With the All-Star Break approaching, we’re just about at the half way mark of the 2015-16 NBA season. That means it’s a good time to evaluate which teams have exceeded early expectations and which teams have failed to live up to the preseason hype. It’s still early, but these are six teams that have been a surprise – some positive, some negative.
Orlando Magic, 21-19, 8th seed in East
With Nikola Vucevic leading the way, the Orlando Magic are competing for their first playoff birth since the 2011-12 season (which was Dwight Howard’s last year on the team). Most people considered the Magic two or three years away from competing for the playoffs due to their young core, but they’ve played extremely well under new head coach Scott Skiles. With the strong play of Vucevic, the emergence of guard Evan Fournier and the two-way contributions of Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton, they may see the postseason this year. Everything from their ball movement to their defense has significantly improved, and Skiles seems to have his guys doing a lot of good things on the court.
Dallas Mavericks, 22-18, 5th seed in West
After missing out on DeAndre Jordan in the offseason, many people saw this as a rebuilding year for Dallas. But rather than taking a step back, the Mavericks are actually playing quite well and find themselves four games over .500 (putting them in the Western Conference’s fifth seed). Dirk Nowitzki is still leading the way on the offensive end for Dallas, but team’s offseason acquisitions Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews and Zaza Pachulia have contributed to the team’s success in a big way. Barring any significant injuries, Dallas’ solid play should be sustainable.
Portland Trail Blazers, 17-24, 9th seed in West
The Blazers – who lost key veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo over the offseason – were projected to be one of the worst teams in the NBA this season, as Ed Davis recently pointed out in an interview with Basketball Insiders. Instead, they are only a game and a half out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Damian Lillard’s continued ascent into one of the game’s best point guards along with the emergence of backcourt mate C.J. McCollum has Portland in the playoff race. Davis, Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu have helped the Blazers become the fifth-best rebounding team in the NBA. Their other strength has been their ability to score the ball, as they currently have the NBA’s ninth-best offense (scoring 103.3 points per 100 possessions). If the Blazers can continue to score this well and pick things up a bit on the defensive end, they might be a playoff team this season (which even the most optimistic Portland fans didn’t see coming).
Failing to Meet Expectations
New Orleans Pelicans, 12-26, 13th seed in West
After making the playoffs last year, bringing back the same promising roster and hiring a talented head coach in Alvin Gentry, the Pelicans were expected to make a significant leap this year. At the very least, people around the NBA expected this team to be in the playoffs once again, especially with their young players gaining another year of experience under their belts. However, injuries and inconsistent play have wrecked their season thus far. The Pelicans were free falling to start the season, dropping 11 of their first 12 games. It’s hard to bounce back from that in the Western Conference, especially when you are missing some of your more important players. Anthony Davis has posted impressive numbers just like last season, but the Pelicans are still struggling mightily to win games.
Houston Rockets, 21-19, 7th seed in West
Last season, the Rockets advanced to the Western Conference Finals and won the ridiculously competitive Southwest Division, but they have not impressed anyone this year. Head coach Kevin McHale was fired after 11 games due to the team’s poor start, but the coaching change hasn’t solved their issues. As much as people want to put the blame on James Harden and Dwight Howard for the Rockets’ poor play, the whole group has struggled. The biggest difference between last year’s talented team and this year’s struggling squad is their defense. Last season, Houston had the sixth-best defense in the NBA, allowing only 100.5 points per 100 possessions. This year, the Rockets have the 22nd-ranked defense, allowing 105 points per 100 possessions. Houston just got over the .500 hump and, with half of the season left, there’s certainly still time to turn things around. But there’s no question that righting this ship must start on the defensive end.
Sacramento Kings, 15-23, 10th seed in West
The Sacramento Kings entered the 2015-16 season expecting to be much more competitive than in previous years. Some pundits even had them sneaking into the playoffs this year, breaking their nine-year postseason drought. Now, the thought of the Kings making the playoffs seems even more far fetched than it did over the summer. It’s understandable why people got excited about this team. George Karl would be coaching his first full season with Sacramento, DeMarcus Cousins is arguably the NBA’s best center, the team signed a true point guard in Rajon Rondo in the offseason and Rudy Gay was coming off of a very strong season. But currently standing eight games under .500 and 10th in the Western Conference, it is safe to say the Kings have not met expectations thus far (although things could be much worse from a drama perspective).
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