The first week of the NBA season saw some surprises and marvels, superstar performances, upsets and disappointments. But anyone who’s been around the league for more than a week knows you don’t base things on just one week.
Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun looking at it and guessing which surprises are legit, which breakout performances are sustainable, and what we can actually learn from the first week of action.
I looked at some notable achievements by individuals and teams to consider how much of this is pure anomaly and how much is sustainable.
The Biggest Marvels: Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis
Let’s start with a pair of incredible performers: Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. Through the first three games of the season, they’re posting some staggering numbers. “Brow” is averaging 37.7 points, 12.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 3.0 steals and 3.0 blocks. Russ is doing even better with 38.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 11.7 assists per game.
Now, the easy thing to do is say, “It’s just three games. Stuff like this happens every year.” But the truth is, it doesn’t, not on this scale. In combined stats (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks) through three games, the pair have the two highest totals as far back as Basketball-Reference’s Game Finder goes:
For Davis, it’s hard to believe that a player with as much of an injury history as he has can survive a whole season carrying that much of a workload. But Russ is another story.
One of the most remarkable numbers from Westbrook is his usage percentage, which is utterly insane at 40.7 percent. Basketball-Reference says the NBA record is Kobe Bryant’s from 2005-06. And there’s more. According to NBA.com, the Thunder have taken 225 shots and 65 free throws with Westbrook on the court, with him taking 86 of those shots and 37 of those free throws. His teammates have also attempted 72 shots off his passes and gone to the charity stripe three times.
Do the math on that, and Westbrook has used or facilitated on 177 of the 254 Thunder’s true shooting attempts — about 70 percent of them. If Westbrook can get through this season alive, maybe he can approach an “Oscar Robertson” season, with a 30-point triple-double average.
Furthermore, if you were to prorate Westbrook’s numbers to Robertson’s minutes, he’d be averaging 46.4 points, 14.8 rebounds and 14.0 assists. So yeah, that’s just insane. There’s no way he can sustain that and live, but it’s sure going to be fun watching him try.
Surprises and Disappointments
Heading into the season, there were two things that virtually every person who had ever watched a basketball game agreed on: The Golden State Warriors were going to have a better offense than the Chicago Bulls. The Warriors had Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry and all kinds of wetness in their jump shots.
Meanwhile, the “Three Alphas” in Chicago, Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, had shots about as wet as a hot day in Death Valley.
So, how is that working out? The chart below shows each team’s offensive rating this year (the blue line) compared with last (the dash):
In something absolutely no one saw coming, the Bulls and Warriors have virtually switched places. The Dubs’ offensive rating has dropped from 112.5 to 103.9. The Bulls have seen theirs pole vault from 102.1 to a league-high 115.3.
There is a lot of qualification to this, though. The Warriors are still working out some kinks, and, well…obviously, they’re going to be better than what we’ve seen. There’s a history of teams needing time to figure out how to mesh when superstars come together. Remember when the Miami Heat were a failure after their 9-8 start in 2010-11?
The Bulls are a little more interesting because there are some things to indicate that while they might not be the top offense in the league, they may not be as bad as we thought.
Rondo, Wade and Butler are all very good and willing passers, and the Bulls’ success has been largely because of that. They are second in the league in passes made, first in assist percentage, second in assist-to-turnover ratio and tied for first in assist ratio. And they were also rebuilt over the summer, with nine new members and three new starters. So there’s a good chance that they’re just finding their chemistry and those numbers could improve.
The other aspect is that the Three Alphas are also all good rebounders for their positions, and new center Robin Lopez is an excellent offensive rebounder. The Bulls are first in offensive rebounding percentage, second in defensive rebounding percentage and second in total rebound percentage.
On the other hand, they’ve had only two games, with both of them at home coming against teams that were on the second half of a back-to-back. They have an effective field goal percentage of 51.1 and are notching the seventh-most threes per game with 10 at a 43.5 percent clip. That’s just not them.
The passing and rebounding numbers are sustainable at some level. The shooting is not, though maybe it won’t be as horrid as expected. Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Isaiah Canaan — all legitimate shooters — combined to make the Bulls’ nine threes against the Pacers.
Overall, the Bulls’ passing and offensive rebounding are sustainable, but the shooting isn’t. So they may have a top-10 offense this year, but not the best. And the Dubs will come around.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Finally, let’s look at some of the early results in terms of whether we can identify which teams might be better or worse than we thought they were. Just record isn’t going to mean a lot. And frankly, nothing is going to mean “a lot” when most teams have only played two or three games. But looking at strength of schedule and margin of victory together might help sort out some of the teams that look like they’re going to be playoff teams and which ones might be gearing up for a lottery run.
A sound beating at the hand of a good team doesn’t mean you should cancel your playoff tickets, and beating a bad one by a slim margin doesn’t mean you should print them. Let’s look at the early results. Teams further to the right on this chart have had a tougher schedule. Teams further up have been winning by more points.
So, the Orlando Magic (bottom right) may have gotten their butts kicked a couple of times, but at least it was to good teams. That’s better than what’s happened to the Dallas Mavericks, who haven’t lost by as much but have a weak SOS (bottom left). Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets, who own the weakest schedule (two games against the Mavericks and one against the Los Angeles Lakers) have a very slim margin of victory at 1.0. The Atlanta Hawks have an enormous MOV, but a weaker schedule.
What could be an interesting team to watch is the Sacramento Kings, who have a MOV of 4.67 with a pretty respectable schedule. That will make the game between them and the Hawks tonight more interesting than many would have thought when they looked at the schedule.
All of these things are going to require at least 10-20 games played before we can draw a true bead on things, but they are early-season signs of what to watch for.