Lakers spacing, Cavs defense and more early NBA takeaways

With just a handful of NBA games played, we’re already seeing a baseline for trends like Lakers spacing, Cavs defense, and more.

With most teams only having a game or two under their belt, it’s difficult to say anything specific. So, to avoid making brazen generalizations, we’re going to offer a few observations worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

No Jalen Brunson, no problem

With the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans all re-introducing their star players who missed the entire 2021-22 campaign, the Dallas Mavericks have been named by some as a candidate for a regression in the loaded Western Conference.

As you’ll recall, this offseason, the Mavericks lost Jalen Brunson (arguably their second-best player of the last year) for “nothing” in free agency. The beauty of basketball, however, is that you almost never lose a player without getting an opportunity to replace their production.

In that case, filling Brunson’s void will likely be a two-man job, but if Game 1 is any indication, these two players – Christian Wood and Spencer Dinwiddie – are up for the task.

Brunson’s two biggest contributions over the past year have been his goals (second on the team in points per game) and his ability to pose as Luka Doncic when the Slovenian left the floor.

Wood (a 17.9 points-per-game scorer last year) seems poised to take on the first division. He dropped 25 points (on just 15 shot attempts) on his Mavericks debut, including an intriguing 16-point run that flashed every iota of his inside-out scoring game:

Meanwhile, Dinwiddie has demonstrated his ability to orchestrate Luka-Ball Lite in the past and he only reinforced that feeling when Doncic was on the bench for the first six minutes of the second quarter. During that stretch, Dallas extended their lead from eight points to 17, with Dinwiddie contributing 10 points over that span.

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Another note: With Brunson gone, the Mavericks are incredibly big. Of the nine players who saw minutes against the Suns, none was shorter than 6-foot-5.

The Cavs defense will be good

Many fans watched the Cleveland Cavaliers’ season opener against the Toronto Raptors hoping to see how the new backcourt dynamic between Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell would unfold. Unfortunately, that experience quickly ended when an eye injury in the second quarter sidelined Garland for the remainder of the competition.

We got a glimpse of the other overarching issue around the team, How will the defense hold up when two smaller guards lead the charge?

Luckily for Cleveland, guard defense isn’t nearly as important as paint protection (we’ll get to that later in the season). And they’re all at odds on that one as long as Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen wear Cavaliers uniform.

Thanks to the tandem’s central defense, the guards can reinforce their matchups because if the ball handler manages to get past them, they have top-notch cover on the backline.

But what differentiates their funnel tactic from that of the Utah Jazz that used to be used with Rudy Gobert is that there are two of them, so they not only clean up the guards’ mistakes, but the others as well:

In the 21 minutes they shared on the ground in Game 1, the New Age Twin Towers notched a 106.9 quarterback (per PBP stats). That mark would have been the first in the entire NBA last season.

Is Matisse Thybulle the outsider in Philadelphia?

A handful of analysts have identified the Philadelphia 76ers as the team that will represent the Eastern Conference in this season’s NBA Finals. And while much of these predictions are based on the visibility of superstar couple Joel Embiid and James Harden, there’s plenty of depth to this team as well.

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The 76ers flashed that depth in their opening game against the Boston Celtics. In the first quarter alone, Coach Doc Rivers brought on five different players from the bench.

The last of these five was Matisse Thybulle, fourth-year Warden. Thybulle saw just 20.3 seconds in that quarter and twenty-four seconds total for the entire game. In the following game he received the dreaded DNP CD.

This is important because Thybulle is a reigning two-time All-Defensive Team pick less than a year away from his nationally televised Superstar Shutdown showcase on Stephen Curry.

Thybulle is one of the best perimeter stoppers and defensive playmakers, but his offensive problems make it difficult for him to stay grounded against high-level opponents. Will injuries give him a second chance at Philadelphia, will he fight his way into rotation through improvement, or will the team and Thybulle just part ways at deadline or in the offseason?

New year, new Julius Randle?

After bursting onto the scene in 2020/21, last year was a step in the wrong direction for Julius Randle. Most of his fights were out of his control (he was probably miscast as the number one offensive player), but he also tended to be his own worst enemy at times.

One of the key improvements Randle made during his 2020-21 breakout campaign was his death. His ability to set up teammates with kickouts or laydowns when he drew a second defender was a deadly tool in his stash of offensive weapons. However, last season he strayed from this approach and often opted for highly competitive show jumpers (like this) instead of trusting his teammates.

This change is evident when looking at the trend in his performance from year to year in Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating metric (an estimate of a player’s passing ability on a “approximate” scale of 1 to 10):

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*Data provided by

Notice the sharp drop from 2020-21 to 2021-22?

The good news is that early returns suggest a recovery season for Randle may be on the horizon. He notched six assists against the Memphis Grizzlies while displaying a level of composure, patience, and decision-making that was often lacking last season.

Lakers hold up better now they need to notice their opponents

A maxim applicable to many sports: big attacks clear the field and big defenses shrink it.

The Los Angeles Lakers (finally) recognized the importance of the former part of that sentiment and made it distance a priority in their offense. On the halfcourt, the Lakers line up in a 4-out, 1-in formation. Like this:

The problem is that great offensive distance requires two attributes – 1) the physical act of properly distributing the ground, and 2) the staff to make the defense respond to your distance.

As the screenshot above shows, the Lakers got the hang of attribute one. The problem is meeting the criteria required to meet attribute two. For explanation, let’s see how the rest of this sequence plays out:

Los Angeles was formed in theory to bolster the Golden State Warriors’ defense, but as we know, theory doesn’t translate to practice. None of the three “shooters” the Lakers had on the court were dangerous enough to make Golden State wince, and the result is a wave of obstacles between LeBron James and the basket.

The Lakers as a whole have struggled from downtown, converting just 19 of their 85 tries in two games (22.4 percent), a number they certainly need to improve if they’re ever to capitalize on their distance.

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