Biggest surprises and disappointments after first month of NBA season

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) drives to the basket against Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Tuesday, April 4, 2023. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Just like we all thought, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks are duking it out for top spot in the East while the Washington Generals Wizards and Detroit Pistons are battling at the bottom.

In the West, the defending champion Denver Nuggets are motoring along despite a hamstring injury to Jamal Murray, while Victor Wembanyama is delivering on all the hype coming into his rookie season. Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid are the main subjects of conversation in MVP debates, just as they’ve been for the last three seasons.

While there are no shocks there, there are quite a few things that have turned heads through the first month of the season, for better and for worse.

Here are Sportsnet’s three biggest surprises and three biggest disappointments with about a fifth of the season complete:

SURPRISE: Timberwolves, Thunder atop the Western Conference

The Minnesota Timberwolves are for all intents and purposes the Paul Rudd “look at us” meme right now. After a season of Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert looking like an awkward fit, the two seem to have hit their stride playing alongside each other. Gobert is looking like a player who’s been three-time Defensive Player of the Year again while Towns has improved his perimeter defence.

[brightcove videoID=6341190852112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Then there’s Ant Man. Anthony Edwards is making the leap to superstardom averaging 25.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.1 assists while also embracing how much of an impact he can have on the defensive end with his length. That word length has been the key to the Wolves’ defensive success as the team ranks first in defensive rating with 106.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. At 11-3, Minnesota is the top seed in the West and the biggest surprise in the league.

If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, watch out for the Oklahoma City Thunder, folks. Hamilton, Ont., native Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made the superstardom leap last season and now with early Rookie of the Year favourite Chet Holmgren balling out, the young and feisty Thunder are second in the West at 11-4 — courtesy of six straight wins and an extremely impressive 6-1 record on the road. If the wins keep coming, Gilgeous-Alexander’s current pace of 30.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 2.4 steals should get plenty of MVP love.

Holmgren has been magnificent early, averaging 17.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, along with a unicorn 43.4 per cent shooting from three. Long, lanky, and swaggy for days, the 21-year-old looks like a dream pairing alongside Gilgeous-Alexander while the likes of Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey, Luguentz Dort, and Isaiah Joe play complementary roles.

DISAPPOINTMENT: Jordan Poole trade didn’t fix the Warriors

After a 6-2 start to the season, Draymond Green and everyone in and around the organization was singing praises of the change in locker room vibes and how the Jordan Poole-Chris Paul swap had altered everything that was wrong last season.

Paul is doing his part by embracing a bench role (when everyone is healthy/not suspended) and averaging 9.8 points and 7.7 assists, but the Warriors spoke a little too soon as they are now 1-7 in the last eight games and desperate for Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins to find a rhythm. Green’s return from a five-game suspension for putting Gobert in a chokehold would help, too. Thompson is averaging just 15 points per game, his fewest since he was a rookie, largely because he’s shooting a career-low 31 per cent on corner threes. One of the greatest shooters of all time, Thompson has shot 44.4 per cent from the corners for his career.

If Thompson’s struggles weren’t enough, Wiggins has had an abysmal start to the season with a career-low 11.9 points per game. He’s making just 23.5 per cent of his threes and 56.3 per cent of his free throws. He’s also contributing just 4.1 rebounds a game and will need to be a big part of righting the ship. It’s been smooth sailing for Steph Curry, averaging 29.4 points including over five three-point makes per game, although his assist numbers are down to a career-low 3.8 due to Paul’s arrival.

SURPRISE: Pacers look like the modern-day ‘7 Seconds or Less’ Suns

Tyrese Haliburton is single-handedly ringing in the season of giving. Through 13 games, Haliburton is averaging a league-leading 12.3 assists, but also making time to get his. He’s averaging 25.3 points while shooting over 50 per cent from the field, over 45 per cent from three, and over 90 per cent from the free-throw line. He’s the engine behind the league’s best offence. 

Haliburton’s Steve Nash impersonation has the Pacers vaulting up the rankings of must-see teams this season, and the actual standings aren’t looking too shabby either, with Indiana in sixth at 8-6. The Pacers have the best offensive rating in the league at 122.9 points per 100 possessions, which is nearly nine points above league average. Beyond Haliburton, there are another seven players averaging at least double-digits in scoring and, as a team, Indiana is shooting nearly 40 per cent from three as well as almost 50 per cent from the mid-range.

DISAPPOINTMENT: Grizzlies’ disastrous start

Things are starting to get murky in Memphis. The West is truly unforgiving and a 3-11 start including 0-6 at home leaves the Grizzlies just a half-game behind San Antonio for the worst record in the conference. Ja Morant won’t be back from suspension for another 11 games, Marcus Smart will miss another couple of weeks due to an ankle injury, Steven Adams is out for the season, and so is Vancouver native Brandon Clarke.

While Desmond Bane has been excellent averaging 25.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists, the lack of size and genuine dribble penetration has caused all sorts of problems for a team that had 107 wins over its last two seasons. After ranking first in rebounding in 2021-22 and eighth in 2022-23, the Grizzlies currently rank a mediocre 20th and collect less than 50 per cent of all rebound opportunities. Memphis also owns the league’s second-worst offence because they have the second-worst field goal percentage at the rim (59.6 per cent) and second-worst three-point percentage (34.0 per cent).

Beyond the health issues, one has to wonder if they miss what Mississauga, Ont., native Dillon Brooks brought to the table with his swagger and hard-nosed style of play. Brooks is thriving in Houston, averaging 13.8 points while currently making 45 per cent of his three-point attempts and shooting nearly 50 per cent from the field overall. More importantly, the Rockets are a respectable 7-6 with the league’s third-best defence.

SURPRISE: Tyrese Maxey levelling up to superstardom

James Harden who? Tyrese Maxey sped past that era of Sixers basketball just as quickly as he blows by defenders. Averaging 27 points, 4.7 rebounds, and seven assists, Maxey has emerged as a legitimate superstar pairing alongside Joel Embiid.

Though he’s been on an upward trajectory since entering the league, Maxey arriving at this level so quickly changes the dynamic of the Sixers moving forward. Many believed Harden’s departure with no star in return would have blunted Philadelphia’s title chances, but the elevated status of Maxey paired with depth additions in Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington has actually created better roster balance and are big reasons why the Sixers currently sit second in the East.

Of course, there is no bigger reason for their success than reigning MVP Joel Embiid, averaging 31.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.8 blocks.

DISAPPOINTMENT: Austin Reaves is not HIM

The Lakers viewed continuity as key this off-season, having done a lot of work just before last season’s trade deadline to reshape the roster. After the all-star break, Los Angeles finished with a 17-7 record and the league’s third-best net rating. D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Rui Hachimura all made vital contributions down the stretch, but it was Austin Reaves who was the clear standout role player performer.

Reaves is a good player, occasionally even very good. That being said, Los Angeles thinking he could be a good enough third option behind a soon-to-be 39-year-old LeBron James and injury prone Anthony Davis was a mistake, at least if the franchise has championship aspirations this season anyway. Reaves is averaging 13.9 points which is about four fewer than he averaged after last season’s trade deadline, but some of that had to be expected as opponents made him a bigger part of their scouting report. He’s still making all-round contributions with 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, but his three-point percentage has dipped from 39.8 per cent last season to 33.8 per cent now.

He’d be a very nice fourth option on a championship team but it currently looks as though the boots he’s required to fill are too big. The Lakers are seventh in the West at 9-7 with 10 of the next 12 games on the road.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.