We're essentially one-fourth of the way through the regular-season schedule. On this Newsletter Tuesday, let's review some of the standout developments so far
Important reminder, dear readers, as NBA teams hit or pass the 20-game mark:
We have NOT reached the quarter pole of the 2022-23 season.
The quarter pole, remember, is (typically) a red-and-white-striped marker that signals the finish line of a horse race is one-quarter of a mile away. The term is often misused in the NBA when teams complete (roughly) one-fourth of their 82-game schedules.
Now that we have that cleared up …
Here are five takeaways that jump out from the fledgling season so far with 26 of the league's 30 teams having already played at least 20 games:
The Celtics quickly invalidated one of my preseason prognostications.
Remember my Eight (Almost) Fearless Predictions column in which I wrote that the seen-it-all Warriors would handle their training camp tumult better than Boston would with an untested coach in Ime Udoka’s chair?
I sure hope not.
Joe Mazzulla’s Celtics awoke Tuesday with the league’s best record at 17-4. Despite never even working on the front of a bench as an NBA assistant before this season, Mazzulla has ably and expeditiously steered the Celtics back to normalcy as interim coach in the wake of Udoka’s sudden suspension for the season on Sept. 22.
Boston ranks as a runaway No. 1 on offense leaguewide and, despite the ongoing injury absence of interior defensive anchor Robert Williams, comfortably leads the NBA in nightly average win margin (+8.4 points per game).
Much of the credit, of course, goes to The Two Jays: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Please allow me to try to balance my own ledger by pointing out how I rightly said, over and over on countless Spotify Live sessions last season when the Celtics were sputtering to an 18-21 start, that Tatum and Brown had too high a ceiling together to even dare to think about trading one of them.
You just don't break up a pair of two-way wings who have the length and versatility to play all over the floor in today's NBA. You just can't.
The Warriors are starting to figure themselves out.
I'll have a better handle on the reigning champs after I see them in person for the first time Tuesday night, but Golden State has quietly won eight of its past 11 games to nudge back over .500 (11-10) and hush some of the concern inspired by its wholly uncharacteristic road record of 2-9.
The Warriors can obviously take some solace there, though, from the history that tells us they have won a road game in a league-record 27 consecutive playoff series. Further comfort stems from the knowledge that Steve Kerr's starting five — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney — is by far the league's best statistically.
As the graphic shows, Golden State’s preferred starters are +141 for the season so far. No other lineup is better than +66. For all the angst about the slow development of the Warriors’ next-gen players, who would dare rule them out of winning the highly jumbled West again if that fivesome is healthy when the postseason starts?
The outlooks, meanwhile, aren't nearly as sunny for last season's losing conference finalists. Miami (10-11) and Dallas (9-10) have both slipped below .500 — with the Heat having lost nearly 80 man-games to injury already this season. (It should be noted that the Mavericks, despite mounting gloom generated by a four-game skid and a flurry of root-canal losses, currently sit 11th in that aforementioned West jumble but only 4½ games out of the top spot.)
The Warriors, Heat and Mavericks, curiously, are a combined 5-23 on the road.
Indiana has swiftly replaced Utah as this season's surprise team.
We devoted an entire lead item last Tuesday to the Jazz and how 101 of the 111 teams that got off to 12-6 starts since the NBA's 16-team playoff format was ushered in for the 1983-84 season went on to reach the playoffs.
On cue, Utah hasn't won a game since its very own 12-6 launch, dropping five in a row without the injured Mike Conley.
Indiana, meanwhile, is a stunning 12-8 — good for No. 4 in the East — after roaring back from 17 points down in the fourth quarter in Lakerland on Monday night to triumph at the buzzer on rookie Andrew Nembhard's game-winning triple.
The Pacers, you’ll recall, were right there with the Jazz, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Magic, etc., on this season's list of Presumed Tanking Teams heading into June's Victor Wembanyama Draft.
Led by the ever-improving Tyrese Haliburton and his absolute refusal to turn the ball over alongside the electric Bennedict Mathurin — that rare first-year player bidding for both Rookie of the Year honors and the Sixth Man Award — Indy is clicking so nicely that it has begun to make rival teams wonder if it might just keep free-agent-to-be Myles Turner rather than trade him.
We've been entertained quite often in November.
Nembhard's game-winner at the horn to drop the Lakers to 7-12 and bring a jarring halt to the good vibes emanating from a 5-1 stretch against lesser foes for LeBron James and Co. was actually the fifth buzzer-beater to win a game this month.
My pals at Basketball Reference say it's the first time that's happened since March 2017.
The five shot-makers responsible for the ultimate hoops drama: Nembhard, Atlanta's AJ Griffin, Portland's Josh Hart, Sacramento's De'Aaron Fox and Portland's Jerami Grant.
Just to close with some housekeeping …
There has been one in-season coaching change thus far: Brooklyn parted ways with Steve Nash on Nov. 1 and, after backing off its initial intent to hire Udoka as Nash's replacement, elevated Jacque Vaughn to full-time head coach on Nov. 9.
As for trades ... we're still waiting for this season's first (presumably headlined by Phoenix’s very available Jae Crowder). Dec. 15, of course, is a pivotal day on the transaction calendar, since that's when the majority of players who signed new contracts during the offseason become eligible to be included in trades.
The NBA's last trade? Oklahoma City sent Derrick Favors, Moe Harkless, Ty Jerome, Theo Maledon and a conditional second-round draft pick in 2026 to Houston for Sterling Brown, Trey Burke, Marquese Chriss and David Nwaba.
All eight players in the trade were waived by the Rockets and Thunder before the season; Oklahoma City's main motivation for the deal was moving an estimated $10 million away from the league's luxury tax threshold.
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Basketball Writing Opportunity
It’s not often that potential jobs for younger writers cross my radar, so I’m pleased to be able to share some details about a freelance program USA Basketball has launched aimed at employing student journalists and recent graduates to create editorial content for USAB.
Five to six writers will be selected to participate in the inaugural year of program, which is scheduled to run from Feb. 1. 2023, through Jan. 31, 2024.
USAB is looking for applicants who are college juniors or seniors or graduate students in journalism, communications or a related field. Strong basketball knowledge, an ability to turn stories around quickly and a willingness to work non-traditional hours given the various competitions that USAB teams participate in outside the United States are among the job prerequisites listed here.
Applicants for this contract position are required to submit a résumé and three published samples of their basketball writing by Dec. 9 to USA Basketball Communications via email (email@example.com) with the subject line WRITERS.
It’s still early, so we’ll have to see if these figures hold up, but there are currently nine players leaguewide averaging at least 25 points per game and shooting at least 50% from the floor, which would represent a single-season league record according to Stathead. Those nine: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jaylen Brown, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Luka Dončić, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The current single-season record for 25 PPG scorers who shoot at least 50% from the floor is eight players in 2020-21: Giannis, Durant, Embiid, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Nikola Jokić, Zach LaVine and Zion Williamson.
A gem from Pacers radio man Mark Boyle: The LA Clippers’ Ivica Zubac fell just one rebound shy of the 151st 30-point, 30-rebound game in league history with a whopping 31 points and 29 boards Sunday against Indiana. Boyle pointed out, furthermore, that Wilt Chamberlain recorded 123 of those 150 games. Wilt could not factor into the conversation on the Zubac superlative that I tweeted about below because the NBA did not begin recording blocked shots as an official statistic until the 1973-74 season … Chamberlain’s first in retirement.
FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, tweaked its ranking system in 2017 so that only the results from the most recent eight years are factored in. A humbling seventh-place finish for the United States at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, combined with Spain’s unexpected title runs at both that World Cup and the 2022 EuroBasket tournament in the summer, enabled the Spaniards to move into the top spot in the 164-nation men’s rankings for the first time … by 1.1 points ahead of the Americans (758.6 to 757.5) despite USA Basketball’s four consecutive Olympic gold medals. The United States remains atop the 118-country women’s world rankings by almost 200 points over No. 2 China.
Looking forward to seeing the Orange County 🐐 on Tuesday night with Golden State’s Klay Thompson absolutely flourishing since he fired back at some of his critics in this Bleacher Report piece with my pal Chris Haynes. After he shot 6-for-17 from the floor in Phoenix in the Warriors’ first game after the article, here are Thompson’s contributions in his last five games entering Tuesday’s Western Conference finals rematch with Dallas:
Leave it to my Substacking colleague Justin Kubatko to let me know that I saw a little history Saturday night in San Antonio without even realizing it when the Lakers’ LeBron James scored 39 points in helping L.A. secure a two-game weekend sweep of the Spurs. It was the 21st time that James has scored at least 35 points in a game since turning 35 years old, Kubatko says, which puts him two ahead of Michael Jordan’s 19 for the most such scoring outbursts in league history. James turns 38 on Dec. 30.
More from Kubatko: The Knicks’ Jalen Brunson enters Tuesday’s play with 436 points and 133 assists, The last Knick to match or exceed those totals through their first 20 games of a season, per Kubatko, was Ray Williams in 1979-80.
Took this picture outside the AT&T Center to capture the logo for posterity that the Spurs are employing for their 50th anniversary season in the Alamo City. I’m in my 30th season on the NBA beat, so I’ve been making trips to one of my favorite stops for three decades and certainly plan to be back in January when the Spurs return to the Alamodome for a night to play host to Golden State.
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