It’s All-Star Weekend, which means it’s a good time to take stock of the NBA season up to this point. We enter each season with predictions of what will happen, who the breakout players will be, which teams will turn the corner and make the postseason and which teams will be the real contenders, among other things.
Many times we are right and many times we are wrong. However, that’s what makes the NBA, and sports in general, so much fun. Each season there are players and teams that beat the odds and exceed our collective expectations, while others fall well short of expectations. If everything always played out the way we predict, it wouldn’t be much fun to watch the games each night.
Here, we take a look at some of the teams and players that have been pleasant surprises and disappointments roughly 50 games into the regular season.
Karl Anthony-Towns and Kristaps Porzingis’ Quick Start –
Everyone expected the Minnesota Timberwolves to select Karl Anthony-Towns with the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He was viewed as a versatile, multi-talented big man with athleticism and huge upside. What few expected was that Towns would quickly establish himself as not just one of the best prospects in the league, but one of the best overall centers. Anthony-Towns has shown an incredibly well-developed game so far this season. He can score around the rim, off the dribble and shoot the three-ball and has shown better defensive instinct and impact than we tend to see from players his age. We knew Anthony-Towns would be good, we just didn’t know he would be this good, this quickly.
Right behind Towns is Kristaps Porzingis. The New York Knicks took Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 Draft, which (unsurprisingly) drew boos from a majority of Knicks fans in attendance. It was soon after reported that Carmelo Anthony was upset that the Knicks picked a player that many predicted would need several seasons of NBA experience to become a regular contributor (a report that Anthony later denied). However, it didn’t take long for Porzingis to shatter those predictions and turn those boos into thunderous praise. Porzingis has shown an incredibly well-rounded game for a player his age and size and is now the cornerstone player for the Knicks, which no one anticipated to happen so soon, Carmelo included.
Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors –
The Toronto Raptors were, and have been one of the few teams that is hard to gauge. The Raptors lost in the first round of the playoffs last season to the Washington Wizards in a sweep and seemed capped as a pretender rather than a contender moving forward. But the Raptors are playing at a high level and proving their doubters wrong.
They added defensive-oriented players in the offseason like DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, who have each helped solidify the Raptors’ defense (though Carroll has been out for some time with a knee injury).
These acquisitions have helped, but the biggest reason the Raptors are 35-17, second in the Eastern Conference and just three games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers is the improvement of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Lowry lost a significant amount of weight during the offseason and as a result has hit another level of play this season. Through 52 games, Lowry is averaging a career-high 21 points, 6.3 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game, while shooting 42.5 percent from the field and a career-high 39.2 percent from three-point range.
DeRozan didn’t drop a dramatic amount of weight like Lowry, but it seems as though he spent a lot of time working on the finer aspects of his game. While he has always been an effective volume-scorer, DeRozan has been somewhat limited as an offensive player throughout his career because of his inability to shoot the three-ball consistently. However, this season he has been very efficient as a pick-and-roll ball handler, constantly picking defenses apart with drives to the rim, pull-up midrange jumpers and passes to teammates for open shots.
Both Lowry and DeRozan were named co-Eastern Conference Players of the Month for the month of January and were named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. The Raptors are exceeding our collective expectations so far this season, and there is no bigger reason than the stellar play of their starting backcourt.
C.J. McCollum’s Rise –
When LaMarcus Aldridge decided to sign with the San Antonio Spurs, Portland general manager Neil Olshey made the decision to break up his roster and bring in young talent to put around star point guard Damian Lillard.
With Aldridge gone, Lillard was set to be the face of the franchise and its one and only established star player. However, C.J. McCollum, who never averaged more than 15.7 minutes per game through his first two season in the NBA, took on a bigger role early this season and has made the most of it so far. Through 52 games this season, McCollum is averaging 20.7 points, 4.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from beyond the arc.
McCollum impressed with a strong performance in the first round of the playoffs last season against the Memphis Grizzlies. But even with that performance and a bigger role, not many expected McCollum to be quite this good. Similar to the Raptors, the Trail Blazers are beating expectations this season and most of that has to do with the terrific play of McCollum.
Will Barton’s Improvement –
The Portland Trail Blazers were looking to make a splash in the playoffs last season and traded for veteran shooting guard Arron Afflalo to help with that. The Trail Blazers sent Thomas Robinson, Victor Claver, a lottery-protected first-round pick and Will Barton to the Denver Nuggets for Afflalo and Alonzo Gee.
Unfortunately, Afflalo never found his stride in Portland, struggled with injuries and signed with the New York Knicks as an unrestricted free agent after the season. Barton, through 30 games with Portland last season, was averaging 3.0 points, 1.9 assists and 4.6 rebounds, while shooting 41.5 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from distance. He was set to hit restricted free agency after the season, and so Portland decided to move on from the young shooting guard, which is surely a decision Olshey wishes he could take back.
This season, Barton is averaging 15.5 points, 2.4 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range.
Barton is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and will compete in the Dunk Contest tonight. Additionally, the Nuggets were able to lock up Barton last offseason to a three-year deal worth $10.6 million, which is an absolute steal.
Philadelphia 76ers Abandon “The Process” –
Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie has tanked the last few seasons in an effort to rebuild his team through the draft. He has purposely stayed out of free agency, cycled through young fringe players in search of hidden gems and did little to hide the fact that he simply was not interested in winning regular season games. Through it all, the mantra was “Trust The Process.”
Well, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver apparently lost patience for Hinkie’s process and coordinated with Philadelphia ownership to bring in someone that could help the franchise speed up the process. The team brought in Jerry Colangelo, who hasn’t made sweeping changes yet, but who seems poised to start making moves to get Philadelphia back to a level of competitiveness that they’ve purposely avoided for years.
New Orleans Pelicans Injuries and Ineffective Play –
The New Orleans Pelicans went 45-37 last season and squeezed the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the final playoff seed with a win over the San Antonio Spurs on the last day of the regular season. The Pelicans lost in the first-round to the Golden State Warriors, but looked to be on the upswing, especially with Anthony Davis looking like he would be a perennial MVP candidate each season moving forward.
The Pelicans hired Alvin Gentry to be the new head coach last offseason. This hiring had a lot of people excited since Gentry was credited with running the Warriors’ up-tempo offense, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers’ offense a few seasons back, which has been one of the best in the league stemming back to Gentry’s tenure. Many predicted that adding Gentry’s up-tempo offense would boost the Pelicans’ play this season, especially that of Davis.
However, injuries and inconsistency have submarined the Pelicans this season. Davis has been in and out of the lineup throughout the season, Tyreke Evans is out for the season with a knee injury and Eric Gordon is again sidelined with an injury. Additionally, Quincy Pondexter never fully recovered from his knee injury from last offseason and will sit out this entire season as well.
The Pelicans have managed to beat some of the better teams in the league this season, but too often they lose to teams they should have the edge on. The Pelicans are currently 20-33 and are 6.5 games back from the eighth seeded Utah Jazz. As things currently stand, it looks like this year’s Pelicans will miss the playoffs and fall short of every expectation we had for them entering this season.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Regression –
The Milwaukee Bucks were one of the biggest surprise teams from last season. After going 15-67 in the 2013-14 season, the Bucks went 41-41 last season behind the strength of their defense (rated second best in the NBA) and pushed the Chicago Bulls in an exciting first-round matchup.
With Jabari Parker returning from injury, the addition of Greg Monroe and the continuing development of other core players like Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter-Williams and John Henson, many expected the Bucks to take another step forward this season. However, the Bucks have regressed significantly this season and are now ranked 23rd in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The trade that sent out Brandon Knight for Carter-Williams continues to look like a huge mistake and the team is collectively struggling with a lack of three-point shooting and spacing on offense.
The Bucks are now rumored to be looking to shake up the roster and even Greg Monroe is reportedly available. The Bucks still have a strong core of young talent and Khris Middleton in particular has been a bright spot for the team this season. But at 22-32 and ranked 13th in the East, there’s no doubt that this team has been one of the most disappointing so far this season.
Phoenix Suns’ Turmoil –
There weren’t over-the-top expectations for the Phoenix Suns entering this season. However, since trading Marcus Morris to the Detroit Pistons and signing Tyson Chandler in a failed attempt to land LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, things have fallen apart rather quickly in Phoenix.
Markieff Morris has been disgruntled since his brother was traded, has been inconsistent all season and only started showing any signs of life after former head coach Jeff Hornacek was fired. He also recently got into an argument with teammate Archie Goodwin during a recent game in which both players shoved each other. Chandler looks pretty washed up and his contract runs for several seasons after this one. Rising point guard Eric Bledsoe is out for the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery for yet another torn meniscus. T.J. Warren is out for the season after breaking his foot. The only real bright spot for Phoenix run now is the impressive all-around play of rookie Devin Booker.
There is still talent in Phoenix, but after so many botched transactions, internal strife and injuries, this has been a disastrous season so far for the Suns.
Blake Griffin Fight and Injury –
Blake Griffin started off this season playing as well as just about anyone not named Stephen Curry. He was hitting his midrange jumper, showing improvements in almost all facets of his game and was even improving defensively.
However, Griffin was sidelined in late December with a quad tendon injury that was to keep him on the bench for several weeks. Then, when Griffin was on the cusp of returning, he got into a fight with Clippers’ assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, who is a good friend of Griffin.
Griffin ended up breaking his hand, which required two surgeries and will keep him sidelined for several more weeks. It’s disappointing when a player is injured during a game or in practice, but it’s even more so when a player brings about the injury through poor decision making off the court, as is the case with Griffin here. The Clippers already had an uphill battle to climb with the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors dominating the Western Conference and with Griffin’s status unclear for the playoffs, he has jeopardized the Clippers’ chances of making a deep run in the postseason.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s Injuries –
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist underwent surgery last October to repair a torn labrum he suffered during a preseason game. It was believed that Kidd-Gilchrist would miss the season because of the injury, or would be out until the last few weeks of the season at best. But Kidd-Gilchrist pleasantly surprised everyone by managing to return to action roughly two weeks ago.
Unfortunately, roughly two weeks after making his return, Kidd-Gilchrist reinjured the same shoulder that sidelined him earlier in the season. Subsequent testing revealed that he tore his labrum in his right shoulder and is now out indefinitely.
Kidd-Gilchrist played well through seven games, averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists, while shooting 54.1 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from distance. Kidd-Gilchrist brought his defensive prowess and overall versatility to a Hornets team that is currently 27-26 and fighting hard to hold on to the eighth seed in the East. He will be reevaluated after the All-Star break and will decide whether to rehab the injury, or undergo surgery.
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