NBA Early Season Surprises

The Lance takes note of which players and teams are standing out this year

With the return of a somewhat normal NBA season, the league has been filled with the unexpectedfrom trades, breakout stars, and the collapse of previous playoff locks. The Lance sports staff recaps the biggest successes and downfalls based on the pretty decent sample size the first quarter of the season has provided.


Surprising Successes:

New York Knicks:

The Knicks have exceeded all expectations for the 2021 season so far by winning more than one game of basketball. The Knicks currently sit as the 8th seed in the East with a record of 8-11. Coming into the season last in most power rankings, Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks have turned it around and are on pace to make the playoffs for the first time in eight  years. 

Julius Randle is having a breakout campaign, averaging 22.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 6.0 assists. Currently, he is a front runner for the Most Improved Player Award, and although he’s playing 38 minutes a game, that’s expected playing under Thibodeau, who has gotten a lot of criticism for playing his starters a crazy amount of minutes.

For the first time in forever, the Knicks had a successful offseason. Austin Rivers and Alec Burks have provided excellent scoring from the guard position for the Knicks, with, most recently, Rivers going 10/10 from the field in 11 minutes to keep the game tight in a tough contest against the first-seeded Utah Jazz. In addition, they also cashed in on draft picks by taking Obidiah Toppin with their 8th pick and Immanuel Quickley with their 25th pick. This is a big step up from previous years because they are making an immediate impact on the team, instead of being a long-term project that needs time to develop.

Yet, out of all the moves the Knicks made in the offseason, the best may have been the hiring of Thibodeau as head coach. Last year, the Knicks ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency, this year, they are ranked first. The new head coach has certainly turned the team around on the defensive side of the ball which may just propel them to a playoff berth.


Utah Jazz:

Coming off of a very shallow playoff run in the Orlando Bubble, the only hope for the Jazz was Donovan Mitchell who battled Jamal Murray in what was arguably the most entertaining first round playoff series in NBA history. Mitchell averaged a whopping 36 points per game on 51% from the field. The Jazz were expected to sit around the 5-8 seed in the West this year, with their roster remaining basically what it was in the bubble. 

Despite this, the Jazz currently sit atop the conference, above both the loaded LA teams. The main reason for the Jazz’s success stems from their defensive capabilities and their offensive consistency. As Mitchell continues his superb scoring production, Rudy Gobert and Georges Niang anchor the defense. Second in BPG, Gobert’s seven-foot frame helps to limit opposing scoring and provide rebounding. 

The Jazz don’t show any signs of slowing down, despite Mitchell’s injuries, due to sixth man Jordan Clarkson picking up scoring responsibilities. Averaging 19 ppg over the last week, Clarkson makes a case for Sixth Man of The Year. Gobert will most likely end up as a DPOY finalist with a chance to win his third award in four years. Mitchell is still expected to make the All-Star team, and presumably the All-NBA second or third team.


Phoenix Suns:

The Suns surprised everybody in the Orlando Bubble at the end of last year going 8-0. Unfortunately, despite remaining undefeated, they did not make the playoffs. However, that run to close out the year had Phoenix fans excited over this past offseason. 

That excitement grew even more when they signed veteran point guard and future hall of famer, Chris Paul. Paul is known around the league for making every team better, even in the latter stages of his career. Three years ago, he co-led the Houston Rockets with James Harden and almost beat the Warriors in seven. Then, last year, he took a tanking OKC Thunder team to the 5th seed when they came into the season dead last in the power rankings. And now he’s doing it again. 

Paul and Devin Booker are the backcourt duo everybody expected coming into the offseason with Paul being the elite playmaker and Booker being the primary scorer. Not to mention, they have one of the most promising young big men in the league, former number one pick Deandre Ayton. Ayton started off the season slow, but in the past few weeks, has returned to form. In addition to their big three, Mikal Bridges is having the season of his career. He is averaging career highs in every category and is another candidate for the Most Improved Player Award.

The Suns have certainly exceeded expectations early this season. They are currently sitting at 8-8 as the 9th seed in the very competitive Western Conference. If the Suns keep this up, they will be in the playoffs for the first time since Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire played for them in 2009.


Disappointing downfalls: 

Washington Wizards:

From the electric pace of the 2018 Wizards to the mildly depressing roster of the 2021 season, the Wizards have experienced one of the worst downfalls in modern sports. While they did go 1-7 in the bubble last year, with the improvement of their young guys and the offseason addition of Russel Westbrook, they were expected to make a playoff push. What really makes this season stand out as a notable failure from the franchise was their decision to trade for Russell Westbrook. It is certainly a benefit to have the 2017 MVP playing for your team, but not given the circumstances of the franchise currently. The Wizards should go into a complete rebuild, not add a past-prime point guard in hopes of making an 8th seed.

The Wizards were looking to the future, building around Thomas Bryant, Deni Avdija, and Bradley Beal. Then, instead of offloading Wall to a win-now team for future first round picks or young assets, they decided to throw in their own first round pick to trade for a 32-year-old Westbrook. The inefficient, stat-hunting point guard has been absolutely atrocious for the Wizards this year, mostly missing time with a quad injury. In the few games he did play, Westbrook posted horrific efficiency, shooting 30% from three  and 37% overall. With a 30% usage rate and heaving 18 shots per game, Westbrook destroys the Wizards’ offense. 

In spite of the absolute disaster that Westbrook has been, the dumpster fire of the Wizards organization had to face a torn ACL from Bryant, and a Beal quarantine. Avdija has predictably failed to live up to Luka Doncic comparisons, and the rest of the roster is full of rookies or washed talents. 

In short, the Wizards were never meant to be good. They were somewhat hopeful for a playoff spot considering the weakness of the East past the top five teams, but there was never any goal of winning a series. With the most points allowed of any team in the NBA at 120 per game, the Wizards can’t defend and stay inconsistent on offense as long as Westbrook leads the charge.


Toronto Raptors:

After winning the Championship in the 2019 season, the Raptors are certainly facing a bit of a downgrade. Of course, losing Kawhi Leonard played a huge role in their lack of immediate success, but the Raptors have seen some bright spots such as the development of Pascal Siakam and the discovery of Chris Boucher. However, following a second round exit in the NBA bubble, the Raptors have fallen into a bit of a slump in the 2021 season. From being a two seed at 53-19, the Raptors currently sit at 7-11, and Siakam is struggling to return to last season’s form. The repetition of spin moves and travels is proving to be not enough for the former MIP. 

Guard Fred Vanvleet has tried to adopt more of a scoring role, and despite the fact that it has sometimes paid off with 30 point outings, he is not the consistent scorer the Raptors need. A team of role players, as the Raptors are, require a superstar to pair, and the void that Leonard  left behind may haunt the franchise into rebuilding to truly contend.