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15 takeaways from the first month of the season

What have we learned one month into the 2020-21 season? Shaun Powell takes a closer look.

The play of Stephen Curry and LeBron James headline some of the most notable observations from the first month of the season.

There was never any reason to anxiously hold a one-month anniversary in an NBA regular season before, but these aren’t normal times and this isn’t a normal season.

The best part about 2020-21 so far is that it’s still a season. A slate of games have been postponed because of health and safety reasons, which is understandable when basketball is played without a protective bubble. The league will go forward with caution and fingers crossed and hope for the best.

In the meantime, the basketball itself seems unaffected once the ball goes up. The highlights: Steph Curry’s 62-point game, Bradley Beal’s 60-point game, the Mavericks giving the Clippers an unexpected 51-point beating and a big Brooklyn trade that gives the East a major attraction to compete with the Lakers in the West, just to name a few.

Here’s 15 takeaways from the first month, and what we’ve seen, and what probably lies ahead:

Christian Wood: Not only did Wood (averaging 23.8 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 1.7 bpg so far) come from almost nowhere, he initially did so in Detroit, which means not many noticed. But he’s clearly the real deal, a tall and athletic player with a shooter’s touch who’s becoming a very good player and taking charge in this new age in Houston without James Harden. When they signed him as a free agent last fall, the Rockets took a chance that Wood’s mini-breakout with the Pistons wasn’t a tease. It appears they received a steal.

Raptors retired to Florida: There are few places you’d rather be this time of year than Florida, where the warmth beckons. Unless you’re an NBA team from Toronto and must essentially spend the entire season on the road. Anyway, the Raptors lost eight of their first 10 games and dealt with the problematic Pascal Siakam, who was suspended for one game and erratic in others. This appears to be a former NBA champ in transition, trying to embrace a new personality and wean some young talent, such as Chris Boucher, who’s thriving, and Terence Davis, who’s not.

Heat, Pelicans, Nuggets disappoint: The trickiest part about offering any analysis of a season that’s not even one-fourth complete is the very good chance of false impressions. There are countless examples of teams initially showing themselves to be a tease, either good or bad, before their true destination is revealed. That said, the Heat, Pelicans and Nuggets are all hoping for better nights ahead. Of the three, Miami has the best excuse for a losing record as Jimmy Butler has only played half the amount of games for the defending East champs. Meanwhile, inconsistent guard play is dooming the Pelicans while depth is an issue in Denver with Michael Porter Jr. missing 10 games.

Zach LaVine slander: There will be none of that here. Quite simply, LaVine could be one of the most unfairly stigmatized players in the league. The former dunk champ is exciting and has stretched his shooting range to make him dangerous with the ball for the Bulls. He’s making half his shots, averaging 27.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 5.3 apg.

LeBron still reigns: Here in his 17th season, with all the tread wear associated with deep runs through the post-season, LeBron James still has the look of a Kia MVP candidate who can get a 20-point triple-double at any given night. Certainly, it helps to be teammates with Anthony Davis, who can absorb the burden and make life easier. Yet LeBron continues to defy age and also enhance his game, this time by bringing better and more consistent outside shooting.

LeBron James had one of his best games of the season against Memphis on Jan. 5

Gimme the Ball: The Hornets don’t have the smartest Draft history but they apparently got it right with LaMelo Ball, who makes Charlotte games must-see basketball. He has an element you can’t teach — impeccable floor vision and thread-the-needle passing — that makes him fun to watch. The Hornets are doing the right thing by managing his minutes and having him come off the bench, although if starter Devonte’ Graham keeps shooting 32% that may change.

Beware the Grizzlies: If you’re looking to identify a team that’s better than its record, why not Memphis? Ja Morant missed eight games and Jaren Jackson Jr. has yet to suit up. Once healthy, the Grizzlies should resume the exciting pace they set last summer in the Orlando bubble. Hard to find many teams with more upside right now than Memphis, still looking to hit its stride.

Harden in Brooklyn: Guess what? Nobody cares how messy it got when he left Houston anymore. Even Rockets fans will be in a forgiving mood when James Harden gets his jersey retired in Houston one day. All that matters is here and now, and that’s taking place in Brooklyn with the Nets, where Harden is in the right place at this stage of his career. He can share the heavy lifting with Kevin Durant, whom he respects, and these two high-scoring former Kia MVPs will make life hell for the team on the other bench. It could be that the path to the East title runs through the subway. Which brings us to …

James Harden is off to a historic start with the Nets.

Kyrie Irving: He’s all set to return after an absence that stretched a couple of weeks for personal reasons and NBA protocols. There has never been any issue about Kyrie’s ability to ball. His bounce off the dribble, ability to change speeds, attack the rim and take big shots is unimpeachable. Just two reasonable questions going forward, though: Can he mesh with another ball-dominant player, and will he leave the team again for “personal reasons?” The Nets need to know they can rely on a star who could be the difference between winning a title and falling just short.

Popovich adjusts: One of the more understated events in the NBA is happening in San Antonio, where a coach who turns 72 next week isn’t allowing a few generation gaps to separate himself from his players. Gregg Popovich is getting older, and the new core of the Spurs is as young as ever, and yet the player connection with Pop remains pure. After missing the playoffs for the first time in two decades, the Spurs are among the league’s early surprises. They have a winning record during this transitional phase and leaning on players who hadn’t even picked up a ball yet when Pop was winning championships with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The game has since changed and Pop chose to adjust right along with it.

Jayson and Jaylen: The Celtics had to endure a reality without Gordon Hayward and also missing Kemba Walker, but the first month of the season was saved by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, their devastating pair of swingmen who carried the club. Tatum is arguably playing better than ever (at least in the regular season) and Brown is definitely at his highest level ever. Together they’re averaging 52.7 points, 12.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists and showing great chemistry together. Boston will still need to replace Hayward’s points and presence, and that player — if he exists — hasn’t identified himself yet. But Walker’s return will be a boost especially if he’s more like the Charlotte version of himself. At the very least, the Celtics are in the mix once again at the top in the East.

Jayson Tatum dropped 40 on the Raptors earlier this season.

Joel Embiid: When you take into account his impact on defense, then it’s likely that we haven’t seen a big man with such two-way punch since Duncan’s prime. Embiid took it upon himself to get into better shape and reduce his tendency to disappear during stretches of games. After the disappointing way last season ended for the Sixers, Embiid said he wanted to be great. Well, from what he’s shown this far this season (25.0 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.4 spg and 1.5 bpg), he’s taking those steps.

Karl-Anthony Towns and the battle with coronavirus: No words, really. Just no words to adequately even imagine what the Wolves center has endured over the past year, with the virus claiming members of his family and then making a connection to him, too. It leaves you with a mixture of sadness and anger.

Steph is Steph: After an injury-interrupted season where he played just long enough to drop a sweat, Stephen Curry is not only back on the floor but back to being his old self — as if there was any doubt. He’s making an honest attempt to lead the NBA in scoring, and perhaps out of necessity, because the Warriors without Klay Thompson need everything Curry can give. There’s still no guarantee of a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive West, though, and that’s the bigger challenge facing Curry.

Take a look back at Stephen Curry’s 62-point game this season.

The Lakers: The defending champs are still flexing three months later, with a virtually new supporting cast. They’re leading the West, and that shows the quality of the job that GM Rob Pelinka did this fall, and also how it’s easy for role players to blend around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder have been especially solid and given the Lakers what they lacked last season: A scoring point guard and blue-collar forward.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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