Mixed reviews for Warriors’ pursuers
The rest of the West is a bit of a puzzle so far this season
Several Western Conference squads loaded up this summer in pursuit of the powerhouse Golden State Warriors, a team heavily favoured to repeat as NBA champions.
Minnesota added Jimmy Butler, perhaps formerly the East’s best two-way player, while Oklahoma City gifted reigning MVP Russell Westbrook with both Paul George, another great two-way threat, and Carmelo Anthony, one of the pre-eminent scorers of his generation. Chris Paul, one of the best point guards to ever play the game, joined MVP runner-up James Harden in Houston.
It is far too early in the season to make any definitive calls, but the instant analysis of the moves shows mixed results.
Sitting 8-5, Minnesota is off to its best start since 2003-04, a season that saw the Wolves win a franchise-record 58 games but fall to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the conference finals.
Butler has taken a step back offensively — a whopping 7.7 fewer points per game than when he did everything for Chicago last year — and has not played up to his usual standards with Minnesota yet, but he is taking pressure off young franchise cornerstones Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
The offence has been great, ranked eighth in efficiency as of Tuesday, but the defence is a tire fire at 26th — still, you can see the shape of something of substance starting to emerge.
While Oklahoma City’s 6-7 record makes the Thunder appear to be among the biggest early disappointments, don’t be fooled. OKC has been solid, with three of their losses coming by four points or fewer.
Aside from completely disintegrating in the clutch — unlike in 2016-17, when Westbrook boosted his MVP case by closing contests like prime Michael Jordan — the Thunder have mostly looked good, with only the Boston Celtics allowing fewer points per 100 possessions going into Tuesday’s games, per stats. nba.com.
Houston has been the oddest story. Despite losing Paul to injury following opening night’s one-point win against Golden State, the Rockets roared into an 11-3 start before Tuesday’s meeting with the Toronto Raptors.
Harden has been incredible, with recent lines of 56 points and 13 assists, 26 and 15, 35 and 13 and 38 and eight. Harden ranks first in assists per game, second in scoring, first in win shares and value over replacement player. So, can Paul actually help him carry the load, or will he just get in the way once he returns to action?
Tied with the T-Wolves going into Tuesday are the San Antonio Spurs, and a half-game back at 8-6 are the New Orleans Pelicans and the Denver Nuggets.