The NBA season has officially begun — huzzah! Did we learn anything about the four teams playing last night we didn’t already know? Let’s quickly overreact to the first 48 minutes of each team’s season. Here we go:
–Nowhere to start other than Jayson Tatum. During the offseason, the consensus was the “other” Celtic who would end up inhabiting one of the now-vacant East All-Star spots was Gordon Hayward. That’s still possible, but we better keep one open for Tatum as well. When was the last time we saw a 20-year-old with this kind of polish on both ends? He looks comfortable in everything he does on the floor: nothing is rushed, the decisions are all sound, he is in the right positions defensively, and he is confident in his handle, both on drives and setting up his pull-up game. It looks too good to be true for a guy so young. I said a month ago Tatum “could easily blossom into a full-on superstar as early as this season,” a call which is already looking pretty prescient. He was the Celtics’ best player on the floor last night, and it wasn’t close. Scary stuff.
–Everyone knew they had depth going into the season, but seeing it in action was impressive. Kyrie and Hayward looked rusty as hell, and it didn’t matter one bit. They got really productive minutes from Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart. They didn’t even have to use Semi Ojeleye or Daniel Theis — and those are pretty good players!
–The Baynes/Horford combo put the clamps on Joel Embiid on the interior. Embiid got his 23 points, but it took 21 FGA to get there, and he turned it over 5 times (more on that later). It generally looked like they had him under control, and early on, it’s easy to envision a scenario where they pull the same thing on the other “unicorn” (ugh) big men around the league, and even to look forward to a potential Finals matchup, where they could ensure a then-fully operational Boogie Cousins won’t be the X-factor in the series.
–I included a section on Joel Embiid in my MVP prediction column yesterday, but it turns out I may have been hyping the wrong Sixer. Ben Simmons was dynamic last night, putting up a crazy 19/15/8/4/2 stat line, and generally exerting complete control over the offense with his size, vision, and athleticism. The overall offense wasn’t terribly productive, obviously, but they were also playing against what will likely end up being a top-2 defense in the league, so better days lie ahead. We’ve always known Simmons was the real deal, and yes, of course he still needs a jumper, but he was so impressive last night. He felt like the “most valuable” player on that team.
–Speaking of Embiid, it’s easy to get caught up in his entire presence and forget he’s 24 and has only played 131 competitive basketball games in the last five years. That’s it. It comes into focus when you watch just how sloppy he continues to be with the ball — he is so physically overwhelming with the rock in his hands while simultaneously being incredibly inefficient with it. Sometimes, he posts up and does a drop-step/baby hook where it looks like he’s just gently placing the ball in the hoop — it’s almost Wilt-esque, it appears so easy — and then the next two times down, he dribbles from the 3-point line into an off-balance, contested runner on one possession and throws the ball into the stands on the next. It’s maddening, yet understandable when viewed through the lens of his inexperience.
–It was an “uneven” 24 minutes for Markelle Fultz, at best. The good news is, he looked semi-competent on defense, using his length and quickness well. Offense was another story. He just looked lost. I’m not in his head, of course, but it looks like when he plays with Simmons, he doesn’t seem to know where he fits on the court. He doesn’t appear to know what to do with himself when he’s off-ball (which is a lot), and then tries to do too much when he finally gets it, leading to bad shot selection and turnovers. Coach Brown will need to better define his role and responsibilities — and Markelle will need to buy into it — if he is going to put last year behind him and start to capitalize on his prodigious athletic gifts.
–It will look better when they get Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala back healthy, but the depth beyond Simmons and Embiid certainly leaves something to be desired. Dario Saric looked passive. Robert Covington is strictly a 3-and-D guy and gives them virtually nothing else. Amir Johnson is dangerously close to being washed. Landry Shamet could eventually be OK, but at present, he does not appear to be ready to perform in actual NBA games that count. Redick will always hit some shots, and TJ McConnell provides steady backup minutes, but boy, it sure looks like this team is a couple pieces short, especially compared to Boston.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS:
–They are who we thought they were. Even on ring night — and the first damn game of the season, mind you — they look like a team bored by how superior they are to their opponents, with the ability to shift into the higher gear for juuuust long enough to put the other team away. They didn’t have their usual post-halftime blitzkrieg, and actually allowed Paul George to go off during that stretch and bring OKC back into the game, but it never really felt like they were in any danger. The talent gap just remains so vast — particularly against a Thunder team missing Westbrook — that they can dick around and toy with their opponents for long stretches of games and it doesn’t even matter. Sigh.
–Speaking of, we say it every year, but man do they turn the ball over a lot, and in pretty stupid ways. I suppose it’s a good thing they don’t get this habit under control because then no one would have a chance against them, but it’s a little frustrating as a fan watching what might be the greatest NBA team ever assembled be so consistently careless with the ball. Mostly, it makes me sad the other teams aren’t good enough to force the Warriors to tighten up.
–The last few seasons, the Dubs’ big man rotation has been the lone chink in the armor for the champs, and it looks like they may have patched up that hole as well. Damion Jones started at center and looked surprisingly competent, and Kevon Looney seems to be maturing and gradually excising the things he doesn’t do well from his game. Once they can rotate those two guys with Boogie as he recovers and acclimates to his new environs, they’ll be an even tougher cover than they already are. Scary.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER:
–No Russ makes it tough to evaluate anything, but Dennis Schroder seemed willing to step in and do his best Westbrook impersonation. He fired up more threes than he should, given his statistical profile (natch), but otherwise looked pretty good. The role players they are counting on to be either improved (Terrance “Turd” Ferguson, Alex Abrines) or resurgent (Patrick Patterson) were mostly MIA, and it appears Schroder immediately becomes OKC’s fourth-best player. This is fine, so long as Billy Donovan is smart enough to play Schroder and Russ together once Westbrook returns to the lineup, and that Schroder is able to properly adjust to the impending downshift in his role. He’s too good of a player to just get Westbrook’s scraps, especially considering how unimpressive the rest of the options are beyond Russ, PG, and Adams.
–Speaking of Steven Adams, he is just ever so much fun. He is a hulking seven-footer — an endangered species in today’s game — who looks and acts like a Dothraki. He’s only 25, his points and rebounds have increased every year of his career, and the only statistical category he ever leaves a zero in is “fucks given.” The things he does are increasingly undervalued, but he does all those things really well! And did I mention he looks like a Dothraki? What a delight.