Winners and losers from first month of 2018-19 NBA season

A perennial All-Star was traded, LeBron James debuted in Los Angeles and the Eastern and Western Conferences have begun to reshuffle in what has been a dramatic first month of the 2018-19 NBA season.

Headlined by the blockbuster trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Philadelphia 76ers, the first month of basketball has brought several key story lines to keep an eye on for the rest of the season, including the Toronto Raptors' run at an Eastern Conference title and the Denver Nuggets' emergence in the West.

Let's take a look at some of the biggest winners and losers from the first month of NBA action.

Winners

The rolling Raptors

Sitting atop the Eastern Conference at 12-2, Toronto should be happy with the early returns of the Kawhi Leonard-DeMar DeRozan trade that shook the NBA this offseason. 

Leonard seems to have returned to his form of a perennial MVP candidate. The 27-year-old is averaging 24 points per game on 46.9 percent shooting with a career-high 7.7 rebounds. He's been efficient from distance as well, shooting 38.1 percent on 3-pointers.

Things have opened up in the backcourt for Kyle Lowry, who boasts a league-leading mark of 11 assists per game. Power forward Serge Ibaka has gotten off to a hot start as well, averaging 17.4 points and 8.4 rebounds through his first 14 games. 

With rookie head coach Nick Nurse leading the way, there is a renewed sense of optimism in Toronto.

 

Red-hot Zach LaVine

After playing in just 24 games last season, some were surprised to see LaVine receive a four-year, $80 million contract over the summer.

LaVine has silenced those doubters with a blazing start to the season for Chicago. The 23-year-old is fifth in the league in scoring at 27.1 points per game and is second in shots per game. He has shown he can fill the role of a feature scorer while injured players such Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis work to return.

Denver takes a step forward

The Nuggets came as close as possible to ending their four-year postseason drought last season, seeing their playoff hopes crashon the final day of the regular season.

Nikola Jokic and company have bounced back this season (despite a four-game skid), notching impressive wins over Golden State and Boston en route to a 9-5 record.

Jokic remains the glue, posting averages of 17.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists.

The depth behind Jokic is equally formidable. Jamal Murray (17.8 points per game) and Gary Harris (16.9) combine for an exciting, young backcourt, while Paul Millsap (12.7 points, 6.9 rebounds) brings a solid interior presence. 

Budenholzer and the Bucks

With former Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer running the show, Milwaukee ranks fifth in the league in pace. Last year, the Bucks were 20th under coaches Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty. With a 10-3 record, it is safe to say Budenholzer is on the right track with the Bucks' new-look offense. 

Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has thrust himself into the MVP conversation, averaging 25.4 points, 13 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.4 steals. Khris Middleton has been a marksman from deep, nailing a career-high 46.4 percent of his 3-pointers. 

Big-name rookies

Led by Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic and Trae Young, the 2018 draft class has already made its presence felt.

Doncic leads all rookies with 19.6 points per game, but his talents don't stop there. The 19-year-old is averaging 6.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per contest to go along with efficient shooting numbers as well.

Young faced some heat after an up-and-down second half to his only season at Oklahoma and a disappointing showing in the NBA Summer League, but his first month in the NBA has shown why Atlanta liked him so much. The point guard is second among rookies in scoring at 17.5 points per game and ranks first in assists with 8.2.

Ayton has lived up to expectations so far in Phoenix, averaging 15.9 points and 10.6 rebounds. The 20-year-old big man has a chance to become the first rookie to average a double-double since Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015-16. 

Losers

The post-LeBron Cavs

It comes as no surprise that Cleveland has regressed after losing James to the Lakers this offseason. The Cavs own the NBA's worst record at 2-11 (tied with Phoenix) and are headed toward one of the top picks in the lottery.

The first domino to fall was head coach Ty Lue, who was fired after an 0-6 start. Assistant coach Larry Drew took over, but it remains to be seen if he is the long-term answer for the franchise.

Injuries to Kevin Love, George Hill and Sam Dekker have shifted a heavy burden onto young players Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman, who might not be ready yet for this added workload. 

The Timberwolves' front office

No team has had a more dramatic one-month stretch than the Timberwolves. 

After going 0-5 on a West coast road trip and seeing their record fall to 4-9, Minnesota followed through on what had been rumored since September, trading Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia for Dario Saric and Robert Covington.

It was a little over a year ago that Minnesota traded LaVine, Dunn and a draft pick that turned into Markkanen for Butler, who was supposed to catapult the franchise into contention. Yet, after just one playoff game won, the Timberwovles are moving on. 

Washington's window

This could end up being a make-or-break year for the Wizards, who have put together a stretch of four playoff appearances in five years behind the core of John Wall and Bradley Beal. 

If the first month of play is any indication, the Wizards could wind up as sellers, as they find themselves towards the bottom of the East at 4-9.

Defense

Scoring is at a peak in the NBA, and it does not seem to be slowing down.

NBA teams are averaging an astounding 110.6 points per game this season, which is the highest since the 1984-85 season. The points-per-game mark has increased every year since 2014-15, showing the influence that the Warriors' up-tempo style has had on the rest of the league. 

The uptick in points per game is not necessarily a result of better shooting — field goal and 3-point percentages have held steady to previous years — but more possessions. For the first time since the 1988-89 season, NBA teams are averaging over 100 possessions per 48 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.  

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