What’s with Kevin Durant’s call on his teammates? Who is leading the MVP race? And what is the No. 1 reason the Warriors are struggling? FOX SPORTS US experts take on the big issues.
The NBA season is a month old, and both conferences have produced some shocking results early on.
This week, our panel of NBA reporters — Ric Bucher, Melissa Rohlin and Yaron Weitzman — takes a look at the Warriors’ struggles, Kevin Durant’s latest comments, and the early MVP race.
1. What did you make of Kevin Durant’s comments to Bleacher Report this week, regarding the direction of the Nets under Steve Nash and the franchise’s current form?
Weitzman: First, there was the following quote, which is one of those things that, while technically true, is probably best not to be said out loud.
As for the rest, it’s hard to argue, but the thing with Durant is that he always seems to detach himself from these issues, as if he’s not the star whom the Nets are constantly bending over backwards to please.
Rohlin: Love him or hate him, at least he’s honest. We constantly criticize athletes for doling out cliches and keeping things too close to the vest. Durant went the opposite route in this interview. He was completely uncensored. Whether you like what he said or not, at least you have to commend his radical honesty. That’s what we all truly want from players during interviews. So, no criticizing Durant for me.
Bucher: I’m all for players giving their perspective, but I don’t know how honest KD is being. The fact is, the Nets are a mess, and based on everything KD said, he’s blaming everyone and everything else for it. He neatly sidestepped Kyrie Irving’s part in all of it, and as much as KD might want to separate himself from Kyrie, he can’t. The two came to Brooklyn as a package deal. They presented themselves as being part of the brain trust that was going to bring the franchise a championship. He was instrumental in James Harden joining them and then departing.
2. Through the first month of the season, the West has been wild. Who is your surprise team?
Weitzman: Pop quiz: Who is currently holding down the top seed of the Western Conference? You might be shocked to learn that the answer is the Portland Trail Blazers, which, to me, is also the answer to this question. It wasn’t too long ago that we were wondering whether it was time for the Blazers to trade Damian Lillard and hit the reset button, and yet, look where they are now. I’d be absolutely stunned if the Blazers finished the season as the West’s top seed, but I do think they’ve rebuilt themselves in a way that makes them interesting. Basically, they finally got some legitimate wings and athleticism to put around Lillard, namely Jerami Grant, who’s been on fire (20.1 points per game, 47.4 3P%), but also Josh Hart, the impressive rookie Shaedon Sharpe, and even Justise Winslow. The result: The Blazers, after finishing last season with the league’s second-worst defensive rating, are now seventh in that category. This is a legitimate team, one which looks poised to make the playoffs. Coming into the season, that’s not something I expected.
Rohlin: It’s unbelievable that the Utah Jazz are in fourth place in the Western Conference. After trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, it looked like their plan was simple: They were trying to tank, jockeying for a prime position in the Victor Webanyama sweepstakes. Either we all assumed wrong or they’ve wildly surpassed their own expectations. The Jazz have been really good behind Lauri Markkanen, who is having a breakthrough season. He’s averaging 21.3 points on 52.3% shooting and 8.4 rebounds, a wild uptick from the 14.8 points on 44.5% shooting and 5.7 rebounds he averaged last season. The Jazz are a team to watch in the West, something nobody thought they’d be saying at the top of the season.
Bucher: I’m going with a combo. The Oklahoma City Thunder right now look like a far more formidable team than the defending champion Golden State Warriors and that’s with the Thunder losing No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren right out of the gate and the Warriors not having lost anyone. That is indeed wild. I don’t know if the Thunder can sustain what they’re doing, or if they even want to with Wembanyana supposedly in their crosshairs, but I also don’t know how the Warriors right the ship based on what we’ve seen so far.
3. The Warriors continue to struggle with inconsistency early in the year, with fingers pointing at players and coaches across the board. What is the single biggest issue facing Golden State right now?
Weitzman: The Warriors bet big on this dual-timeline thing. That, it appears, was a mistake. None of their young first round picks — James Wiseman, Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga — who were supposed to bridge the past to the future have popped, or even established themselves as playoff-rotation-level NBA players. Combine that with injuries and age seemingly having caught up to Klay Thomspon (he’s shooting 35.1% from the field and 33% from deep) and you have a team that is left with no options other than relying on the heroics of Steph Curry. All of which means we’re about to see the Warriors’ brain trust faced with a choice: Do we trade some young guys and picks to bolster the roster and take another shot at the title, or waste a season of Curry’s prime?
Rohlin: After winning four NBA championships in eight years, the Warriors entered this season as the team to beat. Sure, their “Big Three” of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all nearing their mid-30s, but none of them had shown signs of slowing down, and the team had contingency plans if that changed, namely, a promising young core of 20-year-olds who appeared ready to intervene if there were any cracks in the team’s armor. Alas, things have not gone according to plan. There are too many cracks and too few saviors. Only Curry seems to be playing his brand of basketball.
After the Warriors’ loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters that “We’re scattered,” and “It’s a pick-up game out there.” Right now, it seems as though their biggest issue is that they’ve lost trust in each other. It’s unclear whether that stems from Green punching Jordan Poole or the team’s young core nipping at the ankles of the old guard or just the general discomfort that comes from the fact that the dynasty is on the verge of a major shake up. Whatever the reason, the Warriors just don’t look like the Warriors right now.
Bucher: The heart of this team is Steph, Klay and Draymond and two-thirds of that trio is struggling, particularly on defense. They’ve lost their identity which, despite all the talk and attention their offense has received, has always been about their ability to suffocate opponents, especially in the fourth quarter. The “Lineup of Death” could squeeze the life out of opposing offenses. Even last year’s team had the league’s stingiest defense. They’re currently allowing the second-most points per game in the league, and I’m not sure how they will improve. Klay is a shadow of himself at that end of the floor. Poole and Kuminga have been just as bad. I had my doubts about them being able to defend their title, but I still thought there was a path, however narrow, to getting back to the Finals. As of right now, I don’t see how.
4. Superstar status check-in: How close are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, De’Aaron Fox and Anthony Edwards to superstardom?
Weitzman: I don’t know exactly how to define “superstardom,” so instead I’ll answer the question this way: Gilgeous-Alexander might be the best story coming out of the NBA so far this season. The guy is a machine. He’s averaging 32.3 points per game on 54.6% shooting, and yet, even that doesn’t exactly capture what he’s doing on the floor. He’s become one of those rare players who leaves opponents searching for answers. He’s relentless attacking the rim, and boasts an array of fluid pivots and drop steps and spins that you won’t find anywhere else.
He’s the reason the Thunder are 7-8. I don’t know if there are 15 players in the league better than him.
Rohlin: Gilgeous-Alexander is definitely emerging as a superstar. The true test will be whether he’s able to sustain those numbers over the course of the season and over multiple seasons. I agree with Yaron that he’s easily one of the top players in the league right now. But in order to reach true superstar status, consistency is key. And that can only be proven over time.
Bucher: All three have been dynamic this season so far, but I’m only buying stock in Gilgeous-Alexander and Edwards. Superstars are made in the postseason, and we’ve seen both SGA and Ant excel there. Can Fox lead the Kings to a playoff berth? A playoff win? His decision-making, particularly in big moments, still scares me at times.
5. It’s early, but right now, who are the two players that you believe are leading the pack in the MVP race?
Weitzman: Jayson Tatum and Luka Dončić. The case for Dončić is simple: He’s putting up some individual numbers that we’ve never seen before, and he’s the lone reason the Mavericks are 8-6 and not in the Wembanyama sweepstakes. It’s not just the league-leading 34.4 points per game (on a true shooting percentage of 60.4) to go along with 8.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists — it’s the fact that Mavericks’ offense becomes hopeless and inept if not relying on Dončić to create.
But to me, the MVP right now is Tatum. The Celtics (12-3, winners of eight in a row) look like juggernauts, and he’s the main reason why. Tatum has become a complete player — an elite shooter, scorer, passer and defender. He’s made leaps before, but this year he’s reached a different level. He’s putting up a career-best 31.1 points per game, partly because he’s making quicker decisions and settling for fewer jumpers. If the season ended now, he’d get my (imaginary) vote.
Rohlin: I agree with Yaron here that the top two leaders at the moment are Tatum and Dončić. However, if the Warriors were doing better, Curry would be up there, too. Curry is having a phenomenal season, averaging 32.8 points on 53.1% shooting, 6.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists. What’s even more remarkable is that he’s doing this at age 34. He seems to only be getting better, sharper and smarter as he ages. Heck, he even had a 50-point game against the Suns on Wednesday. If the Warriors weren’t 0-8 on the road and sitting in 12th place in the Western Conference, he’d be very high on my list for MVP at this juncture in the season.
Bucher: It’s a race between Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo because they’re getting it done at both ends of the floor and leading the two best teams in the league right now. As an aside, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Tatum was dealing with some kind of injury in the Finals last year because his physicality and aggressiveness attacking the rim this season is light years from what we saw against the Warriors. I agree with Melissa: Steph is playing out of his mind and if he wasn’t, the Warriors might be in the Lakers’ neighborhood. But a case could be made that SGA has been just as impactful on the Thunder, and they actually are higher in the standings, so…