We are a bit more than a week into the NBA season, but it is not too soon to take stock of the league. Certain teams are playing way above expectations, and other teams are way below.
Let’s dive into the seasons of three teams on opposite sides of that same coin so far this season, as well as some reasons for their extreme play.
NBA Week 1 Risers
Miami Heat (4-1, No. 2 in the Eastern Conference)
The Heat are winning for a lot of reasons. They have played great team defense, three-point shots are falling at a very good clip (39.2 percent) and eight players are averaging at least nine points per game.
The biggest X-factor, though, is Kendrick Nunn. The 6’3” guard was an undrafted rookie in 2018 and played exclusively in the G-League last season. However, Nunn has averaged a fantastic 22.4 points in 31.6 minutes per game on a true-shooting percentage of 62.9.
We’ll see if the unheralded Nunn keeps playing this well (and this much) for Miami as the season wears on. For now, he is giving the Heat a much-needed offensive lift to complement the team’s strong defense.
Toronto Raptors (4-1, No. 4 in the Eastern Conference)
Never underestimate team chemistry and continuity. While the Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, they still brought back a large contingent of last season’s title-winning roster. Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol and Norm Powell are showing us the value of a rotation that knows and trusts each other.
Right now, the Raptors are playing well on both sides of the floor. Turnovers have plagued them so far, but they are making up for it by forcing low-percentage shots on the defensive end and cashing in at a high volume from three-point range (14 makes per game at a 38 percent clip).
We will see if Toronto can keep up its success as other teams get acclimated to each other and find their rotations. A positive early sign is that last year’s Most Improved Player award winner, Pascal Siakam, has taken yet another step as a player and is now a bona fide star.
Phoenix Suns (3-2, No. 8 in the Western Conference)
The Suns got better during the offseason. Bringing in proven veterans like Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky and Aron Baynes to help accompany the team’s young talent guaranteed that.
However, I expected them to be competitive, but not necessarily win that many games. Early on, they have been excellent. Their two losses were both by only one point, and they came against two of the stronger Western Conference playoff contenders, the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets.
The Suns have been very good on both ends of the floor. Their ability to share the ball and consistently hit threes has been huge but it is the defense that has really come around. Phoenix is allowing 100.2 points per 100 possessions after allowing more than 112 points per 100 possessions in its last three seasons.
It’s clear that Phoenix’s veterans are changing the culture of the franchise. I’m not sure whether the Suns have the talent to make the playoffs in a tough Western Conference, but they definitely won’t win just 19 games again like last season.
NBA Week 1 Fallers
Golden State Warriors (1-4, No. 13 in the Western Conference)
This is one of the most obvious fallers you’ll ever see. Golden State entered the regular season with obvious playoff expectations and an outside shot at making a deep playoff run if Klay Thompson was going to come strong from his ACL recovery.
Fast forward a week and a half and things have spiralled out of control. Thompson is now expected to miss the entire season, superstar Stephen Curry broke his hand and should be out at least three months and Draymond Green just injured his finger in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Rotation players Kevon Looney and Jacob Evans are also expected to miss major time.
If none of those players are available, the Warriors probably have the NBA’s weakest roster. D’Angelo Russell was an All-Star last year, but one player can only do so much.
Look for the Warriors to tank this season in an effort to earn a very high draft pick in 2020 and then return to the playoffs in 2021.
Sacramento Kings (1-5, No. 15 in the Western Conference)
The Kings edged out a nice home win on Friday against the Utah Jazz, but they still have the league’s worst net rating and are tied for the league’s worst record.
Sacramento was one of the teams with a legitimate playoff shot this season but the squad hasn’t been at that level so far. The Kings are supposed to be a team that thrives on a faster pace, but it has been other teams that have beat them in transition and looked more comfortable with the pace.
Right now, a lot of people are underperforming for Sacramento, but the team’s veteran signings have been particularly bad. Dewayne Dedmon, Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza are all each making at least $12 million this season, but they all have true-shooting percentages of 48.4 percent or worse and are averaging fewer than six points per game.
Even with a nightmarish start, it is way too soon to count out the Kings from the playoffs, especially with the Warriors likely punching their lottery ticket this week.
Denver Nuggets (3-2, No. 6 in the Western Conference)
The Nuggets won their first three games, but none of the wins were particularly convincing. Now, though, they have lost two games in a row and actually have a negative net rating. For a team that looked like a contender for the No. 1 seed in the West before the season, it has been an underwhelming start.
One of the biggest letdowns has been superstar center Nikola Jokic, whose scoring volume and efficiency have plummeted. His defense has also been noticeably less motivated, which is a problem considering he is not an explosive or quick athlete at all.
Of course, the problems are all through the roster. Seven of the team’s top eight minute-getters are below the league average in true-shooting percentage. Last season, five of the six top minute-getters were above the league average in true-shooting percentage.
The Nuggets need to dedicate themselves to more motivated play on both ends. Once that happens, they should be fine.