- The NBA season is just over a quarter of the way through.
- We examined nine developments among championship contenders that are shaping how this season could play out.
- Among them are Stephen Curry’s red-hot start, a rejuvenated Anthony Davis, absent Kawhi Leonard, and off-season moves that aren’t paying off.
1. Stephen Curry is setting his sights on another record.
Any concerns about Stephen Curry aging or taking his foot off the gas can be set aside. The 34-year-old Curry is averaging 30.8 points per game on 51.1% shooting, 44.1% from three. He is averaging a career-high in made threes per game (5.2) and has already made a league-leading 115 in 22 games this season.
If this keeps up, Curry will break his own single-season record of 402 made threes, set in 2015-16 when he won MVP, unanimously. He’s currently on pace to make 427 threes. If he plays 78 games instead of the full 82, he’d still make 405.
Of course, that’s no sure bet for a veteran star on a team with championship hopes. Curry has already had to do some heavy lifting to help the Warriors overcome a sluggish start. With Golden State appearing right the ship (8-3 in their last 11 games) it’s possible the team may ease the workload on its franchise star.
Still, Curry is as good (if not better) than ever and looks capable of dragging the Warriors to the playoffs if needed. Another record (and possible MVP) would only add to the legacy of one of the game’s most decorated players.
2. Anthony Davis’s major turnaround.
Since winning the championship in the bubble in 2020, Anthony Davis has struggled with injuries and efficiency. A bounceback from the Lakers this season largely depended on him returning to form.
After a worrisome 0-5 start, the Lakers went 8-2, and Davis is playing like an MVP. Over his last 10 games, Davis is averaging (rounded to the nearest whole) 35 points, 16 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 3 blocks per game, while shooting 65% from the field and 45% from three. He’s also getting to the free throw line 10 times per game and hitting 88% of his attempts. During this span, the Lakers are +95 with Davis on the floor.
AD is not settling for the jumper, as he has in recent years, instead using his one-of-a-kind frame and skill set to bully defenders inside and score through them. It’s the type of aggression Lakers fans (and players) have begged for from Davis.
With LeBron James turning 38 at the end of the month, the Lakers desperately need Davis to keep this up. If he does, he’ll find himself in the MVP conversation, and the Lakers will almost surely find themselves back in the playoff race.
3. Kawhi Leonard, unavailable.
Kawhi Leonard’s availability is becoming a concern.
After missing all of last season with a torn ACL, Leonard has only played five games this season. He began the year coming off the bench, but played in just two games in October before sitting out for knee “management.” He came back for three games in mid-November, but has now missed the Clippers’ last six with an ankle injury.
Anyone familiar with Leonard’s indifference to the regular season and preference for “load management” knew he wasn’t going to play many games this year on the heels of a serious injury. Yet it’s hard to feel confident about Leonard’s ability to stay on the court or return to being a top-10 player. He has averaged 10 points per game on 40.7% shooting, 11.1% from three in 23 minutes per game this season.
The Clippers are supposed to be championship contenders, but through the first quarter of the season, there has to be serious concerns about whether they’ll ever get there. Leonard is far from MVP form, and the Clippers are going to be crunched for time to develop the chemistry needed to compete for a ring.
4. A leap from the Jays is bringing the Celtics offense to new heights.
The Jays have made a leap.
Through 24 games, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the NBA’s highest-scoring duo, averaging a combined 47.7 points per game. Neither player is having his most efficient three-point shooting season, but they’ve improved in shot-creation, diversity, and their willingness to move the ball quickly. Both players are averaging .42 points per touch, up from .39 (Brown) and .36 (Tatum) last year.
Tatum is in the MVP conversation. Brown might play his way onto an All-NBA team.
As a result, Boston is having one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history. The Celtics are scoring 120 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would stand as the best of all-time. Of course, offenses are better than ever, thanks to the proliferation of the three-point line and overall increased efficiency and pace. Still, the Celtics are a juggernaut. They were the NBA’s best offense and defense over the second half of last season and while the defense has fallen off to start, their offense clearly wasn’t a fluke.
5. Is the most all-in team already out of it?
The Minnesota Timberwolves made a league-altering trade this past summer, trading four first-round picks, a pick swap, and numerous players for Rudy Gobert. It wasn’t necessarily a move that ensured title contention as much as a move that would push the Wolves firmly into the playoff mix, ensuring relevancy.
In the process, however, the Wolves set a new standard for what it takes to trade for a star. The deal affected the trade markets of Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell.
Months later, it’s worth asking if it was worth it. It’s early, of course, but the Wolves are 11-12, 11th place in the West. They have a negative net rating. The trio of Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Anthony Edwards has been awkward — solid defensively, weak offensively. All three players have publicly griped about the team’s play and about each other.
Now Towns is expected to miss several weeks with a calf strain. The Wolves had an impressive win in their first game without their leading scorer, beating the Memphis Grizzlies, but then inexplicably gave up 135 points in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Is there any way this can be fixed? If the Wolves lose more games without Towns, they may fall out of the playoff race. If they suddenly win without Towns and improve their record, well — it might be awkward when he comes back.
6. Devin Booker’s leap has steadied the Suns.
The Suns were a trendy pick to fall off after their disastrous playoff exit last season. Instead, Devin Booker has helped them rebound.
Booker is having arguably his best season in the NBA, averaging a career-high 29.1 points per game and career-best 55.1% effective field goal percentage. He’s done it with Chris Paul missing the last 13 games, Deandre Ayton getting off to a slow start, forward Jae Crowder sitting out while awaiting a trade, and important young swingman Cam Johnson getting injured in November.
The Suns are 16-7, first place in the West. They have the second-best point differential in the league. Much of that has to do with the fact that they’re outscoring teams by 11 points per 100 possessions with Booker on the floor and narrowly losing when he sits.
If the Suns get healthy, they may once again look like the favorites to get out of the West.
7. PJ Tucker: the MISSING piece
That the Sixers are over .500 with James Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey all missing time, sometimes at once, is impressive.
One point of concern, however, has been the ineffectiveness of PJ Tucker. Heralded as one of the biggest signings of the off-season, Tucker has struggled to do much at all. While he isn’t the type to fill a box score, Tucker isn’t registering much in the way of stats. He’s averaging a career-low 3.5 points per game and hasn’t scored a single point in seven of his last 10 games. Since Harden went down with a foot injury on November 3, Tucker has shot just 28% from the field. Defenses have taken to ignoring him on the court.
Tucker has still been a positive on the court and his defense has been solid. But for a team that has often been missing depth and dependable role players, the Sixers will need more from the 37-year-old Tucker, who is in the first year of a three-year, $33 million contract.
8. Can the Nuggets defend enough to contend?
A trendy Finals pick before the season, the Nuggets’ defense is concerning for a team with aspirations of winning a few playoff series. Denver ranks 26th in defensive rating, giving up 114 points per 100 possessions. No other potential contender is worse than 20th.
Perhaps that should be expected of a team that starts Jamal Murray (coming back from an ACL tear) and Michael Porter Jr. (returning from back surgery). Nikola Jokic isn’t as bad defensively as his reputation suggests, but he’s not great, and opponents are shooting 51% against him, higher than many of his peers (opponents are shooting 44.5% against Joel Embiid, by comparison).
The Nuggets, at full health, should be good enough offensively that they don’t need to be an elite defensive team to contend. But no team has finished below 20th in defensive rating and made the final four in the playoffs since the 2017-18 Cavs, who had already been to three straight Finals.
9. Would-be contenders who are rarely together
The Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets are two teams who entered the season with paths to being contenders but also facing numerous questions. Among them: Can their best players be on the floor at the same time long enough to be great?
In Brooklyn, we know the issues. Kyrie Irving served an eight-game suspension for failing disavow anti-Semitism. The Nets went 5-3 in his absence. He returned to the team to find a rejuvenated Ben Simmons. But just as the Nets seemed whole, Simmons suffered a calf injury that has held him out several games. Irving, Simmons, and Kevin Durant have played just 11 games together.
It’s a similar theme in Miami. The trio of Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and Bam Adebayo has played 13 of 23 games together. Butler — who hasn’t played more than 70 games in a season since 2016-17 — has already missed nine this season.
We wrote before the season that Miami could be better this year because that trio would likely be play more than 34 games together. Little did we know, that call is looking like a shaky bet so far.