4 teams off to unexpectedly strong starts to the season

French star Victor Wembanyama is highly touted as the grand prize in next summer’s Draft.

This is the season where finishing last might mean finishing first, as in getting the No. 1 pick, as in the chance to land a generational talent.

The scenario and the stakes — Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 French phenom, is the prize — are so tempting that NBA commissioner Adam Silver sent a sizzling warning that the penalty for teams who planned to intentionally lose games would be costly. And Silver issued this before the season even began.

So what happens? The so-called “teams built to lose” haven’t collectively followed the blueprint or logic. At various points here in the first month, the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder have enjoyed winning streaks.

It’s early although and situations can change. The best time to take the pulse is not now, but late January, when teams size up the roster and record and either become buyers at the February trade deadline, or sellers. That’s when suspicion will run high.

Anyway, keep in mind that the bottom-three non-playoff teams have an equal chance at landing the first pick. The competition not to be in fourth place is what will draw attention as the season flips into April.

Here’s a look at some teams that were expected to scratch the bottom of the standings but aren’t, and those that are:

Utah Jazz: Has there been another documented case where a playoff team dumped two All-Stars, got none in return, and actually … got better? Time will tell if the surprise team of the league can keep up the pace, but clearly, they’re feeling no ill effects from trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. It’s a different team now, with hungry players getting more touches and minutes and making the most of it, along with a new coach who obviously wants to make some traction and win games.

If nothing else, the Jazz suspect they have a keeper in Lauri Markkanen, who previously slumped in Chicago and got lost in the big-man shuffle in Cleveland but is averaging over 20 points and seems comfortable being the No. 1 option in Utah. If the Jazz continue winning as the trade deadline approaches, they can be buyers and then hope the Timberwolves fall into the lottery; they own Minnesota’s No. 1 pick.

If Utah stumbles over the next few months, then team president Danny Ainge will have a good excuse to unload veterans. Jordan Clarkson would be in demand, but Mike Conley, another obvious trade chip, has a steep contract next season that might require Utah to include a sweetener in any deal, or receive almost nothing in return. Anyway: Can you imagine the Jazz holding two lottery picks (their own and Minnesota’s) next summer?

A diversified roster and a commitment to defense have made Utah one of the surprise stories to open 2022-23.

San Antonio Spurs: It’s a respectable start by the Spurs, one that caught even Gregg Popovich by surprise; remember, in the preseason, Pop wasn’t too high on the Spurs’ outlook (we’re not sure if he was joking or not). You can see why: They’re the fourth-youngest team in the league and lack a go-to, A-list talent after trading Dejounte Murray in the offseason. That was clearly the signal that San Antonio is rebuilding, as the Spurs should.

The Spurs have oodles of cap space, which will give them even more flexibility on the trade market, and there are teams that would take Doug McDermott and Jakob Poeltl off their hands. Both players bring reasonable contracts, and Poeltl hits free agency next summer. Nobody in San Antonio would protest if the Spurs, who once won David Robinson and Tim Duncan in the lottery, trade assets and give Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson a chance to have breakout seasons.

Indiana Pacers: Indiana is in a really good spot. The Pacers have started reasonably strong and therefore have thrown off the dogs looking for tanking scent. But a team that dumped Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon over the last eight months can’t be counted out from throwing more assets overboard, all in the name of “rebuilding,” if it makes sense. There’s a reason Myles Turner and Buddy Hield have long been mentioned in trade talks.

If the Pacers rid themselves of one or both at the trade deadline — which is certainly possible — they can shrug and insist that was the plan all along. Turner is on an expiring contract which the Pacers apparently do not intend to extend and would be a solid addition for a contender, while Hield has two years remaining at reasonable money ($20 million per) and his 3-point shooting ability is attractive. They’re just waiting for the Lakers to call.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Not only did Oklahoma City take a pass on adding veteran help last offseason, OKC saw No. 1 pick Chet Holmgren suffers a season-ending foot injury. Therefore, the Thunder, even more than the Jazz, brought the best credentials for a last-place finish. Well: An argument can be made that OKC’s early start is just as much, if not more, of a surprise as Utah’s. At least the Jazz brought in Markkanen and Kelly Olynyk, a pair of useful rotational players.

In OKC’s current state, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can take a meaningful step toward All-Stardom, which he’s doing quite well by averaging over 30 points and commanding double-teams. Meanwhile, Josh Giddey and Lu Dort are developing into solid rotational players. The “problem” for OKC is that the Thunder lack tradable assets at the deadline, so even if they wanted to take a step backward, it’s unlikely to happen, barring a key injury (which of course, no one wants).

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s season-long surge continues with a 42-point effort as his old-school game is proving timeless.

And then there are teams that expected better results, but aren’t getting them (so far):

Houston Rockets: They’ve lost 53 of 61 games dating back to February 6. That’s a chilly skid for the Rockets, who once again are flirting with worst-team honors for another season. Too many core players are still learning the ropes, and making matters more complicated, their first-round pick, Jabari Smith Jr., is shooting poorly (31%) and not making much of an impression at all.

It’ll be a big surprise if Eric Gordon, the only worthwhile veteran in the rotation, is still on the roster beyond the trade deadline. He’s of no use to the Rockets and a change of scenery would be better for him and the team that gets him; Gordon is still a decent threat from deep (36%). Houston didn’t get the No. 1 overall pick last June and might be the team most desperate to get No. 1 next June.

Orlando Magic: A decent collection of young players (Franz Wagner, Jalen Suggs, Wendell Carter, Cole Anthony, etc.) was fortified by the No. 1 pick — and strong favorite to win top rookie honors — yet the Magic still find themselves on the developmental treadmill. It’s not a massive surprise, although Paolo Banchero has played so well, collecting double-doubles almost nightly, that you figured maybe the Magic finally turned the corner in the standings. Nope.

Even though they’ve beaten the Warriors, Mavericks and Suns they’ve also lost to the Pistons, Thunder and Rockets. And now injuries are creeping up; Banchero is out (not for long, but still) and Orlando is tapping into the reserves.

Paolo Banchero is having a stellar start to his rookie season, and could be making a case for a rare first-season All-Star showing.

Charlotte Hornets: With Miles Bridges still in limbo following his domestic and legal issues, the Hornets are missing a key piece, and there is no guarantee Bridges will return to the team at all this season. LaMelo Ball finally made his debut last week after an injury delay, so he’ll help.

But the Hornets didn’t add any significant pieces last summer to a team that lost in the Play-In Tournament. Also, they have a few tradable assets if they decide to go that route in Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier; Dennis Smith Jr., who has been a pleasant surprise, can fill Rozier’s minutes. Michael Jordan isn’t playing to lose, but with a roster thin on star power, the Hornets might not give him much choice.

Detroit Pistons: Of all the teams that find themselves in somewhat dire straits, the Pistons are the biggest surprise. Cade Cunningham flourished last season and especially finished strong, and Saddiq Bey was a revelation as well. Then Detroit added Jaden Ivey and Bojan Bogdanovic and looked to make a reasonable move up in the standings.

But this team is poor defensively (118 points per game) and is dealing with a rather tough schedule over the last dozen games. And now they’re embarking on a six-game trip out West, with a pair of back-to-backs. Things can change once the schedule softens and the Pistons return home, but right now, this team, rather reluctantly, finds itself flirting with a long residency in the basement.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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