Two weeks into the NBA season, numerous intriguing storylines have emerged, both on team and individual levels. Let’s examine some of the more popular early-season takes bubbling up into the discourse, and try to determine whether they are overreactions, underreactions, or reasonable reactions. All individual stats were accurate going into Wednesday night’s games.
Take: The Grizzlies (1-7) will finish in the lottery this season.
Verdict: Reasonable Reaction
Memphis has the NBA’s worst record at 1-7. The Grizzlies are the only NBA team with one win. Of course, the Grizzlies are also without their best player in Ja Morant, who is serving a 25-game suspension. Morant led Memphis to the No. 2 seed in the West last season at 51-31, but after posting a record of 20-5 without Morant in 2021-22 and going 11-10 without him last season, Memphis has struggled mightily in his absence to begin this campaign. This isn’t the same roster that overcame Morant’s previous absences, as the team is missing the playmaking and scoring of Tyus Jones and Dillon Brooks, who are now in Washington and Houston, respectively.
Last season, it took 40 wins to get into the play-in in both Conferences, so Memphis will have to go 35-22 after Morant’s return if it replicates last year’s 51-win pace. That could make 40 wins realistic even with a 5-20 start. It’s too early to count the Grizzlies out, but with a couple of teams that finished near the middle of the Western Conference standings last season looking stronger to start this year, digging out of the early hole created by Morant’s absence won’t be easy, so a lottery finish could certainly be on the table.
Take: The Mavericks (6-2) will finish with a top-five record in the NBA.
Dallas has come flying out of the gate, led by Luka Doncic’s 31.6 PPG, 9.6 RPG and 8.9 APG. Those stats aren’t that different from his 32.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG and 8.0 APG line last season, and the Mavericks finished 11th in the West despite his heroics. While a return to the playoffs is certainly a reasonable expectation, the supporting cast behind Doncic and Kyrie Irving is too unproven to expect Dallas to remain among the league’s elite.
That 77 x 11 connection though 🤞 pic.twitter.com/gVLagGn9kx
— Dallas Mavericks (@dallasmavs) November 9, 2023
Doncic missed 16 games last season and Irving has already missed two this season after being limited to 60 appearances last season, and an extended absence from either would knock Dallas out of the league’s top tier. The Mavericks may not wind up among the top teams, but Doncic is certainly one of the league’s top players. Injuries could still play a major role in the MVP race, but if you had to pick between Doncic and Nikola Jokic vs. the rest of the field, it’s hard not to side with the pair of European nightly 30-point triple-double threats given their early mix of individual and team success (Denver’s 8-1 record is the best in the NBA).
Take: Donovan Mitchell (32.5 PPG) will finish as a top-three scorer in the NBA this season.
Donovan Mitchell is tied for the early NBA scoring lead with Joel Embiid, who led the league in scoring last season at 33.1 PPG. As part of his hot start, Mitchell scored Cleveland’s first 13 points in last Wednesday’s win over the Knicks, a feat nobody in team history — not even LeBron James — previously accomplished. His previous high in PPG was 28.3 last year, which ranked 10th in the league, and Mitchell’s likely to wind up around that mark again once it’s all said and done.
His early scoring binge can be attributed to increased volume, as Mitchell is averaging 21.7 field-goal attempts a game after finishing between 20.5 and 20.6 in each of the previous three seasons. The absence of fellow high-usage guard Darius Garland, who has been limited to three appearances by a hamstring injury, has added more opportunities to Mitchell’s early games. With Garland — who averaged at least 21.6 PPG each of the previous two seasons — back in the lineup, Mitchell’s volume should regress to previous levels, leading to a dip in scoring.
Take: The Heat, Lakers, Suns, and Knicks each won at least one playoff round last season, so none of these teams have much reason to worry after starting 3-4.
Verdict: Underreaction, especially for Miami and Los Angeles.
Digging just under the surface, the Knicks (+2.0) and Suns (+1.6) both have positive average point differentials despite multi-game absences from key starters such as Devin Booker and RJ Barrett. Barring a key injury or two, both of these teams should be just fine moving forward.
…LeBron James is almost 39 years old, while Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell are both shooting 31.3 percent or less on three-pointers after both shot at least 39.8 percent with LA last season.
The Heat (-3.9) and Lakers (-3.4) have much more cause for concern. Both of these teams made deep playoff runs last season after nearly missing out on the playoffs altogether, and pulling another rabbit out of the hat may not be easy. Miami trailed heading into the fourth quarter of a must-win play-in game against Chicago last season before ultimately making it all the way to the NBA Finals. That overachieving Heat team lost sharpshooters Max Strus and Gabe Vincent in the offseason, and the margin for error is thin for this year’s edition given its mediocre talent on paper.
As for the Lakers, LeBron James is almost 39 years old, while Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell are both shooting 31.3 percent or less on three-pointers after both shot at least 39.8 percent with LA last season. If LeBron or oft-injured big man Anthony Davis miss extended time or require frequent maintenance days, the 2023 Western Conference Finalists could wind up on the outside looking in come playoff time in 2024. To be fair, the 2022-23 Lakers surged down the stretch after a 26-32 start.
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