NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Milwaukee Bucks

We've officially crossed the two-week mark of the 2022-23 NBA season, and now is as good a time as any to take stock of what we've seen so far. To say the start to this season has been a whirlwind would be an understatement, with title-contending teams stumbling out of the gates, and lottery-bound squads sitting near the top of conference rankings. 

It's a very confusing time right now across the league, and while a two-week timespan is certainly too small to make any sweeping declarations, that doesn't mean we can't discuss some early season trends. So here are 10 observations from the first two weeks of the season, from the disaster that continues to stew in Brooklyn to the Lauri Markkanen renaissance in Utah.

1. Brooklyn's disastrous start

A new chapter has been added to the chaotic book that is the Brooklyn Nets over the last five months, when the team announced it was parting ways with head coach Steve Nash Tuesday afternoon. It wasn't an entirely surprising revelation, especially after it was reported in the offseason that Kevin Durant basically issued an ultimatum to team owner Joe Tsai saying he either wanted to be traded or Nash needed to be fired along with general manager Sean Marks. It's been reported that the Nets are looking at suspended Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka to be their next head coach, though Marks denied those reports Tuesday evening.

Whoever the next head coach is, whether Brooklyn sticks with interim Jacque Vaughn or brings in someone new, they'll have quite a bit of work to do with a team that is now 2-6 to start the season. The defense has been the main culprit for Brooklyn's atrocious start, ranking 28th in the league, and allowing opponents to shoot 41.2 percent from 3-point territory, the fourth-highest in the league. The Nets have also allowed seven players to score 30+ points through the first eight games, including two players who eclipsed the 40-point mark: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic. They even allowed Indiana Pacers rookie Bennedict Mathurin to rack up a staggering 32 points off the bench, adding more salt to the wound that is a grossly underperforming defense. 

It's been open season against the Nets' defense, and if this team wants to have a serious shot at contending for a championship, they're going to need to figure out how to at least be a league average team on that end of the floor. That's just one of the problems facing the Nets to start the season, which also includes Ben Simmons still looking uncomfortable on the floor, and Kyrie Irving making headlines for what he shares on Twitter rather than his actual play on the floor. 

2. Lakers desperately need shooting

The Lakers got their first win of the season Sunday night against the Denver Nuggets, against whom LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined for 49 points, and Russell Westbrook added an efficient 18 points off the bench. But it doesn't wash away the glaring issues with this roster. Heading into the season it was obvious that this team wasn't built to contend for a championship, and it lacked quality shooters to keep defenders honest on the perimeter. However, no one could've predicted it would be this bad.

The Lakers are making just 26.6 percent of their 3s, which ranks dead last in the league. They generate 18.3 wide open 3-pointers a game and make them at just a 28.2 percent clip. That shows that teams aren't afraid to leave guys open behind the arc, and the Lakers aren't giving them a reason to guard them out there, either. 

There have been reports suggesting that the Lakers are "unlikely" to make moves before Thanksgiving in hopes of finding an ideal trade that can address their shooting needs and take Westbrook off their hands. However, as my colleague Sam Quinn wrote a week ago regarding this reported plan by the Lakers, waiting too long could do more harm than good for L.A.'s leverage. If the Lakers continue to skid, the likelihood of finding that perfect trade could evaporate, and they could be stuck with Westbrook for far longer than they want, or get a lesser return than they were expecting. If the Lakers are unable to upgrade this roster in a significant way, then they'll surely miss out on the playoffs entirely for the second consecutive season. 

3. Business as usual for Giannis and the Bucks

The sky is blue, water is wet and the Milwaukee Bucks are once again playing smothering defense. That defense has powered Milwaukee to a 6-0 start, which includes limiting opponents to a league-best 42.3 percent from the field. Overall, Milwaukee has the top-ranked defense in the league, which isn't entirely surprising given their roster construction. But that stingy defense has been somewhat of a necessity given that the Bucks offense has been slow out of the gate. Milwaukee ranks just 17th in the league on offense, which is uncharacteristic for a team that has consistently ranked in the top 10 on that end in each of the past four seasons. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo even admitted to not being in rhythm right now, which is a terrifying statement given he's already dropped 40-plus points in back-to-back games and is averaging a career-high 33.8 points on a career-best 58.9 percent from the field. If that isn't in rhythm for the two-time MVP, then he's going to have a monster season. The Bucks are also still awaiting the return of Khris Middleton who is recovering from offseason wrist surgery, so if a 6-0 start is what the Bucks can accomplish when the offense is still trying to get in rhythm, then imagine how much better this team could be in a few months.

4. Donovan Mitchell has the Cavaliers rolling

Mitchell's fit with the Cavaliers has been seamless, and with Darius Garland still out after getting poked in the eye in the season opener, he's proving exactly why the Cavaliers traded for him in the first place. Cleveland has the fourth-best offense in the league right now, something that didn't seem possible a year ago when Garland wasn't playing. Last season, when Garland was on the floor, the Cavs scored 9.1 points per 100 possessions more than when he was on the bench, which ranked in the 96th percentile in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. Even more drastic, the Cavs played like a 58-win team when Garland was running last season, compared to a 24-win team when he was resting.

But with Garland playing just 13 minutes thus far, Mitchell has taken on the tall task of leading this team's offense, and he's led the Cavs to a 5-1 record to start, good for second in the East. There may be an adjustment period when Garland returns, but having two dynamic ballhandlers can only lift The Land.

5. Too soon to worry about Kawhi Leonard?

It was a no-brainer that the Clippers would ease Leonard back into the rotation after missing all of last year with a torn ACL. However, the Clippers are sitting at 3-4, and Leonard has only played in two of those games, missing the last four contests due to injury management for his surgically repaired knee. The Clippers are hoping that with some extra treatment and time to rest he'll be back on schedule, but this early setback is certainly worrisome for a team that has championship aspirations.

When Leonard's healthy, he's one of the best two-way players in the league, but he's been hampered with various injuries throughout his Clippers career, and has missed at least 20 percent of the regular season in each of the last five full seasons. Perhaps this setback won't hinder Leonard too much moving forward, and he'll return to his dominant two-way self. But for right now he's watching from the sidelines as the Clippers are playing some truly awful basketball on offense, ranking 29th in the league ahead of only the Lakers.

6. Trail Blazers are exceeding expectation

I don't think anyone thought that the Blazers would get out to a 5-1 start, but here we are. The return of Damian Lillard has certainly made a major impact on this team's early season success, but what's been most impressive about Portland is it has a top-10 defense right now. Given that Portland has consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in that department for so many years now, that's a huge accomplishment even if it is a small sample size. 

Jerami Grant's played a huge role in elevating Portland's defense, and Anfernee Simons has been engaged and committed on that end of the floor as well. The ruling is still out on if the Trail Blazers can sustain it, but if there's reason to believe that their defense could finish the season in the top half of the league it'll be because of Gary Payton II, who hasn't yet played a minute of this campaign. Payton is a defensive pest and can be disruptive on the perimeter when needed. It's unclear when he'll return as he's dealing with a core injury, but getting him healthy will help ensure that the Blazers will have another staunch defender in the rotation.  

Another intriguing aspect of Portland's start has been Simons play offensively. He's averaging a career-high 20.5 points per game, building upon the success he had last year after Lillard got hurt. He looks like the real deal, and as a versatile guard who can play with or without the ball it gives Portland another capable shot creator next to Lillard. Oh, and then there's rookie Shaedon Sharpe who has been electrifying off the bench. 

7. Pelicans flying high in the West

The Pelicans' health is going to be the storyline to monitor all season long, and already Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Herbert Jones have missed time due to various ailments. But when this team is healthy, oh, are they a delight to watch. They're third-ranked offense has an array of versatile weapons. From Williamson being an unstoppable force heading toward the rim to Ingram's ability to score efficiently at all three levels to CJ McCollum being a threat at all times. The Pels already have wins over the Nets, Mavericks and Clippers, and some of that is due to their deep bench. 

Jose Alvarado is a pesky defenser, and he can knock down 3s and catch defenders off guard with his speed. Trey Murphy III has started the season hot, averaging 15 points on 53 percent from the field and 54 percent from deep while mostly coming off the bench. Then there are guys like Larry Nance Jr., Naji Marshall and Devonte' Graham who can all make an impact on the game. That type of depth is rare in the league, and it will be huge during the playoff run. Having all those assets can also help in pulling off trades to improve New Orleans even more, something that's definitely a possibility if at the trade deadline the Pelicans decide they want to go all in on a playoff run this season. They have the offensive firepower right now to be a competitive team in the West, and if they try to cash in some of that depth for another key piece, it'll only make them a more formidable squad.

8. Jalen Brunson is just what the Knicks ordered

The pressure and expectations were going to be sky high for Brunson as soon as he signed that four-year, $104 million offer sheet with the Knicks this summer. Not only was it quite a bit of money for a second-round pick who's never been a full-season starter in the NBA, but joining the New York franchise that has been waiting for literal decades to crown their next star point guard is almost an insurmountable  task. Yet through the first two weeks of the season, Brunson has not only lived up to those expectations, he's surpassed them, averaging a career-high 18.2 points, 7.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds. 

He's been the ideal lead guard the Knicks have been looking for -- one who can create for himself, but also make things a great deal easier for his teammates. Brunson's presence is why we've seen a more engaged, efficient Julius Randle on offense, and he's creating great looks for RJ Barrett and Evan Fournier as well. None of the stats of the 3-3 Knicks are jumping off the page, but the stability Brunson provides on offense is exactly what New York has been missing all these years.

9. The Utah Jazz aren't tanking?

Aren't the Jazz supposed to be, uh, taking every opportunity to land top international prospect Victor Wembanyama? The offseason moves of trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert certainly suggested that was the plan, and yet here we are two weeks into the season and the Jazz are 6-2. Lauri Markkanen is averaging a career-high 22.6 points, and Utah has wins over the Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Pelicans. They've even beaten the Memphis Grizzlies -- twice!

All of this can unravel at any point for the Jazz, and a few weeks from now they could be outside of the playoff picture, which were the preseason expectations of many analysts. Perhaps this is all an effort to send a player -- most likely Markkanen -- to the All-Star Game, which Utah is hosting this season. Or maybe Adam Silver's comments regarding tanking, where he said the league has "put teams on notice" and will pay "particular attention" to tanking, have scared teams like Utah away from "unintentionally" losing games. Whatever the plan is for the Jazz this season, this team is playing some inspired basketball led by a top-10 defense and Markkanen, who seems to be rejuvenating his career in Utah. 

10. We've still got a Rookie of the Year race

When Oklahoma City Thunder's Chet Holmgren went down with a foot injury during summer ball it looks as though this season's Rookie of the Year race was going to be over as well. But the draft's No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero has feeling the heat from Bennedict Mathurin, the sixth selection. Banchero has gotten more opportunity out of the gate, and he's looked incredibly comfortable thus far. He's already set several franchise rookie records with the Orlando Magic, and he scored 27 points in his NBA debut, the most by a No. 1 on Night 1 since Allen Iverson's 30 in 1996. 

Mathurin, meanwhile, is doing all his damage off the bench for the Pacers. He dropped 32 points on the Nets while shooting 50 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from 3-point territory. He's the first Pacers rookie in franchise history to score 100+ points over the first five games of his career, and it's only a matter of time before the Pacers have no other choice but to put him in the starting lineup. When that happens, Mathurin is going to do even more damage sharing the floor with Tyrese Haliburton in the backcourt, which will make this Rookie of the Year race even tighter.