Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Maxey and LeBron’s Lakers: The NBA’s best and worst so far

The 2023-24 NBA season is now three weeks old. This is a good time to take stock of the league’s most intriguing teams and players so far.

Which teams have stood out most? Which players have had the most intriguing starts to the season?

To answer those questions and more, The Athletic is turning to three of its writers: Sam Amick, Josh Robbins and Mike Vorkunov.

Which team is exceeding your expectations the most? What are that team’s chances of maintaining its early season run? 

Sam Amick: Minnesota. It’s not just that the Wolves look so much better than they did last season. It’s that after all those months of commentary about how the Anthony Edwards-Karl-Anthony Towns-Rudy Gobert core would never work, and with first-year Wolves executive Tim Connelly roundly criticized for giving up so much in the Gobert trade with Utah, we’re actually seeing the vision realized.

It’s early, to be sure, but Minnesota’s defense has been spectacular so far. Edwards is a legitimate head-of-the-snake talent on that end, and the Jaden McDaniels/Mike Conley skill sets are fitting in quite nicely so far (and Conley, even at this late stage, is a key upgrade over the departed D’Angelo Russell). Towns, who has struggled offensively for much of the season, is even receiving praise from coach Chris Finch for his defensive effort and discipline.

Will they win the whole thing? No, but they could definitely be a big-time problem for elite teams in the playoffs. We saw that much in the last postseason, when their five-game, first-round loss to Denver was — in hindsight — the Nuggets’ second-toughest series on their title run.

Josh Robbins: For me, it’s Houston. The Rockets finished 22-60 last season, ushering in an offseason of sweeping changes: hiring Ime Udoka to become the new coach, signing point guard Fred VanVleet and bringing aboard swingman Dillon Brooks in a sign-and-trade. And, wow, those changes are bearing fruit already. The Rockets have won their last six games to improve to 6-3 — and they’re playing tough defense, with the league’s fourth-best defensive rating.

I don’t expect the Rockets to continue winning at this blistering pace. They’ve beaten the Charlotte Hornets, who didn’t have suspended Miles Bridges; twice defeated the Sacramento Kings, who didn’t have injured De’Aaron Fox in either game; upended the Los Angeles Lakers, who were missing injured big Anthony Davis; and took down the Denver Nuggets, who were missing injured point guard Jamal Murray.

But the Rockets deserve their flowers for recovering from an 0-3 start, for playing with more toughness, for adjusting so quickly to Udoka’s schemes and for integrating VanVleet and Brooks so seamlessly.

Mike Vorkunov: Hey, how about those Dallas Mavericks? They’re 9-3, they have the league’s eighth-best net rating and the second-best offense. Not too bad. Sure, their schedule hasn’t been too difficult to this point; the Nuggets and the Clippers (post-Harden trade) are the only probable top-six seeds they’ve faced, but it’s still a good start. We’ll see where all of this goes.

Their defensive rating is 25th in the league and needs improvement, but their defensive location effective field goal percentage was seventh-best in the NBA through Tuesday, according to Cleaning The Glass, so maybe some positive regression might kick in at some point. It’s at least the strong start Dallas needed after what can only be described as a tumultuous year before this.

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Luka Dončić’s Dallas Mavericks are rolling. (Geoff Burke / USA Today)

Which team is underperforming the most? Do you expect that team to turn things around? 

Amick: It’s the James Harden-era Clippers, of course.

Early days and all, their filthy rich and ultra-competitive owner, Steve Ballmer, must be losing his mind. After all these years of unfulfilled potential with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and after Russell Westbrook seemed to find his footing within their group at the start of the season, the addition of Harden has been an utter disaster so far.

Here’s a quick look at the wreckage since Harden debuted against the Knicks on Nov. 6:

Record: 0-5, with losses to the Knicks, Nets, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Nuggets. (The Clippers, who host Houston Friday, have lost six in a row and are 3-7 overall.)

League-wide rankings: Offensive rating is 27th, defensive rating is 25th and net rating is 29th.

Harden’s line: 15 points (47.1 percent shooting overall on 10.2 shots per; 37 percent on 5.4 threes per), 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 turnovers, 1.2 steals per game and a team-worst minus-70 mark in that span (Ivica Zubac is second-worst at minus-36).

The basketball sadists among you can dive into all of their numbers during those five games here, but consider this your fair warning that it’s not pretty. And no, since you asked, I don’t expect them to figure it out in the kind of title-contending way that was intended when they did the Harden deal with Philly on Oct. 30. Clippers coach Ty Lue, who famously blended LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland en route to the Cavs winning the title in 2016, has a massive challenge on his hands here.

Robbins: I’m going with the Lakers. They’re 6-6 following their loss Wednesday night to the Sacramento Kings, and it’s difficult to pinpoint much they’ve done especially well. They’re 20th in offensive rating, 20th in defensive rating and 23rd in 3-point percentage. Gabe Vincent and Jarred Vanderbilt are hurt, and LeBron James is still playing heavy minutes. The saving grace here is that they started slowly last season — opening 2-10 — but recovered and fought their way to the Western Conference finals. I think James and Anthony Davis will find a way for the Lakers to gain traction as long as Davis remains healthy.

Vorkunov: It’s hard to say this about a team that would be in third place in the East if it had won just one more game, but the Milwaukee Bucks have certainly underperformed this year. Maybe “confounded” is the better descriptor. It’s not that they’re playing badly as much as it is a case of “What the hell’s going on out here?” to quote a Wisconsin legend.

They paired Damian Lillard with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and threw a new head coach into the mix. They have the seventh-worst defense in the league after posting the fourth-best unit last season and three top-five defenses in the last five seasons. The offense, with messieurs Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, is seventh. Expectations were sky-high coming into this season but the Bucks have been quite mid so far, as our Eric Nehm has dutifully covered. And this isn’t even a full accounting of their issues. My expectation is that this will turn at some point. It has to. But, boy, has it been a trip so far.

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The Clippers’ James Harden experiment has not worked well so far. (Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

Other than Victor Wembanyama, which rookie has intrigued you the most so far, and why? 

Amick: Have you seen the Brandin Podziemski show?!? I’m kidding. Sort of. The wildly confident Warriors rookie has played his way into Steve Kerr’s rotation of late and even inspired our Tim Kawakami to pen this column about his impact. That’s not my actual answer, though.

I’ll go with Chet Holmgren. I’m a sucker for feel-good stories, and it has to feel pretty great for the Thunder’s 21-year-old big man to be playing again after his foot injury suffered two summers ago forced him to miss his (first) rookie year.

“Ten out of 10,” he said recently when I asked him about the fulfillment level these days.

As I wrote on Tuesday, we should resist the temptation to constantly judge Holmgren and Wembanyama against one another. Yes, they’re both insanely tall, long, skinny and skilled. But they’re still their own players, and Holmgren has already shown an impressive ability to impact winning at this level — on both ends of the floor.

The scouts I spoke with about Holmgren were pretty skeptical about his ability to survive against the game’s bigs, who are, well, actually big. The lack of strength is obviously a weakness. There was also a shared opinion among the scouts that Holmgren’s handle, and his quickness, aren’t good enough to consistently get him past defenders and into the lane. The question, in essence, is whether he can actually create his own shot? And while those are fair critiques, I still like what I see so far.

Robbins: Bilal Coulibaly. His Washington Wizards are off the national radar, but remember his name. He turned 19 in late July, making him the league’s third-youngest player on opening night, and he was billed as an ultra-talented, but ultra-raw, prospect.

Well, most of us were wrong when we called him unskilled. He’s shooting 47 percent from 3 on 3.1 attempts per game, and he’s already starting to guard opponents’ top perimeter scorers. I’ve been shocked by his uncommonly high level of poise. Nothing seems to rattle him, and nothing seems to make him overconfident.

I thought he was the ultimate high-risk, high-reward pick when Washington traded up to draft him seventh. Again, I was wrong. After his first 11 games, I cannot say for certain whether he’ll hit his ceiling, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he will not be a bust. There’s nothing risky about him.

Vorkunov: Let’s get the Ausar Thompson hype train going. Choo choo. He has been so fun to watch, and it’s so cool to see a wing come into the NBA and be so impactful on defense. Thompson is 6-foot-6 and he is doing lots of the gritty stuff for the Pistons after going fifth in the 2023 draft. He’s averaging 10.5 rebounds per game, after he grabbed 15, 13, 16 and eight boards in his last four games.

More interestingly, Thompson is a legit shot-blocking threat. He’s sixth in the NBA in total blocks, with 23 in 12 games. He, Scottie Barnes and Herb Jones are the only non-bigs in the top-20 and Barnes is three inches taller. Thompson and someone named Michael Jordan are the only players shorter than 6-7 or shorter since 1979 to start their careers with at least 20 blocks in their first 11 games. Who knows what the Pistons’ future will be, but Thompson is a very intriguing complementary player alongside Cade Cunningham.

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Rookie Bilal Coulibaly (center) has impressed the Washington Wizards with his poise and his skill. (Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

Which non-rookie has made the biggest impression on you through his play, for either good or bad? 

Amick: Tyrese Haliburton might be worth a League Pass subscription all on his own. The Indiana Pacers’ fourth-year point guard is that much fun to watch.

If you’re one of the unfortunate fans who is learning about his entertainment value for the first time, let’s paint the statistical picture here as a way of convincing you to make him a regular part of your hoops viewing regimen.

• He’s leading the league in assists (12.5 per game), and often doing so in spectacular fashion. As this video highlights, he has 32 assists and zero turnovers — like, none — in his last two games (the Pacers split two games against the Sixers).

• He’s averaging 24.7 points on absurd shooting splits: 52.8 percent overall, 43.6 percent from 3 (7.8 per game) and 93.2 percent from the line (4.4 attempts per).

• The Pacers (7-4) are on pace to have the highest offensive rating in league history (a league-best offensive rating of 122.0 points scored per 100 possessions). They’re ninth in net rating, and still managing to win games despite being 28th in defensive rating.

The Kings-Pacers deal that sent Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento and brought Haliburton to the Pacers in February 2022 continues to look like a rare win-win trade for both sides.

Robbins: My buddy Sam mentioned Anthony Edwards already — and for darn good reason. I’m seconding that now. Edwards made his first All-Star team last season. Now, building on the momentum from his USA Basketball performance this past summer, he’s turning into a bona fide superstar.

Vorkunov: Let this be the latest place to shine a light on Tyrese Maxey. He has been fantastic so far for the 76ers. He has shown he can be the lead guard on a title contender, and with the Sixers finally offloading Harden, they are now faced with a more interesting problem than they were in the summertime (even if it remains fundamentally the same, but let’s nitpick).

In the offseason, maybe the equation Daryl Morey and company needed to solve was which star player (presumably an offensive creator type) could they trade for to put next to Joel Embiid, along with Maxey; now, maybe the question is which star player (presumably an offensive creator type but not necessarily because Maxey is quite good!) could they trade for to put next to Joel Embiid AND Tyrese Maxey?

You see how the “and” is in all caps? That’s how good Maxey has been this season. If it continues and Philly continues to play this well, and Philly makes that deal Morey wants to make, then the East’s Big Two becomes a Big Three. Heck, it’s inching there already.

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Tyrese Maxey is averaging 27.6 points and 6.7 assists per game for Philadelphia. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

What is the most intriguing league-wide trend you’ve spotted so far? And will it continue?

Amick: This isn’t intriguing as much as it is irritating, but over-the-top distribution of technical fouls early on this season has been a major topic of conversation around the league. Antetokounmpo’s taunting ejection last week sparked the discussion, and then there was Edwards’ tech that was assessed after he dunked all over Dario Šarić.

Those are just a few examples, but here’s the tricky part: You can’t beg players to care about the regular season again, implementing a player participation policy that pounds that point and installing an “In-Season Tournament” that is aimed at the same goal, only to legislate the emotion out of the game for fear that prickly situations might escalate. The fracas between the Warriors and Wolves on Tuesday night was another example of this.

In my opinion, it was unnecessary to eject Klay Thompson and Jaden McDaniels from the game. Draymond Green obviously had to go, as that chokehold of Gobert was well beyond the pale. But for the sake of the competition, and the fans who paid a whole lot of money to see the best talent on display, booting two key players because they swung each other around for five seconds after fighting for a rebound is a disservice.

Robbins: This is not a surprise, but I think we still have to note that the 3-point shot continues to take over the game. League-wide, teams were averaging 35.1 3-point attempts per game entering Wednesday after dipping to 34.2 attempts per game last season, according to Basketball Reference.

The league is close to matching the league-record 35.2 attempts per game, set in 2021-22. We’ve seen a sea change in the way the game is played, which, of course, is obvious, but still worth emphasizing again. A decade ago, during the 2013-14 season, teams attempted only 21.5 treys per game. When will the number of 3s top out?

Vorkunov: Is offensive rebounding back? The league-wide offensive rebounding rate was at 24.9 percent entering Wednesday, according to Basketball Reference, and it hasn’t hit the 25 percent mark since the 2014-15 season. Maybe it’s just Mitchell Robinson pulling the league average back up all by himself. Last season, only two teams posted an offensive rebounding rate of 28 percent or higher; through Tuesday this season, nine of them had. If Taylor Swift is dropping her 1989 album and teams are hitting their own boards again, then 2014 really is back and better than ever.

(Top photo of Anthony Edwards: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)

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