The sample sizes are still small in this young NBA season, but patterns are starting to form after two and a half weeks of basketball.
There has been a good balance of surprises and unexpected performances from teams so far. As we’ll be doing every week this season, let’s check in with some of the squads that are trending upward and downward.
NBA Week 2 Risers
Denver Nuggets (6-2, No. 2 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
Last week, the Nuggets earned a spot on the “fallers” list for playing uninspired basketball on both ends of the floor, particularly superstar center Nikola Jokic.
Jokic is still finding his groove, but Denver has really kicked it up several notches on the defensive end in the past week. Since last Saturday, the Nuggets lead the NBA in defensive rating (94.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) and are nearly 10 points per 100 possessions ahead of the 10th-ranked Indiana Pacers in that span.
Guard Gary Harris and forward Paul Millsap are leading the Nuggets’ defensive charge. Both guys have been up and down on the offensive end, but Jokic, Jamal Murray and Will Barton have helped pick up their slack.
Indiana Pacers (5-4, No. 6 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 3-1)
The Pacers haven’t necessarily been great in the past week, but they have been better enough than they were in their first week to garner honors here. After all, they haven’t even played, much less beat, a team with a record better than .500.
Without Victor Oladipo, the Pacers have been respectable, which is all you can ask from a team without its best player. Malcolm Brogdon has shown himself to be more than effective as a full-time starting point guard, averaging 21 points and 9 assists per game in nine contests.
The biggest factor in Indiana’s success in the past week is the offensive flame-throwing of veteran forward T.J. Warren. The 26-year-old from North Carolina State has averaged 24.3 points on a 69 true-shooting percentage after being at 12.8 points per game and a 41.8 true-shooting percentage prior to that.
Los Angeles Lakers (7-1, No. 1 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)
What adjustment period? The Lakers continue to rack up wins despite having some new key players to integrate and Kyle Kuzma still shooting blanks from three-point range (3-of-23) in his return from a foot injury.
Los Angeles is actually getting the wins with its defense, despite having headliners like LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kuzma. The team is using its ridiculous length to get in all sorts of passing lanes and block a ton of shots, and Avery Bradley, Danny Green and Alex Caruso have been contributing well with strong perimeter defense.
The Lakers are going to be very tough to deal with all regular season and postseason long if opponents can’t figure out how to neutralize Los Angeles’ amazing size in the frontcourt.
NBA Week 2 Fallers
Portland Trail Blazers (3-6, No. 11 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-4)
On Friday, Damian Lillard scored 60 points in a home loss to a Brooklyn Nets team that has been very average to start the year. That basically tells you everything you need to know about what the Trail Blazers have done so far.
Portland is currently on a four-game losing streak, and on top of that, it has now lost young big man Zach Collins for at least four months due to a shoulder injury. The squad was already somewhat lacking in frontcourt depth, but now the problem is even bigger. Hassan Whiteside is a solid option, but besides him, the team has very little strength inside. Anthony Tolliver, Skal Labissiere and Mario Hezonja will slide up in position, but they are all at either a size or strength disadvantage going against big men inside.
The Blazers won’t want to waste a year of Lillard’s prime with a non-competitive roster around him. Look for the squad to explore trade options to bolster its frontcourt.
New Orleans Pelicans (1-7, No. 15 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
The Pelicans looked like a dark-horse Western Conference playoff team prior to the season. Their roster is deep with athletic young talent and rookie No. 1 overall draft pick Zion Williamson looked like a full-fledged star during the preseason.
Then Williamson got injured, and ever since then, things have looked much bleaker in New Orleans. In particular, the Pelicans’ defense has been dreadful, as the team’s youth has shown itself in inconsistent effort and poor awareness. Veterans Jrue Holiday, J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors have underwhelmed on both ends of the floor.
Head coach Alvin Gentry has tried lots of different combinations, as 12 different players have seen at least 63 minutes so far. The lack of chemistry in the lineups is apparent.
Philadelphia 76ers (5-3, No 5 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 1-3)
The NBA’s last undefeated team has now lost three consecutive games. The third was a particularly disappointing blown lead against the Denver Nuggets. Philadelphia scored just 13 points in the fourth quarter, allowing 35 points to Denver.
Ben Simmons is nursing a shoulder injury and the team’s lack of depth shows when he’s out. The 76ers have weaknesses in shooting and guard playmaking and the team needs everyone healthy if they are going to come close to their ceiling this season.
Superstar center Joel Embiid also continues to struggle with foul trouble and turnovers. Those are issues that Sixers fans will undoubtedly like to see him start to fix throughout the rest of the season.