Jimmy Casey ‘22
It’s been a month since the NBA began its 2020-2021 campaign and, as expected, there has been no shortage of drama and intrigue. Within the past 30 days, effects of the coronavirus have been felt, teams have faltered, and trades have been made. In other words, headlines haven’t been hard to come by. I’ll dive into some of the biggest takeaways and surprises of the league’s first month.
New Look Nets
As I noted in my season preview, the Brooklyn Nets were one of the most interesting teams coming into the 2020-2021 season. Their opening-day roster looked like a team poised to make a run in the Eastern Conference. Yet, after a fairly rocky start to the season in which Kyrie Irving decided to stop playing for a few weeks, they elected to shake it up… and they really shook it up. They acquired former MVP and 2-time defending scoring champion James Harden from the Houston Rockets in a monster 4-team trade. In exchange for Harden, the Nets lost Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs, Taurean Prince, 4 first-round picks, and 4 first-round pick swaps. LeVert was subsequently traded by Houston to the Indiana Pacers for Victor Oladipo, while Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince were shipped to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Dante Exum. This blockbuster trade has been by far the biggest news of the season. It was evident from the start that Harden’s tumultuous relationship in Houston was unsalvageable, and there were countless rumors about where he might end up, but the fact that the trade actually happened was shocking. Seeing that headline pop up on the Twitter feed was a Woj Bomb unlike any other. In doing this, the Nets have made it clear that they’re going all in on winning a championship right now, and this deal makes them one of the scariest teams in the association. Harden and Durant have each won multiple scoring titles, and Irving is widely regarded as one of the most skilled offensive players in the NBA. So, I think it’s fair to say they’ll have absolutely no problem scoring the ball. Their offensive ability alone catapults them into the short list of contending teams. However, that’s only one side of the ball. In trading Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn lost their young, budding rim protector. He was their interior force. Without him, the Nets might have a problem containing the league’s best big men. They also traded away Caris LeVert and Taurean Prince, two young guys who held down Brooklyn’s second unit and provided scoring and defense off the bench. In other words, they’ve sent seemingly their entire future to Houston, so there’s definitely a lot on the line. It remains to be seen whether Harden is worth all of that for Brooklyn, but, with Durant looking like a legitimate MVP candidate, it’s hard to disagree with the significant hype around this squad.
The MVP Race
The 2019-2020 season wasn’t the best for Joel Embiid. Although he made his third consecutive all-star team, his numbers dropped across the board. Injuries paired with a peculiar supporting cast made it difficult for Embiid to do what he does best – dominate. He was noticeably frustrated when the Sixers were bounced in the first round of the playoffs, and there were many questions about him and his team going into the offseason. However, after a few smart moves in which Philadelphia acquired some shooters to complement him, Embiid has looked rejuvenated. He’s led the squad to an Eastern Conference-best 10-5 record thus far. Every aspect of his game looks more polished than last year, and the Sixers are benefitting from it. Embiid has been so effective that people are beginning to seriously consider him in the MVP race. His impact on both the offensive and defensive ends is enormously important for a Philadelphia team that’s striving to win a championship now. Embiid’s MVP hopes hinge on whether or not he plays enough games, as injuries have always been a problem for the big man. Yet, if he can sustain his current pace, it’ll be hard to refute his dominance.
Coming off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, Jokic’s Denver Nuggets haven’t gotten off to the hottest start this season, but Jokic’s offensive brilliance has been nothing short of amazing. This kind of play has been normal for Jokic in the past few years, but it seems as if he’s taken yet another leap this season. Through his first 14 games, Jokic is averaging a triple-double with 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 10 assists per game. These numbers are incredible for any player, but the fact that Jokic is a center makes the feat even more impressive. Denver runs everything through him, and he makes the right decision almost every time. Watching his big, barreling body throw dimes like Magic Johnson is really a sight to see. Jokic is a generational talent whose passing is one of the best the league has ever seen, no matter what position. He first needs to get Denver back to its winning ways, but if he can average a triple-double for the entire season and lead the NBA in assists like he is currently, Jokic’s case for MVP will be as strong as anybody’s.
If you would’ve told me before the season that Kevin Durant would be one of the top candidates for MVP, I would’ve said you’re out of your mind. Well, I probably would’ve said something more along the lines of “Nice, that’s a hot take,” but you get the point. Coming back from a torn Achilles is widely regarded as one of the most difficult tasks in sports. In fact, there have been very few players ever who’ve returned to their pre-injury level of play. For this reason, there was a lot of speculation about how good Durant would really be this season. Many people, including myself, doubted his ability to produce the same kind of output that he did before his injury. In my mind, I figured he would be about 85% of the player he once was – still a great scorer and shooter, but not as explosive or effective defensively. Durant proved that notion wrong from the outset. Although he’s only 12 games in, he’s averaging 31.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 6 assists per game on astoundingly good shooting percentages. He looks just as good as he did in 2019, which is truly amazing. Durant’s production might take a dip with the addition of James Harden, making it harder for him to win MVP, but the simple fact that he’s in the conversation is really nice to see. KD is back.
New York Knicks
2020 was obviously filled with endless surprises. Nobody could’ve ever predicted that we’d experience a world-altering pandemic along with the countless other events that happened throughout the year. Yet, somehow, some way, 2021 has brought an even bigger surprise – the Knicks aren’t that bad! Who would’ve thought?! Throughout the past 20 years, New York has only made the playoffs 4 times, and they haven’t won more than 32 games since 2013-14. In other words, the Knicks have consistently been horrible. This past offseason they brought in a new general manager, Leon Rose, who hired veteran head coach Tom Thibodeau. These were promising moves, but not many people thought they had a chance to make any noise this season. Now, after a month of play, they stand at 7-8, good for 8th in the Eastern Conference. This is not an amazing record by any means, but the fact that they’ve been competitive every night is very encouraging for their squad. Power forward Julius Randle has been their star, averaging 22.8 points, 11 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game. His improvement is a welcome sight for New York. He’s shown flashes of brilliance during his 6-year career, but this year he’s doing it consistently. RJ Barrett, Elfrid Payton, Mitchell Robinson and Immanuel Quickley have all been really effective for the Knicks as well. Coach Thibodeau seems to have them locked in on the defensive end, which has spurred their scrappy play. It’s nice to have competitive basketball back in Madison Square Garden. Let’s hope they can maintain it.
Cleveland has been another pleasant surprise so far this season. Since the departure of LeBron James, the Cavaliers have been one of the worst teams in the NBA. This year looked like it’d be yet another down year for the floundering franchise, but, to most people’s surprise, they’ve been pretty good. Andre Drummond has been impactful inside, averaging 18.8 points and a staggering 15.1 rebounds per game. Drummond hasn’t even been their best player, though. Third-year guard Collin Sexton has exploded onto the scene so far, averaging 27 points per game. He has been the catalyst for their offense all season, and opposing teams are having nightmares trying to guard him. Alongside him is second-year guard Darius Garland, who was producing impressive numbers before being injured. Cleveland also acquired Jarrett Allen from Brooklyn, a young and promising big man. With this young core of players, the Cavaliers should be set up nicely for the future. They’re not yet a serious threat in the Eastern Conference, but they’re clearly moving in the right direction. I wouldn’t be surprised if they looked into trading Drummond for a few younger assets because of the recent addition of Jarrett Allen, but it remains to be seen. They’re an exciting team to watch.
What in the world is going on in Washington? After trading for Russell Westbrook, the Wizards weren’t necessarily considering a title contender, but most people figured they’d make the playoffs. Besides, with two guys as talented as Westbrook and Bradley Beal, it seems like they’d be an automatic playoff team. That doesn’t seem like the case this year. Although Beal has been outstanding offensively, leading the league in points per game at 34.9, Washington sits at a record of just 3-8. They unfortunately lost starting center Thomas Bryant to a season-ending injury, but they weren’t playing well even before he got injured. So, what’s wrong? Well, the answer is complex, but a part of their struggles falls on Russell Westbrook. He’s missed a few games, but in those that he’s played in, he’s been a disappointment. He’s averaging the least amount of points per game since his second season in the league, while shooting a career-worst 38% from the field. He’s still a great rebounder and passer, but it appears he’s lost a step offensively. If he can’t turn it around, I don’t see the Wizards having any success. Furthermore, their defense has been atrocious, ranking second-last in the NBA in team defense. They can’t stop anyone, which is a huge problem for a team that hasn’t been great offensively besides Bradley Beal. It’s still early in the season, but Washington has a lot that they need to fix if they want to make a run in the playoffs. If not, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Bradley Beal’s name mentioned heavily in trade rumors.
Will the Season Continue?
This is the most important issue the NBA is faced with at this moment – will the league be able to contain the coronavirus without a bubble? The first couple weeks of the season were relatively good. There were scattered cases, but nothing that really ravaged teams. Lately, though, it seems like the situation is becoming a bit more unstable. More cases, more postponements, and more frustration seems to be arising. The league has imposed stricter rules for mask usage and postgame interactions, but that can only help so much. Fans are calling for a bubble similar to the one used last summer, but I doubt the players will do that again. The bubble was hard for a lot of players, as they couldn’t see their families or friends for a really long time. I don’t think that’s a sacrifice they’ll be willing to take again, for good reason. Thus, I believe players will get the vaccine pretty soon as a way to stop the spread and continue playing. Commissioner Adam Silver originally said that players will wait their turn, but it’s looking like that sentiment might change. If the league wants to complete the season, that’s probably the only viable option. We’ll see what happens from here on out.