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10 Early NBA Season Trends to Watch

LeBron's questionable defense, the stampeding Bulls and more things to monitor after the first week of the season.

We’re eight days into the 2021-22 NBA season, where there are far more questions than answers. And since it’s too soon to dig too deeply on any one thing, here are 10 different teams, players, coaching decisions and compelling trends to monitor in the days, weeks and months ahead.

LeBron’s Defense Isn’t Great; Needs to be Great

The Lakers have myriad issues that can, at best, be described as growing pains. At worst, they’re foundational fatal flaws. LeBron James’ defense is neither of those things this early in the season, but Los Angeles is toast if his indifferent approach to getting stops in the opening week carries through the winter.

To be fair, every player in the league has letdowns on that side of the ball, plays where they look disinterested, confused or tired. The season just started and, overall, James has been decent on defense. But thanks to how Rob Pelinka constructed this roster, decent defense from LeBron won’t do.

As L.A’s second-best defender and one of four or five players on the whole team who at least pass for average on D, the Lakers need their 36-year-old king to commit every night. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope aren’t walking through that door. James can’t bottom out, which is a version of what we’ve already witnessed.

LeBron has jogged into shot contests and watched opponents smoke his teammates on their way to the rim without flinching. The intensity comes in spurts, which on one hand is entirely understandable for a legend in his 19th season who shouldn’t be asked to treat every play like it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals. On the other, that exact attitude might be what a team that employs Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk really needs.

Look at his effort on this first-quarter closeout (a generous description of what James actually does) against Mikal Bridges.

Later on, he’s caught sleeping when Bridges front cuts to the rim for an easy dunk.

A few minutes later, he nearly executed one of his signature chasedown blocks against Cam Johnson and then opted not to cross halfcourt and join his four teammates for the ensuing offensive possession.

This isn’t the first time James has performed this way, though in earlier examples the explanation was body preservation. Perhaps that still applies in the season’s second game against a contender while down 30 points. But there’s also the matter of being locked in to the point where he’s able to help teammates when they screw up (which they will do and have done quite a bit already).

The reality LeBron finds himself in calls for harsh criticism, even when a breakdown isn’t directly his fault, like the sequence below. Guarding the inbounder on this pet baseline out of bounds play against the Grizzlies, Ja Morant wiggles free after a screen set by Jaren Jackson Jr. It’s a play Memphis successfully ran in its first two games, and succeeds when the two defenders directly involved (in this case Westbrook and Anthony Davis) fail to switch.

Instead of anticipating the slip and being a step ahead of it to contest the shot or take the pass away, LeBron swipes at Morant and allows an easy bucket. Now, again, this is not his fault. But this one possession is already indicative of a worrying trend, where one of LeBron’s teammates will botch a switch or rotate incorrectly or stand still when they should sink in to help on a drive. He can’t plug every hole, but when those mistakes are compounded by his own inability to go 100% on every play it’s a humongous problem.

This isn’t 2018, when James knew his own brilliance in the postseason could overcome the Cavaliers’ crappy defensive habits. There’s a very real universe where the Lakers don’t make the postseason without him flashing that game-changing athleticism with maximum effort on a regular basis.

Below is what that looks like, the type of hustle that can inspire and invigorate every single one of his teammates when they watch him go all out in a situation most players would give up on.

The goaltend doesn’t matter. His earnest try to reject the layup does.

Why is Offense Down?

Last season yielded some of the most efficient offenses in NBA history. A trend had seemingly been accelerated, with the league’s average offensive rating coming in at a whopping 112.3—a high since at least 1974. Five years prior in 2016 it was 106.4 and 15 years before that it was 103. Three-point shots, gravity and leveraged space all helped offenses rise.

It’s very early, but so far the season’s average offensive rating is down at 106.7, aka lower than any point since Kevin Durant teamed up with the Warriors. There’s a bunch of reasons why this is, and it should go without saying that such a small sample size negates any definitive conclusions. But the NBA’s much ballyhooed officiating change and the time it’ll take for refs and players to adapt could be the biggest cause.

Through just over a week of games, the NBA’s average free-throw rate is .167, which happens to be an all-time low. (Last year it was .192 and the season before that it was .201.) Three-point attempts are up and so is pace, but there’s nothing quite like ending a possession with two free shots at the line—especially if you’re James Harden. Right now this is probably nothing, but if offenses don’t bounce back to the trajectory they’ve been on, it’s worth circling back to.

Confident Cam Reddish!

When Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter was recovering from knee surgery in Los Angeles, as his teammates battled the Bucks in the conference finals,, all he wanted was for Cam Reddish, his best friend on the team, to play more minutes.

“I'm like, if they play Cam we'll have a better shot winning these games,” Hunter told me in September. “And he came out in Game 5 and 6 and was doing his thing. I'm like, it could be a completely different series if we played him one more game earlier.”

Reddish hit six threes and scored 21 points in the last game of Atlanta’s season. He wasn’t shy about getting shots up that night and, despite missing over half of the regular season with an injury and being inactive for the first two playoffs rounds, came into it feeling like there wasn’t much to lose. When I asked him about that game a couple months ago, Reddish recalled his approach: “I know mentally, I'm like eff it,” he said. “It's time to play. Like, I'm not tired now.”

That mentality has carried over into the start of his third season, where Reddish is now playing with a superstar’s green light, jacking up 27.2 shots per 100 possessions. By comparison, Nikola Jokić is at 26.2, Giannis Antetokounmpo is at 26.5, Luka Dončić is at 27.1 and Joel Embiid is at 26.0. (Also, Reddish’s usage is 29.4%, which … what is even happening?)

Coming off the bench in lineups that are designed to prop him up, none of this is a bad thing so far. He’s showing off different parts of his offensive arsenal as an independent shot creator with size who also loves to scrap on the defensive end. Compared to the first two years of his career, way more of Reddish’s looks are coming from mid-range. (Last year 4.9% of his attempts were between 16 feet and the arc. This year it’s over 20%.)

If this aggression keeps up with modest efficiency, the 22-year-old will waltz into Sixth Man of the Year debates. And, as someone who’s extension eligible next summer, a sizable pay day will be right behind.

Chicago Bulls guard Lonzo Ball reacts after scoring a basket against Toronto Raptors.

Running with the Bulls

The Bulls’ offseason overhaul mostly skewed toward offensive talent. But so far the most intriguing contributions made by their new players (especially Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball) have impacted the defense, which in turn is allowing Chicago to take shape as one of the most adrenalized open floor attacks in basketball.

Do not get sloppy against Chicago, or hesitate for a second racing back off a missed shot. The Bulls will ram the ball down your throat. Last year they ranked 26th in opposing turnover percentage. Now they’re third, with a 7.8% jump. Caruso (whose teams always generate more turnovers when he’s on the court) and Ball (whose teams always have more success in transition when he’s in the game) are invigorating the defense and creating easy chances, sometimes off a deflection (Chicago finished 26th in that category last season; right now they’re fourth) or even just a quick push off a missed shot or lengthy pitch ahead off a made one. The Bulls’ collective mindset is different than it used to be—you don’t make a touch pass like this if your mandate is to set up a half-court offense.

(After Caruso made that reverse and-1 layup, the crowd serenaded him with an M-V-P chant, which feels appropriate.)

Here’s 32-year-old DeMar DeRozan keeping his foot on the gas with no man advantage. Even when it doesn’t work out, the Bulls’ relentless pressure makes handling all their firepower harder than it’d otherwise be. Chaos is their friend.

Possibly related to their blooming open-floor audaciousness and some of the new faces onboard: the Bulls finished last in free-throw rate a year ago; now they’re third. This team might be good, even if they haven’t defeated any teams that are expected to make the playoffs.

The Cavaliers Are Stuck in the Past and That Might be a Good Thing

In 2021 it makes very little sense to play three seven-footers at the same time when one of them can’t guard anybody and none are especially known for making plays. But the Cavaliers are doing it anyway, with Jarrett Allen, Evan Mobley and Lauri Markkanen.

Cleveland ranks 19th in defensive rating. But through four games, they’re allowing only 98 points per 100 possessions with Allen, Mobley and Markkanen on the floor. (For reference, the Lakers led the NBA in defensive rating a year ago at 106.8.)

There’s a chance J.B. Bickerstaff changes things up and moves Markkanen to the bench for Isaac Okoro, last year’s lottery pick who actually provides the wing defense these Cavaliers severely need. But at the same time, assuming Collin Sexton and Darius Garland remain the starting backcourt, Markkanen is a key spacer on offense. And Allen and Mobley may have what it takes to keep everything intact.

These two make a ton of sense together, holding up on switches, dropping, showing in the pick-and-roll. They contest jumpers and protect the rim, rebound, delete passing lanes and take potential cutters away with their length and activity. Watching them interact is an early season League Pass delight.