We are just a few games into the season, but a few teams and their records are standing out. One team clings to the last undefeated spot, while four teams are desperately searching for their first taste of victory. While three to four games (or in the Rockets case, just two) don’t make or break a season, they can signal some worrying trends. Did those teams achieve their records simply by chance? Or are there legit problems for the Haven’t Wons, and is the last undefeated team a true contender?
Orlando Magic (4-0)
Fluke Rating: 8/10.
The Magic are the last remaining undefeated team after the Atlanta Hawks were taken down a peg by the Brooklyn Nets last night. The Magic are a good team no doubt. But are they top of the league good? The Magic have played a relatively easy schedule. The Miami Heat were a good opening night win. Then they beat the Washington Wizards twice who appear on the negative side of this article later, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are in the midst of a rebuild. One key to their streak is that they’ve been unbelievable in the 4th quarter. The Magic are outscoring opponents by 13 points per game in the final period. However, they were one of the worst teams in 4th quarter scoring last year. Maybe they’ve taken on a new identity, but they have a similar squad this year from last, so I’m not sure how much longer that streak continues.
The Magic are well-balanced in their attack. They have five guys averaging double figures, and all five have shown the ability to get into the 20s and carry a game if needed. However some sweet shooting might be propelling them to results that cannot be sustained much longer. Both Terrence Ross and Nikola Vučević are shooting well above their three point averages. Scoring in general has never been one of the Magic’s best attributes (they were 24th in 2019), but they’re currently third in points per game.
They face their toughest test later today against the Philadelphia 76er’s, sitting at a solid 3-1, with their only loss coming without Joel Embiid. My prediction? The last undefeated team goes down tonight.
Toronto Raptors (0-3)
Fluke Rating: 4/10
A somber start for last season’s Eastern Conference two seed. They didn’t start with an easy schedule per se, but it wasn’t too bad. They faced two teams that didn’t make the playoffs last year, in the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs. While the Spurs are always competitive and the Pelicans are on the rise, those are still two games the Raptors should be favored in. Then they played the Philadelphia 76ers, a team they handled in 2019, winning the regular season series 3-1. They seem to come out hot every game, winning the first quarter in all three. After that things get dicey. The Raptors have been outscored by nearly 13 points per game in the second half.
The Raptors are struggling to find consistent scoring. They are 29th in the NBA in points per game to this point, with just 102 per contest. Pascal Siakam, one of the biggest breakout players in 2019, is in worrying form. He’s shooting a pathetic 39% from the field, 129th out of 140 qualified players per Basketball Reference. Unfortunately, he’s not even the lowest Raptor on that list. Newly minted Fred VanVleet is 137th. Those two guys will start to play better, it’s almost impossible not to. But I think this is a worrying trend for the Raptors. A lot of teams in the East have improved a lot, and the Raptors don’t feel like they’ve properly replaced Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. If Siakam, VanVleet and Lowry regress even a little bit from 2019, the team is in deep trouble. A top four seed seems distant at this rate.
They have a get right game against the New York Knicks today. Then again, the Knicks are 2-2 with a win over the Milwaukee Bucks, which very few expected. Still, they are the worst team that the Raptors will face for awhile. The Raptors next best chance would be against the Charlotte Hornets at home on January 4th. If they lose to the Knicks, it’s really time to worry about making the playoffs at all.
Detroit Pistons (0-4)
Fluke Rating: 3/10
The Pistons were already projected to be one of the worst teams in the league, and an 0-4 start is not completely unexpected for them compared to the Raptors for instance. Still, they had quite a few chances to win some games early on. They played a relatively easy schedule, facing literally the four worst teams in 2019. Those four teams were slated to improve, especially the Hawks and the Golden State Warriors, but it’s still concerning. However one thing to note is that the games have all been relatively close. They haven’t lost by more than 10, and that includes a double OT game against the Cleveland Cavaliers which they led late before a bit of a collapse.
Blake Griffin was rested one game and knocked out early (almost literally) of another, so their best player has missed a large portion of their games. There is some hope, as Griffin seems to have renewed confidence in his three ball. However historical data would say his hot shooting is simply a blip. Losing Christian Wood was tough, and besides him and Blake the talent cupboard is pretty bare right now. Derrick Rose (potential Hall of Famer he may be) is not playing well, and their last two first round picks were both incredibly raw, high potential guys. Simply put, the team has a decent shout to be the worst in the NBA from a talent perspective.
Unfortunately for the Pistons, their “easy” schedule has ended. They have a brutal schedule ahead. In their next ten they face the Bucks x 3, the Boston Celtics x 2, the Heat x 2, the 3-1 Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz. The one winnable game on paper seems to be the Wizards on January 15th. Of course, there have been many upsets already, but this team could easily be 0-11 before then.
Washington Wizards (0-4)
Fluke Rating: 7/10
The Wizards hoped for a lot more with the big offseason acquisition of Russell Westbrook this offseason. They were a fringe playoff team last year, and they simply added Westbrook, someone who’s won (in the regular season at least) everywhere he goes (Westbrook has made the playoffs nine of the last ten years). They did give up John Wall, but he didn’t play at all last year. In terms of last year’s team, Westbrook should’ve been a massive improvement. The team has faced a relatively tough schedule, going up against the 76er’s and the Magic twice, but they were expected to compete with both those teams for the bottom seeds of the Eastern Conference. Somewhat encouragingly, they led into the 4th in all three of those games. More concerningly, they also gave the Bulls their first win of the season.
From a pure counting stats perspective, the Wizards stars are putting up good numbers. Bradley Beal picked up right where he left off last year scoring-wise, averaging 32 points so far, while Westbrook is averaging a triple-double like usual. However besides those two the team is struggling to put points up. And even those two aren’t doing a great job of scoring efficiently. Three of their top four scorers are seeing a massive dip in 3-point percentage right now. This should correct eventually, especially for Davis Bertans and Beal. The Wizards were also without Rui Hachimura, one of their best inside scoring threats. Hachimura is projected to return for their next game.
Hachimura’s return combined with an eventual regress to the mean in 3-point shooting (they were 8th in 3-point percentage last year, currently 22nd) means a win is coming soon for the Wizards. They have an excellent chance to do it tonight at home versus the Bulls. The Bulls are not great, just 1-3 and they were blown out in two of their four games. The Wizards would do well to pick up a win here. Four of their next five besides their game tonight come against the top of the East.
Houston Rockets (0-2)
Fluke Rating (10/10)
Two games really don’t mean much, and the Rockets have been shorthanded versus good teams. The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets were both playoff teams in 2019, and the Blazers game went to OT. There’s not much to say about two games, so let’s move on to the roster.
Losing Westbook wasn’t great, but Christian Wood was a massive pickup on a relatively cheap contract. He’s started off really hot, and has taken well to his expanded role on the team. He’s hitting threes at an unsustainable clip right now at 57%. However he showed flashes of a three point range last year, so it’s not all luck. Wood has averaged 27 so far, and it’s encouraging that his field goal percentage hasn’t dipped despite increased volume. James Harden is doing James Harden things, which means scoring a bunch on good efficiency. He may be disgruntled and want out, but he hasn’t let it affect his offensive game. Wood and Harden haven’t had much help, but reinforcements are coming. John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and Eric Gordon (probably their next three best players) haven’t seen a single minute due to Covid-19 protocols. Once they arrive, this team should be back to playoff form no problem. Depending on what Wall and Cousins have left in the tank, they may be even better than last year.
The Rocket’s next game is tonight against one of the surprises of the NBA, the 3-1 Sacramento Kings. However this game will also mark the debuts of the Covid affected trio, bolstering the Rockets roster immensely. How much will they play is anyone’s guess, but when this team is back to full strength wins will come. This team won’t stay winless for very long, and oddsmakers think this is the one. The line currently -4.5 in favor of Houston.