As we inch closer to the 10 game mark where accurate assessments of each team can be made, the ranks begin to take form and the foundation for award races is established too.
With that being said, let’s take an Eastern Conference centric lap around the league
Early season returns always feature a handful of teams operating beyond a level of play that’s sustainable. Sometimes it’s attributed to the better teams coming out the gates slow while they’re more vulnerable, sometimes it can be a teams strength of schedule being light. On the other hand, the collectively older contenders take their time out the gate trusting that they can win regardless of their scenario once the seasons finish line is near. Either way, it makes for intriguing stat lines and fun to follow stories (i.e. the Phoenix Suns start last season).
The teams I deem as likely to regress from their early successes 📉
1.) The Knicks (5-3) tied for 5th in the East
Showered with nothing but positive responses from his players via post game press conferences, new head coach Tom Thibodeau has ingratiated himself quite well in the honeymoon phase with his new roster.
Third in the league in points allowed while also eighth in defensive rating, Thibs principles in defense are seeing early successes for the time being.
They’re also enjoying some successes offensively. Of note, Julius Randle is currently averaging 23.1 PPG, 12.0 RPG, and 7.4 APG. Though small in sample size still these numbers are absurd. He’s operating at a top 15 player efficiency right now. Sustainable? I highly doubt it. However, when your coach is playing you 38.6 minutes a night, that gives u ample time to replicate these numbers every once in awhile, which is customary to Thibodeau form.
Aside from Randle, RJ Barrett is playing a heavy 38.1 minutes a night, with 17.1 PPG (though his efficiency is lacking). It’s only been three games so far but Alec Burks is 20.7 PPG(66.7% from 3 on 6 attempts) in 27.7 minutes a night.
It’s fun to see the Knicks back in relevance, even if it will be a short-lived moment. Their wins have come against MIL, CLE, ATL, IND, and UTH. Yes this will be a weird and wild season given the times, but expect for them to descend relatively soon.
2.) The Cavs (5-4) tied for 7th in the East
Welcome to Sexland madness! Placing second in points allowed and first in defensive rating with wins against CHA, CLE, PHI, ATL, and MEM garnered some attention early on, while Sexton and Garland have been a revelation. Both putting up 4+ attempts a night, they’re enjoying 51.6% and 46.9% clips respectively from deep. They had their questions regarding if they’ll be the future of if CLE will need to decide on one and trade away the other, but as of now they’ve pressed pause on that thought and enjoyed the moment.
In a contract year, Andre Drummond has been productive as well. Posting 17 PPG, 14.2 RPG, and almost two blocks and steals a game as well, he’s been typical Dre in those respects. Though their young guns will be their driving force, they’ll certainly taper back statistically over the next few weeks, as will their overall record as they continue to make sense of the big picture situation they’re currently in.
3.) The Magic (6-2) tied for 2nd in the East
Coach Steve Clifford deserves his flowers. One of the forgotten teams in playoff talks, he’s had them in the conversation each of the last two seasons including eye-opening game one wins both years too.
Now in his third season in Disney World, it will take a little more work to make the actual playoffs due to the play in tournament scenario, which I believe they’ll be viably placed in. I can also see them earning their way back into one of the latter two playoff seeds when the play ins are all said and done. They have experience, a solid number one option and all star in Vucevic, a sixth man candidate in Terrence Ross averaging 20.7 PPG with an elite 60.1 eFG%, and solid third and fourth options in Fournier and Aaron Gordon to help them function.
The loss of one of the bright spots of the start in Markelle Fultz going down with a torn ACL was terrible news and a blow to this teams aspirations, but they should be able to reach their relatively low ceiling nonetheless. They’ll regress towards the bottom of the Eastern playoff race in time.
Teams I expect to ascend toward where they’re expected to place 📈
4.) The Raptors (1-6) 14th in the East
Yikes! The Raptors have not even looked like a shell of themselves this season. Sporting a -4.6 net rating, coach Nurse has a situation to sort out. On one hand, he’s had to deal with a brand new front court rotation to deploy, much different from the likes he’s enjoyed over the last few seasons featuring Ibaka and Gasol. On the other, they’re struggling to score and have yet to find any semblance of an identity in this new rendition. Should they continue to scuttle at this pace, they may look to shake things up.
I personally do not have an idea how they could go about attaining the likes of James Harden, but it would be on brand for President Masai Ujiri to make a move like this by any means. It wouldn’t be much different than how he attained Kawhi Leonard, swooping in unexpectedly.
Either way, I expect for them to resemble the respected team that they became over the last few years. They have enough of that championship foundation in place to right the ship, they just need to find their legs in this peculiar situation they are in (playing away from Toronto in Florida for this season, etc.). They’ll be a 7-8 seed in the end.
5.) The Heat (3-4) 11th in the East
Not spoken upon nearly as much as the case for their NBA Finals counterparts of last season, the Heat too have endured an extremely short off-season. The quick turnaround has had seemingly a more resounding and profound effect on last seasons champions of the Eastern Conference.
True to brand, defensively they haven’t been too bad outside of compiling timely stops. Offense is where they’ve struggled most, posting only 105.7 PPG. Part of this can be attributed to their 17.7 turnovers per game, they’re also probably more heavily reliant upon their 3 point shooting than coach Spoelstra would like. In their losses, they’re seeing a 12 point percentage drop which has them at only 98 PPG in losses. There’s zero panic in this team however, and their top dog Jimmy Butler is clearly taking his time getting back into the swing of things. When he is truly back, that will make up for a lot of what they’re lacking. I do see the loss of all that Jae Crowder encompassed for them last season as an issue that will linger on.
They signed Mo Harkless in place of losing Crowder, but I do not believe that he can fill that void as they hoped he could. He’s struggled to even see the floor, averaging only 8 minutes a game. He has the second highest defensive rating and a team worst box score +\- of -11.8. Defensively, he’s -2.1 (and -9.7 offensively). What helped Miami a lot last season was Butler having that partner in crime defensively in Crowder to give him on court breaks defensively, as well as Crowder’s 3 point shooting ability and secondary playmaking are all something this team longs for at the moment. I can see this becoming a trouble spot over time and though I don’t worry about them making the second round of the playoffs, I do worry about whether the burden this season will be even heavier on Jimmy Butler than last seasons was.
Other Miscellaneous Occurrences of Note
Stephen Curry goes for 62
Shoutout to Steph Curry for an unreal scoring performance, totalling a career-high 62 points in a win over the Blazers.
Bradley Beal Goes for 60
Though it did come in a loss, shout out to Bradley Beal for his 60 point performance, including 57 through three quarters vs the Sixers.
Her instance came before the turn of the calendar, nonetheless shoutout to Becky Hammon for becoming the first woman to serve as acting coach in an NBA game. Here is her postgame presser after her feat.
Recommended Read of the Week
Detailed by ESPNs Baxter Holmes, a spotlight on the health officials of each team and the daily riggers they endure to have the athletes ready night in and night out is an around the clock task. Check out this detailed post, it’s well worth the read.
That’s a wrap for this week’s Friday Five’s. As we wait to see how these scenarios regarding Coronavirus outbreaks play out, let’s hope that each scenario is one that doesn’t linger on and each teams players and staff can stay healthy through these tricky times.
All stats are accurate before play on 1.8.2021 and derive from NBA.com/stats or basketball-reference.com.