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Which early season surprises are here to stay?

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The NBA season is — almost — a month old. What standouts are here to stay?

The Eastern Conference standings is full of early-season surprises, including impressive starts from the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks are dealing with injuries as they work their way out of the conference’s bottom 10.

The Western Conference isn’t as topsy-turvy as its East counterpart, but the Los Angeles Lakers‘ woes are starting to raise concerns about one of the preseason title favorites. Will the star-studded Lakers break out of their early hole before Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks?

Our NBA experts are examining some early season storylines, including which contender — the Brooklyn Nets or Philadelphia 76ers — is better equipped to handle its star absence, and which players’ hot starts are flying under the radar.

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1. Which surprise team’s early success is the most sustainable?

Tim Bontemps: The Wizards. Turning Russell Westbrook into Spencer Dinwiddie alone is arguably an upgrade at this point in their respective careers. Throw in getting Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell, and it’s a clear win for Washington. Having a rotation full of solid NBA players is a recipe for regular season success, and new coach Wes Unseld Jr. has done an excellent job. This looks like a clear playoff team, even in a much more competitive Eastern Conference.

Andrew Lopez: The Wizards have gotten major contributions from all four of their big offseason acquisitions. Dinwiddie is working his way back into his 2019-20 form, but the three players picked up in the Westbrook trade have all stepped up: Kuzma (14.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game) and Harrell (18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds) look as comfortable as ever, while Caldwell-Pope is still hitting his 3s at close to a 40% clip.

Bobby Marks: The Bulls. I am buying stock in what Chicago has been able to do. Not only does this team have the offensive firepower in All-Stars Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, but they are also starting to find an identity on the defensive end. The Bulls rank No. 6 in defensive efficiency, and the signing of Alex Caruso is proving to be one of the top under-the-radar signings of the offseason.

Kevin Pelton: The Bulls. I was a noted skeptic of the Bulls’ high expectations entering the season, but I’ve quickly come around. As I explored in last weekend’s NBA mailbag, there’s little to nothing fluky about Chicago’s surprising success at the defensive end. Meanwhile, DeRozan has fit perfectly at the offensive end. Even if his shooting drops off a bit, positive regression from Nikola Vucevic should keep the Bulls’ offense running smoothly.

Ohm Youngmisuk: The Bulls, who have a nice combination of scorers, playmakers, veterans and young and hungry guys who are relentless. They might not maintain the best record in the East, but they are going to be a top-five team. DeRozan has been an incredible fit and has started the season off on fire. Lonzo Ball should only get more comfortable with his new teammates and LaVine and Vucevic should continue to benefit. They play defense, play hard and play together. Chicago doesn’t look like it’s going away.


2. Which struggling contender will escape its rut first: The Lakers or the Bucks?

Lopez: The Bucks. This question feels like which team will get healthier first, and Milwaukee may have the nod. Once Khris Middleton gets out of health and safety protocols, he’ll go back to giving the Bucks’ offense a boost. Antetokounmpo has been giving it his all so far. The Lakers are just missing more bodies but hopefully can get back going once LeBron James gets back in the lineup.

Pelton: The Bucks. Jrue Holiday is already back, and Middleton shouldn’t be far away, getting Milwaukee closer to its full complement of stars after Holiday missed six games and Middleton five and counting. Those absences underscored how quickly the Bucks’ depth drops off, but few teams are capable of playing without four starters (Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo, who have played one game combined, being the others).

Youngmisuk: The Bucks have the massive advantage of having been together for the most part and knowing how to win a title together. Yes, LeBron and Anthony Davis won a title just over a year ago but they have so many new pieces to incorporate, including a big piece in Westbrook. Antetokounmpo has his championship core around him. Sure, the Bucks could be suffering from a championship hangover a bit. Giannis just needs a healthy and rested Holiday and Middleton together again.

Marks: The Bucks. The Lakers were always going to be a work in progress because of 12 new players on the roster. The Bucks have an MVP in Antetokounmpo plus the continuity factor to keep them in the Eastern Conference race all season. While both teams have been snake bit with injuries, the Bucks finally have Holiday back in the starting lineup and recorded back-to-back wins on the road against Philadelphia and New York.

Bontemps: The Bucks. They blew out Brooklyn on opening night and haven’t been healthy since — they’ll be fine. The Lakers, meanwhile, haven’t looked good against a soft schedule and now James is dealing with an abdomen injury. There are a lot of early warning signs in Lakerland.


3. Which team currently outside the top 10 in its conference is most likely to qualify for the postseason?

Marks: The Hawks, who are on a five-game losing streak and are closer to Detroit in the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings than Washington at the top spot. Despite the poor start to the season, the Hawks have played a road-heavy early schedule (eight of their twelve games have been away from Atlanta) and return the same core players that were two wins away from the NBA Finals.

Lopez: The Hawks. Atlanta has stumbled to a 4-8 start, but the pieces are in place for them to make a push. Trae Young told reporters last week that the team has struggled getting motivated for regular season games after last year’s run to the Eastern Conference finals. Coach Nate McMillan found the right buttons to push once he took over in March — he’ll find the right ones to press again to get them going this time around.

Bontemps: The Hawks. It’s been an ugly start for Atlanta, which is clearly struggling to establish a clear hierarchy. But there’s also way too much talent here for this team to stay down.

Pelton: Flip a coin between the Celtics and the Hawks. Both were expected to be in the East’s top six entering the season, and while the fast starters elsewhere in the conference have jeopardized that notion, Atlanta and Boston both have plenty of time to turn things around.

Youngmisuk: The Celtics. It’s been a rocky start for Boston. Obviously the Celtics don’t have Jaylen Brown right now due to injury, but when Boston has him and Jayson Tatum, that should be more than enough for the Celtics to eventually find their way into the East’s top eight.


4. Which East contender is more likely to be fine long term without its absent star, the Nets (Kyrie Irving) or the 76ers (Ben Simmons)?

Pelton: If long term means the rest of the regular season, I’d say Philadelphia, which has showcased the kind of depth needed to survive Simmons’ absence while also negotiating those for multiple other starters. Come playoff time, however, I think the Nets’ pair of stars still makes them much more dangerous than the Embiid-centric 76ers.

Lopez: The Nets. I think the simple answer here is going with the team that has two bonafide superstars over the team with one. Brooklyn proved last year it could still do damage with two of its big three, while Philadelphia just has Joel Embiid to lean on. Once Harden gets more comfortable with how fouls are being called and his 2-point percentage creeps back up to what we’re used to seeing from him, Brooklyn will find even more success.

Youngmisuk: The Nets are going to be fine, even if Irving doesn’t get a vaccination shot to comply with New York City’s vaccination mandate. The Nets are starting to get comfortable with all their new pieces, and that is with James Harden still working his way back into shape and getting accustomed to the new officiating which has largely taken away his usual trips to the free-throw line. Once Harden gets comfortable and confident again, the Nets will really take off with Kevin Durant already playing at an MVP level.

Marks: The Nets, but only if Harden plays like an All-Star. This Brooklyn team is average if Harden plays like he did in the first five games of the season when he recorded just 16.3 PPG and shot below 36% from the field. He was a team-worst minus-8.4, led the team in turnovers (4.6) and attempted only three free throws per game. However, there have been times in the first month when Harden resembles the player from last year. In a win at Toronto, Harden scored 28 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, handed out 8 assists and turned the ball over only twice.

Bontemps: The Nets. Brooklyn traded for Harden precisely so that if the team lost one star, they’d still have two others. The 76ers, meanwhile, are down Simmons, and it’s entirely unclear when that situation will be resolved and what the team will look like after. Until that changes, or the Nets lose Harden or Durant, the answer has to be Brooklyn.


5. Which player’s start are we not paying enough attention to right now?

Bontemps: It’s an odd answer, given what happened with the Heat Monday night, but Nikola Jokic has been unbelievable so far. The record for season-long PER is 32.1, set by Wilt Chamberlain a half-century ago. Jokic, so far, has a PER of 35 and is shooting 60% overall and 40% from 3. If he keeps up anywhere near that pace, he’ll give himself a shot at another MVP.

Lopez: Injuries and inconsistencies hampered Cole Anthony‘s rookie season with Orlando, but he’s been a bright spot for the Magic so far this year. Anthony’s averaging 19-7-5 while shooting 39.1% from deep. As Orlando once again tries to build things up from the bottom, Anthony is proving he could be a solid foundational piece.

Pelton: Grayson Allen, who is hitting 41.9% of his 3s while having ramped up his volume from 5.5 per game last season with the Memphis Grizzlies to 8.8 so far this season. As a result, Allen is averaging a career-high 15.4 PPG and may make it difficult for DiVincenzo to reclaim his starting job when he returns to the lineup.

Youngmisuk: Paul George is carrying the load for the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard out. Through his first 10 games, George has averaged 26.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 2.5 steals. The Clippers got off to a slow start but won five straight entering Thursday. Despite being the focal point of opposing defenses, George has scored 30 or more four times already and has been playmaking for his teammates.

Marks: Jordan Poole. The former first-round pick went from shooting 33.3% his rookie season to a stint in the G-League bubble last year. This season, Poole is second in the team in scoring (17.8 points per game) and is a serious candidate for Most Improved Player.

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Coach Tom Thibodeau removes struggling Kemba Walker from New York Knicks’ rotation

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New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters Monday afternoon that he is removing guard Kemba Walker from not only the team’s starting lineup but also the rotation as a whole, beginning with Tuesday’s showdown with the crosstown-rival Nets in Brooklyn.

“It’s a tough decision to make, but you always have to do what you think is best for the team,” Thibodeau said after practice Monday in explaining his decision. “I view Kemba as a starter, and so it’d be tough to play three small guards together. I gave it consideration, and I’ve got great respect for who Kemba is as a person and all he’s accomplished in this league.

“But I have to do what I think is best for the team.”

In this case, Thibodeau decided that meant benching Walker in favor of Alec Burks. Walker, a four-time All-Star and New York City basketball legend, returned home this past summer on a two-year, $20 million deal after being bought out by the Oklahoma City Thunder following a trade from the Boston Celtics.

After seeing Burks go for 23 points in 39 minutes in Saturday’s win in Atlanta over the Hawks — a game Walker didn’t play in after scoring 17 points in New York’s loss to the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden the night before — Thibodeau has opted to put him in the starting five moving forward.

“I want to tighten the rotation. I liked the way the team functioned, so it will be similar to what we did in the Atlanta game.”

Walker, 31, is averaging career lows across the board, including points (11.1), rebounds (2.6), assists (3.1), field goal attempts per game (9.8) and minutes (24.5). After a hot start to the season, his numbers have tailed off dramatically, as he averaged 10 points on 39% shooting overall — and 29% from 3-point range — through 12 games in November.

Meanwhile, New York’s starting lineup has simply not worked. Entering Monday night’s action, the team’s typical starting lineup — Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — is the NBA’s most-used five-man lineup, logging 287 minutes. It has also been outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, and has what would be the NBA’s worst defensive rating (118.9). Individually, the Knicks are being outscored when Walker is on the court by 13 points per 100 possessions, and are outscoring teams by 11 points per 100 possessions when he isn’t.

Walker spent the past two seasons in Boston after the Celtics signed him to a four-year max contract in 2019 to replace Kyrie Irving once the latter left to sign his own max deal with the Nets. After making the All-Star team his first season and helping Boston reach the Eastern Conference finals with strong play in series victories over the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors along the way, Walker struggled with knee issues last season, missing 29 games in the regular season and the final two games of Boston’s five-game loss to Brooklyn in the first round.

In his first significant move as president of the franchise, former coach Brad Stevens chose to trade Walker to the Thunder, along with the No. 16 pick in July’s NBA draft, to bring center Al Horford back to Boston. Horford has seamlessly fit right into Boston’s lineup, particularly with starting center Robert Williams missing chunks of multiple games with various injuries early on this season.

Walker, on the other hand, eventually agreed to a buyout with the Thunder, allowing him to return home to New York to play a smaller role with his hometown team. But after being benched down the stretch repeatedly over the past several weeks, along with other members of the starting lineup, as New York’s bench has consistently outperformed it, Thibodeau decided Monday to take things a step further.

The Knicks are currently 11-9, putting them in the middle of the tightly bunched Eastern Conference standings. New York is three games behind the East-leading Nets and one ahead of the 76ers in 11th.

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Blake Griffin, out of Brooklyn Nets’ rotation, preaches patience, knows ‘that’s not my decision’

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NEW YORK — Falling completely out of the Brooklyn Nets‘ rotation was not something Blake Griffin saw coming.

After starting 17 games this season, Griffin has sat the past two games after Steve Nash inserted LaMarcus Aldridge into the starting lineup.

“No, I mean listen, [Aldridge] has been playing unbelievable,” Griffin said. “So, I totally get starting him, especially Joe [Harris] has been out, and I totally get that.

“Being completely out of it, though, I didn’t necessarily see that coming. But that’s not my decision. As players it’s our job to do whatever coaches see best, so at this point that’s what it is.”

Griffin, a six-time All-Star, was averaging a career-low 5.5 points to go with 4.9 rebounds while shooting just 16.1% from behind the 3-point arc. The power forward is shooting a career-low 31.8% overall from the field. Last season with the Pistons and Nets, Griffin averaged 11 points, 4.9 rebounds, 42.3% shooting overall and 34.1% 3-point shooting.

“Well, I feel for him,” Nash said. “That’s not easy. You know it’s tough when you go through a rough stretch of play and the world kind of caves in on you a little bit. I’ve been there and understand it. We have to give other guys an opportunity at this point, but Blake’s had a great attitude. I really admire him for being positive through this and keeping himself ready so if his opportunity comes back, he can have an impact.”

With Harris out for potentially four to eight weeks after he will undergo ankle surgery, the Nets need more shooting around Kevin Durant and James Harden. Aldridge has been one of the Nets’ best players this season, averaging 13.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 58% shooting from the field in just 22.1 minutes per game.

Griffin said he has been in touch with some of his former teammates, including DeAndre Jordan, since Nash’s decision. Jordan started the season as a starter before losing his spot in the starting five early last season.

“I have seen [and] have had great examples,” Griffin said. “DeAndre last year, he is a guy that I talked to that reached out. A lot of the guys from last year reached out. He did a really great job with it. I told him that. That is how I am going to try to do it as well.

“Just be a professional and do exactly what you are supposed to do,” Griffin added of what message his former teammates told him. “It may sound like not good advice, but in this situation, everybody always needs to hear the right thing.”

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Brooklyn Nets’ Joe Harris to undergo ankle surgery, out 4-8 weeks, agent says

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NEW YORK — Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris will undergo surgery on his injured left ankle and is expected to miss four to eight weeks, with optimism he can return on the shorter end of that timeline, Harris’ agent Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Nets head coach Steve Nash said Harris’ surgery will address “a little bone particle” in the ankle and hopefully allow the shooter to move forward from the injury. Harris has missed the last six games since injuring his ankle in a win at Oklahoma City on Nov. 14.

“He is going to have a scope and then we’ll see what that means once they’ve had the procedure,” Nash said after Nets practice. “We think this is a really positive thing that can put this situation behind him long term rather than risking reoccurrences or uncertainty with the injury.”

Harris is averaging 11.3 points and shooting 46.6% from behind the 3-point arc this season.

“There’s a little bone particle in there,” Nash said. “Just the uncertainty of it, just better to take it out. We thought that it would potentially sort itself out because it’s been there but it’s not. Hopefully that’s the end of it.”

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