Six weeks into the season, teams are carving out their identities, distinguishing the true contenders from those falling short. Some teams are exceeding initial expectations, elevating their game, while others grapple with unexpected hurdles. Explore the top three overachievers, defying preseason predictions, and the top three underachievers, wrestling with unforeseen challenges, in the ongoing 2023-24 NBA season.
Top 3 Overachievers and Underachievers This Season
Oklahoma City Thunder
It remains early in the 2023-24 season, yet Oklahoma City has emerged as one of the premier teams in the NBA. While the sustainability of this success remains uncertain, it’s hard to see why that success would stop anytime soon.
In contrast to last season, where the Thunder secured their tenth win 23 games into the season, they achieved the milestone in just 14 games this season. Additionally, their above .500 record lasted a mere two days throughout the entirety of the previous season but was established early this season at 4-3 overall. Currently, the Thunder share the third seed in the Western Conference with the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks, positioning themselves for a potential first-round playoff series on their home court if the season were to conclude today.
Individual contributions have played a pivotal role in the team’s success. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continues to bolster his MVP candidacy, solidifying his status as a top-10 player in the league. Beyond being the team’s offensive catalyst, he has evolved into a premier defender in the NBA.
Rookie Chet Holmgren has emerged as the second-best player on the roster, showcasing versatility on both ends of the floor. Holmgren’s efficiency, floor-stretching abilities, and exceptional rim protection have positioned him as a frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award. NBA odds comparison now has Holmgren at -145 and Victor Wembanyama at -110 to win the award.
Isaiah Joe has maintained his reputation as one of the NBA’s top 3-point shooters, contributing significantly to Oklahoma City’s success. His timely three-pointers in crucial moments have labeled him as the underrated X-factor during the team’s winning streak.
Despite the remarkable start to the season, skepticism looms regarding the sustainability of Oklahoma City’s performance. The youthfulness of the roster and potentially unsustainable shooting efficiencies suggest a possible regression as the season progresses. Nonetheless, the Thunder’s early-season achievements are undeniably special.
The Orlando Magic
The Magic seem to be on the cusp of concluding their rebuilding phase. With a roster brimming with youthful talent, two recent lottery picks, and significant financial flexibility, they are quietly emerging as a potential powerhouse in the Eastern Conference.
With Paolo Banchero, the top pick from the 2022 NBA draft, the Magic have already found their go-to player. Banchero, last season’s Rookie of the Year, has elevated his game, leading the team with 20.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.2 three-pointers per game. This season, he has improved further, increasing his assists to 4.6 per game and displaying more consistent shooting (48.8% from the field and 43.6% from three).
Banchero is complemented by Franz Wagner, a reliable sidekick, and the 2021 No. 8 overall pick. Wagner has shown steady improvement, enhancing all of his per-game averages between his sophomore and junior seasons. While he may not have Banchero’s superstar potential, multiple All-Star appearances could be in his future if he maintains his current level of success.
Markelle Fultz, despite a quieter season, had a career year last season, displaying consistency after a tumultuous start to his NBA career. Although facing competition from guards Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony this season, Fultz remains vital to the Magic’s success.
Beyond Banchero, Wagner, and Fultz, the Magic have tons of promising young players. Wendell Carter Jr., at just 24 years old, achieved a career-high average of 15.2 points per game last season. Jalen Suggs is still on his rookie deal and looks better than ever. And Moritz Wagner, Franz Wagner’s brother, has played a key role this season, averaging 12.5 points and 4.4 rebounds off the bench.
Although the Magic may be a piece or two away from true contention, their current position as the third seed in the East with a 12-5 record is turning heads, and they continue to defy expectations in the NBA.
The Timberwolves came out of the gates hot this season with an impressive 13-4 record, claiming the top spot in the fiercely competitive Western Conference. The driving force behind their success is none other than Anthony Edwards, who is delivering performances deserving of an MVP. The 2020 first-overall pick is averaging an outstanding 26.2 points per game, often single-handedly steering the Wolves’ offense to victory, especially in crucial fourth-quarter moments. A standout highlight was his exceptional 38-point performance against the undefeated Celtics, where he notched eight crucial overtime points, showcasing the full potential Minnesota envisioned when selecting him.
Equally pivotal to the Wolves’ success is their formidable defense, currently ranked as the third-best in the NBA, allowing a mere 106.2 points per game. The defensive linchpin is center Rudy Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year awardee, while wing defenders Edwards and Jaden McDaniels willingly accept the challenge of guarding opposing star players. Head coach Chris Finch has masterfully crafted a well-coordinated defensive system, contributing significantly to the team’s success this season.
Beyond star power, the Timberwolves boast a supporting cast of exceptional role players. Seasoned veteran Mike Conley Jr., acquired last season, brings leadership and adept passing to the team. Karl-Anthony Towns, an offensive juggernaut among big men, provides crucial floor spacing and scoring. Wings McDaniels and Kyle Anderson contribute stellar three-point shooting, solid defense, and relentless hustle. Overall, Minnesota’s well-constructed roster indicates a team that has finally synthesized its elements with the ambition of contending for an NBA title.
Although it’s still early in the season, the Timberwolves’ performance suggests they are among the league’s elite. However, only time will reveal if they can sustain this level of play. The playoff journey won’t be an easy one, given the stacked Western Conference featuring formidable teams like the Nuggets, Suns, Lakers, Kings, and Mavericks. Yet, for the first time in a while, the Timberwolves seem poised to match, if not surpass, the prowess of these teams.
Golden State Warrior
The Golden State Warriors, once a powerhouse in the NBA with six championships and five consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals, are experiencing a stark departure from their illustrious past this season. Their struggle to find stability has marked them as one of the most disappointing teams in the league.
What has contributed to their downturn?
A significant factor is Draymond Green‘s reversion to his “bad boy” mentality, which is evident in on-court altercations resulting in suspensions, like when he choked out Rudy Gobert earlier this season. This mindset has consistently had a detrimental impact on the team. However, beyond Green’s disciplinary issues, nearly every Warriors player, excluding Steph Curry, has failed to meet expectations.
Klay Thompson is shooting his lowest 3-point percentage of his career at 36.4% and appears hesitant to take shots. Andrew Wiggins has regressed, with declines in nearly every key statistical category. Even minor role players have struggled to make an impact.
Jonathan Kuminga, a former No.7 overall pick, is contributing modestly with around 10 points and 3 rebounds, falling short of expectations. Chris Paul primarily focuses on distributing the ball, while Kavon Looney’s role is limited to rebounding.
The offensive burden rests heavily on Steph Curry, who is showcasing his scoring prowess by averaging 29.7 points per game on 47.9% shooting. Despite Curry’s exceptional performance at 35 years old, the Warriors’ dependency on him for everything is reminiscent of the challenging 2019-20 season, where they finished with a 15-50 record.
Currently, the Warriors find themselves as the tenth seed with an 8-10 record. While there is ample basketball left in the season, their current trajectory suggests that securing even a Play-In spot might be a fortunate outcome for Golden State.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers kicked off the season with a promising 3-2 record, fueling expectations that they might live up to the pre-season hype. But in true Clipper fashion, they have managed to undermine their early success. The addition of James Harden to the roster was anticipated to boost their performance, but the reality has been quite the opposite. Since Harden’s arrival, the Clippers have stumbled to a 4-7 record, marked by a troubling five-game losing streak at the start of Harden’s Clipper era.
The initiation of the Harden experiment for the Clippers has been rife with uncertainties and disappointments rather than expected dazzling highlights and victories. Paul George‘s role has oscillated between that of an aggressive All-Star scorer and a playmaking connector handling the gritty tasks. Kawhi Leonard has encountered offensive struggles in recent fourth quarters, and Russell Westbrook, initially a starter, has been relegated to the sixth-man role, casting doubt on his ability to finish games.
Since joining the Clippers, Harden has posted meager averages of 14.1 points on 9.5 shots per game, the lowest since his tenure as the sixth man with the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2011-12 season when he averaged 16.8 points on 10.1 shots. The team’s offensive rhythm has become a disaster, with Westbrook and Harden, both ball-dominant players, favoring isolation and sidelining the true superstars, George and Leonard.
While Norman Powell, Ivica Zubac, and Bones Hyland have performed commendably as role players, the team’s quandary lies in harnessing the potential of their top four players. George and Leonard are maintaining their individual numbers, averaging 24.2 and 21.1 points, respectively. However, Harden’s decline from All-Star caliber play is evident, and the Clippers continue to treat him as if he were the prime Houston Rockets Harden. Westbrook, having found synergy with George and Leonard, took a surprising turn to the bench, resulting in a dip in his numbers and struggles in leading the bench unit.
Currently positioned as the eleventh seed in the Western Conference, the Clippers are on the verge of missing the playoffs unless they unravel the complexities of their offensive struggles. The aftermath of the James Harden trade is poised to reveal a stark contrast between the 76ers’ dominance without Harden and the Clippers’ search for solutions with him.
Admittedly, the Cavaliers have faced a challenging start to the season due to injuries, suggesting a potential ascent in the standings once they regain full health. However, their initial 10-8 record falls significantly short of preseason expectations.
As of right now, all five of Cleveland’s starters are off the injury report, although Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell may still be grappling with the lingering effects of their muscle injuries. This presents a prime opportunity for the Cavaliers to reclaim a higher position in the standings. While Dean Wade and Ty Jerome remain sidelined, the absence of Wade is particularly impactful. Craig Porter Jr. has admirably filled in for Jerome, but the Cavaliers face a notable void in replacing Wade, with Tristan Thompson emerging as the alternative.
Mitchell’s performance this season has been nothing short of outstanding, averaging 28 points on 46% shooting, while Garland has been a crucial sidekick, contributing 19.4 points and a team-high 5.8 assists per game.
Evan Mobley entered the season as an X-factor, showcasing his scoring prowess near the basket, rebounding ability, and adept rim protection. However, his limited outside shot, shooting a mere 22.2% from deep, has continued to be a point of concern.
Despite facing injuries throughout the season, the Cavaliers boast six players averaging double-digit points, showcasing offensive prowess comparable to elite teams in the league. Unfortunately, injuries have been a persistent issue, with only three players—Mobley, Max Strus, and Georges Niang—having played in every game.
With the prospect of restored health, the Cavaliers should regain competitiveness and secure a playoff berth. However, their 10-8 start and current position as the eighth seed in the East has undoubtedly fallen short of their intended trajectory for the season.
Main Image: Aaron Josefczyk-USA TODAY Sports