Thunder Rumors

Community Shootaround: Early Season Surprises

For the most part, it’s easy to tell who the NBA’s contenders and bottom-feeders are before the season. Similarly, fans can usually predict what a large part of a team’s given rotation is going to look like. But every year, there are several instances of unexpected players and teams breaking out or disappointing.

This season is no different and, through the first portion of the season, there are already some surprising trends and storylines.

In my view, the most disappointing start to the season for any team has to be the Grizzlies. Teams like the Pistons, Wizards, Spurs and Trail Blazers were expected to trend toward the bottom of the standings with young cores and growing pains. But the Grizzlies were the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last year and acquired former Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart. Of course, Memphis has been dealt an incredibly difficult hand with the 25-game suspension of Ja Morant and injuries to Brandon Clarke, Steven Adams and Smart, along with many more, and any team would be hard-pressed to overcome that.

Seasons are all about hot and cold streaks, and both the Clippers and Warriors are going through slumps after respective strong starts to the year. The Clippers began the year 3-1 and have gone 1-6 since acquiring James Harden, including losing six straight. The Warriors began the year 6-2 but have now also lost six in a row. I didn’t anticipate there to be as many growing pains with the Clippers and Harden from the jump, but I still expect they’ll get into form.

Not all surprises are bad though, and there have been plenty of pleasant ones to begin this year. The Timberwolves share the top spot in the west with the defending-champion Nuggets, which is eye-popping at first until you consider their elite defensive play and Anthony Edwards‘ unsurprising breakout.

The Rockets and Thunder look well ahead of the development curve, and hold two of the top six spots in the west. Chet Holmgren immediately looks like a star in his first NBA season for Oklahoma City while the Rockets have been aided by the additions of their veteran players and coach Ime Udoka.

For my money, the most surprising early season development is Dereck Lively IIs immediate importance to the 9-4 Mavericks. In his one season at Duke, Lively averaged just 20.6 minutes per game, though his role grew exponentially as the year went on. Still, when Dallas drafted him, I expected the franchise to bring him along slowly and allow him to get adjusted to the NBA.

Instead, Lively surged to the top of the depth chart, taking a choke-hold on the starting center position at just 19 years old. He’s averaging 8.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 stocks (steals plus blocks) in his first 12 games. His rise to the top has opened up so many things for the Mavs’ offense and Lively is a huge part of what looks like a top dog in the conference.

That brings us to our topic of the day: What early season trends have most surprised you the most? Do you agree with any of our choices? What players and teams have most exceeded or fallen short of expectations?

Take to the comments to weigh in on this topic. We look forward to reading your input.

Northwest Notes: Alexander-Walker, KAT, Thunder, Watson

Multifaceted Timberwolves guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker finally seems to have created a unique niche with his third NBA team, writes Oren Weisfeld of Alexander-Walker’s versatile game has earned him plaudits from key Minnesota personnel.

“There was a lot of pressure on him when he came into the league, whether it be, you know, a lot of it was self-imposed,” Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch said of the guard’s early years in New Orleans, where Finch served as an associate head coach. “He was trying too hard, trying to do too much, trying to prove everything, wanted it all at once.”

In 19.7 MPG off the bench for the 9-3 Timberwolves, Alexander-Walker is averaging 5.4 PPG, 2.4 APG, 1.8 RPG, 0.8 SPG and 0.8 BPG.

There’s more out of the Northwest Division:

  • Though there has been much chatter swirling about the fit of star Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns alongside two other nominal centers, Rudy Gobert and Naz Reid, Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic submits that Towns’ superlative offense makes him worth retaining. On Saturday evening, he led Minnesota’s successful 121-120 comeback against the Pelicans, scoring 29 points while shooting 10-of-11 from the field, dishing out nine dimes, grabbing six boards and topping it all off with the game-winner. It’s games like that one that make Towns such an important piece on a club with major postseason goals, according to Krawcyznski, who opines that the Wolves are on too much of a roll with Towns to trade him, for now.
  • Although Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault is trying to temper expectations for Oklahoma City, the club is already looking much improved this year, writes Kendra Andrews of ESPN. Rookie center Chet Holmgren just turned in his best night yet, scoring 36 points while shooting 14-of-22 from the field, pulling down ten rebounds and dishing out five dimes. All-NBA point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, not to be outdone, chipped in 40 of his own. A clutch buzzer-beating triple from Holmgren propelled the Thunder to overtime against the Warriors on Saturday night, where the young team pulled out an impressive win. “We have a young team that will grow over time,” Daigneault said. “We don’t want to cap the potential of any of our players.” At 9-4, Oklahoma City might be arriving already.
  • Second-year Nuggets small forward Peyton Watson has earned regular rotation minutes this season. The UCLA product credits some tough love during his rookie season tenure with Denver’s NBAGL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Gold, for abetting his long-term development, writes Bennett Durando of The Denver Post.

Thunder Notes: Top Trio, Bertans, K. Williams, Holmgren

The Thunder trio of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams and Chet Holmgren have excelled during their first 10 games together. Oklahoma City should be a perennial threat going forward, but coach Mark Daigneault cautions that there are many lessons to be learned before the team reaches a championship level, per Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

“Wisdom is not something you can shortcut,” Daigneault said. “We have to have a level of patience. It’s something you can’t fast forward.”

We have more on the Thunder:

  • Forward Davis Bertans, who was traded by the Spurs in 2019, believes San Antonio will soon become a free agent destination thanks to Victor Wembanyama. The Spurs rookie and Holmgren will face each other in a much-anticipated matchup on Tuesday. “I think once everyone sees they have the potential to win, then yes. Especially when they don’t have any max or super max players at the moment,” Bertans told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “There is plenty of money available. So they can make something happen, maybe.”
  • Bertans is now OKC’s oldest player at 31 and he has tried to impart his knowledge to his teammates. “I definitely have some experience. I can help with that,” he said. “Most of the guys on the team, I’ve been in the same type of position they’ve been in before. I try to help any way I can.” Bertans is signed through next season, though he holds an early termination option on his $16MM salary for 2024/25, which is only partially guaranteed for $5MM.
  • Kenrich Williams is available to play for the first time this season. Williams, who was sidelined by a back injury, can’t wait to suit up, Joel Lorenzi of The Oklahoman tweets. “Felt like the night before Christmas,” he said on Tuesday morning.
  • Holmgren has become the focus of the national media but he doesn’t want to be the focal point of the team. He’s trying to blend his skills to his teammates in his first year, he told Lorenzi. “I just tried to come in and find the balance between being aggressive and not making it the Chet show,” Holmgren said. “It’s not that, it’ll never be that.” Thus far, Holmgren is averaging 16.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.3 blocks per game.

Giddey's Technical From Monday Rescinded

  • Thunder guard/forward Josh Giddey received a technical foul in the second quarter of Monday’s victory over Atlanta, but it has been rescinded, the NBA announced on Thursday (Twitter link). The No. 6 pick of the 2021 draft, Giddey will be eligible for a rookie scale extension next offseason after having his fourth-year option exercised last month.

Western Notes: Kings, Tucker, McCollum, JRE, Thunder

With De’Aaron Fox on the shelf due to a right ankle sprain, the Kings are struggling to establish their identity and display the sort of physicality and stalwart defense that head coach Mike Brown wants to see, per Jason Anderson of The Sacramento Bee. After suffering back-to-back blowouts to the Rockets in Houston on Saturday and Monday, Brown suggested changes might be coming to the rotation.

“I’ve got to evaluate some things,” Brown said. “In this business, you always have to have a sense of urgency, but you have to believe in what you do whenever you make any type of change or any time you do this instead of that. For me, I’m going to go back and I’m going to watch the film, and if I feel the same way after the film, then I’ve got to try to make sure I keep trying to put five guys out there who are going to do what we ask, which is to play together and play the right way while playing fast and bringing a sense of physicality.

“I always have a 24-hour rule, especially after something like this,” Brown continued. “So, I’m going to sleep on it and I’m going to watch this film, and if you earn a chance to play, I’m going to play you. Nobody’s position on this team is sacred.”

The Kings, winners of 48 games last season, are off to a 2-4 start in 2023/24 and rank 22nd in the NBA in defensive rating (114.0).

Let’s round up a few more notes from around the Western Conference…

  • New Clippers forward P.J. Tucker admitted on Monday that, despite the trade rumors that swirled around teammate James Harden all offseason, he hadn’t anticipated being part of a Harden deal. “I wasn’t expecting to get traded, so I didn’t know,” Tucker told Stefan Bondy of The New York Post. “It kind of came out of nowhere.”
  • Pelicans head coach Willie Green told reporters on Monday that the team doesn’t have any new details on CJ McCollum‘s collapsed right lung, but expressed optimism that the ailment isn’t too serious, writes Christian Clark of “We don’t think it’s too bad,” Green said. “But we have to run more tests and see where we are after that.” As Clark observes, McCollum dealt with a similar health issue during his time in Portland and it cost him 18 games.
  • Jeremiah Robinson-Earl‘s two-way contract with the Pelicans is just a rest-of-season deal, Hoops Rumors has learned. That means Robinson-Earl will be eligible for restricted free agency at the end of the 2023/24 season, assuming he plays out his new contract.
  • Some rival scouts and executives think the Thunder are capable of being a top-four seed in the West this season, but head of basketball operations Sam Presti is preaching patience and appears in no rush to accelerate his team’s contention timeline, as Tim MacMahon details in an interesting feature for

Injury Notes: Murray, Fox, Gilgeous-Alexander, Fultz, Beal

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray departed their game against Chicago on Saturday after just 10 minutes. He’s been diagnosed with a right hamstring strain and won’t be available for Denver’s contest against New Orleans on Monday, Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports tweets.

We have more injury-related updates:

  • Kings guard De’Aaron Fox won’t play against Houston on Monday due to an ankle injury, according to James Ham of (Twitter link). It’ll be the third straight game that Fox has been out of the lineup.
  • Thunder star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will miss his second straight game on Monday due to a left knee sprain, Brad Rowland tweets.
  • Magic guard Markelle Fultz, who’s dealing with left knee soreness, is listed as questionable to play on Monday against Dallas, according to Jason Beede of the Orlando Sentinel. Fultz has missed the last two games. Gary Harris (strained right groin) has already been ruled out.
  • Bradley Beal could make his Suns debut as early as Wednesday against Chicago, according to Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic. Beal has been sidelined since training camp due to a back ailment.

Trio Assigned To Blue For Scrimmage

  • The Thunder assigned Ousmane Dieng, Aleksej Pokusevski and Tre Mann to the G League’s Oklahoma City Blue. According to Thunder beat writer Brett Dawson (Twitter link), the Blue held a scrimmage on Sunday and it allowed that trio to get in some five-on-five work.

Northwest Notes: Porter, Camara, Kessler, Chet

The Grade 3 ankle strain Nuggets small forward Michael Porter Jr. incurred heading into the 2023/24 season remains an issue. Ported admits that his ankle is still less than 100% healed, estimating its recovery level at 75%, tweets Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports. The 6’10” vet notes that he is dogged by soreness following games, but adds that it continues to improve.

Porter has remained productive regardless of his ankle’s health, averaging 15.0 PPG on .460/.380/.857 shooting. He’s also contributing 7.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.9 BPG and 0.6 SPG.

There’s more out of the Northwest Division:

  • Trail Blazers rookie power forward Toumani Camara is emerging as a rotation staple at this early point of the season. Camara even started in the second half of Portland’s Friday win ahead of Matisse Thybulle, Sean Highkin of The Rose Garden Report tweets.
  • Following a 115-113 loss to the Magic Thursday, second-year Jazz center Walker Kessler addressed his disappointing start to the season, Eric Walden of The Salt Lake Tribune reports. His numbers are down across the board from an All-Rookie 2022/23 campaign, and he’s struggling to control the ball as well as he did last year. “Yeah, you know, I think I gotta get back to just having fun,” Kessler said in addressing how he hopes to bounce back. “Because at the end of the day, it is a game. I’ve got to have fun competing and playing with my teammates and enjoy that, because that’s when I have my most productive games — when I’m trying to win and trying to have fun.”
  • Warriors star forward Draymond Green was impressed by rookie Thunder center Chet Holmgren during Golden State’s 141-139 last-second win over Oklahoma City, writes Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area. “Chet’s a problem,” Green said. “He can play. He can dribble the ball, he can shoot the ball, has great length, is a great shot blocker. He’s only going to get better. For a young guy like that to have the feel that he has, you don’t see many mistakes out of him. And I thought that was big.” Through six games, the seven-footer is averaging 17.2 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.3 BPG and 1.0 SPG.

Celtics Notes: Porzingis, Tournament, TPE, Queta

The Celtics are the NBA’s only unbeaten team and Kristaps Porzingis believes they’re just scratching the surface of how good they can become, writes Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe. Boston underwent major roster changes during the offseason, but the adjustment has gone smoothly with several dominant performances on the way to a 4-0 start.

Himmelsbach notes that the new Big Three of Porzingis, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have outscored opponents by 33.2 points per 100 possessions in the 86 minutes they’ve been on the court together. They’ve also shown a willingness to be unselfish and let whoever has the hot hand on a given night take the most shots.

“We’re still building chemistry,” Porzingis said. “Even though we have some glimpses of really good plays and passes, we’re still building chemistry. I’m still catching up on the little nuances and little things that JT likes to do, that JB likes to do, and just still, like, figuring each other out, you know? It might look like it’s already really good because we’re just beating these teams easily, but it’s going to get much, much better.”

There’s more from Boston:

  • Porzingis had plenty of experience with tournaments while growing up in Europe, and he believes the NBA’s new in-season tourney will eventually catch on with fans and players, Himmelsbach adds. “Although I know a lot of people are a little bit skeptical, I think it’s going to be a huge success and I look forward to hopefully winning it,” Porzingis said. Tournament play began throughout the league last night, but the Celtics won’t play their first round robin game until Friday at Brooklyn.
  • Grizzlies center Xavier Tillman could be a name to watch if the Celtics decide to use the $6.2MM traded player exception they generated in the Grant Williams deal, Brian Robb of MassLive suggests in a mailbag column. Tillman has a $1.93MM expiring contract and Memphis may decide to move him if the team can’t overcome its 0-6 start. Robb mentions Thunder forward Kenrich Williams, Pacers center Jalen Smith and Raptors center Precious Achiuwa as other possibilities who would fit into that TPE.
  • Neemias Queta will miss his third straight game tonight due to injury management for his right foot, per Souichi Terada of MassLive, but coach Joe Mazzulla told reporters it’s mostly a precautionary measure. Terada points out that Boston’s schedule has been light so far, and there will be a greater need for the two-way center once games start to stack up.

Injury Notes: Kyrie, Thunder, Mann, Lyles

After missing the last two games due to a sprained left foot, Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving has been upgraded to available for Friday’s game vs. the Nuggets, as first reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic (Twitter link).

The Mavericks are the only undefeated team left in the Western Conference, but will face a tough matchup in their first in-season tournament game tonight as they visit the defending champions in the altitude of Denver, so they’ll be happy to have Irving back in their lineup.

Here are a few more injury-related updates from around the NBA:

  • There’s good and bad news on the injury front for the Thunder. Center Jaylin Williams will be available for the first time this season on Friday after having been sidelined with a right hamstring strain. However, star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is among the team’s unavailable players vs. Golden State due to a left knee sprain (Twitter links via Rylan Stiles of Locked on Thunder).
  • Clippers guard/forward Terance Mann, who has yet to play this season due to what the team is calling a sprained left ankle, said in a YouTube video that he “overstretched” a muscle or “maybe tore it a little” (hat tip to Andrew Greif of The Los Angeles Times). Mann added that there’s no timeline for his return and he’s still focused on trying to reduce the swelling in the ankle.
  • The Kings have ruled out forward Trey Lyles for at least two more games, the team announced today (Twitter link via Jason Anderson of The Sacramento Bee). Lyles, hampered by a left calf strain, has yet to suit up for Sacramento this season.