In the spirit of rationality, let’s take a look at the first several days of the NBA season without overindulging any of the still very limited footage we have at our disposal. With accumulated opponent strength varying wildly from team to team and rosters with more youth and player turnover still stuck in ongoing calibration processes, the rule of the land remains Who Knows?; everything we can say at this point is subject to change, but we’ll do our best here nonetheless.

In Philadelphia, the 76ers are learning how to live without Ben Simmons. This involves a lot more of Joel Embiid and everyone else on the team taking the ball up court themselves, and finding open three-point shooters as often as they can before the defense sets. Success rates vary on these impressions of their missing All-Star, with two wins over vastly inferior teams showing the best of how the new-look Sixers can be. But in their home opener against the Brooklyn Nets, a familiar theme emerged, as they dominated most of the way, only to fall apart and lose their grip in the contest’s closing moments. With or without Simmons, they are strapped for crunch-time creation on offense. And if they can’t collectively cobble together what No. 25 brings to the table over a longer period of time, and against stiffer competition, and if Embiid’s already sore knee leads to significant absences, the clock on flipping their estranged teammate for help will begin to tick much more loudly.


Is James Harden washed? Probably not, at least not entirely, but the devious burly wizard we have been accustomed to watching has yet to appear in the 21-22 NBA regular season. Much has been made about Harden’s career-anomalous free-throw rate through three games, and how this might be a result of referees acting on a league-wide prerogative to weed out the more unscrupulous foul-hunting of the sport. Take a look at the action, though, and the problem seems to be more elemental: Harden doesn’t have the same boost. The 32-year-old has enjoyed an unusually healthy career for a player of his (massive) usage rate, but last season he suffered his first major injury when his hamstring went bad on him, and turned him into nothing more than a stationary passing conduit in the Nets’ playoff run. He looks better than that now, but he certainly isn’t getting to his spots as well as he has in the past, and for a guy who has already maximized the cerebral part of his game for so long, there isn’t likely to be much of an “old man game” boost coming to complement his potentially declining athleticism. How Harden adjusts to what he is or now—or if he returns to form—will be a major story to watch going forward.

Similar worries can be directed toward LeBron James, but they are immediately met by bigger ones about how the Los Angeles Lakers have most recently been built out around him. “GM LeBron” is facing his largest referendum yet as an old team with oddly fitting pieces, seemingly constructed with an undue level of nostalgia as part of the calculus, has struggled. (This was at its gnarliest when Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard were spotted nearly fighting each other on the Lakers bench, in a bad home loss to the defending Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns.) James hasn’t gotten to the rim much this season, and it’s unclear how much this is due to his aging body, versus how much it’s a product of a group with too many lane-cloggers. Frank Vogel has to figure out what’s probably the hardest lineup math of any major franchise this season, and as always he’ll have to hope for help from James, whose satisfaction or lack thereof still dictates what kind of wiggle room they have with teammate minutes, and with trades or free agency. These transactional avenues may be discussed more and more as mid-season solutions for the Lakers, barring the discovery of a precious elixir that reverses the mileage of who they’ve currently got aboard. 

The Chicago Bulls are back. Well, maybe. Against bad teams, they appear to be the Harlem Globetrotters. They haven’t faced any good ones yet, but this cheap form of conquest suggests, at a minimum, an established standard that the organization has not reached in several years, and certainly not during emerging superstar Zach LaVine’s tenure. Coming into the year with a returning coach for the first time in his career, LaVine is hitting a classic post-Olympics boost in a contract season, and seems thrilled with how the Bulls have situated him to succeed, for now. As Chicago exits its soft early-season launchpad and looks at a few grueling weeks facing off against real playoff contenders, we’ll see how that sentiment holds up.


And that is all there is to say—at least about these teams, at least for now. With the standings at their most fresh and ephemeral, these takes and analyses are of course quite flimsy, and more developed versions of them would be so many tinker toy complexes upon the shores of a coastal beach, during hurricane season. It is funny to hear how authority sounds at this part of the basketball year, and there’s a good chance everything you’ve read will soon hit that unintentionally comic register of wrongness, as the game lavishes us with various surprises.