Can you believe it’s been two weeks since the season started? I can’t tell if that feels too slow or too fast. Regardless, there is still a ton of basketball left to be played, which I can’t wait for. You can tell some players can’t wait for it either, and have been popping off to begin 2021. Here are the hottest starts in the NBA this year, and how sustainable they are.
First, a player near and dear to my heart, Tobias Harris. His first game was pretty bad. But since then he’s been a key cog in the 76er’s league best record, including scoring 20+ in his last four games. He’s not always scoring more, but he is scoring way more efficiently. He’s averaging 19 points per game on 52/47/92 splits, an absolutely insane number. Not only has his offense massively improved, he’s also contributing more in other ways. He’s noticeably better on the defensive end, staying in front of guys and not getting pushed around. It’s showing up on the stat sheet, too. His Defensive Box Plus/Minus last year was -0.5. It’s 1.6 right now. It’s the same story for Defensive Rating, which is sitting at a crazy 98. For context, Giannis, last year’s DPOY posted a 97. He’s also getting more boards, steals and blocks than ever before.
Sustainability Rating: 7/10.
He won’t keep up these gaudy numbers. They are just far too different from his averages, and players don’t suddenly jump like this in their age 28 season. But how much they come down is the key. Last year he shot 47/37/82. Not great. But the last time we saw him with Doc Rivers he was 50/43/87. Reuniting with Rivers seems to have given him confidence and fire. If he can shoot like he did with the Clippers (a decent decrease from what he’s doing now) and continue playing this type of defense, he suddenly becomes an elite two-way wing. He becomes the player they thought they signed to a max deal.
Coach Rivers has said “First thing we’ve got to get him [Harris] back to being is a quick-decision player.” It’s working. Harris is firing without hesitation from beyond the arc, which in turn gives him more opportunities to attack the basket on the closeouts he now demands. Only 13% of his shots are mid and deep two’s, the most inefficient shot in the game. That’s half of what it was in 2020. The question that looms is, when his percentages eventually do fall (and they will, his current splits are all-time great level), does he still keep the confidence to keep playing this way?
With Rivers at the helm, I think he does.
Keeping it in the East, we have the Celtic’s own Jaylen Brown. Brown has been a rising star for a while now, but he’s always been seen as a complement to superior scorers rather than a true number one option. That has changed. He’s playing like one of the best players in the league right now. Brown is scoring a crazy 26.9 points per game (7th), up from 20.3 last year (which was already up from 13 the year before that). Brown’s firing at a scorching 58/43/71 split right now, with a PER of 25.6, good for 12th in the league. He’s taking more shots, and making more shots. He’s also doing it in a variety of ways. Strong drives, triples and he’s been unbelievable from mid-range (currently 75% from 10-16 feet). He’s been a bonafide star through two weeks.
Sustainability Rating: 8/10.
Just like Harris, the percentages have to come down a little. 58% from the floor is just too high for a non-center who just hits put-backs and dunks. His jump shot has also been crazy good. 42% from three and 75% from mid range is nuts. But unlike Harris, Brown is just 24, and he’s already improved basically every year he’s been a Celtic. His 3-point percentage took a similar jump from 2018 to 2019, as did his points like we mentioned before. Every time his role has increased he’s handled it no problem and this is just the latest evolution of that. Now that he and Tatum are 1a and 1b instead of Brown as the 3rd or even 4th option on the team, this is the new Jaylen Brown. Get used to it.
Speaking of players that are thriving in increased roles, we have Christian Wood. Already one of the break-out stars from last year, Wood has taken it to another level now that he’s a full time starter. He’s averaging a double-double (23.6 points and ten boards) and a solid three stocks (steals and blocks) per game. His 24.4 PER puts him 15th in the whole league. The guy one spot above him right now? Oh just a guy named LeBron James. No big deal. Wood is also young. Not necessarily in actual age (not that 25 is old) but he’s only been playing real minutes for a year or so. He still has a ton of potential development left for him. He’s showing a willingness to extend his range, although he hasn’t been really successful yet, and the defense is still a work in progress, but the groundwork is there.
Sustainability Rating: 10/10.
Wood is not doing anything different than he did last year with the Pistons. It’s the same numbers, just more minutes. In his 12 games as a starter in 2019-2020, he put up near identical numbers. Unlike the two guys above, his percentages aren’t even inflated. His 53% from the field is basically his career percentage, and in fact his three ball is worse than usual. Although this is the first time he’s taken significant attempts. So maybe this is just what he is from deep. But the point is, there’s not any significant positive outliers in his game right now. This is just Christian Wood with starter minutes.
The Knicks in general have been one of the surprise hot starts of the season. A team we thought would be bottom feeders again, the Knicks area solid 4-3. Their best player in this stretch has been Julius Randle. He’s averaging 22.1 points per game to go along with 11.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists. Wait what? 7.4 assists? That number puts Randle in the top ten assist leaders right now, tied with LeBron James. Randle has been an offensive monster every game, stuffing the stat sheet with impunity. He’s shown increased awareness in every facet of the game. Randle’s keeping his head up in transition. He’s passing out of double teams. He’s finding open shooters on the perimeter, and not forcing as many hopeless drives or shots. Every once in a while he’ll even do stuff like this.
Not just his playmaking, but his shooting has also been on point. He was always a capable inside scorer, but he’s added a solid mid-range game, shooting 55% from ten feet to the 3-pt line. And it’s not just a few shots, 28% of his attempts are from that range. Even more impressively, he’s currently hitting 40% of his threes on four attempts per game. Randle’s defense (a hallmark of coach Tom Thibodeau) is also improving. From total disaster to bad is still an improvement.
Sustainability Rating: 5/10.
Speaking of Thibs, we’ve seen a playmaking big before. Remember Joakim Noah’s near MVP campaign? Still, even Noah averaged just 5.4 assists per game, meaning Randle is almost certainly in for a regression. Randle’s career average assists is 2.9. The Knicks have also been shooting much better as a team from deep than should be expected. They were 27th in three point percentage last year, and tenth this year. They have seven guys shooting over 40% from deep on at least two attempts per game. It won’t last. That includes Randle. His career 3-point percentage is 30%. A ten percent jump just doesn’t happen. His mid-range has also increased by 15 percent from last year.
While this may sound doom and gloom, it’s not. Even if the shooting numbers come down a bit, it doesn’t break his game completely. Randle averaged 21.4 and 19.5 the two years previous with his normal splits. The increased awareness as a passer looks legit, and as mentioned above Thibs has made playmakers out of big men before. If coach Thibodeau can instill even half of Noah’s defense on Randle in addition to the passing, he’s a Most Improved Player candidate for sure.
The Cleveland Cavaliers Backcourt
I know this is cheating, but I feel it necessary to point both out guards on the surprisingly solid Cavaliers. Just like the Knicks, they were expected to be one of the worst teams in the league again. Instead, they are 4-3, including handing the 76er’s their only loss so far. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, or “Sexland”, have been the offensive component of the team. They average 42.9 points together. The Cavaliers as a whole score just 104.4. They also provide the spacing on a team that often struggles with it, both shooting well-above league average from deep. Garland has improved his playmaking significantly, dishing out 2.4 more per game from last year. He’s also shown the deep threat that made him 5th pick in 2019.
Sexton on the other hand improved his already great scoring to league leader levels. His 25.6 a game puts him just below Luka Dončić for 13th highest. He’s been incredibly consistent as well, never dipping below 20 points in a game so far. Sexton’s been scoring from anywhere on the floor with ease, the only thing missing is getting to the line. Perhaps most importantly Sexton and Garland haven’t been utter liabilities defensively yet. Last year Garland and Sexton were two of the worst five defensive players by multiple metrics. They’re both undersized and often looked lost on that end. They haven’t been anywhere near that bad this season.
Sustainability Rating: 5/10
Both Sexton and Garland have been unsustainably hot from three this year, shooting 54% and 47% respectively. Garland was drafted as a sniper and Sexton has always been solid from deep, but those numbers are simply too high. A regression (possibly just a small one) is inevitable. I’m also not totally convinced that their defense has turned from worst in the league to average in just one shortened offseason. Both are still undersized. However the majority of the offensive numbers are replicable. They were both drafted as offensive specialists, and Sexton’s pure scoring ability has never been in question. His leap from year one to year two is similar to his improvement this year, and Garland’s jump is in no way unprecedented either.
Domantas Sabonis is building on an all-star appearance last year. He’s looking like Jokic-lite, averaging 20.6 points per game/11.3 rebounds per game/6.7 assists on great percentages.
CJ McCollum has always been a great scorer but has started out on another level this year, especially from three. He’s shooting 43% on 11.3 attempts!
Mike Conley seems to have finally found his fit after a good bubble with the Jazz. His numbers are up across the board, including 18.8 points per game would the third highest of his career.
Michael Porter Jr. has had his hot start unfortunately cut short due to COVID-19. Just like Conley, he had a breakout in the bubble and continued it this year. He’s an unbelievable scoring talent.
Terry Rozier also looks like he just might live up to that massive contract the Hornets gave him. He’s dropping 21.6 points a game and shooting a scorching 45% from three point territory.