Lance Stephenson's fit and Kevin Love's role are two storylines could impact the 2016 NBA title race.
The NBA has returned in surround sound and with maximum fury. In the first week of the 2015-16 season, Byron Scott suggested Kobe Bryant take a chill day, Adam Silver contracted the Nets and nobody even noticed, a pickle interrupted gameplay, a gaggle of rookies got off to promising starts, LeBron James joined the 25,000 point club, and Flip Saunders was memorialized beautifully by the Timberwolves.
Rather than drown in the early-season noise, let’s take a step back and count down the most important developments to date with regard to the 2016 NBA title chase. What’s happened in October and early November that will actually matter come May and June? Here are five things to watch:
Lance Stephenson’s fit
Aside from how the Spurs approached integrating LaMarcus Aldridge, the most intriguing lineup question among contending teams is how Doc Rivers decided to address his starting small forward position (and how that would impact the chemistry on his second unit). Lance Stephenson has been tapped as the first guy to step into the hole vacated by Matt Barnes, a decision that shifted Wesley Johnson and Paul Pierce to the bench. The move is a compromise: Rivers is sacrificing perimeter shooting, size/length and, frankly, stability to maximize athleticism, offensive playmaking and defensive intensity.
After his rough 2014-15 season, entrusting Stephenson with major responsibilities qualifies as a real gamble. Four games in, the results are as good as Rivers could reasonably expect. It hasn’t always been pretty: Stephenson doesn’t require attention when he’s lining from up behind the arc and he has already endured a number of very public sequences of inattentiveness on defense.
But he’s been better than the punchline/punching bag he was last year. Importantly, he’s doing a good job staying in his lane: his usage rate, shot attempts and turnovers are all way down, and the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan trio is still getting its bread-and-butter looks when he’s on the court. Good things can occasionally happen when Stephenson creates in small doses: his ability to collapse a defense and dish to Griffin and Jordan could represent a source offense that didn’t really exist with Barnes. The video below has a few such dishes.
Although the 4-0 Clippers haven’t yet faced an upper-echelon team, Rivers’s new-look starting five has outscored opponents by 38 points while posting a +25.6 net rating in its 76 minutes together. That qualifies as promising, although the obvious “small sample size” disclaimer applies. Rivers also told USA Today Sports last week that he hopes to get more from second-unit guards Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford by splitting off Stephenson’s minutes into the first unit. That’s a logical thought, although L.A.’s reserves are collectively off to a pretty rough start.
Stephenson and the rest of the Clippers’ starters are in for a major, must-see showdown with the scorching hot Warriors on Wednesday. Of course, even tougher individual tests are coming once Stephenson is asked to match-up with elite small forwards with size and length like Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.
Kevin Love’s role
LeBron James is always thinking one step ahead. The latest example: his decision to open the season by pumping up Kevin Love, who is fresh off a season-ending shoulder injury and a new max contract. Love sacrificed more than either James or Kyrie Irving did last season, transforming into a complementary floor-stretching shooter when Cleveland took off in the second half. With Irving sidelined, James clearly realized Love was the best qualified to help pick up the slack and he used phrases like “focal point,” “main focus” and “get back to All-Star status” to help set expectations.
How’s it going so far? Not bad. Cleveland is 3-1, with quality wins over Miami and Memphis, and Love is averaging 18.5/10.8 while taking 15 shots a night (up from 12.7 last year). Per NBA.com, Love’s post and paint touches are both up significantly from last season, as you would expect.
The most satisfying part of a more involved Love might actually be the return of his passing ability in the halfcourt. Last year, Love averaged 33.7 passes and he’s up to 40.8 this season, and his five assists against the Heat this week were more than any game after Christmas last year.
Love’s outlet passes get all the glory, but this guy can dish a dime from anywhere. He’s been used in pick-and-rolls with Mo Williams, and he’s skilled at receiving an initial pass as he dives to the hoop and then quickly reading the defense to find the open man (whether it’s a cutter or a shooter). He’s also sucking in defenders when he sets up on the block and kicking it out like he often did during his Timberwolves days. Count this as a return to form rather than a revolution, but it’s still a welcome sight for a team that relied so heavily on LeBron-ball during the 2015 playoffs.
Check out this ultra-unselfish sequence from the Cavaliers that, after a ball reversal, ended with a pretty Love assist to Timofey Mozgov that drew a fist pump from coach David Blatt. Is that Cleveland or San Antonio?
Irving’s eventual return hangs over Love’s early-season progress, and it will be on Blatt to ensure that Cleveland can get peak contributions from all three of his stars once they’re healthy. But this is good stuff for a first impression.
Kawhi Leonard’s growth
How many times did Kawhi Leonard top 30 points in his first four regular seasons? Zero. How many games did it take the Spurs forward to hit the 30-point mark this year? One. With a strong 32-point, eight-rebound effort against the Thunder, Leonard took an important step forward as a lead scoring option while also reminding the basketball world yet again that he is as good as it gets when it comes to perimeter defense. His oft-watched block of Kevin Durant has led to a series of impressive individual defensive performances. Already this season, Leonard has locked up Durant, Joe Johnson and Carmelo Anthony, helping San Antonio to a 3-1 start and the league’s third-best defensive rating.
SI.com has previously argued that Leonard, 24, was worthy of All-NBA selection last season and has nominated him as a no-brainer first-time All-Star this year. Opening week has validated those sentiments, while also tamping down some of the off-season “panic” about the new-look Spurs.
Consider these three facts. One: LaMarcus Aldridge’s production and shooting efficiency are way down and he hasn’t yet found his fit within San Antonio’s system. Two: the aging Tony Parker, so hard to track off the dribble for years, has taken a grand total of two free throws in 106 minutes of action. Three: sharpshooter Danny Green is still on summer vacation (2-for-17 from deep so far).
Aldridge’s acclimation, Parker’s slippage and Green’s bouts of inconsistency are three central questions for these Spurs. All three were present in week one, and yet San Antonio is still leading the Southwest Division and taking care of teams it should beat.
Tim Duncan deserves a lot of the credit, as always, but so does Leonard. He’s reached the point where he is so good and so impactful that he is capable of covering up his team’s flaws, even big ones. This counts as another step in his multi-year transformation from supporting cast member to alpha dog, and it’s playing out right on schedule. Once Aldridge gets going—he looked better in the second half of Sunday’s win over the Celtics—the Spurs should be really special.
Kevin Durant’s return
How good has Stephen Curry’s opening week been? So good that he eclipsed 2014 MVP Kevin Durant, who came back from three foot surgeries, tossed up a 43-point night in his second outing and currently ranks third in scoring and tied for first in minutes played. So good that the Warriors are stealing headlines from the 3-1 Thunder, who are getting a combined 60 points per game (!) from Durant and Russell Westbrook within an offense that ranks second in the league and looks a little more potent under coach Billy Donovan. Aside from a bad brick from Durant late in a loss to Houston, Oklahoma City’s opening week has been downright dreamy.
Getting back on the court was the first step for Durant, and he’s done that. Getting back to 100% is the next step, and he’s already well on his way thanks in part to Westbrook’s presence. Here’s how the Thunder have fared over the last four-plus seasons when their two perennial All-Stars share the court.
Yes, it’s still incredibly early, but the Thunder have delivered an optimistic first impression: They look like an offensive juggernaut driven by a duo that hasn’t skipped a beat.
Stephen Curry’s ascension
The 2015 MVP has immediately vaulted to the top of the 2016 MVP race with a series of ludicrous performances in week one: 40 points on opening night, the season’s only 50-point effort four nights later, four double-digit Warriors wins and an insane 119-69 deconstruction of the Grizzlies on Monday. The balanced, honest memories of his “often spectacular, but sometimes not” play during the 2015 playoffs have given way to long stretches of profane disbelief and drooling awe.
As if scoring 148 points on 84 shots in 127 minutes wasn’t impressive enough, remember that Curry’s success has come without head coach Steve Kerr and largely without starting center Andrew Bogut. Plus, small forward Harrison Barnes had to mull a rookie contract extension offer that he ultimately decided to pass up. There are still teams facing a lot more adversity than the Warriors—the Cavaliers, Rockets and Pelicans all come to mind—but Curry’s explosive scoring has pulled his group through choppy waters totally unscathed and as confident and as exuberant as ever.
Golden State has officially reached “all bets are off” territory. When a team has it rolling this well, and it rarely happens, the natural tendency is for observers to fear that the fun won’t last. Fundamental to the Warriors’ success is that Curry is so engrossed in directing the league’s best party that concern that it might end doesn’t cross his mind. He has exuded a champion’s confidence and focus, and he carries himself like a man who believes that he, and his team, pose unsolvable problems to the rest of the NBA.
Last year, Kerr pushed back hard against comparisons to the 1995-96 Bulls, who won a record 72 games. This year, Klay Thompson has already suggested that 70 wins might be in play and he doesn’t sound crazy or overly cocky. Becoming the second team ever to win 67+ games in back-to-back years (joining the 1996 and 1997 Bulls) is in play. The modern record for offensive rating—115.6 by the 1987 Lakers—is in play. The all-time record for point differential— +12.28 by the 1972 Lakers—is in play. The immense success of the 2015 Warriors and this focused, dominant start to the 2016 campaign put those high bars within reach.
You know what’s really scary? The sport itself continues to evolve in Curry’s direction. League-wide, pace, scoring and three-point attempts are all up compared to last year, and small ball is increasingly en vogue. With more and more teams trying to beat the Warriors at their own game, Curry’s sparkling first week is only the beginning. The end of this peak is still way off in the horizon.