As the 2017-2018 NBA season nears the conclusion of its first month, several unexpected and exciting storylines are emerging. In the Eastern Conference, only three of last year’s NBA Playoffs participants would make the postseason if the season ended today (Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, and Toronto Raptors). In fact, the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, sit 12th in the standings at 4-6, having dropped games to perennial bottom-dwellers such as the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic. The Cavs have struggled on the defensive end, placing near last in the NBA in several major defensive statistical categories, such as opponent adjusted field goal percentage and opponent three-point percentage. The Cavs have also been sluggish out of the gate in many games, trailing seven of their ten opponents after the first quarter.
Due to their poor starts, tension is mounting within the team. Following Sunday’s loss to the struggling Atlanta Hawks, shooting guard Dwyane Wade, a 12-time All-Star, called out the Cavs’ starters for their subpar performances. Wade recently bought out the final year of his contract with the Chicago Bulls in order to be reunited with Lebron James, with whom he won back-to-back NBA titles in 2012 and 2013.
“It’s no secret we’re starting games off awful. Terrible. And [Atlanta] got it going early, and the effort or the focus just wasn’t there to start off, and you try to battle back, you waste a lot of energy trying to come back from 16-18 down, and it’s tough nightly to do this. And we all know this. It’s no secret in this locker room, but our first unit, we got to start off better,” Wade said to reporters in a post-game interview.
On the flip side, the Boston Celtics, despite losing recently signed star forward Gordon Hayward to a gruesome ankle injury in their season opener, have won eight straight games to sit atop the Eastern Conference standings. Kyrie Irving, acquired from the Cavaliers in a controversial offseason trade in exchange for beloved and hardworking All-star point guard Isaiah Thomas, defensive specialist Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic, and a 2018 first round pick, has led the balanced charge, averaging 21 points and 5.6 assists per game. Other key contributors include savvy veteran, Al Horford (14.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 4.3 assists), rookie Jason Tatum (13.6 points, 6.3 rebounds), and Hayward’s more-than-capable replacement, Jaylen Brown (15.8 points, 6.6 rebounds).
One team in the East that has exceeded expectations up to this point is the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons, a team that finished eight games under .500 last year and missed the NBA Playoffs, currently sit at 7-3, only one game off the pace in the East. Off to their best start since 2008-2009, the Pistons’ success can be attributed in large part to improved offensive efficiency and the drastic improvement in free throw shooting of their star center, Andre Drummond. Prior to the season, Drummond held the record for the worst free throw percentage in NBA history (38.1%) but through ten games in 2017-2018, Drummond is shooting a very respectable 75% from the foul line. Even if Drummond’s “hot” free throw shooting cools down, it is still likely that he has improved substantially from his career averages. Drummond is not the Pistons’ only hot offensive performer, however, as the team’s top seven scorers are all averaging point totals above their career averages.
In the Western Conference, after a shaky start, the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors seem to have righted the ship, winning their last three games by an average of 22.3 points. The Warriors’ potent offense, led by All-Stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, once again tops the league in points per game (120.7). Although still early in the season, all five of the Warriors’ starters are shooting a very impressive 50% or better from the field. NBA General Managers’ overwhelming pick to repeat as NBA champions (93% of GMs selected the Warriors to win in an annual pre-season survey), the Warriors seem to be hitting their stride, and at their best, they are nearly unbeatable.
One team in the West that has failed to meet expectations is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last season, the Thunder were eliminated in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Over the offseason, in an attempt to bolster their roster and improve on last year’s results, the Thunder acquired two superstars, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, to assist reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. However, despite a drastically improved supporting cast, the Thunder are a mediocre 4-5. One would expect the team to improve over the course of the season as George, Anthony, and Westbrook gain experience playing with one another, but the three superstars have not yet figured out a way to share the ball. The Thunder are averaging barely over 20 assists per game, only good for 13th in the NBA.
It is too early to know how the 2017-2018 season will end, but I expect struggling teams like the Cavaliers and the Thunder to finish the season near the top of their respective conferences, while teams lacking stars, such as the Pistons, the Magic, and the Indiana Pacers, will likely cool down from their hot starts. Anticipate the NBA’s “superteams,” such as the Warriors, Cavs, Thunder, Rockets, and Celtics, to battle it out for the NBA crown. That being said, it will be difficult for any team to wrestle the title away from Curry, Durant, and the rest of the Golden State Warriors. I expect the Warriors to once again dominate the NBA and take home their third title in four years.