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Are the surprising starts from Warriors, Wizards and Bulls sustainable?

·8 min read
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The only predictable element about the start of this NBA season has been the randomness, from the individual performances to the top of the standings. It’s critical to note, less than an eighth of the season has been played.

But a few of these surprises look sustainable, even if it won’t be at the rate they’re performing now.

Golden State Warriors (10-1, first in the West)

It’s not as much of a shock when you consider the Warriors’ schedule has been home laden (eight of 11 at Chase Center) and the opponent list hasn’t read like a who’s who of contenders.

But the Warriors shouldn’t have to apologize for dismissing all but one opponent with such ease; all schedules wind up leveling out by the end of the season. The Warriors’ point differential is far and away tops in the league (+13.6). The starting five of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney is one of the most potent offensive lineups in the league, along with the team being the NBA’s best-rated defense per 100 possessions.

And … Gary Payton II has added some much-needed athleticism on the wings defensively and in the open court, a dimension the Warriors didn’t truly have during their dynastic run.

Curry’s 50-point game stands out, and he’s shooting threes at a higher rate than at any point in his career, but it’s not the one-man show we saw last season — dragging the Warriors to the play-in tournament.

Keeping him fresh is tantamount to playoff success, and nobody aside from Curry is playing over 30 minutes a night. Steve Kerr, to this point, is walking that delicate balance between rhythm and depth — a point of contention last season when his usage of Curry was top of mind.

Poole’s improvement is something that’s been evident over the past year, and even though it’s fair to doubt Wiggins being reliable for consistent stretches, he’s shown more than a pulse recently.

And they’ve done all this without having to fully integrate the bridge of young players they hope will keep this thing afloat — Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga and James Wiseman. The better this unit performs, the less weight will be placed on Klay Thompson should he return before Christmas.

Graphic with Lonzo Ball, Steph Curry and Bradley Beal.
The Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards are among the early surprises of the 2021-22 NBA season. (Graphic by Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)

Washington Wizards (8-3, tied for first in the East)

Historically, the Wizards have the consistency of a Lauryn Hill concert: If they show up, you ultimately get what you pay for, but usually, they don’t. The franchise hasn’t won 50 games in a season since playoff expansion began in 1984.

That’s not to say this bunch will exceed that bar, but there’s an actual foundation that goes beyond relying on Bradley Beal to take every shot. Consider this: Their last two star point guards could be either inactive for the entire season (John Wall in Houston) or a borderline disaster in Los Angeles (Russell Westbrook), and they’ve won the sweepstakes of stability with Spencer Dinwiddie manning the spot for the present and future.

Wes Unseld Jr. has been knocking on doors the last few years, and he’s paying dividends, especially on defense. They’re sixth in defensive rating, and it’s being done with the sent-away Lakers in the Westbrook deal: Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Kuzma has been strong on the glass, while Harrell has taken advantage of all the newfound space inside, returning to the free-flowing terror he was in seasons past.

They don’t give the appearance of being a great defensive unit, but they defend the 3-point line better than anyone (opponents shoot 29% against them), and they’ve been an opportunistic team on offense while Beal finds his footing.

Beal is barely shooting 40% but has been more engaged defensively, and Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope and Dinwiddie have been reliable shooters, unafraid to hoist and all shooting over 36%.

The only reason it doesn’t feel sustainable is because it’s the Wizards and there are so many disparate pieces we’ve long compartmentalized as players who needed to be supplementary to a star to be successful, so it’s not yet computing.

And … it’s the Wizards.

Team can’t get right.

If the defense is legit — they’ve held Memphis, Milwaukee and Cleveland all under 95 points in this recent three-game streak — the Wizards can be more than playoff fodder come April. They can be a downright nightmare in the first round.

It’s much too soon to say the likes of Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Milwaukee won’t pass them by when things truly settle, but the last thing anyone wants is a boxing match against a stubborn team in the first round.

Just being that would make this a successful season.

Bradley Beal jokes with Dean Wade and Darius Garland of the Cleveland Cavaliers during a free throw.
Even though Bradley Beal is barely shooting 40%, he has been more engaged defensively for the surprising Washington Wizards. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Chicago Bulls (8-3, tied for first in the East)

The Bulls can never just stay prosperous, can they? On Thursday afternoon, Nikola Vucevic entered the health and safety protocols and will miss the next 10 days at least — meaning the Bulls will be without their big man for a five-game western swing starting at Golden State on Friday.

This is coming off losing Patrick Williams for the year with a broken wrist, so their frontcourt depth was already being stretched before this.

However, their surprising start (or not so surprising according to the Yahoo Sports preseason predictions) should be noted. Finishing off the Dallas Mavericks in grand fashion Wednesday was the latest caper.

They downright blitzed the Brooklyn Nets in the fourth quarter with a 42-17 margin, absorbing a 38-point masterpiece painted by Kevin Durant. That’s largely because they also have two pretty good painters who are unaffected by the rule changes that clamp down on some of the outrageous advantages offenses hold nowadays. Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan still get to the line near or better than their career averages, and shall we say, they do it more honestly than others.

They haven’t gotten in each other’s way like some predicted, and LaVine has taken full advantage of playing with Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, defensive-minded guards who love to push the pace and get out in the open floor.

Ball has been an expected terror defensively and a revelation from the 3-point line, hitting on 45%, heading up a top-10 defensive unit.

It sounds oh-so-simple, but they’ve seemingly followed the Phoenix Suns model in a subtle way: They don’t turn the ball over (fewest turnovers), and they hit their free throws (league-leading 86%).

It means they don’t beat themselves, which would be the recipe for a perimeter-oriented offensive team. And it feels like something that would travel to hostile environments, variables that won’t swing too much.

Yes, they take a lot of mid-range twos, but the Bulls attack the basket and spread the ball around (five players average around four assists or better).

Are the Bulls back? Depends on what “back” means. But they’re for sure a problem.

Zach LaVine runs the offense.
Are the Chicago Bulls back? Guard Zach LaVine is leading a resurgence in Chicago. (Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)

Ready rookies

It’s not just Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green playing to form in their 1-2 tete-a-tete Wednesday: Green loud and explosive, Cunningham cool and poised.

But the top rookies from this previous draft are making immediate impacts. One high-level talent evaluator said he had Cleveland’s Evan Mobley first and Toronto’s Scottie Barnes Nos. 1-2 on his draft board.

Both have changed the short-term fortunes of their respective franchises. Barnes earned praise from Durant after Brooklyn played Toronto recently. Barnes (17 points, 8.5 rebounds) is long, talented and relentless on defense, fully deployed in Nick Nurse’s system.

Mobley (15.3 points, 7.9 rebounds) has been called “this generation’s Tim Duncan” by a general manager who’s seen him play live this season. He's excelled even in Cleveland’s unorthodox lineups.

It’s been working all around, and Cunningham is starting to come around after a slow start due to an ankle injury in training camp.

It’s always hard to project how rookies will acclimate to the new game, especially with a new basketball and rule changes that have hampered some accomplished veterans.

And there are certainly others who’ve merited mention, like Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic) and Chris Duarte (Indiana Pacers), in a class full of guys ready to take the mantle when the league’s older players are ready to hand it over.