Weitzman: The Clippers are better with James Harden. But have you seen what the Nuggets look like so far? And has anyone figured out a way to slow (forget stop) Nikola Jokic? As long as he’s healthy, and they’re healthy, the Nuggets are very clearly still the team to beat.
Rohlin: No. The Nuggets are in a class of their own. Nikola Jokic is the best player on the planet. Jamal Murray is the perfect complement. They returned their core from a team that practically flew through the playoffs last season. Harden makes the Clippers a better team, and they could even reach the Western Conference Finals — but there’s no way they’re getting past the Nuggets. Also, right now it’s questionable how well the combo of Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook will work. They’ll need to sacrifice. They’ll need to put their egos aside. There will be an adjustment period. When you look at the Clippers’ roster, it’s eye-popping, for sure. But whether it will work in reality is a completely different question.
Bucher: No one is in the same tier with the Nuggets in the Western Conference. No-body. The PR machine on how Harden is exactly what the Clippers need has been in overdrive. I love the statistics being trotted out about all the shots that Harden created for his teammates in Philadelphia and how good he is in half-court sets, as if his stats haven’t always been more impressive than what they’ve actually produced as far as team success. What I would have given to see the faces of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Russell Westbrook when they heard Harden’s proclamation, “I am not a system player. I am a system.” In an ideal world, Harden’s playmaking, which is legit and sorely needed by the Clippers, cures their halfcourt offense’s tendency to stagnate. But transition defense is also a Clipper weakness and Harden isn’t likely to improve that.
2. The Sixers now have the assets to make some sort of move down the line, but how confident are you that they can compete with the pieces they have in the short-term?
Weitzman: They have enough to win lots of games, especially with Tyrese Maxey emerging as a possible All-NBA-level player. The pairing of him and Embiid is more than enough to hang in the upper half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. To beat Boston in the playoffs, though, the Sixers are going to need more.
Rohlin: Shedding Harden was a blessing for the 76ers. Imagine how sick of the drama Joel Embiid must be. First Ben Simmons, then Harden. Come on. Now the reigning MVP will finally be able to just focus on basketball. And Tyrese Maxey is emerging as a star in his own right, averaging 27.3 points on 48.6 percent shooting from the field, including 50 percent from beyond the arc through four games. I think the 76ers are going to be hungry and energized. They could make noise in the playoffs. But I don’t see them getting past a well-oiled Boston Celtics squad or the superstar-laden Milwaukee Bucks.
Bucher: Compete in the regular season, no problem. They were arguably the third-best team in the East with Harden and they’re arguably the third-best team without him. Joel Embiid had them as the third-best team in the East two years ago with a second-year Tyrese Maxey as his primary sidekick. Compete in the postseason? Different story. They don’t have enough to beat either Boston or Milwaukee.
3. Both the Heat (1-4) and Grizzlies (0-4) have had less than ideal starts to the season. Which team is more likely to turn their season around sooner rather than later?
Weitzman: The Heat didn’t look good last year until the playoffs, and then Jimmy Butler suddenly turned into Michael Jordan and they stormed to the finals. The point being that a lot more has to go wrong for me to truly be worried about them. Memphis’ start, though, is troublesome. Their offense has been a mess and they don’t get Ja Morant back for another 20 games. Add to that the absences of Brandon Clarke and Steven Adams — both of whom are out for the year with injuries — and you have a major problem.
Rohlin: Last year the Miami Heat were considered a flop around the trade deadline. Everyone was shocked they didn’t make a move. They were underperforming and it looked like they’d be dead in the water early in the playoffs, if they even made them. Then they shocked the Bucks, New York Knicks and Celtics. So, all things considered, I’d be a fool to count this team out less than a handful of games into the season. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo know how to win big when it counts and that’s what matters. They’ll turn this around. As for the Grizzlies, I’m concerned. Between Ja Morant’s extended suspension and injuries to Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, I don’t see this team getting their act together this season.
Bucher: I’m well aware of the danger in underestimating the Heat, but I’m going to go with the Grizzlies, largely because they do have Ja Morant returning and I have to believe he will do so with a vengeance. On the other hand, I don’t see how the Heat get appreciably better. Yes, they’ve had the tougher schedule. And, yes, they have a track record of developing talent, but it took years to do that with Max Strus and Gabe Vincent. Nikola Jovic, Haywood Highsmith and Jaime Jaquez, Jr. are still in the embryonic stage. Truth is, I’m not counting on either of these teams to “turn it around” in some demonstrable way.
4. Similarly, the Thunder (3-2) and Spurs (2-2) have looked competitive so far. Of those two teams, which one is most likely to stay in the playoff hunt as the season progresses?
Weitzman: The Spurs aren’t really trying to make the playoffs this year, this is still Year 1 of the Victor Wembanyama Era. The Thunder, on the other hand, made the play-in last year and boast one of the more talented starting lineups in the NBA.
Rohlin: Let’s just take a moment to appreciate Victor Wembanyama’s 38-point, 10-rebound performance against Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns on Thursday. For a player that young (19 years old) to be performing that well so early into the season against one of the league’s best players is completely unprecedented. That being said, he’d need to do that consistently for the Spurs to have a shot at the playoffs. I don’t see that happening, even for the rookie who’s projected to be the next LeBron James. So, my vote is going to go for the Thunder, which made the play-in tournament last season. I don’t see any reason why they won’t be able to do that again.
Bucher: My money is on the Thunder to continue rolling and make the postseason. There is a prevailing notion around the league that the management for both teams would be happy with one more trip to the lottery before completely unleashing their young talent; I just don’t see how OKC manages that at this point. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a bona-fide franchise player, surrounded by an array of tough, smart, complementary young talent. The only element they’re missing is veteran experience; Davis Bertans, who has been limited to one 13-minute appearance is their savvy vet. The Spurs have a tradition of playing hard and executing their offense no matter who is on the roster, which is good enough to beat a lot of superior teams who fail to take them seriously; the last two games against the Suns are Exhibit A. Victor Wembanyama has been a big part of their early success, but I can’t help but think he’ll hit the traditional rookie wall at some point. OKC’s Chet Holmgren may as well, but the Thunder aren’t reliant on him the way the Spurs are on Victor.
5. Which other team has surprised you to start the season, for better or for worse? Please explain your answer.
Weitzman: I thought the Dallas Mavericks would be in the Western Conference playoff race, but I did not see a 4-0 start coming. The defense is still not great, but it’s been closer to average, which, given how potent their offense is, is more than enough.
Rohlin: I didn’t expect the 76ers to be 3-1 through all of this drama. I’m beginning to think drama brings the best out of Joel Embiid. You saw him take his game to another level while Ben Simmons was out, and you’re seeing him shine again through the Harden drama. Also,Tyrese Maxey is an early contender for Most Improved Player award. I would’ve thought the 76ers would be stumbling a bit through this transition time. But they’re soaring.
Bucher: There are several teams with lofty expectations that have that early uh-oh feel to them – the Bucks and Cavs at the top of the list – while the Mavs, Warriors and Hawks are all at least higher in the standings at this point than was expected. I’m going to chalk up the promising starts to relatively marshmallow schedules for the latter three and go with the Bucks. I suspected that their defense was going to be an issue, but they currently have the worst defensive rating in the league – after giving up 130 points to the Raptors, who have the 25th-rated offense.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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