Let’s be honest; this season has been weird. Now that we’re halfway through all the weirdness, it’s time to look back. Every team has been surprising in some ways, but a few stand out against the others. I want to highlight 3 teams that have been the biggest surprises in the NBA, whether good or bad.
It’s hard not to put every team on the list because there were so many surprises this year. I’ll try to keep it as short as possible.
The Boston Celtics narrowly avoided this list on the back of a 4-game winning streak to end the first half. Previously, they looked dysfunctional. Their offense was bad, and their defense was bad; in the NBA, we call that “being bad.” But after Brad Stevens called the last 4 games “as pivotal of four games we’ll play all season,” the team responded. They won 4 straight and are back in 4th place in the eastern conference.
Another team that ended on a 4-game winning streak is the Suns. They’ve quietly sneaked ahead of both L.A. teams into 2nd place in the west. They were expected to do well, but not this well. This is all happening without Devin Booker needing to score in bunches to win games. That’s a great sign for Sun’s fans, and they are a real contender this year.
The Blazers deserve to be mentioned, they’ve sustained injuries to tons of key players, but they’re still 5th in the west. Everybody else has stepped up for that team in an awe-inspiring way. Lastly, the Pacers have disappointed considering their expectations. They are currently sitting in the 10th seed; they have a lot of ground to make up if they want to meet expectations.
The Utah Jazz
First off, no, the Jazz were not expected to be bad this year. When I scribbled down my playoff predictions on opening night, I had them 5th in the west. Well, they’ve exceeded that by a little bit.
Going into the All-Star break, the Jazz are 1st in the western conference and have the best record in the league (27-9). They are by far the best team in the league right now and look like a lock for the 1 seed in the west and a real title contender. Here are some stats, if you don’t believe me: They have the largest margin of victory in the league (8.81 points), they are 2nd in offensive rating and 4th in defensive. All this while playing the 4th hardest schedule so far.
This is like the Utah team that I thought we would see last year (and was badly wrong about). After picking up Mike Conley in the 2019 offseason, it seemed like they had leaped to title contenders. Unfortunately, Mike Conley didn’t gel with the team, and the 2019-20 season was one of his worst. It turns out he just needed a season to gain chemistry with the new team.
Conley’s stats this year don’t come close to demonstrating his importance to this team. He’s developed a great pick and roll partnership with Rudy Gobert, something that was badly lacking last year. This has allowed him to flourish offensively in all kinds of ways he couldn’t before. More than anything, that’s the key to Utah’s success. Opponents now have two ball-handling guards to worry about. Not to mention one of the best roll men in the league, and all of that surrounded by knock-down shooters. It sounds like something an NBA coach might dream about.
I can’t talk about the Jazz without mentioning Gobert. Conley has unlocked a new level for them offensively. But none of that happens without the presence of Gobert. The threat he brings rolling to the rim gives this team an unfair amount of room to operate. Opposing big men must drop with him to prevent a lob, allowing unlimited shots/floaters at the free-throw line for Mitchell and Conley. I would say don’t forget about his defense, but it’s hard not to.
If you’ve watched your team playing the Jazz, chances are you’ve found yourself thinking, “take it to the basket more” or “finish hard, stop settling for jumpers,” I sure do. But there’s a reason for that, Gobert. He’s averaged over 2 blocks per game every year since his rookie year. Opposing players know that, and as a result, the area surrounding the rim may as well be off-limits when he’s on the floor. No stats can do justice to the effect he has on opponents’ offense. If the Jazz keep this up, he’s a lock for defensive player of the year in a league filled with great defenders.
There’s so much more to talk about when it comes to the Utah Jazz. The bottom line is they are outstanding and will continue to excel. They’ve been one of the biggest surprises in the NBA, and they’re not done yet.
The New York Knicks
I’ve found myself writing about the Knicks so much this year, but for good reason. As a basketball fan, I want to see that team be successful. They have a great fanbase, and New York will always be the mecca of basketball when it comes down to it. As a result, I can’t take my eyes off of their success this year.
They are the 5th seed in the east at the midway point of the season. Yes, you heard me right; the New York Knicks are the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference. Ahead of the Heat, Raptors, and Pacers, all playoff teams last year. Nobody expected this team to make the playoffs, let alone have this kind of success.
The defense is driving the Knicks to this unexpected record. Last year’s Knicks were 23rd in the league in defensive rating; this year, they boast the 2nd best defensive rating in the league. The hiring of Tom Thibodeau is paying off big early on. He is a well-known defensive savant, and that is showing here in New York. He has this team playing championship-caliber defense. The only thing holding them back now is, well, everything but the defense.
The Knicks are winning games purely through defensive intensity and grit. Unlike years in the past, this looks like a winning team. They’ve finally developed a proper culture and are headed in the right direction. This season has been fast-tracked for them due to two reasons.
Number one is just the weak conference they are in. Right now, they are 19-18 and the 5th seed in the east. That same record in the West would have them tied with the Warriors for the 9 seed. Despite their seeding being slightly inflated, they’ve still greatly surprised this year.
That’s where the stellar play of Julius Randle comes in; he’s the second reason that they’ve surprised everybody this year. Randle’s season so far may be the most surprising of any player. He earned his first-ever All-Star bid and may be the frontrunner for the Most Improved Player award. He has been the one offensive force the Knicks can rely on. His averages this year of 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 5.5 assists are all career highs, and that doesn’t scratch the surface of his improvement. Yes, he’s succeeding as the focal point of an offense, but it’s more than that.
For a long time, Julius has been one of the guys that you think, “Oh, if only he got everything together, he would be so good.” At 26 years old going into his 7th season, nobody thought that he would make the jump. It just seemed too late. 37 games later, here we are. He’s playing high-level defense, he’s putting in effort all over the court, he’s playing like he wants to win, and he’s doing it.
For Knicks fans, it’s a good time to be alive. They have their first all-star since Kristaps Porzingis in 2018, and they’re well on their way to the playoffs for the first time since 2013! The Knicks have been one of the biggest surprises in the NBA this year, and finally, it’s for a good reason.
The Dallas Mavericks
The Jazz and Knicks have both had surprisingly good seasons; for the Mavericks, it’s the opposite. The 2020-21 season was supposed to be a big breakout year for Dallas. Unfortunately, they have greatly underwhelmed.
Back on opening night, the Dallas Morning News published an article looking at different Mavericks’ predictions. Most media outlets gave them a good chance to make the playoffs, predicting them to finish somewhere around the 4/5 seed. At that time, I would have agreed. In my playoff predictions at the start of the season, I had the Mavs as the 4th seed in the west. To me, they looked like a team that would make the jump to contention this year. So far, it appears I was wrong.
The addition of Josh Richardson seemed smart. Adding a great individual defender, as well as someone who can create their shot at times. On the flip side, the loss of Seth Curry didn’t seem like a big deal. Unfortunately, Josh Richardson hasn’t played as well as expected, and Seth Curry is having a great year in Philadelphia.
The Mavericks this year tried to trade a little offense for a little defense. The belief was, if they could improve their defense, it would make them contenders even if the offense dropped off a small amount. That hasn’t worked to plan so far. Last season they had the 18th Defensive rating in the league; this year, they are 23rd, and after owning the number one offense in the league (and league history at the time) last year, they have the 13th this year. They’ve dropped off on both sides of the ball, a sure-fire recipe to underperform.
To make matters worse, their star big man, Kristaps Porzingis, has barely seen the floor this year due to injuries, and when he has, he’s looked like a shell of himself. In his playing time this year, his points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and steals per game are all down from last year. Dallas traded for him because of his unique ability to spread the floor as a 7-footer and elite rim protection. But he’s scoring fewer 3-pointers a game on a lower percentage this year.
Worst of all, he doesn’t even look the same on defense. All you have to do is watch a Mavericks game (if he’s actually playing, of course), and it’s clear to see. He’s not as quick on that end of the floor and struggles to get to spots in recovery or as a help defender. It’s fair to start wondering if the injuries are catching up to him.
It’s not all bad news for the Mavericks. Luka Doncic has still been phenomenal, and as of late, Jalen Brunson has stepped up and become a leader for the second unit. A lot of their ceiling depends on Kristaps’ health. If he gets healthy in the 2nd half of the season and returns to form, then the Mavericks have a chance to jump right back into contention, but if not, this team has an uncertain path forward.
So far, the Dallas Mavericks have been one of the surprises in the NBA as they have under exceeded expectations greatly. On the bright side, the second half of the season allows them to turn that around.