By Nick Sligh
After one of the craziest offseason periods in recent NBA history, the league entered the new season in a much different state than the previous few. The NBA seems to be transitioning from a superteam league with Golden State on the throne to a more open and competitive league, with various superstar duos spread out across the league. Anthony Davis and Lebron James (LA Lakers), Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (LA Clippers), Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn Nets), Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors) and Russell Westbrook and James Harden (Houston Rockets) all bring a new feeling of competitiveness and excitement throughout the NBA.
As expected with a turbulent offseason, the beginning of this season was one of the most anticipated in recent memory. There were many questions circling around the league, and the first two weeks have begun to provide a basis for answering some of these questions with regards to how the 2019-20 season will unfold. Here are the biggest risers and fallers from the first two weeks of the season.
Biggest risers: Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat
The Phoenix Suns, who many people predicted to not even have a chance at making the playoffs this year, are off to a great start. With a 4-2 record, including an impressive win over the LA Clippers, the Suns appear so far to be a much improved team from what we saw last year. This is all amidst the 25-game suspension that DeAndre Ayton is serving. The return of last year’s No. 1 overall pick will certainly be welcomed by the Suns, who are currently building solid momentum in the Western Conference. It isn’t as if the Suns are only fueled by Devin Booker’s shooting heroics either, as there are six different players averaging double-digit points after the first six games. Only so much can be determined from the first few games, and we will have to wait to see if the success of Phoenix will hold over the marathon that is the NBA season.
Off to a 5-1 start to the season, the Miami Heat have been very impressive over their first six games. With wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and a historic blowout win over the Houston Rockets in this stretch, Miami looks to be a formidable threat in the Eastern Conference for this upcoming season. Kendrick Nunn, the undrafted second-year shooting guard from Oakland University in Michigan, has been a remarkable story and a very solid spark through Miami in the initial portion of the season. Averaging 19.5 points per game while shooting an efficient 44% from the distance, Nunn has the ability to develop into a star for the Heat. Tyler Herro, the first-round lottery pick out of Kentucky, has provided an offensive spark and reliable shooting for the Heat, averaging 16 points a game. Jimmy Butler has also provided what was expected from him — solid offensive play and top-level defense on the wing — after missing the first three games. The Heat look to be a solid contender in an Eastern Conference that lacks much depth.
Biggest faller: Golden State Warriors
We knew coming into the season that it was going to be a down year for the Warriors. With Kevin Durant’s departure to Brooklyn, Klay Thompson’s torn ACL that would likely sideline him for the entire season, Andre Iguodala being traded to Memphis and Shaun Livingston’s retirement, the Warriors already looked to be a transitioning and relatively depleted team that was prepared for a down year. The start to the season was even more underwhelming than expected. With a 1-5 start and Steph Curry’s broken left hand leaving him out for at least three months, the Warriors are in the worst position in recent years. It may be a legitimate strategy for the Warriors to begin thinking about the 2020 NBA Draft and preparing for next season, when they will assumedly have a fully healthy Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. It is hard to believe that the Warriors now find themselves in this position given where they were in a year ago; the only team in the NBA with a worse record than them is the New York Knicks.
Two weeks into the season, here are my top-10 teams in the league.
No. 1 Los Angeles Clippers (5-2) – Though the Clippers don’t have the best record in the NBA, I still think that this team is just too solid from top to bottom, offensively and defensively. Still awaiting Paul George’s return, the Clippers look to me to still be the top contender at the moment.
No. 2 Philadelphia 76ers (5-0) – The last remaining unbeaten team in the NBA, Philadelphia is looking the part of a championship contender. With one of the most talented starting fives in the NBA, the 76ers have been dominant in the early phase of the schedule with balanced scoring from their stars and very solid defense. The most impressive team out of the Eastern Conference at the moment, it will be interesting to see how this group continues to develop together.
No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers (5-1) – The Lakers have been thoroughly impressive early on. Anthony Davis has been phenomenal, and Lebron has been Lebron. This duo is one of the most talented that has ever played together and are playing with great chemistry already. The most shocking thing about this team has definitely been the defensive intensity and success that they have had early on. If the Lakers continue to build momentum and chemistry, they have the potential to become the top team in the entire NBA.
No. 4 Milwaukee Bucks (4-2) – Giannis and the Bucks have been off to a solid start, with Antetokounmpo putting together a dominant first few games. There are no real glaring concerns with the Bucks at the moment, with only a slight concern coming from their problem of closing out games and holding onto leads. But for the most part, Milwuakee looks to be the same team that we expected: a serious contender.
No. 5 Denver Nuggets (4-2) – Nikola Jokic has been off to a slightly slower start than expected, given that many considered him a potential MVP candidate coming into the year. However, the Nuggets are still playing good team basketball and tenacious defense. Denver appears to be a tier below some of the previously mentioned teams at the moment, but still have a very high ceiling with such a young and talented roster.
No. 6 Utah Jazz (4-3) – Although sitting only one game above .500 on the year, two of their three losses have come from the Clippers and Lakers. The Jazz currently have the highest defensive efficiency rating in the NBA, anchored by back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. With the addition of Mike Conley to their background, the Jazz have a very solid starting five that will only continue to build their chemistry together. Utah should be a competitive force for the duration of the season.
No. 7 Boston Celtics (4-1) – Kemba Walker’s start in Boston has been a positive one. Kemba has averaged over 26 points a game, and the Celtics have suffered only one loss and it was against the 76ers. If this team continues to add impressive victories, and Kemba continues to fit well, the Celtics should become a very real contender in the Eastern Conference.
No. 8 Houston Rockets (3-3) – There were many questions regarding how well the partnership of Westbrook and Harden would work heading into the season, given how ball-dominant each is. In terms of pure offensive usage, the NBA has never seen a duo quite like these two. I hold many of these same questions still. Off to a .500 start through six games, it is hard to claim that the partnership has been too successful yet. James Harden is currently averaging 35 points a game on 21.5% shooting from three, a stat line that is one of the craziest I have seen and certainly a significant factor in revealing why the Rockets have lost three of their first six. Westbrook has hardly been more efficient, shooting 25% from deep. Given the Rockets’ dependency on the three-point game, this team needs to get out of their shooting slump in order to see more success. However, with a duo that is this electric, the potential is very high if they are able to play more efficiently and become more comfortable in their roles.
No. 9 Toronto Raptors (4-2) – After losing Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers in free agency, it was obvious that the Raptors would be taking a step back coming in to this season. Another personnel loss that hurt was Danny Green, who took his talents to the other team in Los Angeles. The Raptors have gotten off to a very respectable start, however, with Pascal Siakam looking the part of a blossoming superstar. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have also provided a very nice offensive spark with efficient shooting from beyond the arc. Even without Kawhi, this team should make the playoffs and remain a second-tier contender in the Eastern Conference at the least.
No. 10 Dallas Mavericks (4-2) – Luka Doncic has been phenomenal so far for Dallas, and Kristaps Porzingis has played very well in his return from injury. The young superstar duo will only continue to get better and develop better chemistry. Even in the deep and ever-talented Western Conference, the Mavericks should make noise throughout the season and certainly be a contender for a spot in the playoffs.
Contact Nick Sligh at nick1019 ‘at’ stanford.edu.