We are now one week into the 2018-19 season, so what better time to look back at the NBA’s opening salvo to see the biggest trends and surprises from around the league.
Blake Griffin and Dwane Casey’s Detroit Pistons
(Very) early into the season, three teams remain undefeated in the East. Two of them you could have seen coming; The deep and talented re-loaded Toronto Raptors, and the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks with their revitalized offense under new coach Mike Budenholzer.
The third team? The 3-0 Pistons. It’s unlikely Detroit’s hot start will be maintained (remember when Orlando was the surprise of the NBA this time last year?), and two of their wins came against the lowly Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls, but early returns out of Motown have been encouraging — none more so than the play of Blake Griffin.
On Tuesday night the 29 year-old dropped career high 50 points, along with 14 rebounds, six assists, and five three-pointers for good measure in Detroit’s 133-132 overtime win over the Ben Simmons-less Philadelphia 76ers. He had 28 points by half-time and barely slowed down, putting the team on his back to get the game-winning basket on an end-of-game play that dates back to Dwane Casey’s tenure in Toronto:
Griffin’s Detroit days didn’t get off to a promising start after being dealt from the Los Angeles Clippers in a stunning trade last season. Griffin was supposed to help draw fans to the new Little Caesars Arena and infuse some proven star power on a Pistons team in desperate need of it. But he looked like a shell of his old self, playing away from the basket, settling for too many long jumpers, and generally missing the ferocity that had been a staple of his game.
But just because he wasn’t the violent leaper he was when his star first ascended doesn’t mean he couldn’t be effective, and Griffin had become an effective playmaker out of the high post and improved distance shooter. Still, there were (fair) questions heading into this season about whether or not Griffin was on the cusp of a decline and on the wrong side of his prime.
Griffin’s legendary hops are gone— multiple knee injuries will do that — but he’s been stellar thus far, looking comfortable and aggressive in Casey’s offence. Griffin is the NBA’s leading scorer at 36.3 points per game. He’s attacking the basket with purpose, taking 63 per cent of his shot attempts within 10 feet of the hoop compared to just 48 per cent last season. He’s also setting up his teammates, and hitting a whopping 61 per cent of his six three-point attempts per game. With him handling more playmaking duties, he’s protecting the ball incredibly well so far, too.
Detroit still has plenty to work on, like a bottom-10 ranked defence, but with Griffin playing like a top-flight talent again should give the Pistons plenty of hope to remain firmly in the playoff race.
Kyle Lowry‘s hot start
Kawhi Leonard has had a promising start to the season, dominant in stretches despite still working off some rust after nearly 10 months away from NBA basketball.
But the Most Important Raptor during their 4-0 start has undeniably been Lowry. The 32 year-old point guard has been playing the best ball of his career thus far, averaging 21.5 points and an NBA-high 10 assists per game. He also leads the league in offensive win shares, per basketball-reference.
Lowry likely won’t keep up his torrid shooting — he’s hitting 57.7 per cent of his three-point shots on 6.5 attempts per game. If Lowry continues to play inspired ball like this the sky is the limit for Toronto.
Scoring is at an all-time high to start the season. It’s not just a handful of teams, although the 3-0 New Orleans Pelicans have been comfortably pacing the league with 132 points per game and a stunning 122.2 offensive rating. But league-wide, the NBA is seeing scoring averages that haven’t been seen in decades.
NBA teams are combining to score an average of 113.4 points per game, the most since the 1969-70 season, and up nearly seven points from last season. The boost in three-point shooting these days is certainly one major contributing factor, as teams are shooting an all-time high 31.6 three-pointers per game — that number has risen each season since 2011.
Draymond Green wasn’t wrong when he said that the art of defence is facing an epidemic. While you can expect those scoring numbers to dip slightly, with today’s emphasis on creating three-point opportunities for all five players on the court and rules in place to allow for greater freedom of movement, the high-octane offences appear to be here to stay.
The Joker laughs at you
Nikola Jokic already had an all-star worthy campaign last year, but the Denver Nuggets centre has been the NBA’s breakout star of the young season.
He’s made major strides defensively, while his vast offensive arsenal has never been more effective.
Nikola Jokic put up 35-12-11 tonight on 11-11 shooting with four steals, zero turnovers and one block. pic.twitter.com/S102zTaDrB
— House of Highlights (@HoHighlights) October 21, 2018
With Jokic making a case as the league’s premier big man not named Anthony Davis, the 4-0 Denver Nuggets are, ahead of schedule, emerging as a legitimate threat in the West.
We knew this season’s crop of rookies was going to be special, but the speed in which much of the class has already acclimated to the NBA game has been a ton of fun to watch.
In Atlanta, Trae Young has been flashing must-watch potential and is a threat to go off on any given night. There were questions about whether or not he’d be able to defend at this level — they still remain — but his three-point stroke, limitless range and all, has been electric.
But he’s shown there’s far more to his game, including great touch on his floaters in the lane and already some of the league’s most impressive court vision.
The man he was traded for on draft night, Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic, has been putting the league on notice as well and is erasing any doubts that he’d be able to move from the Euroleague to the NBA and maintain his high level of play.
He led the Mavericks with 26 points in an overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, and was toying with defenders.
— NBA (@NBA) October 21, 2018
Like Young, Doncic’s playmaking potential is perhaps the most exciting. The confidence to pull this off is not normal for a teenage rookie.
And then there’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Canadian point guard out of Kentucky. While he may not quite have the highlight-reel material to match his fellow first-year playmakers, SGA has been a revelation for the Los Angeles Clippers thus far and is seeing more playing time than expected at nearly 25 minutes per game through four contests.
The 20 year-old from Toronto is already earning crunch-time minutes on a veteran Clippers squad and figures to only become a bigger part of Doc Rivers’ rotation as the season wears on.