by: Michael Shields
The 2015-2016 NBA season has only just commenced, but the on-court action is already scorching hot…
Being just twelve (thirteen in some cases) games into the 2015-2016 NBA season, it is still far too early to forge too many conclusions. The canvas of the season is still mostly empty, with many brushstrokes yet to be laid upon it. But we are indeed about ten percent into the long haul, and much has happened, from the freshly crowned champs strutting their stuff, to break-out performances from ballers we will be hearing about repeatedly for the next decade plus, and the end of the road for some of the game’s all-time greats. So let’s dig into the narratives that have taken hold of the NBA, as we offer a collection of first impressions of this blossoming NBA season….
The Golden State Warriors are for real.
This might appear to be an obvious statement, but the fact of the matter is the Golden State Warriors are undefeated after the first thirteen games of the season, and the way in which they are playing makes you wonder if a loss ((The 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls hold the record for most wins in a season with 72.)) is in the cards for them at all (of course it is, but damn…). The Warriors are rife with championship swagger, but somehow contend each and every night like a team who has yet to taste glory, and desperately wants a bite. To commence the season, the reigning MVP Stephen Curry is averaging 34.2 ppg, and doing it with startling accuracy (.520 FG% / .93 FT%). Steve Nash recently referred to him “as maybe as skilled a player as we’ve ever had in the game,” and in taking in any of his performances this year it is hard to argue that fact. To watch him play is to behold athletic beauty. It‘s to witness a performer at the height of their craft where their every action appears supernatural. As of yesterday Curry has scored 404 points this season. That is 101 more than the next closest player. While I let that unfathomable stat sink in for a second, try to also get your head around the fact that the Warriors are already steamrolling over a stout Western Conference (2 wins against a very good Clipper team already, including last night’s 23 point comeback victory!), and they show no signs of relenting. It’s hard to imagine they won’t repeat as champions, but one does wonder if they can persist at this heightened level of excellence all season long.
Andre Drummond is an absolute beast.
Andre Drummond is a remarkable human specimen. Anyone who has beheld the way in which he maneuvers his brawny 6’ 11” frame around the basketball court has figured it was only a matter of time until he broke out. While last season there were moments of brilliance ((In a game on March 11, 2015, Drummond scored 25 points and fetched 25 rebounds against Golden State. Later in the month, Drummond put up 32, his career high, against the Miami Heat.)), the faults in his game, notably from the charity stripe, always overshadowed these impressive outings. But this season Drummond isn’t playing ‘round. To kickoff the season, Drummond recorded three double-doubles over the Pistons’ first three games, and on November 3rd he dropped 25 points on the Pacers while grabbing 29 rebounds. Not to be outdone, five days later he scored 29 points while inhaling 27 more boards – joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players with three 20/20 games in the first six games of a season. I think it’s safe to say that Drummond is the real deal.
Phil Jackson got it right.
The 2015 NBA Draft was a doozie. It is one that I believe will be remembered as one of the more formidable draft classes of all time – a bold assertion but one that is already being substantiated by brilliant performances by Stanley Johnson (20 points, 7 boards against Golden State on November 9th), Justise Winslow (only averaging 7.3 ppg, but this dunk though!), Jahlil Okafor (18.8 ppg / 7.5 rpg), Karl-Anthony Towns (15.8 ppg / 10.7 rpg / 2.4 bpg), and of course the man responsible for a new-found sense of hope in New York, Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis is averaging 12.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, but his ability to hover around the rim for putback dunks, his imitation of Hakeem Olajuwon’s Dream Shake, and his clutch (almost!) shooting has the Big Apple freaking the fuck out. Phil Jackson’s decision to use Knicks’ fourth pick on the lengthy Latvian may have invoked a chorus of boos by those all too quick to judge this past June, but the truth of the matter is that Phil nailed this one, and New York has a young center to build around, and a bright future ahead.
Kevin McHale was the problem all along in Houston.
I say this tongue in cheek of course. But just eleven games into the season and with the Houston Rockets limping to a 4-7 start, the Houston Rockets decided to part ways with former Celtic and Frankenstein doppleganger, Kevin McHale. It’s easy to blame the coach when defense is the problem, as defense is all about effort (mostly), and this is certainly the case with the Rockets as they rank 29th in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.5 points per game. But when your most significant offseason acquisition is a point guard with an unruly past named Ty Lawson, it’s hard to solely blame coach. The firing appears shocking, as not only were the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals last year (their first time in the Finals since 1997), but McHale signed a three year, twelve million dollar extension this past December ((Which Kevin McHale gets to walk away with.)). But Houston’s success raised the standards in the city, and the tough start was just too much to swallow for their mullish GM Daryl Morey. And now Boston’s President, Danny Ainge, has his sights on a reunion with McHale, bringing him back to help with the upstart Boston Celtics, a young squad out to a lively 6-5 start.
The MVP race will be as interesting as the conference races.
This discussion begins, and most likely ends, with Stephen Curry. We have already delved deeply into his exceptional and historic start to the season, but there is a pack of elite players that appear poised to challenge Curry for this season’s MVP trophy. Of course Lebron James will always be in the mix, once he fixes the Cav’s problem of being “just too nice.” But the manner in which Blake Griffin opened the season turned heads, and as the season progresses it isn’t hard to imagine that Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, Paul George (welcome back PG!), or even Andre Drummond will throw their hats into the ring as legitimate contenders. I won’t say the race is wide open, but Curry might want to watch his back.
Kobe Bryant is done.
It pains me to write this. Say what you will about Kobe Bryant, but he has been an absolute joy to watch perform. From the early days, when he was waving off picks from Karl Malone in his first All-Star game, to the astonishing series around the turn of the millennium with the Portland Trailblazers and the San Antonio Kings, to his feuds with Phil and Shaq, to Eagle, Colorado and beyond – it was one hell of a ride. Kobe’s skills were always mind-boggling, akin to wizardry. His game was Jordan-esque, and so was his competitive spirit. No one wanted to win as bad as Kobe, and it paid off with him capturing five NBA Championships, two Finals MVPs, and the 2008 MVP trophy. He is one of the ten best basketball players of all time, but alas, his time has come. Kobe’s season hasn’t simply started poorly, it’s been so dreadful that he’s even gone so far as to chide himself following a loss to the Mavericks earlier this month, asserting, “I freaking suck.” Kobe is averaging a career worst, 16.9 ppg and is shooting 33 percent from the field. The end is nigh, and Kobe has already stated that if things continue this way, “This is it for me.” It will certainly be weird without Kobe’s domineering presence encompassing the NBA, but it certainly was fun while it lasted.
Centers are back!
Truth be told, centers haven’t really gone anywhere, and thus they can’t authentically “be back.” If you have an excellent center you will be competing deep into the Playoffs. This is the case now and has always been so. I’m sorry for that misleading launching point. Truly. But, for many moons the center position dominated the NBA. If you had an elite big man – say a Wilt Chamberlain or a Bill Russell – you were going to win titles. It was as simple as that. This continued into the modern era of basketball, where besides extraordinary talents the likes of Bird, Magic, and of course Michael Jordan – centers (Olajuwon, Kareem, Shaq) got it done. That hasn’t felt like the case in recent years however, with guards like Dwyane Wade, Stephen Curry, and Kobe Bryant, small forwards (I guess…) like Lebron James and power forwards such as Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan ((Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki could technically be tagged as centers, but they have proved most effective working with a capable center and playing the 4.)) leading their teams to championships. But there are signs that the tide is turning. There exists a bevy of capable centers that when their power is fully matured and harvested, will be making an obnoxious amount of noise in the league Players like Anthony Davis (22.7 ppg / 8.4 rpg / 2.4 bpg), the aforementioned Andre Drummond, and Hassan Whiteside (who on Tuesday night, notched his second career triple double). And players such as Lamarcus Aldridge, Nicola Vucevic, Rudy Gobert, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol, and DeAndre Jordan are no slouches in their own right, either.
The Future Has Not Yet Been Written.
That’s right. There is still a long way to go. And judging this season’s winners and losers based on the first twelve games would be naive. There is notable activity in the league on many fronts, as players like Damian Lillard (26.6 ppg), Andrew Wiggins (21.5 ppg – in tremendous fashion!) and the dynamic duo in the Phoenix Suns’ backcourt of Brandon Knight (20.5 ppg) and Eric Bledsoe (22.8 ppg), are flat out doing things. And I haven’t even mentioned the Spurs (9-2, looking exceptional, as expected) or Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (28.1 ppg!!), who may be playing in their final season together (it’s now or never boys!). Yes, we have a long way to go, and I look forward to every minute of it.