The first quarter of the NBA season is over, meaning it is time for the first edition of The Noteworthy 8, the eight most interesting storylines of the year so far. Plenty of teams and players have performed very differently than expected, vastly changing the landscape of the league. From the destruction of a once-promising young core to the emergence of a future superstar, these are the 8 most compelling stories as of right now. Note that all statistics used in this piece are rounded up or down to a two-digit number.
The Four Major
Four extremely relevant storylines in the NBA today
The Scorching Hot Suns
The Phoenix Suns were last year’s surprise team, exceeding everyone’s expectations and reaching the NBA Finals. This unit, led by newcomer Chris Paul and young stars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton came within two games of clinching the franchise’s first title, before ultimately dropping four straight to lose the series. Thus, the Suns were left to contemplate not only their own failure, but the upcoming decision to extend Ayton’s and key contributors Mikal Bridges and Cameron Payne’s contracts. Bridges and Payne received new deals, however, the team decided not to extend Ayton, opting instead to monitor the star center’s development for one more year to gauge his true worth. This decision gave Ayton, who has said he believes he is worth the full max contract, motivation to ball out this year so he can sign a similar deal in restricted free agency. And perform he has, as he and his squad sit atop a loaded Western Conference. Booker and Paul continue to do their thing, Ayton and Bridges are locking up on D, the latter creating a strong case for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. Current Coach of the Year frontrunner Monty Williams has good players on the floor at all times, continuing to run the successful seven-man rotation which took them deep in the playoffs last year. The second iteration of this core is much more experienced, and they expect success. This success has come in the form of an 18 game winning streak in which they took down some of the West’s top dogs, including the Golden State Warriors. Currently, the Suns and Warriors are tied for the top spot in their conference and both teams seem to be equal in talent. The name of the game for the Suns moving forward will be locking up that #1 seed, to gain a home-court advantage if they meet the Dubs in the postseason, an outcome which seems more and more likely as both teams continue to prove they are the best in the business.
Warriors are the Best Out West
The Suns aren’t the only scary team in their conference, as through 25 games, the resurgent Golden State Warriors have staked a serious claim for the title of Best Out West. Management spent the past few years accumulating as much young talent and G League gems as possible in hopes of competing again. Their plans have absolutely succeeded as after two years outside the playoffs, the former dynasty has risen from the ashes, this time with some cool new players surrounding the nucleus of Steve Kerr and the Splash Brothers.
The obvious place to start when discussing this group would be the unparalleled brilliance of Stephen Wardell Curry, one of the best players in the history of the game. Though his numbers are slightly down from his absurd 2021 campaign, he continues to draw multiple defenders towards him on every possession, a skill only he has perfected at the NBA level. The team has also received solid contributions from guards Damion Lee and Gary Payton II, and their free-agent signings Andre Iguodala, Nemanja Bjelica, and Otto Porter Jr. They have also been the beneficiary of a breakout season from G League alum Jordan Poole, who is averaging 18 points per game in his new starting role. Then there is the rehabilitation of Andrew Wiggins, a process that after two years is now starting to show results. Wiggins has finally turned his career around by becoming an efficient off-ball shooter and a great defender. The Toronto legend is cashing in on 42% of his threes this year and 49% of his shots overall, both of which are career highs. This is a stunning improvement for Wiggins, as he went from being one of the most infamous shot chuckers of all time during his time in Minneapolis to a very respectable shooter who still has the ability to shoot for 20+ on any given night. His defense has definitely regressed from last year, as shown by his -16 defensive points added, however, he still frequently gives the opposing team’s star trouble with his elite length and athleticism. The defense as a whole has returned to form as well, anchored by the NBA.com’s frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green. The Warriors sit atop the league in defensive rating and boast the third-best offensive rating as well.
However, the most terrifying aspect of this team is that they still have room to improve. Klay Thompson, the second greatest shooter in history, will return around the holidays after missing two full years of action. That addition will greatly improve the team which already has the best record in the league. They also have the flexibility to make a move with their young players, James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody, three players with tons of potential. Package those three with some significant contracts and a few picks and you’ve got yourself a new star player headed to the Bay. Bob Myers and the entire Warriors management have done an incredible job setting the team up to contend in the present and the future. They have created a model organization and deserve to be rewarded. And given the way in which their guys are playing, “we believe” banner number seven may be on its way.
Nikola Jokic is the Best Player on the Planet
Last year’s action saw Kevin Durant and Steph Curry remind the world who they are, Kawhi Leonard play the best series of his career against Dallas, and Giannis Antetekounmpo become an NBA legend. None of these players won the league MVP, an honor which went to the Serbian phenom, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets. Despite winning this award convincingly, there was still a general consensus that the players mentioned earlier were more talented. After an unceremonious exit from the playoffs at the hands of Chris Paul, another top candidate for the award, the fans seemingly forgot all about the incredible season the big man just had. Knowing that star point man Jamal Murray would miss the vast majority of the season, Jokic hit the gym, improved his agility and stamina, and is back to terrorizing the league.
Jokic is straight dealing this year, a statement backed by almost every major advanced statistic. He leads the league in Total Points Allowed, a catch-all stat developed by the analysts at NBA Math.com. This stat values a player’s efficiency by accounting for points added per 100 possessions and points saved on defense per 100 possessions. Jokic adds a total of 178 points per 100 possessions, leading the next highest scorer, the reigning finals MVP Antetokounmpo by 28 points. He leads the league by 10 in defensive points saved and is second to only Steph Curry in offensive points added. He leads all players in box +/-, defensive box +/, offensive box +/-, value over replacement player and win shares per 48 minutes. As of today, his Player Efficiency Rating this season is the highest in NBA history by two whole points. Plus, he is one of the greatest “eye test” players of all time. Watch one Denver game and you’ll understand why the stats are the way they are. As a Nuggets fan myself I’ll be the first to tell you, this team isn’t going anywhere this year, so back-to-back MVPs are out of the question for the Joker. However one thing is for sure, Jokic can no longer be referred to as simply “the best passing big man of all time”. He is one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, and it’s time to start treating him as such.
Dame Time is Running Out
Damian Lillard has hit countless iconic shots, has made the All-NBA teams six times, was included in the NBA’s 75 greatest players team, and is one of the coolest players in basketball history. Unfortunately, the discourse surrounding Lillard is hardly ever about the things mentioned above. For all of his greatness, Dame made one fatal basketball-related mistake that will probably prevent him from ever winning a title. Signing a four-year extension in 2019 with two years left on his deal was absolutely the right financial decision, but from a strictly basketball perspective, it is about to ruin Lillard’s career. The Portland Trailblazers are one of the worst run organizations in the sport and they don’t need to trade their superstar for the next three years, due to him being under contract for the next four seasons. The Blazers have the worst defense in the league…again, and their offense is not as good as in years prior. Lillard has time and again expressed his gratitude towards the city of Portland and clearly wants to build a winner there. However, unless serious changes are made, RipCity will be stuck in no man’s land for the next half-decade, without any direction or hope of competing for a title. Keep an eye on Philadelphia, who have expressed interest in Lillard before, and who are now very motivated to acquire a second superstar. Could Dame be headed to the city of brotherly love, or will he play out the rest of his career in Portland? Only time will tell.
The Four Minor
Four less relevant, but still fun storylines in the NBA today
The Cavaliers are here to stay
Cleveland fans entered the year with hopes of seeing which of their young players were true franchise pieces for the long term. So far, they have gotten much more than they bargained for, as the Cavs currently sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings, ahead of last year’s playoff teams like the Hawks, Knicks, and Celtics. Led by the third-year man from Vanderbilt Darius Garland and #3 pick Evan Mobley, this young group is lots of fun and will continue to compete for a guaranteed playoff spot as the year goes on.
The Rookies are Solid, but not Flashy
The 2021 draft class was expected to be one of the best in league history, featuring one of the most hyped-up top five prospects in a long time. So far, Evan Mobley of Cleveland and Scottie Barnes of Toronto have been the most impressive, locking up defensively for their respective teams. #1 Pick Cade Cunningham has been heating up lately but is still learning how to adjust to the speed of the NBA. #2 Pick Jalen Green is the most talented of the bunch, but he is currently out with an injury and has also been inconsistent to start the year. Oklahoma City’s Josh Giddey has been given the green light and is allowed to do whatever he wants on a terrible team. This has led to an impressive showing from the Aussie point guard. Draft steals Chris Duarte and Bones Hyland have been critical for their squads early in the year as well. For as strong as we thought the draft class was coming in, it has been very disappointing to see many of our favorite rookies make little impact on their franchises.
Edwards vs Ball Continues
The 2020 draft class produced two young stars with potential to take over the league someday, the smooth, crafty playmaker LaMelo Ball, and the highlight and interview king, Anthony Edwards. Last year’s Rookie of the Year race drew some attention, as the two first years were seemingly even in talent. This race ultimately resulted in a victory for Ball, but the debate of which is the better player hardly stopped when the award was given. Instead, the debate has carried into this year, where both are having impressive sophomore years. Both the Hornets and Timberwolves are currently in ninth place in their conference and are looking to compete for a guaranteed playoff berth. Although it’ll be a while before we see these two face in the postseason, it will be exciting to see them showcase their abilities on the brightest stage
The Pacers are Moving Towards a Rebuild
A week ago, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Indiana Pacers are looking to rebuild their roster and trade away Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert, and Myles Turner. The Pacers will plunge deeper into irrelevance, however, there are several teams that could use the services of their players. Myles Turner would be a great addition to the Charlotte Hornets or the Dallas Mavericks, teams desperate for a five-man who can protect the rim. Sabonis and LeVert could potentially fit well in the Grizzlies system playing off of Ja Morant. Whatever direction they chose to go in regarding the sale of these players, Indiana needs to make sure they are gathering high upside players to develop for the future.