Thoughts About The NBA Season So Far Volume 1, January 2021 Edition

January 15th, 2021

By Alan Lu

Nearly a month ago, I made predictions and picks about what could take place during the 2020-21 NBA season.  A lot has happened, and as expected, there have been quite some surprises.  James Harden was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, and Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen did get traded, but just not in the offseason.  The Los Angeles Lakers are still a very good basketball team, and they currently hold the league’s best record at 10-3.  The Detroit Pistons are about as bad as I expected them, and they hold the league’s worst record at 2-9.

There have been some plenty of unexpected surprises.  The Washington Wizards have not meshed well at all, and the Toronto Raptors have gotten off to a slow start.  After finishing 3rd in the West in 2020 and having reached the 2020 Western Conference Finals, the Denver Nuggets are just 6-6 right now.  Here are some thoughts that I have about this season. While the Miami Heat are only at 4-6 right now, it is important to remember that they made it to the 2020 NBA Finals as a 5th seed, and so they may be conserving their energy to make a run later this season.

Good Surprises:

The Indiana Pacers Have Been Overachieving, and Have Won 8 of Their First 12 Games This Season.

Head coach Nate Bjorkgren has done a very good job of leading the Indiana Pacers to an 8-4 record in the 2020-21 NBA season, and they have won more games than expected.
Kelly Wilkinson/Indy Star)

With all of the other Eastern Conference teams having made major changes in the offseason, it was thought that the Pacers would slide towards being slotted a lower-tier playoff team to start the season.  Instead, they have kept playing well, and they are currently 4th in the East, as they have won 8 of their first 12 games of the season.

With new head coach Nate Bjorkgren having come over from Toronto, there is more ball movement in their offense. Malcolm Brogdon is playing very well, as he is averaging 22.8 points and 7.4 assists per game, and has made nearly 46% of his threes.  Domantas Sabonis also is playing terrific basketball, as he is averaging nearly 22 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. 

They have defended very well this season.  The Pacers have been forcing turnovers, and they have shown more creativity and have embraced more modern principles.  The Pacers have reeled off wins over Boston, New Orleans, Golden State, and Portland, and Nate Bjorkgren looks like he could very well be in the running for Head Coach of the Year.

Bad Surprises:

The Toronto Raptors, the Denver Nuggets, and the Washington Wizards are all underachieving.

It was thought that the backcourt pairing of Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook would supercharge the Wizards to a playoff run in 2021, but the Washington Wizards have stumbled to a 3-8 start this season.
Rob Carr/Getty Images, The Spun)

It’s a mild surprise that the Wizards are struggling, as there was intrigue and wonder about how Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook would fit in, but the Wizards are still a very young team, and they were not a good defensive team last year.  There were questions about Westbrook’s lack of outside shooting combined with Beal and Westbrook both being high usage players, but it was thought that Westbrook would be a vast talent upgrade over John Wall, who hadn’t played an NBA regular season game in 1 ½ years.

But now that the Wizards are at 3-8, old questions about if Westbrook is a team player have come back to re-surface, and head coach Scott Brooks may soon be on the hot seat if things don’t improve.  It also doesn’t help that center Thomas Bryant went down to a season-ending knee injury. 

If anything, perhaps the Wizards should take this as a developmental year, to continue to develop their younger players such as Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Garrison Mathews, Troy Brown Jr., Moritz Wagner, and Isaac Bonga in the meantime while they have Beal and Westbrook.  Undoubtedly, they might have to consider trading both of them if their team continues to flounder, but we’ll probably know more if the Wizards will be able to compete for a playoff spot in a couple of more weeks.

The Toronto Raptors currently have one of the league’s worst records at 3-8 to start the 2020-21 season. Some of the fans have attributed blame to Nick Nurse’s unwillingness to play the 2020 All-Rookie second teamer, Terence Davis on a consistent basis, but Pascal Siakam is not playing at the All-Star level he had played a season ago.
Tim Fuller/USA Today Sports, via SB Nation’s Raptors HQ)

It’s surprising that the Toronto Raptors are struggling, and have won just 3 of 11 regular season games to start the season.  Pascal Siakam has not quite played like his former All-Star self of 2020, but he’s played better recently.  The Raptors don’t have a true go-to player, and their defense isn’t quite as good, because they lost Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency.  Chris Boucher has stepped up to play well in extended minutes, but Aron Baynes has played poorly as a starter for their team.

On top of that, head coach Nick Nurse just doesn’t seem to be comfortable in managing the back end of his roster this year.  Some of the fans are disgruntled that Terence Davis and Matt Thomas don’t get nearly as much playing time as expected, while he has leaned in favor of Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe, for purposes that lean towards length and defense over shooting and offense.

Malachi Flynn hasn’t played much during the regular season despite having an impressive preseason, and certainly some fans feel the Raptors could add his scoring punch to the mix.  Either way, with no true go-to scorer, and a worse defense, the Raptors have struggled to meet expectations, and this may be the first year that Nick Nurse feels some actual heat from the fans.  Still, he is still a solid head coach that won as a rookie in 2019, and led them to a solid 2020 season.  The Toronto Raptors have stumbled out of the gates, and have failed to adjust to the rigors of this season so far, and there may be a real possibility that they could miss the 2021 NBA playoffs altogether.

After having made it to the 2020 Western Conference Finals, the 2021 Denver Nuggets are currently one of four teams that are tied for 7th in the West with a 6-6 record, and there also has been a surprisingly lack of playing time for Bol Bol to fuel the angst that Nuggets’ fans may be feeling right now.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Denver Nuggets had a Cinderella run of their own in the 2020 NBA playoffs, and Jamal Murray played fantastic basketball in the postseason.  Nikola Jokic played very well, and Murray looked like a future All-Star.  The Nuggets had defeated the favored Los Angeles Clippers in 7 games of the second round, and they even managed to win a game against LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers’ team in the Western Conference Finals before ultimately losing to the Lakers in 5 games.  Things looked up on the horizon and on the up swing for the Nuggets.

However, Denver Nuggets lost a lot of experience via free agency, as they lost Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee to the Detroit Pistons, and they lost Torrey Craig to the Milwaukee Bucks.  It was thought that Michael Porter Jr. would easily fill in for Grant.  Porter started off well by averaging 19.5 points per game in his first 4 games, but now, he has missed the remainder of the games so far due to breaking COVID protocols.

Bol Bol was expected to step in to capably fill Mason Plumlee’s shoes and maybe go beyond that, but head coach Mike Malone has shown an extreme reluctance to playing Bol, and Bol has gotten off to a much slower start than expected, as he has not really shown the shooting or the dynamic offensive skills that he showed in the Orlando bubble or in the NBA preseason. 

Torrey Craig, though he seemed to be a less important piece on the surface, was a defensive wing that tended to be tasked to guard the other team’s best players in 2020.  Now that Craig is gone, those defensive tasks are going to Will Barton and Gary Harris, both of whom are more skilled offensive players, but their defense has taken a hit, as the Nuggets are allowing baskets at a much higher rate than expected.  P.J. Dozier played surprisingly well in a limited role in the 2020 playoffs and has gotten an extended role this season, but now that he’s playing much more as a result of their team’s depleted bench, he may be over-extended in his current role.

Of the three teams’ struggles, it seems that the Toronto Raptors’ issues might be more serious than expected. There was a concern heading into last season after having lost Kawhi Leonard shortly after winning the title in 2019, that they might not have the talent to be a mid-to-upper tier playoff team in 2020, but they easily quelled that due to the unexpected rise of Pascal Siakam, and due to their strong team structure, teamwork, and defense.

However, now in 2021, they lost more integral players, and they also lost then-assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren to the Indiana Pacers. There’s a chance that some of the offensive creativity might have been from Bjorkgren rather than Nurse.

Time will tell to see if the Toronto Raptors can turn things around from a 3-8 start, and one positive that has stemmed from this is Chris Boucher’s strong play off the bench. However, it looks fairly certain that they will not reach a 40+ win total in the regular season, and if they don’t improve considerably as a team, they will likely be in for a disappointing finish at the season’s end.

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