By: Vincent Tran
Before a new NBA season begins, there are many things that can be easily anticipated or predicted, such as title-contending teams or lottery-bound teams. But every so often, there are teams or players that surprise many and do better than most expected, or sometimes, worse than expected.
The NBA is a great supplier of many of these surprises and this season is no different. Although it is very early in the 2020-21 season, and things can change pretty quickly, there has been no shortage of pleasant surprises and unexpected outcomes. Here is a look at some of the biggest surprises so far this season.
The Indiana Pacers
(Photo via Forbes)
When thinking of the Eastern Conference’s top teams, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that the Indiana Pacers are among them. But they have emerged as one of the best teams in the East and are currently fourth with a 9-7 record.
The Pacers have been led by the stellar play of the trio of Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner. Brogdon is having an outstanding season, averaging career highs in points, assists, and steals, all while shooting 42.3 percent from the three-point territory on nearly seven attempts per game. Sabonis has also chipped in greatly as well, averaging 20.9 PPG, 12.9 REB, and 5.8 APG. The 6’11” forward can do just about anything on the court offensively and joins Nikola Jokic as the only players this season to have averages of at least 20 PPG, 12 REB, and 5 APG. The duo of Brogdon and Sabonis should carry the majority of the offensive weight for the Pacers, while Myles Turner will anchor their defence. Turner is averaging a league-leading 4.2 blocks per game, 1.5 more than the next closest player, two-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert. If Myles Turner is able to continue this pace, he will become the latest player to average more than 4 BPG since Dikembe Mutombo in the 1995-96 season and only the ninth player in NBA history to average more than 4 blocks for a season.
The team has also been missing bubble standout T.J. Warren for all but four games, but they have not skipped a beat. They also recently acquired Caris LeVert for Victor Oladipo in the four-team deal that sent James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets, who is another great offensive player that makes this team even better and should add some versatility and complexity to their offence. If everyone could stay healthy, the Pacers could be a serious threat in the Eastern Conference and could challenge the East’s best teams in the playoffs.
The Toronto Raptors
(Photo via TSN.com)
The Raptors make it to this list and it’s not for a good reason. Before the season began, many people had the Raptors finishing the season in the playoffs, but so far that has not been the case. The Raptors are currently 9th in the East with a 7-9 record and have started to play better of late, but they struggled to start the season.
They failed to close games out early in the season, with seven of their nine losses being within single digits in point differential and in six of those losses they held a double-digit lead at some point in the game. The offseason losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have definitely shown this season, especially on the defensive side. Last season, the Raptors finished second in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing an average of 105.85 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. This season, they ranked as low as 16th in the league in defensive rating, although that has improved to 6th in the league following wins against the Heat and the Pacers. The Raptors have also rebounded at a poor rate this season, ranking 23rd in the league with 43.4 total rebounds, a big drop off from last season when they ranked 10th in the league with an average of 45.4 total rebounds.
The offseason additions of Aron Baynes and Alex Len to replace the departures of Gasol and Ibaka to Los Angeles have also been disappointing, to say the least. Baynes didn’t contribute much to the team until recently, averaging 3.8 PPG on a poor 35.1 field goal percentage and even worse 20 percent from three to go along with 4.8 rebounds per game and he recorded exactly one steal for the Raptors and no blocks, prior to the game against the Heat on January 22. Baynes is coming off a career-best year last season in which he averaged 11.5 PPG on 48 percent shooting from the field and 35.1 percent from three. Alex Len has surprisingly been even worse than Baynes as he is not even on the team anymore, recently being waived on January 19, two months on from when he signed with the Raptors in November.
However, a bright spot for the Raptors is that they’re averaging the second-most 3-pointers made with 16.1 per game on the most attempts in the league at 42.8. They’re connecting on 37.6 percent of those attempts, making them tied for 8th in the league in three-point percentage. Chris Boucher is also a positive part of this Raptors team as he is having a career year so far, averaging 14.6 PPG, 6.5 REB, and 2.2 blocks per game. There is also some reason for optimism with the Raptors as they’ve now won five of their last six games, a big improvement from their terrible 2-8 start to the season. While there have been some positives within this Raptors team, there needs to be bigger improvements and more consistency from the team in order for them to be the playoff calibre squad many projected before the season began.
Joel Embiid is often ridiculed for his on-court antics and off-court trolling, but he has been having a very good season thus far. His play has been nothing short of impressive and it has resulted in him being one of the early favourites for MVP.
Embiid has been averaging 27.7 PPG on 55.4 percent shooting from the field and 40.5 percent from three. These numbers are quite impressive considering he’s averaging just under 16 shots per game, the third-lowest field goal attempts of his career. He’s also averaging 11.5 rebounds per game to go along with 1.3 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Embiid is second to only Nikola Jokic in PER (player efficiency rating) with a rating of 32.6. The fact that Embiid is able to put up these kinds of stats while averaging 31.6 minutes per game speaks volumes to how well he has been playing this season. Not to mention, he is doing all of this while not even being the primary ball-handler on his team.
The Sixers as a team are much improved from last season with the additions of Danny Green and Seth Curry, as well as the emergence of Shake Milton and another season of being together for all the returning players. They have been great to start the season, but it is the play of Embiid that has stood out and he is one of the main reasons why they are currently the top seed in the Eastern Conference. To put things in context, Embiid’s per 36-minute stats have him averaging 31.6 PPG and 13.1 rebounds per game while averaging career lows in fouls and turnovers.
If Embiid is able to stay consistent and maintain this level of play for the rest of the season, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Cameroonian big man lifting the first MVP trophy of his career.
The Washington Wizards
(Photo via Bleacher Report)
The Wizards have been a mess to start the season. After acquiring Russell Westbrook for John Wall in a trade with the Houston Rockets and having multiple young top draft picks on the roster, the Wizards were expected to at least contend for a playoff spot in the East, but instead, they have completely fallen flat on their faces.
They currently own a 3-9 record and are 14th in the East and all of this is with Bradley Beal leading the league in scoring with 34.5 PPG. Beal even scored 60 points against the Philadelphia 76ers and they still lost. Although Westbrook has missed some games and Thomas Bryant is out for the season with a torn ACL, that is no excuse for their poor record. The Wizards started the season 0-5 and just haven’t clicked the way that many expected them to. Their offence hasn’t exactly been an issue as they have the 9th ranked offence in the league, scoring an average of 113.37 points per 100 possessions.
Instead, their defence has been the most glaring issue. They have the second-worst defence in the league, ranking 29th and allowing an average of 115.55 points per 100 possessions. This is unacceptable for a team led by two stars in Beal and Westbrook, who aren’t bad defenders themselves. If things were to stay the way they were, the Wizards would be projected to have the 3rd overall pick in the upcoming draft. On top of all the struggles they are going through, they also dealt with an outbreak of COVID-19 within their team and recently played their first game in nearly two weeks, which was a loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
The team has also been so poor that there are some people who have been clamouring for the organization to fire head coach Scott Brooks, but even if that happens, the Wizards are going to have to improve internally and play better together if they’re going to have any shot at making the playoffs in a much improved Eastern Conference.
(Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
Nikola Jokic has been phenomenal this season. He is nearly averaging a triple-double for the season and has gotten a triple-double in five of his 16 games played so far. He has also notched a double-double in every game he has played in and has been one or two stats shy of a triple-double in six games. Not to mention he was also two rebounds and three steals shy of a quadruple-double against the Brooklyn Nets on January 12. To put it short, Jokic is having a historic and MVP worthy season so far.
If the season were to end today, he would only be 0.4 assists per game off of joining Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average a triple-double for the duration of the season. What makes Jokic’s season even more impressive is that he’s shooting 56.1 percent from the field on 17.5 attempts per game and 35.3 percent from three on 3.2 attempts. He’s also averaging a career-high in steals per game with 1.9, which puts him tied with Jrue Holiday for fourth in the league this season in steals per game. The 6’11” Serbian is arguably the best offensive center in the NBA and the numbers he’s currently putting up just cements his status among the league’s best.
Jokic has been absolutely on fire to start the season by putting up these ridiculous stats and he is easily one of the top MVP candidates, but his efforts early on in the season didn’t lead to much team success, with the Nuggets not in a playoff spot in the Western Conference until recently, which could potentially hurt his MVP campaign if the team continues to falter.
The Denver Nuggets
(Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Contrary to what Jokic has been doing, the Nuggets as a whole did not play well to begin the season. The team is 9-7 and presently sits in fifth place in the Western Conference, a drop from their third-place finish last season. The Nuggets were as low as 14th in the West after a slow start to the season, but have been playing a lot better recently.
They currently have the league’s 21st rated defence allowing 112.71 points per 100 possessions. For a team that made it to the Conference Finals last season, this is unacceptable. The losses of Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant have contributed to this being the case, as both players were key contributors to the team, especially during the playoffs when the Nuggets were able to come back down 3-1 twice against the Jazz and Clippers respectively and lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
A lot was expected of the Nuggets after coming off a very strong postseason which saw their two stars, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, thrive and play like bonafide superstars. Many were anticipating the Nuggets to build off that strong playoff run and contend for a top-three position in the West, but things haven’t exactly been that way at the start of this season. Jamal Murray averaged 26.5 PPG in 19 playoff games last season, shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 45.3 percent from three on 7.2 attempts per game. But this season he is averaging 19.5 PPG on 44.1 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three. Will Barton, who missed the Nuggets’ postseason run due to injury, is also not playing as great as what was expected from him. He’s currently averaging 11.1 PPG on 41.5 percent from the field. That is a drop off from last season when he averaged 15.1 PPG on 45 percent from the field.
Given all of their early struggles, the Nuggets should still be encouraged with what they are seeing of late. They have won eight of their last eleven games, which is very good considering they went 1-4 in their first five games. Also, Michael Porter Jr. has been having a breakout season so far. He’s averaging 16.5 PPG on 55.1 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from three while adding one steal per game and 1.2 blocks per game. He missed two weeks due to COVID protocols but should be back on track soon. When fully healthy, the Nuggets have the ability to be one of the best teams in the NBA, but that is entirely dependent on whether the players show up to play and live up to their potential on a nightly basis.