially a potluck of revamped squads that are trying to compete with Cleveland in April. Atlanta remains far from that point, but they’ve shown great leaps from last season after dealing Jeff Teague and signing Dwight Howard in the offseason. The Hawks are 3-0 through a week of play and are shooting a collective 49.7% from the floor. Thabo Sefolosha has started the season hot for the Hawks, knocking down 10 of his first 12 shots and making his way onto highlight reels around the league.
Atlanta boasts one of the six remaining undefeated records in the NBA and will look to further that accomplishment as they take on the Lakers, Wizards, and Rockets in their next three games. While Dwight Howard still has work to do in order to fit his physicality into the offense, the Hawks may be bound to meet up with the LeBron James in the playoffs yet again with hopes of a different outcome.
7. I’m still confused as to where everybody in the league ended up over the summer.
This one actually could go for the start of almost any season, but the beginning of this year specifically has grabbed attention from viewers, as popular players and coaches have signed with new teams, retired, or been traded. For example, watching Dwayne Wade in a Chicago Bulls uniform knocking down four three-pointers in a game still sounds like an alternate reality. With generational talent like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett retiring, their respective former teams still have their presence looming around the organization despite their departures (sometimes very literally). All in all, with names like Wade, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Al Horford, and Derrick Rose switching teams, it might be time to pick up some new jerseys. Players were not the only ones that found themselves displaced. 11 of the 30 NBA teams started the season with a different head coach than they had this time last year. Every season sees change throughout the layout of the NBA’s player and coaching pools, but this year’s turnover still needs time to cement.
By: Oscar Rzodkiewicz