I’ve quickly discovered why smart people hate making predictions. In the absolute, impossible-to-achieve best-case scenario, all of my calls are right. Guess what happens then? No one gives a shit, and I feel like an idiot for writing this instead of going to Vegas. And when I inevitably do make bad picks, no one cares and I STILL feel like an idiot because I am dumb and make bad picks. So no more predictions! Instead, for each game I’m gonna focus on a key matchup, or a player, or just something cool to keep in mind while watching. Ok, one final prediction: that the three people gracious enough to start reading this have long since stopped. ON TO THE GAMES!
Atlanta @ Philadelphia, 12:30 pm. When crunch time came Wednesday night, the Hawks were bailed out not by Dwight Howard or Dennis Schroder, but by Mike Budenholzer’s faith in his lesser-known players. As Atlanta extended a one-point lead to 13 early in the fourth quarter, Paul Millsap partnered with Mike Muscala, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Malcolm Delaney: a shooting-heavy lineup with enough size and athleticism to defend effectively. In the 9 minutes that quintet shared the floor, they hit all five of their threes, assisted on eight of eleven field goals, and outscored the Wizards by eight.
Delaney enters the season as Atlanta’s lone backup point guard behind Schroder, who is as young and erratic as he is immensely talented. The Baltimore native was not drafted in 2011 after wrapping up a stellar four-year run at Virginia Tech, but thrived against some of the toughest competition in Europe. He won titles in France, Ukraine, and Germany, taking home MVP trophies at the latter two stops. Now a 27-year-old rookie, Delaney scored four points and dished five assists in his NBA debut.
Boston @ Charlotte, 7 pm. Of the 20 teams with two games under their belt, Charlotte boasts the league’s lowest turnover rate, coughing the ball up on just 8.2 percent of their possessions. Kemba Walker has always taken great care of the ball, one of just two active guards with a usage rate above 25 percent and turnover rate below 11 percent (DeMar DeRozan is the other). In last night’s 97-91 win at Miami, Walker didn’t turn the ball over while scoring 24 points and handing out four assists – he’s now got 12 assists to just two giveaways this young season.
Defense was supposed to be Boston’s specialty, particularly with the addition of versatile big man Al Horford, as the Celtics improved from 18th to 12th to 5th in defensive efficiency over Brad Stevens’ three seasons. Against two mediocre offenses in Brooklyn and Chicago, Boston has given up an abysmal 112 points per 100 possessions, and hasn’t been able to protect their own glass at all. Injuries have taken a major toll on Horford’s board work, in particular. His first four seasons, he grabbed above 24 percent of all defensive rebounds while on the floor; as he approached and then passed his 30th birthday, that has dropped to barely above 18 percent the past two years.
Memphis @ New York, 7:30 pm. How many guesses would you need before you could name the proud owner of the largest contract in NBA history? Five? Ten? Fifty? Could you guess if I gave the hint that he’s on one of these two teams? Could you guess if I gave the hint that he’s the starting point guard for one of these two teams? Well, despite having a salary scale exemption named after him, it ain’t Derrick Rose – cashing checks on a new five-year, $153 million deal is Memphis’ Mike Conley, who enters his age-29 season a beacon of sub-All Star consistency rather than a true superstar:
In spite of new coach David Fizdale’s claims that the Grizzlies would be able to get out and run this year, Memphis’ opener against Minnesota leaves the two teams at the bottom of the league’s pace rankings. Slowly but surely, though, Grit n’ Grind is modernizing: long a rim-abusing coterie of bricklayers from outside, Memphis hit 45 percent of their 24 attempted threes Wednesday; with James Ennis, JaMychal Green and Andrew Harrison slid into a stretchier, more athletic starting lineup, Memphis’ first-teamers hit 9 of 18 from downtown. Even better, Zach Randolph seemed re-energized by his role as a bullying reserve, abusing the Timberwolves front line for 19 points and 11 boards.
Orlando @ Cleveland, 7:30 pm. Orlando was a team thought to be on the rise, chock full of young, athletic talent – until this summer. Upon taking the coaching reins over the summer, Frank Vogel jettisoned shooting guard Victor Oladipo, who at 23 averaged 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game after the All-Star break last season, along with the number 11 pick in July’s draft (20-year-old Domantas Sabonis, who with his skill, size, and bloodline, is already starting for a playoff contender in Oklahoma City) for veteran big man Serge Ibaka. Perhaps trying to replicate his post-heavy defense that gave Miami so much trouble, Vogel doubled down on size and signed free agent shot-blocker Bismack Biyombo to a 4-year, $72 million contract. Especially perplexing considering that incumbent center Nik Vucevic has averaged 20 and 10 per 36 minutes over the past two seasons, while Orlando’s best young talent, 21-year-old tweener Aaron Gordon, has played much better at power forward than wing.
Playing a pair of fringe playoff contenders, the Magic fell by 12 at home against Miami and suffered a 26-point loss in Detroit last night; in the early going, Orlando sports the league’s worst point differential. They’ve allowed the second-most field goal attempts through two games, while giving up the third-highest shooting percentage – Orlando conceded 108 points in each matchup, while both opponents managed only 91 in their other games. A team that prides itself, or at least puts most of its financial and roster resources into the frontcourt, and rim protection in particular, should not let their first two opponents make 55 shots within ten feet.
Indiana @ Chicago, 8 pm. This is why early-season small samples are so fun: the only two teams to shoot better from behind the three-point line than inside it are the Grizzlies and Bulls. A week ago, I’d have put both right next to Milwaukee and Orlando as the worst three-point shooting outfits in the league. It’s safe to say that Chicago’s spot atop that leaderboard is perilous, and the 44 percent they hit in their opener should come down significantly. Dwyane Wade hasn’t broken even 30 percent from deep since 2011, and hit just 7 of his 44 tries last year — knocking down four of six Wednesday was some combination of luck, Boston’s defensive gameplan, and fate writing a nice story in Wade’s Chicago homecoming.
Wade also pulled down six rebounds, as the Bulls abused the Celtics on the glass, winning the rebounding battle 55-36. I looked at Boston’s woes above, but Chicago will steal a handful of free points each game by relentlessly attacking the boards. The Bulls’ top four guards and wings — Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade , Jimmy Butler, and Michael Carter-Williams — have a combined 17 seasons with five-plus rebounds. While the redundancy in skills will bite them in other ways, each of these guys LOVES to fight for a missed shot, turn upcourt, and cause chaos in transition.
Brooklyn @ Milwaukee, 8 pm. BREAK UP THE NETS!! After nearly pulling off the comeback upset in their opener at the TD Garden, the Nets came home to Brooklyn and knocked off a talented Pacers team last night. Lionel Hollins’ bunch are still the early favorites for worst record, but when Jeremy Lin is on like this, they’ll make a lot of really good teams sweat. Lin hit a couple threes, got to the line at will, and scored 21 points, with 9 assists and 9 rebounds, while pairing him with marksmen Sean Kilpatrick and Bojan Bogdanovic — both primarily shooting guards — opened up driving lanes and post space to jump-start the offense against Indiana.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, looks exactly as expected, and where’s the fun in that? Point Giannis waved Nic Batum away like a fly on his way to 31 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists. Charlotte couldn’t keep him away from the rim, as he took ten dunks or layups, but the rest of the Bucks couldn’t keep pace. Greg Monroe stumbled his way to an incredibly inefficient 14 and 11, Jabari Parker and Matthew Dellavedova chipped in a disappointing 13 and 11 points, respectively, and, well, that was about it. With Khris Middleton, this team might have battled for a home playoff series — now, they’re Nets-level bad. Seriously, where does Jason Kidd expect to get points from? Tony Snell, who returns tonight, ain’t the answer. Neither is Michael Beasley, as if that even needs to be said at this point.
New Orleans @ San Antonio, 8 pm, NBATV. Poor Anthony Davis. I will leave this here every night, all god damn season, if I have to.
Portland @ Denver, 9 pm. One of these days, we’ll find out whether Emmanuel Mudiay is actually a good basketball player. That may not be any day soon, though, as the Congolese 2o-year-old flashes tantalizing talent and fatal flaws, often one after the other and in equal measure. He’s 6-foot-5, 200 pounds of solid muscle, and one of the game’s elite athletes at point guard — yet he shot just 44.8 percent on dunks and layups last year. His 31.9 percent shooting from deep is more “Jimmy Butler bad” than “Dwyane Wade bad,” but if he can’t hit at least 40 percent of his two-pointers, he’s essentially unplayable.
If Mudiay is a bust and drifts out of the league, expect many commentators to (gleefully) cite his decision to play in China rather than spend a year in college as a way to blame him for his lack of development. This is, as you surely recognize, a load of paternalistic horseshit. Mudiay played 12 games in Guangdong, missing most of the season with an ankle injury. Would Larry Brown have taught Mudiay how to shoot at an NBA level in 12 games, had he played at SMU instead? Larry IS well-known for being patient and helpful with inconsistent-but-talented young players, after all...
Minnesota @ Sacramento, 10:30 pm, NBATV. Accuse him of whatever shady recruiting practices you want, John Calipari is without peer as a judge of basketball talent in this country. In a three-and-a-half year span, he got Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns to commit to Kentucky; today, they’re the three best centers in the NBA. Sure, UK basketball sells itself in many ways, and Cal can at least get into the house of any recruit. But he has to pick which ones he wants, he has to convince them to play for him, and they have to pan out. Calipari’s guys hit on all three categories at an alarming rate.
Between the 2009, 2011, and 2013 recruiting classes, there were 23 five-star big men (rated by Rivals, and 6-foot-9 or taller). Of those 23, 16 were drafted, and 16 have played in the NBA — Dakari Johnson was drafted but has only seen time in the D-League, while undrafted Kyle Wiltjer got on the floor for one minute in Houston’s win over Dallas last night. Of those 16, just five have started a full season’s worth of games. Of those five, three average 20 points per game. Three average ten rebounds. Cal got all three.