With a dozen games in the books, some early-season anomalies are turning into trends worth watching as the season continues to unfold. Yahoo Sports takes a look at the players and teams who have surprised, or played exactly to expectations so far.
Surprise MVP candidate: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
It’s not that Tatum is close to 50-40-90 territory; well he’s actually close to it with 50-38-87, but he’s playing like a complete player — the lapses in defensive focus are less and less, if at all. He knows he has the offensive advantage in every situation he’s in, but doesn’t feel the need to exploit it by taking those step-back jumpers.
He gets to the line at a more frequent rate than ever, initiating and accepting contact frequently, going to the line nearly nine times a game — not quite James Harden in his foul-drawing prime, but closer to a per-36 minute rate, like his basketball idol Kobe Bryant.
That means those scoring droughts will come less frequently, and he can stop scoring runs by simply plowing into defenses and getting the respect from the officials.
Playing both ends for a Celtics team that is clearly chugging along despite the preseason drama that threatened to derail the season puts him squarely into the MVP conversation. Luka Doncic may have the pole position now, but the numbers indicate he fades late in games as the offensive burden leads to a worn-down star.
Tatum is by far the superior defensive player and he’s performed with enough consistency over the last calendar year that this feels sustainable. This feels like the Tatum we’ll see from this point on and all that goofy talk about “Finals loss motivates star” actually feels validated.
He did look lost at times during the Finals against Golden State, and Andrew Wiggins did have his number. But he’s not playing against Wiggins every night, and he’s at least armed with knowing what works for him on the big stage.
That is tangible and something that translates over time.
He might not be at the top of the list now, but he’ll be in serious conversation sooner rather than later.
Surprise player who’s struggling: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks are surging, perhaps not surprisingly, but they weren’t at the top of anyone’s preseason list in the East.
But the Hawks are firmly planted in the upper crust in the East, even though Young isn’t playing his best. His 23.1 shots per game is a career high, while his splits of 37% from the field and 31% from three would be career worsts if they held.
It’s doubtful that stays the same, one would think.
Young isn’t a notoriously slow starter, so this feels like a bit of an anomaly. Of course, working in Dejounte Murray has been priority No. 1 this season, and those two account for 44% of the Hawks’ shot attempts and 69% of the assists — there will be some adjustments along the way.
“I’m not gonna get into too much of it, but I needed another playmaker,” Young told Yahoo Sports. “I was getting doubled a lot in our last series. It wasn’t how we wanted it to go.”
Miami swarmed Young in the first round last season, and they all agreed one more creator was necessary. The relationship between Young and Murray existed before the trade, both being Klutch Sports clients, so it seemed like an easy deal to make.
Young joked that he’s not “LeGM, LeBron thing. You guys started that,” but did say the Hawks asked his opinion before making the move.
“I talked to everybody in the summer. I’ve been in the [summer] runs. I’ve been trying to get better,” Young said. “So when I found out there was a possibility. I mean, we had talks [with Murray] about it and things like that. But you knew if we got together, it would be pretty good.”
It’s been good for the Hawks, having a ballhawk like Murray taking defensive pressure off Young. Murray was one of the defenders on Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey in his 5 for 17 performance Thursday night.
Young pointed out playing with Michael Porter Jr. in his prep days as proof he knew how to play without the ball, and he’s having to go back to that nowadays.
“I would come and run off pin downs [back then],” Young said. “And so I’ve always known how to play off the ball. But when I got to college, and got into the league, it was just I had to be on the ball a little more.”
Team that’s unsurprisingly struggling: Los Angeles Lakers
It seemed like a foolhardy plan to have a somewhat underwhelming roster start the season with the hope that tanking teams would willingly unload better-than-role players to the Lakers.
Even so, that would require the Lakers to stay afloat to start the season.
It hasn’t happened, and now it looks like the injury bug has hit LeBron James again. It was going to take something nearly miraculous to keep a man in his 20th year completely healthy for a whole season anyways, and the adductor strain that’s keeping James out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings certainly feels precautionary.
But the Lakers are in the rare spot of saying they have bigger problems than James’ health — words that have probably never been uttered together during his two decades of NBA dominance.
At 2-9, only the young Houston Rockets have a worse record in the West — and this is with James playing reasonably well, Anthony Davis looking spry and Russell Westbrook providing a spark in coming off the bench after a rocky start.
To note, James is one of the culprits from 3-point range, shooting less than 24% on seven attempts a game — somewhat expected given his age. But he only shot more volume from three last year and his efficiency would be a career low by a wide margin.
That said, the Lakers as a whole are the worst 3-point shooting team in the league and even though they’re getting stops at a reasonable level, their offensive rating is also the worst in the league so they’re not even getting out on the break to alleviate some of the struggles.
It feels like a bad brew and honestly, no end in sight for the NBA’s glamour franchise. Nobody’s coming to save them and the answers aren’t in their building.
Team that isn’t going anywhere: Milwaukee Bucks
Yes, it’s obvious but take a look at the standings and there are so many new jacks (Utah, Portland, Cleveland) that one forgets the consistency and stability of the once-removed champs.
It’s important to remember Khris Middleton still hasn’t played yet, as he’s recovering from wrist surgery, and if he wasn’t injured in the second round last season, the Bucks could be going for a three-peat (or if Mike Budenholzer played Jevon Carter a lot more against Boston).
What they have is the confidence and determination of a challenger mixed with the arrogance of a champion. They shoot the three, defend it and possess the most irresistible force in the game today in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
There are high-level defenders at every level in Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez, a fact nobody else can say. Lopez leads the league in blocks, Holiday is still a pest and Antetokounmpo could earn his second Defensive Player of the Year award to possibly go along with another run that ends with the gold ball.
It’s early, but if we’re handicapping … the Bucks are leading the pack.