We are approximately 2 percent of the way through the N.B.A. season.
Which means it is exactly the right time to draw grand conclusions and assume that they will hold until April. It’s the ideal moment to get overly excited about expected lottery teams that are weirdly undefeated and predict doom and gloom for championship contenders that look like lottery teams.
This is probably the last piece of the season in which I will write the words, “Hey, you know who looks like the best team in the league? The Minnesota Timberwolves.” But with that being said: Hey, you know who looks like the best team in the league? The Minnesota Timberwolves.
Still, there are some trends developing that are worth keeping an eye on now that we are through the first two or three games of the regular season.
1. Whatever Karl-Anthony Towns did this summer, I should’ve done.
Goodness gracious. There appear to be Pringles-size chips on Karl-Anthony Towns’s shoulders this season. On Friday night against the Charlotte Hornets, he blew up for 37 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists. In Wednesday’s season opener on the road against the Nets, Towns had a nearly identical 36 points and 14 rebounds. He almost matched the impact Kyrie Irving had on that game — I say almost because Irving had 50. Fifty!
Towns has always been an exceptional talent. But his defense and general focus have been suspect throughout his career. If Towns can keep up some approximation of this over several months, he will be a front-runner for the Most Valuable Player Award. We’ll talk about him as a bona fide top-10 player. And I’ll be honest: Too often as fans, we are susceptible to believing outdated narratives. Towns has probably been a top-10 player this whole time — and he probably should have been All-N.B.A. third team last year over Utah’s Rudy Gobert.
2. The Nets have some issues.
Losing a game in which Irving scores 50 is not an ideal way to start the season. Did I mention 50?! But in the second game of the season, the Nets blew a 19-point second-half lead to the Knicks, before Irving rescued them in the final minutes, avoiding what would have been another devastating home loss.
File this under “I’m just saying”: Last year, the Irving-led Boston Celtics went to Madison Square Garden to play the Knicks in the third game of the season. It should have been an easy win for Boston. Instead, it became a dogfight that the Celtics barely won.
The Nets have a lot of new faces and a whole new identity to work out. But Irving can’t shoulder this much of a load night in and night out. And just as with Boston, Irving is surrounded by a mixture of veterans and blue-chip prospects who are looking to grow their own roles. Are the Nets a finals team this year without the injured Kevin Durant? No. But the expectation is that they will progress from last year’s unexpected regular season success.
And if that identity doesn’t develop for the Nets, will Irving remain happy? Are we going to stop hearing how Brooklyn is home for him by February? We’ve seen this story unfold before. I’m just saying.
3. Coaches challenges: Get rid of ’em.
It’s bad television. They kill the momentum of games, and coaches don’t seem to understand best practices for using them.
But look, in the interest of entertainment, if you are going to keep the challenges, make the practice of calling for them more interesting. Have the coaches use an air horn or a trumpet. Give the coaches the option of shooting a free throw themselves in lieu of the challenge. If they hit the free throw, the call goes to the challenging team.
While we are at it, I will trade the coaches challenges for the return of the now-banned ninja-style headbands a bunch of players wore last season.
4. The Knicks, boy, I have no idea.
I am bullish on the Knicks. I remain so. They have the talent to get to 35 wins in a weak conference. I am also bullish on the young talent. R.J. Barrett has some serious poise on both ends of the floor. Allonzo Trier dropped 22 points off the bench against the Nets, helping spur a futile comeback effort. (Mitchell Robinson, on the other hand, made his season debut and only played 17 minutes because of foul trouble. What else is new?)
Yes, the Knicks lost all three of their games to start the season. But they were competitive in each of them — and I expect some of those narrow losses to start turning into wins.
But the Knicks don’t look like they know what they’re doing on the floor and it’s not clear what their goals are this season. They’re all in on Barrett, giving him the starting job. But who else?
On opening night on the road against the San Antonio Spurs, the Knicks started Trier, a dynamic young player, and only played him seven minutes, then gave him an extended run against the Nets. Also, Elfrid Payton started over him by the second game. Frank Ntilikina, after a strong showing this summer at the FIBA World Cup, isn’t even in the Knicks’ rotation. Dennis Smith Jr. has looked like a disaster. On Saturday night, Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden were openly booing him. It is just not the sign of a healthy franchise if young players’ minutes are already being jerked around.
All this is made worse by the fact that Kristaps Porzingis is fully healthy in Dallas and playing very well alongside Luka Doncic. What did the Knicks get out of trading Porzingis? The early returns are worse than we might have realized.