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MikeCheck on NBA: The Best and Worst of the NBA’s opening month

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Now that we’re approaching the one-month mark of NBA action this season, there’s no better time than now to examine the biggest early surprises and most stunning disappointments.

No, overreactions aren’t recommended.

And yes, it’s still way too early to push the panic button. But there’s already enough evidence in play to point a finger toward some early concerns. So this week, this space is dedicated to taking a closer look at the best and worst – amid some other ramblings – in the NBA through the season’s first four weeks.

The NBA’s Most Inspiring Team through roughly 15 percent of the schedule is the Philadelphia 76ers. Perhaps they caught a dose of what the NFL’s Eagles are having across the parking lot just off Broad Street. This time a year ago, both the Sixers and Eagles were in the midst of what seemed the latter stages of the rebuilding process.

While the Eagles are the best team in the NFC and virtually a lock to contend in the playoffs, the Sixers just might be headed for the NBA postseason stage of the process a lot sooner than many expected. If the playoffs started today – instead of 154 or so days – the Sixers would be in the four-five matchup with Toronto in the opening round.

OK, that’s right. No overreactions. Got it.

But still, Philly carries the NBA’s second-longest current win streak into Thursday’s game in Sacramento against the lowly Kings. And the Sixers are doing this with franchise center Joel Embiid still under minutes’ management, current No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz sidelined indefinitely with a shoulder injury and former lottery pick Jahlil Okafor basically exiled in plain sight until he’s bought out or traded.

The once-proud franchise has endured years of ridicule – most of which was self-inflicted – to finally get to this encouraging point. Redshirt rookie Ben Simmons is clearly Rookie of the Year material at least. And he’s making a very strong case for early All-Star consideration.

I was never a true believer in trusting the process, because the Sixers had just as many things go terribly wrong as they did go right under that previous leadership’s strategic plan. But what I can buy into is admiring the progress that’s been made since Jerry Colangelo arrived two years ago as a special advisor to clean up the mess and make the Sixers relevant and viable again.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, there’s no reason to panic. But there’s every reason to be reasonably perturbed at what we’re seeing and hearing from the league’s Most Disappointing Team, the Cavaliers. The defense is horrible, someone in the rotation is always hurt and the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade reunion hasn’t yet delivered the dynamic on-court chemistry some may have assumed would be instant.

Instead, the Cavaliers have been the NBA’s equivalent of a college football homecoming opponent. Except, they’re doing it in reverse by losing to inferior talent in embarrassing fashion on their own court. The Magic, Knicks, Pacers and Hawks have torched the Cavs in Cleveland. Two years ago, David Blatt got fired after a 30-11 start to the season and Ty Lue took over as head coach and won a title. If the luxury-tax spending, expectations and high-profile players on the roster haven’t decreased, then the standard for competitive edge and nightly effort shouldn’t either.

“I’m a big cohesiveness, rhythm and comaradaerie guy,” James said. “This year, we added seven new guys to our roster, had some different guys in and out and it slow-tracked what we want to do as a unit. So every game is like a high-intense practice for us. It’s been challenging, but I’ve always been in love with the process and being patient and understanding what this season is. This is a different challenge.”

LeBron has earned the benefit of the doubt in moments like these. The Cavs will figure it out, largely because LeBron James will figure it out, barring injury. He always does. He’s been to seven straight NBA Finals. You count on him when it matters, sort of how May counts on Memorial Day.

The NBA’s Opening Month MVP has to be LeBron’s former teammate Kyrie Irving, who has picked the Celtics up off the deck after that brutal opening night injury to Gordon Hayward and has guided Boston to the best record in the league. Irving hasn’t been singularly spectacular, but he has been everything folks claimed he never was in Cleveland: steady and a leader.

With sick handles and a firm grasp on the opportunity to steer a historic franchise back to the Eastern Conference finals, Irving has salvaged the start of this season for Boston. Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown have formed a solid supporting cast around Irving’s wizardry and have convinced many that this won’t be a throw-away season.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the league’s Most Disappointing Player through the first month has to be Paul George. Look, this chemistry project in Oklahoma City is going to take some time to get George, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook all on the same page. But the player who stands the most to lose if this doesn’t work out as expected is George, whose scoring, shooting and rebounding numbers are all down so far from his previous five full seasons in Indiana.

Regardless as to how things play out in OKC, George is destined to get his max deal next summer in free agency, simply because the market dictates as much. But is he still viewed as the versatile, franchise-anchoring superstar who can push a team into title contention or beyond?

Not so much right now.

But the real answer to this question, and many others in the NBA, requires more than a month’s worth of observations.

Grind City’s NBA Power Index

  1. Boston Celtics
  2. It’s super-duper early, but maybe Kyrie Irving isn’t the villain he was made out to be amid that exit from Cleveland. Boston is the second team in NBA history to win 10 straight after an 0-2 start. LW: 1

  3. Golden State Warriors
  4. A three-game road win streak galvanized the Warriors and got the defending champions back to their defensively dominant ways. Kevin Durant’s thigh bruise won’t sideline him for long. LW: 7

  5. Detroit Psitons
  6. It’s taken a few years, but Stan Van Gundy is finally getting those Pistons to play with some of the freedom and offensive flexibility that defined his better Orlando teams back in the day. LW: NR

  7. Minnesota Timberwolves
  8. Minnesota had its five-game winning streak end Wednesday night against the Warriors, and it remains the West’s only winning team with a negative (-2.5) point differential. LW: 4

  9. Orlando Magic
  10. Point guard stability helped Orlando end a two-game slide when Elfrid Payton returned after missing eight games with a hamstring injury to dish 11 assists in a win over the improved Knicks. LW: 3

  11. Memphis Grizzlies
  12. Playing this season on a one-year, $3 million deal, combo guard Tyreke Evans – the early frontrunner for NBA Sixth Man of the Year – is proving to be one of the best values in the league. LW: 5

  13. Houston Rockets
  14. Coach Mike D’Antoni says Chris Paul is “probably rounding second and pretty close to third” base on soon returning from the knee injury that has sidelined him since the Rockets’ season opener. LW: 6

  15. San Antonio Spurs
  16. There appears to be steady progress with both Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard in their respective rehabs from knee injuries. What we know is Rudy Gay has been a solid contributor. LW: NR

  17. Philadelphia 76ers
  18. Even with Joel Embiid still not completely unleashed on a full-time basis, the run and gun Sixers have become a must-watch almost every night on NBA League Pass early this season. LW: NR

  19. Toronto Raptors
  20. DeMar DeRozan has been one of the NBA’s more prolific scorers, but is finally starting to add three-point range to his arsenal. He’s shot 35.7 percent from deep the past three games. LW: NR

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.