You don’t want to jump to conclusions after the first week of the NBA season, but it’s definitely long enough to make some observations and form some opinions about what’s going on in the league. The first six days of the 2023-24 season were no exception, providing the type of thrills, spills and chills we’ve come to expect from NBA action.
With so much going on, we decided to take a moment to sort out all the happenings that took place over the first few days. From Luka Doncic to James Harden to Victor Wembanyama, here are some winners and losers from the first week of the NBA season.
Winner: Luka Magic
We didn’t have to wait long for this season’s signature Luka Dončić moment, an absolute barrage of 3-pointers late in the fourth quarter to beat the Nets, 125-120 on Friday. The last of the 3s was a one-handed toss with the shot clock expiring. Just ridiculous.
WHAT ELSE CAN YOU SAY.
4 straight threes… each getting progressively more difficult and more clutch… to reach 49 points and give Dallas the win.
Special stuff from a superstar. pic.twitter.com/4uCvy2Qdfe
— NBA (@NBA) October 28, 2023
Dončić, who finished with 49 points in the win, is a perennial MVP candidate at this point in his career. Sequences like this are exactly the reason why.
Loser: James Harden
Well, it’s never a good thing when you show up at the airport for a team flight and you get told, respectfully, to get back in the car and go home. By all accounts, Harden is being a good solider and putting in the work necessary to get back on the floor with the 76ers. He was even on the sideline for their home opener against the Trail Blazers on Sunday.
That being said, things haven’t played out well with the trade demand Harden issued four months ago. The Clippers are reportedly no longer negotiating, and there doesn’t seem to be any other interested parties, so he’ll have no choice but to play for Philly unless he wants to get fined. On top of that, the team has gone 2-1 without him and Tyrese Maxey has looked awesome. Overall, a bad start to the season for Harden. Speaking of Maxey, though …
Winner: Tyrese Maxey
The question isn’t whether Maxey can fill in for James Harden. It’s whether the 76ers are better with Maxey instead of Harden. My colleague Brad Botkin seems to think so, and he’s certainly not the only one. The 6-foot-2 blur of a guard has been excellent to start his fourth NBA season, leaving 76ers fans with “James who?” at the top of their minds. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic works once Harden returns, but Maxey has proven that the Sixers can be more than competitive with him at the helm.
Loser: Chicago Bulls
A players-only meeting after the first game of the season! That has to be some sort of record. The Bulls were drubbed at home by the Thunder on opening night, 124-104, leaving Chicago forward DeMar DeRozan to vow, “We won’t let that happen again.”
Probably a good thing that he kept it vague, because the Bulls were beaten by the Detroit Pistons, 118-102, just three nights later. Chicago’s only win so far came on a wild and wacky finish that left our Sam Quinn scratching his head. Seems like something needs to change with the Bulls, and more meetings may be in their future.
Winner: Victor Wembanyama
It’s hard to have as much hype as Wembanyama did coming into his NBA career, play one week, and have people asking “did we hype this guy up enough?”
The 7-foot-4 Frenchman has shown every single skill that makes him the best basketball prospect since LeBron James — blocking shots, knocking down 3s, catching lobs and putting on dribbling exhibitions. The rookie has even already shown a knack for clutch, fourth-quarter scoring.
There’s really nothing he can’t do on a court, and he’s only scratching the surface of his astronomical ceiling.
Loser: Memphis Grizzlies
Yes, they don’t have Ja Morant and Steven Adams, but when you fall behind by 25 against the Washington Wizards, you know there are some legit problems. Memphis is off to an 0-3 start, and it’s not going to get any easier with a tough schedule ahead. The biggest problem is on offense, where they’ve generated a meager 102 points per 100 possessions thus far. It’s still early, of course, but the Grizz had a rough opening week.
Winner: Damian Lillard
One way to endear yourself to a new fanbase is to go ABSOLUTELY FREAKING NUTS in the clutch to lead your team to victory on opening night. Lillard scored 14 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter, including this trademark step-back dagger to seal the 118-117 win.
DAMIAN LILLARD AS ADVERTISED. pic.twitter.com/NuqdzO4dzm
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) October 27, 2023
It was the most points any Milwaukee Buck has ever scored in his debut for the team. Our Jack Maloney surveyed some of Lillard’s new teammates for their perspective on the tremendous feat.
Loser: Player participation policy
Prior to the season, the NBA approved some rules targeting “load management” — aka resting players when there’s no specific injury or illness. The idea was to keep star players on the court, which obviously creates a better product for both the in-arena and home-viewing audiences. Well, it’s not off to a great start.
Jimmy Butler missed out on another return trip to Minnesota, one of his former teams, sitting out the second game of a back-to-back. At least Miami didn’t even try to fudge it, listing the official reason on the injury report as “rest.” The Heat went on to lose, 106-90, though Butler did have his moment of adversarial interaction with the Target Center crowd.
Jimmy Butler blowing kisses to the fans in Minnesota, Wolves win by 16 pic.twitter.com/paVt4dwEGd
— CJ Fogler account may or may not be notable (@cjzero) October 29, 2023
The Heat avoided a fine because the game wasn’t nationally televised or part of the In-Season Tournament, and the team didn’t rest multiple players deemed to be stars by the league’s criteria. But still, sitting a star player in the third game of the season seems a bit egregious.
The very next night, Joel Embiid was listed as questionable up until minutes before the opening tip at the 76ers home opener. He eventually played, but it’s clear that resting star players isn’t a strategy that’s going to be fully extinguished due to the new rules.
Winner: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets essentially just kept the championship parade going into the first three games of the season, looking utterly dominant with a plus-17.8 net rating and a perfect record. Nikola Jokic appears to be toying with defenses thus far, doing absolutely ridiculous things like this inbounds lob pass that looked like he was a shortstop turning a double play.
Joker casual half-court baseball pass lob 🤷♂️
DEN/MEM – Live now on the NBA App: https://t.co/htyakZeFve pic.twitter.com/NH5HP8n50u
— NBA (@NBA) October 28, 2023
The Nuggets look just as dominant and focused as they did to close out the postseason, and appear to have everything it takes to repeat.