With the NBA season a little more than a month old, we’re looking at the most surprising trend for each team in the Western 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 continue below with the Western Conference.
Dallas Mavericks: You can’t say that what Luka Doncic is doing in Season 2 is all that surprising. Not after watching Season 1. But what the Mavericks are doing, sitting 12-6 and ranking fourth in the NBA in Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, despite seemingly only having one player who is capable of consistently contributing at a high level, has to qualify as one of the more surprising developments of the season. There were many people who saw the Mavs as playoff contenders. There were not many who foresaw this type of start, even with Doncic taking this kind of leap — especially not if Kristaps Porzingis was as inconsistent as he has been this year.
Denver Nuggets: There is almost certainly a bunch of opponent shooting luck involved but it still qualifies as a notable surprise that the Nuggets are going to end November with a top-three defense, barring a complete disaster against the Kings on Saturday night. There are sustainability questions due to the fact that the Nuggets have been below average at forcing turnovers and avoiding fouls while their opponents have made only 31 percent of their threes, but the good news is that shooting luck has allowed them to stack wins while they get their surprisingly below-average offense back on track.
Golden State Warriors: The run of injury luck the Warriors have experienced is practically unheard of. We already knew Klay Thompson was likely to miss most, if not all of this season. But then Stephen Curry broke his hand and had to get surgery. Then Draymond Green had to miss a bunch of games. Then D’Angelo Russell injured his thumb. And Kevon Looney had whatever is going on with his neuropathy. This is a team that has just been flat-out gutted.
Houston Rockets: It seemed likely that with the addition of Russell Westbrook, James Harden‘s burden would be eased quite a bit. Instead, it seems like Harden is somehow doing even more this year than he did a year ago. Harden’s usage rate remains in the high-30s (38.7 percent), as do both his minute load (37.2 per game) and scoring average (37.7 per game). Even his assist rate has barely budged from last year. And he’s trudging to the free-throw line a completely insane 12.1 times per night, which hasn’t been done since Shaq back in 2001. Before that, you have to go all the way back to Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West in 1966.
Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers went 7-4 in games without Paul George. They’re 3-2 in games without Kawhi Leonard. They went 2-0 with Patrick Patterson and 1-1 without Patrick Beverley and they’re 7-3 since Landry Shamet went down. They’re finding ways to succeed no matter who sits out any given game. For a team that largely just came together, that’s really impressive.
Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers have the best record in the NBA, which is surprising but not shocking given their light schedule to begin the season. The quality of play they’re getting from the Dwight Howard/JaVale McGee center combination, and the level of success they’ve found with two big men on the floor is a pleasant surprise. The Lakers have demolished teams (plus-65 in 156 minutes) with Howard and Davis on the floor together. Howard is doing all the things people wanted him to do for so many years and doing them at a high level, with a previously unseen degree of unselfishness.
Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr. is among the many second-year players who have made only muted progress this season. It seems like JJJ has taken a back seat to Ja Morant and even Brandon Clarke at times. There is still a ton of talent here but he has not taken over as large a role in the team’s offense as I expected him to in Year 2, and he’s yet to show foundational defensive potential. Perhaps some of that is due to his playing power forward far more often than center, but it’s a surprise nonetheless.
Minnesota Timberwolves: It might not qualify as a massive shock like some other developments this season, but the Wolves electing to move Jeff Teague out of the starting lineup in favor of rookie Jarrett Culver, while ostensibly in the midst of a race for a playoff spot, certainly surprised me. Teague hasn’t exactly been fantastic this season, but coaches are often loath to jettison veteran contributors in favor of rookies even when the team is struggling. Culver is an interesting prospect but has been a drag on the team’s offense so far this year, so his being inserted could raise some eyebrows. He does probably make for a better fit with the starters, though, since it allows Andrew Wiggins to have the ball in his hands more often and gets a better defender on the floor alongside him.
New Orleans Pelicans: This is an intensely watchable team, even without Zion Williamson. Sure, they might not be able to stop you, me, and three other guys from scoring; but at least they fill it up on the other end. The Brandon Ingram Show is a joy to watch. J.J. Redick has gotten back to nailing all of his shots. Jaxson Hayes looks like a player. Kenrich Williams can do some things. Jrue Holiday is doing Jrue Holiday things. Lonzo Ball‘s reworked jumper looks a lot better. There’s some good stuff here, and the future of the franchise still hasn’t made his debut yet.
Oklahoma City Thunder: For the entirety of their run in Oklahoma City, the Thunder have been relevant to the larger NBA conversation, whether as title contenders or a team with one of the very best and most interesting players in the NBA. It’s been extremely odd to watch them slide into irrelevancy in their first season without any of Kevin Durant, James Harden, or Russell Westbrook. Sure, they have Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, but it seems like the only way this team is relevant to the conversation surrounding the league this year is as a potential trade partner. That’s a big change.
Phoenix Suns: Just about everything about these guys is surprising. Their record has dropped off to 8-10 but they still look far better than competent and have been much more than that when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio are on the floor. Monty Williams has these guys playing hard and fast, and working on defense. The overhaul of the roster has made this a much different team than it was a year ago, and even though some of their moves are still puzzling (dumping T.J. Warren for nothing, paying so much to get rid of Josh Jackson, moving down in the draft to pick up Cam Johnson), a bunch of them seem to have accomplished what was intended: making the Suns a real basketball team again.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers are basically the inverse Suns? The absence of Jusuf Nurkic and the injury to Zach Collins hurt, but their offseason maneuvering — finally breaking up a team that had been surpassing expectations in basically every season — changed the on-court dynamics in a way that now seems misguided. Perhaps their three-game winning streak over the Bulls (twice) and Thunder turns things around on a permanent basis, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed with the way things have started for this team.
Sacramento Kings: The Kings have stabilized themselves after their disastrous 0-5 start to the season, where they barely looked like an NBA team. They’re 7-5 since then, with quality wins over the Celtics and Suns mixed in, and all of their losses coming to teams that look like real contenders. Most surprising is that they’ve done almost all of this without both Marvin Bagley III and De’Aaron Fox, who are each out with long-term injuries. Bogdan Bogdanovic is making himself a bunch of money with his shooting and play-making.
San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs and 7-13 and look almost sure to miss the playoffs. That almost literally never happens.
Utah Jazz: Adding Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic was supposed to finally thrust the Jazz into the top portion of the league in offensive efficiency. So far, not so good. Utah sits just 23rd in scoring, not even a point per 100 possessions ahead of the G-League Warriors. Conley is still shooting 36 percent from the field. Joe Ingles at times appears to have forgotten how to play basketball and Jeff Green has been a disappointment. Rudy Gobert is only tangentially involved in the offense. The good news is Bogdanovic is sniping away and Donovan Mitchell is off to the most efficient start of his career, but things were supposed to be better than this.