Now that the NBA season is well underway with most teams having played their first 15 games, we can get a good idea of some of the players that are going to control the storylines for the rest of the season.
These are the guys not named Steph, LeBron or Kevin that everyone will be talking about until the Larry O’Brien Trophy is held aloft in June.
The New Orleans Pelicans are a lowly 6-12 to the point in the season and, despite their recently ended four-game win streak, look likely to be stuck down with the also-rans of the Western Conference for the second consecutive season.
The one bright spot in the Big Easy is the career-best form of Anthony Davis. The 23-year-old’s 31.6 points per game leads the league ahead of Russell Westbrook, he also leads the league in blocks per game at 2.9 to go along with his 10.9 rebounds.
While those numbers are impressive, the best part of his game has been putting up those numbers with very little help around him. He has literally carried the Pelicans to their six wins, his usage percentage of 34.1% means the franchise have used Davis on more than a third of their plays and he his solely responsible for half of New Orleans’ wins with three win shares, per basketball-reference.com.
To put the quality of The Brow’s season in perspective, he’s on track to become just the third player to average 25 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and 1.5 steals. The other two players: Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.
Finally getting on the court after two years spent on the sidelines recovering from a broken navicular bone in his foot, Joel Embiid has lived up to the hype that’s surrounded him since the Philadelphia 76ers drafted the baller third-overall in 2014.
Despite a time restriction that’s seen him average just 22.8 minutes per game, Embiid is posting 18.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting at a 48% clip and 50% from deep. He’s troubling defences from all over the place, beating defenders in the post, from mid-range and behind the arc.
In case you were wondering how well the man dubbed “The Process” by Sixers fans would be going were he not playing restricted minutes, Embiid’s averages per 36 minutes puts him in elite company. Per 36 minutes, the former Kansas Jayhawk is averaging 28.6 points, sixth in the league, and 12.2 rebounds.
The impact that Embiid has made in starting his delayed career has been one of the lone highlights in another Philadelphia season that has looked doomed from the beginning. But Sixers fans don’t seem too disappointed as chants of “trust the process” spread through the Wells Fargo Center when Embiid steps up to the free throw line.
The Toronto Raptors are in a very good position at this early point in the season, they lead the Atlantic Division and are second in the Eastern Conference at 10-6 and look poised to make a big playoff run.
A big part of that early success has been the form of shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. He’s been an absolute scoring machine, averaging 30.2 points per game, seven points more than last season’s career-high, including a couple 40-point performances. The 27-year-old is also averaging career-highs in rebounds and assists at 5.3 and 4.1, respectively.
Not only is he scoring at will, he’s doing so at a very high clip – shooting at 48.8% from the field. That scoring combined with the efficiency that DeRozan is achieving is a very dangerous package and could be one that, once again, takes the Raptors to the brink of a Finals birth.
The Bearded One has been one of the NBA’s most proficient scorers for a few years now, averaging no less than 25 points per game since he was traded from Oklahoma City to the Houston Rockets four seasons ago. But now, James Harden looks even more dangerous as he’s relishing in role as the Rockets’ starting point guard in new coach Mike D’Antoni’s pace-and-space system.
With the added responsibility of ball distribution to go with his scoring, Harden hasn’t allowed his numbers to dip at all. He’s still averaging almost 29 points per game this season, on par with last season’s average, but he’s also dramatically increased his assist totals. At a league-leading 12.2 assists per game, he’s more than doubling his career average of 5.1 and is racking up five assists per game more than his did in his last two seasons.
On the back of the 27-year-old’s renewed vigour and D’Antoni’s trademark style, the Houston Rockets have become one of the NBA’s most prolific offences. They’re third in the association behind the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers for points per game and second behind the Warriors for assists per game and field goal percentage.
With the numbers that he’s putting up this season, along with the impact it’s had on the rest of the team, this season could be the perfect storm for James Harden’s first MVP award.
Despite the Portland Trail Blazers struggling to a 9-10 record to this stage in the season, Damian Lillard has continued to show the improvement that’s made him one of the NBA’s best young point guards. He’s averaging and career-best 28.2 points per game and is shooting as efficiently as ever at 46.3%.
After teammate CJ McCollum surprised everyone last year, the pair are making the most of their second season leading the Blazers together – averaging more than 50 points per game combined and making the Blazers fourth in points per game.
What’s been most impressive about Lillard’s season thus far has been the aggressiveness with which he’s been playing. Usually “Lillard Time” was reserved only for high-pressure situations but he seems to be breaking it out more often than ever.
The 26-year-old is attacking the rim like never before, leading the league in points from drives. The Oakland native has also showed increased range, with the fifth-most three-pointers made in the league at a 36.6% clip from deep, including some from what can only be referred to as ‘Steph Curry range’.
After last season’s surprise playoff run and very little change in the off-season, it’s possible that Portland can still turn their season around and if Lillard keeps playing the way he is, they could even make another playoff run and cause some problems.