NBA Takeaways of the Week: Jan. 4-10

Kevin Reyes
NBA Analyst

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. 

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The third week of the NBA season has reached its conclusion. And even though it’s still too early to reach conclusions on teams, there have been early surprises that have changed many early-season predictions. So, with another week of action done, let’s talk about some of the stuff that has happened in the past seven days.

Once a week, I’ll be releasing an article on some takeaways I had from the previous week of NBA basketball. Today, I bring you my NBA Takeaways of the Week, from January 4 to January 10.

Markelle Fultz’ breakout year is over

Fultz was set for a breakout year this season: he had his first distraction-free training camp, entering his second year as the clear starting point guard for the Orlando Magic. His game was obviously improving, but the main thing was the fact that he wasn’t making headlines for his injury concerns. His first four games seemed like a step in a right direction, with averages of 18.3pts/3.8reb/5.8ast/1stl on 43/30/93 shooting. However, he struggled in his next three (9pts/3.3reb/6.7ast/1stl on 33.3/16.7/66.7 shooting), and in his fourth game his campaign ended abruptly after suffering a torn ACL.

It’s a tough loss for Orlando, who were banking on Fultz’ success as a player to be a potential Play-In team. Markelle is only 22, and he was in a perfect situation: no distractions, in a team on a small market and low expectations and didn’t have to battle for his spot on the rotation. Tough blow for a young player with so much potential. Only positive thing that comes out of this is that he got paid in the offseason. Hope he returns better than ever for the 2021-22 season, where the Magic could be a top seven seed in the East with a healthy Fultz and Jonathan Isaac.

Atlanta’s woes

The Hawks started red-hot, winning four of their first five games, and there’s talk of their being a way better team than they were last season. But, thanks in large part to injuries to most of their offseason acquisitions (Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Onyeka Okongwu, Kris Dunn, Tony Snell and Bogdan Bogdanovic), the team has dipped. They’re losers of four in a row (two in a row against the Charlotte Hornets), and suddenly look like the same team that finished second worst in the East. Trae Young got off to averaging 30pts in that 5-1 start, but is down to 17pts on 33 percent from the field and 15.8 percent from three. Part of that could be a simple slump, or the tension between Young and John Collins.

Injuries are things that happen to everyone, so even if this team is, for the most part, the same one as last year, they have to be better. The locker room “drama”, if you can call it that, isn’t something that should be happening this early to the season. They need to figure things out.

LaMelo Ball may be the best Ball brother

I’m not the one to overhype young players when they do something good, but LaMelo is a big exception here. In the preseason and his first couple of regular season games, he didn’t look that good offensively. His shot making was inconsistent and his decision making left more to be desired at the start, but as time has progressed, he’s looked more comfortable and played better.

In the Hornets’ three game winning streak — two games against Atlanta and one against New Orleans with his brother Lonzo — LaMelo has played his best basketball: he’s averaging 15.7pts/10reb/8.3ast on 51/35.7/75 shooting (including a 22/12/11 performances against the Pelicans, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double), already looking like an elite playmaker in just his third week on the job. The team looks to run a smoother offense with him on the court, in transition he’s entertaining to watch, and was even apparent during the preseason.

Considering how well he’s playing, and Devonte’ Graham’s struggles (10.9pts on 26.9 percent from the field, 30.3 percent from three), LaMelo being a starter until Devonte’ gets his groove back is a real possibility. But even if he doesn’t (whether head coach James Borrego likes him better off the bench or doesn’t want Graham to lose more confidence), he’ll still be playing more and improving. He’s only 19 years old, and he’s got skills and IQ that aren’t easy to teach.

Stars who could be traded before the trade deadline

Given some team’s early season struggles, there may be some cases of star players on these teams frustrated. And, usually, these types of situations end up with said star asking to be traded to a better situation. Although the season is only three weeks old, there are already some of those cases that will be interesting to keep an eye on heading into the trade deadline. Let’s look at the three most intriguing ones:

Blake Griffin (Detroit Pistons)

This one was a no-brainer even before the season began, and the situation is the same three weeks after the 2020-21 season tipped off. Blake has a contract with a $38 million player option for next year (which he’ll likely reject if he doesn’t want to be in Detroit and waste another year of his career), and he’s in a rebuilding situation on the Pistons.

Furthermore, he’s having one of the worst years of his career, so far, with averages of 13.9pts/5.7reb/4ast on 37.6/29.4/69.2 shooting splits. He’s not off the best start when he’s been on the court, he’s missed three games (will likely miss many more), and Detroit is better off playing their younger guys (Josh Jackson, Isaiah Stewart, Sekou Doumbouya, Jahlil Okafor, among others) than playing Blake to try to win.

Even given his struggles, Detroit doesn’t have any incentive to keep him, and other teams might feel like he can improve on a better situation with a better role and on a winning situation. And those struggles might lower what’s needed to acquire him.

Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards)

Since last season, Beal has been the only positive thing to be happening in Washington Wizards basketball. Currently, he’s averaging 35 points on close to 50/40/90 efficiency (48.9/38.6/87.2 are his shooting splits after nine games). And, like last season, his team is very underwhelming (currently 2-8, tied for worst record in the East).

While last season Beal requesting a trade was highly rumored, he shut down those rumors, expressing that he would love to stay in D.C.. Which he ended up doing by signing a 2-year, $72 million extension, which delayed his free agency until 2022 (if he chooses to decline his Player Option for 2022-23).

However, after the front office traded his buddy John Wall, and considering that the move hasn’t made the team that much better, his perception might have changed. He still has another guaranteed season before possibly hitting the open market, and there have been numerous teams linked to him since rumors began to spread. Beal is only 27, just beginning his prime, and may just want to be on a team that can actually field a winning roster.

Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)

This one isn’t likely to happen, but is still fun to look at. The Raptors haven’t gotten off to the best of starts to say the least (2-7 record currently), and just can’t seem to figure things out. They’re one of the better defensive teams in the league, ranking as above average in most defensive categories, but also rank in the bottom half of the league in most offensive categories.

Pascal Siakam has started turning things around in the past week, but still has much to prove to justify his $30 million per year, while Fred VanVleet is also on the same boat with his $25 million per season. The offense and their bench need to be better, and they just overall need to be more consistent.

However, if they don’t turn things around, they have an interesting development to address: Kyle Lowry, who’s still playing solid, winning basketball at age 34, is a free agent at season’s end. Does he request a trade and go to a buying team? Does he end up being traded anyways, even if he doesn’t express a desire to be shipped? Does he re-sign with the Raptors if he stays put? I’d like to think that, if the team doesn’t improve (which I expect them to do so, eventually) he’ll be moved before the deadline to a contender that needs an extra, or better, point guard/playmaker. Because, although the numbers might not stand out to most, Lowry plays winning basketball, and deserves to be in a situation where he helps in doing so.

What stood out to you in this past week of the NBA season? Tweet at me and let me know!