Day 4 of the NBA preseason schedule is officially in the books, and even if most of the games on the slate were rematches, the storylines continue to evolve as we march towards the beginning of the regular season. The defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat made their preseason debut tonight, as did Zion Williamson’s Pelicans, and while the Suns had taken the floor on Saturday, Chris Paul suited up in their uniform for the first time on Monday.
We’re now four days through a nine-day preseason, and only a bit more than a week away from the start of the regular season. With shortened training camps and no Summer League, what we’re seeing on the court now matters more than ever heading into a condensed season. Here are the biggest takeaways from tonight’s slate.
NBA Preseason scores for Monday, Dec. 14
Cleveland Cavaliers 116, Indiana Pacers 106
Toronto Raptors 112, Charlotte Hornets 109
New Orleans Pelicans 114, Miami Heat 92
Dallas Mavericks 128, Milwaukee Bucks 112
Memphis Grizzlies 123, Minnesota Timberwolves 104
Utah Jazz 111, Phoenix Suns 92
The training wheels are off
Zion’s declaration that he would play this season without a minutes limit was met with a fair degree of skepticism. His conditioning scarcely allowed him to play 25 minutes in the Orlando bubble, and now he’s going to approach a typical star’s workload?
Well, Monday suggested that he just might. The production itself was impressive. He topped his career-high with eight defensive rebounds, and 26 points on 8-of-13 from the field is nothing to scoff at, but the number that stands out is the 33 minutes that he played. That’s a total he reached just three times as a rookie, and he did it in a preseason game, when typical superstars spend 15 minutes or so on cruise control while their less famous teammates fight for minutes.
The kiddie gloves are apparently off. New coach Stan Van Gundy is emphasizing conditioning with all of his young players, as Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart all topped 30 minutes as well. Injuries are still a concern, but with Williamson now healthy after an injury-plagued rookie season, the Pelicans are treating him like any other star. If he can play 33 minutes in a preseason game, he can play as many as New Orleans needs when the games start to count.
Are we headed for a three-peat?
Giannis Antetokounmpo has won back-to-back MVP awards. He’s also 26-years-old and his team just added Jrue Holiday, a star good enough to make the Bucks better without stealing any of his shine. Typically, you’d expect a player like that to enter the season as a heavy favorite to repeat as the MVP, yet according to William Hill Sportsbook, Luka Doncic currently has the lowest odds. He enters the season at +400, while Antetokounmpo trails close behind at +450.
If the preseason is any indication, though, any betting readers might want to go grab those Giannis odds while they still have the chance. He and Doncic have now faced off twice in a row, and Antetokounmpo has won the individual battle somewhat convincingly:
Points per game
Rebounds per game
Assists per game
Field goal percentage
No, MVP awards are not decided before the season even starts. Doncic is playing without Kristaps Porzingis right now, and he holds a meaningful narrative advantage after Antetokounmpo’s second-consecutive playoff collapse. He even managed to win both of these games. But after months of praising LeBron James for reclaiming his throne atop the league and a similar rush to anoint Doncic as his successor, the basketball world needed to be reminded that Giannis is still here, and he won’t be ignored just because we’ve moved on to other stories.
Everything we thought about this draft class was wrong… and right
Through two games apiece, No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards is 6-of-23 from the field, and No. 3 overall pick LaMelo Ball is 3-of-15. That’s not exactly a cause for concern. It is the preseason, after all, and it’s not as though either entered the NBA as a surefire superstar, but it still must discourage their teams to see so many guards taken later in the draft shine so quickly. Malachi Flynn already takes late-game shots with the confidence of a 10-year veteran.
Flynn, the No. 29 overall pick, scored 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting Monday, but Toronto’s recent history with youngsters undercuts the surprise. This is the team that turned undrafted Fred VanVleet into an $85 million player and Terence Davis into an All-Rookie selection. Giving Masai Ujiri the No. 29 overall is practically the equivalent of a normal general manager picking in the lottery. Sam Presti found a similar gem five picks later. French rookie Theo Maledon opened his preseason career with 20 points on 50 percent shooting, and lest you believe this phenomenon has been limited only to the league’s best executives, I’d direct you to Cleveland’s Isaac Okoro, second among all rookies in preseason scoring with 16.5 points per game. This is somewhat notable in light of Okoro’s scouting report. He was drafted to play defense for a Cavaliers team that has finished 30th on that end of the floor in back-to-back seasons. The scoring has come as a pleasant surprise.
No, we shouldn’t bury Ball or Edwards or any other rookie with an underwhelming preseason. They’re going to be fine. But the narrative surrounding this entire draft process was that what this class lacked in star power, it made up for in depth. The best rookies so far have come from all across the board, and while Ball and Edwards will still likely be among the best players to come out of the 2021 draft, their counterparts might not have had their pedigrees.
Let’s get real for a second. Chris Paul is 35 years old. He has a lengthy history of injuries. He’s coming off of an All-NBA season, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably don’t have that many great Chris Paul seasons left. As Shai Gilgeous-Alexander proved a year ago, though, his impact will last far longer than his career through the work he does in coaching up his younger teammates.
Paul is the president of the NBPA. He’s one of the most influential players in basketball. If he didn’t want to go to a young Suns team that probably isn’t equipped to deliver him his first championship, he wouldn’t have. But he seems to genuinely enjoy mentoring youngsters to such a degree that he was okay putting his championship aspirations on hold for the time being. Maybe he gets another chance to win one and maybe he doesn’t, but moments like this are a reminder that rings aren’t everything. This is how Paul chose to spend the end of his prime, and he seems to be enjoying every minute of it.