What have we learned this season? What are the pleasant surprises? What are the disappointments? We’ve had 10 days of NBA to process.
Here are 10 lessons so far.
1. The Kings Are for the People
Something’s happening in Sacramento. I didn’t believe it at first, but now it’s undeniable. The Kings are … not terrible? But it’s more than that. The Kings are more fun than anyone right now.
It starts with DeMarcus Cousins, obviously. He’s averaging 30 points and 13 boards per 36 minutes. The first number is the best among any player this year who has played at least 100 minutes. He hasn’t gotten a technical all year, he’s supporting his teammates, he’s abusing everyone from Timofey Mozgov to DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. He’s the spiritual offspring of Rasheed and Z-Bo, only he may not have to leave his first team to turn his career around. He’s officially transitioning from talented young head case to unstoppable, possibly maturing head case.
The other night, he had perhaps the Boogiest stat line of all time: 30 points, 11 rebounds, and six fouls in just 22 minutes. There was also “What the f— did I do?” after his sixth foul, and a touching moment on the bench with Omri Casspi. Anyone with an Internet connection has already seen this Vine, and I don’t care, because I could watch it for hours:
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It’s not just Boogie. The Kings have an entire roster of castoffs who were either washed up (Rudy Gay! Derrick Williams! Carl Landry!) or never considered that good to begin with (Reggie Evans! Darren Collison! Ramon Sessions!). The coach, too. Until he landed with the Kings, Mike Malone was always one of those assistants at the center of every coaching rumor. He was close, but there was always someone with a bigger name or prior head-coaching experience just ahead of him in line. Now he’s getting his shot.
Then you have Nik Stauskas flexing on Instagram, and Sim Bhullar, a second-round pick who’s basically a Game of Thrones giant and currently holding things down with the Kings’ D-League affiliate in Reno. Omri Casspi is the Kent Bazemore of this group, keeping things together one sideline celebration and/or headband adjustment at a time. All of these players were supposed to go to Sacramento and disappear.
People have been making Rudy Gay jokes for at least the last 24 months, and he’s currently averaging 24 per game. He had 40 against the Blazers the other night. Darren Collison going to Sactown was one of the most inexplicable signings of the offseason, and suddenly he’s averaging 15 and seven and beating his old team.
Here’s where I have to apologize for doubting the Kings, just like everyone else did. Sacramento came into this year pitching “positionless” basketball, the sort of idea that sounds great on Team USA, with Melo, LeBron, and Wade, but not so great when you’re rolling out Collison, Gay, and Jason Thompson next to Boogie Cousins. None of it made sense. Until now. Even Vivek Ranadivé — the owner full of Rondo hallucinations and groundbreaking basketball ideas — fits in here. In a league where it sometimes feels like everyone’s either dominant or tanking, it’s awesome to add a team that’s too weird to fit into either category.
These are the NBA’s lost boys, and Boogie is their Peter Pan. Together, they’re 4-1, with wins over the Blazers and Clippers thus far.
From here, we’ll find out pretty quickly whether this team is for real. Are they this year’s Suns? Tonight they play the actual Suns, so that should be a good test. Then they have a suddenly winnable game at OKC, before facing the Mavs, Grizzlies, Spurs, Pelicans, and Bulls. Maybe all this early enthusiasm will fizzle, but I don’t know. Boogie’s good enough to make every game worth watching, and the rest of the team is weird enough to keep things interesting in between.
This was all supposed to be a train wreck. Now?
HOP ONBOARD THE KINGS TRAIN.
[Here’s where we need to Photoshop Boogie into an old-timey locomotive hat. We’ll do it if they go 5-2 over the next two weeks.]
2. Team USA Changes Lives
If you look around the league at the biggest surprises early on, Boogie Cousins and Rudy Gay are at the top of the list, obviously. But Klay Thompson has been just as incredible for Golden State. DeMar DeRozan is averaging 22 points per game in Toronto. Anthony Davis is striking fear into the entire NBA. Even James Harden looks better than ever. And what do all of these people have in common?
They all spent the summer training with Team USA.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
After the Paul George injury, voices from all over the basketball world were pushing for the NBA to pull its stars from international competition. Maybe that will still happen. But look around the league at all the young players (and, um, Rudy Gay) who are taking a step forward after spending the summer fine-tuning their game, building confidence, and learning from their peers. If one of your team’s best young players had a chance to play for Team USA, why would you ever want him to say no?
Whether you credit the coaching or the exposure to competition, or just the confidence boost of winning and of carrying the responsibility that comes with wearing the USA jersey, it makes sense that these guys would come back improved.
Obviously, Team USA’s leadership desperately wants to sell the idea that they’re making these players better — while also profiting and dominating — but it might be true, too. Whether it’s thinking back to the jump that Durant and Westbrook made in 2010 or looking at the jump that Boogie and Klay are making now, there’s a real track record for Team USA pushing good young players to another level.
On the other hand, Kyrie Irving also played for Team USA, so who knows? Maybe there’s something else at work here.
3. We Are All Klaytheists
Speaking of Klay Thompson, he’s averaging 27 points per game on 53 percent shooting. Two weeks into the season, he’s the breakout star of the league. Eighty percent of the basketball world already feels stupid after mocking the Warriors for keeping (and paying) Klay instead of trading for Kevin Love. It’s not necessarily permanent, but you couldn’t have asked for a more impressive start.
If you’re excited about Golden State this year, you could talk about Draymond Green, Steve Kerr’s coaching, the depth they have across the bench, or how they murdered the Clippers on Wednesday. But right now, I’m pretty sure the rise of Klay next to Steph Curry is the biggest reason everyone has to take the Warriors seriously as title contenders.
For the record: Juliet Litman has been leading the #Klaytheism charge at Grantland since early last year. Nobody has been more invested in Klay. Likewise, she adopted Andre Drummond right before he turned into a monster, and then the Kings on Monday, before they moved to 4-1 and won hearts across America. If you don’t believe in Team USA’s magical powers, this is your alternate explanation: Juliet’s magical powers. Also, fair warning: She picked Nic Batum as the breakout star of 2015. Adjust all Blazers forecasts accordingly.
4. League Pass Poison
Everyone talks a lot about teams to watch on League Pass. It has been only 10 days, but here are teams that I don’t ever want to watch on League Pass. In no particular order:
Especially the Nets. God, that team is depressing. It may not get better than Mikhail Prokhorov’s advice for Jason Kidd. That was the season highlight right there. The end.
Note: The Hornets would make this list, too, but there’s something fun about watching them try to put it together with Lance and Kemba. Both of those guys are entertaining regardless of whether they’re winning. Plus, that honeycomb court. Also note: The Rockets are going to finish top three in the West. Remember when people worried this team would miss the playoffs without Parsons? That will only look more amazing as the years pass. I’m actually rooting for the Rockets, just because of how out of control the skepticism got this summer. But between the blur of foul shots and the blowouts they’re unleashing, it’s still not fun to actually watch Rockets games. Maybe this will be different in January.
5. The Thunder Are the Donner Party
It’s a victory if any of them make it out alive.
We were robbed of Westbrook in hero mode. We were robbed of Reggie Jackson hero mode, as he’s now playing on a bum ankle and clashing with teammates. We did get a little of Perry Jones hero mode — a Danny Chau fever dream come to life — and then he got hurt, too. I don’t even know anymore. I’m too scared to bet against OKC making the playoffs despite all this, but every night, something horrible happens, and it’s all getting ridiculous. God exists, and He hates the Oklahoma City Thunder. There’s only one other explanation.
6. Lil B Is the Most Powerful Man in Basketball
David Stern is gone. Based God pulls the strings now. Michele Roberts had better get on the phone before the lockout in 2017. There’s nobody more qualified to put a hex on Adam Silver and the owners.
7. Channing Frye and Sadness
Sometimes a free-agent journeyman lands in the perfect spot. He signs at the perfect price, with the perfect role, on the perfect team, and everyone’s happy. Like Channing Frye with the Suns last year.
Channing Frye with the Magic is the exact opposite of that story. He left Phoenix because the Suns didn’t want to pay him, and he surprised everyone when he landed in Orlando. He is, by all accounts, one of the best guys in the league, and he’ll help with the young players in Orlando, and I’m glad he got paid. But now he’s stuck with a Magic team that probably won’t be fun until Frye is too old to enjoy it, playing out the twilight of his prime on a team that even some fans in Orlando will politely ignore.
Meanwhile, the Suns aren’t quite the same without him. They still run, but it’s not clicking as well. There’s a good chance that Phoenix losing Frye means the rest of us lose what was one of the most enjoyable teams in the league last year. Some stories have happy endings that put a smile on anyone’s face. This story just makes everyone sad. In brighter news …
8. Anthony Davis Is Infinity
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images
So many people spent the summer predicting this. So it doesn’t even feel that incredible that Anthony Davis is 21 years old, averaging 24, 13 rebounds, and four blocks per game. You know how infinity is an idea more than a number? Or how pi is a mathematical constant whose digits go on forever? That’s Anthony Davis’s potential. We don’t even know what to hope for, really.
There have been breakout stars in recent years, but not like this. With guys like Paul George, James Harden, or even John Wall, you had to watch closely to appreciate what made them great. With Davis, there’s no subtlety. He does HOLY SHIT things with his body on a nightly basis. We haven’t had anyone come into the NBA looking this unstoppable since LeBron. Even Durant wasn’t like this.
9. The League Is Wide Open
The Cavs? It’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process it’s a process.
They should be fine, mostly because this year’s Eastern Conference might be even more awful than last year’s East, so struggling is almost impossible for a team that’s actually trying to win. It’s a process.
But still. LeBron looks like he’s playing on Valium, Kyrie is already causing problems, Kevin Love hasn’t found a rhythm, and the defense is the only thing more depressing than the bench (Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson). Oh, and Matthew Dellavedova is now out six weeks. For a team that felt close to a sure thing for the Finals a few weeks ago, there are a lot more questions now. That’s all we know for sure after one week.
On the other hand? Almost every contender is struggling right now. The Clippers look awful. The Bulls have questions about Derrick Rose’s health. The Raptors and Wizards might not be ready yet. The Hornets are fizzling before we can even ask if they’re ready yet. The Spurs will win 55 games, because they’re the Spurs, but their age means health and energy will always be a question. The Mavs have problems on defense, the Blazers have issues with their bench. With all this uncertainty, the Thunder would be title favorites, but again, they’re living a nightmare directed by Lil B. On and on it goes.
If I were a Cavs fan, the first games would be pretty concerning. But looking at the rest of the NBA would make me feel a lot better.
10. The End of Kobe
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
I saw Steve Nash Instagram himself playing golf this week. This made Lakers fans outraged, but it made me unreasonably happy. The end of Nash’s career was brutal enough — at least he doesn’t have to be part of this Lakers season.
I finally understand why teams part ways with franchise superstars at the end of their career. Joe Montana on the Chiefs makes sense now. So does Emmitt Smith on the Cardinals. Jordan on the Wizards will never be OK, but Paul Pierce on the Wizards is understandable now. Sometimes it’s in everyone’s best interest to move on. This Lakers team reminds us of that every single night.
It’s still not Kobe’s fault that the Lakers turned into this, and keeping him around as an attraction during rebuilding years makes some sense from a marketing standpoint. But at some point, something’s gotta give, right? Kobe can’t end his career on a 20-win Lakers team that gives up 120 points every night. He’s still good, and definitely too good to go out like this.
The Knicks could offer Amar’e Stoudemire’s expiring deal. It would be a reunion with Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher, playing in New York City, and in a conference that’s wide open. Does this mean we should all be dreaming of Mamba at MSG in May?
We gotta find a way to get Kobe on the Kings.
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