With a week in the books, let's bounce around some of the good and bad of the early NBA season:
1. Thabo Sefolosha, showing out
Few NBA things make me happier than an emphatic, streaking Thabo Sefolosha dunk. He's already crammed twice this season, and he's flying all over the court for an Atlanta second unit that is just obliterating people.
The Hawks are plus-62 in the 84 minutes Sefolosha has played so far. That is unfathomable -- without fathom! He is shooting 61 percent from the floor, and swiping 3 steals per game in just 21 minutes -- one yoink for every seven minutes of floor time. He looks healthy, and unburdened, and it is awesome.
We are about 19 months removed from Sefolosha's arrest by New York City police officers outside a club for "obstructing the administration of government and resisting arrest." During his arrest and detainment, Sefolosha suffered injuries that include a broken fibula and ligament damage to his ankle, keeping him out of the 2015 playoffs. Leading up to his trial, Sefolosha rejected all plea deals, even one that would have resulted in a full dismissal of charges after a single day of community service, and fought for his good name. He was acquitted by a Manhattan jury in October 2015. I don't care how rich you are, or how airtight your case is. That takes guts.
In April of this year, shortly before the end of the regular season, he also filed a federal lawsuit against the city and five NYC police officers, alleging false arrest, excessive force and malicious prosecution.
Sefolosha will plateau, and the Hawks' bench has to prove it can sustain against better competition. (Mike Budenholzer will help, as usual, by keeping at least one key starter on the floor at all times to serve as a fulcrum on offense.) But we should rejoice in Sefolosha's play.
2. Jusuf Nurkic, wrecking stuff
The Bosnian Bear is back, baby!!
After a lost season, Nurkic is in shape, and tossing his giant body around to muck things up on both ends. He's shooting 50 percent, snarfing down every rebound in sight, and earning heaps of foul shots.
He's nimble again on defense, though the results are spotty; the Nuggets have been worse on that end when Nurkic plays, and opponents have hit 57 percent of their shots at the rim with Nurkic nearby, per SportVU data -- a feast. He has been hit-or-miss switching onto little guys, though it looks great when he keeps a waterbug in front him.
But the Nuggets are thrilled with all three of Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, and Kenneth Faried so far; Faried has played some of his best defense in a new bench role he doesn't want. Finding the right pairings and minutes distribution will be tough, especially since Danilo Gallinari needs time at power forward. The slowish Jurkic-Jokic starting combo has bled points, and smaller lineups with Faried at center -- the only way to get Denver's three highest-paid players (Gallo, Faried, and Wilson Chandler) on the floor at once -- have been uneven.
Regardless: The NBA is way more fun with Nurkic bulldozing fools, and shouting so loudly around those basket mics that you can make out every Bosnian curse word. It doesn't always go like this, by the way. Nurkic spent last season injured and sulking. Some with the Nuggets were worried the team might lose him. Nurkic deserves credit for digging himself out. Michael Malone and his staff have found a way to be both demanding and inclusive; they have the Nuggets working hard, and pulling in the same direction.
3. Golden State, keeping their hands clean
The Warriors probably started the normalization process when Stephen Curry went supernova in the third quarter against Portland Tuesday night. Klay Thompson and Dwyane Wade haven't switched bodies; Thompson, just 3-of-28 from deep so far, will rain fire soon. They've won three straight, and they've now rebounded about 74 percent of opponent misses -- 24th in the league. That's not great, but it's also in the realm of good enough -- and only two percentage points worse than their mark last season. (The revamped Death Lineup is at 71 percent after Tuesday.)
Even the panic over rim protection is probably a hair overblown; it's not as if Andrew Bogut played 30 minutes per game. He was a valuable security blanket -- a guarantee Golden State would defend at a historically great level for at least 15 minutes a night, and an elbows-out jostler who spared Draymond Green and others some taxing dirty work.
The Warriors -- especially Green -- defended with more spunk after halftime in Portland. All those weird blips of miscommunication carry the whiff of nonchalance -- of a team easing its way into the fall, confident of how good it can be when it matters.
All that said, the Warriors are going to have to get dirty to reach the apex again. They won't just flit through four playoff rounds, bombing 3s, grinning trash talk, and blowing away teams.
Watch Kevin Durant just chill in the right corner as his man, Maurice Harkless, skates in for an easy put-back:
There has been way too much of that over Golden State's first four games -- from Durant and others. Their centers just aren't good enough, or big enough, for the perimeter players to half-ass rebounding. It's easy to say they'll just play harder in the postseason; Durant played the best defense of his life in that seven-game epic against Golden State just six short months ago.
But great teams -- teams that come ready for the postseason hothouse -- form habits now. They don't take shortcuts, no matter how much talent they have.
4. Fast-break stoppers
The NBA needs to end this scourge now. You know the play: team snags a turnover, starts an exciting fast break, and then some "heady" defender just standing in the way wraps up the ball-handler -- or clotheslines him -- before the fun really starts. It doesn't count as a clear path foul, since that "heady" defender knows there are plenty of players behind him to nullify that rule.
Anecdotally, it feels like I've seen more of this Euro-ball import over the first week of the season than ever before. It is not a basketball play. It's a wrestling move. It's awful. The NBA has an easy solution: just punish these intentional fouls with the clear-path penalty. Yes, that would have unintended consequences; some players would disguise their hacks with reach-ins that look like normal steals, and dare officials to make a judgment call -- one that could require replay.
Still: An extreme penalty might deter the lamest offenses. It's worth a shot. Good news: League officials are monitoring the issue, and they've already fielded occasional complaints from GMs, per league sources.
5. Philly's red alternates
The Sixers: looking great in losses since 2013! Did you see those shiny red duds Philly broke out for their Tuesday defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory pratfall against Orlando? The red is brighter and glitzier than typical NBA jersey red. All the details are perfect: the red stars that run down each side, with thin blue stripes bordering them, and especially that white mini alternate Sixers logo -- a circle made of stars -- at the belt buckle area.
6. Dewayne Dedmon, no longer with hooves for hands
Two years ago, one GM explained his lack of interest in Dedmon as a cheapo backup with this zinger: "He can block shots, but he has hooves for hands."
The Spurs paid for a hand transplant, apparently:
Salary-dumping Tiago Splitter to free up room for LaMarcus Aldridge was a no-brainer; Splitter is already injured again in Atlanta. But before last season, R.C. Buford, the Spurs GM, told me he was quietly fretting that the moves left San Antonio without a single big man capable of rolling hard to the basket and making plays -- Splitter's speciality. Tim Duncan was aging fast. All three of Aldridge, David West, and Boris Diaw prefer hanging around the perimeter.
It seemed like nitpicking from an over-worrier, but Buford was onto something. The Spurs needed more ways to pressure the rim, and suck in help defenders.
They took a flier on Dedmon to fill that role, and through five games, he looks like a nice addition to their rotation -- the shot-blocking rim-runner type they haven't had in a while. The Spurs expected all Dedmon's hoppy activity, but if he starts easing in soft-touch bunnies around the rim, even San Antonio higher-ups will be shocked. That is found money.
Dedmon is rebounding at a career-best rate, and he and David Lee have formed a shockingly effective backup big partnership.
7. The Magic's clogged toilet spacing
Orlando's spacing is as bad as advertised. Where in the hell is Evan Fournier supposed to go on this pick-and-roll, with defenders sagging off Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Elfrid Payton?
Gordon looks nothing like Paul George, as the Magic promised he might; he's 0-of-6 out of the pick-and-roll across four games, per Synergy. The offense has cratered with Bismack Biyombo on the floor; the Biyombo-Vucevic double-center look has predictably been a disaster, and the vaunted Biyombo-Ibaka combo hasn't worked -- yet.
Neither of those two can post up, so teams are fine switching smaller guys onto them if it neuters a Magic pick-and-roll. They aren't natural playmakers on the move. By the time they spot a crease for a pass or drive, it's already closed.
It's early, and the Magic have faced solid defensive teams. They will figure some things out. But all the worries about their lack of shooting have manifested. When you're playing C.J. Watson in crunch time to generate some spacing, and going offense-defense with Gordon, you've got issues.
8. Jae Crowder, getting better every season
This is what happens when a smart, hard-working player comes in contact with an open-minded coach who lets allegedly one-dimensional guys stretch themselves:
The Mavs never imagined Crowder could make plays like this when they tossed him into the catastrophic Rajon Rondo deal. The Celtics probably couldn't, either, but without much playmaking around Isaiah Thomas, they needed everyone else to at least try and keep the machine moving when Thomas swung the ball.
Crowder has made the sort of incremental game-by-game progress you barely notice unless you watch Boston a lot. At first, he launched too many contested 3s, or paused just long enough before driving for his defender to close out on him and regain balance.
At the start of last season, you'd see flashes of a new decisiveness; Crowder would catch the pass, and instantly start his drive -- wrong-footing a defender scrambling back toward him on the perimeter. By midseason, he'd finish those drives with the occasional canny pass to the next open man. By the end of last season, he was arguably Boston's best all-around player.
Today, you see a few plays like this every game. Crowder has become the do-everything third and fourth banana every team wants alongside its stars. He'll never initiate the offense, but he can slice into a scrambled defense when someone else has done the heavy lifting -- and guard three positions on the other end.
9. The Kristaps Porzingis carousel.
Yes, yes, yes! More of this trickery, please!
This is a genius use of Carmelo Anthony as decoy. The Knicks run Anthony off a standard pindown, and they know most teams will expect Anthony to jack. But Anthony circles right back around, and smacks Zinger's man with a nice screen.
This set also launches you down the rabbit hole of determining exactly how much pure triangle offense Jeff Hornacek is running. This isn't quite the triangle; it's a cool set that pops up around the league. But it also emerges out of something like the spacing setup that kicks off a lot of pure triangle possessions.
The triangle soap opera will proceed as long as Phil Jackson hangs around, peeping in on coaches meetings and making a show of tutoring guys in specific triangle actions. But on some nights -- their weekend win against Memphis, for instance -- the Knicks run very little of the real thing.
10. A design upgrade in Houston
What an upgrade -- from this...
Houston took the no-paint look to an extreme, and they were the last holdout after everyone else -- Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Portland -- refilled their painted areas. "What we had -- it worked back then, but looking at it today, it just looked kind of blah," said Jose Lopez, the Rockets' creative director.
Houston experimented with dozens of designs starting last fall, including some that featured much more black along the baselines and sidelines. They concluded red was their primary identifier, and demoted the black to the 3-point lines and other markings. "This is red nation," Lopez said.
They toyed with shading Houston's skyline into the bottom half of the floor, as both the Cavs and Nuggets did last season. "But this isn't New York and Seattle, with iconic buildings where you can tell what everything is," Lopez said. "It's a nice skyline, but it's not as recognizable."
One thing they didn't consider: scrapping that "R" logo, with those gorgeous jets of smoke dripping from the bottom, in favor of a more literal representation of a rocket. The days of garish space-aged cartoons appear to be over, even though the Rockets know fans are lukewarm on their current mark. "We are not changing the logo," Lopez said.
You'll also notice Houston ditched the two-toned style in which the wood inside the 3-point arc is a different shade than the wood elsewhere. That was not planned; Houston is not sure how the two-toning vanished from the final product. "That was an accident," Lopez said.
It's better this way. The court is sharp and clean, and that red looks great.