Why Clippers, Warriors cold starts are unlikely to last: Examining 5 NBA surprising starts

Roughly three weeks of the NBA season are in the rearview mirror, so now there’s enough video for some thoughts.

This week’s column revolves around teams that are off to surprisingly good and bad starts, and I discuss whether or not their current play will continue.

I believe that most people who closely follow the NBA were under the impression that the Cavs would undoubtedly be a good basketball team this season. We all witnessed Cleveland’s promising 2021-22 campaign get robbed by an unfortunate amount of injuries just as the team had appeared to become a legitimate playoff team. But with a potentially healthier 2022-23 season, the steps forward that the young nucleus of Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley would presumably take are what helped get everyone aboard the Cavs’ hype train. And that’s all before factoring in Donovan Mitchell’s arrival over the summer, which further raised Cleveland’s ceiling.

Yet, what we’re currently getting from the Cavs is something I didn’t predict to happen this quickly or to this degree. From my lens, Mitchell is operating like an All-NBA performer and Cleveland suddenly has an argument to be a top-2 team in the East through 10 games. There’s plenty of season remaining and, as the Cavs saw last year, things can go south seemingly in the blink of an eye. But injuries notwithstanding, I’m a believer in JB Bickerstaff’s squad maintaining this level of play throughout the 82-game schedule — Mitchell and Garland have proven to be able to carry offenses, while a top-5 defense anchored by Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley has staying power.

Verdict: Sustainable

NBA title odds: +2200 (Opened at +10000)

Eastern Conference title odds: +1000 (Opened at +3500)

As of publication, the Utah Jazz are sitting atop the Western Conference with a 9-3 record, just as we all expected (obvious sarcasm). Jokes aside, Utah’s play has been one of the NBA’s more unforeseen on-the-court storylines through the season’s first few weeks. For an organization that blew up its roster and appeared to be bottoming out, absolutely no one on the current roster is playing as if tanking is an option.

Look, there are a ton of good vibes, a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality and a true expectation-free feel over in the Jazz locker room that seems to be doing them some extra good at the moment, and there’s no reason to believe any of that isn’t sustainable. But what shouldn’t be sustainable is Utah’s current offensive numbers (led by Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson) being able to rival the Jazz’s 2020-21 NBA-best offense that went on to become the best 3-point shooting team in the league’s history .

Sorry to be the Debbie Downer here, but this Jazz run feels temporary. The regression will likely hit at some point and when it does, I’m not sure how much the vibes and team success will continue to coincide.

Verdict: Unsustainable

NBA title odds: +2200 (Opened at +10000)

Western Conference title odds: +10,000 (+25,000 last week)

For years, we’ve watched Erik Spoelstra squeeze every last drop of production out of his teams to get them to overachieve and outperform expectations. We saw it happen with the immediate post-Heatles teams, it certainly happened in the NBA bubble and even last season’s first-place regular-season finish felt a bit out of nowhere. Yet, for every one of those feel-good Miami Heat teams, there is a forgettable, stuck-in-the-middle team that doesn’t have the talent to reach those heights. The 2022-23 Heat have the making of one of those less-spectacular teams, and for that reason, I’m worried about them.

Miami is 4-7 on the season and when you compare its roster to the numerous other Eastern Conference contenders, you realize how many teams out-talent the Heat on paper and, through three weeks, on the hardwood. But the primary issue thus far is that Miami’s most-important players are either playing worse than a season ago or just haven’t made a leap — specifically, guys like Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro. And although Butler’s self-belief and competitive spirit are appreciated, I can’t help but disagree with his proclamation that the Heat will win an NBA title this season.

Don’t expect the Heat to continue being this bad, but brace yourself for them potentially not turning their season around substantially.

Verdict: Miami’s surprisingly bad start will subside, but the progression won’t be substantial

NBA title odds: +2200 (Opened at +1400)

Eastern Conference title odds: +1000 (Opened at +600)

Whether the Clippers’ slow start to the year had to do with Kawhi Leonard’s injury management, Ty Lue working through different lineups, or just a relatively old team easing its way into the season, I got the sense that these Clippers figured they had talent advantage big enough to allow them to flip the proverbial switch. However, at one point owning a 2-4 record on the heels of four-straight defeats and back-to-back losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was clear that the switch mentioned above wasn’t quite as powerful as it figured to well.

The little reality check has served the Clippers well, though. In the immediate aftermath of the four-game skid, Paul George has turned it up a notch and led LA to four wins in its last five games, including a big one against Cleveland to begin the week. The uncertainty of Kawhi’s knee recovery and the somewhat repetitive roster construction of the team won’t allow me to exude the same energy I had in the preseason about the Clips being a team capable of putting up a win total in the mid-50s. However, I think hovering around .500 is something they’ll ditch in the coming weeks.

Verdict: Expect the Clippers to rebound in a big way

NBA title odds: +800 (Opened at +700)

Western Conference title odds: +350 (Opened at +375)

Figuring out the Warriors is something I’ve struggled to do over the past couple of seasons. Aside from Otto Porter Jr., an aging Andre Iguodala and some infrequently used rookies (of the main rotation players), the Warriors began last season with a mostly identical roster to the one that got sent home in the 2021 Play-In Tournament. Yet, they steamrolled everyone to start the 2021-22 campaign, ultimately setting the tone for a championship-winning team.

And this season, with the same core from their 2022 title team and a few new rotation players (Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green), the Warriors are 4-7 through 11 games.

I can’t say I know why Golden State’s defense has dipped so drastically to begin the year or why Jordan Poole’s efficiency is way down after such a fantastic Year 3. But I can say that I’m aware of exactly who the Warriors have come from to be time and time again under Steve Kerr and with a core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. They’re usually a functioning team on both ends of the court that plays itself into championship consideration throughout the season. There’s no telling how long it’ll take for the Warriors to resemble that former version of themselves, but it’s safe to imagine that the positive turnaround will happen at some point this season.

Verdict: The Warriors will look like a title contender before long

NBA title odds: +700 (Opened at +550)

Western Conference title odds: +325 (Opened at +275)

(Photo of Evan Mobley: David Richard / USA Today)


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