NBA

Separating the contenders from the pretenders in the early part of the 2020-21 NBA season

It's just two weeks into the NBA season and it's easy to react or overreact to some of the performances we've seen early on.

There are a handful of teams who have gotten off to solid starts, and others who have hit the starting gate.

We asked our NBA.com staff to weed through the noise and tell us who they think is for real, who may be fools gold and who they aren't quite sure about to start the regular season.

Keep in mind, it's early, no one truly knows how this season will play out, but as you'll see in some cases when you know, you know.

Who's for real?

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I'm buying all the stock I can in the Phoenix Suns right now.

I was optimistic about Chris Paul's fit alongside Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton coming into the season, but the Suns are off to an even smoother start than I expected. Paul, Booker and Ayton aren't even playing their best basketball yet, but the three of them fit like a glove.

Monty Williams already has the Suns running some interesting stuff to weaponize the three of them at the same time, my favourite being his spin on the Spain pick-and-roll that has taken over the league.

Plus, the Suns have gotten a huge boost from Mikal Bridges, who is looking like an early candidate for MIP with his improved 3-point shooting and monstrous defence, and their bench has been better than advertised with Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson leading the charge.

The Suns are legit, people.

Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): This isn't very hot take-y considering they went to the Eastern Conference Finals last season (and in three of the last four seasons) but it doesn't feel like their name is being mentioned in title contender conversations and that's the Boston Celtics.

There's a lot of chatter about other teams in the East after very active offseasons - the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, in particular. The Miami Heat have earned some sort of a benefit of the doubt because of their encouraging run to the Finals last year. But the Celtics have been lost in that mix of teams as legitimate title contenders in the East and I'm not really sure why.

Jaylen Brown has been one of the best players in the NBA through the first two weeks of the season. Averaging 26.2 points per game while shooting 54.7% from the field and 41.2% from 3, Brown has been the most efficient scorer in the league. He looks more explosive, he's been even tougher on the defensive end and he's truly making an All-Star leap right in front of our eyes.

Jayson Tatum hasn't skipped a beat, either, posting 26.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game - all of which would be career-highs - while also averaging a steal and block. He's already knocked down two game-winners and this tandem has become the first pair of Celtics teammates to score 200-plus points through the first eight games of the season since Larry Bird and Kevin McHale in 1986-87.

That duo with this roster around them is enough to win an NBA title and we still haven't even seen All-Star guard Kemba Walker take the floor yet.

Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): I've been burned saying this before but I'm confident enough to say it already… I think this year is the Philadelphia 76ers year to really make some noise.

Philly saw its season come to a disappointing end as an injury to Ben Simmons put an end to any chance the team had to figure things out in the Playoffs. Countless questions surrounded the Sixers and it was clear that a number of changes needed to be made.

And they were.

The Sixers' transformative offseason resulted in their making vast improvements from last season by adding Seth Curry, Danny Green, Dwight Howard and rookie Tyrese Maxey, among others. They also improved from a leadership standpoint by bringing in Doc Rivers as head coach and adding Daryl Morey to work alongside Elton Brand.

It all runs through Joel Embiid, who has made it clear he is on a mission to re-enter conversations as the league's best centre, while Simmons has more shooting around him to space the floor, with Curry coming out of the gates firing on quite literally all cylinders.

Rivers, who got the most out of Tobias Harris with the LA Clippers, is doing so again, with Harris earning Player of the Week honours early in the season. And, of course, this Sixers team is nasty defensively. They've got all the ingredients of a team that can make a serious postseason run.

Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): They haven't exactly set the win column alight, but the Atlanta Hawks are for real!

After finishing with one of the worst records in the league last season, the Hawks look every bit the playoff team this season.

With a strong mix of youth and experience, the Hawks have shot-makers all over the floor and currently have the second-best offence in the league, boasting an offensive rating of 112.7, with seven different players averaging in double figures.

They have yet to see the best of Danilo Gallinari this season as well, given he's only played two games, only adding to their impressive depth, which becomes an even bigger factor in a shortened 72-game season.

Meanwhile, livewire point guard Trae Young continues to take his game to new heights, averaging 25.9 points per game and a career-high 11.0 free throw attempts per game. But, it's the development of the Hawks' other young players that give reason for excitement, with De'Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and John Collins are combining for 44.4 points a night.

Their defence still has work to do, but the early signs from this Hawks team show that their offensive ability is at a level that will keep them in games against the league's best teams.

Who's fool's gold?

Rafferty: I want to believe in the Portland Trail Blazers, but I can't get there.

The Blazers have proven to be one of the best offensive teams in the league - CJ McCollum making a leap would make them even scarier on that end of the court - but I'm not convinced that Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington is enough to transform their defence. It's been a struggle so far this season, with the Blazers ranking 28th in defensive efficiency, ahead of only the Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves.

While some of that could do with them working in new players and adjusting to a new defensive scheme, I'm skeptical that they can build a good enough defence to compete with the best of the best in the Western Conference.

I hope they prove me wrong.

Irving: The Indiana Pacers have been awesome, but they're still fool's gold.

There's a lot to be excited about on this roster. Domantas Sabonis is solidifying himself as one of the best bigs in the NBA and has been on a tear so far this season averaging 20.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. Malcolm Brogdon has been the ideal floor general, Victor Oladipo looks like he's getting back to his former All-Star form, Myles Turner has done a great job protecting the paint with a league-leading 4.1 blocks per game.

The Pacers have made the playoffs five years in a row now and they'll make the playoffs again this year. But they've also lost in the first round in each of those five seasons and I'm not sure this team is much different than those previous five teams. That, to me, is why they're still fools gold.

McGregor: We're a year too early in saying the Dallas Mavericks are making a leap.

Coming into the year, Luka Doncic was viewed as the favourite to win MVP, presumably based on the notion that he would be leading this team to a top-three finish in the West, paving the way for a deep run in the playoffs.

Luka is amazing and can put the team on his back for a few games at a time, as we saw in his epic Game 4, but it's still a big ask for him to do it at that level for 72 games. And that's what it would take this year.

I won't overreact to Dallas' slow start and question its legitimacy as a playoff contender but the absence of Kristaps Porzingis is a reminder of just how many things need to go right for this team to make the most of its potential.

Of course, any team missing its second-best player would struggle but the Mavs don't seem to have as many options to rely on outside of their main guys. Let's be patient and allow this team to have a longer timeline before expecting them to be at that next level.

Kidane: The Orlando Magic got off to their best start to a season in franchise history, but I think they will fall back into the pack, given the level of talent in the Eastern Conference and their light schedule so far.

Of their six wins this season, the only proven team they've beaten has been the Miami Heat, while the others have come against the Oklahoma City Thunder, two against the Cleveland Cavaliers and two against the struggling Washington Wizards.

Now with Markelle Fultz out for season with a torn ACL, more pressure falls on rookie Cole Anthony who has shown he can be a productive scorer in his first season, but it will be hard to replicate what Fultz was doing for the team.

The continuity of their roster also can't be understated, but I need to see them beat some genuine contenders before I'm ready to buy-in.

Who's the biggest question mark?

Rafferty: I'm struggling to know what to make of the Brooklyn Nets.

Offensively, they've proven that they have to firepower to win any game - it helps that Kevin Durant looks better than I think anyone could've expected coming off of a torn Achilles - but I need to see more from them defensively before I buy them as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. There's a lot riding on Durant, Joe Harris, DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen to carry them on that end of the floor. They're each capable, but it feels like they're still missing a lockdown defender.

Also, I'm curious to see how they rebound from Spencer Dinwiddie's injury. They have Caris LeVert to eat up the bulk of Dinwiddie's minutes, but Dinwiddie is a bit of a smoother fit next to Irving and Durant on both ends of the court. Them losing him for potentially the entire season is a big loss.

Irving: The Miami Heat have confused me to start this season.

They haven't exactly looked like the team that went on a magical run to the NBA Finals last season. All-Star forward Jimmy Butler hasn't really shown up yet, although there are few players that exerted more energy than he did just a few months back. Was the run lightning in a bottle? I didn't think so, but I still haven't seen much from them this season to tell me otherwise just yet.

McGregor: I'm not exactly sure what's going on with the Denver Nuggets.

It's been a weird season for plenty of teams but it's strange to see last year's Western Conference Finalist lose four of its first five games out of the gate. I know one was a bad bounce and another was decided in the final moments but it feels like the team isn't quite there to start.

They've got so much talent and I'm sure they'll figure it out but it feels like the team would come out with more vengeance after coming so close, yet so far from the ultimate prize. Maybe it's something that will sort itself out as the season goes on.

Kidane: On paper, the Washington Wizards have the pieces to make some noise in the Eastern Conference, but their start to the season has left much to be desired.

Russell Westbrook is piling up triple-doubles, Bradley Beal is scoring for fun and big man Thoms Bryant looks like a potential Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, averaging 17.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, yet they're 2-6 to start the season.

Despite their slow start, I'm confident that once they build some chemistry, the wins will come, but in an Eastern Conference that is as competitive as ever, they'll need to figure things out soon.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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