With the first full month of the 2022-23 NBA regular season almost in the books, here are seven observations about the teams in need of big changes already, All-Star candidates, and more:
1. Has the Window Closed on the Golden State Warriors?
The Warriors are 6-8. Their defense stinks. The bench is horrid. James Wiseman looks like a massive bust. Drafting Jonathan Kuminga over Franz Wagner looks like a critical blunder. Moses Moody barely plays. Aside from Jordan Poole, the first-round picks on Golden State’s bench look like dead weight for a team that’s hoping to contend for back-to-back championships.
Last year the children sat in the backseat with their seatbelts on while the adults drove the Warriors to another title. But now, Klay Thompson is playing the worst basketball of his life and Draymond Green can’t anchor the defense like he used to. Steph Curry is having another MVP-caliber season, but his supporting cast is failing.
Is this it for Golden State?
It’s early, obviously. You don’t even need to squint your eyes too hard to see how another Finals run could materialize once the rotation is trimmed to eight or nine guys. The starting lineup is still dominating, and both Thompson and Green showed last year they can still have pivotal stretches when needed. Andrew Wiggins is for real. Kevon Looney is as steady as it gets. If Thompson finds himself, and if Andre Iguodala can still offer anything off the bench, they could return to form. But there’s also a chance they won’t. The Warriors aren’t favorites anymore by any stretch, and we’re about to being an important evaluation phase that will define how things will play out the rest of the season.
Over this next month, the Warriors will get a long look at Wiseman in the G League. With those minutes freed up, Moody and Kuminga should get an extended run with the big league club. This stretch will help determine whether they can offer anything to a playoff team this season and what their value around the league will be come mid-December once trades become more common (when players who signed deals this summer will be eligible and more teams will understand their needs).
Thompson will also need to prove himself sooner than later. Right now, Klay is a step slow chasing shooters around screens and sluggish moving laterally in man-to-man situations. He’s had great moments, like his stop against Donovan Mitchell down the stretch against Cleveland on Friday. But for the most part defenses pick on him, something that never happened when he was one of the NBA’s best stoppers. Thompson isn’t making up for it on offense, either. He’s shooting a career-low number of shots at the rim—and making a career-low percentage of them—because he lacks burst off the dribble. He’s also front-rimming more jumpers than anyone in the NBA, which suggests he’s not generating enough power from his rehabilitated legs.
Klay might get better. But if he doesn’t, Golden State’s priority is to win a championship while Curry is still playing at an MVP level. The reality is that Poole is better than Thompson now, but he plays a vital role off the bench. Thompson is making $40 million and can become a free agent in 2024. Long before then, the team could upgrade their roster if they can package Klay with picks and young players. That’s a possible harsh future ahead if Thompson doesn’t make notable improvements.
There are plenty of trades out there that could help Golden State. Pacers center Myles Turner could add rim protection; Pistons forward Bojan Bogdanovic could provide scoring. And by the time late January or early February rolls around, maybe some preseason playoff hopefuls will decide to reverse course. If the Bulls don’t get better, DeMar DeRozan would add much-needed shot creation for Golden State—and Draymond previously recruited him.
It’s early for trade talk. But the basketball business is cruel, and these thoughts have to be entering the mind of the Warriors’ front office. All of the young Warriors should be available for trade, and the team has all of its first-round picks from 2026 through 2029 to put on the table. Over the next month-plus, Golden State will try to figure out which kids and vets are worth keeping.
To support Steph in the franchise’s chase for a fifth championship, the Warriors shouldn’t worry too much about the future, but they also can’t live in the past.
2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Is an Outlier
Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging an eye-popping 31.5 points this season, which ranks fifth in the NBA behind only Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, and Donovan Mitchell. Right behind SGA are three familiar names all averaging more than 30 points, too: Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Durant. The Thunder’s young star is in the company of MVPs, future Hall of Famers, and All-Stars. Aside from making an All-Rookie team in 2019, SGA has collected no accolades in his five-year career. But they’re coming.
What makes Gilgeous-Alexander so unusual is the way he scores. He’s first in the NBA with 24 drives per game, per Second Spectrum. And he’s become completely unstoppable.
@kevinoconnornbaOKC is now the 9th seed after blowing out the Raptors and Knicks…Gilgeous-Alexander is the face of the team. What a dominant force this season. He gets to the basket at will and I love how these clips show how he does it in different ways. Slippery smooth or deceptive or wit power. FWIW, Jayson Tatum is also now averaging more PPG. But SGA is still sixth, just one of seven averaging over 30. Durant is the other. Insane how great he has become. In an alternate universe, I wonder what the Clippers look like if they kept building young instead of trading SGA for Paul George to influence Kawhi Leonard to sign. No matter, OKC is benefiting. Can’t wait to see SGA with Chet. #okcthunder #oklahoma #nba #sga #gilgeousalexander #shai #oklahomacity
SGA uses elite stop-and-go moves. He mixes in hesitations that freeze defenders, and then contorts his body to score with either hand at the rim. He can plow through contact, and he’s also making over 90 percent of his free throws. Watch Gilgeous-Alexander shimmy his way to the basket and you could easily imagine him on Dancing With the Stars. He’d probably win the competition.
The frequency with which Gilgeous-Alexander drives to the basket makes him an outlier; so does his lack of 3-point attempts. He takes only 2.8 shots from deep per game, even fewer than Embiid and Giannis. Speaking historically, he has a chance to become just the sixth player this century to average more than 25 points with under three shots from behind the arc, per Stathead, joining DeMar DeRozan, Zion Williamson, Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, and Kobe Bryant. It’s a new era in the NBA, but SGA is providing a blast from the past.
3. Will the Chicago Bulls Find an Answer at Center?
The Bulls have the sixth-ranked defense, but their starting unit has been shredded when Nikola Vucevic is on the floor. They’re allowing 111.9 points per 100 possessions, about the equivalent of the NBA’s 18th-worst defensive rating. While Vooch isn’t entirely to blame—Lonzo Ball is still sidelined with his knee issue, and both the Bulls’ best players, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, aren’t stoppers—he has not elevated his play on defense like, say, Brook Lopez has for years with the Bucks.
Second Spectrum says 17 players have defended at least 300 pick-and-rolls this season. No one has hemorrhaged more points per play in that group than Vucevic, at 1.08 points per pick-and-roll. Over the weekend against the Nuggets, Vooch passively closed out against Nikola Jokic pick-and-pops, letting Joker drive to the rim. Last week, Raptors rookie Christian Koloko had open dunks since Vooch was so out of position.
Bulls head coach Billy Donovan once infamously said “can’t play Kanter” when the Thunder team he was coaching at the time got shredded with a defensive liability on the floor. Vucevic isn’t nearly as bad as Enes Kanter was for those squads, and Donovan doesn’t have many better answers with Andre Drummond as a reserve, but the Bulls’ bench units have been superior and have helped boost their defensive rating into the top 10. Vooch has not improved on defense despite a diminished offensive role, which is what the Bulls hoped for last year when they acquired Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu from the Magic (in a trade that sent Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., and firsts in 2021 [Franz Wagner] and 2023 [top-four protected] to Orlando). That deal is looking like a terrible choice right now. Carter is already a better center than Vooch. Wagner is one of the league’s most versatile forwards. Porter just won a championship with the Warriors as a pivotal role player. Getting Vooch made some sense at the time for a team looking to make the playoffs, but not all deals pan out.
Vucevic can become a free agent in 2023. DeRozan will be one the following year. LaVine is represented by Klutch Sports, an agency that hasn’t held back from getting players out of losing situations even if it gets ugly. The Bulls have a lot of talent, but Vucevic, at age 32, is unable to provide the type of rim protection they need, and can’t take them to where they want to go.
The Bulls should be aggressive in seeking an improvement at the center position this season. Chicago native Anthony Davis would be a dream acquisition if the Lakers decided to trade him. Options after that get uninspiring.
But does an AD addition even put them on the level of Boston or Milwaukee? Or even a healthy Philly? Or Cleveland? Are the Bulls even better than a Nets or Heat team that figures itself out? Chicago seems like a team stuck in the middle, and right now the franchise is tied for the eighth-best draft lottery odds. The Bulls should consider zagging and joining the Lose-O-Rama for Wembanyama. DeRozan or LaVine could aid a number of wannabe-playoff teams like the Lakers and Knicks or should-be contenders like the Warriors and Heat. With Ayo Dosunmu, Patrick Williams, and Coby White, the Bulls have some promising young talent but no one who can steer the future of the franchise. Moving veterans could restock their draft assets, add more youth, and give them a better chance to land a center who happens to be generational.
4. Joel Embiid Is Evolving … Again
In June, I reported that Embiid was working on “perimeter attacks and finishing with touch at the rim” since the Sixers hoped he could more frequently bring the ball up the floor himself and drive in the half court. When Embiid scored 59 points against the Jazz on Sunday, it was a culmination of all the work he’s put in.
Embiid scored with pulverizing post moves, as we’ve seen from him for many years, but he also displayed his always-expanding perimeter skill set with hang dribbles out of drives to the basket, stepbacks from the elbows, and pump fakes to get into his pull-up going left or right. Embiid has used moves like these for years, but he’s looking more fluid than ever, much like the 7-foot guard he once envisioned himself as.
Granted it’s a small sample size, but the progress is reflected in the numbers. This season, Embiid is shooting 50 percent on dribble jumpers. Second Spectrum says that’s up from 40.3 percent over the past two seasons. If Embiid can sustain that success, largely shooting from midrange, there won’t be a place on the court where a defense should even consider giving him space.
Embiid is using the threat of his jumper to attack the basket with greater frequency than ever before, driving 6.4 times per game—up from 5.2 last season and 4.2 the season before, according to Second Spectrum. It was a slow start for Embiid this season while dealing with plantar fasciitis that he suffered late in the summer, but he’s already looking like an even greater version of himself and just had one of the best regular-season performances in league history. There should be even greater moments to come.
5. Paolo Banchero’s One Weak Spot
Banchero is the leading candidate to win Rookie of the Year through one month after dominating the paint, drawing a ton of fouls, and making his teammates better as a playmaker. The Magic have also given him freedom to shoot at will, which has revealed his most significant area for growth.
So far this season, Second Spectrum says 53 players have taken a jump shot after dribbling at least once. Banchero shoots 27.9 percent on those shots, which ranks dead last.
Banchero could become one of the game’s best players even if his number never improves (Anfernee Simons and Jayson Tatum rank second worst and third worst, respectively). But it should be his focus in training because at 6-foot-10, with action-hero strength and ballerina fluidity, a reliable jumper could turn him into an annual MVP candidate.
6. The Amazing 3-Point-Shooting Performers
Only one player in NBA history has ever shot over 45 percent on seven-plus 3-point attempts per game. You guessed it, I’m talking about Steph Curry, who did it in 2012-13 and 2015-16. But this season, four players are doing it. And all four of them have pretty good stories:
Desmond Bane, Grizzlies, 45.1 percent on 8.5 3PA/G: Bane was having a monster season, averaging 25-5-5, before a toe sprain sidelined him this week. He’s scoring at a higher volume, which makes his sustained shooting success even more impressive, and he’s playmaking more like he did in college. Maybe I’m greedy, but I think he’s capable of even more. I think Bane should be taking at least 10 shots from 3 per game when he comes back from injury. He’s that special of a shooter. But even as is, Bane has a chance to be an All-Star, get All-NBA consideration, and receive votes for Most Improved Player once again.
Kevin Huerter, Kings, 52.6 percent on 7.3: Since leaving the Hawks, Huerter is playing the best basketball of his life. He’s getting more opportunities to create his own shot and he’s making the most of it, logging both a career high in touches per game (49.8) and points per touch (1.16), per Second Spectrum. Huerter recently called Sacramento the “Beam Team,” an appropriate name for one of the NBA’s most potent 3-point-shooting teams.
Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets, 48.3 percent on 7.4: After missing nearly all of last season with a back injury, MPJ is back and just as great as he was during the 2020-21 season. Porter said earlier this season it’s not unrealistic for him to shoot above 50 percent from 3. I believe him. He’s 6-foot-10, with an unblockable release and ultimate self-confidence, so how could you not?
Spencer Dinwiddie, Mavericks, 45.9 percent on 7.1: The Mavericks needed someone to fill the Jalen Brunson role, and Dinwiddie has done all that and more while shooting the lights out. He looks like the prime version of himself following a rough start in his return from a partially torn ACL last season. He’s shooting far better than his career average of 32.9 percent, so I’ll be curious to see if he can keep up his success. But he’s invested time over the years in improving his spot-up shooting, and has shot well ever since joining Dallas last season.
7. It’s Already NBA Draft Season!
Hey, we started a new podcast! It’s called The Ringer’s NBA Draft Show. A new episode will publish every Wednesday with me and J. Kyle Mann discussing the 2023 draft and recent classes that have entered the league.
We gave an introduction to the upcoming class during our debut episode last week. We discussed everyone from the big names like Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson to under-the-radar dudes like Houston’s Jarace Walker and Alabama’s Brandon Miller. This week, we discussed former high school phenom Emoni Bates and top prospects from Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky.
Please be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and if you have a friend who you think might like it, pass along the link to them. You can also email us about the draft at [email protected], and we might answer your comment or question during a future episode.
I’ll leave you with this: Wembanyama shooting a floater … from 3-point range:
It’s time to start tanking harder, folks.