An MVP in Miami and a contender in Manhattan? Whats real and whats not in the NBA

  • Co-author, Pro Basketball Prospectus series
  • Formerly a consultant with the Indiana Pacers
  • Developed WARP rating and SCHOENE system

Two weeks into the 2021-22 NBA season, it’s time to take stock of which surprising early results are legitimate and which might not be sustainable over the course of the league’s first planned 82-game schedule in three years.

Already, there have been plenty of surprises, including the teams atop the Eastern Conference standings. With last year’s four conference semifinalists in the East off to slow starts for a variety of reasons, three teams that missed the playoffs in 2020-21 are ahead of them, along with two more (the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards) that were quickly dispatched in the opening round.

Meanwhile, the LA Clippers are struggling without the injured Kawhi Leonard after reaching the Western Conference finals without him.

At the individual level, Miles Bridges is already making the Charlotte Hornets regret not agreeing to an extension with him before last month’s deadline, while Harrison Barnes is a surprising newcomer in my wins above replacement player (WARP) leaderboard with Jimmy Butler an equally surprising leader.

The Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers have gotten contrasting production from longtime All-Stars playing smaller roles this season, Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin.

Let’s dig deep into the numbers to assess what’s real and what’s not among early, unexpected results.

The Knicks and Bulls are back!

It has been a quarter-century since the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks last met in the postseason (capping six matchups in an eight-year span), but Thursday’s matchup between the 4-0 Bulls and 3-1 Knicks in New York had an early air of a playoff preview. Both Chicago and New York entered this season with high expectations after active offseasons and have exceeded them thus far.

Much was made of the Bulls’ soft early schedule (their first four games were all against 2020 lottery teams), but after playing the Knicks and beating the previously undefeated Utah Jazz on Friday, their opponents rate about average overall, making Chicago’s plus-8.7 point differential impressive. The Bulls entered Monday’s play third in Basketball-Reference.com’s simple rating system behind the Jazz and Miami Heat, with New York one spot behind.

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