The NBA is still very much up for grabs, with less than a month’s worth of games played, but there are five teams distinguished with surprisingly good performances due to either rookies, team ball, or changing the trajectory of a franchise’s future.
5. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat are tied for first in the Eastern Conference with the powerful Philadelphia 76ers, going 5-1 through their first six games—and it’s not exactly all on the addition of Jimmy Butler.
Besides signing-and-trading for the four-time NBA All-Star swingman, the Heat have unlocked center Bam Adebayo without Hassan Whiteside in South Beach and have had great, early-season contribution from rookie guards Tyler Herro (the team’s 13th overall pick in last June’s draft) and Kendrick Nunn.
Additionally, the Heat have been starting fifth-year wing Justise Winslow at point guard (he’s currently battling a back ailment) to much success along with having veteran floor general Goran Dragic coming off the bench. It’s unlikely Miami can keep up this level of success all season (they’re also undefeated at home), but everything is trending in the right direction of Erik Spoeltra’s squad.
4. Phoenix Suns
Beyond losing last season’s number-one overall pick center Deandre Ayton to a 25-game suspension by the NBA, the Phoenix Suns have been a revelation. Everything is clicking for first-year head coach Monty Williams’ team, including the Ricky Rubio–Devin Booker backcourt, veteran forward Dario Saric and rookie Cam Johnson (the former acquired in trading for the latter during draft night), and center Aron Baynes.
The Suns just issued the Sixers their first loss of the season on Monday and it was fueled by the expected-but-unstoppable way the team is built: strong scoring from Booker, an offense orchestrated by Rubio—signed in free agency in the summer—and outside shooting threats and a solid bench including Kelly Oubre Jr., Tyler Johnson, and Mikal Bridges.
It’s difficult to foresee Phoenix being a contender this season, but, wow, the development of the franchise has considerably jumpstarted with a positive start to the season.
3. Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors lost their NBA Finals MVP in forward Kawhi Leonard and partner-in-crime shooting guard Danny Green to the Los Angeles–based franchises in the offseason, but they seem to be in a solid spot to contend in the Eastern Conference this season.
That’s because they have rising star Pascal Siakam—a Cameroonian power forward they handed a max contract extension last month—veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, and a team-first mentality shared by Marc Gasol, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka, along with a great bench.
Nick Nurse will find it hard to take down the Sixers or the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, and there are concerns like Lowry’s high minutes to start the year, but the Raptors should be in a good place to be competitive again even without Leonard.
2. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks had a very funky offseason. The re-signed one-time NBA All-Star power forward Kristaps Porzingis to a max deal despite the Latvian ex-Knick never having stepped on the court for the team yet; they signed Seth Curry, who re-joined the franchise, and the underrated Delon Wright; and they re-signed a bevy of role players like Dwight Powell, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Maxi Kleber.
On paper, the Mavs shouldn’t be that good this season—maybe sneak in the playoffs, but that’s going to take more than maybe the Golden State Warriors dropping off the face of the earth. However, the strong play from the duo Porzingis and fellow European import in last season’s Rookie of the Year wing Luka Doncic have propelled Dallas to a 4-2 record, with their second loss coming in overtime against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. (That game had dueling triple-doubles from James and Doncic, the oldest and youngest players, respectively, to each record 30-10-15 lines.)
1. Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets are 3-3 and that already feels something close to hoisting the Larry O’Brien in the air for the state of the franchise.
The Hornets lost All-Star guard Kemba Walker in the offseason, replacing the franchise’s former ninth-overall pick with Boston Celtics backup point guard Terry Rozier.
So far, we’ve seen an amazing out-of-the-gate performance from rookie forward PJ Washington, who has shot 50.0% (14-of-28 total) from 3-point range through six games. Between contributions from Washington, second-year forward Miles Bridges, guard Malik Monk, and big man Tyler Zeller, Charlotte has an O.K. team getting it done with team play; nobody is averaging 20 points or more per game, six players are averaging double-digit figures in scoring.
Additionally, veteran wing Nicolas Batum has been injured. While the Hornets may have already peaked early this season, they have reinforcements coming. (On the other side, their three wins have come against the Warriors, Kings, and Bulls.)
Charlotte will inevitably be back in the lottery in 2020, but their future could be brighter than many predicted in the beginning of October.