How much can you really learn from the start of an NBA season? Quite a bit, actually. Performance on both sides of the ball tends to stabilize in about six weeks, and overall team performance can look sustainable even earlier, based on studies.
The start of the 2023-2024 season has full of surprises. The Philadelphia 76ers were supposed to be in deep trouble after trading James Harden; turns out, they’re better than ever. The Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves were supposed to be fighting for a low-end playoff spot; instead they look like conference finals contenders. Meanwhile, the Clippers look horrible in their first few games with Harden, but we’ll choose to give them a little more time before totally panning them.
Now that most teams have played about 10 games so far this season, we thought it would be a good time to check in on what looks real. Here are our 10 biggest takeaways from the early portion of the 2023-2024 NBA season.
The Bucks hired the wrong coach
Mike Budenholzer was one of the best head coaches in the NBA. The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t wrong to fire him, not after one of the biggest playoff collapses in league history last season, but doing so also came with inherent risk. Bud’s Bucks came with a formula that worked spectacularly during the regular season, and their 2021 championship run was proof of concept that it could work in the postseason under the right conditions. There was always a chance the Bucks could do way, way worse than Coach Bud, and that appears to be the case with the hiring of Adrian Griffin after an uneven start to the season.
Heading into Tuesday’s games, the Bucks have the No. 9 offense, No. 25 defense, and are No. 19 in net-rating. Griffin has already had to ditch his more aggressive coverages in favor of Brook Lopez’s trusty rim protection in drop, but the perimeter defense remains a major work in progress. Damian Lillard is among the worst defensive players in the NBA, and he’s compromising the team structure every time he dies on a screen. With Khris Middleton still on a minutes restriction and Jrue Holiday’s locked point-of-attack ability out the door in the Dame trade, Milwaukee has new personnel and a new scheme that still needs time to work itself out.
The Bucks hoped the offense would be unstoppable as the defense took a hit, and they’ve started slow on that end, too. Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo aren’t running as much pick-and-roll as you would think. Middleton’s limited availability has sapped Milwaukee of the third scorer it needs, and the shooters have been a bit cold to start the year.
Could Griffin figure things out still? Of course. But the early returns are discouraging. It sure doesn’t feel like Griffin — hired in large part because he was Giannis’ preferred coaching candidate — is the upgrade over Bud this team needed.
Ime Udoka has turned around the Rockets
The Rockets have been one of the worst teams in the NBA since trading James Harden at the start of the 2020-2021 season, averaging under 20 wins per season over the last three years. Beyond just being bad, the Rockets were also something of a circus, with young players failing to face consequences for poor play and erratic decision-making under former head coach Stephen Silas.
Ime Udoka was brought in to be the new sheriff in town, and the results are striking so far. Entering Monday, the Rockets are …
- No. 11 in offense
- No. 5 in defense
- No. 6 in net-rating
Just having a competent coach instead of Silas is a huge improvement, and Udoka is much more than merely competent. Coaching isn’t the only reason this team has improved, though. Alperen Sengun has made a star leap, and asserted himself as the best player on the team. He should be an All-Star this season. Dillon Brooks is shooting the lights out and playing tough wing defense. Fred VanVleet has added a steady hand to the backcourt even as he’s struggled to score inside the arc. Jabari Smith Jr. is getting a little better, and Jalen Green has improved his three-point shot while finally starting to play within himself.
The Rockets probably won’t keep winning at this rate, in part because Brooks isn’t going to shoot 55 percent from three all season. But the progress here is real. The Rockets have promise for the first time post-Harden.
Tyrese Maxey is an All-Star lock, and maybe even All-NBA
The breakout star of the new season is Tyrese Maxey. When the Philadelphia 76ers finally relented to James Harden’s trade request, it was supposed to trigger an organizational downfall and maybe even another trade request from Joel Embiid. Instead, the Sixers are better than ever, owning the league’s top record entering the week, and they owe most of it to Maxey’s incredible leap in production.
Maxey has shined as the team’s point guard, averaging 28.6 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the floor, 43.1 percent shooting from three, and 93 percent shooting from the foul line. He’s doubled his assists from last year (up to 7.2 per game) by developing a key rapport with Embiid. He might have the most deadly floater in the NBA, and his three-point shooting improvement since his college days at Kentucky is nothing short of remarkable. He’s also one of the fastest players alive, a blur in the open court and a lightning bolt against a set defense, providing the Sixers with a much-needed infusion of speed that serves as the anthesis of Harden’s methodical playmaking.
There are multiple all-in-one stats that have Maxey as a top-five player in the entire league so far. Maxey is pure joy on the court, and the Sixers are again a force in the East without Harden dragging them down.
The Timberwolves are a true Western Conference contender
The best point differential in the Western Conference belongs to … the Minnesota Timberwolves? It’s true, and it doesn’t appear to be a fluke, either.
The Timberwolves have a ton going for them. They own the league’s No. 1 defense, with Rudy Gobert looking as good as ever protecting the rim in the middle. With 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns at the four and the 6’10 Jaden McDaniels at the three, the Wolves have more size than any team. Minnesota also has an emergent offensive superstar in Anthony Edwards, who is averaging 28.4 points per game on 59 percent true shooting entering the week. The depth pieces are solid, too, with Kyle Anderson and Naz Reid providing even more size off the bench.
Edwards is going to be the headliner here because he seems primed to become an MVP candidate in the near future, but the Wolves’ size and defense is just as much of a reason for why they’re winning right now. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to believe this could be the second best team in the West this season after the defending champion Denver Nuggets.
The Mavs finally put the right pieces around Luka Doncic
The Mavericks entered the season with a wide range of outcomes in a stacked Western Conference. At least for now, the best case scenario appears to be playing out.
At 8-2, Dallas enters the week tied for the league’s second-best record. The offense ranks No. 2 in the NBA with Luka Doncic at the controls, and the 24-year-old superstar is playing at an MVP level to begin the year. Doncic is a true magician with the ball in his hands, and the Mavs have again put some nice pieces around him after a down year a season ago following the departure of Jalen Brunson. It starts with Kyrie Irving, who at least so far is torching the nets as a scorer and staying out of trouble off the court. Grant Williams has provided some tough defense and knockdown shooting, making him a seamless fit next to Luka and Kyrie. Rookie big man Dereck Lively II is already giving the Mavs good minutes as a super long big man who slams home lobs from Doncic and covers his warts defensively.
The Mavs lead the NBA in three-point makes, three-point attempts, and three-point percentage through 10 games. That’s a winning formula when you have Doncic creating great opportunities off the bounce on every possession. The defense is again a question mark (currently No. 23), but there’s at least some talent in place on that end with Williams and Lively. Doncic feels like the league’s second most unstoppable playoff performance after Nikola Jokic. The Mavs have to like their chances with a better supporting cast around him.
The Bulls need to blow it up
If it felt a tad early when people started calling for the Bulls to blow up their roster a year ago, at this point there’s no denying Chicago has a team with a low ceiling and a doomed future. The Bulls just haven’t been any good since Lonzo Ball’s horribly sad injury. With a protected 2025 pick still owed to the San Antonio Spurs, a full cap sheet, and DeMar DeRozan on an expiring deal, the Bulls have no choice but to face the reality that this team is never going to be successful and get a jump on building the next iteration of the roster.
It would be safe to assume a team led by Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, and DeRozan would be a good if not great offensive team. That hasn’t been the case: the three players have never had a positive net-rating in sharing the floor together for three years, and the team offense is below average again to start this year after finishing No. 24 last season. Young players like Patrick Williams, Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu, and Dalen Terry haven’t developed enough to form the foundation of Chicago’s next good team. This group has mostly been held together by Alex Caruso’s brilliance, and he’s the first player they should trade because he’s sure to start a bidding war once put on the market.
There’s just not a lot of hope for the Bulls right now. Given how poorly top executive Arturas Karnisovas has performed in the draft since being hired, it’s hard for Bulls fans to have much faith he’d nail a rebuild. Chicago should just change front offices again and let someone else try to build up this once proud franchise.
The Grizzlies are garbage without Ja Morant and Steven Adams
It’s already shaping up to be a lost season for the Grizzlies. At 2-8, Memphis has the worst record in the Western Conference through 10 games. The Grizzlies can’t score at all — they’re No. 29 in offensive efficiency. Memphis has taken the second-most two-pointers in the league so far, and they’re second-to-last in two-point field goal percentage. That’s not great!
Memphis knew it was going to be missing Ja Morant for 25 games to start the year because of his suspension for silly social media behavior. Another huge blow came just before the season when Steven Adams was ruled out for the year with a knee injury. Factor in Brandon Clarke’s continued recovery from an Achilles tear, and Memphis is just too banged up to be good right now.
If there’s a silver lining for the Grizzlies, it’s Desmond Bane’s development as a potential All-Star. There’s a world where Memphis gets everyone back healthy next season, adds a top pick in the 2024 NBA Draft, and regains its footing as one of the NBA’s most promising franchises. It’s just not going to happen this year.
The Pacers offense looks all-time good
The greatest offense in NBA history belongs to … the 2022-2023 Sacramento Kings, who scored 118.6 points per 100 possessions, the highest mark the league has ever seen. Through 10 games so far this season, the Indiana Pacers are scoring 122 points per 100 possessions. Even with the league’s No. 27 defense, Indiana’s 6-4 start currently has them positioned as the No. 3 seed in the East.
There’s nothing flukey about the Pacers’ offensive success. Point guard Tyrese Haliburton is an emerging superstar, leading the NBA in assists by a mile (12.2 per game) while also shooting 41 percent from three-point range. Indiana takes and makes a ton of threes around Haliburton’s playmaking: the team is attempting over 40 triples per night, and knocking them down at a 39 percent clip. Myles Turner remains one of the league’s best stretch fives, free agent signing Bruce Brown has fit like a glove, and even Aaron Nesmith is starting to prove he can be a key bench piece.
With Haliburton at the controls, the Pacers are going to be one of the most fun teams to watch the rest of this season. Be sure to subscribe to old friend Caitlin Cooper’s Patreon for the best Pacers coverage around.
Chet Holmgren is a superstar in the making
Chet Holmgren has been worth the wait for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft missed all of last season after injuring his foot defending LeBron James at Jamal Crawford’s summer pro-am game, but his return to the court this year has been everything OKC could have hoped for so far.
Holmgren is huge at 7’1 with a 7’6 wingspan, and incredibly well-rounded in terms of his skill set. He’s already one of the league’s best rim protectors, blocking 2.3 shots per game (No. 4 in the NBA) by showing great anticipation and hand-eye coordination on his his contests. He can shoot all over the floor — 50 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the foul line so far. Holmgren also rarely forces the issues offensively and just seems have have a gift for knowing how to make the right play.
The Thunder already had a stud in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leading them in the backcourt. Holmgren is an ideal front court partner and long-term building block next to him. The Thunder are the future, and their present is already enticing.
Scottie Barnes is leveling up
Very few players in the NBA can stuff a box score like Scottie Barnes. The 22-year-old forward is top-10 in the NBA in blocks and steals per game, top-20 in rebounds, and top-25 in assists. Did we mention he’s scoring 20 points per game, too?
Barnes looks like a better player on both ends of the floor in his third year. With a strong base and a 7’3 wingspan, Barnes can provide stout secondary rim protection inside while still being quick enough to hold his own on the perimeter on a switch. The Raptors have put him in more advantageous positions to maximize his versatility on that end this year, and it’s helped lift the unit to No. 4 in the NBA so far. Offensively, Barnes has made real strides as a three-point shooter, upping both his volume (from 2.9 attempts per game and 5.3 attempts per game) and accuracy (from 28 percent to 34 percent) from deep.
The Raptors still have some big decisions looming with Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby heading to free agency, but at least Toronto knows it has its franchise player in Barnes.