One month into the NBA season and the small sample size is no longer an issue – trends are developing, panic is starting to set in at some franchises while others are lifting their expectations after booming starts.
Boston are the hottest squad in the NBA right now while reigning champions Denver are hamstrung momentarily by Jamal Murray’s injury but remain the team to beat with Nikola Jokic yet again extracting every last bit of value from his supporting cast.
Golden State and the Clippers have been the biggest disappointments in the early weeks of the season but have the excuses of injury in the Warriors’ case and working out new combinations with James Harden’s late arrival in LA before they start reaching for the panic button.
Team by team, in four tiers, here’s how all 30 teams are shaping up.
Tier one – legit contenders (humming along)
1 Boston Celtics (12-4): The Jrue Holiday acquisition couldn’t have gone any smoother but that was expected. What has been a bonus for the Celts is Kristaps Porzingis settling into his role as a second scoring option behind MVP candidate Jayson Tatum, offsetting Jaylen Brown’s slightly concerning form slump.
2 Denver Nuggets (10-6): The absence of a player of Jamal Murray’s calibre would derail most other title contenders but with Nikola Jokic able to set up teammates or take on the scoring load himself, the Nuggets have barely skipped a beat while their guard has been out for the past nine games although they did suffer an unexpected hiccup in Houston on Saturday.
3 Philadelphia 76ers (10-5): Tyrese Maxey’s ascension into All-Star calculations has appeased Joel Embiid’s potential flight risk and put the Sixers on course for the top in the East. And with draft capital up their sleeve from the Harden trade and Tobias Harris’ lucrative deal coming to an end, Philadelphia are well placed to add more top-line talent or a bunch of high-level rotation pieces to this roster.
4 Milwaukee Bucks (11-5): The Damian Lillard trade hasn’t been all that Bucks fans were hoping just yet – their elite defence has taken a big step back and he’s still feeling out his role alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo. Veteran wing Khris Middleton is struggling to recapture his best as he slowly makes his way down the comeback trail. Milwaukee need more from him.
5 Miami Heat (10-6): Jimmy Butler appears to be taking on more of a regular-season burden and centre Bam Adebayo is becoming an improved offensive threat, up to a career-high 22.9 points per game. The Heat have a trade or two to make mid-season which will position them nicely for another playoff run.
6 Minnesota Timberwolves (11-4): The only team that has made the leap from good to elite this season. After years of false dawns, Karl-Anthony Towns is fulfilling his potential, Anthony Edwards continues to put his imprint on the league and Rudy Gobert, after a rough first season after his trade from Utah, is giving the Wolves a defensive presence that they’ve lacked since Kevin Garnett was in his prime.
7 Phoenix Suns (10-6): Bradley Beal’s injury makes it hard to be definitive about the Suns’ prospects thus far. As long as Kevin Durant and Devin Booker can keep them near the top at the West, they can make a charge later in the season when their Big Three finally assembles. Beal has played just three matches since being traded in the off-season from Washington and is going to be out for another three weeks due to nerve irritation down his legs from his back injury. Doesn’t sound great.
Tier two – fringe contenders (need changes to be a hope)
8 Los Angeles Lakers (9-7): Like last season, they seem to be a player shy of being able to challenge Denver for supremacy in the West. LeBron James is setting all sorts of records for players in their 21st season and Anthony Davis is being his usual occasionally dominant self but they need a trade for an effective backcourt option to get themselves in the championship equation.
9 Dallas Mavericks (10-5): The familiar tale of Luka Doncic putting up mind-blowing stats continues in Texas and Kyrie Irving has played good soldier (for now) so Dallas have looked promising, particularly with new role players like Grant Williams and rookie centre Dereck Lively shoring up the defence.
10 Sacramento Kings (9-6): De’Aaron Fox was taken fifth overall in the 2017 draft but would challenge for second spot in a redraft with Donovan Mitchell behind Jayson Tatum. When he plays, the Kings are in the top tier, but if he can be contained, they’re a notch below the best.
11 Oklahoma City Thunder (11-4): They have been cruising along in second spot in the West mainly due to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s continued stellar output and Chet Holmgren’s impressive delayed first-year campaign. Don’t count on your rookie of the year bets on Victor Wembanyama being a lock just yet. The serious allegations that Australian guard Josh Giddey is facing could have major ramifications on the team’s chances – he has been accused of an inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl but has not been stood down by the team or the NBA.
12 Golden State Warriors (8-9): They get the benefit of the doubt for now because Draymond Green’s five-game suspension has coincided with just three wins from their past 11 outings. Steph Curry is firing as always but it’s a shame about Klay Thompson showing signs of age and Andrew Wiggins is not delivering anywhere near enough in what should be the prime of the former No.1 draft pick’s career.
Tier three – playoff hopes (but won’t go any further)
13 Cleveland Cavaliers (8-7): Darius Garland has been underwhelming but Evan Mobley’s rise is making up for it. Donovan Mitchell remains elite but whether he keeps wearing a Cavs uniform long term is an ongoing issue bubbling below the surface.
14 New York Knicks (9-6): Julius Randle started the season in a funk and has shot his way out of it but even with RJ Barrett improving his output, the Knicks are still a way’s away from being anything more than making up the numbers in the playoffs.
15 LA Clippers (6-8): James Harden’s sluggish start has taken attention away from Kawhi Leonard doing likewise. If this is who he is now after a series of injuries, he is no longer the player that could lead them deep into the post-season.
16 New Orleans Pelicans (9-7): The Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram duo is still a work in progress but with CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy injured, it’s hard to get a gauge on whether the Pelicans are playoff contenders or pretenders.
17 Orlando Magic (11-5): Six straight wins, including a Boston boilover on Saturday, mean the Magic cannot be discounted but they need to put these kinds of results on the board for longer to be considered post-season material. Whether this is a flash in the pan or not, the future is bright in Orlando for the first time in a long time.
18 Indiana Pacers (9-6): To put it mildly, defence is not at the front of mind for the Pacers this season but with Tyrese Halliburton running the point to get the best out of their young talent, things are looking up. They are trying to engineer a trade for Buddy Hield so they could upgrade their roster mid-season or boost their future draft assets for the next few seasons when they are more likely to be higher in the standings.
19 Atlanta Hawks (7-7): Trae Young is again putting up numbers but not doing so efficiently. At some point a player plateaus and Young doesn’t look like he will become the franchise cornerstone that Atlanta need him to be.
20 Toronto Raptors (8-8): Paddling along mid-table, the Raptors aren’t getting much attention, which is nothing new, but the rejuvenation of Scottie Barnes after a sophomore slump is the best news north of the border. Now they need to start retooling the roster to build around him with complementary players on the same timeline – Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby should be on the trading block.
21 Houston Rockets (8-6): They are in the same bucket as Orlando for now – they’ve upset some higher-ranked teams and are showing signs of life but they are still very young and depth could be an issue as the season grinds on.
22 Brooklyn Nets (6-8): Ben Simmons’ hip injury is lingering and the Nets say there will be a status update a week from now. Brooklyn are in a continual state of flux and apart from Mikal Bridges, everyone should be available for the right trade.
Tier 4 – Heading for the draft lottery (drastic changes needed)
23 Chicago Bulls (5-12): Yeesh. There’s nothing nice to say about these Bulls. Zach LaVine wants to be traded, DeMar DeRozan should be dealt and nobody wants their other main star, Nikola Vucevic. Their most in-demand trade asset is Alex Caruso, who is on a value deal and would make an enticing pick-up for any contending team.
24 Utah Jazz (4-11): After last season’s surprise run, this is more like what to expect from this Utah roster. As long as Lauri Markkanen keeps performing, Danny Ainge will be happy to slow-play the Jazz rebuild, adding players via trades or the draft because he knows he won’t be landing any high-profile free agents.
25 Memphis Grizzlies (3-12): With Ja Morant suspended for another 10 games, the news keeps getting worse with Marcus Smart now out for a month with a foot injury.
26 Charlotte Hornets (5-12): LaMelo Ball is back to his best after an injury-addled run last season but the Hornets have very few players around him who can be relied upon.
27 San Antonio Spurs (3-13): Victor Wembanyama is racking up the highlights but the Spurs will keep notching Ls. Jeremy Sochan is handling the ball way too much and needs to focus on rebounding – when San Antonio want to start winning, a quality point guard needs to be priority No.1.
28 Portland Trail Blazers (4-11): DeAndre Ayton wanted to be known as “DominAyton” after being traded from Phoenix. He now has the opportunity to do that but is putting up 12.6 points and 10.8 rebounds on a team heading for the tank.
29 Detroit Pistons (2-14): Cade Cunningham is padding his stats but turning the ball over plenty – the Pistons need another ball-handler to take the load off their former No.1 pick.
30 Washington Wizards (2-13): Playing more like the Washington Generals than Wizards, it’s a car accident in slow motion, a clown show or dumpster fire in the capital – whichever analogy you prefer, it’s appropriate.