NBA performance typically begins to stabilize after the first 12-15 games of the regular season. While the first few weeks of any new campaign are fraught with small sample size theater, you don’t have to wait until Christmas for the NBA season to really start to matter the way casual sports fans like to believe. What we see at the beginning of the year really can be meaningful.
The 2022-2023 season feels more chaotic than usual one week into play. So far, we’ve seen title contenders knocked off by tanking teams, some of the league’s best organizations looking lost and dysfunctional, and new MVP front-runners emerge before our eyes. Only two teams will end the first week undefeated, and that’s the Milwaukee Bucks ... and the Portland Trail Blazers. Just like everyone expected, right?
Let’s look at the NBA’s biggest surprises after one week of play. If these are still sustaining after another week or two, they might be for real.
The Spurs and Jazz are competitive
We parsed the tank race for Victor Wembanyama at the start of the season and named the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz as the two most likely teams to have maximum lottery odds heading into the draft. Well, after one week, the Spurs and Jazz are a combined 6-2 overall. So much for tanking.
The Spurs already knocked off a title contender in the 76ers, and another supposed playoff lock in the Timberwolves. San Antonio’s roster is young and devoid of star-power, but they’re winning right now with a balanced lineup that can compete on both ends of the floor. Devin Vassell’s development is the biggest individual story for the Spurs so far. The former lottery pick is fully coming into his own in his third season, making a huge leap in both scoring and playmaking while still providing his typical 3-and-D qualities. He should be in the mix for the Most Improved Player race.
The Jazz also don’t look like a team that can properly tank right now. Utah starts three players in their 30s (Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, and Kelly Olynyk) to give the team a high floor. Lauri Markkanen is potentially putting together a career-year, posting big-time scoring numbers despite a cold start as a three-point shooter. Jarred Vanderbilt has been one of the league’s best rebounders and front court defenders so far, while Collin Sexton should only get better as the year goes on coming off knee surgery. The Jazz need to make some trades if they really want to tank, because this team isn’t that bad.
The Trail Blazers are the hottest team in the NBA
The Trail Blazers could have traded Damian Lillard and started a full-scale rebuild. Instead, the inked Lillard to another massive contract extension over the offseason, and tried to reload the roster around their franchise star. Lillard has been electric at the start of this season, and now he finally has some help. For the first time in years, the Blazers have some legitimate forward depth. Jerami Grant has been a consistent scorer and active defender. Josh Hart hits the glass hard, flies around defensively, and excels in transition. Even rookie Shaedon Sharpe has looked great in his first real action since high school. Gary Payton II will help too when he debuts after abdominal surgery.
Lillard also has some holdovers in Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons who continue to be reliable. Nurkic is still a major physical presence on the inside despite a slow start offensively, while Simons is a microwave scorer who can take over a game at any time. The fourth quarter is still Dame Time. As long as Lillard keeps playing like a top-10 overall player, the Blazers could actually make some noise in the West this year.
The Lakers have the worst offense in the NBA by a huge margin
There weren’t a lot of Lakers optimists heading into the season, but it’s somehow even uglier than most imagined. The team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis currently has the worst offense in the league — and it’s not close. LA’s lack of shooting around James is well detailed at this point: the Lakers are taking nearly 40 three-pointers per game (top-10 in the NBA), and they’re making just 21 percent of their attempts. There’s only one other team (the Wolves) currently below 30 percent from three. There’s still no solution for LA’s Russell Westbrook problem, and at this point his bad vibes are hanging over everything they do.
The good news for the Lakers? They’re currently No. 2 in defensive efficiency. The jump shots have to start falling eventually ... right? If not, it’s on LeBron and AD to carry this team to offensive competency instead of settling for bad looks from three themselves. Did we mention the Pelicans can swap draft picks with the Lakers this year? It’s going to be a long season in Los Angeles.
The Nets have the worst defense
The Nets are a work in progress at the start of the season, and that’s putting it kindly. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are lighting it up as scorers, but Brooklyn is completely unable to consistently force stops at the other end. Ben Simmons was supposed to fix Brooklyn’s defensive problems, but he’s clearly still rusty on that end of the floor after a one-year layoff. Simmons has fouled out in two of Brooklyn’s first three games. He doesn’t play with enough force to hold his own at center, and his glaring offensive deficiencies kill the team when he’s next to another non-shooter in the front court.
There’s just not a lot of two-way talent on this roster. Irving is a defensive liability, Simmons is a scoring liability, Nic Claxton can’t make a free throw, Patty Mills and Seth Curry aren’t a great fit for a team that needs more big wings. The Nets either need to inject Joe Harris and T.J. Warren with some super soldier serum, or make a trade. Brooklyn is lucky the Lakers exist, or they might have the worst vibes in the league.
Ja Morant looks like the MVP front-runner
Ja Morant minted his superstardom last season, but it appears that he has another leap in him this year. Morant has been otherworldly to start the season, making absurd highlight reel plays that only he can make every time he takes the floor. He’s putting up nearly 35 points per game so far with an improved three-point shot and constant attacks on the rim that lead to the foul line. How do you stop this man?
If the NBA had to hand out MVP after the first week, my vote is going to Morant in a close call over Damian Lillard. Morant was No. 6 in the preseason MVP odds, so maybe this isn’t a huge surprise, but Ja still deserves his flowers for this amazing start.
The Nuggets are starting slow
The Nuggets were a trendy title pick coming into the season. I predicted they would have the most regular season wins in the NBA. Maybe we should have listened to two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who said before the season that he knew Jamal Murray would be really bad for the first 20 games as he returns from a torn ACL. Murray is really struggling to start the season, averaging only 12 points per game on about 38 percent shooting. The Nuggets’ other star returning from injury, Michael Porter Jr., looks healthy offensively at least but remains on eye sore on defense.
The Nuggets have the worst net-rating in the NBA to begin the season. Denver is going to be just fine eventually, but they’ve been a rough watch so far.
The Clippers look nothing like a title contender yet
The Clippers were my preseason championship pick. That prediction is looking extremely ambitious so far. Kawhi Leonard was always going to be take some time to return to form as he comes back off a torn ACL, and that’s been true so far: Leonard is coming off the bench for now and hasn’t looked as fast or powerful as he was before the injury. The bigger issue for the Clippers might be their depth. Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell, and Nic Batum are all counted on to be big pieces this year, and each has gotten off to a slow start.
Ultimately, the Clippers are playing for the playoffs. They want to be the best version of themselves at the end of the season, not at the start of it. It just feels like they have a long, long way to go.
The Pelicans look like a title contender
No Zion Williamson, no Brandon Ingram, no Herb Jones ... and the Pelicans still beat the Dallas Mavericks on the road on Tuesday night. This team has a ton of great role players, a fantastic coaching staff led by Willie Greene (with Teresa Weatherspoon and Fred Vinson), and tons of future picks to continue adding to the roster. We know that Ingram is the type of tough halfcourt shot-maker you need in the playoffs. We think Williamson is good enough to be the primary offensive option of a championship team. The Pelicans have wing stoppers, shooters, point-of-attack defenders, and beef up front with Jonas Valanciunas.
This team isn’t just rising, they might have already arrived.