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Trick or Treat: Which Early Surprises Are Real?

The regular season is in full swing, and as much as we like to pretend we can predict how things will play out, every new season brings its share of teams who either under- or over-perform expectations in the early going. In honor of Halloween, let’s play a little Trick or Treat. It’s simple: “trick” means the team’s surprising start is a blip on the radar and a course correction is coming; “treat” means what we’re seeing is here to stay.

Let’s start with the teams who have overachieved so far:

[Note: all records and statistics are through Sunday. All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.]

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: TRICK

The first true, post-Lob City iteration of the Clips has been a pleasant surprise, as they sit at 4-2, tied for 4th in the brutal West. And I know what you’re thinking: “Sure, Mr. Fancy-Pants Analyst, but now you’re going to tell me it’s all smoke and mirrors and the numbers say they are actually lousy and have just been lucky so far, right?”

Not so! The analytics paint the early-season version of this team as elite in virtually every way: they have a +9.2 point differential, are top-8 in both Offensive and Defensive Rating, and B-R’s Simple Rating System (a single metric which accounts for both point differential and strength of schedule) pegs them as the 4th-best team in the league thus far (behind Milwaukee, Denver, and Golden State). SRS may be overrating LA slightly, in the sense that their four wins have come against Houston (twice), OKC, and Washington, all of whom have been severe disappointments — see below — but their two losses have been against other elite teams in Denver and New Orleans, and the Clips were in the mix late in both of those games. They absolutely POUNDED OKC, Houston, and Washington in three of the four wins, which is exactly what good teams are supposed to do against struggling squads.

There are also still significant avenues for the team to improve. Eminently-useful big man Montrezl Harrell has averaged only 20.2 minutes per game, compared to the 17.5 minutes doled out to the aggressively-washed Marcin Gortat. As the delta in quality between the two players becomes as obvious to Doc Rivers as it is to the rest of us, one presumes Doc will start to adjust his rotations and increasingly utilize Harrell (he of the 27.4 PER and 24.1 points/11.0 rebs/3.9 blocks per-36 minutes) at the pivot over Gortat. Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like the real deal, especially on defense, and his role and impact should expand as he continues to acclimate to the NBA game.

Their extreme depth remains enviable; Doc hasn’t had to give much burn to young guards Jerome Robinson and Tyrone Wallace, so as the season drags on and injuries inevitably strike, the Clips should have useful contributors ready to step in and fill the void. Co-defensive stoppers Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley have both been mostly horrendous on the offensive end in a combined 49 minutes per night, and while neither guy is ever going to be a primary option or anything close to it, a return to form for both players is likely, which could help lessen some of the burden on offensive hubs Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, and Lou Williams. Their depth and bevy of young assets also puts them in a tremendous position to improve the roster via trade if the right deal becomes available, and Doc Rivers no longer being in a position to sabotage roster-building efforts can only be seen as a positive.

With all of that said, I still can’t help but think we’ve already seen the best version of this team, and some serious regression is coming. Speaking of Gallinari, he has been fantastic so far, averaging a hair under 19-and-7 on 46/43/96 shooting splits, along with a 21.1 PER and .215 Win Shares per 48 minutes, both of which would easily represent career-highs over an entire season. His jump in Usage Rate (24.2% through 6 games) seems sustainable given his role, but history suggests some statistical normalization and his annual extended injury absence are both on the horizon. If Beverley and/or Bradley don’t come around offensively, can Doc continue to justify giving them big minutes, and if not, what impact will it have on their 8th-ranked defense? Does anything on Doc’s resume suggest he won’t keep overplaying Gortat’s decaying corpse, while suffering the concurrent opportunity cost of under-utilizing Harrell? Will SGA hit the rookie wall? Can Lou Williams, in his 14th season, keep producing at a near-All Star level? Without a true top-tier star on the roster — Tobias Harris has been undeniably excellent but will always be miscast as an alpha dog — can they hang against the West’s elite? The early losses against Denver and New Orleans, while competitive, suggest they may be overmatched against more star-studded, playoff-bound rosters.

In the end, the Clippers’ depth and chemistry should carry them to more wins than their preseason projections, but the fundamental limitations at the top of the roster make their current 50+ win pace unsustainable, short of a blockbuster trade that probably isn’t forthcoming. Also, the Clips owe a lottery-protected first-round pick to Boston (via Memphis) which becomes a second-rounder if it doesn’t convey by 2020, so if they start to fade at all down the stretch and the playoffs become less likely, they could be perversely incentivized to execute a mini-tank to ensure they keep the pick. Thanks again, Jeff Green!

SACRAMENTO KINGS: TREAT, MAYBE?

Sitting at 9th in the West with a 3-3 record doesn’t sound like any great shakes, but for the perpetually crap-tastic Kings, it represents real progress. The league’s youngest team (tied with the Bulls) has been predictably rotten on defense (28th in the league in scoring defense, 22nd in Defensive Rating), a weakness they have mostly been able to offset with their high-octane, equal opportunity offense (5th in pace, six players averaging double-digit points per game). De’Aaron Fox is massively improved and appears well on his way to making good on his promise as the 5th overall pick in last year’s draft. Willie Cauley-Stein and Nemanja Bjelica are seamless fits in their respective offensive roles, and while questions will probably forever persist about whether Marvin Bagley III was the correct choice at #2 overall (and whether he’s actually playing the right position), his per-36 numbers so far paint the picture of exactly the prolific scorer and rebounder he was billed as in the pre-draft process. The team should improve further upon the return of Bogdan “Double Bogey” Bogdanovic (I’m committed to making “Double Bogey” happen as a nickname; it’s so fetch), as he is perhaps their most complete all-around player and will allow Justin Jackson and Iman Shumpert to downshift into roles more appropriate for their skill sets.

Are they going to challenge for a playoff spot all season? Probably not, but for a young team perennially stuck in the West basement — and one which doesn’t own its first-round pick next year and thus has no reason to tank — the tangible improvement we’ve seen early on can only be viewed as a real treat for their beleaguered fans.

DETROIT PISTONS: TRICK

The argument you thought I was going to make earlier about a team having a good record but not actually being good? Now’s the time for that one. Detroit is out to a 4-1 start, but the stats paint it as a function of an easy schedule and good luck in close games. The Pistons have played the second-easiest schedule thus far, have a -1.4 point differential, are 25th in SRS (easily trailing Eastern dregs such as Washington, Brooklyn, and Orlando), and sit at 18th and 15th in Offensive and Defensive Ratings, respectively. Based on these factors, their Expected Win/Loss record is 2-3, but they beat rotten Brooklyn, Chicago, and Cleveland squads by a total of 12 points, as well as a slow-starting Philly team by one in OT — on a night when Blake Griffin erupted for 50 points and had so many flames shooting out of his fingers, he could’ve been mistaken for a Street Fighter II character — before getting drubbed by 20 against Boston, the first legitimately good team they’ve played.

Point Blake has been a revelation, even beyond his detonation against Philly, but the wing rotation remains an utter turd sandwich (and is now dealing with injuries as well), and the degree to which the roster depends on contributions from replacement-level cannon fodder like Ish Smith, Reggie Bullock, Langston Galloway, and Zaza Pachulia does not bode well at all over the course of the season. I still wouldn’t be surprised to see Detroit sneak into the playoffs, since the last 2-3 spots in the East are so wide open, but make no mistake: regression is coming for this team, and it is going to hit HARD.

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And now, a look at the underachievers:

HOUSTON ROCKETS: TRICK

The Rockets’ disastrous 1-4 start has been essentially the inverse of Detroit’s unsustainable 4-1 opening salvo. Houston has played the league’s toughest schedule, and their rotation has been a mess due to injuries and CP3’s suspension following the SpitGate fracas with the Lakers. James Harden injured his hamstring in the loss to Utah and missed the beatdown at the hands of the surging Clippers in Paul’s first game back in action, and they are also now dealing with an injury to low-key important swingman James Ennis, as well as the continued absence of backup PG Brandon Knight. Carmelo Anthony has looked like the same washed-up gunner/defensive liability he was in OKC, and is certainly not a player deserving of 31 minutes and 13 shots a night at this juncture. The defense has notoriously cratered, from 6th in Defensive Rating last season to 28th so far this campaign. The team’s -8.8 point differential is ugly, and Harden is likely to miss at least their next two games, so we may still be a few days away from rock bottom.

But, to quote my son’s favorite theater-loving koala, “You know what’s great about hitting rock bottom? There’s only one way to go — and that’s up.” The schedule will ease up some in November, the team’s Big Three of Harden, Paul, and Capela will all get back on the court together and start to flash some of the form we saw last season, and the defense (Carmelo notwithstanding) will begin to find its footing, even with the baked-in regression from the league adjusting to (and largely copying) Mike D’Antoni’s switch-everything scheme. Clearly, this team lacks some of the versatility it displayed last season, and isn’t going to get anywhere near 65 wins again (and perhaps may even struggle to reach Vegas’ 56-win over/under), but there is simply no way a team led by Harden and Paul is going to continue to be this bad over any extended period.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: TREAT

Much like Houston, the Zombie Sonics are 1-4, but the difference is they’ve actually been a decent team, with the critical exception of “the moment when the ball leaves the fingertips of their shooters.” They’re playing at a brisk pace (8th in the league) despite human Tasmanian Devil Russell Westbrook missing the first two games while recovering from offseason knee surgery, and the defense (12th in Defensive Rating) has been a little disappointing given the team’s lofty expectations, but not awful by any stretch. Offensively, most of the available player tracking data suggests the Thunder are getting decent looks — they just aren’t going in the basket. The team is tied for last in the league in FG% (41.2%), last in 3FG% by a wide margin (24.8% — woof), and second-to-last in FT% (65.3%). An individual player with those types of shooting splits would be out of a job, so there simply has to be a significant regression to the mean coming for OKC in the shooting department.

The record will inevitably improve as shots begin to fall, but even discounting the early struggles, is there a path to the 50-55 wins many expected from this team in the preseason? Color me skeptical. It will take Westbrook some time to fully regain his form, and at a certain point, it becomes fair to wonder how many times a player SO reliant on athleticism — and two weeks shy of turning 30 — can come back to full strength from knee injuries. Paul George and Steven Adams remain excellent complements to Brodie, but after the top three, the roster begins to have a lot of question marks. Dennis Schroder “should” be the team’s fourth option, but it will be a while before we figure out to what degree he can coexist with Westbrook and how much they can play together without compromising the defense. So far, they have a net rating of -7.9 points per 100 possessions in 38 minutes sharing the floor — discouraging early returns even with the usual small sample size caveats.

Jerami Grant is an intriguing athletic combo 4/5, but the improved shooting stroke we were promised has not materialized. If he can’t provide spacing for the ball handlers and be anything more than a theoretical perimeter threat, then he can’t continue to get 30+ minutes a night, even if the alternatives aren’t much more appealing. Nerlens Noel remains a talented-but-inconsistent enigma, and there’s a decent chance Patrick Patterson simply isn’t an NBA-caliber player anymore. Beyond Paul George, the wing rotation appears equally unsettled. Twenty-year-olds Hamidou Diallo and Terrance “Turd” Ferguson show occasional flashes (VERY occasional in Turd’s case — he’s shown no discernible improvement from his rookie season to this point), and the theoretical floor-spacing provided by Alex Abrines doesn’t remotely make up for all the other holes in his game. At 25, doubts are rightfully creeping in about whether it’s ever going to happen for him.

When you watch the league’s “complete” teams play (Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Golden State, and a few others), you get the sense each guy is sacrificing some burn, that they “deserve” more playing time relative to what is actually available. I get the opposite sense watching the role players on OKC. These guys are being over-extended beyond what their skill sets dictate, which is never a good place to be. Getting Andre Roberson back (if in fact they ever do) will help sort the rotation out in an organic way, but his well-chronicled 26% career 3FG% obviously won’t help mitigate any lingering shooting woes. Beyond Roberson, there is no cavalry coming. GM Sam Presti has little flexibility, either financially or in terms of valuable trade assets, to substantively improve the roster mid-season. Perhaps they get some internal development from Ferguson, Diallo, or Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, but for all intents and purposes, this is the roster they’ll be going to war with all season.

Again, the offensive results have nowhere to go but up, but will it be enough to vault the team back into contention? I don’t see it.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS: TREAT

In the immediate run-up to the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves emphatically declared they would be the undisputed biggest shit-show in the league, to which the Wizards confidently replied, “hold my beer.”

While no one should be overly surprised at the ongoing chemistry-induced meltdown taking place in DC — your humble columnist was all over it well before their 1-5 pants-pooping began — the real shocker in all of this is that somehow Dwight Howard has nothing to do with it. Free agent addition Howard, noted malcontent and locker room contagion, hasn’t played yet this year due to a literal pain in his ass, which as injuries go, is so on-the-nose it feels like it has to be made up. But fear not, the Wizards’ pre-existing condition (namely, the Wall/Beal/Porter core) has it covered in the drama department, so one can only imagine how cancerous things will get once Dwight returns to the court and adds his inane brand of nonsense to the locker room mix. How predictably disastrous it all is takes nothing away from how fascinating it will continue to be.

On the court, the schedule has been undeniably tough (2nd most difficult in the league thus far), but the beatdowns at the hands of the Warriors and Clippers wouldn’t sting quite so much — and locker room tensions wouldn’t be cranked up to 11 — had they pulled out winnable games against Miami and Sacramento. The defense has been a sieve (26th in Defensive Rating), and the offense hasn’t been much better (24th). They are playing quickly (3rd in pace) but inefficiently, making it difficult for them to keep up in shootouts of their own design. The big man rotation of Markieff Morris, Jeff Green (hello, old friend), Ian Mahinmi, and Jason Smith might be the worst in the league. Getting Dwight back can only help, but if you’re counting on Dwight Howard to be your savior in 2018, I have some bad news.

Bradley Beal is still playing at an All-Star level (at least on the offensive end), and Kelly Oubre, Jr. continues to grow into a bigger role and add elements to his game, but otherwise there aren’t many bright spots to highlight. Scott Brooks’ reputation as a coach seems forever destined to outstrip his actual performance, but the organization’s perpetual reticence to seek out greener pastures — whether it be in owner Ted Leonsis’ baffling fealty to longtime GM Ernie Grunfeld or Grunfeld’s unwillingness to break up a roster well past its expiration date — makes it fair to question if anyone is even paying attention to how hot Brooks’ seat probably should be.

The schedule lightens up after they finish their current West Coast swing, and perhaps some semblance of peace can be restored in the locker room (particularly if the results start improving), but it’s important to remember this isn’t exactly a team starting from a high baseline. They won only 43 games last year and finished 8th in the East. They have no buffer to absorb a decline. They’ve weathered rough patches before as a team — including starting out 6-12 in 2016-17 before going 43-21 the rest of the way — but to argue Dwight is going to come back and author a complete defensive turnaround and inspire Ubuntu-type chemistry requires a level of spin and magical thinking even the politicians in DC couldn’t muster. Heads are going to roll, and I’m not talking about Ichabod Crane.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

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