*Small sample size
That’s always the disclaimer we media folk have to include when we take offer opinions or analysis early on in the season. The reason is justifiable. A lot can change between now and when the season comes down the homestretch that we can’t say that the success or lack thereof surrounding either a team or a player will continue in the long-run.
But there comes a time when the “small sample size” is no longer a factor in how the NBA season has turned out. At that point, the early subplots that no one saw coming can be considered something more than just a fluke. Now that the 2019-2020 season has entered the double-digit mark, we’re starting to see things take shape a bit, and the excuse “small sample size” is beginning to fade.
For now, it’s still too early to come to any drastic conclusions, but, for some of these early-season surprises, we need to ask: how long do they need to keep doing this until they’re taken seriously? Some probably will take longer than others, but the end result is still the same. That being said, let’s begin.
How long until Boston is considered an elite team?
The cliche answer has been “When they upgrade their frontcourt.” However, that’s going to be very difficult for them to do with their salary situation and they currently have the league’s best record in spite of a supposedly weak big rotation.
Boston hasn’t lost a game since falling in their season opener to Philadelphia and are currently on a nine-game winning streak. According to ESPN’s Relative Percentage Index, they’ve had the 18th-toughest schedule so far, so they haven’t exactly been facing the top teams on a nightly basis. However, in that time, they’ve beaten some of their toughest competitors in the East, such as Milwaukee and Toronto, as well as blown out other quality teams like San Antonio on the road.
They currently have the best offensive rating in the entire league, scoring 114.3 points per 100 possessions. Before they gave up 133 points to Washington the other night, they also had the seventh-best defensive rating, giving up 102.1 points per 100 possessions. Those 133 points they gave up can be alluded to them not having their two best defensive bigs – Daniel Theis and Robert Williams III – and Gordon Hayward.
At some point, the Celtics are going to lose again. At some other point, they’re going to go through a slump. For now, all they’re doing is proving that they shouldn’t be counted out. At full-health, they may have the most well-rounded offense headed by Hayward, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They’ve maintained a solid defense without Al Horford and Aron Baynes – sans against the Wizards – because of how they’ve managed their center rotation of Theis, Williams, Enes Kanter and, at times, Grant Williams.
If that isn’t enough, their 9-1 start is the best they’ve had since 2007-08, the last season they won the NBA title. Boston hasn’t established itself as the team to beat like their predecessor did at that time, but they have exceeded expectations enough that they shouldn’t be written off against the likes of Milwaukee or Philadelphia.
There was some temptation to ask the same question about the reigning champions, but instead, more focus should be put on their unquestioned, newly-appointed alpha dog.
How long until Pascal Siakam is in the running for MVP?
This writer already dove into how Siakam has proven himself to be a superstar in the early parts of the season. A week or so later, nothing has changed. Instead of starting with him, let’s start with Toronto.
Coming into the season, the Raptors already had enough personnel on the defensive side of the ball that even without Kawhi, they still should have been a great, possibly even elite team on that end. Offensively, there was supposed to be a significant dropoff with Leonard gone. So far, there has been some decline on that end, but not nearly as significant as originally feared. Defensively, they’ve been even better when you compare their defensive rating to last season, which has in part sparked their 8-3 start.
Let’s not kid ourselves here. Pascal Siakam’s evolution into a lead guy has kept Toronto among the best in the league. If you don’t believe that, look at his net-rating. The Raptors are plus-19.3 with him on the floor, and that’s not skewed because of how good he’s been one side. On both sides, he has been Toronto’s most effective player.
The Raptors are plus-12.5 offensively and minus-6.8 defensively when Siakam is on the floor. Offensively, he tops everyone on the roster while defensively, he’s third behind Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, neither of whom play close to the number of minutes that Pascal does.
Siakam’s numbers have come down a bit since his hot start – surprising no one – but they’re still about as fantastic as Toronto could have hoped for. He’s scoring 27.2 points a game on 49/37/82 splits as well as averaging 9.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists. If that doesn’t scream out “elite all-around player,” then what does? More importantly, those numbers are getting the Raptors’ positive results.
Think of it this way. If Toronto had the same Pascal Siakam from last year, they’d probably be somewhere between average and good right now. They’ve started this season firmly in the elite tier because of their fourth-year man taking another step in his career. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and James Harden are probably going to garner the most MVP buzz, but Pascal’s impact should not be slept on.
How long until we realize that Cleveland’s not blowing it up?
Spencer Davies already wrote about how Cleveland has been a fundamentally solid team thus far this season on Wednesday. If you want a more thoroughly detailed look on why the Cavaliers are not as bad as people may have thought coming in, take a look.
It’s amazing how much different a team can look when their circumstances change for the better. Their best player has a clean bill of health. They have a head coach who knows how to run the ship. Their young guys are one year older and wiser too. A lot of their guys are on expiring deals, which means they’ll be playing their hearts out all season.
All of those factors have added up into the Cavaliers being a little more competitive than we may have anticipated. The Cavaliers are 4-7 because Kevin Love is playing more like his old self, Collin Sexton has taken some great strides this year, and Tristan Thompson is having a career year. With John Beilein running the show, we’re seeing not a greater, but a grittier team in “The Land.”
So why are outlets still putting Kevin Love in trade scenarios? Why are they labeling Tristan Thompson as a buyout candidate? Why are they still saying Cleveland’s best option is to start over?
There’s no need to tear apart something that, at the present moment, is proving itself to be promising. Haven’t we seen from Boston, Brooklyn and Utah over the last few years that if you have something good in the works, you should see where it takes you?
By no means are the Cavaliers a great team. They definitely have room for improvement on both ends of the floor. They’re mediocre, but *mediocre* is still better than *bad*, and this roster has the potential to improve in significant ways.
What’s getting overlooked is that they have both expiring deals and draft assets that can be used to acquire someone really good value on the trade market. Good character guys like Marcus Morris could probably be had, and who knows what stars could become available?
Cleveland could blow it up, but what are the odds that they get someone as good as Kevin Love in a trade? What are the odds that they’ll not only win the lottery but also get a franchise cornerstone there too? We’ve seen Cleveland possibly be the luckiest team ever with the ping pong balls, but the only superstar they grabbed in that time was Kyrie Irving.
The Cavaliers are nowhere near the team they were when LeBron was around, but they have the building blocks for a new era of good basketball. For now, they don’t have to go anywhere near the reset button.
How long until Andrew Wiggins is pegged as a “future star” again?
Have we ever seen something like this happen in the history of professional basketball? Or even professional sports?
Two years ago, Andrew Wiggins was supposed to be a franchise player in waiting. Less than a month ago, he was a bust. Since the start of November, he’s played some of the best all-around basketball of his career. Because of that, it seems that hope for Wiggins’ future is slowly being restored.
Many believed the Minnesota Timberwolves consisted of Karl-Anthony Towns and not much else coming into the season, but not if Maple Jordan had anything to say about it. Following a decent start to the season, Wiggins has torn it up so far in November. In seven games, Wiggins has put up 29.1 points on 50/43/69 splits. To add to that, he’s shown improved playmaking abilities, averaging 5.1 assists in that span. For more details, read Douglas Farmer’s piece on Wiggins.
The hot shooting will die down a bit, but there’s more to Wiggins’ progress than just hitting more shots. Offensively, he’s been a lot smarter. He’s cutting down his mid-range jumpers. He’s evolved as a playmaker. He’s turned his three-ball into more of a weapon. To summarize, he’s looking more like the Andrew Wiggins we thought the Timberwolves were getting when he first arrived. It’s the best stretch of his career, and it’s played a part in Minnesota starting out better than we thought they would.
No one knows why exactly this is happening now and not before. Maybe we expected too much from him early on. Maybe he experienced some fatigue after playing under Tom Thibodeau for over two seasons. Maybe the Jimmy Butler experience damaged his psyche a bit. Whatever the case may have been, Wiggins’ career now looks like it’s on an upward trajectory again.
In fact, if things keep going this way, there might not be any need to put “future” in “future star” for Wiggins when the All-Star break comes around.
As encouraging as some of these surprises have been, time will tell whether these questions will be worth looking into further. It may take a month, a week, or even just a game to make any of them look offbase.
For the record, there were plenty of other early-season surprises that were worth talking about. How long until Phoenix proves that they’re for real? How long until San Antonio realizes it is better off without DeMar DeRozan? How long until the top of the Eastern Conference is comparable to the top of the Western Conference?
These questions, as of now, arguably aren’t worth looking into because of the small sample size, but time will tell.