The NBA is back in action! Less than one week into the season, things are looking good for the defending champions Denver Nuggets after having dispatched LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the season opener.
No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama made his anticipated debut for the San Antonio Spurs with a solid outing in a loss to Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, but the 7-foot-4 phenom wasn’t the only rookie who stood out in their NBA debuts.
Who already needs work? The Chicago Bulls struck a curious chord by calling a players-only meeting after just one game, and the Houston Rockets have plenty of questions to answer after their opening loss.
What has stood out so far in 2023-24? Our NBA insiders break down the best and the worst of the first three days of the season.
Fill in the blank: The Giannis-Dame debut was _____.
Andrew Lopez: Fun. Watching the pick-and-roll between these two was fun all night, and it will be all season as they continue to figure out each other’s games. Also, the Bucks now have one of the best closers in the game. That will take a huge weight off Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s shoulders down the stretch for the rest of the year.
Tim MacMahon: A reminder that Lillard is on the short list of the league’s best offensive threats and closers. Milwaukee needed all of Lillard’s 39 points — including 14 in the final four minutes — with Antetokounmpo turning in a mediocre outing by his MVP standards and Khris Middleton limited to 16 minutes.
Bobby Marks: Dangerous. No offense to Antetokounmpo, but the Milwaukee Bucks now have a closer in Lillard. In the fourth quarter, Lillard was spectacular, scoring 14 points in the last four minutes, including the go-ahead 3 (yes, the officials missed an Antetokounmpo turnover) with 3:34 left. With Antetokounmpo’s dominance in the paint, expect Lillard to pick apart opposing team defenses.
Kevin Pelton: Largely unprecedented. As I noted, the Bucks getting outscored by 13 in Antetokounmpo’s minutes was his second-worst plus-minus in a Milwaukee victory since emerging as a star in 2018-19. That was only possible because the Bucks had a huge edge with Antetokounmpo on the bench thanks to Lillard’s presence.
Ohm Youngmisuk: Scary to watch. This is exactly what Milwaukee envisioned with this trade. Antetokounmpo doing all the MVP-like things he does with Lillard spacing the floor, taking over for stretches, especially at the end of the game. Giannis and Dame are only going to get better. Can the Bucks defend on the perimeter enough to win a title?
What game or moment has been the most shocking so far?
MacMahon: The Bulls may have broken the record for the earliest players-only meeting in major pro sports history. It’s not really shocking that the on-the-rise Thunder blew out the stuck-in-purgatory Bulls, but it’s rather alarming that frustration is already running that hot in Chicago.
Marks: The Bulls’ loss to Oklahoma City was not a surprise. The players-only meeting was. After committing $215 million to Zach LaVine last season and another $140 million to Nikola Vucevic, Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu and Jevon Carter, the Bulls continue to invest in a roster that lost in the play-in game last season. If the losing and uninspired play continues, will the Bulls look to make changes? All-Star DeMar DeRozan is extension eligible and will become an unrestricted free agent if there is no agreement.
Youngmisuk: Not as shocking as the Bulls, but it was a little surprising to see Charlotte open the season with a win over Atlanta, during which the Hornets held the Hawks’ backcourt to a combined 7-for-33 shooting. Charlotte’s offseason has been turbulent — Kai Jones was waived following some bizarre behavior on social media, while Miles Bridges, who pleaded no contest to a felony domestic violence charge in November, is suspended until after the team’s 10th game of the season.
Pelton: Orlando routing Houston. We expected the Rockets to be more competitive after adding starters Dillon Brooks and Fred VanVleet and, unlike other eye-opening openers, this didn’t involve shooting luck: The Magic went 9-of-34 (26.5%) from 3 but dominated everywhere else.
Lopez: Maybe not the result itself, but it was shocking to see the Timberwolves lose their 19th consecutive game in Scotiabank Arena when they lost to the Toronto Raptors on opening night. Minnesota’s last win in Toronto was in 2004 (although they did defeat the Raptors in a home game in Tampa in 2021). It wasn’t an efficient night for either Karl-Anthony Towns or Anthony Edwards — the two combined for 45 points on 52 shots.
Lopez: Dereck Lively II. Don’t think it will be too long before the Dallas Mavericks rookie center finds himself in Jason Kidd’s starting group. The No. 12 pick started the second half for Dallas and finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds on 7-of-8 shooting in 30 minutes. The last time a player had 15 points, 10 rebounds and shot over 80% in his debut was in 1963. Lively looks like the perfect screen partner and lob threat for Luka Doncic.
Youngmisuk: Lively: We might’ve witnessed the birth of “Baby Tyson” as one Mavericks source said. Lively certainly looked the part of former Mavs center Tyson Chandler with 16 points, 10 rebounds, one block and one steal. He crashed the boards for five offensive rebounds.
MacMahon: Cason Wallace. The Thunder guard had 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting in 19 minutes during Oklahoma City’s win in Chicago, an extremely encouraging debut for the 10th overall pick who came into the league with questions about his jumper. Wallace will be a defensive pest. If he continues to knock down shots, he’ll be a massive addition to the Thunder’s outstanding young core.
Marks: Brandon Miller. The 13-point stat line versus Atlanta won’t wow you, but Miller’s debut confirmed why the Hornets selected him with the second pick in the June draft. In a span of three minutes late in the fourth quarter, Miller hit a step back 3, a reverse layup and another 3. Each of the shots either tied the game or gave the Hornets the lead.
Pelton: Miller. Playing in relative obscurity in Charlotte, Miller had a solid 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting off the bench in his debut. With less responsibility than the player the Hornets passed on, Scoot Henderson, Miller should have an easier transition to the NBA.
Stephen A.’s one concern for Victor Wembanyama
Stephen A. Smith is full of praise for Victor Wembanyama, but he’s worried about Wemby’s physique in the NBA.
Based on a very early eye test, who has taken the biggest leap since last season?
Lopez: Bruce Brown Jr. After helping the Nuggets to a championship last season, Brown landed a two-year, $45 million contract — with a team option for next year — from the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers may want to pick up that option immediately if Brown plays like he did against the Washington Wizards. Brown finished with 24 points and hit a career-high six 3-pointers.
MacMahon: Max Strus. Fresh off signing a four-year, $63 million deal with the Cavaliers, Strus couldn’t have looked more comfortable in his Cleveland debut. He filled a glaring need for shooting alongside Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. And the Cavs gave Strus the green light: He was 7-of-13 from deep during a 27-point, 12-rebound outing in a win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Marks: Cole Anthony. The Magic guard, who just signed a three-year, $39 million rookie extension, became only the third player in franchise history to score 20-plus points off the bench in a season opener, joining Terry Catledge in 1990 and JJ Redick in 2012. Playing 24 minutes and ahead of struggling starter Jalen Suggs, Anthony scored an efficient 20 points on 8-of-12 from the field while also grabbing 8 rebounds.
Pelton: Jalen Johnson didn’t get the start in Atlanta’s opener but played 29 minutes off the bench and scored 21 points, picking up where he left off in the preseason. When John Collins was traded to Utah this summer, an opportunity opened for Johnson. So far, he’s making the most of it.
Youngmisuk: Like opening night last year, Russell Westbrook had a double-double. But Westbrook looks like a completely different player this year. He’s noticeably happier, more comfortable and it produced moments of vintage Russ on Wednesday. He sparked the Clippers’ highlight reel to start the game against Portland, throwing down multiple thunderous dunks. Westbrook’s performance this season could be huge for the Clippers.
What’s one question you want answered after the season’s first few days?
Pelton: Will Chris Paul move to the bench once Draymond Green returns from his ankle injury? Paul handed out nine assists in his Warriors debut with just one turnover, but missed all six 3-point attempts in Golden State’s 108-104 loss to Phoenix. Green will be out at least one more game (Friday at Sacramento), but his eventual return could see Paul come off the bench for the first time in his 19-year career.
Lopez: Can New Orleans take more 3-pointers? Pelicans coach Willie Green has implored his team to shoot more 3s, and there was only a slight jump in Game 1, as the team shot 14-of-32 from deep (43.2%). The Pelicans were 29th in 3-point attempts per game last season (30.1), with more than half of the attempts coming from two players: CJ McCollum and two-way forward Matt Ryan.
Marks: What is the state of Houston’s rebuild? After winning 20 games last season, the Rockets went out and spent more than $200 million on Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, Jeff Green and Jock Landale. The result? The second-largest season opening loss in franchise history to the Magic. The 30-point loss trailed only the 33-point loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1982.
Youngmisuk: Will Anthony Davis assert himself and dominate? After scoring 17 points but going scoreless and shooting 0-for-6 in the second half against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets in Tuesday’s opening night loss, Davis responded in Thursday’s win over the Phoenix Suns (30 points, 13 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals), scoring 13 points in the fourth. LeBron James though, took over the crux of the fourth quarter against the Suns, and the Lakers can’t depend on that every night from the 38-year-old. The Lakers’ title hopes rest on Davis’ shoulders, and they can’t be slumping. Davis has to dominate consistently, especially with James’ playing time under guidelines this season.
MacMahon: We got an answer to one of the biggest questions, which was who would be the odd man out in Boston’s starting lineup. Bringing Al Horford off the bench is the right answer for the Celtics, who can celebrate the 16-year veteran’s sacrifice, manage his minutes and start their five best players.