Pick one word to describe the 2017-18 NBA season so far. Weird? Bizarre? Abnormal? It doesn’t matter which of the three you picked because they’re all true. The basketball calendar is a little over two weeks old and it seems that the league itself has flipped over its head. As of today, the Orlando Magic are tied for first in the Eastern Conference with the Boston Celtics. The Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and Charlotte Hornets are all just a game behind, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are all the way down in 13th place. You know who has a better record than the LeBron James-led Cavs? The Trust the Process Sixers and the Kristaps Knicks!
As wonky as the Eastern Conference has been, the West has been as chaotic in the first two weeks of the season. Guess who sits on top of the conference at this point. If you said the Golden State Warriors, you’d be wrong. But if you said the Los Angeles Clippers, the same team that lost its superstar point guard to the Houston Rockets, then give yourselves a pat on the back. Speaking of the world champs, they’re sitting pretty in third place, though if you’ve followed any of their games so far, you’d know that they could just as easily be 2-7 at this point in the season had they not come back from 20-point deficits against the New Orleans Pelicans, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, and earlier today, the San Antonio Spurs. It’s like the league as a whole stumbled into the Upside Down.
So what does this say about the NBA that the standings are nowhere near what we expected them to be, even this early in the year. Perhaps it’s another one of those classic overreactions on our part. After all, you guys take great pleasure in pointing that out. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that happened. Or maybe there’s really more to this weird start to the season that we’re still refusing—intentionally or not—to recognize.
The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle of all this chaos.
The Cavs stink right now. Let’s get that out of the way. But a case can also be made that their terrible start to the season isn’t so much an indictment on their ineptitude, but the result of months of uncertainty finally catching up to them. This is a team that lost Kyrie Irving and while they did do well in that trade given the circumstances, their returns haven’t amounted to anything more than a confused Jae Crowder who’s mired in the worst funk of his career. Isaiah Thomas is probably still a few months away from returning, and last we checked, that Nets 2018 first round pick can’t space the floor for LeBron James, because whoever that guy ends up being is still in college. And don’t even get started on how bad the team’s on-court chemistry is. Dwayne Wade came into the picture and was named a starter. That ushered the return of Pouting J.R. Smith, who couldn’t handle the ignominy of losing his starting gig to a player who’s nowhere near the Hall of Fame player he once was.
The good news for Cleveland is the blueprint remains the same, as it has been for the past three seasons since James returned to the fold. Coast through the regular season, figure out all the warts in the system, peak at the right time, and turn the dial up in the playoffs. In other words, the Cavs will be fine in the long run, even if the road getting there is going to be messier than it’s ever been.
As for the Dubs? There’s nothing to talk about. They’re still the class of the NBA until somebody dethrones them, and even with how disjointed they’ve looked so far in the season, no one’s going to touch them once they hit their stride. There’s a reason they won those three aforementioned games they were each trailing by 20 or so points. They’ll mess around every so often, botch a few plays, and get sloppy with their execution. But when it comes to winning time, they’re still the class of the NBA by a long shot.
That said, as much as we believe that the traditional powers will inevitably find their footing as the season progresses, it’s also important to give credit to the fast-starters of the season. The Orlando Magic look like a team whose young stars are finally translating all their potential into actual results on the court. Aaron Gordon has been one of the best revelations in the season so far. So has Victor Oladipo over at Indiana. Remember when he went on that triple-double tear in the last month of the 2015-16 season? It seems like ages ago, but that’s what living in the shadow of Russell Westbrook does to the people. Now that he’s out of it and free to stretch his wings in Indiana, he’s finally living up to all the hype that came with being the second overall pick in 2014.
Then there’s Kemba Walker. We understand the urge of anointing Giannis Antetokounmpo as the next great superstar in the league, especially with the way he’s been playing so far this season. The video game-like numbers are beyond ridiculous and even the seeming hilarity of it all still doesn’t do justice to how spectacular Giannis has been for the Milwaukee Bucks. All the same, the days of sleeping on Kemba Walker should be over. It’s an absolute crime that he’s not being mentioned in the conversation of best point guards in the league, especially with the way he’s been playing so far this season. The Hornets are 5-3 in the season and are poised to be one of the biggest risers this year because Walker is making as good a case as any point guard in the league right now for that mythical “best-of” title.
Out-of-the-blue narratives like this are exactly why the NBA is as popular as it’s ever been. Two weeks into the new season and there’s already no shortage of talking points to debate over. Ultimately, the cream of the crop will rise to the top because that’s what it’s always been in this league. But until then, here’s to hoping that this roller-coaster start to the season continues to throw us for a loop.