There are no championships to win, no awards to earn, no reason for comfort and no reason for alarm just yet. The NBA season is only one-fourth old, with plenty of time to see dreams realized … and ruined.
This is, however, the right time to check temperatures and pulses to see which players and teams are heading in the right direction, and which ones could use a reset as the season creeps toward the annual Christmas Day bonanza and calendar flip.
And so: Here are 10 things we’ve learned so far about the 2022-23 season, which has a few surprises, some fresh new faces and also plenty of developments that were pretty much expected:
Celtics are distraction-proof. Over the span of four months, Boston let a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals slip away, lost their coach for good, their starting center until January or February and a reliable role player for even longer. And look who’s holding the best record in the league. The Celtics, without Ime Udoka, are cruising. Jayson Tatum is playing like a Kia MVP favorite and Boston brings an offense that’s historically efficient. It’s a proud group and Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown are just a few of the returnees who seem hell-bent on redemption. Plus, Boston will only get better once Robert Williams returns from injury, and possibly Danilo Gallinari as soon as the postseason begins. The last time a new coach walked unexpectedly into an ideal situation like this — on a solid team fresh off an appearance in the Finals — was perhaps Pat Riley with the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1980s. So if nothing else, Joe Mazzulla has that going for him, and plenty more if, like Riley, he can cash in come June.
Meanwhile, the Nets are the distraction. Good news for Brooklyn: there aren’t any more uncomfortable headlines in the making, are there? Hard to top Kevin Durant asking for a trade, Kyrie Irving causing a social media storm and getting a suspension, Ben Simmons starting slowly, and Steve Nash willingly walking away from the coaching job just a month into the new season. Logic says this team has finally run out of issues. At least that had better be the case, for their sake. Crazy thing is, the Nets are still capable of making noise — the productive kind — when it counts. You cannot easily dismiss a team with Durant, who can still drop 30 on anyone. If Irving and Simmons perform to their basketball abilities, then Brooklyn is a top-tier team in the East. So, they’re due. They only have one signature win this season, over the Memphis Grizzlies (without Ja Morant).
Rudy Gobert isn’t the answer (yet) in Minnesota. When the Timberwolves swapped a collection of unprotected first-round picks and role players last summer for one of the league’s best defensive players, it seemed risky then … and suspicious now. The move was made to push the Wolves towards title contention, but right now they’re a lot closer to the Draft lottery — dangerous territory, since their 2023 pick belongs to the Utah Jazz as compensation. Gobert hasn’t been terrible (other than when he’s trying to catch bounce passes); he’s the league’s rebounding leader and once again a rim protector. But the chemistry isn’t there with him and his teammates, most notably Karl-Anthony Towns. The Wolves aren’t coping well with the pressure that came with the trade.
Meanwhile, Donovan Mitchell is the answer in Cleveland. Not many teams come away without buyer’s remorse after dealing with Jazz GM Danny Ainge, but let’s just say the Cavs are sleeping peacefully at night because Mitchell is exactly what the Cavs needed. Right from the jump, he became a late-game hero (he’s No. 4 in fourth-quarter scoring through Nov. 28) and solid compliment next to Darius Garland, giving the Cavs a pair of 20-point scorers and one of the league’s best backcourts. Mitchell is in his prime, hungry to win and anxious to establish himself as a top 10 player. The Cavs are built to last and could travel deep into summer. We’ll check back in a few months for an update on those credentials. For now, all signs are glowing because Mitchell is a right fit.
Tanks, but no tanks. Let us concede that the magnetic and gravitational powers have suddenly summoned these teams back to Earth and reality. But for the first few weeks of the season, the Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers took the league by surprise if not by storm. At various points in early November, Utah led the West and the Thunder had a better record than the defending-champion Warriors — whodathunkit? These teams were preseason picks as the Most Likely To Lose Games if not strategically then logically, since their talent was (and still is) thin and the rosters lack stars. And of course, with Victor Wembanyama as the grand prize in next summer’s draft, losing now means possibly winning big later. We’ll see which teams are trading valuable players when the deadline approaches. Indiana, in particular, is still holding onto respectability while the others are finally slipping.
LeBron is not with a title contender. We can reach that conclusion about the Lakers, right? Is that safe to say here in December, with the Lakers well under .500? Meanwhile, everything else is up in the air about a team with two former MVPs and a third player, Anthony Davis, playing like one at the moment. Russell Westbrook seems reborn as a sixth man, too. In this role, the pressure is reduced along with the expectations, and he can feel more comfortable as a role player. LeBron once again is an elite player here in his 20th season but unsurprisingly is vulnerable to nagging injuries. Assuming good health for all three — which is a steep wish — the Lakers should have enough to make the playoffs, which LeBron has done only twice in his four full seasons in L.A. But with a weak supporting cast, the next step, however, seems greasy.
The youthful transition has turned tricky with the Warriors. Stephen Curry, already with games of 47 and 50 points, is still who we thought he was. The same can’t be said for most of the Warriors’ young players who should be earning bigger roles and more significant playing time. After 11 games, James Wiseman was sent to the NBA G League for more seasoning, while Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody are drifting toward back-of-the-rotation guys. Making matters worse, the Warriors can’t defend and are still waiting for Klay Thompson to develop more high-end consistency. It all adds up to a surprisingly average start for the defending champs. Lucky for the Warriors, nobody is running away with the West at the moment as 10 teams are separated by 3 1/2 games.
The Kings have a Beam Team. Sacramento was flirting with a third decade of irrelevancy when the season began … but wait! The Kings and their fans have literally seen the light! As in, the purple “victory” beam that shoots from the roof of Golden1 Center whenever the home team scores a win. What was once a gimmick has become a rallying force within the franchise, and the Kings are refreshingly entertaining and competitive not only at home (where they’re 6-3) but also on the road. This happens when De’Aaron Fox takes a step toward becoming an All-Star, and Domantas Sabonis and Kevin Huerter and rookie Keegan Murray bring special elements that were missing in years past. It’s a nice start for new coach Mike Brown and now the Kings need a flourishing finish, for a change.
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) November 21, 2022
Clippers use depth for now, save stars for later. Now we know why the Clippers loaded up on useful role players. They’re leaning on them to keep the club competitive while Kawhi Leonard and, to a lesser extent, Paul George go in and out of the lineup while their bodies heal. It’s working so far, heck, even Ivica Zubac had a career moment (31 points and 29 rebounds) on Sunday against the Pacers. Ten different players have started at least one game, and 12 players are averaging double-digit minutes, proof that the lineup can and will change depending on availability. The goal, then, is to keep Leonard as fresh (and therefore healthy) as possible for the playoffs while hoping to rise in the regular-season standings from the middle of the pack to among the contenders.
Bucks have a championship plan. Much like the Clippers, the Bucks are not complete yet. Unlike the Clippers, their superstar doesn’t miss games. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an iron man and delivering on MVP-level once again and that’s why the Bucks are near the top of the heap, even without Khris Middleton. Therefore, things are going well for Milwaukee, and life should get rosier once Middleton returns from wrist surgery, which could happen very soon. As a bonus, the Bucks also have Joe Ingles healing from knee surgery and await his possible return late next spring, in time for the postseason. It’s a great situation for a team that’s championship-built and can only get better.
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