Early Winners And Losers
Embiid, the Lakers, DeRozan, Damion Lee, and more
The best basketball in the world is here! It’s been an incredible first couple of days, with wild comebacks, surprising performances, and enough content to make even the wordiest writers happy (*coughs discreetly*). Let’s dive in with some winners and losers.
Joel Embiid is an early loser both literally (the Sixers are 0-2) and figuratively, as he’s looked completely out of rhythm on both sides of the ball. He failed to dominate against a weakened Celtics frontcourt and then struggled mightily against the Bucks’ Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo in what was supposed to be a battle between two titanic MVP favorites.
Embiid’s handle has looked loose, his midrange shaky, and his conditioning poor. The once-pristine defense has been downright porous at times, and Embiid has seemed uncomfortable operating in space on both ends — a far cry from the nimble giant who led the league in scoring and patrolled the paint just months ago. He scored zero points in the second half of the loss to the Bucks, and the fickle, fed-up Philadelphian crowd audibly booed him.
It’s only been two games, both against title contenders. But the Sixers are built around the idea of a James Harden/Joel Embiid duo on offense, and frankly, only Harden has delivered so far. (Harden’s own defensive issues are still present, but offensively, he’s looked like a man reborn).
It’s obviously too early to panic. Embiid could just be working himself into shape to start the season, which isn’t a great look for a guy who wants desperately to win MVP but is at least a comprehensible reason. It’s more likely than not that he’ll have a massive bounceback game against the Spurs, the worst team in the league and the perfect antidote to a slow start (even if their center, Jakob Poeltl, is a heck of a defender in his own right). But Sixers fans, a pessimistic bunch by nature, can’t feel good about how their big man has looked so far — and they won’t be shy to let Embiid know.
Like the 76ers, the Lakers have had a ferocious schedule to start the season. Most people would have predicted they’d start 0-2, playing against contenders like the Warriors and the Clippers, and most people would have been right.
There have been encouraging signs. The Lake Show looked competitive for large stretches of both games, and LeBron’s been LeBron. Anthony Davis has been active and engaged, particularly on defense. Even Russ Westbrook came up with some big stops at the end of the Clippers game.
Unfortunately, this team’s obvious, glaring weakness on paper has been an obvious, glaring weakness in practice: they can’t shoot. At all.
In two games, LeBron is 5-18 from deep. Davis is 2-7. Lonnie Walker IV and Patrick Beverley are a combined 4-23 (yikes!). Westbrook is 1-9 from deep (and shot an astonishing 0-11 from the field against the Clippers). Kendrick Nunn, at 3-10, looks like a sniper by comparison — and he also didn’t hit a shot against the crosstown rivals.
The Lakers are “not a team that’s constructed of great shooting…it’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team,” James said after the loss to the Warriors. Barring a trade or, like, 30 minutes given to sharpshooting gravedigger Matt Ryan, there isn’t an easy in-house solution.
They won’t always shoot this poorly. But it’s hard to imagine they can shoot well enough to win four times out of seven in a first-round playoff series, much less deep into the playoffs.
And don’t forget that Russ Westbrook is already blaming his preseason injury on coming off the bench, clearly signaling that he will resist any such move in the future despite repeated calls from pretty much everyone for him to accept a different role.
Ben Simmons/Draymond Green
I lumped them together because they had the same statline in their respective games: four points, five rebounds, and five assists. Where they differ, of course, is in the results: Simmons accrued six fouls trying to stop Zion in vain during the Pelicans’ obliteration of Brooklyn, while Green got his 2022 championship ring as the Warriors pulled away late against the Lakers.
But both are in the loser column. Simmons had a tough outing, and while he had some defensive moments against Zion, he fouled in various ways: touch fouls 30 feet from the basket, illegal screens, shooting fouls, and more. Some were iffy, but as Kyrie Irving (with an incredible lack of self-awareness) said after the game, Simmons has to be available to help the team. Offensively, Ben looked lost, but it’s hard to single him out when that was true of most of his teammates, as well.
Green only had one foul, and a 4/5/5 stat line isn’t wildly unusual for him. But there have been multiple reports about lingering “iciness” between Green and the rest of the team. A self-promoted TNT televised segment about Green’s reaction to the Poole punch as part of a documentary that led up to the GS game did nothing to smooth things over, and many feel it was a bad look for Green to profit off of smashing a teammate in the face.
Draymond only played 25 minutes in this game and appeared irritated after subbing out in the second half. Coach Steve Kerr famously pulled Green at a critical moment in the NBA Finals to give the offense more juice. For all the drama about The Punch and whether it has irreparably cracked the always-volatile relationship between Green and the Warriors, the biggest question might be whether Green can provide enough offense to justify court time over a bevy of talented options on the Warriors’ bench. His still-world-class defense will always have value, but one-way defensive players don’t get paid what Green wants to be paid. The punch also knocked out Green’s negotiating leverage with the Warriors, and if he can’t find a way to contribute on both ends, he will have to search for a payday away from the Bay.
The Nets were an unholy mess after one game, but much of that might’ve been due to their opponent, the Pellies. A slimmer Zion was back in his first NBA game since the 2020-2021 season and showed zero rust, barging his way into 25 points (and just two turnovers!) without much problem. I was worried before the season that the Pelicans didn’t have enough defense within their three best offensive players (Zion, CJ McCollum, and Brandon Ingram) to compete at the highest levels.
That still might be true. But for one day, at least, Zion’s defensive effort was noticeable. While he won’t always get four steals in a game, just being in the right places and playing with higher energy will go a long way toward addressing my fears. At a lower weight, Zion looked quicker laterally, and although nobody is in their best shape in Game 1, his conditioning figures to be improved, as well.
But it wasn’t just Zion — the whole team hummed against a lackluster and confused Nets team. Ingram was even better than Zion, dropping 28 points on 59% shooting and getting anything he wanted. My low-key Pelicans obsession, Trey Murphy, had 16 points while banging home four triples. McCollum and fellow starters Herb Jones and Jonas Valanciunas played their roles perfectly.
New Orleans couldn’t have asked for a better start. I’ve been trying so hard to temper my expectations for the Pelicans, forcing myself to worry about Zion’s health, CJ’s defensive issues, and the exciting-but-unproven depth. But man, it’s tough to stay balanced after watching them dominate the Nets’ collection of papyrus tigers.
I did not expect to write about Damion Lee one game into the season, but that’s the beauty of the NBA.
To set the scene: the Dallas Mavericks eviscerated the Phoenix Suns in last year’s playoffs, winning the deciding Games 6 and 7 by approximately 10,000 points and setting off a bad all-around offseason for the Suns.
The NBA schedule-makers are more dramatic than a teenage love triangle, and they naturally decided to pair the two teams off to start the season. It looked at first like a continuation of where the squads left off, with the Mavericks racing out to an easy 22-point lead.
But the Suns won 64 games last year for a reason and returned mostly the same roster. They had beaten this Dallas team three times in the playoffs, too; the enormity of the Game 6 and 7 losses made that series feel much more lopsided than it was in reality.
And so the Suns slowly came marching back. Luka tried to singlehandedly prevent the comeback, but Damion Lee (only in the game due to Cam Johnson’s muscle cramps) wouldn’t stand for it:
I have no idea why Monty Williams had Lee guarding Doncic on several late-game possessions, but hitting game-winners tends to paper over any prior problems. Lee is one of the few new additions to the roster (Lee was a role player for GS last year); maybe that championship pedigree does matter!
Side note: Chris Paul never got back into the game after Cam Payne came in halfway through the fourth quarter. Paul was a team-worst -9 in his 30 ineffectual minutes, going 1-6 from the field, playing poor defense, and passing up several open threes (although he did have nine assists). A crunchtime killer last season, Paul will be closing many more games than he won’t, but he’ll need to be better if the Suns are to shake their postseason demons.
DeMar might be the most disrespected player in the league, including in these here digital pages. Despite being a down-ballot MVP candidate last year, DeRozan ranked 28th in ESPN’s annual NBA player rankings, and I put him at 25 in my list of the top 30 players.
After watching him eviscerate a strong Miami defense without either of his starting guards available to help him, I believe that ESPN and I owe DeMar an apology.
DeRozan shot 64% from the field (including 2-3 from long range, always DeMar’s bugaboo) en route to a 37-point, six-rebound, nine-assist masterpiece. He racked up 11 free throw attempts and consistently got to his spots, draining middy after middy. Almost every shot was closely contested, but the midrange is the most unguardable shot in basketball, and if DeRozan gets hot, it doesn’t matter who is in his way.
DeRozan has evolved tremendously as a player. He’s a much better passer now than he was as a wee lad, and his rebounding has held up even as he plays more power forward. DeMar even shot 35% from deep last year on an admittedly paltry number of attempts. (His defense is still a liability, but hey, no one’s perfect.)
There aren’t many guys, particularly without much of a three-ball, who can score as much and as efficiently as DeRozan can - he bagged nearly 28 points per game last year on 50% shooting, absolutely elite marks. Unfortunately, his anachronistic game and playoff struggles (plus a long stint in San Antonio playing for unremarkable teams) haven’t led to the acclaim that other players have garnered for themselves, but that’s looking increasingly unfair. If DeRozan puts together another monster year — and after one game, it sure looks like he will — he might finally amass the respect he deserves.
THE NBA IS BACK, BABY!!!
No, he wasn’t actually a gravedigger. But he did clean the graveyard, so close enough.