Three Early Takeaways

As teams are hovering around the ten game mark, this season has already given fans reasons to be surprised as well as reasons to be disappointed. While sample sizes are small, and the season is still young, here are a handful of my early takeaways:

Don’t be fooled, Timberwolves haven’t changed until their defense improves:

For those casual followers of the Minnesota Timberwolves, when you look at their team record you may believe that the tide has turned. They’re currently sitting with a 7-3 record while holding the third seed in the Western Conference standings.

However, their defense is embarrassingly bad and will be exposed this season when playing top teams, especially come playoff season. Already, they’ve suffered two terrible losses in games that Jimmy Butler doesn’t play, which included abysmal defensive performances of 130 and 122 to the Pacers and Pistons. Without Butler, the Wolves have no true wing stoppers.

Look, I get it, baby steps. A major goal of the Timberwolves this season is just making the playoffs, and that alone would gather the interest, but come on, with the talent they have on their roster, “All Eyes North” should be looking deep into the playoffs, not just making them.

Right now, the Timberwolves rank 25th in defensive rating and have really no clue what they’re doing on that end of the floor. In fact, They’re giving up points at an alarming rate, but are noticeably better when they’re missing either of their young stars — Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins.

When Towns sits, the defensive rating improves from 111.3 to 101.6.

When Wiggins sits, the defensive rating improves from 108.3 to 107.9.

Obviously Wiggins off-court differences are minimal and will hopefully improve over an 82 game season, but Towns defense has not only been disappointing, but concerning for someone I was hoping would take a leap in a positive direction by using Jimmy Butler to lean on.

Many are suggesting effort, Zach Lowe pointed out how he chases blocks and leaves too late or leaves a rotation for a block attempt, exposing the glass behind him. To me, it has looked similar to what Hassan Whiteside used to do. While it might seem like he’s helping his defense and putting forth that defensive effort, Towns will need to choose when and when not to spike the ball into the stands.

The good news — These problems are fixable. They’ll likely show solutions with more games played. Adding defensive savant like Jimmy Butler takes time to learn how to play with, but the Wolves defense is something worth monitoring as we move forward.

The better news — Minnesota already has the sixth ranked offense in the NBA. As a result, they’ll continue winning games by slugging them out as they wait for their defense to catch up in order to win the games that really matter.

James Harden, the guard that keeps on giving

I will die on the James Harden 2016-17 MVP Island if I have to. In my eyes, he was absolutely the most deserving to win the award last season, and I’d even argue that it was his second time being ripped off from the voters.

Last season I wrote 1,345 words on why Harden deserved it, and he has kept my argument rolling, despite the addition of Chris Paul (yes, I understand he has been injured).

giphy
Image Credit: Giphy

Through 11 games, Harden’s Rockets sit in the Western Conference’s top spot with an 8-3 record. As always, with the team success, Harden brings the individual, eye-popping statistics.

James Harden currently ranks first in the league in total points with 324 (LeBron 288, Cousins 286) and is also second in total assists with 107. (Westbrook 109).

While Harden looks like the way too early MVP, he just poured out one of the greatest offensive performances we’ve ever seen: 56 points, 13 assists, 19/25 field goals, 7/8 threes, 11/12 free throws.

— First player to make 75% of shots in a 50+ point game since Michael Jordan in 1996.

— One of two players in league history to have a 50+ point, 10+ assist, 75% or better from the field game (Wilt).

— 91 points scored or assisted in a single game is third all-time (Wilt 104, Harden 95). For context, Kobe created 85 total points in his 81 point game. 

While leading the Rockets to the second highest offensive efficiency this season, Harden has reminded us how potent their offense can be when he’s playing at the peak of his devastating basketball powers.

As one of the few Harden-Disciples, watching James perform open heart surgery is nothing new to me. In fact, since I devoted myself to following him, performances filled with isolation-reckoning and precision passing off the screen have become so routine that I’m positive I’ve never seen anybody run the pick-and-roll better.

Are there better ball handlers? Yes. Are there better Scorers? A few. Are there better passers? Not many if you do think so. But is there anybody who is better at all three skills, specifically when incorporating them to work the pick-and-roll? Negative.

Harden has every scoring and passing trick in his bag that you can possibly think of. Watching him send whirling, over-the-head or behind the back passes are a treat, but my personal favorite is his signature nonchalant shovel pass.

A combination of holding a threat as a scorer, creativity, and unselfishness, Harden has resurrected the career of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, as well as being a reason for Clint Capela’s constant development. He is the true definition of a straw that stirs a drink, as he stirs this entire offense under the guidance of his decision-making.

While the quick, flip passes that Harden make here are simple, he demonstrates an underrated reason for why he’s so effective when coming down hill — patience. Rather than going straight to the rim and attacking, he zigs and zags his way to a spot where he pulls Gobert away from the cup. Harden understands he will have Nene in the spot he eventually tosses the rock to, but if the help crashes during his path towards the rim, Harden is more than capable of slinging it to the corner for a wide open three.

Both examples of a layered read than Harden makes look simple and routine time and time again. Both are from his ridiculous game against the Jazz, as well.

In my opinion, Harden is the perfect offensive basketball player. Regardless of who is guarding him, he has the ability to torch them off the dribble with a series of ball-fakes, between-the-legs dribbles, and a blow by to the rim — where he had led the league in free throw attempts the previous three seasons. He’s too strong of a shooting threat from deep, and is too efficient around the elbows to give even the smallest cushion to.

Even when you play good enough defense, or he’s finished toying with you, the maestro always finds his open teammate:

Where this becomes difficult for Houston is where and how they insert Chris Paul into this offense.

Originally, the thought was that the opposing team would have to compete with “48 minutes of Hall of Fame point guard play” each night, but now, Harden has picked up where he left off and is truly one of a kind at what he does.

Paul simply won’t be able to raise the offense to the level that Harden does when he’s in charge, but it’s a good problem to have this early in the season. At the very least, Paul can return as a defensive dog and catch-and-shoot in space that he has never seen before. Or, as I’ve previously mentioned, allow himself to be a clear number two ball-handler and abuse defenses when they’re slow on rotations towards his wing.

Until Houston figures it out, James Harden will continue scoring and giving and giving and giving. As long as they keep winning, Harden’s MVP stock will only continue to rise.

Kyrie’s (and Boston’s) defense has been… unexpected to say the least

After having the twelfth best defense in the league a year ago, the loss of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder forced the Celtics in a direction that promised them a season’s worth of patching holes on that end of the floor. However, the Celtics have proved early on that either Brad Stevens is without a doubt the best young coach in professional sports, or else they’re a team full of defensive juggernauts.

Of qualified players, the Celtics have SEVEN players in the top 20 for defensive rating — Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Aron Baynes, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown.

Even without Gordon Hayward, the defensive chemistry looks to be flawless through their first stretch of games, despite starting a rookie and a second year player.

What’s even more impressive is that Kyrie Irving has been at the front of all of this. An offseason that was filled with rumblings of how Kyrie’s game is useless without LeBron, has proven to be quite the opposite — including his biggest weakness that was apparent even with LeBron, his defense.

Last season Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas were practically twins in every defensive metric that I could find. Both teams would have been better off using a traffic cone on defense than their actual point guards.

One of the biggest issues with bad defensive players is simply a lack of effort. Early on, Kyrie has really shown a leadership role within the Boston locker room. Naturally this has carried onto the floor where he’s often seen putting the young guys under his arm, giving advice to teammates during games, and showing what it takes on both ends.

To say that Kyrie has simply been locked in on the defensive end this season wouldn’t be telling the entire truth. He has done a complete 180 on that side of the floor. Kyrie is chasing his man around, flying through screens, and waving his hands all over the place deflecting passes. He’s playing defensive — no exaggeration — at the level you’d expect an All-Defensive Team member to perform.

Through 11 games, Kyrie’s defensive ranks are:

— defensive win shares, sixth

— total deflections, third

— deflections per game, fourth

— steals per game, third

— defensive rating among qualified players, seventh

Now obviously these numbers will likely regress back towards the mean, but whether it’s effort, proper coaching, or extra motivation, fans are seeing Kyrie defend for the first time since he was forced to in the Finals two seasons ago.

Playing defense the way that Irving has early on has made him the most impressive two-way point guard in the league — something Boston didn’t get with Isaiah Thomas — and is likely the biggest reason for Boston’s hot start.

 

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