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NBA Sunday: Early-Season Surprises Are Why We Give Thanks

Through 20 games, the Eastern Conference has been the better, and for that, we give thanks.

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With Thanksgiving having just passed and the holiday season upon us, this is the time of year for reflection and giving thanks.

Adam Silver has done a lot to improve the qualify of basketball we’ve been privy to, so as NBA Thanksgiving weekend ends, it’d be appropriate to pay homage to the league’s head honcho.

From scheduling concerns to draft lottery reform, Silver hit the ground running. One item that continues to be discussed, however, is the league’s playoff system.

Quite a few have advocated for the league to do away with the traditional playoff formatting and seeding by no longer taking the top eight teams from each conference. Instead, the masses have argued, it would make more sense and for a more competitive competition to take the 16 highest seeded teams from across the league, irrespective of the conference in which they play.

Of all things to be thankful for, what we should be considerate of is the fact that the Eastern Conference may soon have to cease being the punchline of jokes.

Entering play on November 26, there are 17 NBA teams that have .500 records or better, and 10 of them are in the Eastern Conference. Among them are the Philadelphia 76ers (11-7), Indiana Pacers (11-9) and the New York Knicks (10-9).

Surprise, surprise.

* * * * * *

With Thanksgiving having come and gone, we have officially reached the first checkpoint of the NBA season. By now, most NBA teams have played between 18 and 20 games, which means that NBA teams are beginning to understand who they are.

To this point, aside from the fact that the Eastern Conference has been the better of the two, there have been a fair number of other surprises.

Who in the world had the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics entering play on November 26 as the holders of the best records in the Western and Eastern Conferences?

Entering the season, there were a fair few that believed that the Celtics would have an opportunity to become one of the conference’s contenders after the acquisitions of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. However, any hopes that the Celtics had of snatching the throne from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were thought to have ceased the moment Hayward went down with his horrific leg injury.

Yet, here we are.

As for the Rockets, with almost the first quarter of the season behind us, there’s little doubt that James Harden is the leading candidate for MVP. As the years have gone by, Harden has seemed to have become accustomed to doing more with less. That the Rockets sent out two of their most impactful players (Lou Williams and Patrick Beverly) in exchange for Chris Paul. Although Paul is a world class talent, he deal presented a great many of us with concerns as to the Rockets’ depth and their ability to survive should either Paul or Harden go down with an injury.

Well, even without Paul, behind Harden’s brilliance, the Rockets are somehow atop the mighty Western Conference.

Months ago, everyone just knew that the Warriors and Cavaliers would square off in a fourth consecutive NBA Finals. But with the Cavaliers depending on a soon-to-be 33-year-old James to play 40 minutes per night, the concerns of him getting run down are only increasing.

Indeed, the Warriors still appear to be the cream of the NBA, but as we’re finding out, not even they are invincible, especially if they aren’t 100 percent healthy.

With the rise of the Detroit Pistons, the thriving of The Process in Philadelphia, the unforeseen excellence of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for the Indiana Pacers and Kristaps Porzingis proving that he has the chops to be a franchise cornerstone, those that advocated for tuning out during the NBA’s regular season are missing some of the greatest storylines we’ve witnessed in recent memory. And that doesn’t even consider some of the things we saw coming—Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetkounmpo growing into consistent All-NBA performers, Andrew Wiggins learning a thing or two from Jimmy Butler and the Spurs continually finding ways to win.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to simply take a step back and marvel at some of the things we’ve witnessed and reevaluate certain positions we’ve long held.

And when I do that, on a personal level, I was simply shocked to realize that the Eastern Conference has been the more dominant of the two.

Aside from 10 of the 17 non-losing teams in the league coming from the East, it’s also worth noting that of the conference’s 15 teams, only five of them will enter play on November 26 with losing records to the Western Conference. The Chicago Bulls (0-9), Atlanta Hawks (2-5) and Brooklyn Nets (3-7) lead the way in futility, while the Washington Wizards and Orlando Magic each check in at 4-5 against the Western Conference.

In all fairness, the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz are teams whose injury issues may have railroaded what were thought to be seasons full of promise, while the Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be a team that’s trying to figure itself out (for the record, though, it is time to start worrying about the Thunder, but that’s another story for another day).

Understanding that, however, actually illustrates the points: injuries are a part of the game, and it’s a fact that we have no idea how injuries will impact the season, individual teams or the progression (or regression) of teams from contender to pretender (or vice versa).

Obviously, there’s a long way to go, but here, on Thanksgiving Weekend, let’s give thanks that the first quarter of the 2017-18 NBA season has yielded a fair amount of surprises.

* * * * * *

As the season progresses, we will continue to get a better understanding of who the teams of today are and who the teams of tomorrow will be. The Clippers—even though they’ll be without Patrick Beverly for the remainder of the season—and Thunder may eventually figure out their issues, and once Rudy Gobert returns to the lineup for the Jazz, they too may reenter the playoff race.

But still, at any point, could you have foreseen a scenario in which the Rockets were the best team out West and the Celtics would be the best team out East after the injury of Hayward?

Could you have foreseen us wondering whether LeBron James and his team would get themselves together and that we would witness an NBA Finals without LeBron in it for the first time since the Lakers defeated the Celtics back in 2010?

Did you expect Ben Simmons to rank fifth in the league in assists per game and tickle us with his potential more than any rookie has over the past decade?

I doubt you did.

That’s why we watch—to experience the unexpected.

To this point, 20 games in, we’ve gotten quite a bit of it.

And yes, for that, we should be thankful.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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