Nothing, one month into the NBA season, is especially coherent. In the parlance of the league’s media trends, we call the following a series of “small sample size” musings—remarks on emerging trends, some likely to continue, others more probable to get sealed into a time-capsule that only the most intensely interested followers bother to access. Whether these observations are prelude or anomaly remain to be seen, but here they are:
- Jalen Suggs has, for now, solved the guard problem of the Orlando Magic. His foreseeable trajectory as a top-end defender has more than come to fruition: according to one analytic index, he is the most impactful defender in the league, at any position. The man is very, very annoying to play against. To the Kyle Lowry enthusiasts the world over: we have found our successor. Suggs is still an underwhelming player on offense, but his shooting numbers have creeped up just enough to give his wunderkind wing teammates Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner enough room to operate, and the Magic have been the brightest surprise of the early season.
- Their head coach, Jamahl Mosley, is consequently near the top of preliminary Coach of The Year discussions, as is the Houston Rockets’ clipboard-brandisher, Ime Udoka. Both Orlando and Houston fans would be wise to note, however, that this time last year the Utah Jazz were 12-6, and subsequently slipped to a 37-45 result before beginning this year as one of the NBA’s worst outfits. Of all the noises that bounce around in the small sample size chamber, young, under-scouted teams with chips on their shoulder most reliably see theirs quiet down.
- Tyese Haliburton, though, has been blaring his trumpet for long enough: it’s clear that he’s one of the best offensive players alive, and perhaps a generationally productive ball-handler. Right now, his only peer in providing overall scoring-and-distribution goods is Nikola Jokic. Haliburton is bad enough at defense that it takes him out of an MVP discussion he’d otherwise belong in, but he only drops down to the second tier of that discourse. Many still haven’t noticed, but a true superstar has arrived.
- His old teammate, De’Aaron Fox, has been just as impressive. The Sacramento Kings are 7-3 when Fox plays, and just 2-3 when he doesn’t. Already one of the fastest living men who can dribble and shoot, he has added both volume and accuracy from behind the three-point arc, and has become one of the biggest problems for defenses across the sport. All should fear the Kings.
- His real ascension actually happened last year, but now that his Oklahoma City Thunder have a zesty Rookie of The Year front-runner and an ultra-competitive record, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is getting more of the MVP-caliber shine that he deserves. Slithering, hulky, and smooth, he can score in any situation, against any coverage. That his new teammate, Chet Holmgren, has so far been one of the best players in the NBA as well has OKC on the most exciting multi-year trajectory in basketball.
- Somewhere in the realm of the exact opposite is Shai’s previous team, the Los Angeles Clippers, who feature not just the man he was—in part—traded for in Paul George, but also Russell Westbrook and James Harden; two other definitive stars of OKC past. The Thunder’s exuberant yesteryear is now the Clippers’ expensive, bloated, dubious present. After losing five in a row upon trading for Harden, the Clippers have gotten on a better track, winning four of five, but any success they have is still shot through with the myriad failures of their quartet of former MVP candidates (and winners). All of them great on their own, together they carry a beleaguered, tortured “one last job” spirit, more tied to 2017 than to today, which distinctly reminds us of dying, over-extended movie franchises. It is, for better or worse, the most that Los Angeles’ second team has ever resembled any form of the city’s first choice, the Lakers.
-The New Orleans Pelicans demonstrated the Clippers’ limits in a recent 116-106 victory over them. At 9-7, the Pelicans’ record is good enough for now, but also an expression of how inconsistently available nearly all of their main rotation players are; from a talent perspective, this is a home court advantage in the playoffs squad, not a play-in team. Trey Murphy III has yet to lace up this year; Jose Alvarado has missed all but four games; C.J. McCollum has been out for the last 11; Herb Jones has missed three; Naji Marshall, nine; Larry Nance Jr., four. Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, who matter the most, have missed seven collectively, which isn’t that bad considering their past figures. And the balance between the two of them has never been better. In the limited evidence before us, no one’s mark is more muted than the Pelicans’, who continue to move through the mud of bad health luck, and just might see things align at the right time, for once, this year.