In a 72-game NBA season, when does a trend become a reality? 18 games? 27 games? 36 games? With teams at the quarter season mark, many of the early season anomalies (e.g., the Hawks having the best offense in the league) have regressed to the mean. However, a handful of the surprising trends that every new season brings about have a chance to become a reality and help tell the story of the 2020-21 NBA season should they continue much longer. Here are 15 early-season trends to keep an eye on for the rest of the season:
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Achilles injuries might be the new Tommy John surgery
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Until recently, an Achilles injury was considered to be a career-ending or at least a career-shortening injury. However, with the way the likes of Kevin Durant, Mike Conley, John Wall, and others have looked this season, we may need to recalibrate expectations for players who suffer this cruel injury moving forward. Durant literally looks exactly the same as he looked before he was injured in the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Now, with KD, we’re talking about one of the greatest players in NBA history, arguably the greatest scorer, so there’s a chance that he’s a statistical anomaly because of his generational athleticism and skill set. But then you look at guys like Mike Conley (two seasons removed from an Achilles procedure) and John Wall, and they both look pretty similar athletically to the versions of the players we saw pre-injury. Could this mean that Achilles surgery and rehabilitation technology and procedures are improving? Hopefully. We still need some more data points to say it with much certainty, but things are certainly looking better and better for Klay Thompson every day!!
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Home court advantage is gone
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One of the interesting trends this season has been the lack of home-court advantage. At this time, only 12 of the 30 teams are above .500 at home. Compare that with 18 teams last season. And 23 teams in 2018-19. What gives? Clearly, the lack of fans is allowing some of the visiting teams to jump out to early leads and maintain or extend them in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be as easy to do if there were 20,000 fans cheering on the home team. There’s also no “Miami Flu” or “LA Flu” (aka where visiting players go out all night in an awesome city and then play hungover the following day) this season with the pandemic restrictions. Finally, the NBA as a league is attempting and making more three-pointers than any year in league history, and the league-wide effective field goal percentage is also as high as it’s ever been – this has led to some wild variance from game to game as well as some historic blowouts early in the season. It will be interesting to see if the trend of diminishing home court advantage continues once fans or back in the arena due to this emphasis on shooting.
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Can this incinerating three-point shooting continue?
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Last season, the Jazz shot the highest percentage as a team from three-point land (38 percent). This season, seven teams – Clippers, Jazz, Lakers, Bucks, Nets, Wizards, and Bulls – are all shooting at least that well. The Clippers lead the way with an absurd 42.3 percent accuracy from downtown. Think about that for a second – the Clippers are making almost one out of every two three-pointers. If the season were to end today, they would finish second to the 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets (42.8 percent) as the most effective three-point shooting team of all time. It’s even all the more impressive because the Clippers (35.6 attempts per game) are attempting more than double the number of threes per game than the Hornets did (16.9).
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So every player is just going to score 20 PPG now?
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Right now, there are 37 players in the NBA averaging over 20 PPG. 37!! That’s more than one per team! In fact, the only two teams in the league that doesn’t have at least one player averaging 20 PPG or more are the Raptors and Heat, the latter of which have eight players averaging double-figures. Offensive players are so gifted, and the rules are so skewed in favor of offensive players right now that nearly every player on the court, at all times, can give you 20-plus points on any given night. Players who can’t shoot and/or score at an above-average clip are becoming completely obsolete – even players with excellent playmaking skills and feel for the game like Lonzo Ball are struggling to fit into today’s game. Will the game of basketball continues to accelerate in this direction, or is there a market correction on the horizon?
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The wacky playoff picture in the Western Conference
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Before the season, everyone predicted that the Western Conference playoffs would be a gauntlet, and the 2020-21 season is shaping up to give us just that come playoff time. In fact, if the playoffs were to begin today, the Play-In Tournament in the Western Conference would be so lit as it would feature the Suns, Spurs, Warriors, and Mavericks fighting for the seven and eight seeds. That would be thrilling, but it would also kind of suck if the regular playoffs didn’t include three of the game’s most recognizable superstars: Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Luka Doncic. I’m sure the LA teams (currently nos. 1 and 2 in the conference) would be livid if their “reward” for finishing at the top of the conference was having to play the Suns, Warriors, or Mavericks in the first round. However, looking at the standings, only the Grizzlies (currently the sixth-seed) are outperforming their expectations, so buckle up people – we’re in for a wild ride out West!!
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And the Eastern Conference playoff picture is even more bizarre
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Let’s play another game of “If the Season Ended Today…” If the season ended today, the defending Eastern Conference Champions, the Miami Heat (6-9), wouldn’t even be in the Play-In Tournament. Ditto for the 2019 NBA Champions, the Toronto/Tampa Bay Raptors (7-9). Continuing down this crazy road, the team with arguably the three best offensive players in the game, the Brooklyn Nets (10-8), would be the five-seed, and the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-8) would be the six-seed. Finally, the New York Freakin’ Knicks (8-10) would be the eight-seed. Talk about chaos…
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We know that Bradley Beal is a certified superstar – but is he really this great of a scorer? He’s putting up James Harden-esque numbers right now (34.5 PPG). If he truly is, then the trade package he’s going to fetch when he inevitably requests a trade? Through 11 games this season, Beal has been phenomenal, averaging 5.5 RPG and 4.9 APG to go along with the scoring. He’s also been extremely efficient despite the high volume, posting 49-37-87 shooting splits. His improved playmaking ability makes him even more valuable for any contender as he can seamlessly switch from two-guard to being the primary ball-handler. If he’s dealt, it could swing the title race.
© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
I’ve run out of adjectives to describe the Paul George and the Clippers’ collapse in the Orlando Bubble. However, I must give credit where credit is due: Paul George has been an absolute baller this season. Through 16 games, he’s putting up an MVP stat line, averaging 23.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 5.4 APG along with insanely hot shooting efficiency (50-48-91 shooting splits). He and Kawhi Leonard have the Clippers (13-4) right there with the Lakers as the best team in the league at the quarter season mark. While I’m not ready to give PG13 his flowers until he proves he can replicate this dominance when it counts in the playoffs, he’s been one of the most impressive players in the league thus far this season. If he keeps this up, he’s going to swing the very negative “Way-off P” narrative that NBA Twitter and Damian Lillard popularized this past summer.
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Even the most staunch Russell Westbrook defenders – however many are left – must admit that the former MVP looks pretty bad this season for the Wizards. Although he’s still averaging his customary triple-double type of stat line (18.0 PPG., 10.6 APG, and 9.5 RPG), he’s shooting the ball horrendously (37-31-64 shooting splits), turning it over like crazy (5.1 per game), and has reverted back to shooting far too many three-pointers (4.5 attempts per game). Perhaps the most concerning part of his performance so far this season is the fact that he’s not attacking the basket-like we’re accustomed to seeing him do – he’s shooting a career-low 4.9 free throws per game. Westbrook supporters are holding out hope that once he gets healthy, he’ll get back to being the attacking menace he’s been his whole career. However, if Westbrook doesn’t get healthy soon, you have to start wondering whether he’ll ever be healthy for a full season again.
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Is Zach LaVine a superstar hiding in plain sight?
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He’s definitely a star, that’s for sure. Even though the Bulls have sucked for his entire tenure, at a certain point, you have to give a guy credit when he passes certain statistical thresholds – like averaging almost 30 PPG. Zach LaVine is an elite scorer. He’s like a more bouncy, less refined version of Bradley Beal and he’s averaging 26.8 PPG, 5.4 APG and 5.2 RPG with 50-38-87 shooting splits. He’s still a sieve on defense, but he’s proven himself to be an elite, and efficient bucket-getter. While there aren’t a ton of teams that have the assets to swing a deal for Beal, there are certainly a few contenders and up-and-coming teams that could make a spicy offer for LaVine. Could a team like Denver or Philly or Miami get LaVine on the cheap while the rest of the contenders are busy jostling for Beal or eyeing up role players at the trade deadline?
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Will we see this Lakers team separate itself from the rest of the league?
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After the shortest offseason in NBA history, some analysts predicted that the Lakers would ease into the 2020-21 season, start a little slow, and then ramp things up towards the end of the season before the playoffs. They were partially right – the Lakers have been on cruise control for much of the season, often coasting through games early and then flipping that switch that LeBron James’ Cavs teams were notorious for, locking down on defense (no. 1 rated defense in the NBA) and pulling out victories. They’re currently tied for the best record in the league (13-4), but you get the sense that they have another gear, especially on offense (no. 7 rated offense in the NBA). If everything starts clicking for this team, they could rip off one of those 2013-Miami Heat or 2015-16- Golden State Warriors runs where they win double-digit games in a row or win something like 23 of 25 games over a two-month stretch. Will we see that level of dominance from them? Or will they be content jogging to the playoffs and finishing around the same record as the likes of the Clippers, Bucks, and other contenders?
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Wait a minute….are the Cavs actually competent?
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One of the more pleasant surprises of this season has been seeing the funky Cavs, with all of their centers and forwards, emerge as one of the league’s premier defensive teams. They currently have the seventh-best defensive rating in the league thanks to the likes of Andre Drummond (leading the league in rebounds, and near the top in defensive rating and defensive win shares)and Larry Nance Jr. (leading the league in steals with 2.2 per game and in the top-10 defensive win shares). And they just added Jarrett Allen, a shot-blocking menace with young legs from the Nets. If Collin Sexton continues his ascent on offense (averaging 25.5 PPG), this Cleveland team could be right in the thick of things come playoff time.
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The perfect fit of the Pacers
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If the Pacers didn’t have bad injury luck, they’d have no luck at all. They lost an All-NBA version of Victor Oladipo in the 2019-20 season. Then, after they traded Oladipo for a potential All-Star caliber player, Caris LeVert, a test revealed that LeVert had a mass on his kidney (he’s out indefinitely). They also lost TJ Warren earlier this season to a foot injury (he’s probably out for most of the season). It doesn’t matter though. The Pacers, behind Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Myles Turner, are still winning games (tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference) and having career years: Sabonis is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists per game; Brogdon is averaging career highs in points and assists, and Turner is leading the league in blocks per game as well.
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Is Christian Wood really an All-Star in the Western Conference?
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Yes. For all the “casuals” out there, get to know who Christian Wood is because he’s going to be named All-Stars this season. Wood is one of the best reclamation projects in a long time in the NBA. The spark notes version would show him crying at his draft party after going undrafted, getting cut by multiple NBA teams, getting cut from his team in the Chinese Basketball Association, grinding to get another shot in the NBA, putting up big numbers late last season, signing a big contract this offseason and playing like an All-Star this season (23.5 PPG, 10.8 RPG and 1.8 BPG). He’s suddenly the Rockets’ best player and franchise centerpiece and should be a front-runner for the Most Improved Player award as well.
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Covid-19 having a major impact on the league
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The most unfortunate trend this season has been the impact Covid-19 is having on the league and its teams. Yes, the NBA expected there to be numerous positive tests throughout the year. And yes, in most cases, players have either been unaffected by the virus or at least have been able to return to their previous form after a couple of weeks. At the same time, the NBA has to be concerned about how the virus is causing certain teams to have to play with skeleton rosters or have games postponed, and they have to be worried about how certain players have contracted the virus for a second time. There’s hope on the horizon with the rollout of vaccines, but there’s also a concern that the league may have to resort to pausing the season and/or resorting back to another bubble environment for the postseason again – a scenario that the league, teams, coaches, and players would all love to avoid.