With the NBA season a little more than a month old, we’re looking at the most surprising trend for each team in the Eastern Conference.
A bit more than a month into the 2019-20 season, so much has happened. Some of what has gone on was widely expected (the Lakers are good and the Knicks are bad) and some of it was not (the Suns are good and everyone on the Warriors is hurt). Today we’re going to focus on the unexpected developments of the early part of the season, pinpointing one surprising thing about each team in the league, good or bad. We’ll begin below with the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta Hawks: We begin with one of the most pleasant surprises of the entire season in the play of Jabari Parker. He’s been starting in place of the suspended John Collins for a while now, and Parker is playing the best basketball of his NBA career. Parker is averaging 17-7-2, getting to the basket seemingly at will, moving the ball when a lane isn’t there, posting the most efficient shooting numbers of his career, and even working harder to make an impact on defense. The Hawks have been nearly 12 points per 100 possessions better with him in the game, and though much of that is due to the fact that he almost always plays with Trae Young, it doesn’t feel like that much of a fluke.
Boston Celtics: It would have been Gordon Hayward, but then he got injured again. Instead, we’ll go with the team’s defense, which, even amid a recent downturn, still ranks inside the top-10 in per-possession efficiency. That’s got to be more than a bit of a surprise after they lost both Al Horford and Aron Baynes in the offseason. Marcus Smart looks like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate early on, but whether or not Boston can maintain this throughout the year is something to watch. The issues in the frontcourt are still there and could start to matter more as the season moves along.
Brooklyn Nets: In case you haven’t heard, the Nets are 6-2 in games played without Kyrie Irving. Spencer Dinwiddie has taken off in Irving’s absence, averaging 24.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game in those eight contests. It’s worth noting that Caris LeVert has been out for much of that run as well, and in that way, Dinwiddie’s emergence is reminiscent of D’Angelo Russell‘s breakout last season after both LeVert and Dinwiddie went down with injuries. There were questions before the season began about how this trio could work together. Right now they’re not relevant. Hopefully, for Brooklyn’s sake, they can get one of these guys in rhythm at a time, and then put it all together.
Charlotte Hornets: Watching Devonte’ Graham last season, you would never have figured him to be a breakout star of the early portion of this year. He was barely playable as a low-usage, low-efficiency, non-playmaking backup point guard. Now he looks like the best player on the team. His usage and efficiency have each skyrocketed. He’s not really beating guys one-on-one off the dribble but put him in a pick-and-roll and he can make some magic happen. He’s connected on multiple 3s in 17 of Charlotte’s 20 games this season, and he has five-plus assists in 16 of 20. At the very least, he looks like a quality starter.
Chicago Bulls: At the other end of the spectrum, I’m not sure anyone could have foreseen Lauri Markkanen‘s disastrous shooting season coming. Heralded as one of the best big man shooting prospects in some time, Markkanen looked like exactly that during his first two NBA seasons. He connected on 36 percent of his 3s in each of his first two years, on very high volume. But he also finished well inside, shot admirably from mid-range, rebounded his position well, and avoided turnovers. This year, none of that has been true. Markkanen has made only 28 percent of his 3s and 41 percent of his 2s. He’s shooting 48 percent within three feet of the rim and 18 percent between 10 and 16 feet away. His rebound rate is down and his turnover rate is up. And it’s not getting better in recent weeks.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A player having his best statistical season at age 28 is not all that unusual in and of itself, but the way Tristan Thompson is going about it is a bit of a surprise. He’s far more involved in the team’s offense than he ever was before. He’s sporting a career-high usage rate and he’s making plays on short rolls and at the top of the key. He has more 3s this season than for the rest of his career combined. The bonkers early-season numbers (17.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists through the first eight games) have come down a bit (11.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists in 10 games since) but much of that is a function of decreased playing time as opposed to muted effectiveness. He looks good!
Detroit Pistons: The Pistons are pretty bad (6-13) but despite the near-season-long absence of Reggie Jackson, it doesn’t seem like their guard play is to blame. Luke Kennard looks like the player he was drafted to be, sniping from 3 and averaging 16.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists a night. Bruce Brown has complemented him well in the backcourt and has improved on his disastrous shooting numbers from a year ago. Langston Galloway has had a few random explosion games and is shooting the lights out. Derrick Rose looks like one of the better bench guys in the league so far. Detroit just can’t really seem to stop anybody, and the lack of an actual point guard has led to a massive turnover problem.
Indiana Pacers: Sans Victor Oladipo, the Pacers are 12-6. They have the league’s ninth-best point differential both overall and adjusted for pace. Their offense ranks 14th in the league and their defense ranks sixth. The Myles Turner–Domantas Sabonis frontcourt experiment is working well enough, and the team has weathered multi-game absences from each of those players, plus Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb. They look like a better team than they were last year, even without their best player. That’s damned impressive.
Miami Heat: The Heat got off to a smoking-hot start and just sort of haven’t cooled down. As we explored early this season, the most surprising thing about the Heat is not actually surprising for the Heat: they have found yet another random wave of quality role players. Chris Silva is still a bit player in the frontcourt but Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson are heavy rotation players making a real impact as quality sidekicks for Jimmy Butler and Most Improved Player candidate Bam Adebayo. Their emergence has even pushed Justise Winslow back into a super-utility role off the bench since his return from a concussion.
Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks let Malcolm Brogdon walk this offseason and saw Nikola Mirotic head back overseas and had to withstand a multi-week injury to Khris Middleton … and they’re 16-3 and riding a still-active 10-game winning streak. They appear to have not missed a single beat, with the No. 4 offense and No. 7 defense in the NBA so far this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo is somehow even better. Wes Matthews is having his best shooting season in years. Sterling Brown and Donte DiVincenzo are contributing. George Hill hasn’t missed a shot all year. Just about the only thing not going well is the D.J. Wilson Hive.
New York Knicks: Frank Ntilikina seems locked in as the team’s starting point guard for this year. That’s a surprise. It seemed like Ntilikina was all but gone on draft day, with rumors swirling just about everywhere that he was on his way out. Then he began the year behind both Dennis Smith and Elfrid Payton on the depth chart, and could barely get off the bench. Injuries to those two guys didn’t even get him into the starting lineup for a couple games, but since being inserted and nearly guaranteed 25-plus minutes a night, Frankie Smokes has played pretty well. He’s still not aggressive enough in looking for his shot but he’s up to 36 percent from 3 during his time as a starter and the aggressive defense he displayed as a rookie has returned.
Orlando Magic: Speaking of point guards from the 2017 draft, Markelle Fultz! It sort of seemed like Steve Clifford thrust him into the starting lineup before he had earned the spot, but in Orlando’s past six games Fultz is averaging 15.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in just 28 minutes per game. He’s getting to the rim and finishing with relative ease, and — gasp — has even made at least one shot from outside the arc in three of those six contests. The 3-point volume still isn’t there and he’s not getting to the line and he’s still a minus defensively, but he’s at least working his way back to displaying some of the skills that made him the No. 1 overall pick.
Philadelphia 76ers: Perhaps it’s not the most surprising thing in the world, but the Sixers are just 17th in offensive efficiency so far this year. Dig a bit deeper and it’s more concerning, as they have struggled badly to score against top NBA defenses. They’re having spacing issues and shooting issues and turnover issues (again) and we can’t get to the free-throw line issues (a surprise). Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Mike Scott shouldn’t shoot as poorly from outside as they have so far, for the rest of the season, but there does seem to be something not quite right offensively here. And that’s especially true when Ben Simmons hits the bench, when the Sixers suddenly don’t appear to have anyone who can create off the dribble for someone other than himself.
Toronto Raptors: Toronto’s title defense season is going great! Even without Kawhi Leonard and/or Danny Green, that’s not necessarily shocking. They still have Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol and Fred Van Vleet and Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka … except they haven’t had Lowry or Ibaka for a while now and Gasol is shooting 31 percent from the field. The Raptors have coached quality contributions out of Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and they have gotten the best versions of both OG Anunoby and Norman Powell that we’ve seen in a while. All of that has combined to make up for the absences and/or poor play of so many of last season’s important contributors.
Washington Wizards: Moritz Wagner leads the entire NBA in effective field goal percentage. He just made another 3 as you were reading this sentence. Probably. His deep shooting is getting all the attention but he actually leads the whole league in shooting percentage on 2s, as well. And he’s not the only one lighting nets on fire: Davis Bertans and Jordan McRae seemingly can’t miss from 3, and even Isaiah Thomas is having a resurgent shooting season. The Wizards have the second most efficient offense in the league as of this writing.