Enough buckets have been scored and games completed this NBA season to legitimately compile a list of team and individual pleasant surprises as well as disappointments. But before we embark on that task, how about one huge overall shock?
That is, the Eastern Conference has played the Western Conference dead even through Nov. 17. Perhaps, just perhaps, the gap is closing. Many NBA analysts predicted that the perennially inferior and justifiably criticized East would show more strength this year and that has played out so far.
The main reason is that several Eastern Conference teams have performed better than expected, while a few in the West have gone in the opposite direction. While it’s too early to make any final determinations, the trend is nevertheless worth noting.
5 Biggest Team Surprises
1. Golden State Warriors (12-0): OK, I threw a bit of a curve here. That they’re winning is certainly no surprise. But the Warriors felt disrespected after taking it all last year by those who considered it a fluke and opined that only injuries prevented Cleveland from beating them in the finals. They have played like a team possessed, outscoring their opponents by a ridiculous 15.3 points per game.
2. Denver Nuggets (6-5): This team was picked by many to finish with the worst record in the Western Conference, but strong performances by the likes of Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari as well as an improved defense have the Nuggets playing better than anyone expected.
3. Boston Celtics (6-4): That they’ve won two more games than they’ve lost is not shocking. That their plus-6.6 scoring differential ranks atop the Eastern Conference certainly is. Five Celtics are averaging in double figures and point guard Isaiah Thomas is off to the best start of his career.
4. Detroit Pistons (6-5): If double-double machine Andre Drummond continues on his 18.9-rebounds-per-game pace all year, he will own the top average in that category since Wilt Chamberlain yanked down 19.1 per game in the 1971-72 season. He and Reggie Jackson have teamed up to create one heck of a 1-2 punch.
5. New York Knicks (6-6): This team is averaging seven more points per game and yielding three less per game than it did a year ago. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Knicks suddenly seem like a playoff contender. And, by the way, that controversial pick of Kristaps Porzingis in the 2015 Draft appears to be paying off.
5 Biggest Team Disappointments
1. New Orleans Pelicans (1-10): The Pelicans rank last in the NBA in opposing field goal percentage (.479) and opposing three-point percentage (.393). And now superstar Anthony Davis is dealing with a shoulder injury. It could get worse before it gets better.
2. Houston Rockets (4-7): The Rockets have bottomed out so badly that they fired coach Kevin McHale. James Harden and Trevor Ariza have both struggled mightily with their shooting. This is a team that had been considered a possible title contender, so it ranks among the biggest disappointments.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (6-5): Not a bad record, but not what was expected of the Thunder with Kevin Durant back in the lineup. Durant and Westbrook have played well and the team’s plus-5.1 point differential is fine, but the Thunder are leading the league at 17 turnovers per game.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (8-3): An 8-3 team on this list? Yes. LeBron James stated before the year that he wanted his team to play angry after losing in the finals last season, but now he’s saying his teammates are too nice. They have consistently played down to the level of their competition, losing to Detroit and Milwaukee while nearly falling to Philadelphia.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (0-11): Nobody believed the lowly Sixers would contend, but this is ridiculous. They’re actually regressing despite the fine rookie year of Jahlil Okafor. This gang that couldn’t shoot straight is hitting a league-worst 41 percent of their shots.
5 Biggest Individual Surprises
1. Hassan Whiteside, center, Miami: Whiteside ranks third in the NBA in rebounding (11.9 per game), second in field goal percentage (.630) and easily first in blocked shots (4.6). He’s arguably the biggest reason why the Heat are off to such a strong start.
2. C.J. McCollum, shooting guard, Portland: McCollum has teamed with Damian Lillard to emerge as one of the top backcourts in the NBA. He is averaging 20.4 points a game on 44 percent shooting to help fill the scoring void left by the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge.
3. Paul George, small forward, Indiana: Folks expected a healthy George to bounce back, but he is actually performing better than at any point in his career, at least early in 2015. He is posting career-bests in points per game (24.5), rebounds (8.6) and assists (4.6).
4. Evan Fournier, small forward, Orlando: This guy just keeps getting better every year. He leads the Magic at 18.8 points per game, nearly seven points higher than the career-best he established last season. It’s no wonder the Magic are playing him a whopping 38 minutes per game.
5. Reggie Jackson, point guard, Detroit: This guy can flat out score from anywhere on the floor. He has become far more aggressive driving to the hoop, which has resulted in more trips to the line this year.
5 Biggest Individual Disappointments
1. Joe Johnson, small forward, Brooklyn: What happened to this guy? Granted, he’s 34 years old, but it seems like playing for a passionless Nets team has drained the passion out of him as well. He’s averaging 11 points per game and shooting a woeful 32 percent from the field. Ouch.
2. Kobe Bryant, small forward, Los Angeles Lakers: You hate to see one of the finest players in the history of the sport fade awaya��and that might be what he does this season. Bryant is hitting only one-third of his shots and a mere 23 percent from 3-point range. The awful Lakers will be better off shedding his salary and rebuilding in earnest.
3. James Harden, shooting guard, Houston: One can’t imagine his struggles will continue, but his issues and those of teammate Trevor Ariza have led to a 4-7 start. He has drained half his shots in only two games this year and has suffered through such shooting performances as 6-for-21, 4-for-18, 2-for-15, 6-for-22 and 5-for-21.
4. Derrick Rose, point guard, Chicago: An ankle sprain could keep the oft-injured Rose out for a while and it might have been just as well considering how he’s performing if the team had any other viable options and depth at that position. He’s shooting just 38 percent from the field and 15 percent from beyond the arc.
5. J.R. Smith, shooting guard, Cleveland: This hot-and-cold gunslinger has been Arctic cold to begin the season and has contributed to the team’s shaky start. He has appeared off-balance on his shot and has passed up plenty of open looks due to an apparent lack of confidence. He’s shooting just 34 percent from the field, which speaks volumes.