Each week, NBA.com’s writers will weigh in on some of the most important topics around the league.
What is the biggest surprise of the NBA season so far?
STEVE ASCHBURNER: From the mildly surprising to the wildly startling, from the relative absence of a “tankathon” for Victor Wembanyama lottery balls to the implosions of the Nets and the Lakers, nothing can touch what the Boston Celtics put themselves through. The first part was shocking — a Finals team banishing its successful head coach on the brink of a new season. The second part of the surprise has been the Celtics’ performance with understudy Joe Mazzulla in Ime Udoka’s role. Several players were legitimately rocked by Udoka’s suspension for violating team policies in an improper sexual relationship, then agitated again when it looked as if he would wind up coaching rival Brooklyn with their bosses’ blessing. But their performance — with the NBA’s best record, as an offensive juggernaut, despite some notable injuries (Robert Williams III, Danilo Gallinari) — has won out, showing how determined they are to get back to the championship round. In spite of a foundation-shaking blow less than two months ago.
BRIAN MARTIN: What’s most surprising is the staggering offensive output over the first 30 days from the team and individual player level.
Through Wednesday, there are seven players averaging more than 30 points per game, led by Dallas’ Luka Doncic (34.4 ppg) after he opened the season with a streak of 30-plus point games not seen since Wilt Chamberlain. Through the first 30 days of last season, no one was averaging 30 ppg (Stephen Curry led the way then with 28.7 ppg).
On Wednesday, Curry posted the third 50-plus point game of the season’s first 30 days, joining Joel Embiid (59) and Darius Garland (51). Additionally, there have already been 24 games this season where a player has scored 40 points or more. By comparison at this point last season, there was one 50-point game (also from Curry) and 13 40-plus point games.
It’s not just individual players posting big numbers, though. Team offense in 2022-23 is already in mid-season form. Take a look at the month-by-month league scoring averages from last season: 107.4 ppg in October, 107.2 ppg in November, 109.3 ppg in December, 110.2 ppg in January, 112.7 ppg in February, 113.7 ppg in March and 115.7 ppg in April.
Through the first 30 days of the 2022-23 season, the league scoring average is at 112.7 ppg (which ties last February’s mark). After 30 days last season, the league scoring average was 106.8 ppg.
Is offense peaking early this season, or is this the new baseline and the numbers will continue to rise month-by-month as we’ve seen in the past?
MARK MEDINA: Despite winning the NBA title last season, the Golden State Warriors anticipated a few growing pains coming into this season. But they did not anticipate such a poor start (6-9), including a winless road record (0-8).
Jordan Poole has been inconsistent after signing a contract extension. Klay Thompson remains rusty in his first full NBA season after being sidelined for more than two years with injuries. Third-year center James Wiseman — still learning — was recently sent to the NBA G League. Second-year forward Jonathan Kuminga has struggled to receive consistent minutes. And the Warriors are 25th in defensive rating (113.6).
What’s also head scratching about the Warriors’ start is that it has happened while Stephen Curry has posted MVP-type numbers. Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney have also played consistently … and that still hasn’t been enough.
Poole and Thompson have time to produce bounce-back performances. Wiseman and Kuminga have time to develop. The Warriors have time to fix their defense. But if the losing continues, don’t be surprised if the Warriors make deals before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.
SHAUN POWELL: It’s oh so tempting to label the charred remains of the Brooklyn Nets as the season’s biggest surprise, but that’s the point — this is about biggest surprise, not biggest disappointment. Is another Kyrie Irving drama really a surprise? Is Steve Nash bailing as coach after a few weeks really a surprise? (He’s probably relieved.) Is Ben Simmons still trying to figure it out really a surprise? Not really.
Not as much as the Utah (?) Jazz (!) sitting at or near the top of the West heap since the first week — now that’s a surprise. You didn’t see this coming, and neither did Danny Ainge, the team president who pawned off his two All-Stars, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, for essentially future NBA players who are 12 years old now. Apparently we all underestimated the hunger for minutes and status by Lauri Markkanen (averaging a career-high 21.3 ppg) and a bunch of scrappy and proud rotational players who love taking the league by … surprise. So, yeah, it’s the Jazz, who rank second in 3-pointers made, who are playing hard for new coach Will Hardy and who are catching everyone off guard. For now, anyway. Maybe by January, the Jazz will be exactly who we thought they were.
JOHN SCHUHMANN: I’m sure others will answer the Jazz, and that’s certainly not a wrong answer. But to swerve, I’ll add the 7-6 Indiana Pacers.
After their trade with the Kings last season, the Pacers were 6-21 (worst in the Eastern Conference), with the league’s worst defense (122 points allowed per 100 possessions). They already have more wins in 13 games this season than they had in 27 games after the trade last season, having traded Malcolm Brogdon in the summer. Brogdon played in only eight of those 27 post-trade games, but it was still clear that the Pacers were taking a step backward … from the team that finished with the franchise’s worst record in 37 seasons. They were supposed to be among the worst teams in the East, but on Thursday, they woke up in sixth place, having won six of their last eight games.
The defense is still relatively bad and Indiana ranks 25th defensively through Wednesday. But Tyrese Haliburton (20.6 ppg and 10.4 apg) had lead a potent (seventh-ranked) offense that ranks in the top six in both 3-point percentage (38.1%) and 3-point rate (44.3% of shots coming from beyond the arc). Rookie Bennedict Mathurin is a shooter who also gets to the line and Buddy Hield is a shooter who also makes plays. Myles Turner is getting to play more like a big man, taking more than half of his shots in the paint for the first time in his career.
It’s still early and this might not last. The Pacers have played one of the league’s easiest schedules to date (it remains fairly easy for at least another week). Plus, they’re probably still willing to trade Hield and Turner. But a 7-6 record from this group is certainly a big surprise.
MICHAEL C. WRIGHT: Three-straight losses have brought the Utah Jazz back down to Earth, but you’re fibbing if you expected this team to be sitting in the top half of the Western Conference at this juncture of the season. Utah’s moves over the summer brought about quite a bit of misconception regarding the franchise’s intentions. In June, the Jazz hired the NBA’s youngest coach in Will Hardy, 34, who just happens to be even younger than his starting point guard, Mike Conley (who turned 35 last month). Then, the team trades Rudy Gobert in July to Minnesota before moving Donovan Mitchell in September to Cleveland. For Utah, those player transactions were about acquiring assets, and the club is sitting pretty in that department with 14 first-round picks through 2029.
The hiring of Hardy, a protégé of Gregg Popovich, is probably the most significant factor in Utah’s success. The former Spurs and Celtics assistant doesn’t hesitate to hold the team accountable. Plus, he set the tone early by stressing that his sole focus this season was on “Team 49,” the 49th team in Utah franchise history. He wasn’t worried about the 48th team or the 50th, just this one. That struck a chord with the players and expedited their buy-in that has translated to the on-court product. That’s part of why the team had no problem in training camp also buying into Hardy’s belief that it needed to improve conditioning to truly utilize Utah’s elevation advantage over opponents.
Conley is playing like the Memphis Grizzlies version of himself, and, in his 16th season, is averaging a career-high 8.1 assists per game. Hardy has essentially handed over the keys the offense, giving the veteran point guard the freedom to make his own calls and run the show. That’s working. A key piece in the Mitchell-to–Cleveland trade, Lauri Markkanen is averaging a career-high 21.3 ppg, playing with more confidence than we’ve seen from him in recent years. And we won’t even get into the fact that even though this Jazz team might be devoid of top-end talent, it’s probably one of the deepest squads in the league.