NBA PM: 10 Biggest Early-Season Surprises

Alex Kennedy breaks down 10 big surprises from the first few weeks of the 2014-15 NBA season.

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It’s been three weeks since the 2014-15 NBA season started, and there have already been a number of interesting surprises. While the sample size is still relatively small since it’s still early in the season, we wanted point out some of these shocking developments and look at the reasons behind them. Here are 10 of the biggest early-season surprises:

InsideLarrySandersMilwaukee’s Top Defense – Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks had the 29th ranked defense in the league, behind only the Utah Jazz. They allowed 108.9 points per 100 possessions and teams loved facing Milwaukee. The Bucks let teams shoot 46.8 percent from the field (25th in the NBA), 38.2 percent from three-point range (30th in the NBA) and they forced just 13.6 turnovers per game (20th in the NBA). In other words, Milwaukee was awful on the defensive end last season.

Now, all of a sudden, they’re one of the league’s best defensive teams. They are giving up just 94.7 points per 100 possessions (second in the NBA), allowing teams to shoot just 41.8 percent from the field (fourth in the NBA) and forcing 15.6 turnovers per game (ninth in the NBA).

So, what happened? Jason Kidd took over as the team’s head coach over the offseason, and has been trying to turn the group into a defensive-oriented team. Jared Dudley, who is also new in town, gave credit to assistant coach Sean Sweeney, saying that he has stressed the importance of defense to the young group and stayed on top of the players. Kendall Marshall, another new addition, says Kidd has been meticulous and points out every little thing that can help the team improve on the defensive end.

Getting Larry Sanders back has also been huge, as he’s one of the better rim protectors in the NBA when he’s healthy and playing like himself. This season, Sanders is averaging 2.0 blocks and 1.7 steals, both of which are team-highs. The development of the team’s young core (John Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brandon Knight, Nate Wolters, Khris Middleton, etc.) has also been huge, as well as the addition of Jabari Parker, who has been working hard on the defensive end and averaging 1.1 steals.

Whether the Bucks can sustain this success on the defensive end remains to be seen, but it has been a pleasant surprise early in the season. They are currently 4-5 and find themselves in the eighth seed, which shows how a revamped defense can help turn a team around. Just ask the Charlotte Hornets, who made a similar worst-to-first jump on the defensive end last year thanks to Steve Clifford’s schemes and used that to propel them into the playoffs against all odds.

InsideAnthonyDavisAnthony Davis’ Video-Game Numbers – It’s no surprise that Anthony Davis has emerged as a superstar. Many people saw that coming over the offseason, this author included . However, nobody expected Davis to put up these ridiculous numbers and look like the frontrunner for the Most Valuable Player award, yet that’s exactly what the 21-year-old has done in the early stages of the season.

Right now, Davis is averaging 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.1 blocks and 2.3 steals. His PER is 35.55, which is first in the NBA by a large margin since the next-best starter is Dirk Nowitzki at 27.57. Davis ranks fourth in scoring, third in rebounds, first in blocks, fourth in steals, second in double-doubles and first in ridiculous box scores that make jaws drop.

Since the start of last season, Davis has six games in which he’s recorded 25 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks, which is the same number of 25-10-5 games all other NBA players combined have during that span. Davis has contributed 25 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in three of eight games this season. No player in the last 15 years has had more than three 25-10-6 games in a season, but Davis seems poised to change that (potentially in the next few weeks).

Davis dominated during the summer when he suited up Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. Now, he has picked up right where he left off in the NBA, playing outstanding basketball on both ends of the floor to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 5-3 record. If Davis keeps this up, he’ll surely be in the mix for the MVP award and his name will be all over the NBA’s record book.

InsideJimmyButlerChicago’s Effective Offense – The Chicago Bulls are known for many things, including their elite defense, excellent coaching and ability to withstand injuries. One thing that the Bulls aren’t known for is their offense. In recent years, Chicago has won games with their physical play and exceptional defense, not by putting up a lot of points.

Last season, Chicago scored just 99.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 28th in the NBA ahead of only the woeful Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. They shot just 43.2 percent from the field (ranking dead last in the NBA) and 34.8 percent from three-point range (ranking 24th). Their 93.7 points per game was the worst in the league. The Bulls’ style was to wear teams down and grind out wins. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the job done on many nights.

However, this year, things have been different in Chicago. While the Bulls remain a top 10 defense, their offense has been very good as well. Chicago has the ninth-best offense in the NBA, scoring 106 points per 100 possessions. They’re shooting 46.7 percent from the field (seventh in the NBA) and 37.4 from three (ninth in the NBA). They’re scoring nearly 10 more points per game, and hurting teams on both ends of the floor for the first time in quite a while.

Getting Derrick Rose back has obviously helped them, as he’s averaging 18 points while making his teammates better and significantly increasing the team’s pace. The addition of Pau Gasol has also been huge for Chicago, since he’s one of the most skilled big men in the league and he’s averaging 18.6 points while shooting 48.7 percent from the field.

However, the biggest difference for the Bulls has been the development of Jimmy Butler. Last year, in his third season, Butler averaged just 13.1 points and shot the ball poorly (39.7 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from three) while he was dealing with turf toe for much of the season. Now, Butler has emerged as Chicago’s leading scorer, averaging 21.3 points to go along with 6.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.4 steals. Butler is shooting a remarkable 53.3 percent from the field and a career-high 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. This has been a breakout year for Butler, and it comes at a perfect time since he’ll be a restricted free agent next summer and a lucrative payday now seems inevitable. One reason he didn’t agree to an extension with the Bulls prior to the Oct. 31 deadline is because he wanted to bet on himself and he felt he could have a monster year. That’s looking like a great decision.

Right now, Chicago ranks in the top 10 in offense and defense, which is even more impressive when you consider that Rose, Butler and Joakim Noah have all missed multiple games this season. The Bulls are a scary team and they have the talent to go deep into the postseason this year, especially if their well-rounded play continues.

InsideReggieJacksonReggie Jackson Stepping Up – With Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and many other Thunder players sidelined, Reggie Jackson has stepped up and led Oklahoma City during this difficult stretch.

Jackson has averaged 21.5 points, 7.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds – all of which are career-highs. He has scored over 20 points in six of his eight games, and is leading Oklahoma City in points and assists. He’s also doing a solid job running the offense and making his teammates better, as evidenced by his career-high dimes.

Jackson has made it clear that he wants to be a starter, and he has made the most of this opportunity to show that he’s a starting-caliber guard. This breakout stretch couldn’t have come at a better time for Jackson, as he’s about to hit restricted free agency next summer.

As Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports recently noted, executives around the league have been paying close attention to Jackson’s play and have said he could land an offer sheet in the $13 million to $14 million range.

With the way Jackson is playing and helping his stock before free agency, Oklahoma City’s front office probably regrets not extending their young guard prior to the October 31 deadline.

Jackson is only 24 years old, so his best basketball is likely still ahead of him. Don’t be surprised if a team extends a lucrative offer to Jackson next summer in hopes of making him their point guard of the future.

InsideLeBronJamesCleveland’s Defensive Issues – Entering the season, everyone knew that the Cleveland Cavaliers would take time to jell and reach their full potential as a team. Anytime three superstars are getting used to playing with each other, there’s going to be an adjustment period, especially when they’re doing so under a first-time NBA head coach who has no experience with any of them. Cleveland’s 1-3 start was blown out of proportion, and the team has silenced their critics with a four-game winning streak.

However, there is some reason to be concerned about this Cavs team, and it has nothing to do with their record. The issue is Cleveland’s defense, which has been extraordinarily bad thus far. Looking at their personnel, nobody expected the Cavs to be the league’s best defensive squad, but nobody thought they’d be this bad either.

They are allowing teams to score 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 26th in the NBA. To show what kind of company the Cavs are in with that defensive rating, consider that the only teams worse than them are the Boston Celtics (3-5), Utah Jazz (4-7), Minnesota Timberwolves (2-7) and Los Angeles Lakers (1-9). That’s right, even the winless Philadelphia 76ers have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than Cleveland. The Cavaliers allowing opposing teams to shoot 48.4 percent from the field (28th in the NBA) and are forcing just 13.4 turnovers per game (18th in the NBA).

Not only are the numbers ugly, some these issues aren’t just things that will be corrected with time and improved chemistry. Cleveland lacks a rim protector, which is why teams are scoring so many points at such a high percentage. The Cavs are blocking just 5.8 shots per game (26th in the NBA) and it’s hard to see that number improving unless they sign a free agent rim protector (I’ve suggested Emeka Okafor once he gets healthy) or trade for an interior defender. Rumors have already surfaced that they’re trying to acquire Minnesota’s Corey Brewer to help their perimeter defense.

Fortunately for the Cavs, they have one of the best offenses in the league, which allows them to score 110.7 points per 100 possessions (ranking second in the league). That keeps them in games and is the reason for this win streak. During those four wins, they’re still allowing teams to score 106.75 points on average, they’re just dominating on the offensive end and winning shootouts. That may work in the regular season, but it’s nearly impossible to win a championship in the NBA with one of the league’s worst defenses. It’s obviously not time to hit the panic button in Cleveland, but it is time to acknowledge that they have issues on the defensive end that could cause problems for them as they pursue the title.

InsiderDeMarcusCousinsSacramento’s Impressive Wins – The most surprising team in the first three weeks of the NBA season has been the Sacramento Kings, who are currently 6-4 and in the Western Conference playoff picture. Last season, Sacramento didn’t get their sixth win until Dec. 9, when they were 6-13 and near the bottom of the standings. But this year, they have been playing much better and racking up quality wins.

The Kings’ first six wins have come against the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets (twice), Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs. Sacramento also led by 20 points at one point in their games against the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies, but ultimately lost those contests. While those losses were heartbreaking, they did show that Sacramento can hang with any team in the West this year (even if they need to get better at closing games).

The Kings have made huge strides for a number of reasons.

First, DeMarcus Cousins has taken his game to another level and emerged as one of the best centers in the NBA, averaging 22.4 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals, while shooting 50 percent from the field. In the past, Cousins really struggled on the defensive end, but he has been much better this year and it seems he has matured. Cousins should have been an All-Star last season, but was stubbed, but he seems like a lock to make his All-Star debut this year.

Another key for Sacramento has been Rudy Guy playing at an extremely high level and looking more efficient than ever. Gay is averaging 22.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.2 steals, while shooting 44.8 percent from the field. He’s making better decisions and his 22.1 PER is by far a career-high, as he has never hit the 20 PER mark in his career until this season. The Kings have been so impressed by Gay’s production that they just gave him a three-year, $40 million extension.

Finally, there’s the play of Darren Collison. When the Kings decided to let Isaiah Thomas walk as a free agent and then signed Collison (and later Ramon Sessions) to be the replacement, many people were scratching their head. Throughout his career, Collison had shown that he was a solid backup, but struggled when put into the starting lineup with the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks. But this year, he has been excellent for the Kings, averaging career-highs in points (15.8), assists (6.0), rebounds (3.6), steals (1.9) and PER (19.2) while limiting his turnovers. He has really stepped up for Sacramento, and he’s doing a good job running the offense and moving the ball around.

It remains to be seen if the Kings can continue to play at this level. Their wins have been against quality opponents, but they also just became the first team in NBA history to lose two consecutive games when they were leading by 18 or more points at the end of the first quarter. They have been somewhat inconsistent (as many young teams are), but if the good Kings show up on more nights than not, Sacramento may be able to end their eight-year playoff drought and give their extraordinary fans something to be excited about.

InsideBrandonJenningsBrandon Jennings’ Efficient Play – Entering this weekend’s games, Jennings had the sixth-best PER in the NBA, ranking ahead of superstars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry among others. Why is that surprising? Because in Jennings’ six-year career, he has only finished in the top 100 in PER one time, and he has developed a reputation as an inefficient player who takes bad shots and plays out of control.

Initially, it seemed like Jennings and new head coach Stan Van Gundy were a horrible match. After all, Van Gundy has always liked point guards who were controlled and did exactly what he wanted. It’s why in Orlando he played the struggling veteran Chris Duhon over the young, exciting speedster Ish Smith, much to the dismay of Magic fans. It’s also why he preferred Jameer Nelson to Rafer Alston, even after the latter point guard led the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009. With this in mind, many around the NBA thought that Van Gundy and Jennings wouldn’t work together.

However, that hasn’t been the case. Jennings has done a terrific job this season, averaging 16.2 points, six assists and 1.1 steals, while shooting career-highs from the field (45.1 percent) and three-point range (43.2 percent). He’s making better decisions and taking the right shots by getting the basket and not settling for jumpers. Basically, he’s no longer doing all of the things he has done in years past that would have infuriated Van Gundy.

Jennings has the third-highest PER in the East, behind only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and he has been the most efficient point guard in the conference so far this season.

If he keeps this up, it will make Van Gundy’s job much easier and Jennings may be able to change the way he’s perceived around the league, much like Monta Ellis did last season with the Dallas Mavericks.

InsideEvanFournierEvan Fournier Exceeding Expectations – When the Orlando Magic initially traded Arron Afflalo to the Denver Nuggets for Evan Fournier and a late second-round pick, many fans and analysts criticized the move. Afflalo was coming off of the best season of his career and many reports had indicated that Orlando wanted a first-round pick as well as an attractive asset in exchange for him. A late second-rounder and Fournier, who had been a mediocre reserve in his first two NBA seasons, didn’t seem like much in return for the Magic’s most attractive trade chip.

However, through the first few weeks of the NBA season, Fournier has emerged as one of Orlando’s best players. He’s averaging 17.6 points while shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 51.1 percent from three-point range. He has been Orlando’s starting shooting guard, and always seems to hit big shots when the teams need them.

The acquisition of Fournier is similar to how the Magic landed Tobias Harris two years ago. They traded J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks for the seldom-used Harris, and the deal was initially criticized since Harris had barely played or produced in his first two NBA seasons and Redick was in the midst of a career-year. Harris had yet to average more than five points in a season and had only played 11 minutes per game. However, with the opportunity to play significant minutes every night, Harris broke out in Orlando and is now one of the team’s most productive players, averaging 17.9 points and 8.5 rebounds.

General manager Rob Hennigan has done a terrific job of finding diamonds in the rough through trades. Fournier and Harris are perfect examples, as are Nikola Vucevic and Maurice Harkless who came over from the Philadelphia 76ers in the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade. Hennigan has a good eye for talent, and the Magic’s young core is full of up-and-coming players who are playing very well.

InsideAaronGordonSurprising Rookies Making an Impact – The 2014 NBA Draft featured a number of potential stars who had been on the NBA’s radar since they were in high school, including Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Marcus Smart.

However, early in the season, it’s been some of the less notable rookies who have gotten off to strong starts. Randle, unfortunately, broke his right leg in his NBA debut and will miss the remainder of the season. Smart had a scary injury of his own, hurting his ankle to the point that he had to leave the court on a stretcher and doctors had to cut through his shoe to do tests since his foot was so swollen. Wiggins and Parker are healthy, but they haven’t burst onto the scene like some expected.

Instead, the top rookies according to efficiency rating have been Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic), Jordan Clarkson (Los Angeles Lakers), James Ennis (Miami HEAT), Jusuf Nurkic (Denver Nuggets), K.J. McDaniels (Philadelphia 76ers), Joe Harris (Cleveland Cavaliers) and P.J. Hairston (Charlotte Hornets) Bojan Bogdanovic. Parker and Wiggins are ranked eighth and 10th, respectively.

It’s obviously way too early to grade these players and Wiggins and Parker have each flashed glimpses of brilliance that show just how high their ceilings are, and they are the only two rookies scoring in double-figures for the season. However, the names ahead of them are surprising, as Gordon and Nurkic were labeled projects who were very raw during the pre-draft process. Yet Gordon is the only rookie posting a PER above the league average of 15. Unfortunately, Gordon is now sidelined indefinitely due to a fractured foot, which further opens the door for some of these unheralded rookies to steal the spotlight. The other names atop this list are even more surprising, since Clarkson, Ennis, McDaniels and Harris were all second-round picks.

While it’s still very possible that Wiggins and Parker will eventually emerge as the best players in this class, the early-season results could suggest that the Rookie of the Year race will be much more competitive than originally expected and that this draft class may be quite deep.

InsideDwightHowardRockets Thriving On Both Ends – A prominent storyline over the offseason was that the Houston Rockets took a significant step back after losing Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin while failing to land their third star despite pursuing free agents Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony. Houston managed to sign Trevor Ariza to fill the void left by Parsons’ departure, but many felt that the team had regressed and would have trouble contending in the loaded Western Conference.

That clearly hasn’t been the case thus far. Houston currently stands at 9-1, with the top record in the West. Their success largely stems from the fact that they have the league’s best defense, allowing just 91.5 points per 100 possessions. Teams are shooting just 40.3 percent from the field against Houston (first in the NBA) and 28.1 percent from three-point range (also first in the NBA).

Dwight Howard is putting up his best stats since leaving the Orlando Magic, averaging 20.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and a steal while shooting a career-high 61.8 percent from the field. Howard didn’t get enough credit for his dominance during Houston’s first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in last year’s playoffs when he averaged 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks, and he has picked up right where he left off. James Harden is also having a monster year, averaging career-highs in points (26.2), assists (7.4), rebounds (6.3), steals (1.8) and blocks (1.0).

Ariza has been huge for the Rockets as well. He has clearly improved Houston’s defense since the team now has three quality defenders in the starting five with Ariza, Howard and Patrick Beverley. Ariza is making significant contributions on offense too, averaging 14.9 points (tying his career-high), 6.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and two steals. He’s shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 44.1 percent from three-point range. He has been one of the league’s best players in catch-and-shoot situations, hitting 2.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game at a 41.7 percent clip, which is exactly what Houston needs from their supporting cast around Harden and Howard.

Houston is winning games with a +9.4 average margin of victory, and their lone loss came against the Golden State Warriors when they were without Howard, Beverley and Terrence Jones. The Rockets are playing outstanding two-way basketball and they certainly look like a legitimate contender.

What surprised you the most in the first few weeks of the 2014-15 NBA season? Leave a comment below or reach out to Alex Kennedy on Twitter (@AlexKennedyNBA).

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