Some snap judgments about 2016-17 with one month gone
Although much of the season remains, these things stand out most so far
So what if we’ll have to skip the clocks ahead again before we even finish the long grind of the regular season? Does it really matter that it will take more than seven months for somebody to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy? It’s never too soon to leap to conclusions about a few of the things we know — or think we know — five weeks into the 2016-17 regular season.
Confidence game in Cleveland: It’s amazing what one little old ring on the finger can do for a team. This time last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers were still living under the cloud of great expectation, self doubt and the smug, condescending personality of coach David Blatt. Now with a championship under their belt and brain cramps Tuesday night at Milwaukee aside — hello, J.R.! — LeBron James and friends know exactly who they are, what needs to be done and how to get there. The 13-3 start has the defending champs counting the days till June.
Warriors keep on rolling: While everybody was wondering how Kevin Durant was going to fit in with his new teammates, it seems the world managed to forget that his teammates were already pretty good. That said, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all encouraging Durant to assert himself even more in the offense. The team that’s not out to set records this time around is still hovering above the rest of the Western Conference at otherworldly heights. In fact, the only place the Warriors fall short is in wearing their supposed image as the NBA’s new villains. They’re still cuddlier than 3-point-shooting Smurfs.
DeRozan rising in Toronto: One big question coming into the season was how the Raptors could improve on their franchise-record 56 wins from 2015-16. It was a tall task, but one way is for DeMar DeRozan to take his game up to the next level. Toronto began by rolling behind a fiery DeRozan. His five consecutive 30-point games to open the season was a first since Michael Jordan did it in 1986. Never mind that DeRozan is still doing it without a real perimeter game. The No. 2-rated offense in the league has Raptors thinking good can turn into great if they can mix in just a little defense.
Harden doing it all … again: Let’s just say it. Nobody but nobody carries more of the burden for his team on his shoulders than James Harden, who has to score like the world is ending each night and hand out helpers like a blackjack dealer just for the Rockets to have a fighting chance to beat anybody. He’s strong. He’s crafty. He’s quick. He’s relentless. He’s willing. He could be only the second player in NBA history after Tiny Archibald in 1972-73 to lead the league in both scoring and assists. New coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense and vision for Harden has the Rockets much better than the 41-41 team from last season. But how far can one man take you and will he simply wear out?
Westbrook unleashed in OKC: Is there a town in the NBA with a bigger chip on its shoulder than Oklahoma City? Spurned by Durant, rattled by the almost-weekly earthquakes, the Thunder have not been shaken to the core. Now the one-man twister that is Russell Westbrook is making a run at MVP as well as Oscar Robertson’s historic feat of averaging a triple-double for the entire season. The pieces that GM Sam Presti has added behind him are true believers that the Thunder can still be among the elite in the West. And they might be right.
Embiid finally arrives in Philly: It’s been two long years, more surgeries and missed games than anybody wanted. But here is Joel Embiid finally on the court for the Sixers and having the joyful time of his life just playing basketball again. He’s chomping at the bit to get his minutes restriction lifted and Philly is still a long way from being competitive. But just watching Sam Hinkie’s gambling pick from the 2014 Draft has to bring a smile to your face. And maybe more than a few Kia Rookie of the Year votes down the line.
Knicks not-so super after all: If the long-range future in Philly is best seen through a telescope, it’s still better than the view in New York, where the Knicks are anything but the “super team” that Derrick Rose proclaimed back in the summer. While not close to 2011 MVP form, Rose has been good enough for the Knicks to think about offering him a contract extension. Not so with worn-out center Joakim Noah, who often looks like the oldest 31-year-old on the planet. Knicks fans can enjoy Kristaps Porzingis and only wish that club president Phil Jackson had a “process.” Or a real plan.
Have things changed in Clipperland?: Every year the Clippers are like Lucy teeing up that football and swearing to Charlie Brown that they won’t pull it away. So forget that they won 56, 57, 56 and 53 games in the past four seasons yet failed to win more than a single playoff series. This time everything about Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and a solid bench put together by Doc Rivers is for real in a 14-2 start. Until they remember that they’re the Clippers and drop three straight going into Cleveland Thursday night. What is it they say about doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result?
Grow-time for new Showtime crew: After straining at the tight leash of old-school coach Byron Scott and dealing with the special circumstances of Kobe Bryant’s grand tour last season, the Lakers are enjoying themselves under coach Luke Walton. Just like that, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are having fun again and, perhaps not coincidentally, success. Give first-round pick Brandon Ingram time to settle in and the happy times in Laker Land might not be as far off as everyone thought. Maybe Jim Buss won’t have to turn over control of the basketball operation to Jeannie Buss after all.
The beat goes on in San Antonio: Back when he was just a quiet rookie five years ago, Kawhi Leonard was called a “future face of the franchise” by coach Gregg Popovich. Now without Tim Duncan in the Spurs lineup for the first time in nearly two decades, the steadily-improving Leonard has positively exploded into everything they could have wanted in San Antonio. Already the two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard has asserted himself as an offensive force and made and early case for Kia MVP votes.
Ain’t no Mardi Gras: For the second year in a row, the Pelicans were practically grounded before Thanksgiving. Anthony Davis leads the league in scoring and is back to being an all-around monster. The Pelicans are 5-2 since Jrue Holiday made his belated season debut after taking care of his wife following brain surgery. But Tyreke Evans (right knee) and Quincy Pondexter (left knee) still haven’t played at all, Dante Cunningham (right knee) is back on the shelf and it’s likely the best hope in New Orleans is once again reaching for a bottom rung on the playoff ladder.
Sweet home Chicago: Everybody who didn’t think that Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo could work together can raise their hands. Yes, that’s a lot of hands. Yet here the Bulls sit ranked in the top 10 on both offense and defense and are playing in harmony. Rondo isn’t stopping the ball, Wade is embracing the mentor role for Butler’s ascendancy to superstar level and the Bulls are off and running.
Tough times in D.C.: If there’s still discontent and gridlock in the nation’s capital following election day, things certainly are no better in the monumental disconnect that is the Washington backcourt. How much longer is everybody going to wait on the combination of John Wall and Bradley Beal to live up to their potential and make the Wizards great — or even good — again?
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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