Fact or Fiction – Unpacking the Important Storylines 10 days Into the 2021-22 NBA Season

It’s easy to get swept up in the early season shenanigans that are associated with a fresh NBA season, now that every squad has featured in 4-5 contests. However, another half a dozen games from now there’s a realistic chance that the bulk of the current storylines will prove to be pointless and irrelevant. Luckily I’ve dug through the leaguewide BS to find the truth after 10 days of a new campaign.

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Fiction: The Cavaliers are still an ugly watch

Ever since LeBron James left town, Cleveland has been stuck in a habitual pattern of compiling L’s with sloppy, uninspiring basketball fuelled by inexperienced developing players. Every franchise will have their growing pains during a rebuilding period while they load up on top-5 draft picks, but the dark days may be over in northeast Ohio. The budding backcourt bros that form ‘Sexland’ are starting to find their groove and defence-first wing Isaac Okoro is continually evolving, although it’s their most recent draftee Evan Mobley who’s really fueling the Cavs’ fire. Through five games, Mobley has contested the most shots per game (18.4) in the NBA by a WIDE margin with his defensive prowess helping the Cavaliers secure stops to kickstart their offence. Combine the promising youth with up-and-comers Lauri Markkanen and Cedi Osman, plus veterans like Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio; all of a sudden this is a Cleveland team worth watching.

Fact: Ja Morant will make an All-NBA team

There are a lot of basketball news filling up social media after the first week and a half of gameplay, but Ja Morant’s play this year has been so remarkable that I’m ready to declare him as an All-NBA lock after just five games. The league’s leading scorer through the early portion of the season has clearly taken his game to another level, with his three-point shooting driving a lot of his early success. Attempting 3.2 three-pointers per game through his first two seasons and converting them at a subpar 31.7% clip showed a somewhat glaring weakness in Morant’s game. It’s a small sample size, but Memphis’ high-flying floor general is now knocking 40.6% of his tries behind the arc on 6.4 shots per – attempts that include this stupidly deep three-ball vs. Golden State last night. If Morant can, at worst, keep his 3-point percentage hovering above 35% all while contorting his body through the paint and wowing fans with his above the rim antics, he’ll remain a dark horse in the MVP race for the duration of the season.

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Fiction: Chicago’s defence

I had my doubts over this new-look Chicago team entering a new season, but the early signs indicate this is a Bulls team that demands your attention. While 4-1 looks impressive on paper it’s worth pointing out that so far the teams they have beaten own a combined 3-11 record, and yet, Chicago still deserves a ton of credit for their fast start. They continue to fly around the court on defence and make life troubling for teams, but I’m expecting their defence to still regress as the year goes on, with the Bulls currently owning the 4th best DEF efficiency in the NBA. They’ll be in the mix for a top-10 unit on the defensive side of the ball; however, it will be their offence that propels them above the play-in conversation. Rolling into the Knicks game they led the league in 3P% and FT% and with a surplus of late-game options, Chicago has a chance to challenge for one of the top-4 seeds in the East. Just don’t expect their defence to buoy that run.

Fact: OKC may challenge the 9-73 record

Woof. There are a lot of metrics that the Thunder rank last in so far this season, but a glaring lack of decent ballplayers might be the most alarming one. Sorry OKC fans, I’ve still got a lot of time for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort, with Josh Giddey turning plenty of heads in the early going as well. Outside of that though, there’s not a lot to get excited about for this season and with the ball club in full-on tank mode, we could see a historic pile of losses coming their way. They snagged their first win of the season against L.A. a few days ago, completing a thrilling 26-point comeback and it’s also worth noting that their losses so far have come at the hands of Utah, Houston, Philadelphia and Golden State. I’m probably being too harsh on the ‘Thunder Up’ faithful here and winning 10 games is a feat that SGA should be able to complete almost on his own. Nevertheless, I won’t expect this squad to achieve too much in 2021-22.

Fiction: Harrison Barnes’ coming out party

There can’t be too many NBA players that have their breakout season in their 10th year as a pro. Harrison Barnes might be out to buck that trend with an exceptional start to the new season that has seen him score over 22 points in every contest and emerge as Sacramento’s No. 1 option on offence. To kick off their new crusade, Barnes torched the Trailblazers with a career-high 8 made treys to the tune of 36 points and he has remained hot in the three games that followed; currently burying over 50% of his three-point attempts. I’d love to see the smooth-moving forward maintain his hot hand, but he’s bound to come crashing back to Earth soon and see his 26.8 PPG average decline. That doesn’t mean he needs to relinquish the role of being the Kings’ top scorer, although it would be unfair to expect Barnes to maintain this form.

Fact: Dub Nation is back

While their ceiling and championship aspirations for the 2021-22 season remain firmly attached to Klay Thompson’s Achilles, this isn’t the same Warriors team we saw claw their way to a .500+ record last season.  In the early going, Golden State appears to have recaptured their mojo with their pass-happy tendency leading to a league-best 28.4 assists each time out through five matches. Igniting everything offensive is their two-time MVP in Steph Curry, who continues to shoot 30-footers like layups; however, the contributions of Damion Lee, Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter can’t be understated. Sure, their PPG averages don’t jump off the page, but this trio along with the rest of the Dub Nation nucleus is playing smart, efficient basketball right now and it’s no coincidence they’ve reeled off a 4-1 record to start the season. If Klay remains healthy upon his return, I won’t be shocked if this team is duking it out in another West Finals.

Fiction: The Lakers need to panic…

It was obvious that there were going to be growing pains with this new-look Lakers entourage. The Russell Westbrook jigsaw piece is clearly a difficult one to fit given the on-ball dominance of LeBron James, so it’s no surprise to see this L.A. team going through some rough patches early on. Not only are they trying to incorporate Westbrook into their rotation, but there is also a mix of elder statesmen who all want their piece of the pie in the form of valuable court time. We’re yet to see Kendrick Nunn in a Lakers uniform which is bound to complicate the rotation, but it’s not time to start searching for the Westbrook trade receipt. Yet. The benefit of acquiring Russ has been on full display in the past two games, when Los Angeles was missing James and they were able to lean on their playmaking guard for averages of 26.5 PPG, 12.0 RPG and 10.5 APG. This true success of this team won’t be judged until playoff time, so there’s nothing wrong with using the 77 remaining regular season contest to tinker and find the right way to deploy their three stars.

Fact: …but Lebron James looks old

I’m not ready to label LeBron James as a ‘Washed King’, but the Lakers linchpin is clearly showing the signs of playing 61,000+ minutes on the NBA hardwood. I’m aware it’s a significantly small sample size but through three games this season on 10.7 drives a game, James is converting just 33.3% of his shots. To put that into context, he’s never shot below 50% on drive attempts since the NBA started tracking the stat in 2013-14. The numbers don’t lie and when you resort to this eye test with LeBron, it’s evident that he’s no longer able to bulldoze through players the same way he has for nearly two decades. Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect that of a 36-year old James, and yet, due to his greatness, these are the lofty standards we’ve become accustomed to. In true LeBron fashion, he continues to evolve his game and he’s currently shooting the deep ball better than ever. Much like Dwyane Wade did when James took his talents to South Beach, we may see the King defer to his co-stars if he wants to remain in the hunt for another elusive title. 

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Fiction: Nikola Jokic can win back-to-back MVP’s

Take nothing away from Nikola Jokic individually, the argument can be made that he is the best player on the planet. With that being said, winning consecutive MVP’s may be a task too tall for Denver’s cornerstone. A 2-2 start shouldn’t have alarm bells ringing, but for his entire career, Jokic has been excluded from the mainstream spotlight, with non-Nuggets fans only reminded of his excellence when he produces a jaw-dropping dime. Due to his elite court vision and high basketball IQ, those highlights occur on a near-nightly basis and despite the fact that Jokic is one of the rarest talents to step onto an NBA court I’m already drawing a line through him as an MVP chance in 2022. Part of me hopes I’m wrong with the Nuggets center more than deserving of his fair share of accolades. Unfortunately, Denver faces an uphill battle to win 50+ games without Jamaal Murray in uniform and with the Maurice Podoloff trophy dictated by storylines throughout an entire season, it’s hard to envision Jokic separating himself from the pack this year – even if he continues to produce epic box scores and consistent viral highlights. 

Fact: The Miami Heat can win it all

Make no mistake, this Miami Heat team has the capabilities of winning the franchises 4th championship. The acquisition of Kyle Lowry in the off-season vaulted them up the pecking order in the eyes of most NBA casuals, but competing for the whole enchilada was a big leap, right? So far, Miami owns the best defensive efficiency of all 30 squads and their offence will undoubtedly improve as Lowry finds his feet amongst ‘Heat Culture’. The addition of now-champion forward P.J. Tucker can’t be understated either and there’s growing support for Tyler Herro to become a 6th Man of the Year candidate if he can continue to maintain his status as a scoring spark plug off the pine. Those factors combined with the one-two punch that Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo offer have the Heat emerging as a serious threat out East; eager to prove their success in the 2020 bubble was no fluke.

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