There are plenty of games left but we’ve already had a healthy dose of surprises on the court. Rookies like Paolo Banchero, Jaden Ivey, and Ben Mathurin are making their mark earlier than expected. Donovan Mitchell is killing it as a Cleveland Cavalier. And yes, the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers are at the top of the Western Conference.
It's much easier to be optimistic about certain players maintaining their hot start. Who doesn’t want to see people succeed? But there have been some situations that don't really inspire much confidence. How worried should we be about these players?
Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert
Let’s start with the team that pushed all their chips to the middle of the table in the offseason. When the Minnesota Timberwolves traded away a treasure trove of young talent and draft capital, they probably didn’t expect the Utah Jazz to have a better record than them.
As expected, the supersized experiment of adding 7-foot-2 defensive juggernaut Rudy Gobert to a lineup that already features a generational talent in Karl-Anthony Towns has had its quirks. Some of those quirks, unfortunately, have involved Gobert taking just one field goal attempt for an entire game and Towns sitting big minutes in crucial situations. Yikes.
Under the hood, the Wolves haven’t been terrible nine games into the season. Lineups that feature their twin towers have led to 101.4 offensive and 107.0 defensive ratings – both pretty bad numbers, considering where they finished in each category last season. In Towns-only lineups, the Wolves have thrived on offense and struggled on defense. The opposite happens when Gobert is the sole big on the floor. Still, they have been way better when both bigs are on the court, per net rating.
With this tandem, it seems that most of the burden of adapting is on Towns, being the more talented and mobile of the two. Since Gobert is going to sit back and protect the paint on defense, Towns needs to learn how to survive as a perimeter defender. Since he's the better shooter and ball-handler, Towns has also had to accommodate Gobert on offense.
So far, Towns’ numbers ( 22.0 points on 48.8 percent shooting) have taken a dip but those are bound to come up. Once Towns learns his spots, especially off the ball out on the perimeter, he should start shooting better.
It was always going to be tough trying to fit two giant square pegs into two regular-sized holes but the Wolves are too talented not to figure this out.
Klay isn’t washed, but perhaps Charles Barkley also isn’t wrong.
The Warriors have gotten off to a pretty rough start this season, losing all five games on their Eastern Conference road trip and falling to 3-6. Some of this can be attributed to figuring out their bench rotation, ironing out some chemistry issues due to a certain altercation in practice, and fatigue from a deep playoff run.
But the big change this season has been Klay Thompson being healthy. Last season, the Warriors didn’t have Klay until after New Year as he worked his way back from a couple of major injuries. When Klay returned, the Warriors had to work him back into the rotation slowly so he could be ready for the playoffs. It worked. Thompson ramped up his production towards the playoffs where he was close to his usual form, averaging 19.0 points on 38.5 percent 3-point shooting.
This season, Klay hasn’t looked right. In eight games, Klay is shooting 36.4 percent from the field and averaging 15.0 points per game – and that’s with his recent 27-point production against Orlando included. He looks sluggish, especially on defense where he’s far from his usual disciplined intensity.
Thompson is 32 years old and two years removed from rehabbing from both an ACL and Achilles injury. Usually, shooters like Klay age well. At 32, Ray Allen and Reggie Miller were still All-Stars. Miller, in particular, was the best player on an Indiana Pacers team that almost thwarted the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.
Perhaps, there’s some reason to lower our expectations for Klay. The Warriors have Jordan Poole coming off the bench playing backup minutes to Thompson. Is this time for Thompson’s Manu Ginobili arc? It should at least help keep him fresh to play heavy postseason minutes.
If you aren’t worried about Kawhi Leonard, you must not have been paying attention.
After missing more than a season due to an ACL injury, Leonard was all set to start this season healthy. We saw the pictures of his massive quads. We saw him play in the preseason. We saw him come off the bench and slowly ramp up his minutes.
Then, the Clippers announced that Kawhi was not going to be available for a pseudo back-to-back against OKC during the second week of the season. Then, he was still out for their succeeding games due to knee soreness. Leonard has now missed eight consecutive games with the Clippers only saying that “he’s progressing” when asked for updates.
Since his ankle injury in the 2017 playoffs, Kawhi has been overly cautious with his injuries. But this seems quite ridiculous by how suddenly the injury cropped up and how little information is being offered.
Does Kawhi play this season? Who knows. At this point, the Clippers might just be better off treating Kawhi like the Undertaker. WWE used to roll out the Dead Man only for Wrestlemania every year. Maybe LA can only play Kawhi for the playoffs. At least then, we’re not left in the dark.