The first week of the 2022-23 NBA season did not disappoint, delivering big-time performances, upsets and playoff-caliber matchups.
Ja Morant and Paolo Banchero got off to strong starts, as the Memphis Grizzlies star scored 49 points against the Houston Rockets on Friday night and the Orlando Magic player on Wednesday became the first rookie since LeBron James to debut with at least 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists — he had 27, 9 and 5 against the Detroit Pistons.
The Boston Celtics and the Utah Jazz are both 3-0 after going through significant player personnel changes during the offseason. The Celtics are without suspended coach Ime Udoka and center Robert Williams III is still sidelined, and the Jazz traded stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert while also working under a first-year head coach in Will Hardy.
Our NBA insiders reflect on the biggest moments, surprises and reactions thus far.
Whose start to the season has been the biggest surprise?
Kevin Pelton: Break up the Jazz? Supposedly tanking the season after trading their two stars, the Jazz began 3-0 with wins against three West contenders, including Rudy Gobert’s Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s only three games — and worth remembering the 2013-14 76ers started 3-0 and finished 19-63 — but it does feel like maybe Utah ought to see how good this group is before tearing it down in the name of landing top NBA prospect Victor Wembanyama.
Jamal Collier: John Wall looked like John Wall. It was hard to know what to expect from the newest LA Clipper after a year away, so it was awesome to see him come out with such fresh legs. It was one game, but this Wall looked like what the Clippers needed off the bench and at point guard.
Tim MacMahon: The Utah Jazz — fresh off trading four starters while stockpiling as many first-round picks as possible — already have as many wins as I anticipated they would by Thanksgiving. Opening with a trio of wins over playoff teams qualifies as shocking. The Jazz are playing hard for rookie head coach Will Hardy. Lauri Markkanen is off to a spectacular start, and fellow young trade additions Collin Sexton, Jarred Vanderbilt and Walker Kessler have also flashed potential for a franchise still likely (and hopeful?) to finish in the lottery.
Andre Snellings: The 76ers starting the season 0-3, including a loss to the rebuilding Spurs, has been my biggest surprise. I expected James Harden to enter this season healthy and in shape and thus to play at a much higher level than he did last postseason. And the thing is … he has! But instead of Harden’s strong play in the backcourt meshing with Joel Embiid in a classic big/little pairing, thus far they have seemed to take turns pulling all the air out of the room. No synergy, no defense, just two guys who can each put up huge numbers if they’re featured.
Tim Bontemps: This one is easy: the 76ers’ 0-3 start. The Sixers have to be absolutely thrilled the Phillies have romped through the National League playoffs and the Eagles (6-0) are the NFL’s lone undefeated team, because little has gone right so far for the pro basketball team in Philly. The Sixers rank 24th in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency; they expected to contend for the top five in both categories, not the bottom five. Obviously, there’s plenty of time for things to turn around, but let’s just say the 76ers had better beat Indiana at home Monday or else this is going to get really ugly, really fast.
The Lakers’ opening week was ____.
MacMahon: Amusing. C’mon, how could you not chuckle when Russell Westbrook blamed a one-game preseason stint as a reserve for a hamstring issue that suddenly healed when he was reinserted in the starting lineup? It’s amazing that Westbrook, who blamed sitting in the fourth quarter for a brief bout with “back tightness” last season, has survived so many halftimes. LeBron James accurately pointed out the Lakers’ shooting woes without taking any accountability for pushing for the Westbrook trade that was the biggest factor in the poor roster fit.
Pelton: Predictable. The flaws in this Lakers roster were evident to anyone paying attention, particularly during a 1-5 preseason. Nobody outside perhaps the Lakers’ front office was surprised to see their poor outside shooting emerge as a fatal flaw. The question is whether the Lakers are a Westbrook trade away from contending, and the answer so far is a firm no.
Collier: Sad. The NBA is in a great place with so many good, talented and interesting teams, but this isn’t one of them. I’m not sure James is going to be a good enough reason to stay up late watching West Coast games for this team.
Bontemps: Predictable. This team just isn’t very good. Yes, James is arguably the greatest player, but he’s approaching his 38th birthday in December. Anthony Davis has missed large chunks of three out of the past four seasons. Westbrook continues to be a train wreck of a fit next to James. And the roster is filled with one bad 3-point shooter after another. This is a team that was expected, by rational observers, to be fighting for a spot in the back half of the play-in mix. Nothing that happened this week changed that viewpoint.
Snellings: Foreseeable. They made several moves this offseason to improve their defense, and Davis’ move to center (finally!) is a feather in new coach Darvin Ham’s hat. But the team knew it didn’t do nearly enough to improve shooting. Thus, events such as the starting backcourt going a combined 1-for-18 from the field in Game 2, or a combined 3-for-20 from 3-point range in the first two games, were inevitable.
The Nets’ opening week was ____.
MacMahon: A roller coaster. The Nets followed up a terrible performance against the New Orleans Pelicans with a quality win against the Toronto Raptors. The biggest difference was that Kyrie Irving scored 30 against Toronto after an awful opener. He’s not exactly dependable, but Brooklyn’s ceiling remains high because Kevin Durant and Irving are such spectacular offensive talents.
Snellings: A warning. The Nets need to improve their interior defense if they want to contend. The Nets have gotten full games from their All-Star trio of Durant, Irving and Ben Simmons, and they are clearly learning to play together. But the team got dominated in the interior in Game 1, with the Pelicans’ big front line of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas combining for 68 points (52% FG) and 29 rebounds to spark a 22-point blowout. The Nets came back to win Game 2 against the undersized Raptors, but even Toronto’s small-ball front line of Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and O.G. Anunoby combined for 64 points (57% FG) and 24 rebounds.
Bontemps: Predictable. Hard to say a lot off two games, but will use “predictable” here, too. Brooklyn looked better against the Raptors in its second game, another team that doesn’t have the kind of interior masher to give the Nets trouble. Let’s see what happens this week, when they face the Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks. The results of those games will give us a much better sense of what this team will actually be.
Pelton: Fine. The opening loss to the Pelicans was ugly, and Brooklyn is likely to be mired near the bottom of the defensive rating rankings all season, but beating the Raptors was impressive and the Nets will surely shoot better than they have so far (34% on 3s, including a combined 10-of-34 for Durant and Irving). There’s no reason to panic and no indication anyone has, yet.
Collier: Intriguing. It’s going to be fascinating to watch this team each night, so sign me up for the ride. Durant and Irving are thrilling superstars to watch. Simmons looks like he’s going to be up and down. The talent is there even if the roster is a bit ill-fitting. I still have no idea where this team is headed.
Who has been the most impactful offseason addition through the first week?
Pelton: Donovan Mitchell. With apologies to the Atlanta Hawks’ Dejounte Murray, whose solid start has come against weaker opposition, Mitchell has played at a top-10 level thus far. In Mitchell’s first three games in Cleveland, he has averaged 33.3 points and 7.0 assists while making 53% of his 2-point attempts and 42% of his 3s. Mitchell lifted the Cavaliers to a pair of wins without injured All-Star teammate Darius Garland.
MacMahon: How about early Sixth Man of the Year front-runner Christian Wood? He’s the first player in Dallas history to score at least 25 points in his first two games. He’s scoring at better than a point-per-minute pace (50 points in 49 minutes). He also said the word “fun” five times in a three-minute media session Saturday after the blowout win against the Grizzlies.
Bontemps: I could pick Jalen Brunson, who has 15 assists and no turnovers through two games with the New York Knicks, or one of the many terrific rookies in this year’s class, but I’ll instead go with Wood, who has 50 points in 49 minutes through two games for Dallas. While Wood, quite understandably, would like to start, things are going to work out just fine for the pending free agent if he keeps performing like this regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench.
Collier: Mitchell. An eye injury to Garland means we haven’t really seen the Cavs at their full potential yet, but a pair of 30-point games to kick off his Cleveland career has been a good reminder of how dynamic an offensive player Mitchell can be. He looks like a seamless fit on this roster.
Snellings: The addition of Murray to the Hawks’ backcourt makes them legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference, and we saw some of that in Week 1. Murray pairs with Trae Young to give the Hawks arguably the most dynamic backcourt in the league. Everyone notices the offense, and Murray averaged 20 points and 10 assists last week to help highlight that. But Murray entered the league as an athletic, defensive specialist and he brings that dimension to the Hawks’ perimeter defense. When he’s in the starting lineup with Clint Capela and De’Andre Hunter, suddenly the Hawks also sport one of the league’s better defensive units.
What’s one opening-week matchup you’d love to see in the playoffs?
MacMahon: I’d sign up for seven more games of Mavs vs. Suns. I might have gone with Sixers-Celtics or Sixers-Bucks, but Philadelphia should probably win a game first before we start discussing potential playoff matchups.
Snellings: I started to say Bucks vs Sixers, because there’s always the chance that Giannis and Embiid will go into video-game mode when they see each other and combine for 92 points and 31 rebounds in a given game. Instead, let’s go bigger picture and say Warriors and Lakers. If they meet in the playoffs, it’ll be an indication the Lakers have gotten their act together, likely made trade(s) that better balance their roster, and that LeBron and Davis have stayed healthy enough to get the team there.
Bontemps: Having watched the game last week in person, a Cavs-Raptors series would be awfully fun. Two teams with lots of talent and vastly different play styles — with Cleveland featuring two little guards next to twin towers, and Toronto basically rolling out a team full of 6-foot-8 guys — would make for a really fun matchup in the postseason. Here’s hoping we get to see it.
Collier: Sixers-Bucks. Their game Thursday night was an ugly, good ol’ fashioned Eastern Conference throwback with a 90-88 final score. Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo need to go at each other for a playoff matchup at their peak.
Pelton: Denver Nuggets–Golden State Warriors. We saw this in the opening round last spring, but with a very different version of the Nuggets than the one that won at Chase Center on Friday night. Healthy again, Michael Porter Jr. made five 3s and scored 17 points. Newcomers Bruce Brown Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope combined for 37 points and Denver did it without Jamal Murray, who is back after missing all of the 2021-22 season. Let’s run this back with Denver at full strength.