Nearly 30 games into the 2023-24 NBA season, we can get a good feel for what teams are going to make the postseason. Of course, we have the usual suspects in Boston, Milwaukee, and Denver fighting as contenders. However, if you take a glance at the standings, you’ll catch quite a few surprises. There are plenty of overachievers thus far:
5. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are 13-11, good for a spot in the NBA Play-In Tournament, and just two games back from a playoff spot. Over the summer, the team brought in Fred VanVleet and Dillon Brooks, causing questions to arise: why pay an immense amount of money to veterans during a rebuild? Will this hinder the development of their young players?
It clearly hasn’t.
Alperen Sengun was sort of a niche, underrated rookie last season, but he’s taken the leap, averaging 19.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. What’s so special about the Turkish center is that he plays similarly to Nikola Jokic: not the most athletic by any means, but a smooth and experienced style that breaks defenses apart. He plays like a seasoned veteran, with an outstanding feel for his environment.
Although VanVleet’s scoring hasn’t been spectacular, he leads the team in assists (8.8), dishing it to young the guys, including Jalen Green. Green was criticized for being too inefficient the previous two seasons, but taking a step back in terms of shot attempts and minutes has proven to be a benefit for the team’s success. Hopefully they can sneak into the playoffs, because this is a fun team to watch, and Houston could be a problem.
4. Dallas Mavericks
It’s no surprise that with averages of 32.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 9.1 assists, Luka Doncic is an MVP candidate once again. The past few years it seemed like his talent was being wasted in Dallas, with the team making the Western Conference Finals just once in the superstar’s first five seasons, and failing to even make the postseason in 2022-23.
At 16-10, they’re good for the fifth seed in the conference, however they’re also just one game back of the third seed after a loss to the Nuggets Monday night. Nevertheless, the Mavericks have exceeded expectations of falling behind in a crowded West.
It comes with the duo of Doncic and Kyrie Irving. Since trading for Irving back in February, they fell out of playoff contention due to a lack of any real defenders, and the inability to get other players involved on offense.
It’s been a different story this season.
Sure, Dallas is following the statistical trend of ranking in the top eight in offensive rating, while having a bottom-eight rating on the other side of the floor, but they’ve been able to capitalize on their strengths. Tim Hardaway Jr., whose career numbers were dipping over the past three seasons, is averaging 17.3 points, his most since his 2018-19 tenure with the Knicks.
On top of that, Grant Williams and Dereck Lively II were two huge additions over the summer, and while Williams has had an up-and-down season, Lively II has been a surprise amongst rookies, leading his team in blocks (1.6) and having the second-highest rebounding average (7.7). With their only notable wins against both LA teams, they’ll be tested later on in the season.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have been building this for years, it’s just finally coming to fruition now. If Sam Presti hasn’t already gotten the keys to the city, he needs them immediately, because he’s built this team from the ground up twice.
Oklahoma City is second in the West (17-8), led by MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. What’s already been said about the 6’6″ point guard doesn’t need to be repeated. He’s been consistently great the past few years in every department, and now he’s on a team that’s legitimately winning, backed up by Jalen Williams, Lu Dort, and none more impactful in the supporting cast than Chet Holmgren.
Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama have been battling for the Rookie of the Year award throughout 2023-24, and it looks to stay that way. The Gonzaga product and 2022 draftee is second in the league in blocks (2.8), with 16.9 points and 37.3% from deep. His impact this early in his career is certainly turning heads.
Williams is another member of OKC’s 2022 draft class, and the runner-up in the 2023 ROTY voting has brought his scoring up in his sophomore season. Dort continues his exceptional perimeter defense and ability to fit into his role as un undersized three.
What’s so special about this team is that they gel together, aesthetically and statistically. SGA has been their leader, MVP, and franchise cornerstone, backed up by two potential All-Star candidates in Williams and Holmgren, rounded out by solid role players, all homegrown. It brings similar vibes to a certain Thunder team from a little over a decade ago…
2. Orlando Magic
The Magic are similar to the Thunder in that they’ve been rebuilding for a few years now, the only difference is that their rebuild has been more dramatic. Since losing in the first round of the playoffs in 2019 and 2020, they’ve consistently been in the bottom three spots of the East, until now. They sit at the fourth seed in the conference (16-9) and have convincingly beaten notable teams like Milwaukee, Denver, and LA.
A team with six players averaging double figures in points, and two players with 20+ points, sounds like the Celtics, Nuggets, or Bucks, right? Throw Orlando in there, because they fit the description.
Credit has to be given to head coach Jamahl Mosley, who has developed each player into a great role. Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner are exceptional all-around scorers, with Cole Anthony emerging as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Wendell Carter Jr., Jalen Suggs, and Markelle Fultz have become excellent defenders, with Carter Jr. having the second-highest defensive win shares in the NBA (0.185).
So far, this team looks legit, with convincing wins, good statistics, and oh by the way, they’re a top-five defensive team in the NBA (109.7 rating). Time will tell if this holds up, because the only thing in question is their experience, but the future is certainly bright down south.
1. Minnesota Timberwolves
The future looked bleak for the Timberwolves following their first-round exit in year one of the KAT-Anthony Edwards-Rudy Gobert experiment. The team looked out of sync and trade rumors started to swirl around Karl-Anthony Towns over the summer. However, as of right now, Minnesota has the second-best record in the NBA, and owns the top spot in the West.
Any rumors of Towns being traded have been completely shut down for now. The experiment is starting to work, so why mess that up? Each of the trio is putting up great numbers 25 games into the season, with Edwards and/or Towns looking to be an All-Star once again. If they can stay at that number one spot, you might as well throw Gobert in there two, because he is once again a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, averaging 2.4 blocks and 12.2 rebounds.
It’s tough to judge how good they are, with a relatively light schedule to start, but then again, they’ve been winning on the other side of the ball, with the best defensive rating in the league (106.8), so they know how to get it done when they aren’t in possession.
This is a team you can get behind because they’re so well-rounded on paper, with Mike Conley running an offense of Edwards, KAT, Gobert, and Jaden McDaniels.
It’s a good combination of seasoned veterans and young studs, with Anthony Edwards leading the scoring department at 24.6 points on nearly 45-40-85 splits. When you watch Ant play, it looks so effortless. Not to say he isn’t trying, but he lets the game come to him and he just takes what the defense gives him, scoring on all three levels.
From Kevin Garnett to Jimmy Butler to now, the T-Wolves have been looking for their first playoff series victory in 20 years. Fans have suffered for years, with just 11 playoff appearances in their 27-year history. It’s safe to say they deserve this success.
With all of this happening, it begs the question of whether or not the NBA paradigm is starting to shift. The answer is an exciting yes! At the turn of the decade, we were witnessing dominance from Golden State, LeBron, and aging stars.
Now, I can say we’re officially in a new era of basketball.
No longer are we in the times of LeBron, Curry, Durant, and Harden dominating the league. Giannis and Jokic have been winning for a few years now, but it’s time we enter the era of those two, plus Doncic, Embiid, Tatum, and even SGA. These are the new faces of the NBA.