What Should We Make of the NBA’s Opening Months?

The first few weeks of the 2023-24 NBA season have felt more significant to me than the usual beginning of an 82-game-plus-playoffs campaign. But I have no real statistical evidence to back that statement up other than what I see on League Pass most nights. It seems the vast majority of teams are playing hard on a night-to-night basis and random load management off-nights have decreased.

In truth, I've probably fallen hook, line, and sinker into the marketing around the new In-Season Tournament after initially being quite skeptical of it when it was being considered and announced. I enjoy that there are nominal added stakes to otherwise non-descript Tuesday and Friday regular season games. The colorful and downright eccentric courts are somehow both memeable and necessary.

The NBA needed to do something to innovate and show fans that the first months of the season aren't irrelevant amid a three-nights-a-week NFL sports landscape. So far, so good — and we're only a couple of games into the group stage before the knockout rounds could give us a taste of playoff intensity before Christmas.

However, even if the In-Season Tournament gives us some of the most memorable pre-New Year's basketball in memory, it's worth putting in perspective versus the whole season and the calendar.

As of writing time, every team has played between eight and 11 games. That means a little over 10 percent of the whole regular season slate has been played. The equivalent date in the NFL season would be about September 19, and for MLB it would be April 19. I don't think either of those leagues would be trotting out playoff pictures on those dates.

Last November 14, Portland was atop the West standings, and Utah was just a game back. Both ended up with top 10 draft picks. The Lakers were 3-10, and only Detroit and Houston had worse records. The Lakers played in the West Finals.

It's a lie to say the records don't matter at all at this point, but you shouldn't jump to too many conclusions after about three weeks of a 173-day regular season. The standings may not shift as dramatically as they did last year in the West, but you can be sure that several teams will go on excellent runs and others will fall down the standings.

In general, I try not to look at the standings daily until the New Year or MLK weekend. It's probably worth looking at offensive and defensive ratings and lineup metrics before that point. But through November, I'm thinking old school and going off the eye test.

To me, one of the most curious early-season teams is the Minnesota Timberwolves. Anthony Edwards is a bonafide superstar now, and his three-point shot and defense are each better than they've ever been. But to think of the Wolves as a true contender seems awfully premature. And then, even if Minnesota cruises into the playoffs as a top-three seed with 55 wins or more, I don't think I'll believe in them due to Rudy Gobert's playoff history of getting played off the floor or being ineffective by small lineups.

The Clippers have been weird and disappointing since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George teamed up in the summer of 2019, and trading for James Harden doesn't exactly signify that stability is on the horizon. But can they really be this bad with four future Hall of Famers on the roster? I legitimately don't know how to answer that question until a couple more weeks have passed. But if you made me pick between the two, I think missing the play-in altogether is more likely than a top-six seed in the West.

In my opinion, the Celtics, Nuggets, and Sixers have played the best basketball so far. Tyrese Maxey would always have a bigger playmaking role once the Sixers made an inevitable Harden trade, but his all-around offensive game is at an All-NBA level right now. Like with Minnesota, there will be playoff skepticism here once we get to the end of the season, but Nick Nurse's coaching style is more suited to taking advantage of playoff matchups and repetition than either of Philadelphia's previous two coaches.

The In-Season Tournament has injected much-needed life into the first two months of the NBA regular season. But when it ends, we'll still have about three-quarters of the regular season and playoffs to go. Anointed contenders this month might not stick around the top of the standings all season long.

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