IN a year where anyone can beat anyone on any given night, the topsy-turvy NBA season has delivered plenty of memorable games, stat lines and stories.We were all expecting LeBron to be LeBron and the Warriors to win a ton of games, but some other headlines have caught us by surprise. Some of them have seen teams and players prove the world wrong and overachieve while others have faceplanted and fallen well short of expectations.
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Who Has Surprised Us?
SINCE likely Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert returned from injury on January 19th Utah has looked almost invincible, reeling off an impressive 25-7 record. Over that span, the Jazz are tied with Toronto for the second-best winning percentage behind the Rockets and are the owners the league’s best defensive rating, surrendering only 97.8 points per 100 possessions.
THE loss of Gordon Hayward in the offseason led many of us to believe that Utah was in for a tough slog this year, but that has been far from the case. As it stands right now they are 43-33 sitting seventh in the West playoff standings with no one in the top four looking forward to a potential first-round game against the pesky Jazz. With ROY candidate Donovan Mitchell leading the way (more from him later) and Aussie duo Joe Ingles and Dante Exum hiding their stride, watch out for this unified team in the postseason.
FROM outcast to All-Star. When the Thunder made the move for Paul George I was full of praise for Sam Presti, who virtually fleeced Indiana by giving up Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for the supreme talent that was Paul George. However, the case can now be made that Oladipo is having a better season that George.
AVERAGING 23.2 points a night (good for 11th most in the league) Oladipo has the Pacers playoff bound and still in the hunt for homecourt advantage in round one. For this first time in his career, he claimed an All-Star berth this season and is starting to deliver on the promise and hype that surrounded him when the Orlando Magic drafted him 2nd overall in 2013. There’s no doubt that he is one of the stories of the year and barring anything crazy he will deservingly win the Most Improved award. Take a bow Victor Oladipo.
Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell
A special shoutout goes to the entire rookie crop of 2017-18. The likes of Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Jackson have flourished in year one of their pro careers, but Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell have been leading the rookie charge.
BOTH Simmons and Mitchell are redefining our expectations of rookies as they have their teams surging towards the postseason. The race for the Rookie of the Year still remains fierce and you can really justify selecting either of the star youngsters for the award. Mitchell looks like a young Dwyane Wade, good for 20 points and one highlight reel dunk every time he steps onto the court. Simmons has highlights of his own as he continues to wow us with his incredible vision and versatility. The future of the league is in good hands.
JUST how wrong I am about Portland remains to be seen as the Trailblazers loom as a potential first-round upset out West. That being said I will admit I didn’t think they were capable of finishing just slightly behind the Warriors and Rockets in their conference, with their star backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum steering them to one of the best ‘post All-Star break’ records we have ever seen.
WHAT makes Portland so dangerous is that they do a lot of things well. Their offensive and defensive numbers don’t jump off the page, but ranking inside the top 10 for most major statistical categories sees them as proud owners of a 47-29 record. Victories over the Thunder, Pelicans, Cavaliers, Jazz, Warriors and Timberwolves in the past month solidifies their place among the league’s top squads. With Damian Lillard playing like an MVP contender the skies the limit for Portland as the real season looms.
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DWIGHT Howard is on track to become just the second player in history to average 16 points and 12 rebounds in season 14 or later in his career. Say what you will about the struggles the 32-year-old has had in recent years, Howard is thriving in his role for the Hornets this year. Currently third in the league for rebounds a night at 12.3 a game, Howard is actually averaging over 20 points a game in the month of March and has flown under the radar all season long.
NUMBERS and stats aside it’s a pleasant sign for Howard to be playing well after the turmoil he has gone through since leaving Orlando. Bouncing around from team to team with a bad back and loss of athleticism led some to think that Howard’s days in the NBA were numbered. Instead, he has formed an imposing pick-and-roll tandem with Kemba Walker en route to redeeming himself around the league. Not enough people are giving him enough props for what he is doing in Charlotte.
Who Has Disappointed Us?
WHEN Jimmy Butler went down a month ago I expected Andrew Wiggins to step up and take over as the second scoring option behind Karl-Anthony Towns. He did not. While he has performed fine over those 15 games, Wiggins’ fourth pro season has overall been a bit of a failure. He managed to increase his numbers in each of his first three years and poured in over 23 PPG in 82 games a season ago. The same growth has not been on display this year, with his stats similar to his rookie season instead of showing signs of improvement.
THE athletic dynamo doesn’t do a lot aside from scoring 17-22 points a game either. Averaging a career-low assist tally and adding just four rebounds a night, Wiggins might be an example of a guy who never puts it together. It’s worth mentioning that the addition of Butler will have created issues and Wiggins could still very well find his niche and succeed. Instead of becoming the next Kawhi Leonard though, his ceiling might just be Rudy Gay 2.0, which isn’t exactly what the Wolves want out of a former No. 1 pick.
SIGH. We could be entering the dark final years of Carmelo Anthony’s career where his reputation takes a bit of a hit as his numbers decline. The score first forward was acquired by OKC prior to the new season, but he has never been able to get fully comfortable in Oklahoma. After spending the majority of the career with the ball in his hands, Melo has had to adapt alongside his new All-Star teammates, being put in a lot more catch and shoot scenarios than previously.
42.4% of Anthony’s shots are coming in catch and shoot situations this season. That’s nearly 15% more than Melo’s last four seasons in New York. It’s no surprise that this is the case with the ball-dominant Russell Westbrook and Paul George demanding their fair share of touches. We expected Anthony to channel his Olympic glory days were he emerged as a lethal scoring playing off the ball, but it hasn’t happened for the Thunder.
THIS year seemed like the one where Denver would return to the playoffs led by their young, exciting core. Things haven’t gone according to plan with their big offseason acquisition Paul Millsap missing three months with a wrist injury. Still even with him in the lineup the Nuggets are just 17-15 as inconsistencies and defensive woes have derailed their postseason plans.
NIKOLA Jokic looks like one of the most unique, jaw-dropping players in the world and their young backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris has people excited about their future. For whatever reason though, they haven’t been able to piece it all together in 2018. Is Mike Malone to blame? Are they still one piece away? Do they just need more time? Maybe the answer to all three questions is yes. Make no mistake though it was playoffs or bust this year for Denver and missing out will sting.
AT the start of the season I predicted that Detroit would finish 37-45 which is almost exactly where they are heading. However, I didn’t predict that they would get 25 quality games from Blake Griffin who they traded for before the deadline. If you had have told me Grif would become a Piston then a playoff spot would have almost been guaranteed right?
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INSTEAD of catapulting up the standings with Griffin on the team, the Pistons have flatlined as Stan Van Gundy’s job security becomes more and more unstable. An 11-14 mark since the trade isn’t good enough with glaring losses to Orlando and Atlanta on the road. Andre Drummond deserves some All-NBA consideration after a fine year, but the Detroit Pistons shouldn’t be sitting at 35-40 given their current teams construct.
NO one wanted to see IT flourish as a Cavalier more than me. Once they landed him in the Kyrie Irving trade I thought that Thomas could become a nice 17-20 PPG scorer alongside Love and LeBron and emerge as a fine offensive replacement for Irving. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. After never giving him a full chance to shine, Cleveland moved him to the Lakers on deadline day just 15 games into the failed experiment.
ONCE in LA things started to look OK for Thomas as he carved out a solid role scoring the ball off the bench for the young Lakers team. However, fate cruelly intervened again, with his troublesome hip ruling Thomas out for the rest of the year after just 17 appearances in the purple and gold. Just when he looked like he was getting his powers back, the latest injury setback is going to cost Thomas a shit ton of money in free agency. It really is a shame.
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