We’re over a month into the 2021-22 NBA season and small sample sizes aren’t so small anymore.
Hot starts have either remained scorching or fizzled out, while rough starts have either gotten uglier or bounced back to reality.
Which teams and players are trending in the right direction, and which are going the wrong way?
Members of The Sporting News staff take the temperature on some of the NBA’s latest trends.
Stock Up: Jayson Tatum
Tatum’s shooting struggles were well documented along with Boston’s rollercoaster start to the season. Through the first 10 games, the All-Star forward was shooting 39.5 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from 3-point range, needing 22.6 field goal attempts per game to reach a scoring average of 23.6 points.
Even with some big scoring nights, Tatum was settling for bad shots and contested jumpers, not getting much of anything to fall.
Over the Celtics’ more recent stretch of success, Tatum has looked like the 23-year-old phenom we know so well. With a statement performance in a rivalry game against the Lakers, Tatum went for 37 points and 11 rebounds in the team’s biggest win of the season. He has scored at least 30 points in each of his last four games, shooting an efficient 50.0 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from 3.
This… is much more like it.
Is Tatum turning the page, leaving his rough start behind him for the remainder of the season? It appears so.
– Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_)
Stock Down: Los Angeles Lakers
Before the start of the season, three of us had a chat in which we separated the pretenders from the contenders in the Western Conference.
In Tier 1, we had the Suns, who are picking up wins in their sleep right now, and … the Lakers.
Safe to safe, the Lakers haven’t gotten out to the start that many expected. They continue to hover around .500, their offense and defense rank in the bottom half of the league, LeBron James has barely played due to injuries, Russell Westbrook’s fit has been awkward and Anthony Davis doesn’t look like the same player he was in the Orlando Bubble.
Fortunately for the Lakers, the season is still young and there’s plenty of time to turn it around. Also, few teams have dealt with as many injuries as they have.
There’s a chance that they’ll look different when they’re at full strength and that it’s only a matter of time until LeBron and Davis look like the league’s most dominant duo again, but it’s clear that there’s a lot of work to be done between now and then.
— Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)
Stock Up: DeMar DeRozan
If you haven’t heard, DeRozan is off to a scorching start this season.
Through 18 games, DeRozan is averaging 26.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 49.0 percent shooting from the field and 35.6 percent from 3-point range. Each of those are either career highs or around the highest marks of his career.
More importantly, it’s translating to wins.
The Bulls are coming off of a rather uninspiring loss to the Pacers as of this writing, but their 12-6 record trails only the Nets (13-5) for the best record in the Eastern Conference. In the Western Conference, only the Warriors (15-2) and Suns (14-3) have a better record than Chicago.
The numbers point to the Bulls being an entirely different team with DeRozan on the court.
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That’s a swing of 25.6 points per 100 possessions, to be clear.
At the rate he’s going, DeRozan is not only going to be an All-Star and All-NBA candidate this season, but he’s going to be a part of the MVP conversation. There aren’t many players whose stock has risen as much as his since the start of the season.
Stock Down: Denver Nuggets
It’s been a streaky start to the year for the shorthanded Nuggets.
They won their first two games, then lost two. Then they won two more, then lost two more. Finally, they got hot and rattled off five wins in a row, only to be met by four consecutive losses immediately after.
Will the real Nuggets please stand up?
It was known that star guard Jamal Murray would miss the majority of the season as he rehabs a torn ACL, but the Nuggets have been dealt even more injuries. Nikola Jokic has looked like an MVP candidate once again, averaging 26.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists on the year, but he’s dealing with a nagging wrist injury that has caused him to miss the last few games.
There are reports out there that rising star Michael Porter Jr. may miss the remainder of the season with a nerve issue in his back – a concerning injury for a player who missed all but three games in his lone college season and his entire rookie year in the NBA with a bad back.
It’s unrealistic to expect Jokic to carry this team without its other two best players, but he’s the reigning MVP for a reason. Can he single-handedly turn things around in Denver?
Stock Up: LaMelo Ball
Say it with me: LaMelo Ball is an All-Star.
It was one of my preseason takes heading into this year and it’s come to fruition so far. Coming off of a Rookie of the Year campaign last season, Ball has taken another leap to stardom in Year 2.
Averaging 19.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists, Ball is one of three players – joining Luka Doncic and Russell Westbrook – to reach the benchmark of 19 points, eight boards and seven assists per game. Add in his 2.1 steals per game and no other player in the NBA is doing what Ball is on a nightly basis.
To build on the exclusivity of his start to the season, Ball is one of four players in NBA history (!) to have 400 points, 150 assists, 150 rebounds and 40 steals through the first 20 games of a season, joining Magic Johnson, Fat Lever and Westbrook.
He has the Hornets in the hunt for a top-six playoff spot and is looking like one of the most promising young players in the league.
Stock Down: Houston Rockets
The Rockets’ offseason began with so much optimism, first by drafting Jalen Green with the No. 2 overall pick, followed by Alperen Sengun (16th), Usman Garuba (23rd) and Josh Christopher (24th). But as they pivot to embracing their youth, with it has come a lot of losing.
Through the first 18 games of the season, the Rockets are 2-16, having lost 14 in a row before their win over the Chicago Bulls Wednesday night. Their lone win of the season prior to that came against fellow youngsters in the Oklahoma City Thunder and as it stands, they running close to being on pace to be the worst team in NBA history. Yes, worse than the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats (2012).
Sure, this is an opportunity to give their young players time to develop and play through mistakes, but it’s hard to stomach when John Wall is healthy sitting in street clothes, earning $44 million. His mere presence on the court is worth a few wins, leave alone passing on some winning habits to his younger teammates.
– Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane)
Stock Up: Phoenix Suns
Speaking of streaks, the Suns have won 14 games in a row!
The Suns are the hottest team in the league, but for some reason, seem to be flying under the radar despite their stunning turnaround after starting the season 1-3.
They need to win four more games to set the franchise’s all-time win streak record from 2006-07, where they won 15 and 17-straight that season.
The Suns’ defense was their calling card last season and after a slow start, they’ve brought their defensive rating to 103.8, good for third-best in the NBA. During this streak, they’ve held opponents to 100 points or fewer in seven games.
It’s no coincidence the return of Deandre Ayton has been a big factor, not to mention his backup JaVale McGee, who has added a new dimension to the second unit, bringing the energy and hustle alongside Cameron Payne.
With the taste of the 2021 Finals still in their mouth, the Suns’ revenge tour is off to a strong start. They’ve maintained their team-first approach with six different players averaging double-digit points and led by their BIg 3 of Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Ayton, the Suns have every right to feel like the early favorite to make it back to the Finals.
Stock Down: Sacramento Kings
I’ll keep Benyam’s talk of streaks going.
Entering the 2021-22 season, the Kings hadn’t made the playoffs for 15 seasons – the longest active drought in the NBA. And with how their 2021-22 campaign has started, including the firing of head coach Luke Walton after going 6-11 through their first 17 games, it doesn’t look like they are any close to snapping that streak at the end of this season.
Will firing Walton, which made veteran Alvin Gentry the interim head coach, make any difference? The Kings faithful would certainly hope so, but going by the franchise’s track record, there’s not much hope there.
Over these 15 playoff-less seasons, Walton was the team’s 10th head coach. Yes, 10th!
Irrespective of the past success (namely George Karl and Paul Westphal) or future potential (namely Michael Malone and Dave Joerger) that any of their coaches have had, it doesn’t matter because the Kings seem to have a revolving door for that position.
At the end of the day, there has to be stability at the management level. It might be too early to grade the current regime but unless things improve significantly out of nowhere, it’s highly unlikely that the Kings will be playing any serious basketball no matter what potential their roster holds.
– Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694)