1 Thing Every NBA Team Can Be Thankful For This Season
As we gather during the holidays to appreciate health and happiness with loved ones, please try to remember the blessings on the court. Like, for example, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's relentless attacks on the rim, or the unexpected emergence of Luka Dončić, post-up master.
That's what the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks will be celebrating, so why not us?
Every team has something to be thankful for, and we've compiled them all here in bite-sized form designed for easy consumption. And if civility begins to erode or touchy subjects come up around the dinner table, just use this as a way to change the subject. Who wouldn't want to discuss the Indiana Pacers' brilliant young backcourt over turkey and stuffing?
Atlanta Hawks: Collaborative Spirit
Trae Young and Dejounte Murray have operated free of friction since an offseason trade brought the latter aboard to, hopefully, juice the Atlanta Hawks' defense and secondary playmaking. It was reasonable to expect hiccups in the integration process, as Young had never done much work off the ball, while Murray's suspect shooting had historically meant he also had less value when not running the offense.
Young and Murray ranked in the top five in total time of possession last season, but both have sacrificed in 2022-23. Young is down from 8.7 to 7.7 minutes of touch time per game, while Murray dropped his share from 7.4 to 5.8 minutes. The Hawks are in the middle of the pack offensively so far, but that will change once Young works through the worst shooting start of his career.
Atlanta is outscoring opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions with Murray and Young on the floor together, but it owns a dramatically negative differential whenever one plays without the other. It turns out the chemistry between the Hawks' new guard tandem is a non-issue.
Boston Celtics: Offensive Awakening
The combined losses of head coach Ime Udoka and starting center Robert Williams III has predictably hurt the Boston Celtics' early-season performance on defense. But the Celtics still profile as the best team in the league after a month because they've leveled up offensively, more than offsetting the absence of the architect of and lynchpin to last year's league-best defense.
Technically, we could break this up and say Boston should be thankful for Jayson Tatum taking another step in his journey to an eventual MVP award. Or for Jaylen Brown dramatically improving his left hand. Or for Derrick White always striking the right balance between shooting aggression and ball movement, depending on which injured Celtics regular's role he's filling on a given night. But this has been a team effort on offense that warrants sharing the credit.
Boston is winning the math game by taking a higher share of its shots from long-range than any other team. It's also taking care of the ball. After finishing 13th in turnover rate last season (not bad by any stretch), the Celtics now own the third-lowest giveaway percentage in the league.
If Williams can return to supercharge the defense without disrupting the team's offensive mojo, watch out.
Brooklyn Nets: Short Attention Spans
The Brooklyn Nets are nowhere without Kevin Durant, and they ought to be thankful the 12-time All-Star is still performing near his peak level while shouldering a heavy workload because of injuries and absences throughout the roster. But is gratitude really appropriate in light of Durant's culpability for the drama and strife that have defined Brooklyn's season?
It's admittedly hard to keep KD's trade demand and request for a coaching and management overhaul in mind when he's slapping 30 on the opposition every night. Buckets are the ultimate memory wipe.
And maybe that's as far as we need to go. Durant remains a generational scorer, and he's been good enough during a tough Nets season to occasionally overshadow the never-ending Kyrie Irving saga, a coaching change and Ben Simmons' continuing (though recently encouraging) effort to find his game.
Charlotte Hornets: Adversity as Opportunity
There's nothing good about LaMelo Ball missing the Charlotte Hornets' first 13 games with an ankle injury, then aggravating the same issue and going back on the shelf just three contests into his return. But the Hornets can still try to make the best of it.
This can be a lemons-into-lemonade situation if Charlotte is willing to endure a sour season.
Ball's injury is the main reason the Hornets' offense, sixth a year ago, is now dead last. Miles Bridges' absence is a close second. His uncertain future, along with Gordon Hayward already missing time, also gives Charlotte cover for what should be one of the most aggressive tank jobs in the league. That's not an approach the Hornets' recent history suggests they'd prefer, but it should be instructive that Ball, snagged with the third pick in 2020, is the franchise's only long-term bright spot.
Lifelines live in the high lottery, and the Hornets need another one. Adversity like this is no fun, but Charlotte's struggles might be its best opportunity to make meaningful change.
Chicago Bulls: DeRozan's Renaissance Continues
His minutes are down, and the threes aren't falling at the career-high rate they did a year ago, but DeMar DeRozan is still the best thing about the Chicago Bulls.
Remarkably, DeRozan is pretty much replicating last year's improbable breakout. His 26.7 points per 36 minutes are right in line with last year's 27.8 and are still the second-best figure of his career. The league's preeminent mid-range maestro, he's shooting 53.9 percent on two-pointers, better than last year's 52.0 percent.
DeRozan, 33, is also posting the highest true shooting percentage of his career. If he can keep that mark above 60.0 percent (61.2 percent through 17 games) and finish with a scoring average of at least 25.0 points per game, DeRozan will be just the fifth player to do so at 33 or older. The other players in that club are all-timers across the board: Karl Malone, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Jarrett Allen's Defense
This doesn't change the fact that Evan Mobley is the Cleveland Cavaliers' most important player—yes, even more so than fringe MVP candidate Donovan Mitchell. Mobley is the guy who, if he reaches his potential, can elevate the Cavs to true contention with his two-way play in the middle.
Mitchell and Mobley have gotten their share of flowers, so we need to celebrate Jarrett Allen.
Cleveland's big man has been singularly important to its defense this season, and his presence on the floor coincides with an 11.8-point improvement in defensive rating. He's not holding opponents under 50.0 percent inside six feet like he did a year ago, but Allen is still a major deterrent inside and has upped his rebounding to elite levels. When he's on the floor, he's hauling in a career-best 23.5 percent of opponent misses.
The Cavs are on pace to improve on last year's No. 6 ranking in defensive efficiency, and Allen has everything to do with it.
Dallas Mavericks: Luka Dončić's Post Game
The league already knew guarding Luka Dončić on the perimeter was impossible. The Dallas Mavericks superstar proved that last year when he scored 59 more points in isolation sets than any other player.
It turns out he's similarly tough to stop on the block.
In one of the more surprising individual developments of the 2022-23 season, Dončić is now arguably the most dangerous post-up threat in the league. The Mavs score 1.2 points per Dončić post-up, a figure that ranks in the 92nd percentile overall and is by far the best among players who set up shop down low at least three times per game. He's drawing shooting fouls on nearly a quarter of his post-ups and virtually never turns the ball over.
Double him, and it's basically a guarantee that another Dallas player is getting a wide-open shot.
Ideally, the Mavs would diversify their offense by finding someone other than Dončić to shoulder the load once in a while. But simply letting him dominate in a different way is a solid backup plan. Watch out for 2023-24, when Dončić will (probably) become the best cutter or roll man in the league.
Denver Nuggets: Preternatural Unselfishness
Even during back-to-back MVP runs, it always felt like Nikola Jokić wasn't playing quite the way he wanted to. It was as if the high-volume scoring role he occupied the past two years had to be coaxed out of him. Even while averaging 26.4 and 27.1 points per game in 2020-21 and 2021-22, respectively, Jokić would turn down a handful of decent looks every night in search of a pass to set up a teammate.
This season, he's reverted to form. Jokić is averaging his fewest shot attempts per 100 possessions since his rookie season, part of a pretty clear effort to get Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray going in their returns from injury. He's also on pace for career bests in assist percentage and true shooting percentage.
The idea of an in-prime MVP willingly reducing his scoring role seems strange. But for Denver's best player, it makes all the sense in the world.
Detroit Pistons: Jaden Ivey's Flashes
Even the most promising first-year players pepper their performances with rushed shots, wild passes and aimless defense. It's part of the process, and Jaden Ivey is going through it as a full-time starter for a Detroit Pistons team that doesn't have the surrounding talent or experience to make life easier on him. As expected, he's had low moments and off nights.
But it's the highs that should have the Pistons giving thanks.
Every time Ivey outruns everyone on the floor (with the ball) in transition or explodes to the rim in a half-court set, it raises Detroit's ceiling a little. And whenever he slings a pinpoint dime through a window most point guards his age can't even see yet, the team's future possibilities get more intriguing.
Ivey is an A-plus athlete who's already showing signs of three-level scoring and enough on-ball feel to profile as a primary distributor. The Pistons are struggling mightily on both ends, but Ivey offers hope that better days are ahead.
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry
Without Stephen Curry, none of this—the rings, the dynasty, the three-point revolution, even the existence of the Chase Center in San Francisco—ever happens. That's obviously the widest possible lens through which to view Curry's incomparable impact on the Warriors and the league as a whole, and it'd be sufficient for this space on its own.
If we're just talking about this season in Golden State, Curry is similarly deserving of thanks.
At age 34, he's at or near the top of the MVP conversation and has been the only consistent positive in an up-and-down Warriors season. Golden State is an incomprehensible 30.0 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off, which makes him nothing short of a legitimate savior to this point in the season. If his current rates hold, Steph will post the highest scoring average of his career (32.2 points per game) and register his second 50/40/90 season.
Some of these have been nuanced or niche, but there's just no way to make this complicated. Golden State owes Curry a debt it can never repay. And that's saying something for a guy who's going to collect at least half a billion dollars in salary before he hangs it up.
Houston Rockets: Jabari Smith's Big-Game Timing
Jabari Smith Jr. has had a rough start to his rookie season, and that's putting it mildly. The No. 3 pick hasn't shown the ability to generate his own looks or create space, and even his spot-up attempts have been wayward. That's how you wind up with a 33.3 percent hit rate from the field, the worst figure for any player with at least 170 attempts this season.
But something happens to Smith when star-studded teams line up across from his Houston Rockets. Smith's best game in October was a 21-point outing that included 6-of-10 shooting against a then-undefeated Utah Jazz team off to a surging start. And his top November performance came against the Warriors this past Sunday when he made eight of his 14 shots and registered a career-high 22 points.
Out of sync all year, Smith looked to be in a better rhythm in both high-profile contests. Though Houston lost both of Smith's best games, and though he'll continue to struggle with Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. delivering on-target setups about as often as they whistle passes into the third row, it's encouraging that he seems to get up for the toughest competition.
Indiana Pacers: The Backcourt is Set
Rebuilds are uncertain enterprises. Teams can convince themselves they've got one area of the roster solved for a stretch, only to see the young players that seemed to be cornerstones crumble.
The Indiana Pacers don't have to worry about that. In Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin, they've got their backcourt of the future locked up.
Haliburton is already one of the best handful of passers in the game, which shows up in his league-leading assist and potential assist averages. Ditch the numbers, and you'll conclude he's a setup savant just by watching him make deliveries like this. What's more, he's on pace to be the first player to ever average over 20.0 points and 10.0 assists while shooting at least 39.0 percent from long distance.
Meanwhile, Mathurin is complementing Haliburton's preposterously crafty approach with electrifying athleticism and advanced foul-drawing skill. He's pushing Paolo Banchero for Rookie of the Year honors and might wind up double dipping with a Sixth Man of the Year nod—that's if the Pacers can continue to justify bringing him off the bench all season.
Los Angeles Clippers: Small-Sample Hints
As Kawhi Leonard goes, so go the Los Angeles Clippers. The problem this season is that Leonard has mostly been, well... gone. As in, off the floor. Out of action. Uninvolved because of a slower-than-expected return from the torn ACL he suffered in the 2021 playoffs.
Through the Clips' first 19 games, Leonard suited up just five times, starting three contests and accumulating a measly 112 minutes. The lack of volume is a problem, albeit maybe one the Clippers could have seen coming. Leonard's days of heavy minute totals and every-night availability disappeared years ago. The only encouraging sign amid Leonard's tiny sample of playing time: Los Angeles is destroying teams when he's in the game.
The Clippers have posted a plus-23.4 net rating when Leonard plays, and they've been particularly nasty on defense. With the two-time Finals MVP on the court, the clips knock 15.8 points per 100 possessions off their defensive rating. It's difficult to ascribe that dominance solely to Leonard's play. He's averaging just 16.1 points per 36 minutes and hitting 42.2 percent of his shots from the field. Every small-sample caveat applies here.
Still, for a Clippers team that was built to function around two superstar wings, it's heartening to see proof of concept during the limited minutes Leonard has played. And remember, we've still got several months until L.A. is playing in the games that really matter, and Leonard won't have to deal with back-to-back sets after mid-April.
Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis' Resurgence
LeBron James appeared to be in clear decline before another groin injury knocked him out of the lineup after 10 games, Russell Westbrook has been ineffective as a starter and off the bench, and the Los Angeles Lakers' supporting cast continues to collectively underwhelm during a 5-11 start.
Thank goodness for Anthony Davis.
AD grabbed headlines with his cartoonish stat line against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, racking up 37 points, 21 rebounds, five steals, five blocks and two assists—a continuation of one of the most productive stretches of a career that has had plenty of them. Even for him, this is a remarkable surge. He'd only ever produced two straight games with at least 30 points and 15 boards prior to his current four-game streak.
Davis' dominance may not be enough to get the Lakers back into the playoff mix without a roster upgrade to support him. But considering the season started with whispers about his disappointing play and doubts he'd ever rediscover his "Bubble AD" form, Davis' recent brilliance stands out as the brightest light in an otherwise dark Lakers season.
Memphis Grizzlies: John Konchar's Commentary
We could easily frame this around Jon Konchar taking on an increased role (career-high 27.4 minutes per game) that has only grown during Desmond Bane's time on the shelf. And it'd be easy enough to point out how the 6'5" guard is a career 40.7 percent three-point shooter who sneaks in "did he really just do that?" dunks once a week.
But this is really about Konchar's mic'd up commentary, a delightful niche nugget every Memphis Grizzlies fan already knew about, but something I only recently discovered.
Chris Vernon @ChrisVernonShow
If you just learned of John Konchar, allow me to show you when he got mic’d up. 😂😂😂 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/dunkshots?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#dunkshots</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/sports?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#sports</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/fun?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#fun</a> <a href="https://t.co/ikyCjFZoKg">pic.twitter.com/ikyCjFZoKg</a>
Anyone who cracks up teammates by using the term "dunk shot" in regular conversation or by noting "this is a great sports game here!" with a straight face is owed thanks.
Here's to more dunk shots in sports games!
Miami Heat: Caleb Martin's Hustle
A full-time starter for the first time in his career and thrust into an even larger role by injuries and free-agent departures, Miami Heat forward Caleb Martin is working as hard as possible to keep his team from going off the rails during a shaky start.
Martin is averaging just 9.6 points per game, but he's chipping in at both forward spots by darting all over the floor and causing chaos on both ends. Jimmy Butler is the only Heat player with more deflections, and only Max Strus has contested more three-point shots than Martin, who came into the league as a shooting guard and now alternates as Butler's fill-in at the 3 and the departed P.J. Tucker's replacement at the 4.
Martin is also a hellacious offensive rebounder (88th percentile among forwards) who even sneaks in to snatch his own team's missed free throws whenever opponents are less motivated to hustle than he is, which is almost always.
Nobody, including Bam Adebayo, has had a more positive impact on Miami's point differential or defensive rating than Martin, an absolute steal signed to the taxpayer's mid-level exception over the summer.
Milwaukee Bucks: Greedy Defense
The Milwaukee Bucks didn't need to change anything about a defense that ranked among the top 10 three times in the four years preceding this one (with a first-place finish in 2019-20 and a second-place finish in 2018-19), but they got greedy and improved anyway.
The key has been limiting opponents' three-point shots, seemingly an impossibility with a scheme that had always focused on walling off the lane. You couldn't have it both ways, the thinking went. Milwaukee begs to differ.
While the Bucks are still preventing attempts at the rim better than most, they are also suddenly experts at running shooters off the three-point line. After allowing opponents to take 41.8 percent of their shots from deep last year (29th in the league), teams are now getting just 31.8 percent of their looks from beyond the arc, which ranks third.
The benefits are obvious. After allowing a 54.0 percent effective field-goal percentage last season that ranked 20th, Milwaukee's two-pronged approach has it ranking first with a meager 50.8 opponents' effective field-goal percentage. Credit Giannis Antetokounmpo's mobility and tenacity, or Brook Lopez's willingness to shuttle between rim defense and shooters if you want. But really, this is about a great defense getting greedy.
And gluttony is encouraged this time of year.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Patience
The home fans who booed the Minnesota Timberwolves during a lackluster start against the Heat on Monday may not want to hear it, but teams that undergo major offseason changes need time to figure out how to play together. Granted, the learning process shouldn't include as many stretches of disengaged and low-effort play as the Wolves have shown, but the point stands: Patience is key.
Quietly, and in defiance of the early narrative that the blockbuster trade for Rudy Gobert was doomed from the start, Minnesota is turning things around.
Its starting lineup is now producing a positive net rating for the season, and the combo of Gobert, D'Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels and Karl-Anthony Towns blitzed opponents by 22.2 points per 100 possessions during a four-game winning streak that included a comeback victory against the Heat. Edwards' electrifying second-half play in that game turned those boos to cheers.
It's still early, and we definitely haven't seen the end of Minnesota's adjustment period. But give this experiment a little time, and it's going to produce results.
New Orleans Pelicans: Criminal Mischief
There's a lot to like about a New Orleans Pelicans team that has had a mostly healthy Zion Williamson and the right star power-depth combo to produce top-five efficiency ratings on both ends. But nothing about the Pels' strong start has been more fun than Jose Alvarado's penchant for pickpocketing.
There's a reason they keep making heist movies, and the more brazen the cinematic criminal, the easier it is to root for them. Alvarado is an unabashed thief, one seemingly emboldened by the fact that law enforcement (which, in this rapidly deteriorating analogy, is the other team) knows he's trying to pull off a daring job.
Everyone should know about "Grand Theft Alvarado" by now, and that makes it all the sweeter when he lurks in the backcourt and pounces on a lazy pass anyway.
New York Knicks: Jalen Brunson's Floater
The New York Knicks are 27th in the league with a 51.1 percent effective field-goal percentage, and things would be a whole lot worse if not for Jalen Brunson's close-range wizardry.
Rightfully celebrated as a post-up savant, Brunson has so far featured the NBA's best floater. He ranks in the 100th percentile in shot frequency from the short mid-range area and in the 97th in accuracy.
The Athletic's Fred Katz tallied up Brunson's floaters, and the results were staggering: "After sinking eight shots from floater range during Monday's 34-point performance against the Thunder, he now has 65 on the season, 15 more than anyone else in the league."
The Knicks clog the lane with non-stretch centers and compound the congestion by featuring multiple shooters who don't scare defenses (Julius Randle and RJ Barrett come to mind). That makes it a chore to get all the way to the rim, where long-armed help defenders are always lurking. Brunson's skills would be helpful under any circumstances, but they're especially vital to a team that so often has to settle for six-foot shots instead of layups.
Oklahoma City Thunder: SGA's Relentlessness
This being the third straight year Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tops the NBA in drives per game, it is safe to say that every opposing defense knows exactly where the Oklahoma City Thunder's breakout MVP candidate wants to go with the ball in his hands.
It hasn't mattered. SGA continues to do his best Thanos impression every night, inevitably getting to the hole.
Guarding Gilgeous-Alexander is like trying to hug smoke; even defenders who think they've got their arms around him can only watch as he escapes, wafting past with a wholly unique combination of feints and off-time stutter steps. He moves as if he's on solid ground and everyone else is struggling to stay balanced on a rocking boat deck.
Gilgeous-Alexander is handing defenses 30-spots on the regular while shooting just 2.9 threes per game, unheard of in the modern era. He's the reason OKC shouldn't feel quite so bad about winning often enough to hurt its chances at prime lottery position. The Thunder already have their franchise cornerstone or, to put it in a term that applies best to SGA, their driving force.
Orlando Magic: Player Evaluation
On some level, what Bol Bol has done for the Orlando Magic this season shouldn't be surprising. He was a wildly talented prospect in college who, at 7'2", produced the shot-blocking you'd expect while offering on-ball capabilities that looked like they belonged in a player eight inches shorter.
But Bol fell to No. 44 in the draft and all but washed out of the league after 53 games across three ho-hum years with the Nuggets and a failed physical that scuttled a trade to the Pistons last season. The Magic acquired him in February and re-signed him to a two-year deal in July, and now they have a regular starter who's averaging 13.1 points on a 60.1/42.4/81.6 shooting split while ranking in the top 15 percent among bigs in both block and defensive rebound rate.
Bol is one of the best stories of the early season, and at 23, he looks like a core piece for the rebuilding Magic. That would have seemed impossible as recently as two months ago. Credit Orlando for seeing in Bol what, apparently, none of the other 29 teams could.
Philadelphia 76ers: Tobias Harris' Grit
Every win will feel like three during what's sure to be a brutal stretch for the injury-plagued Philadelphia 76ers, and that's why Tobias Harris' effort in a 115-106 victory over the healthy Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday meant so much.
Harris finished with 24 points, several of which came after he barely managed to walk off the floor under his own power following an ugly ankle sprain. If that weren't enough, Harris had missed the previous two games with a sore left hip, which he, of course, visibly tweaked during the post-ankle sprain portion of the contest. Improbably, the Sixers survived without Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey.
Often maligned for his contract (not his fault!), Harris should be appreciated for accepting a fourth-option role on the infrequently seen healthy version of this team. He showed Tuesday that he's capable of more when called upon, even when everyone would have forgiven him for bowing out.
Phoenix Suns: Good Cameron Payne Is Back
Cameron Payne is playing a lot like he did in the bubble and during his stellar follow-up 2020-21 season, and that's great news for a team that has never needed him more.
With Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson out and Jae Crowder away from the team while he awaits a trade, the Phoenix Suns are thin up and down the roster. Paul's absence looms largest because it puts such a playmaking burden on his backup, Payne, but we shouldn't underrate the loss of two floor-spacing forwards.
Through 15 games (seven starts), Payne is averaging a career high 13.9 points and has his three-point hit rate up to 41.9 percent from last year's 33.6. percent. Despite spending more time against first units than ever and toting a 26.1 percent usage rate that exceeds anything he's handled before, Payne is performing better than he did a year ago. His 46.4 percent shooting on pull-up threes has been particularly valuable considering none of the remaining healthy Suns (other than Devin Booker) can reliably create their own looks.
Portland Trail Blazers: Team USA
Donovan Mitchell, Dejounte Murray and Lauri Markkanen would probably like to be heard on the matter, but there's a case to be made that Jerami Grant has meant more to his new team than any other high-end player who changed cities over the offseason. Grant wouldn't have filled the Portland Trail Blazers' void at forward if he hadn't bonded with Damian Lillard during their time with Team USA at the 2021 Olympics.
"I knew we would [get him]," Lillard told Jason Quick of The Athletic. "This time, I knew we would. I probably ... well, not probably ... I spoke to [Grant] more than any other player ... ever, in that time period. ... So honestly, I never had a doubt that it would happen."
Grant is averaging 19.6 points on a 47.3/47.1/75.0 shooting split, routinely defending the opponent's most threatening guard or forward and showing high-impact athleticism that the Blazers simply haven't had at the position during the Lillard era.
Sacramento Kings: Jet Ignition
"Turn the f--king jets on," Sacramento Kings head coach Mike Brown screamed after he motored up the floor during an October practice. It was a meme-able moment, sure, but Brown's insistence that the Kings play with pace has been key to the franchise's best start in almost 20 years.
Since he entered the league, point guard De'Aaron Fox's speed has been his defining characteristic. It has always seemed like the Kings' refusal to get out and run was leaving low-hanging fruit unpicked, but now they're hoarding it. Fox is pushing the tempo, but he also has Domantas Sabonis, one of the best passers among bigs, unleashing outlets after defensive boards. Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk, Davion Mitchell and Terence Davis are getting involved, too, looking to get the ball up the floor as quickly as possible.
The Kings may fall back to earth as their schedule (easiest in the league so far) toughens and players such as Huerter stop making literally half of their threes, but this group can really score. Especially when they turn the jets on.
San Antonio Spurs: Growth Opportunities
As the saying goes, you win or you learn. And the San Antonio Spurs are doing a whole lot of learning this season—no shock for a team that starts four players aged 23 or younger.
While both Keldon Johnson and Tre Jones have impressed with their growth, Devin Vassell stands out as San Antonio's most rapidly developing piece. Perhaps wrongly pigeonholed as a spot-up shooter when he entered the league in 2020, Vassell is delivering on that projection while also showcasing playmaking skills few foresaw.
The 6'5" wing is getting attention for his 43.6 percent knockdown rate on a career-high 7.2 long-range attempts per game, but he's also averaging 3.4 assists and ranks in the 81st percentile among wings in assist percentage. Best of all, his increased comfort with facilitation isn't accompanied by extra mistakes. He ranks in the top 10 percent at his position in turnover rate.
It's too soon to say Vassell is going to become a first-option forward in the vein of Jayson Tatum or Paul George. But his improvement as a passer raises both his and the Spurs' long-term ceiling.
Toronto Raptors: Runouts
We almost went with "commitment to the cause" for the Toronto Raptors, who have stuck to their guns in utilizing lineups that often don't feature a true center or point guard. But it's harder to praise them for continuing with their unusual experiment when the same shortcomings—awful half-court offense and suspect defensive rebounding—that plagued them last year are still around.
At some point, adjustments will be in order. The Raptors can't expect to succeed in any meaningful way if they never score against a set defense. They can worry about the long-term efficacy of their approach once everyone's healthy; injuries to Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Precious Achiuwa and Otto Porter Jr. make a fair evaluation tricky.
For now, let's appreciate a positive constant in Toronto's makeup: elite play on the break. After finishing second in transition frequency and fourth in points added per 100 transition chances last season, the Raptors are first in both categories. Multiple fleet-footed, forward-sized grab-and-go threats on the floor lead to tons of fast-break opportunities, and Toronto is capitalizing on them better than anyone.
Utah Jazz: Danny Ainge
The Utah Jazz have a bevy of future draft picks, a young and exciting (if mostly starless) roster racking up way more wins than anyone expected and the satisfaction that comes with knowing they punted on a collection of talent that had run its course a year too early rather than a year too late.
Whichever of those appeals most to you, whether you're an objective observer or a diehard fan, you've got Danny Ainge to thank.
The Jazz's top executive boldly changed the franchise's direction by trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, and while future flexibility was the real value-add, all these wins by a high-scoring and competitive team have been a nice bonus. The only issue is that the Jazz might have to share their thankfulness with the Celtics, arguably the league's best team and one Ainge constructed over the last several years before stepping down and heading to Salt Lake City.
Washington Wizards: Faith in Math
The Washington Wizards have a top-10 defense that is starting to feel legitimate nearly 25 percent of the way into the 2022-23 season. Nitpickers can point to a conservative approach that forces turnovers at the second-lowest rate in the NBA, but the bigger picture reveals Washington's defensive success is all about trusting the math.
Broadly, two-point jumpers are the lowest expected-value shots in basketball, and Washington forces opponents to take a higher share of attempts from that disfavored range than anyone but the Bucks and Celtics. The Wizards are also among the best (ranking third) in limiting offenses around the rim. Just 29.1 percent of their opponents' shots come at point-blank range.
Mush all that together, and the Wizards are approaching the quarter mark with the fourth-best location-based effective field-goal percentage allowed, a fancy way of saying they're making opponents take bad shots a lot of the time.
The Wizards don't have many shutdown defenders outside of Deni Avdija, though Kristaps Porzingis has looked more mobile than in years past. So they're mostly doing this through a teamwide embrace of the numbers. Limit high-value attempts often enough, and opposing offenses will struggle to put up high point totals.