Things can change. Things will change. Keep this in mind before you read any further: Whatever happened in the first week of the 2022-23 NBA season won’t necessarily last through April, maybe not even into December.
But as the Utah Jazz might say, what a week, huh?
And the Lakers will nod their heads in agreement.
Now that the season’s begun, and the way-too-early over-reactions have started, and narratives are being formed, here’s what we’ve learned from seven days of opening-week action.
Portland off to a Blazin’ start
And the team with the best record is … the 4-0 Trail Blazers? Yes, indeed. Damian Lillard is back after last season’s injury interruption and once again is shooting from the logo. He has a pair of 41-point games and a 31-pointer.
Also, a sneaky development for a team that missed the playoffs last season is the rise of Anfernee Simons, fresh off a 22-point third quarter against the Nuggets where he made seven 3s in the win. Simons is the new CJ McCollum, only younger, and suddenly, Dame not only has a solid backcourt mate, but maybe a team to watch this season.
All that Jazz … or is it the blues?
Crazy to classify a team off to a 3-1 start as perplexing, but here we are with the Jazz. The franchise that traded two All-Stars and four starters total and essentially received spare parts and future assets in return is winning — the first three games against West contenders — and doing so in a season where next summer’s Draft prize, Victor Wembanyama, is a generational talent.
Utah is right near the top of the league in both 3-point shooting and scoring. Apparently, and this is true everywhere in the NBA, players don’t tank. There’s no gain for them, and if anything, they’d be purposely losing just to see a high Draft pick arrive and take their job next season. So, no, they didn’t get the memo. Lauri Markkanen hasn’t looked this fluid in a while, if ever. Rookie center Walker Kessler has had moments, while youngsters Collin Sexton and Jarred Vanderbilt and veterans Kelly Olynyk and Jordan Clarkson are all contributing.
It’s a good look for rookie coach Will Hardy, who apparently is connecting with the crew. Maybe the winning won’t continue for much longer — the Jazz fell to earth Monday by losing to the Rockets — and if this is just a phase, then fine, in a sense. For right now, it’s a fun and chest-beating time for the overachieving Jazz. We think.
The Lakers will be an issue … until they aren’t
Winless at 0-3, this team lacks deep shooters (NBA-worst 21.2% on 3-pointers), is average defensively and every night provides a critical update on the value of Russell Westbrook. And there’s more than six months to go. Already, the Lakers are exhausting and that’s not a positive sign here in LeBron James’ 20th season, which is really the root of the issue. If LeBron wasn’t on the clock, there wouldn’t be as much urgency. But the whole purpose of having LeBron on your team in his sunset is to compete for a title while you can. The Lakers simply aren’t built to take advantage of this, and that’s why they’re such a lightning rod.
Speaking of that … Westbrook is 2-for-15 on shots beyond 14 feet despite getting wide-open looks because the defense is showing him disrespect. So, Westbrook is increasingly becoming a liability. New coach Darvin Ham doesn’t seem like the pacifying type, and if Westbrook continues to shoot poorly, his minutes could diminish (although, the Lakers don’t exactly have a diamond in the rough waiting in the wings). Trading him and throwing in a first-round pick as a sweetener is an option, but that’s the emergency button and the Lakers aren’t there yet. If this keeps up, though, this is a problem for a team whose 2023 first-rounder can be swapped by the New Orleans Pelicans, which is partial payment for Anthony Davis and that 2020 championship.
Load managing … already?
Kawhi Leonard, Zach LaVine and Jamal Murray have already been held out for precautionary measures and the season’s only a week old. It’s understandable in one sense as all three are coming back after surgery and their importance is obviously crucial to the Clippers, Bulls and Nuggets, respectively.
Still, it’s a weird vibe as well. Did their rehab not go smoothly over the last four or five months? And in the case of Murray and Leonard, they haven’t hooped in more than a year. It’s just another example of teams ceding to their medical staffs over the basketball operations, and also being overly cautious with stars toting injury histories. It’s a long season, and all three might reach the playoffs, so their teams are taking the long-term approach.
It’s good for the players, but bad for any fan who buys a ticket hoping to see them play on nights when they’re a scratch for “injury recovery.”
Bennedict Mathurin is either a tease … or the truth
If preseason projections are true, then it’ll be a rough season for the Pacers — they’re still waiting on Myles Turner to recover and suit up — but the silver lining is looking golden right now. Their first-round pick is producing right away and at times has been Indiana’s best player on the floor. Mathurin scored 17 or more in all four games, all off the bench, and looks comfortable.
He’s precisely the type of player the Pacers need: someone with promise and who can develop by getting decent minutes without feeling any pressure. Paolo Banchero started strong as well for Orlando, which is what’s expected from the No. 1 overall pick. If the Pacers trade Buddy Hield at some point this season, it’s because Mathurin can use those minutes and the starting spot.
The Sixers already searching for solutions
Perhaps Philadelphia is too busy swooning over the World Series-bound Phillies and the undefeated Eagles to notice much right now, but the 1-3 Sixers have, shall we say, hit a snag out of the gate. And it’s a bit of a mystery if only because Joel Embiid is coming off yet another Kia MVP runner-up season, James Harden whipped himself in shape, Tyrese Maxey is averaging 20-plus points to put himself in contention for Kia Most Improved Player honors and the club added PJ Tucker for much-needed toughness.
The Sixers are lagging in both offensive (13th) and defensive (22nd) efficiency. Coach Doc Rivers is asking everyone to trust this process, but good luck pleading for patience in a town known for expressing very little of it for its teams. Common sense says the Sixers won’t stay down for long. And for their sake, they need to reset well before the town takes notice.
Christian Wood is all good in Dallas
Let’s take a quick poll: Who’s the best teammate Luka Doncic has ever had? (We’ll wait.)
It’s not a sterling list, to say the least. Most are/have been decent enough, such as Tim Hardaway Jr. And the role players, mainly floor-spacing shooters, are/have been fine. Kristaps Porzingis was supposed to be That Guy, until he wasn’t. So the search continues, although, just maybe, Wood can occupy that seat, for now anyway. He’s averaging about a point a minute off the bench and is the first Maverick to score at least 25 points in each of his first two games. Some execs were surprised to see the Rockets let him go so cheaply in the offseason, while others were “meh” about it.
Wood elicits mixed opinions, but he does have talent, no doubt, as a 6-foot-9 wing who brings floor spacing and a decent touch near the rim. At some point, he’ll be inserted in the starting lineup and we’ll get a better idea of how he fits with Luka and also how he copes with the pressures of playing on a contending team for a change.
The Cavs got a good pickup on the cheap, too
Donovan Mitchell, of all the newcomers, might’ve had the most impressive start with his new team. It’s a competitive race with Wood, Dejounte Murray in Atlanta and, to a slightly lesser extent, Jalen Brunson in New York. But Mitchell has instantly taken the reigns in Cleveland, as evident by his heroics in overtime against the Wizards and a trio of 30-point outputs in his first three games.
Of course, he was heavy usage in those games because of a nasty eye poke suffered by All-Star backcourt mate Darius Garland. Everyone wants to see how the two mesh over the long haul and if they’re willing to play off the ball whenever necessary, much like Murray and Trae Young seem to be doing so far in Atlanta.
"If we can look forward to 41 of these and more, I'm excited!"@spidadmitchell joins @SerenaWinters to chat about the @cavs' home-opening win but gets interrupted by a couple teammates along the way.#LetEmKnow pic.twitter.com/WfvhorsOzN
— Bally Sports Cleveland (@BallySportsCLE) October 24, 2022
The bottom line is that Cleveland is a better team with Mitchell, who doesn’t shrink in the lights and who’s looking to elevate the young Cavs in the competitive East.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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