11 Nov Five NBA Team Surprises: The Too Early Edition
The dawn of a new NBA season brings with it hope and optimism that our favorite teams and players will either meet or outperform the expectations we have for them. Each and every year the League reminds us that for as much joy that seeing basketball being played on its highest level brings, you can always expect one thing: the unexpected.
The unpredictability of the NBA enchains it’s followers, while creating captivating moments filled with ambiguity. A guy or a team can have a great season one year, and the next, we’re trying to figure out what happened to them. But that’s why the game is so infatuating and one of the reason why as fans, we love it so much. Every NBA season there are a litany of surprises, whether it pertains to a team as a whole or just an individual player himself.
These unforeseen happenings can be positive or negative dependent on how one looks at it. Take a gander at last season for example, big surprises such as: (Rookie of the Year) Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Kristaps Porzingas, C.J McCollum, the Warriors of course, the Celtics reemergence to relevancy, and the Utah Jazz having a strong season. You also saw teams who were thought to have a shot at making a deep postseason run disappoint their fans such as: the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, and Chicago Bulls. Although we are in the infancy stages of the 2016-17 NBA season, through two weeks we already have a multitude of surprising story-lines.
You may be wondering, how they made such a drastic turn-around already? After largely thought of as a major disappointment of a season as they had missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Chicago made some significant roster moves. Often injured, yet one time NBA MVP Derrick Rose, seemingly wore his way out and landed with the New York Knicks in the offseason (also signing Joakim Noah). It had been rumored that Rose and Butler were not seeing eye-to-eye as they are both ball dominating guards. Even more surprising was the addition of two more guards who dominant with the ball in their hands a majority of the time in Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade.
Furthermore, if it were predicated on conventional wisdom regarding the Modern NBA, the Chicago Bulls should be an abject disaster. Their starters at positions 1-3 are all ball dominant guards with well below league average three point percentages, and neither of their starting bigs (Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez) have ever remotely functioned as floor spacing bigs. The bench is loaded with a ton of offensively capable players such as Nikola Mitotic. Doug McDermott, Michael Carter-Williams, Isaiah Canaan, and Cristiano Felicio (only one of the group that is more defensive minded). Somehow, this unbalanced, seeming floor spacing-less mess is 9th in the league in Offensive Rating, and 11th in Defensive Rating; despite them starting two defensive minuses in old Wade and Rondo and a bench almost entirely filled with problematic defenders.
Forthrightly, the statistical trends making up Chicago’s overall ratings do not seem sustainable. With career averages from beyond the arc well below league average, Jimmy Butler and Dwayne Wade are both somehow shooting 43.5 percent from three-point land. That kind of production and resultant floor spacing if sustained would drastically improve Chicago’s offense. Moreover, 4-3 is by no means taking the league by storm, but so far the returns for Chicago have been better than most have reasonably expected.
Annually, when the New Year arrives I often write in the date wherever its necessitated; nonetheless, it is often with the markings of the year before, where not until about March do I automatically start writing the correct year each and every time. The same logic applies whenever football is the discussion and the “St. Louis Rams” phrase is spoken, as it takes some time getting used the new “Los Angeles Rams.” Now the Charlotte basketball team is easy not to stumble over and call the “Bobcats,” as Michael Jordan wanted to revert back to being the Hornets after only a decade. Regardless of the team-name Charlotte had for their basketball team, there was always one simple facet to remember about their teams: they were terrible.
The Charlotte Hornets finished No. 9 on the offensive rating leaderboard during 2015-16, bolstered by the All-Star-caliber seasons of Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum. It seemed as if nearly everyone on the roster experienced a career year. So this offseason the team seemed primed for some regressions. The numbers of Walker and Batum were likely to decline. It was almost certain Marvin Williams would trend in the wrong direction. The losses of Jeremy Lin, Courtney Lee, Al Jefferson and Troy Daniels had to be detrimental to the offensive end, if for no other reason than diminished continuity. Working Michael Kidd-Gilchrist back into the lineup was sure to be a painful process for the offense.
Except, none of that has happened.
While Charlotte does rank just outside the top half of the league in offensive rating, it’s making things up with defensive excellence. Only the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder have posted stronger defensive ratings, and that’s the biggest reason behind the team’s 5-1 start. For the Hornets the news only gets better, as this is neither a fluke created by a rout of lesser opponents, nor just eking out victories on final possessions. According to simple rating system, which looks solely at margin of victory and strength of schedule, Charlotte has been the NBA’s No. 3 outfit, trailing only the Clippers and San Antonio Spurs. Given the diminished expectations that took hold over the offseason, this team and its fans should be elated about the fast start; moreover, not expecting it to halt to a complete stop anytime soon.
Los Angeles Lakers
When one of these unheralded upper-echelon prestigious type franchises like the Yankees, Red Sox, Cowboys, Packers, Celtics, or in this case the Lakers experience any postseason drought, it becomes a massive deal amongst its fans all the way up to upper management. In the Lakers case, not tasting playoff basketball since the likes of Kobe, Gasol, Nash, and Howard took them there in 2013. Out of those big four Kobe was the only one that remained on the Lakers last season, shooting himself (not literally) out of the Staples Center to the tune of 60 points on 50 shot attempts.
If the playoffs were to start today(which is not the case), the Lakers would slide into the eighth seed just above the Kings and aging Grizzlies. Sure, the Lakers will struggle to maintain a .500 record throughout the season, even though they have survived a tough early schedule and toppled competitive teams such as the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, and Atlanta Hawks. But it’s already easy to see perspicuous progress, particularly when it comes to the roster’s plethora of intriguing young talent.
Brandon Ingram has struggled to find his shot as a rookie, but the same can’t be said of the second- and third-year talents. Jordan Clarkson is scoring 15.1 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the field, and he’s not even the team’s most impressive presence.
That honor would belong to Julius Randle, who’s averaged 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 58.8 percent from the field. Close behind are D’Angelo Russell (struggling with his two-point shot but thriving as a marksman and playmaker) and Larry Nance Jr. (quickly asserting himself as an all-around player).
There has not been excitement surrounding Nets basketball since playing out of New Jersey, and Jason Kidd and Co. lost in six games during the 2003 NBA Finals versus a Spurs team featuring Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and David Robertson. A bunch of middling years followed their back-to-back Finals runs in 2002-2003, never making it past the second round again. Fast forward to 2012, when the team officially moved to Brooklyn under owner Mikhail Prokhorov. Management then tried to reinvigorate their fan-base by making heinous trades giving up three first-round picks (2014, 2016, 2018), the right to swap first-round picks in 2017, and a bunch of mediocre players to acquire the aging Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, and D.J White. Paul Pierce was playing in a Wizards jersey about a year later, and about a little less than two years after the Nets traded Garnett to Minnesota for Thaddeus Young (now with the Pacers).
This team has been pretty well handcuffed from these transactions, as they witness a young, talented, and thriving team in Boston become an Eastern Conference mainstay in part due to the bevy of first-round picks they have accumulated from Brooklyn. Nevertheless, the team does have about $40 million dollars open in their cap space to try and sign some solid free-agents. They may have some tough sledding as Brooklyn is not considered an attractive free-agent destination like Los Angeles, Miami, or San Antonio.
Given all of the rigors this franchise has endured over the last decade or so (self-inflicted or not), the team projects to be a bottom-feeder in the Eastern Conference headed for a lottery pick (oh, also owned by the Celtics from the horrendous Pierce/Garnett deal). Surprisingly, the Nets have been competitive early on this season garnering wins over the young-talented Timberwolves, a re-tooled playoff contending Pacer team, as well as an experienced Pistons squad. While the underlying metrics do not deem long-term success (16th offensive rating, 19th defensive rating), as the arduous manor of winning games with below average ratings on both ends of the floor is troublesome. The team has certainly exceeded even optimistic fans expectations thus far.
Brook Lopez has been playing fantastic offensive basketball while expanding his shooting range. Jeremy Lin has thrived while running pick-and-rolls, looking very much like a legitimate starting point guard. But it’s been the bench that has made this team so entertaining, as plenty of young contributors light up the scoreboard. Sean Kilkpatrick can flat-out score averaging 16.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, while shooting 45.7% from the field, 38.7% from three, and 88.2% from the charity line. Joe Harris who was brought over from Cleveland is averaging 8.6 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.3 assists while shooting 42.4 percent. Justin Hamilton who has spot-started at center when Brook was absent has quietly averaged 8.1 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 48.9% from the field and 38.5% on triples. Everyone is always so enamored by offensive stats, but we can not discount the defensive intensity Rondae Hollis-Jefferson brings to the team while contributing to many different categories. Unfortunately, Lin will be sidelined a week or two with injury, but this has opened up a spot for rookie Isaiah Whitehead to receive more minutes. The rookie out of Seton Hall is raw offensively, but he has filled in admirably exuding his defensive prowess while showing improvement on the offensive end.
The Nets surely will not continue their winning ways illustrated over the first seven games of the season (3-4), but they should not be completely ignored. This is a team full of guys who have played in the D-League or overseas, and have often been told they were not good enough to play in the NBA. Whatever road these Nets players have taken to get this level, they had to work extremely hard and have continued that immeasurable work-ethic. Nobody wants to be sent back down to the D-League and scrap their way back via 10-day contracts. If an opposing team walks into the beautiful Barclay’s center and decides to not play 100% because of how they feel, or reckoning their match-up with these Nets is going to be a walk-in-the-park, they could be woefully surprised and beaten by a hard-working Brooklyn team.
The Atlanta Hawks have found success over the last few seasons through continuity, discipline and strong coaching. That continuity was tinkered with this offseason when the Hawks decided to trade starting point guard Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers and lost Al Horford in free agency to the Boston Celtics. Now, Dennis Schroder is the starting point guard for the Hawks and Dwight Howard replaces Horford at center.
While there were questions as to whether Schroder was ready to be a full-time starter and whether Howard could effectively replace Horford, so far it seems that the Hawks haven’t lost a step. The Hawks are currently ranked second in defensive efficiency, holding their opponents to 94.1 points per 100 possessions. Furthermore, the Hawks are ranked fourth in overall net rating at +9.7.
One of the big reasons why the Hawks have been so effective is the play of Howard. Horford and Paul Millsap had formed one of best defensive frontcourt tandems in the league over the last few seasons, but Howard has stepped in and has made a strong impact so far. The biggest glaring difference is what Dwight has been doing on the boards (12.6 per game), which is an area where the Hawks have struggled over the last few seasons. Additionally, he is adding nice rim protection and is intimidating opponents that try to get into the lane. Howard can’t bring the same sort of offensive skill set to the Hawks that Horford could, but he is bringing a good attitude and focused style of play that is helping the Hawks significantly in the early going this season.
So as we watch to see if Schroder can blossom into a star, coinciding with Millsap who is one of the most versatile power forwards in the league filling up multiple categories on a nightly basis; add in the rim protection and rebounding Howard brings Atlanta who has lacked in those areas over the past few seasons, and you find yourself with a recipe for success. What the casual fan may not take into consideration is how impactful the role players on these teams can make a difference, and the Hawks roster is no different. Even though Korver is coming off of a down season, guys like Kent Bazemore, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Mike Muscala have filled in well for the team’s secondary scoring needs. Thabo Sefolasha also can come in off the bench and be a defensive stopper on the league’s best players, which can be an extremely sought after asset come playoff time.
Not insinuating a surprise that Atlanta would remain a playoff team with the losses of Teague and Horford; nevertheless, it is just surprising how well the new pieces have jelled together seamlessly. I could definitely envision a scenario that has this Hawks team in the top four in the Eastern Conference accrediting them home-court in the first round.