The first week of the NBA season could charitably be described as small sample size theater. Good teams are built to succeed over the 82-game slog of the regular season, and great ones put a special emphasis on the potential 16-game slate that comes after that in the playoffs. The first few games of the season are always filled with plenty of fool’s gold.
The start of the season isn’t completely worthless, though. This is often the part of the campaign where teams are at their healthiest. The first few games of the year are also a good opportunity to see what players have added to their skill sets over the offseason. Rookies that are really good right away usually end up having productive careers.
The 2021-2022 season has now been underway for a week. These are the things we didn’t expect to see that are currently happening at the start of the season.
The Knicks are jacking threes
The New York Knicks were the NBA’s biggest surprise last season. After being widely pegged to finish near the bottom of the league coming into the year, New York had a remarkable turnaround under first year head coach Tom Thibodeau that ended with the team grabbing the No. 4 seed. The Knicks got the job done with defense as all Thibodeau teams do, but eventually their lackluster offense (which ranked No. 24 during the regular season) was their undoing in the postseason.
Last year’s Knicks offense had plenty of problems, but one of the biggest was that they didn’t take many threes. New York averaged 30.9 attempts from three-point range per 100 possessions, which ranked No. 24 in the league. The objective going into the offseason was to improve the perimeter play, and so far it’s translated into a team that’s completely changed its style of play.
The Knicks are attempting 45.1 three-pointers per 100 possessions through the first week. They rank No. 7 in the league in offensive efficiency. Even after a disheartening loss to the Magic, New York still sits at 2-1.
New addition Evan Fournier is averaging almost 10 attempts per game from three right now. Julius Randle is attempting eight threes per game. Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and R.J. Barrett are all attempting more than five threes per game, and Kemba Walker is close to hitting that threshold, too.
A Knicks team that can reliably stretch the floor offensively sure feels like a big improvement from the group Elfrid Payton led last year. New York is going to be dangerous in the East if the trend sticks.
The Hornets’ offense is humming
The Charlotte Hornets’ undefeated start finally came to an end with 140-129 overtime defeat to the Boston Celtics on Monday night. The loss hurts, but the Hornets again proved they can put up a ton of points on offense.
Last year’s Hornets ranked No. 23 in the league in offensive efficiency, scoring 110.1 points per 100 possessions. This year, Charlotte is scoring 114.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks No. 4 in the league.
LaMelo Ball is going to be a superstar. Miles Bridges was just named Eastern Conference Player of the Week to start the season after dropping multiple 30-point scoring performances. This team doesn’t even have last season’s leading scorer Terry Rozier yet, and it already looks dramatically improved.
Do yourself a favor and watch the Hornets. They are pure joy behind LaMelo.
James Harden’s slow start
James Harden has a case as being the most consistently great offensive producer of his generation. Harden had put up five straight seasons with at least 29 points and 7.5 assists per game before breaking the streak last year when he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. Harden had a full offseason to prepare with Kevin Durant and co. coming into this year, but he’s off to his slowest start since the beginning of his career in Oklahoma City.
Through four games, Harden is averaging only 17.3 points per game on 36.4 percent shooting from the field and 32.3 percent shooting from three. He’s turned the ball over 4.8 times per game. Worst of all, Harden just doesn’t look as explosive attacking the basket as he normally does. Some of this is due to the new rules trying to eliminate players like Harden drawing so many shooting fouls. Mostly, though, Harden just looks a step slow.
Harden is still among the league’s assist leaders right now. At 32 years old, he should still have some good years left in front of him. Maybe he’s just playing himself into shape, which is an NBA tradition as old as time. At least to start this year, though, Harden is not the offensive supernova we’ve always known him to be.
Harrison Barnes is top-10 in the league in scoring
Did anyone have Barnes averaging 28.3 points per game to start the season? Me neither.
Barnes is currently No. 8 in the league in scoring. He’s never averaged 20 points per game as he enters his 10th season. He’s doing it through three games mostly because he’s shooting 55.6 percent from three so far.
Ja Morant is leveling up as a shooter
Ja Morant has been sensational in every aspect of the game to start the new year. He’s leading the NBA in scoring at 35 points per game. He’s averaging eight assists. He nearly willed his Memphis Grizzlies to a 3-0 start with an incredible performance against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday before a late LA rally (and a critical missed free throw by Morant) gave the Lakers their first win.
Morant has been awesome his first two years in the league, but his inability to make pull-up jumpers was a weakness in his game. In his first two years, Morant hit 30 percent of his pull-ups on a low volume of attempts. It seems like something he’s fixed over the offseason. This year, Morant is making 45.5 percent of his pull-up threes on 3.7 per game.
Having a reliable pull-up is exactly what Morant needed to take the next step as a star. If defenses go under on a screen, he needs to be able to hit a shot. If they chase him over the screen, well, that’s when Morant can slither his way to the basket for a bucket in the paint. It would be huge for his game if the shooting can hold all season.
Tyler Herro back to playing like he was in the bubble
Tyler Herro was a breakout star in the bubble for the Miami Heat as a rookie for a team that made a surprise run to the NBA Finals. Herro’s second season wasn’t nearly as successful for himself or his team: the guard’s numbers largely stagnated and the Heat were eliminated in the first round.
Through the first week of his third season, it feels like Bubble Herro is back.
Herro opened the season with 27 points against the Bucks. Then he dropped 30 points and 10 rebounds on the Pacers. His scoring took a step back in a blowout win over the Magic (13 points), but he still added nine assists. His shooting (a tick under 35 percent from three) still has plenty of room for improvement.
Factor in his strong preseason, and it feels like Herro is poised for a big year. The Heat need it if they want to get back to the top of the East.
Evan Mobley looks like the best rookie
Evan Mobley was a favorite of mine heading into the 2021 NBA Draft. We had Mobley ranked as the No. 2 player in the class, only behind Cade Cunningham. While Mobley’s combination of physical tools and burgeoning skill gave him a super high long-term ceiling, it was also easy to think he might need a few years to add the strength he needed to compete on the interior. Big men typically take longer to get going than guards.
Turns out Mobley is really good at the NBA level right away.
Mobley is gliding all over the floor defensively, and he has the length to challenge any shot within reason. His shooting touch is already impressive, and he should stretch out his range as he continues in the league. Mobley’s feel for the passing as both a passer and help defender is also standing out already.
There have been a lot of impressive rookies already, but the Cavs have to be feeling really great about getting a talent like Mobley with the third pick.
Bulls are the East’s last undefeated team
Yes, the schedule has been soft so far, but the Chicago Bulls — the team with the worst record in the NBA over the last four seasons — are the last undefeated team in the East. We told you this team would be good, and they’re living up to the hype so far.
The Bulls have so many new pieces that it’s impossible to really know what to expect from this group. At this point, the defense ranks No. 6 in the league and looks far better than anticipated. The offense has been a tad underwhelming at No. 13 overall, but having Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan in the halfcourt gives Chicago a chance on every possession. Nikola Vucevic has been off to a slow start offensively, and the Bulls should only become more potent when he finds his groove. Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have been everything the Bulls have hoped for in the backcourt. This team will be getting some more offensive firepower when Coby White returns to the lineup in a few weeks.
We still need to see how the Bulls look against legitimate competition, but this has undoubtedly been an extremely positive start for Chicago.