NBA teams are built to succeed or fail over the course of an 82-game regular season slog, but you don’t need to wait all that long to draw some real conclusions about what you’re watching. After one month of play, the top of the Eastern Conference looks exactly how we expected, with the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks currently setting the pace. The West is a lot more chaotic at the moment with the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz among the leaders of the pack.
A lot is going to change over the next five months of the regular season until the playoffs finally begin. Key players will get hurt, while others will return from injury. Shooting trends will stabilize, and so will defensive performance. There’s a lot that’s still up in the air for this NBA season, but there are already a handful of things we know for sure. Here’s X things we can say to be true in the NBA this season.
The Lakers are hopeless
The Lakers are off to a 3-10 start that has them among the very worst teams in the NBA. LeBron James is already dealing with a nagging groin injury, the team is dead last in offensive rating, and they have absolutely zero three-point shooting on the roster. Russell Westbrook’s move to the bench has actually been a rare bright spot for the Lakers at times, and at this point it’s clear that moving on from Russ won’t be some magic cure-all for the team.
While rumors of a Westbrook-and-picks trade with the Pacers for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield has followed the team all season, the Lakers need to be self-aware enough to realize that deal alone isn’t going to put them on a path to winning multiple playoff series. This team simply needs too much work to go on a real playoff run, and it’s not happening this year regardless of what the return for Russ is.
The worst part of all? The Pelicans can swap first round picks with the Lakers this year. Imagine the Lakers winning the lottery and giving up the rights to Victor Wembanyama to New Orleans. It can happen.
Stephen Curry is still amazing, but the rest of the Warriors stink
The Warriors are 6-9 after their first 15 games, and they would be so, so much worse than that if it wasn’t for the brilliance of Stephen Curry helping keep the team afloat. Curry has been as great as ever to start this season, averaging 31.5 points per game while making 43 percent of his threes on an absurd 11.5 attempts from deep per game. If Steph’s scoring efficiency maintains at this level all season, it will be the best mark of his career. As Curry has gone nuclear to start the season, the rest of the team around him is falling apart.
Draymond Green and Klay Thompson both look like they’ve lost a step. Jordan Poole’s numbers have dipped after getting punched in the face by Green at practice and signing a big extension. The young lottery picks at the center of the team’s “two timelines” philosophy have given the Warriors a whole lot of nothing: James Wiseman has been so bad in his minutes that he’s been sent down the G League, and Jonathan Kuminga has mostly been out of the rotation. The Warriors are really missing Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr., and Nemanja Bjelica right now, but the team still has a historic luxury tax bill after letting them go.
The Warriors are the defending champs, and Curry, Green, and Thompson have four rings on their right hand for a reason. If any team has earned the benefit of the doubt, it’s this one. But right now, there’s no doubt the Golden State dynasty is trending in the wrong direction barring a bold trade.
The Nets are unsalvageable despite Kevin Durant’s greatness
Kevin Durant signed with Brooklyn and tabbed Kyrie Irving as his co-star in an attempt to win a championship away from Golden State. Now in his fourth season with the franchise, it’s safe to say it’s not going to happen. Durant has been has great as ever to start the season, but everything else around him has collapsed: Kyrie Irving put himself at the center of a new national controversy that led to him being suspended, Ben Simmons isn’t the same guy who earned three All-Star nods, and even KD has acknowledged the other members of the supporting cast simply aren’t good enough for the Nets to compete for a ring.
Durant requested a trade over the summer, but he didn’t have any leverage as he was starting a new four-year contract extension. It’s very hard to imagine Irving, who is on the last year of his deal, signing another contract with Brooklyn. Durant may end up putting together an MVP season if he can drag this group to a mid-40s win total the way Nikola Jokic did last season, but it feels like only a matter of time before trade rumors pop up again. The guess here is that KD will have a new team by the start of next season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has made the superstar leap
SGA might ruin the the Thunder’s tanking plans all by himself. The 24-year-old has yet to make an All-Star team in his career, but he’s suddenly emerged as one of the very best guards in the league. Gilgeous-Alexander is unstoppable going to the basket, using funky footwork and creative finishes to become one of the NBA’s best scorers at better than 32 points per game. He just dropped a 42-point masterpiece on the Wizards that included this nasty game-winner:
The Thunder are off to a 7-8 start so far. The franchise ideally wants to be in the Victor Wembanyama derby at the end of the season, but if SGA keeps playing at this level it’s possible the Thunder won’t be one of the league’s worst teams. Note to OKC: don’t pull any shenanigans by exaggerating injuries to Shai or any other starter later in this season. That’s not how you get karma on your side heading into the lottery.
Paolo Banchero is the NBA’s best rookie
The NBA rookie class as a whole has been pretty great so far. Bennedict Mathurin is already making me look like an idiot for fading him a little bit on my big board. Shaedon Sharpe has been more productive for the Trail Blazers than anyone could have imagined after not playing a college game at Kentucky. Jaden Ivey has lived up to expectations for the Pistons, and Jalen Williams looks like a mid-round gem for the Thunder. With apologies to all of those players and more, the Orlando Magic got it right with the No. 1 overall pick by selecting Paolo Banchero.
Banchero was our wire-to-wire choice for the best player in the 2022 draft class for his unique intersection of size and skill. At 6’10, 250 pounds, Banchero can handle and pass the ball like a guard while using his strength to score inside. The rookie forward is putting up an efficient 23.5 points per game so far, and he already looks even more athletic in Orlando than he ever did on Duke. This is the franchise star Orlando has been waiting for since it traded Dwight Howard a decade ago.
Luka Doncic is unstoppable in any context
Luka Doncic is just 23 years old, and he’s already one of the four best players in the NBA alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Stephen Curry. Doncic led his Dallas Mavericks on a surprising run to the Western Conference Finals last year, but Dallas lost a key piece to that team over the offseason when Jalen Brunson signed with the Knicks. It feels like the Mavs are biding their time until they can make a big trade for a second star, but until then Doncic is torching the competition while operating at historically high levels of usage.
Doncic currently has a 38.77 percent usage rate, which would be No. 4 all-time if it lasts the entire season. In layman’s terms, Doncic is doing everything for Dallas: he leads the league in scoring, he’s top-10 in assists, and he’s top-25 in rebounds per game. Luka came into this season in better shape than he has been in the past, and he’s off to an incredible start. The Mavericks are going to be a contender for every year of his prime. Now please get this man a legitimate co-star.
The Bucks look like the title frontrunners
The Bucks are still without Khris Middleton as he continues to rehab the knee injury that ended his year in last season’s playoffs, but it hasn’t stopped Milwaukee from looking like the most complete team in the NBA. The Bucks’ defense is tops in the league thanks to a new-look scheme that’s preventing three-pointers and still putting a lid on the rim with two amazing rim protectors in the starting lineup. Milwaukee’s offense has been pretty bad to start the season — they rank No. 22 in the league at time of publish — but Middleton’s return should help solve most of their problems.
Brook Lopez looks as good as he ever has after missing most of last season with injury. Jrue Holiday remains one of the league’s best two-way guards, and Jevon Carter is turning into a legitimate rotation piece alongside him in the backcourt. The biggest reason the Bucks are the title favorites is because they have the best player in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who somehow keeps getting better at age-27. Milwaukee could use more wing depth — who couldn’t? — but this is the safest bet to win the championship at this point in the season.