NBA's Biggest Winners and Losers from JanuaryJanuary 31, 2023
NBA's Biggest Winners and Losers from January
The NBA could soon get a facelift with the trade deadline looming on Feb. 9.
Truth be told, tough, the hoops landscape already changed quite a bit during the month of January.
The standings look different. So do the star rankings. Ditto for the trade rumor mill.
January's journey spun storylines across the Association, but we have spotlighted the month's biggest winners and losers here.
Winner: Jonathan Isaac
A left knee injury knocked Jonathan Isaac out of the Orlando Magic's game on Aug. 2, 2020. It would subsequently erase the entirety of his 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.
He wound up going more than 900 days without stepping foot on the NBA hardwood, but the 6'11" swingman finally made it back for a 10-minute appearance in Orlando's 15-point handling of the Boston Celtics on Jan. 23. And it wasn't just a feel-good cameo, but rather an impactful stretch in which he tallied 10 points, three rebounds, two steals and one assist.
"He's going to help us tremendously, man, especially on the defensive side," Cole Anthony told reporters. "We need that."
Just like that, Isaac went from being this medical curiosity to a full-fledged member of the up-and-coming Magic again. He has played three of the team's four games since returning, providing his typical defensive disruptions (five steals in 27 minutes) and an encouraging amount of shooting (4-of-9 from three, 44.4 percent).
Loser: Lonzo Ball's Bad Injury Luck
It makes sense to put the Lonzo Ball slide right next to Isaac's. More than anyone, the Chicago Bulls floor general and their fanbase could use the reminder of there being a light at the end of the tunnel.
Jan. 14 marked the one-year anniversary of Ball's own knee injury, a meniscus tear in his left knee initially expected to keep him out for six to eight weeks. He still hasn't suited up since, and the latest update from Bulls skipper Billy Donovan offers exactly zero clarity on when Ball might make his long awaited return.
"He's made some progress, but I'd be the first one to tell you he's nowhere near playing," Donovan said, per Julia Poe of the Chicago Tribune. "He's just not. Because he's not running on a consistent basis."
This is, objectively speaking, a colossal bummer. Ball is a dynamic player at both ends, and his two-way connectivity lifted Chicago higher than it's been since the injury. The Bulls were an Eastern Conference-best 27-13 when he went down. They are 42-49 since and currently sit 10th in the conference standings.
Winner: Utah's Untouchables
Big change could be coming to Salt Lake City soon, as the Jazz have cooled since their 10-3 start and might be in the market for more future-focused trades to help with their rebuild.
Even if Utah dives back into the trade pool, though, it apparently won't budge with its frontcourt. There, Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler appear to have earned untoucahble status, as Marc Stein reported there's a "rising belief" Utah would talk trades with anyone other than its two young bigs.
Markkanen's entire season has been eye-opening, but January goes down as his most productive month yet. He has January's 10th-highest scoring average at 28.5 points per game, plus an absurdly efficient 48.7/44.0/89.4 shooting slash. Kessler, meanwhile, snagged a starting spot, averaged the fifth-most blocks (2.3, in only 23.9 minutes per game) and became the first rookie in nearly a decade to have a 20-point, 20-rebound game.
Markkanen and Kessler logged 177 minutes together this month. The Jazz won them by 6.5 points per 100 possessions.
Loser: New Orleans Pelicans
When the calendar flipped to 2023, the Pelicans had a 23-13 record, the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings and the Association's third-best net rating (plus-4.8).
New Orleans has tumbled into one rough patch after the next ever since.
Injuries to Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram effectively pulled the secret sauce out of the Pels' recipe. The pair have made a combined three appearances in January—the Pelicans, by the way, have played 15 games—which helps explain complete collapse of this offense. New Orleans has managed an abysmal 109.4 points per 100 possessions this month, the league's third-worst mark.
If there's a silver lining, it's that the West is so bunched up it prevented New Orleans from totally bottoming out. The Pelicans have dipped to No. 8 in the conference, but they're only 2.5 games out of the No. 3 spot. Still, this was their chance to steer clear of that congestion, and they're now gridlocked in it.
Winner: Anthony Edwards
The Minnesota Timberwolves haven't had Karl-Anthony Towns on the floor since late November. They have reduced Rudy Gobert's floor time each month of this season, dipping him below 30 minutes for the first time in January (29.7).
This has been, by far, their best month of the campaign. Entering Monday night, they're tied for the most wins in January (11) and have the month's sixth-best net rating (plus-4.2).
How is this possible? Because Anthony Edwards is a miracle worker.
The third-year swingman keeps leveling up, and if he hasn't ascended to superstardom, he's right on that cusp. In January, he has upped his per-game output to 26.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists while compiling a 46.3/39.7/86.6 shooting slash. He is tied for 16th in raw plus/minus this month, as Minnesota has won his 530 minutes by 85 points.
"I feel like I can't miss right now, to be honest," Edwards said, per The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski. "I don't want to jinx myself, but right now, I feel like I just can't miss."
Minnesota's roster seems like a strange blend of square pegs and round holes, but Edwards is in such a groove, he's solving this puzzle anyway.
Loser: Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks have a walking cheat code who goes by the name of Luka Dončić. He's a 23-year-old perennial MVP candidate who ranks among the Association's most productive players and still finds avenues toward perpetual improvement.
You'd think, then, Dallas might be in the NBA's most enviable position. Yet the Mavs have little beyond Dončić worth mentioning. In fact, Callie Caplan of the Dallas Morning News reported the team is "open to trading just about anyone not named" Dončić to find him a co-star.
That seems pretty standard for an organization that has found one star but failed to acquire or develop a second. Things could be more dire in Dallas, though. The Mavs aren't exactly loaded with assets, leaving some to wonder if this team "may look to shed salary instead of looking for upgrades," per Action Network's Matt Moore.
Overt selling would be pretty wild to see. The Mavs were conference finalists just last season, and they entered the new year with a 21-16 record and the West's No. 4 seed in hand. Since then, though, they've gone a disastrous 5-9 with January's seventh-worst net rating. They've managed to lose Dončić's 400 minutes by 25 points, and they've lost the 282 minutes he has sat out by 44 points.
It's a mess, and it feels like Dallas plans to use this trade deadline to clean things up—for better or worse.
Winner: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
During the season's first few months, the conversation around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander remained the same. There was an acknowledgment of his All-Star ascension, but that's as far as it went. Any praise beyond that would be some way of saying he'd have an MVP case if his team was actually competitive.
Well, guess who has January's best net rating at a wholly dominant plus-8.7? That's right, it's your rebuilding, Chet Holmgren-less, draft-pick-stashing Oklahoma City Thunder.
They turned heads when they opened January by dropping 150 points on the Boston Celtics, and they really haven't stopped impressing since. Their 9-4 record includes wins over the Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers, and only that Denver game was decided by single digits.
It takes a team effort to play this well, obviously, and the Thunder have gotten some huge contributions from the likes of Josh Giddey, Lu Dort, Jalen Williams and Isaiah Joe. Still, Gilgeous-Alexander has been on a different plane. His January averages mostly fall in line with his season marks, which seems ridiculous when they include 31.1 points on 55.3/40.7/88.7 shooting.
"No matter what you're doing on the defensive side of the ball, you just can't stop what he's doing," Kevin Durant told reporters. "It's hard because he's tall, he's lanky, he plays at his own pace."
When Durant dubs you unstoppable, you're probably doing something right. SGA has been doing a bunch of somethings right all season, but OKC's triumphs add a different level of legitimacy and validation.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and accurate through Sunday. Records up to date through Sunday.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.