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More than six weeks into the NBA season, the Phoenix Suns are leading the West, the Utah Jazz were leading the West, Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks are struggling on defense and the Timberwolves can’t rebound.

Those are just a few of the surprises — big and small, good and bad — as we reach the quarter mark of the season. What has been each team’s biggest head-scratcher so far? The Athletic posed that question to the writers who know the teams best. Here’s what they said:


Atlanta Hawks

The rookie: AJ Griffin has been a nice find for the Hawks after going 16th in the 2022 NBA Draft. Atlanta has needed reliable wings to put around Trae Young and now Dejounte Murray. Griffin seems like he could be that guy. He has scored in double-digits in five of his last seven games while averaging 24.9 minutes a night. Griffin’s shot seems to be translating from Duke; he’s hitting 38 percent of his 3s so far. If Griffin can continue to play well enough to break the rotation and stay healthy, Atlanta should have one more reliable player around its dynamic duo, even if he is a rookie. — Mike Vorkunov

Boston Celtics

A historic offense: Even without the injured Robert Williams, the Celtics have the best offensive rating in NBA history. They have scored five points per 100 possessions more than the NBA’s second-best offense this season, a wider gap than the one between the second-place Suns and the 15th-place Trail Blazers. After the way they scored following last season’s trade deadline, the Celtics were expected to have a very good offense again. But they have far more than that. They have an unstoppable hurricane of buckets. — Jay King

The offense has nailed down a few principles it was building last season to the point that it’s head and shoulders above the league. Boston is emphasizing pushing in transition, even off makes, while knowing when in the game it wants to waste clock to take away a few extra possessions from the opponent. Then when the ball is in the half court, they are making decisions so quickly and consistently that they create open looks at a rate nobody in the league can touch. — Jared Weiss

Brooklyn Nets

Nic Claxton: The Nets re-signed Claxton in the offseason on a two-year, $20 million deal, and so far, he’s been healthy and consistent, averaging 12 points and nearly nine rebounds per game. He leads the NBA in field-goal percentage, is top five in blocks and has shown flashes of being the decision-making big he was at Georgia. Claxton always had this in his game, but it was about being healthy and having the runway to do so. A quarter into the season, Claxton’s done just that. — Alex Schiffer

Charlotte Hornets

Dennis Smith Jr.: He hasn’t played much NBA basketball the last three seasons after a promising start to his career, but Smith has re-emerged with the Hornets and is averaging a respectable 9.3 points to go with a career-high 5.7 assists through 15 games (11 starts). Smith was without a team for much of the summer and got this opportunity due to injuries to LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier, but he’s been a nice surprise for a team that lost 15 of its first 21 games and is once again dealing with an injury to Gordon Hayward. — Joe Vardon

Chicago Bulls

Veteran free agents: Entering the season, most would have assumed a certain level of highly impactful minutes by Zach LaVine and Alex Caruso, and fewer by Goran Dragić and Andre Drummond. It’s been the opposite. The Bulls’ two ho-hum signings have been hugely important to fortifying the team’s bench, boosting last season’s rebounding difficulties and providing the Bulls with on-court leaders who help settle the team when things aren’t going so smoothly. — Darnell Mayberry

Cleveland Cavaliers

Donovan Mitchell’s seamless fit: Mitchell’s talent and character are undeniable, and it’s been on display since he stepped onto the court in a Cavaliers jersey alongside Darius Garland in the backcourt. Sometimes there is an adjustment period when a player is traded, and trades can go several different ways. Mitchell and Garland have created a selfless chemistry that has a dynamic flow to it where they facilitate and create for others and themselves. It’s helped lead the Cavs to third in the East despite a handful of injuries. — Kelsey Russo

Dallas Mavericks

Josh Green: He plays basketball like the Australian rules football he grew up with. His game abounds with athleticism and kineticism, but the refinement of this sport’s finer skills — shooting technique, defensive positioning — has shined in his third season. It was unfair that he was cast with the shadow of who Dallas could’ve drafted instead of him, but Green’s emerged from that this season, turning his motor of renewable energy into consistent impact nearly every minute he’s on the court. — Tim Cato

Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokić’s (positive) step back: Don’t look now, but the Nuggets are pushing for the top spot in the West without two-time MVP Jokić (22.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 8.9 assists per game) having to play the role of Mile High City Superman. He’s a far cry from Clark Kent, but Jokić has adjusted his game to make room for Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the two players who need to be special if the Nuggets are going to contend for a title. And here’s the overlooked silver lining of this nuanced and necessary development: Even with Jokić’s decrease in scoring (from 27.1 points per game last season to 22.7), he’s on pace to hit the aforementioned 22-9-8 marks that have only been achieved 13 times before in league history, according to Stathead.com. — Sam Amick

Detroit Pistons

Killian Hayes’ shooting: The 2020 No. 7 pick spent his first two years in the NBA as one of the least efficient jump-shooting guards in the league. Over the last few weeks, Hayes has found a trusty weapon with his midrange jumper and has been one of the Pistons’ best catch-and-shoot guys. Hayes’ overall shooting numbers aren’t where they need to be because of a slow start, but it certainly feels like he’s turned a corner. — James L. Edwards III

Golden State Warriors

Defensive rating: The Warriors finished last regular season at 106.6, the second stingiest in the league. That held up in the playoffs too. It has fallen apart during the first couple of months of this regular season. To close November, they sat 22nd overall with a 113.3 rating. What are the reasons? More youth in the rotation. Less urgency from the veterans. The loss of Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. The departure of Mike Brown, their coordinator. Perhaps even the temporarily diminished leadership voice of Draymond Green, meaning less accountability. But it’s stabilized lately. In their last 12 games, the Warriors have a 110.5 rating, ninth best, after excising James Wiseman and Moses Moody from the rotation and amping up their overall effort. They’ll need to be even better to repeat as champs, but it is trending in the correct direction. — Anthony Slater

Houston Rockets

K.J. Martin-Tari Eason duo: Let’s zoom out a bit: Per Cleaning the Glass, the Rockets are 27th in offensive efficiency (109.4 points per 100 possessions) and 28th in defensive efficiency (116.7 points allowed per 100 possessions). There aren’t a ton of lineups Houston throws out on a nightly basis that generates any sort of positive impact — except for the ones that feature both Martin and Eason. Of the groups that have played at least 30 minutes together, the Rockets somehow have three combinations (out of a possible seven) with positive net ratings, all featuring both players. Their combination of energy, athleticism and aggression on both ends of the floor is contagious. Why don’t they play more often? — Kelly Iko


Rookie Tari Eason has been one of the few bright spots for Houston this season. (Troy Taormina / USA Today)

Indiana Pacers

Andrew Nembhard: Seeing as how the Pacers are one of the biggest surprise teams in the league, it stands to reason that their roster is dotted with one massive surprise performer after another. Tyrese Haliburton, Myles Turner, Bennedict Mathurin, Buddy Hield, Aaron Nesmith, Jalen Smith. For me, though, the biggest surprise is rookie second-rounder Nembhard, who’s got an old-guy game and veteran moxie, averaging seven points per game in 21 minutes and starting seven of 16 games. He is a chameleon, his game fitting in beautifully with whatever players Rick Carlisle puts on the floor. I didn’t see that coming. — Bob Kravitz

LA Clippers

Offensive struggles: This is an understandable surprise to some extent, given the personnel issues. Kawhi Leonard playing only five games significantly lowers the ceiling of what the Clippers are expected to do offensively, and now Paul George and Luke Kennard are in their second week of injury absence too. The Clippers were a bottom-10 offense last season while dealing with myriad absences. But it is still jarring to see the Clippers in the bottom five of offensive efficiency this season, and that’s with improved play lately. — Law Murray

Los Angeles Lakers

Development of Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker IV: The Lakers needed some of their younger role players to make a leap this season, and Reaves and Walker are playing at career-best levels, particularly as scorers. The ceiling for both players is higher than previously anticipated. Walker has assumed a Malik Monk-esque role as an athletic finisher and lethal midrange threat. Reaves is a dynamic ballhandler and playmaker who gets to the free-throw line a ton and is posting a near 50/40/90 season. If the Lakers can creep into the Play-In Tournament mix, it’ll partly be because both young guards have made a jump. — Jovan Buha

Memphis Grizzlies

Extra help: The contributions of John Konchar and Santi Aldama so far with Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. missing significant time have been a surprise. Konchar did some of this last season, but he has a lot more minutes and an expanded role now. Aldama, now in his second season, is already a guy they need minutes for. The Grizzlies are one of the best at plugging in the next man up. — Zach Harper

Miami Heat

Kyle Lowry’s health: At age 36 and coming off a rough 2021-22 campaign in which he missed 19 games during the regular season for a couple of reasons, and then a huge swath of the playoffs with a hamstring injury, Lowry has played in every game for the Heat. He’s averaging 14.6 points, up from a year ago, but part of that is due to Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo missing some, most or all of the season so far. At his age, Lowry coming through the first quarter of this season healthy and strong is somewhat of a stunner. — Vardon

Milwaukee Bucks

Jevon Carter, the menace: While Carter played well for the Bucks last season after joining them off waivers in February, even the most optimistic fans could not have expected him to be quite this good in his second season in Milwaukee. Carter has started all 20 games this season, doubling the number of starts he had in his first four NBA seasons combined. He is currently putting up career highs in minutes (27.5), points (9.1), rebounds (2.8), assists (3.5) and steals (1.4) per game, while shooting 42.3 percent from deep. And he has done all of those things offensively while still being a menace defensively alongside Jrue Holiday. — Eric Nehm 

Minnesota Timberwolves

Glass half empty? The Timberwolves acquired the best rebounder in the league when they traded for Rudy Gobert this summer, and yet there has been no discernible difference in their performance on the glass. Last season, the Wolves were 28th in defensive rebound percentage at 70.6. This season, they are ranked 24th in the category, but their percentage is worse at 70.2. Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns have not dominated the interior to the degree that they need to to make this experiment worth it. Gobert has admitted to being a “step slow” on some nights, and he looks it out there. It is a major concern after the Wolves paid such a steep price to get him. — Jon Krawczynski

New Orleans Pelicans

Responding to change: The Pelicans have been dealing with a ton of injuries and ailments to their core players, which may be the least surprising thing about this season considering the franchise’s recent history. But the shocking part about this season is how the team has responded to the constant changes in the lineup. They haven’t missed a beat. New Orleans is 13-8 after 21 games despite Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson missing a combined 15 games. The Pels have only put their projected starting lineup (Williamson, Ingram McCollum, Herb Jones and Jonas Valančiūnas) on the court 10 times this season. They’ve still managed to piece together the NBA’s sixth-best offense and fourth-best defense. The depth of this roster is very real, and it’s beyond anything we’ve seen before in New Orleans. And it’ll only get better once everyone (finally) gets healthy. — Will Guillory

New York Knicks

Un-Thibodeau-like defense: I know the Knicks aren’t loaded with defensive personnel. I know the group’s defensive anchor, Mitchell Robinson, missed some time with a knee injury, and its top perimeter stopper, Quentin Grimes, was out with a foot ailment. Yet, I can’t unsee the defensive issues. The Knicks, a team that Tom Thibodeau of all people runs, are 26th in points allowed per possession 22 games into the season. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen. They pieced together a roster of brawn, not finesse, yet have floated around the NBA’s bottom five in defensive rebounding all season. Opposing wings and guards fly in from the perimeter to secure misses and pull back out for another 14 seconds all the time. Their pick-and-roll communication is all kinds of off. Sometimes, it’s difficult to decipher exactly what coverages they’re supposed to be running. The Knicks weren’t overflowing with defensive talent last season either but still found a way to climb to 11th in points allowed per possession. Chances are, there is some positive progression coming. But 26th? This is new. — Fred Katz

Oklahoma City Thunder

SGA’s leap: Through 20 games, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 31.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. That is up from last season’s 24.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.8 blocks. That is a massive leap. The only other players in NBA history who have averaged at least 30-5-6 with a steal and a block per game are Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Gilgeous-Alexander also leads the league in total clutch points, is fourth in points in the paint and fifth in free-throw attempts (shooting 92 percent). He also leads the league in drives. The Thunder have found their first foundational star of the post-Russell Westbrook era. — Andrew Schlecht


OKC might have found its foundational piece in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. (Alonzo Adams / USA Today)

Orlando Magic

Bol Bol. Bol Bol. Bol Bol: I’m going to say it three times just to let it sink in. He’s been a bit of a revelation this season in Orlando. Revealing how a 7-foot-2 wonder can be so skilled but also still revealing what he can be in the NBA. Orlando is the first team to give him legit NBA minutes, and Bol is a low-key NBA Most Improved Player candidate. The Magic can use him in their big skill-ball lineups, and he’s shown aptitude in his perimeter shooting and ballhandling. Not a bad return from a player who had just 328 NBA minutes over his first three seasons. — Vorkunov

Philadelphia 76ers

Resiliency in Philly: Twenty games into the season, the Sixers have received nine games played from James Harden, 12 from Joel Embiid and 15 from Tyrese Maxey. And yet they were over .500 at the quarter pole due to the role players (in particular Shake Milton, who was out of the rotation at the beginning of the season) stepping up. The Sixers started the season poorly, but they have showcased their depth over recent weeks. — Rich Hofmann

Phoenix Suns

Still contending: Let’s stack this up. Phoenix entered this season with some drama. There was the Robert Sarver mess. Jae Crowder never showed. Deandre Ayton didn’t seem happy. Then the season started. Cam Johnson injured a knee, limiting him to eight games through Phoenix’s first 20. Chris Paul injured a heel, limiting him to 10. And yet Phoenix still has the best record in the West? That’s the biggest surprise. The Suns had an MVP candidate in Devin Booker and talented players around him, but this seemed more like a team that would need time to find its stride. Maybe that’s still the case. But give the Suns credit for battling through adversity. Their drive was underestimated. — Doug Haller

Portland Trail Blazers

Jerami Grant’s excellence: The hope was that Grant would be an upgrade at power forward, but he has been so much more than that for the Blazers. Quite simply, Grant has been the Blazers’ MVP through the first quarter of the season. He is averaging 21.5 points and 4.4 rebounds, but his worth goes beyond his statistics and his monster scoring games of 44, 37 and 30 points. Grant has also been the Blazers’ best and most versatile defender, often guarding the opponent’s point guard, which has helped the Blazers go from awful to respectable on defense. Along the way, he has hit game-winners, is shooting a sizzling 48.5 percent from 3 and has become an influencer in the locker room. — Jason Quick

Sacramento Kings

Score, score, score: When Mike Brown was hired by the Kings in early May, his focus was squarely on the need for defensive improvement. Not only had the previous 16 years of playoff-less basketball made it clear the Kings’ defense had to be fixed, but Brown came with a defense-first reputation that fit the preferred bill. Yet 20 games in, it’s the offense that is propelling these dynamic Kings to a strong start. They’re fifth in the league in offensive rating, a massive step forward from the 24th ranking they finished with last season. And franchise centerpiece De’Aaron Fox is hardly a solo act, as everyone from Domantas Sabonis to Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk and Terence Davis is proving to be potent scoring options. The Kings are second in the league in points per game (119.9), up from 16th last season (110.3 under Luke Walton and Alvin Gentry). — Amick

San Antonio Spurs

Devin Vassell’s shooting: Vassell made 34 percent of his 2.4 attempted 3s per game as a rookie. Decent. That bumped to 36.1 percent on 5.4 attempts in his second season. Better accuracy on double the volume and trending up. So maybe some sort of a third-season leap should’ve been predicted. But it’s been a vault into elite territory. Vassell is taking 7.2 per game and making 42.3 percent of them. That equals 52 makes in 17 games, ranked 20th in the NBA. This is a huge development for one of the Spurs’ few building blocks. — Slater

Toronto Raptors

Possession battles: Last season, through their excellence in creating turnovers and dominance on the offensive glass, the Raptors took 7.2 more field goals per 100 possessions than their opponents, the biggest disparity in the league. There was some thought that with their strategy on film, they wouldn’t be able to execute the game plan as well. Wrong! The difference is up to 8.9 field goals per 100 possessions, as they both take the most and allow the least in the whole league. Jumping from 23rd to 10th in defensive rebounding percentage has allowed them to improve what was already the team’s most notable strength. — Eric Koreen

Utah Jazz

The victories: To win 13 of their first 24 games against perhaps the most unforgiving schedule in the league is a big accomplishment for a team most thought would be near the bottom of the league by the 25-game mark. The Jazz have played the most road games in the NBA to this point. They have played the most back-to-backs. They have played the most sets of three games in four nights. Most of their opponents have been playoff teams. And they have gone six games without Mike Conley, their most important player. It should be interesting to see what, if any, changes they make to the roster, particularly if they keep playing well, by the trade deadline. Will they be buyers or sellers? — Tony Jones

Washington Wizards

Jordan Goodwin’s contributions: Players on two-way contracts rarely play essential roles for NBA teams, but Goodwin has been an exception. When Delon Wright suffered a significant hamstring strain in Washington’s fourth game, the team lost its most disruptive perimeter defender and its second-string point guard. Coach Wes Unseld Jr. placed Goodwin into the rotation in the team’s 10th game, and Goodwin has been a mainstay ever since. Through Tuesday, he led the team in FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR metric at plus-4.3, and he has galvanized his more experienced teammates on defense with his energy. Goodwin arguably saved the first quarter of Washington’s season. — Josh Robbins


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(Top photo of Jerami Grant: Troy Wayrynen / USA Today)


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