NBA

NBA Saturday: Six Early Season Surprises

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Each offseason the NBA Draft comes and goes, free agency opens and each team’s respective roster starts to take shape. This is when we usually start to form our collective expectations and predictions for the upcoming season. Oftentimes, our expectations and predictions are spot on; other times, they are flat out wrong.

Now that each team has played a handful of games, we can take an early look at which teams, players and trends have surprised us or exceeded our expectations so far this season.

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The Chicago Bulls are Silencing Their Critics

When the Chicago Bulls signed Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade this past offseason, the consensus reaction was concern that the team would struggle to feature three primary ball-handlers on one team. Rondo has dominated the ball throughout his career, Wade is in many ways a quasi-point guard despite being a shooting guard and Jimmy Butler has increasingly preferred to play on the ball throughout his career. Adding to the concern is the fact that each of these three players are statistically very poor to average three-point shooters. Three-point shooting and spacing have become essential elements to any modern NBA offense, so the concern was well-founded.

In September, in this space, I wrote about the Bulls’ offense and stated this: “The Bulls are an imperfect team, but there is a lot of collective talent. Coach Hoiberg will have one of the toughest jobs in the NBA this season – managing a locker room with a lot of big names, strong personalities and overlapping talent. He will need to maximize the talent of his supporting cast in order to balance out a team that has plenty of ball handlers, but few well-rounded two-way players and knockdown shooters.”

So far this season, the Bulls are tied for 11th in three-pointers made per game (9.2) and are third in three-point percentage (39.7). So much for the lack of three-point shooting and spacing.

The Bulls have come back down to earth somewhat since their 3-0 start to the season, but they have been moving the ball better than expected, Wade has been particularly good from behind the three-point line and Rondo has facilitated the offense without zoning Butler or Wade out.

There are still symptoms of the issues that many predicted this team would have to deal with, but so far this unusual mix of talent has exceeded collective expectations.

Smooth Transition for the Atlanta Hawks

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. He is helping significantly on the boards, 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.

DeMar DeRozan Playing at a Superstar Level

DeMar DeRozan has been playing out of his mind so far this season. Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy wrote a great article covering DeRozan’s excellent play this season, which everyone should take some time to read.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson Hit and Miss from Distance

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are arguably the two best three-point shooters on the planet, but they have been off the mark so far this season.

Last season, Curry made 45.4 percent of his 886 three-point attempts. So far this season, Curry is 19-54 (35.2 percent) from distance and just went 0-10 against the Los Angeles Lakers, ending his 157-game streak with at least one made three-pointer.

As for Thompson, last season he made 42.5 percent of his 650 three-point attempts, but this season he is just 9-46 (19.6 percent) from distance. Even on open set shots, Thompson looks out of rhythm and uncomfortable. The Golden State Warriors are still putting up 107.2 points per 100 possessions, but they are missing the elite three-point efficiency they’ve come to expect from Thompson and Curry.

The Los Angeles Clippers’ Defense

The Los Angeles Clippers have been one of the best offensive teams in the league over the last few seasons. However, their defense has usually been just league average or slightly better, with peaks and valleys each season depending on injuries and chemistry.

So far this season, the Clippers are ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency.

The Clippers have kept the same core in place for several years now and it looks as though they are finally confident in their defensive system and chemistry. DeAndre Jordan anchors the defense and has been constantly communicating from the backline, acting as the team’s on-court defensive coordinator. Everyone seems to know their rotations, for the most part, and are putting in the extra effort to close out on shooters on the perimeter. The bench players have had some standout performances so far this season as well, and the additions of Marresse Speights and Raymond Felton in particular seem to be paying off so far.

The Clippers haven’t faced any offensive juggernauts yet, but the chemistry and collective attention to defense have been notable so far this season. If their offense can get back to its usual peak efficiency, the Clippers could be elite on both ends of the court this season.

T.J. Warren Takes a Massive Leap Forward

When discussing the Phoenix Suns, most people focus on the star potential of second-year player Devin Booker. However, T.J. Warren has been a standout performer so far this season for the Suns and seems to have taken a massive leap forward in his development.

Here are Warren’s per game statistics over his three-year NBA career, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

t-j-warren-stats-2016-2017

As you can see, Warren has made a massive leap forward in several statistical categories, which coincides with his massive increase in minutes. However, Warren is exceeding his previous production on a per-minute basis as well, as is evident in his per-36 minute statistics.

The Suns haven’t gotten off to a great start this season, but they have a lot of promising young players to build around, including Warren, who is playing the best ball of his career.

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is a Senior NBA Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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