LOS ANGELES — Is it actual, or is it a mirage?

Whether for good or unhealthy, that’s the largest query each teaching workers and entrance workplace is making an attempt to reply within the opening video games of the season. All sorts of surprising issues reliably occur within the season’s first two weeks, and this yr, it’s taking place greater than ever.

For starters, the standings are virtually the other way up. Entering Monday, the Thunder, Jazz, Spurs and Blazers are a mixed 18-8; three of those 4 groups had been speculated to be abjectly tanking for Victor Wembanyama. The Pacers are 3-4 and have the league’s seventh-ranked offense. Meanwhile, 5 alleged contenders — the Clippers, Warriors, Sixers, Heat and Nets — are a mixed 11-22.

Dig deeper, and the eccentricities solely develop. Last season’s two dominant defenses, Boston and Golden State, rank twenty second and twenty third, respectively. Memphis and Miami had been fourth and fifth at that finish; this season, they’re Twenty eighth and twentieth. Sorry, however if you wish to see a top-10 protection in motion, you’ll must dial up the Jazz or Wizards.

Again, it’s nonetheless early. We’re speaking about six-game samples for many of those groups. Some of the surprises can probably be defined away by capturing luck and different types of variance. For occasion, the Nets have been disastrous, rating final in protection of their 1-5 begin, however their opponents are additionally capturing an unsustainable 43.8 p.c on 3s; Brooklyn ranks fourth in 2-point protection. On the flip facet, Charlotte’s stunning begin with out two key backcourt gamers has maybe been greased by Jedi 3-point protection that has opponents making simply 28.2 p.c from deep.

Nowhere are these questions extra outstanding than within the City of Angels, the place the Lakers and Clippers somewhat unexpectedly sport the league’s two worst offenses within the early going and are a mixed 2-8 when not enjoying one another.  They’ve been so brutal on offense that they charge orders of magnitude worse than even Twenty eighth-ranked Orlando. The Magic, at 107.9 factors per 100 possessions, are nearer to the league common than they’re to the Twenty ninth-ranked Clippers’ mark of 102.2.

The Lakers’ struggles have gained a lot nationwide prominence that the Clippers’ woes haven largely spared them from the nationwide radar; they may change their motto to “Thank God for the Lakers.” However, Sunday’s doubleheader at The Arena Formerly Known as Staples Center laid naked that the Clips’ early points could also be simply as vexing as their co-tenant’s, as their moribund 112-91 defeat dropped them to 2-4.

For each groups, there’s a fundamental math downside on the core of their struggles. For the Lakers, it’s no less than recognized: If no one can shoot straight, how are they supposed to attain? The Lakers are enjoying extraordinarily exhausting (third in protection!) and producing loads of open 3-pointers. They simply can’t make any of them — a laughable 26.6 p.c from 3 this season. For one night time, no less than, they made sufficient of them to attain 123 factors in a cathartic Sunday win over Denver, however the larger image concern stays. And it’s more durable to jot down it off as an outlier when this group made 28.6 p.c of its 3s in preseason.


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Meanwhile, the mathematics on the coronary heart of the Clippers’ woes (well-documented by our Law Murray) is that you may’t rating when you don’t shoot, and the Clippers are dropping the possession battle by staggering margins. Despite a guard-dominated roster, their 16.1 p.c turnover charge ranks final by a mile.

How can a group stuffed with soar shooters flip it over this a lot? Somehow, they’re. The undersized Clips are additionally twenty seventh in offensive rebound charge. Thus, per 100 possessions, the Clips are final in subject objective makes an attempt and second to final in free-throw makes an attempt; it doesn’t matter what you shoot when you shoot this occasionally.

The Clippers can clearly level to the restricted availability of Kawhi Leonard, however they confronted {that a} yr in the past and had been nonetheless nowhere close to this unhealthy.

The total thought of the Clippers facilities on the truth that they’ve two All-Star wings to rely on and a number of high quality position choices behind them. So far, that hasn’t been performed out. Forget All-Star: Paul George hasn’t even been common up to now. Next to him, Norman Powell and Reggie Jackson have been positively disastrous, barfing up voluminous turnovers whereas looking soar photographs.

Again, perhaps it’s all a short-term mirage that may wash away if both group performs a extra regular 10-game stretch. Or perhaps it’s simply who they’re this season. We don’t know but.

That’s why most sensible groups strongly resist the, “Oh my, God, do something!” urge to make dramatic roster strikes based mostly on the primary two weeks. We see the outlines of a sample beginning to kind, however there simply isn’t sufficient info but.

In this case, each L.A. groups even have an underlying impatience in-built based mostly on the possible expiration dates of their star forwards’ superpowers, however two questions want solutions first.

The first, apparent query is, “What do we need?” The Lakers can affirmatively reply capturing, and the Clippers may need to extra actual measurement.

But let’s suppose for a second that the weaknesses these groups have proven within the opening days of the season are actual issues and aren’t going to go away. There’s nonetheless a a lot larger, second query: Is this group value saving?

For the Lakers, particularly, that’s what the following 15 to twenty sport are about. The oft-rumored potential commerce of two future first-round picks and Russell Westbrook for Indiana’s Buddy Hield and Myles Turner is a possible possibility so as to add much more capturing, however how a lot better wouldn’t it make them?

It’s not even a query of whether or not it strikes the needle; it’s that the needle is thus far to the left that it nonetheless may not matter. Is it actually value burning two potential picks to complete ninth as an alternative of thirteenth? Would the Lakers somewhat take their medication this season, go into the summer season with these picks and a clear salary-cap slate and begin anew round LeBron James and Anthony Davis? The narrative up to now has been that the Lakers’ gradual begin makes them extra prone to make an Indiana-type commerce, however I’d argue their begin is problematic sufficient that it may make them a lot much less prone to chase 2022-23 wins with future capital.

(Side word for these of you encouraging these groups to tank: Both the Lakers and Clippers owe decide swaps from earlier trades. Not taking place.)

And so we wait and watch. Not simply in L.A., however in Brooklyn and Miami and Philadelphia and Golden State. At some level, these groups may have sufficient of a sport pattern measurement to definitively declare their early weaknesses a downside, and if that’s the case, to find out whether or not their rosters are value reinforcing through the commerce market.

We aren’t there but. Informally, many entrance workplaces use the 20-game mark as a actuality test on the place they stand, which remains to be practically a month away. In Los Angeles, particularly, these can be a nervous few weeks of data gathering.

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LeBron James and the Lakers lastly picked up their first win of the season Sunday towards Denver. (Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today)

Cap Geekery: Rookie contract choices

Most of the decision-making course of for entrance workplaces is finished for some time as soon as the season begins, however one piece of enterprise stays to be accomplished on Halloween.

It’s the final day for groups to choose up the third- and fourth-year choices on the rookie contracts of first-rounders who had been signed in 2020 and 2021. What makes it a considerably ghoulish resolution (sorry) is that groups must resolve a yr forward of time on an possibility for subsequent yr, with principally a full season to play out in between.

Teams who decline the choice are capped on what they will supply the participant in free company (it could possibly’t be greater than the choice quantity), so if the participant has an excellent yr, he’s gonzo. Meanwhile, he’s additionally in your roster for a full yr regardless, which might make declining the choice awwwwwkward.

For occasion, Phoenix declined its third-year possibility on 2020 lottery decide Jalen Smith final season and ended up buying and selling him to Indiana, the place he nearly instantly turned the nook and signed a brand new cope with the Pacers after the season.

Between these issues and the truth that most rookie-contract choices are cheap, groups are inclined to tilt fairly strongly towards choosing up within the possibility yr. The solely participant to have his third-year possibility declined is Utah’s Leandro Bolmaro, who had been included as a wage throw-in within the Rudy Gobert commerce and wasn’t within the Jazz’s plans. (San Antonio additionally waived 2021 draftee Josh Primo over the weekend however had already picked up his third-year possibility.)

The fourth-year choices had practically as excessive a pick-up charge, together with a pair I used to be interested in. New Orleans’ Kira Lewis Jr. has been injured and ineffective throughout his first two seasons and the Pels have a possible luxury-tax concern in 2023-24, however the Pelicans nonetheless picked up his $5.7 million possibility. Toronto’s Malachi Flynn has additionally struggled to realize traction, however with an possibility of simply $3.9 million for 2023-24, the Raptors figured it couldn’t damage. Detroit picked up the $7.4 million possibility on Killian Hayes, not but keen to jot down off the seventh decide within the 2020 draft.

In the tip, the one choices declined had been Utah’s Udoka Azubuike, who was the twenty seventh decide in 2020 and has hardly performed, and Orlando’s R.J. Hampton.

Hampton was the stunning one as a result of the Magic are rebuilding, Hampton is barely 21, and his $4.2 million possibility for subsequent yr isn’t onerous. However, Hampton struggled mightily in his second professional season (8.5 PER, 48.1 p.c true capturing) and, extra importantly, the Magic may not have had any room for him. Orlando already has 12 gamers signed for subsequent season and may have two first-round picks and a (possible) excessive second-rounder in 2023.

Prospects of the Week: Amen Thompson and Ausar Thompson, SF/PF , Overtime Elite

(Note: This part received’t essentially profile the perfect prospect of the week. Just the one I’ve been watching.)

On Tuesday, I went to Overtime Elite’s Pro Day in Atlanta, the place we noticed the roster of principally 17- and 18-year-olds conduct drills and play four-on-four and five-on-five in entrance of scouts from practically each group within the league and some GMs.

While the vast majority of the gamers there received’t be draft-eligible for an additional yr or two, the pearls of the OTE roster are twin brothers Amen and Ausar Thompson. Most evaluators see Amen Thompson because the possible third decide within the draft, whereas Ausar initiatives as a mid-to-high lottery decide. Both are athletic 6-foot-7 wings who can deal with the ball and defend a number of positions, probably making every the kind of switchy, high-usage wing who will get basic managers salivating. (Our Sam Vecenie has Amen projected to go third and Ausar tenth in his most recent mock draft).

Watching them in particular person, Amen confirmed every thing that had been written — he’s huge, he can deal with the ball and he positively pops off the ground. (Ausar was nonetheless recovering from a latest ankle damage, which didn’t affect his dealing with and passing however fairly clearly impacted his hops on Tuesday.) Both brothers are able to making good reads in pick-and-roll and exploiting cracks within the protection for dunks, with Amen having a bit extra explosiveness.

More notably, Amen particularly regarded fairly easy capturing the ball. This had been an enormous weak point of his beforehand, and it’s not like he become Steph Curry rapidly. But the rotation on the ball is true, the shape is repeatable and even the misses regarded stable. I’ve seen loads of 19-year-olds look massively worse. Ausar’s jumper looks like extra of a piece in progress, however he too seems to be on the appropriate rack in comparison with how he regarded after I noticed him final yr.

There are nonetheless issues to nit-pick when you really need. Both measured with quick arms for his or her top; one also can argue each are a bit too right-handed and a bit too depending on two-footed finishes in site visitors. They’ll even be 20-and-a-half years outdated on draft night time, which is fairly lengthy within the tooth for a one-and-done. For occasion, they’re a full yr older than the possible prime two picks Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson.

Nonetheless, I feel I’m going to be barely extra bullish on each Thompsons than the consensus. Reviews on their character and perspective have been extraordinarily constructive, and the capturing query is far much less vexing. I’d evaluate Ausar Thompson to New Orleans rookie Dyson Daniels, as an example, a participant with the same profile as an enormous, ballhandling wing with defensive chops, sturdy background and a shaky shot; Daniels was the eight decide within the 2022 draft.

Amen Thompson has a good larger ceiling, significantly if his capturing positive aspects lock in. Big wings who can deal with and cross are probably the most coveted portions within the league; even a “disappointing” model of both Thompson can be a massively useful participant.

(Top photograph of Paul George and Tyronn Lue: Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

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