Markelle Fultz was showing solid progress but now Orlando’s playoff chances rely on a rookie
Markelle Fultz and the Orlando Magic have been two of the league’s early season surprises. Coming into Wednesday night, Fultz was averaging more points, assists, and minutes than ever in his career, and was finally starting to look like the No. 1 overall pick the 76ers drafted just four years ago. Fultz was the starting point guard for the 5-2 (now 6-2) Magic, who currently sit at the No. 2 seed in the East, but a non-contact torn ACL shut down his breakout season, and now becomes a difficult obstacle in the Magic’s playoff chase.
Cole Anthony, the 15th overall pick in this year’s draft, is expected to take over a larger role, potentially in the starting lineup to replace Fultz. Anthony has shown flashes early in his career, but has gone through the normal growing pains of adjusting to the league. He won’t have much time to get settled into his new role, as the Magic have a difficult stretch of games — matchups with the Mavericks, Bucks, Celtics (twice), and Nets — eight of the next nine being outside of Orlando. This will likely prove whether the Magic can survive without Markelle or if his injury is too much to overcome for a mediocre team in the East
Miami is the same extremely resilient team they were in the bubble
COLORS KEY | FULL HEAT FUTURE OUTLOOK
The Miami Heat were the Cinderella story in the bubble last year. They swept the Pacers, ousted the Bucks in five games, and then took down the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in six hard-fought battles. They were taken down by the Lakers in six games in the Finals, but not due to a lack of fight. Erik Spolestra’s team has sustained that resilience in the new season. However, many NBA experts and league evaluators believed they benefitted from the unique circumstances 2020 presented, and wouldn’t be as successful in 2021.
The Heat might have lost to the Celtics in the Game of the Day on Wednesday, an ECF rematch in Miami, but they showed that same extreme resilience that helped them thrive in the bubble. The Heat were down by as much as 17 in the first half, but fought their way back to take a lead in the third quarter, and enter the fourth in an 80-80 stalemate. The Celtics were able to take a 10-point lead with 1:17 to go in the fourth, which would presumably put away most teams. Not this Miami team.
The Heat battled back in the final minute, tying the game with 13 seconds left. A Payton Pritchard put-back at the buzzer ultimately put MIA away, but they demonstrated that toughness that carried them into the Finals last year. The Heat sent a message to the rest of the Eastern Conference on Wednesday: Last year was not a fluke. Don’t count this team out.
LeBron James continues to be one of the greatest closers ever, even in Year 18
Lebron James is playing in his 18th season in the NBA. He just turned 36 years old before the turn of the new year. LeBron is coming off a season in which he led the league in assists for the first time in his career, and became the first player in NBA history to win a Finals MVP award with three teams. With just a 72-day offseason, this was looking like the year LeBron could finally slow down. Not so fast.
LeBron took over down the stretch of the Lakers 94-92 win over the Grizzlies, hitting multiple tough fadeaway jumpers in the closing minutes of the game and executing an unstoppable pick-and-roll alongside Anthony Davis. Even though Kyrie’s comments were misplaced and the narrative earlier in the ‘Chosen One’s career said otherwise, James proved once again why he’s one of the most effective closers in the game. The King would go on to finish with 26 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists, his third double-double of the year (he also has one triple-double).
Most 36-year-olds in the league are taking a backseat on their squads (ex. Andre Iguodala, Carmelo Anthony, JJ Redick, Paul Millsap, or Lakers teammate Marc Gasol). Their playing time is diminishing, and they may even be transitioning into a player-coach type of role. LeBron is different. King James has played in all eight games this year for the Lakers, despite the turned ankle he’s been nursing since opening night. Bron will be looking to lead his Lakers to the top seed in the West yet again, and to hoist his 5th championship and MVP trophies, as a 36-year-old, with still plenty left in the tank, especially at the end of the game.
The NBA’s 3-point revolution is only going to continue rising
COLORS KEY | FULL SPURS FUTURE OUTLOOK
Steph Curry and the splash brother Warriors changed the game of basketball over the last decade. Their offensive strategy was simple: three points are worth more than two, so why not focus on taking more three-point shots. This led to Daryl Morey’s Rockets to take this one step further, basically eliminating the two-point jumper from their game. That team set the NBA record when they attempted 70 three-pointers in a game last season.
This year, this emphasis on the three-pointer is only increasing. On Tuesday, Gregg Popovich’s Spurs tied a franchise-record with 20 made threes in their victory over the Clippers, while Terry Stotts’ Trail Blazers set their own franchise record with 51 three-pointers attempted. Patty Mills made eight huge threes for the Spurs, while CJ McCollum attempted 14 for the Blazers. NBA scores are increasing, and more threes are being attempted than ever before. Expect this trend to only continue in the future as analytics become a bigger part of the game.
Pascal Siakam is not playing like an All-Star, and the Raptors will miss the playoffs if he’s not
Pascal Siakam had a meteoric rise to greatness in the NBA. He came out of seemingly nowhere in 2019, and was awarded the Most Improved Player as a key piece to the Raptors Championship team. Last season, following Kawhi’s departure, Siakam took over the reins of the team, and did not disappoint, averaging just under 23 points and 7.3 rebounds on 50% shooting from the field. He led the Raptors to the two seed in the East, and was voted into his first all-star game as a starter, cementing himself as a top player in this league.
The Raptors were expecting him to continue to trend upward this year after signing him to a 4y/$130M extension a year ago. That hasn’t been the case, and the Raptors are struggling because of it. Siakam is averaging just 17.6 points on 41% shooting and has led the Raptors to an abysmal 1-5 record to open the year. He sat out the team’s December 31st contest against the Knicks, which has been the Raptors’ only victory this season. If the Most Improved Player can’t show some signs of improvement soon, the Raptors may be in for an extremely disappointing 2021 campaign in Tampa Bay.
The Indiana Pacers’ continuity is fueling their early season success
COLORS KEY | FULL PACERS FUTURE OUTLOOK
The Indiana Pacers were down six with 20 seconds left on Monday against the Pelicans. Victor Oladipo hit a three, forced a steal, and found Myles Turner who hit a huge three to tie it. The Pacers sent the game to overtime and would go on to win 118-116. The Pacers now sit at 5-2 and are currently tied for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers finished fourth in the East last year, but were swept by the Heat in the first round. They made no notable moves in the offseason, which many saw as an acceptance of losing.
The Pacers brought back 98% of the team’s total minutes during the 2019-20 season, a staggering 9% more than the second-highest team, the Chicago Bulls. The GM of the Pacers, Chad Buchanan, saw something in the team he has in place and decided to run it back, hoping a new Head Coach would make enough of a difference. So far, that has turned out to be the right decision as their continuity has thrived early in the season while other teams are still figuring it out. The Pacers will be tested with eight straight Western Conference opponents over the next 16 days, including a tough five-game road trip next week.
Warriors are a legitimate threat in the West if they have this MVP-caliber Steph Curry
The Warriors have had a tumultuous start to their 2021 campaign. The offseason began with the news of star Klay Thompson being ruled out for the year with a torn Achilles in November. The team didn’t panic in the draft and stuck with James Wiseman as opposed to grabbing another guard to fill Thompson’s role. The team was hoping Andrew Wiggins and new acquisition Kelly Oubre Jr. would be able to carry the loss of Thompson. They haven’t…but that may not matter much.
Steph Curry dropped a career-high 62 points on Sunday in an upset over the Portland Trail Blazers. Curry looked better than he ever has in his 12-year career, which is quite an accomplishment for a 32-year-old with two MVPs, including the only unanimous one in league history. Steph put the team on his back Sunday night, sinking shots that appeared impossible to fall in. However, with the way the rest of the team is playing, Steph may have to continue to play at an MVP level if he wants any shot of returning to the postseason again this year.
The Warriors might have to expect inconsistency from Wiggins and Oubre all season at this rate, while Draymond Green is never a guarantee to help much offensively. The load will always fall on Curry to deliver this season. If the Warriors ultimately make the postseason this year, it will be due in no small part to the play of Curry, who could even have a shot at a third MVP award if this game marks the start of elite play from here on out.
Jaylen Brown’s emergence gives the Celtics an All-Star dynamic duo
COLORS KEY | FULL CELTICS FUTURE OUTLOOK
Jaylen Brown was the fourth option on the Celtics last season. Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Gordon Hayward all took valuable touches away from Brown, which may have prevented him from truly breaking out. However, Hayward is now on the Hornets and Walker is on the shelf with an injury, so Brown is now emerging as the number two option for the Celtics right now, and quite frankly, is playing like the number one.
Jaylen Brown scored 31 points on 13/16 shooting on Sunday, including a clutch go-ahead three-pointer to put the Celtics up two with 34 seconds left. Brown is now averaging 28 points on an inconceivable 60% shooting from the field, and 42.5% from three over the first seven games of the year.
Alongside Tatum (who put up 24 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds on Sunday along with the game-winning shot), the Celtics have one of the strongest and youngest dynamic duos in the league. Boston has a serious shot at taking down the Bucks, Heat, or Nets in the East not only this year but for years to come.
Christian Wood looks like the steal of free agency
Turmoil surrounded the Rockets this offseason. GM Daryl Morey stepped down, head coach Mike D’Antoni did not return, star Russell Westbrook was traded to the Wizards and face of the franchise James Harden publicly requested a trade — and Morey’s new team, the Philadelphia 76ers, are near the top of Harden’s list. This seems like a difficult offseason for a team to come away with a victory, but the Rockets found a way to do just that.
On the first day of free agency, the Rockets signed rising star Christian Wood to a 3y/$41M contract. Through Wood’s first four games, this is looking like an absolute robbery as Wood is averaging just under 24 points, 11 rebounds, and just over two blocks a game, while shooting a healthy 56% from the field. On Saturday without James Harden, Wood put up 20 points, 15 rebounds, and four blocks, leading the way to an upset victory over the Kings.
It seems like it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when the Rockets trade James Harden. They’re bound to wait until they can get the AD or Paul George level package they’re searching for, and that may not be until the trade deadline when a team shows desperation like the Lakers and Clippers did for those superstars. But Harden will be traded, and the Rockets may have already found their replacement star on quite a bargain of under $14 million a year. Christian Wood, John Wall, and the pieces the Rockets can accumulate in a Harden trade may be enough to keep the Rockets in the playoff hunt this year, and for years to come.
The gritty Thunder are proving their bright future could be sooner than later
COLORS KEY | FULL THUNDER FUTURE OUTLOOK
The Thunder may have been the biggest winner of the past offseason despite no intention of winning in 2020-21. The team made a surprising run into the postseason last year after it seemed as if they were blowing it up when they traded Russell Westbrook and Paul George for all the first-round picks last offseason. The team replicated that blueprint this offseason, trading just about everybody — even the guys they picked up in the initial trades — for picks, picks, and then more picks. The Thunder are loaded with draft capital, and appeared as if they were already looking towards next offseason. But their current roster has other plans.
People weren’t expecting much out of the Thunder, as many couldn’t name more than three guys on their team. Yet, the Thunder are playing very good basketball once again, this time led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Al Horford, George Hill, and a bunch of youngsters. OKC went into Orlando to face the 4-1 Magic and completely outplayed them in an impressive 108-99 victory. Six guys scored in double figures while two more were just a bucket away as the Thunder showcased their depth and toughness.
The Thunder likely won’t make the playoffs this year and they aren’t expected to. However, they have an influx of first-rounders over the next five drafts, and are playing at a very competitive level of basketball right now that should have Thunder fans not only excited for the future, but for their present, as well. Don’t be surprised if the Thunder are in the playoff hunt much sooner than most expected, maybe even by next season.
Chris Paul is the most underrated closer in the NBA
Wherever Chris Paul has gone, winning has followed. That isn’t a coincidence. CP3 is one of the best passers in NBA history who’s proven to make his teammates around him better. Not only has his IQ positively influenced his passing abilities on the floor, it’s also made him a leader and a prototype veteran player that uses wisdom and experience to beat his matchups and find different ways in every possession to put the ball in the basket.
His IQ has now transformed his mindset into being a cold-blooded killer. Time and time again, CP3 is making the plays at the end of the game to lead his team to victory. No matter if he’s wearing a white Clippers jersey, red Rockets jersey, blue OKC jersey, or orange Suns uniform, Paul can be witnessed putting the final touches on victories in the game’s most important moments. He doesn’t get enough credit for his clutch factor, but the film and stats show he’s a top-3 player during crunch time and steps up when it matters most.
Don’t be surprised if DC is the 1st NBA Playoff team to ever start 0-5
COLORS KEY | FULL WIZARDS FUTURE OUTLOOK
Washington got off to as bad of a start as possible, losing all five of their first five games of the season. Interestingly, Russell Westbrook played in four of them, and got a triple-double in each one, yet it wasn’t enough to translate to wins. With Westbrook sitting for the second time this season already, the Wiz finally got their first non-bubble win since the NBA season was suspended in March.
Even without suiting them up, Russ still had a positive impact on DC in this game as shown by him teaching some of the youngsters tips on reading the game and “rocking the baby” with Bradley Beal. It couldn’t have been expected for Russ to click with this new team right from the jump. Two of the most ball-dominant players in the league had never played a game together before. It was always going to take time for this team to get it together.
Now that they have Rui Hachimura back and balling as a Sophomore, along with a solid supporting cast around them, the Wiz have the roster that can contend (especially if they add a premier defender at the deadline). As they gain more chemistry and continuity, they can get over their early-season hurdles and potentially become the first team ever to go from 0-5 to clinching a postseason berth. If that would ever happen in the NBA, it would be a newly-constructed team like DC with early injuries they had to overcome in a season like 2020-21 where momentum can change as quick as ever without fans in the stands.