IIt’s an old habit in the NBA to jump to conclusions. MVP gossip starts week one of the season, coaches are in the hot seat by week two, and even before a month has passed, “burn it” roster discussions are emerging. God forbid me to deviate from tradition. So here, a month before the All-Star break, my very early break into the NBA season, and a selection of early reviews and accolades earned out of thin air.
More pleasant surprise
Sacramento Kings. One of the most historically underrated teams in the league, it’s hard to say the Kings haven’t developed some skepticism about the direction of their franchise. But the turnaround, overseen by new head coach Mike Brown, since the team traded personnel with the Pacers last season for Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Held with Domantas Sabonis, was nothing short of miraculous. While losing a rising star like Haliburton is never ideal, Sabonis seems to have unlocked the potential of guard De’Aaron Fox. Other side signings (like Malik Monk) complement a fun, aggressive, and competitive team that’s making shocking noises in the Western Conference.
Honorable Mention: Utah Jazz. Almost everyone else had put jazz into the Victor Wimpanyama sweepstakes when they replaced their two biggest stars, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Goubert. But new coach Will Hardy and his diverse roster seem to have missed that memo, and stalwart forward Lauri Markkanen has made a compelling case for an All-Star appearance.
Minnesota Timberwolves. I’m already getting poetic about how much of a disaster this Timberwolves season has been, but it bears repeating that the Gobert trade is shaping up to be one of the worst front office moves in recent memory. The suitability between Joubert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards was questioned, it was universally agreed that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year would guarantee them a spot in the playoffs, possibly giving them a home-court advantage in the opening round. This assumption was an egregious tribute to the level at which Joubert appeared to have locker room cancer, and also to the significance of the pieces Minnesota traded in to get him. A team that was promoted once is now more likely to end up in the playing cycle, or perhaps worse.
Honorable Mention: Phoenix Suns. How did the titans fall? It’s hard to believe that this team is made up mostly of the same pieces that brought them to the brink of the Championship less than two years ago. But life comes to you quickly: Chris Paul finally seems to be feeling the influence of Father Time and the hapless, sloppy Chemistry Sun (who, yeah, misses the sidelined Devin Booker) has likely missed their window.
bigger “what if?”
Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James is 38 years old. If you’ve played even 30 seconds of a Lakers game or an ESPN talk show this season, you’ve heard that fact indicate ad nauseam. But they are central to what makes this Lakers season so frustrating for the team’s fans and for James himself. The Russell Westbrook experience has been a roller coaster ride, sure, but the highs aren’t high enough to justify the lows. After a disastrous season last year, most people expected Westbrook and his $47 million salary to be transferred last summer. But the front office has apparently held firm, and seems to have opted to see the 2022-23 season through to the end of the season, keeping Westbrook (and their infamous 2027 and 2029 first-round selections). In doing so, they are essentially sanctioning what is, probably, one of James’ last years as a competitor. It’s hard not to wonder what might have been for the sub-.500 team, which has shown flashes of promise, if they’d made moves off the season, or, at least, when Westbrook first showed signs of life off the bench.
Honorable Mention: Oklahoma City Thunder. Before the entire NBA exploded on Wimpanyama’s mouth, there was another lanky seven-footer who captured the league’s affection. But Chet Holmgren, the MVP of the #2 draft pick last year, was injured in a pro game this summer, leaving him on the sidelines all this season. Gilgos Alexander tea was an inspiration, and Josh Geddy is getting on well. With the Western Conference wide open, it’s fair to wonder if the young team could make an appearance in the postseason with Chet in tow.
most likely to succeed
Boston Celtics. It feels simultaneously as if it was only yesterday and 10 years ago too that the Celtics were making headlines for the wrong reasons, in the wake of the sudden and shocking “indefinite” suspension of head coach Emi Odoka and the team’s questionable (at best) handling of the situation. . Even considering the team was fresh from its first appearance in the NBA Finals since 2010, not many forecasters were sitting comfortably atop the league standings all this season after Odoka was just replaced by interim head coach Joe Mazzola. days before the start of training camp. But the Celtics weathered the storm, and Mazzola seemed to command the respect of his locker room. Jason Tatum rebounded from a disappointing postseason by playing at MVP level, Jaylen Brown was stellar, and the signing of guard Malcolm Brogdon proved fruitful. The team is ready to return to the Promised Land.
Honorable Mention: Denver Nuggets. Nikola Jokic won the league’s Most Valuable Player award the past two years in a row, but even then, his support team wasn’t strong enough to propel the Nuggets into contention. This year it looks different. Jamal Murray is back from an ACL injury and starting to look like him, Michael Porter Jr. is back from a back injury, Aaron Gordon is starting to thrive in Jokic’s system, and fringe deals like Kentavious Caldwell Pope. Kindly list. Sitting atop the West, Nuggets have arrived for real.
Most likely to repeat history
Los Angeles Clippers. The NBA’s “little brother” syndrome is far from legendary. Some teams have a stronghold in their markets – New York, for example, while now home to the Nets featuring one of the best players in the league, will always be the Knicks’ hometown (as miserable as the franchise often is). At the heart of many of the Los Angeles Clippers’ problems is an attempt to circumvent this complexity with shortcuts and marketing. The Clippers moved heaven and earth to sign Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to a league-wide celebration in 2019, and launched a brand new promotion called “Street Lights Over Lights,” underlining the team’s alleged bravery (and pointing out that big brother the Lakers was all Hollywood). , no heart).
The problem is, of course, that they actually forgot is being Courage, or develop team chemistry. That arrogance resulted in a shocking Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the 2020 playoffs, a monkey the team is still trying to shake off. The Clippers made it to the Western Conference Finals the following year while falling to Kawhi Leonard, but have yet to appear in the Finals, a notable disappointment considering what they gave up for Leonard and George. The team has hovered around the middle of the Western standings this year, but it seems like a sound bet that the championship DNA hasn’t made its way to this younger sibling.
Honorable Mention: Philadelphia 76ers. It’s a stretch to call any NBA franchise “damned,” but for some of them it certainly feels like it. In retrospect, the Sixers almost certainly got a better end tackle Ben Simmons (James Harden was excellent this year), and Joel Embiid remains one of the best players in the league. But years of precedent make it almost impossible to trust them to do anything significant in the postseason, especially with head coach Doc Rivers in a playoff crisis at the helm.
Most promising dark horse
New Orleans Pelicans. I made my case for why swans should be taken seriously as competitors. Although they remained in or near the Summit West all season, their relative inexperience combined with an unlucky injury made many NBA pundits reluctant to support them. But the team’s response during periods of their lack of their biggest stars, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, entrenched in large part by the caliber of All-Star veteran CJ McCollum, only strengthens their case as a real threat. Willie Green has steered the ship in style, the supporting cast is passionate about their roles, and they’re second only to the Grizzlies in the West in defensive rating. They may not have any battle-tested superstars on their roster, or even an MVP candidate, but no one should ever write off this Pelicans team.
Honorable Mention: Brooklyn Nets. I was the first person to reckon with this Nets, though Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant, because they can’t seem to escape their penchant for drama and bullshit. From the (perhaps indispensable) firing of Steve Nash to Kyrie Irving promoting an anti-Semitic documentary, this season was just the latest part in a steady trend of chaos for the networks since Durant and Irving came to town. But give them credit: They really seem to have it together, and Jack Vaughn seems to have more respect from the team than Nash, never counting on a Kevin Durant-led team with a competent supporting cast.