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The List: Trust the Cavs, enjoy Ben Simmons and more early NBA takes

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Don’t count out LeBron. Do appreciate Ben Simmons. And, maybe, believe in the Pistons.

We’re just about 10 games into the season and now is the time for takes. Be they hot, lukewarm, or just tepid, here are five.

The Cavs are the favorites in the East as long as LeBron James is healthy. We go through this every year and every spring LeBron winds up leading his team back to the Finals. My official take on the Cavs is that I’ll believe an Eastern Conference team can beat them in the playoffs when I see it on the court. (Witness Friday night’s LeBronorama on the Wizards’ home floor.)

I will concede that this year’s freakout does feel different. Make no mistake: Cleveland has been really, really bad this season. They got older in the offseason and worse defensively. Their spacing is a mess. The constant lineup shuffling hasn’t helped forge any sense of continuity. We don’t know what the Cavs will look like when Isaiah Thomas comes back, or even when he’ll come back, and it’s not like I.T. will help their issues on defense.

I will further concede that this Cavs team looks particularly ill-equipped to deal with the Warriors unless LeBron can somehow play both ends for 45 minutes a night, which even he can’t do anymore. There are not any signs that one would consider positive, outside of LeBron’s 57-point masterpiece against the Wizards.

That performance served as validation that the East still runs through LeBron. I’m going to ride with that notion until the bitter end, no matter how many times they get embarrassed against the Hawks.

I underestimated Ben Simmons. A confession: I was not bullish on the professional prospects of Ben Simmons. My concern was that his lack of shooting range would be a huge obstacle. Maybe it was the missed season due to injury, or maybe it was a by-product of watching way too many horrible LSU games during his uninspiring college career, but I was not among those predicting stardom.

It took me nine games to reevaluate that stance. I’m happy to own that error because Simmons comes along at a point when the NBA could use some stylistic eccentricity. He fits no prototype and plays a game that is largely unfamiliar to anyone else in the league. It’s been far too long since we had somebody like Simmons, who dominates from the inside-out with almost no perimeter hangups.

Even at 6-10, Simmons has to be crafty around the basket and he’s rolled out a number of funky moves that are essentially unblockable. His scoring is a wonderful bonus, but it’s his rebounding and playmaking that are his greatest strengths. Simmons has been so good that he’s made the bizarre loss of Markelle Fultz completely tenable for the Sixers. Simmons is not only the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, he’s a viable All-Star candidate in the watered-down East.

Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are criminally underrated. We are entering Year 3 of the Dame/CJ backcourt era and we’re way past the experimentation stage. It’s been demonstrably proven that they not only co-exist together, they complement each other in all sorts of wonderful ways. There’s an unselfishness to the duo that’s refreshing when you consider the offensive burden they both share.

It’s been their defensive work that has the Blazers off to a strong start. Lillard, in particular, seems to have taken the criticism of his defense to heart. He’s been noticeably quicker to react and more involved on that end. In 229 minutes together this season, opponents are scoring just over 100 points per 100 possessions against the duo, a nine-point improvement from last season.

Defense is a team-wide concern and the Blazers are playing it at a level no one thought possible. Can this team really be a top-5 defense this season? Given their offensive firepower in the backcourt, even a regression to top-10ish would be a huge improvement.

Come on, Karl-Anthony Towns. Look, we all think KAT is a future All-NBA player. He’s got everything you want in a modern big game: skills, range, and athleticism. He’s also just about to turn 22 and there’s a decent chance that the lights will go all the way on by the end of the season. Given the additions of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague, one would expect some offensive regression. That’s not the problem. KAT’s issues on the defensive end are the most perplexing element.

The Wolves are getting shredded when Towns is on the court. His foul rate is up and his block percentage is down. At times, it appears that Towns is over-thinking and reacting a step or two too late. That’s the charitable view. The other, less kind version, is that he’s not fully engaged on that end of the floor and his bad habits have multiplied over his first few season in the league.

The flipside of this is that Jimmy Butler is so damned good he can cover up for a lot of problems. It’s no accident that the Wolves are 7-1 when Butler plays. He takes care of so many defensive responsibilities that the Wolves can work through their issues while continuing to win games. If Towns can get it together defensively, this team has scary potential. It’s really up to him.

The Pistons just might be good. With so many Eastern Conference teams bunched around the vast middle, it was only inevitable that somebody would make a move. My preseason hunch was that Miami would exceed expectations (and, no, I haven’t given up on the Heat just yet). Of that group, the Pistons were just kind of there, a tease coming off a disappointment with only a handful of roster adjustments from last season. I’m not ready to elevate Detroit just yet, but somebody’s got to make an impact in the East standings this season. It might as well be them.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Golden State Warriors
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There are warning signs all around. Their starting lineup has not been good and their defense isn’t where it should be, considering their talent and Stan Van Gundy’s demands on that end. Still, the Pistons have scored impressive wins over a handful of Western Conference teams, including the Warriors.

The biggest surprise is that Andre Drummond looks like a capable free throw shooter. The importance of that should not be underestimated because Drummond was basically unplayable in crunch time. The other positive plot twist is that Tobias Harris is playing like an All-Star. It’s hard to believe that Harris is in his seventh (!) season, but he’s still just 25 years old and has always had the potential for this kind of breakout campaign.

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