Come Spring, there are a handful of teams we know that the NBA will heavily feature, competing for top playoff spots and optimal position in the championship race. The defending Finals winners, the Denver Nuggets, will be joined by the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, and Los Angeles Lakers on this stage. One or two teams might slip out of this tier, and it’s open for others to join as well, but the point is that we have a pretty good idea of who will be part of the final phase of all this; less so, how it will play out, and that’s why we look forward to watching it so much that we’re already daily discussing it.
That’s May and June stuff, though. Fans excited for what happens during those months are tuning in right now to read the little seeds laid out before them in the first games of the 2023-24 season, but it’s a mostly fruitless endeavor. We’ll have to wait. While we do, it’s worth noting which teams have more at stake in October and November; who, at the moment, has the most to prove? That would be the younger ones. On Monday night, they were the Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons, both off to sparky 2-1 starts as they faced off in the Paycom Center, an arena in the plains.
The Thunder already showed a little bit of something last season with an infectious 40-win campaign, centered around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s ascension into the very elite of scoring guards. His equally spastic and smooth drives to the rim are one of the more confounding phenomenons for defenses around the league. Next to him were the highly mobile cinder block Luguentz Dort, creative guard partner Josh Giddey, and two wings named Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams. All of them shoot threes readily—as do benchmen Isaiah Joe and Ousmane Dieng—but none had the size to match up with opposing centers.
Enter Chet Holmgren. Sidelined for the entirety of his ostensible rookie season, he is now on the floor for his first year in earnest. He would be the most attended-to rookie in the sport if it weren’t for Victor Wembanyama, but the hoopla around him is pretty substantial nevertheless. In a few professional games, he has already built a reputation as a savage shot-blocker and icy three-point shooter. He can protect the rim from everybody except the true big boys—”he needs to be a little bit fatter,” according to Nikola Jokic—and, in especially pleasing news for Thunder fans, he looks pissed off every minute he’s on the floor.
Expectations are high for OKC in the tuned-in hoops dork demographic, with some predicting a premature competitive uptick drastic enough to take them deep into the postseason. Such benchmarks are probably still a year or two away, at least, but certainly there are plenty of analysts ready to invest the prospects of their predictive cleverness in this young group. This is much less the case for the Pistons, who were a flatulent 17-65 last season after the No. 1 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft, Cade Cunningham, missed all but 12 contests. Monty Williams was given the largest head coaching contract in the game’s history to fix that.
It’s obviously much too early to say how well he’s doing in that difficult task, but an early look shows no lack of talent or motivation in Detroit. Alongside Cunningham, a large and stylish strategy beast who technically plays point guard, are the Pistons’ own cinder block in Isaiah Stewart, rebound-and-dunking prodigy Jalen Duren, and wildly athletic rookie wingman Ausar Thompson. Off the bench is Jaden Ivey, who hopes to learn more control of his exceptional speed in year two. Cohesiveness is the challenge for this collection of guys who barely know each other on the floor, but the Cunningham-Duren pick-and-roll should provide a baseline of fluidity for easier shots to come from, over time.
Whatever the Pistons may prove later, it couldn’t be demonstrated in Oklahoma City this Monday. The Thunder dispatched them 124-112, and look to be on their way to proving themselves the class of basketball’s youth subsphere, already a team that treats October like a familiar pattern of chores. Sore after a 128-95 spanking from the Nuggets the afternoon before, OKC showed no signs of confidence deterioration, and transmuted the dominance received into dominance given. The Pistons, moving onto a Wednesday contest against the 1-3 Portland Trail Blazers squad, featuring a mishmash of a newly configured young roster, will now look to do the same.