Preliminary scouting reports: NBA season tip off

Although not too many may be paying attention quite yet, the 2017-18 NBA season has tipped off to an exciting start. After a riveting, wildly entertaining offseason, new superteams have begun to prove their worth. However, the NBA has also shown more flashes of parity than years prior, as teams from the top down hold many exciting prospects and potential breakout stars. There’s still fewer than 10 games under any team’s belt, but despite that, let’s do some way-too-early scouting reports to help make sense of how this season might shake out.

The first big headline of the year came in just the first few minutes of the first game, when new Celtics acquisition Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending broken leg going up for a dunk against Cleveland’s LeBron James. The Hayward injury is a tough blow for the Celtics, who were primed to finally turn the corner into a legitimate championship contender after a massive rebuild. Boston was relying on Hayward to open up the floor as an efficient and athletic second scoring option.

Despite the injury, the Celtics have proven through their play in the early part of the season that they are still thriving. Young prospects Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum have been playing excellent basketball and have proven that they are several years ahead of their projected development. Brown is an extremely athletic player who is a dangerous scoring option now that he is a reliable mid-range shooter. Tatum is inarguably the most polished first-year player in the league who is a serious contender for Rookie of the Year. Superstar Kyrie Irving has shown that he is capable of leading a championship contending team by adjusting well and willingly into the Brad Steven’s system.

Following the Celtic’s 108-94 win over San Antonio on Monday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “I thought the Celtic’s movement was great … They’re playing with some edge and some physicality and I think they look wonderful” (Steve Bulpett, Twitter, 10.30.2017). Brad Stevens has done an excellent job of taming the team’s vast individual talent into his offensive system, as the Celtics surely rank as one of the passing teams in the league. Even without Hayward, all signs point in the direction of a continued upward climb for Boston, as many different players have surprisingly stepped up and shown that the Celtics can still hang with the best of them.

While the Celtics push forward hot out of the gates, their Eastern Conference rival, the Cleve- land Cavaliers, have shown some cause for concern. The Cavs currently sit at 3-4 on the season after a string of bad losses to the Magic, Nets, Pelicans and Knicks. With the departure of Irving, LeBron James must continue to adjust to being the team’s one and only go-to option.

Cleveland is also struggling with their advanced age. At 35 years, Dwyane Wade has shown that he is not much more than a role player at this point in his career, relinquishing his starting spot to the more stable J.R. Smith. With most players on the team creeping towards their early and mid-30s, it is going to be hard for all their contributors to stay healthy throughout the course of a grueling 82-game season. However, veteran Derrick Rose has joined Cleveland stronger and healthier than he has been in over five seasons and has played well above his anticipated value with an average of 13.7 points per game. It will be interesting to see how Rose will fare when Isaiah Thomas returns from injury. Thomas’ ability still remains the biggest question mark for Cleveland, as it is unclear if he can come back as the same player and thrive in a more backseat role than the one he was playing in Boston last season.

Despite their early-season struggles, LeBron is far from concerned.

In an interview following the loss to New Orleans, James said, “I’m not getting too high and getting too low. I’m an even-keel guy. I understand this is a long process. There’s going to be some games where we don’t look as good unfortunately, but that’s all part of the process, and we just have to be patient with it until we can become full-strength” (Bleacher Report, “LeBron James Says Cavaliers Are ‘Fine’ Despite Early Season Struggles,” 10.29.2017).

It’s not time to panic in Cleveland, as the Cavs are still heavy favorites to emerge out of the Eastern Conference, as long as their pieces learn to fit and they continue to stay healthy. Take this aging Cleveland teams and drop them in 2010, when their roster was all in their prime, and they would run away with the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Over in the Western Conference, the Warriors continue to pick up right where they left off. The big four of Durant, Curry, Thompson and Green are all completely healthy and slated to post their typical all-star levels of production. Golden State and head coach Steve Kerr have also done a nice job of retooling their bench. The new pickups of Nick “Swaggy P” Young and Omri Casspi have come in as knock-down shooters that add even more spacing to what is already the best shooting team in the NBA. Young prospects such as Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney and Patrick McCaw are legitimate role players and great athletes. Golden State management continues to have the knack to find fringe players and turn them into valuable contributors.

Although it is clear that Golden State is primed for yet another trip to the Western Conference Finals, teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers all offer stronger competition than last year.

Oklahoma City’s trade for Carmelo Anthony is paying off in leaps and bounds. Despite the Knick’s destroying all of Anthony’s trade value, it is clear that Anthony can still continue to put up all-star caliber points night in and night out. Despite some preseason chatter, Anthony, Russell Westbrook and Paul George seem to be meshing well together thus far. With three elite shot-creators who are willing to play through each other, OKC could very well be the most talented perimeter team in the league outside of the Warriors.

Moving on from Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Clippers have actually emerged as a more talented team. Blake Griffin has been utilizing his new-found ability to control the offensive to greatly develop his perimeter play. Griffin is a legitimate threat off the dribble and can also knock down shots from both mid-range and outside the arc. With the hyper-athletic Deandre Jordan still in his prime, Patrick Beverley continuing to be a lockdown defender and the super-talented passer Milos Teodosic joining the team, the Clippers have a strong collection of well-fitting pieces.

There are clear frontrunners for title contention this season, yet there are plenty of teams that could very well have breakout seasons. The Minnesota Timberwolves boost two extremely talented scorers in Karl Anthony-Towns and An-drew Wiggins, who are both sneaking into their primes while the rest of the league continues to age.

The New Orleans Pelicans still have their twin towers in Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. Cousins has shown immense promise with his early-season play, as he is averaging nearly 30 points a contest and also put up an impressive 41 points against his former team, the Sacramento Kings. Cousins is a deceptively quick player who has developed as a ball-handler and can now score at will off the dribble, while also still being one of the best midrange shooters in the league. It is unclear, however, whenever Davis and Cousins, who play the game with very similar styles and presence, can fit together. New Orleans might be one great guard away from legitimate playoff contention, and the eventual return of a healthy Rajon Rondo could very well be the missing ingredient.

Throughout the rest of the league, many different teams have shown great potential. Bucks guard Giannis Antetokounmpo currently leads the league in points per game and without a doubt could one day be an MVP. Antetokoun- MPO possesses LeBron James-type strength teamed with KD size. With the development of a more consistent jump shot, Antetokounmpo could be the most terrifying matchup in the NBA.

In Washington, John Wall has really stepped up his game and has proven himself as the league’s most athletic point guard who has finally developed some elite and consistent scoring ability. Teammates Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are great players in their own right, but are not enough to form the big three Wall would need to compete for a championship.

The Los Angeles Lakers are a team that is two or three years away from its prime, but it is beginning to show flashes.

Lonzo Ball is a gifted passer and rebounder, but he is offensively very far away from being more than just an average point guard. Rookie Kyle Kuzma, a lengthy presence and natural scorer, is arguably the better rookie. Altogether, the Lakers have very deep guard play and a bunch of raw, talented athletes. As these players continue to develop, and with the potential arrival of LeBron James for the twilight of his career, Los Angeles basketball could be back very soon.

The NBA is shaping up for the most exciting season in recent memory. With immense talent and very entertaining players on almost every team, there will definitely be many intriguing matchups to look out for.

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