We are now a month into this unprecedented 72-game NBA season. After plenty of changes during the shortened off season, the first 15 or so games have not disappointed and here is what I have noticed thus far.
Rob Pelinka's off season strategy is working.
In my season preview, I highlighted the importance of Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka's moves in the off season as it pertains to making the Lakers younger and deeper for the purpose of preserving the now 36 year old LeBron James.
So far both sides of that plan have worked to perfection. 11 players are seeing at least 15 minutes on the floor per game with six contributing at least 10 points per game. Even better, James has seen his minutes slashed, as his 31.8 per game are the lowest in his 18-year career.
His running mate Anthony Davis is averaging 31.9, the lowest since his 2012-13 rookie season.
The result: Los Angeles is 11-3 and the undisputed best team in the NBA with a league-leading average point differential of 11 and league-best 7-0 road record through January 17.
Chris Paul's impact has been astronomical.
One of the more intriguing moves of the off season was the trade of veteran point guard Chris Paul from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Phoenix Suns, a move meant to pair him with superstar guard Devin Booker.
While Paul's numbers are modest and Booker's are a bit lower than usual, the Suns are replicating the depth of the Lakers with seven players scoring double-digit points per contest (including Jae Crowder's 9.9). Paul's arrival has also assisted in the development of Mikel Bridges who, at just over 15 per game through January 17, is an early season front-runner for Most Improved Player.
Always known as a great defender, Paul has also brought improvement on that side of the ball. Phoenix is 6th in the NBA in points allowed, which has elevated a team that has been in the cellar of the Western Conference since the days of Steve Nash to a 7-3 start, leaving them 2.5 games out of first place.
Lamelo Ball's NBA transition has been amazing.
Expectations for the middle of the three ball brothers were astronomical after the former star in the Australia NBL was selected with the second pick in the 2020 draft by the Charlotte Hornets.
The transition has been fantastic.
Through his first 14 games, he is averaging 11.8 points a night, grabbing 7 boards, and dishing out 6.1 assists and has turned in double-digit point totals in 10 contests, including a season-high 22 in a January 9 win over the Atlanta Hawks. That night, he became the youngest to ever record a triple-double, registering a 22-12-11 night. This came a night after he flirted with a triple-double in a 118-110 win over the New Orleans Pelicans and his older brother Lonzo.
Gregg Popovich is the Coach of the Year.
Coming into the season, every Western Conference team had reasonable postseason aspirations. Except the Spurs who were coming off their first postseason absence since 1997 and were trending in the wrong direction after losing starting guard Brynn Forbes to the Bucks.
In true 'Pop' fashion, the legendary coach has guided San Antonio 8-6 start, currently slating them at 5th in the West. Perhaps his biggest accomplishment has been the progressing of Dejounte Murray's into a true point guard and the success of exciting rookie Keldon Johnson (14.5 PPG).
Popovich has also stamped his imprint on the next generation of coaches as he has groomed lead assistant Becky Hammond into a future head coach who has gotten plenty of experience in the job, considering Pop's tendency to get ejected from games.
The Hawks and Warriors are two intriguing teams to watch the rest of the season.
The Hawks haven't made the playoffs since the 2016-17 season and have since fallen completely off the national scale. However, this season they have started 6-7, good for eighth in the Eastern Conference. Even though they have a losing record through January 17, the extremely young team (average age of 25.7) has jelled beautifully in its third season under coach Lloyd Pierce, averaging 111.4 points a night, while the young core of Trae Young, DeAndre Hunter, and Kevin Huerter have developed a nice chemistry with secondary pieces Cam Reddish, Clint Capela and new addition Bogdon Bogdanovic.
Meanwhile, on the West coast, the former Western Conference powerhouse is showing signs of return to its not-so-distant past dominance. While the team continues to await the return of sharpshooter Klay Thompson, coach Steve Kerr has developed a nucleus that includes Eric Pascal, Andrew Wiggins, and rookie James Wiseman around veterans Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.
As it stands on January 17, the Warriors are 6-6, occupying the final spot in an eight-team playoff. Golden State has taken down playoff contenders Portland, Toronto, and Los Angeles (Clippers), showing that they still are a team to be reckoned with while they await the second Splash Brother.