Does James Harden improve Clippers title odds? Is Luka Doncic the MVP?

The NBA season is just a week old, and there’s already been no shortage of drama and storylines. James Harden finally got his wish to be traded to the Clippers, Victor Wembanyama made his highly anticipated debut and we’ve already got several players sitting out of games for “rest”. It’s like the NBA never left.

It’s still too early to make grand proclamations about most teams and players, but one thing is for certain, the Denver Nuggets look like a legit threat to repeat as champions. The Celtics also look like they may coast through the Eastern Conference. But let me not get too ahead of myself, with the first week in the books, let’s break down what we saw from all the action around the league and determine if it’s fact or fiction.

James Harden significantly improves the Clippers title odds
Fact or fiction: Fiction

It’s no secret what Harden will give the Clippers on offense. He’s an automatic scorer who can get to the free-throw line at will. He’s an elite facilitator, all you need to look at is how he led the league in assists per game last season to prove that point. He gives the Clippers another player who can fill it up from outside, improving what was already the third-best 3-point shooting team in the NBA a year ago. L.A.’s need for a lead guard who can initiate the offense and calm things down in tight situations has been a talking point about this team for years, and Harden can certainly provide that. When you look at the trade through that lens, you can see why the Clippers wanted to get this deal done.

However, the amount that L.A. gave up to acquire Harden may burn them on the backend. Keeping Terance Mann was a plus, but losing Robert Covington and Nicolas Batum, two forwards who give L.A. the versatility to play small ball when needed alters the makeup of this team on both ends of the floor. And despite Harden’s individual success throughout his career, each of his last two stops in Philadelphia and Brooklyn haven’t yielded a ton of team success. In fact, Harden actually decreases L.A.’s championship odds, according to projections from SportsLine data scientist Stephen Oh:

The Clippers are a different team than any Harden has played with in the past, but nothing about his previous two stints suggests this will be the time he helps carry a team to the NBA Finals.

Luka Doncic is the frontrunner for MVP
Fact or fiction: Fact

You could argue Nikola Jokic is in the lead for this award. You could also argue that Stephen Curry is up there too. But we all know that MVP is just as much a narrative-based award as it is merit-based, and so far this season Doncic has led in both categories. Last season the Mavericks missed the postseason entirely after stringing together enough embarrassing wins and deciding — with two games left in the season — to tank in order to keep their draft pick. It was a bad look from a team that just went to the Western Conference finals in 2021. So to say there was a significant amount of pressure on Dallas entering this season to prove last season was an exception is an understatement.

So far the Mavericks are 3-0, and in those games, Doncic is averaging 39 points, 11.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists. He’s also shooting 55.6% from the field and 48.6% from deep. His scoring is first in the league, his rebounding is first amongst guards and he’s third in assists. The scoring volume is nothing new, but the efficiency is. Doncic has been an average 3-point shooter over his career, but so far this season he’s been damn near automatic from deep. In back-to-back games, he’s knocked down three straight triples to either ice the game for Dallas or extend their lead. It’s been arguably the best start to a season of Doncic’s career, and given he’s gotten a lot of criticism for entering the regular season out of shape, it’s a positive sign for Dallas that their franchise superstar is beginning to take his conditioning seriously. Doncic’s likely to regress over the course of the season, but right now his blistering start has him out front for MVP.

Suns early season injuries are concerning
Fact or fiction: Fiction

The Suns spent big this summer to add Bradley Beal to a lineup that already featured Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, and while the team is 2-1 that trio hasn’t managed to play a single game together yet. Beal hasn’t suited up as he’s been dealing with back pain, an injury Phoenix is reportedly being cautious about. Booker has missed the last two games for the Suns with a foot injury, and is listed as doubtful for Phoenix’s Tuesday night meeting with the Spurs and Victor Wembanyama. It’s easy to draw comparisons to how Durant’s previous team, the Brooklyn Nets, were always saddled with injuries to their star players, but I don’t think this situation shares any similarities with that one.

Both Beal and Booker have played in over 95% of their games throughout their careers, suggesting durability even when minor injuries do pop up. This isn’t a case of two players who are always injured, but rather a team wanting to be cautious with two of their star players after spending a significant amount of dough on this roster to try and win a championship.

Milwaukee will once again be top 5 defensively
Fact or fiction: Fiction

Sure, Milwaukee staved off a comeback from the Heat to improve to 2-1 on the season. And yes, the Bucks held the Heat to 73 points through three quarters. But they also allowed Miami to go off for 41 points in the fourth quarter of that game to almost steal a win. This is just a day after the Bucks fell behind by as much as 31 points to the Atlanta Hawks before losing by a more respectable margin of 17 points. Milwaukee’s start to the season on defense has been rough, but not at all surprising when you consider they swapped five-time All-Defensive Jrue Holiday, for the automatic offense of Damian Lillard.

Last season Milwaukee was a top-5 defense, so far this season they’ve freefallen to 25th. Surely they’ll figure some things out, but that once stout defense from a year ago may not return. With Lillard as a liability on defense, it’s going to require even more from the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez. And while it might be a “bend don’t break” mentality for the defense this season, that strategy may not work when the playoffs start.

Chet Holmgren ahead of Wembanyama for Rookie of the Year
Fact or fiction: Fact

Wembanyama may be getting the bulk of the attention, but Holmgren may be in front of him by a hair for Rookie of the Year right now. When you put their stats side-by-side one thing sticks out, Holmgren has been more efficient than Wembanyama to start the season.

That’s in large part due to Holmgren being on a team that is 3-1 and is a playoff contender, while Wembanyama is on a rebuilding Spurs team still a couple of years from serious contention. But you do the best with what you’re given, and Holmgren has made a significant impact on the Thunder. Already he’s recorded seven blocks in a game, highlighting how he’s already an elite shot blocker and his efficiency from beyond the arc is truly impressive.

Kristaps Porzingis is the biggest steal of the offseason
Fact or fiction: Fact

The Celtics are 3-0 and Porzingis looks at home in Boston’s offense. He’s averaging 20.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and perhaps most importantly two blocks a game. He’s looked like the perfect missing piece to Boston’s roster, spreading the floor to allow Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown more space to operate in the paint, and being the elite rim protector that earned him an All-Star nod way back when he was on the Knicks. It has taken Porzingis no time to fit in with Boston, and that should be scary for the rest of the Eastern Conference.

It’s almost not surprising in a way that Porzingis is thriving in Boston, given that the biggest drawback about him was his durability. He’s always been a 20-points-a-game scorer, but his health has always limited his availability. But his season last year with the Wizards, where he played in 65 games and averaged a career-high 23.2 points, showed those issues are behind him. If this version of Porzingis was on the trading block right now, the Celtics would’ve had to send a lot more than Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala to the Wizards to acquire him. Holiday may be the best player Boston acquired this summer, but getting Porzingis for what they gave up was a steal.

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Grizzlies shouldn’t be worried about 0-4 start
Fact or fiction: Fiction

It was always going to be a tough road ahead for Memphis without Ja Morant for the first 25 games of the season, but no one could’ve predicted that we would be entering Week 2 of the season and the Grizzlies are still searching for their first win. And with no immediate, significant help on the horizon, Memphis should be worried about this rough start, especially given their upcoming schedule. Meetings with the Clippers, Lakers, Heat and Celtics over the next 10 games are going to make it difficult for the Grizzlies to dig themselves out of this hole they’ve created, even the “easier” games on their upcoming schedule against the Jazz, Spurs and Trail Blazers aren’t guaranteed.

It’s still too early to hit the panic button on this team, especially when Morant is suspended, Steven Adams is out for the season and minor injuries to role players are making an impact. But Memphis fared significantly better last season without key players in the rotation, so this shocking start is concerning.

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