IIt’s a long-standing NBA habit to jump to conclusions. MVP chatter begins week one of the season, coaches are in the hot seat week two, and roster discussions crop up before a month has passed. Far be it from me to deviate from tradition. So here, one month before the All-Star break, are my early NBA season superlatives, a selection of premature ratings and awards pulled from thin air.
Sacramento Kings. As one of the league’s most historically maligned teams, it’s hard to say the Kings haven’t earned some skepticism about the direction of their franchise. But the turnaround, overseen by new head coach Mike Brown, since trading with the Pacers last offseason from Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield to Domantas Sabonis, has been nothing short of miraculous. While losing a rising star like Haliburton is never ideal, Sabonis appears to have unlocked guard De’Aaron Fox’s potential. Other signings (like Malik Monk) round out a fun, aggressive, and competitive team that’s making downright shocking noise in the Western Conference.
Honorable Mention: Utah Jazz. Pretty much everyone had the jazz earmarked for the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes when they traded in their two biggest stars, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. But new head coach Will Hardy and his ragtag squad seem to have missed that memo, and power forward Lauri Markkanen has made a compelling case for an all-star appearance.
Minnesota Timberwolves. I’ve spoken poetically about how much of a disaster this Timberwolves season has been, but I have to reiterate that the Gobert trade is shaping up to be one of the worst front-office moves in recent memory. As questionable as the fit between Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards was, there was general agreement that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year would guarantee them a playoff spot and maybe even bring them home. Place advantage in the opening round. That assumption was a gross underestimate of the extent to which Gobert appears to be suffering from locker room cancer, and also the importance of the pieces Minnesota traded to acquire him. The once hyped team is now likely to end up in the play-in tournament, or maybe worse.
Honorable Mention: Phoenix Suns. How the mighty have fallen. It’s hard to believe that this team is made up mostly of the same parts that brought it to the brink of a championship less than two years ago. But life is coming your way fast: Chris Paul seems to be finally feeling the effects of Father Time, and the cheerless, chemistry-depleted Suns (who, yes, are desperately missing a paused Devin Booker) have probably missed their window.
Biggest “What if?”
Los Angeles Lakers. LeBron James is 38. If you’ve tuned in for even 30 seconds of a Lakers game or ESPN talk show this season, you’ve heard that fact ad nauseam. But it’s central to what makes this particular Lakers season so frustrating for fans of the team and fans of James himself. The Russell-Westbrook experiment was certainly a rollercoaster ride, but the highs just aren’t nearly high enough to justify the lows. After a disastrous season last year, most expected Westbrook and his $47 million salary last summer to be postponed. But the front office stood firm and appeared to have opted to see the 2022-23 season through, retaining Westbrook (and her infamous first-round picks in 2027 and 2029). In doing so, they essentially toast what is in all likelihood one of the final years of James being considered a contender. It’s difficult not to wonder what would have been for the sub-.500 team that has shown promising flashes if they had shown signs of life off the bench in the offseason, or at least as Westbrook.
Honorable Mention: Oklahoma City Thunder. Before the entire NBA fumed over Wembanyama, there was another lanky seven-footer who won the league’s affection. But Chet Holmgren, the Thunder’s No. 2 draft pick last year, was injured in a Pro-Am game this summer, sidelined him for the entire season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a revelation and Josh Giddey is making good progress. With the Western Conference wide open, one can wonder if the young team could have performed postseason with Chet in tow.
most likely to succeed
Boston Celtics. It feels like yesterday, and also 10 years ago, when the Celtics made headlines for all the wrong reasons after head coach Ime Udoka’s sudden, shocking “indefinite” suspension and the team’s questionable (at best) behavior of the situation. Even considering the team has been fresh from making its debut since making its first appearance in the NBA Finals since 2010, not many forecasters have had it comfortably at the top of the league-wide rankings for the duration of this season, after Udoka only through interim head coach Joe Mazzulla had been replaced days before the start of training camp. But the Celtics weathered the storm and Mazzulla seems to be enjoying the respect of his dressing room. Jayson Tatum has bounced back from a disappointing postseason by playing at MVP level, Jaylen Brown has also been excellent and the signing of guard Malcolm Brogdon is proving fruitful. The team is ready for a return to the promised land.
Honorable Mention: Denver Nuggets. Nikola Jokic has won the league MVP for the last two straight years, but even then his supporting cast wasn’t strong enough to push the Nuggets into the competition. This year feels different. Jamal Murray is back from an ACL injury and starting to look like himself, Michael Porter Jr is also returning from a back injury, Aaron Gordon is beginning to thrive in the Jokic system and signings like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope round out the roster nicely. The nuggets are sitting on the west and have really arrived.
Most likely repeat history
Los Angeles Clippers. The “Little Brother” syndrome in the NBA is anything but mythical. Some teams have a stronghold in their markets — New York, for example, although it’s now home to a Nets team that has one of the league’s best players, it will always remain a Knicks city (yet the franchise is often abysmal). At the heart of many of the Los Angeles Clippers’ problems is an attempt to circumvent this complex with shortcuts and marketing. The Clippers moved heaven and earth to sign Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for league-wide fanfare in 2019, launching headlong into a “Streetlights over Spotlights” rebrand that emphasized the team’s alleged rudeness (and implied that the big Brothers Lakers were all Hollywood, no heart).
The problem, of course, is that they actually forgot His gritty or develop team chemistry. That hubris led to 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 get rid of. The Clippers made it to the Western Conference Finals the following year while facing Kawhi Leonard, but they are yet to make a Finals appearance, a definite disappointment considering what they gave up for Leonard and George. The team has been hovering in the upper middle of the Western ladder this year, but it feels like a good bet that championship DNA just didn’t make it to this younger sibling.
Honorable Mention: Philadelphia 76ers. It’s an overstatement to call an NBA franchise “cursed,” but it certainly feels that way for some of you. Looking back, the Sixers almost certainly got the better end of the trade in Ben Simmons (James Harden has been excellent this year), and Joel Embiid remains one of the best players in the league. But years of precedent make them almost impossible to trust to do anything substantial in the postseason, especially with playoff-plagued head coach Doc Rivers at the helm.
Promising dark horse
New Orleans Pelicans. I’ve made my case as to why the pelicans should be taken seriously as a contender. Though they’ve stayed at or near the top of the West all season, their relative inexperience combined with bad luck with injuries has meant many NBA pundits are reluctant to endorse them. But the team’s reaction at tracks where they’ve missed their biggest stars, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, anchored in large part by an all-star caliber of veteran CJ McCollum, only reinforces their argument as a real threat . Willie Green steered the ship with grace, the supporting cast have enthusiasm for their roles, and they’re second only to the Grizzlies in the west in defensive rating. They may not have seasoned, battle-hardened Superstars on their roster, let alone an MVP candidate, but no one should write off this Pelicans team.
Honorable Mention: Brooklyn Nets. I was the first person to count out this Nets team even though Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant because they just couldn’t resist their own penchant for drama and nonsense. From the (probably necessary) firing of Steve Nash to Kyrie Irving’s endorsement of an anti-Semitic documentary, this season was just the latest in a steady trend of chaos for the Nets since Durant and Irving came to town. But give them credit: They really seem to have nailed it, Jacque Vaughn seems to command more respect from the team than Nash does, and never count a Kevin Durant-led team with a competent supporting cast.