Biggest Surprises and Disappointments Heading Into the Second Half of the NBA Season
The NBA is still not the incredible experience we remember it as. Players are missing games due to COVID protocols, pre and postgame media questions are handled remotely, and the closest reminisce of fans most teams have in their arenas are cardboard cutouts. There is no roaring ovation after a game winning shot or MVP chants when their favorite player is at the free throw line. The Toronto Raptors are playing in Tampa Bay, an extremely altered experience to what they’re regularly accustomed to. Some teams have surprised given the circumstances, while others have dropped off and look to bounce back to appease their personal expectations. Here are the teams that fall under both categories.
New York Knicks
The Knicks are arguably the NBA’s biggest surprise this season. Entering the season, they were widely viewed as a lottery team, one without a great chance of even making the play-in game as the 10 seed. Julius Randle has made his first All-Star game and is looking like an early candidate for most improved player. Rookie Immanuel Quickley and Sophomore RJ Barrett are looking like gems and key pieces to the young nucleus that is budding in Manhattan.
Tom Thibodeau has the Knicks playing a selfless brand of basketball and after reuniting with former MVP Derrick Rose, the Knicks have indicated that they are all in on a playoff push. So far, the Knicks have proved that they’re not the same laughingstock they’ve been for years. Quite the turnaround and surely this looks like only the beginning.
The talk of the West is the Lakers, rightfully so since they have the best player in the league and one of the greatest to ever play in LeBron James. The Clippers are publicly viewed as the next best team in the West. The Jazz are rolling and deserve some of the attention and love. They currently own the best record in the NBA at 27-9.
Led by Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the talent doesn’t end there. Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson are some of the key contributors on this cohesive unit. This is a team without a true superstar but with an assortment of great NBA talent. In fact, they were one of just two teams in the league (the Nets being the other) that had three All-Stars this year (Mitchell, Gobert, Conley).
Their biggest strength? Team chemistry. Watch a Jazz game and you’ll see beautiful ball movement and cuts that are somewhat reminiscent of the Spurs Dynasty of the 2000’s. The Jazz may be in a small market, may not have a household superstar, and may be viewed as a tier below the LA teams currently, but Utah has let their game do the talking early on. The Jazz are here to avenge their devastating first round exit last year.
Many could have predicted an improved season from the Suns following their stellar play in the NBA bubble, where the team went 8-0 in their seeding games, but unfortunately still fell short of making the playoffs. However, not many would have predicted they would experience this level of success right away.
After acquiring future Hall-of-Fame Point Guard Chris Paul in a deal with the Thunder this offseason, the culture in Phoenix has been revamped as they make a push for the playoffs that have eluded them for years. Devin Booker and Chris Paul were both named All-Stars (Booker as a replacement for the injured Anthony Davis). DeAndre Ayton, the former number one pick in 2018, is a rising star and is unlocking his full potential, and Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges are excelling in their roles as 3&D specialists. The Suns have made a statement with their enthused play this season, they want to compete and they’re ready to do it sooner rather than later.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are the fly that you thought left your house but is somehow still in your face when you’re about to eat dinner. Their model of consistency is idolized and admired by not only other NBA teams, but every professional sports team. After making the playoffs for a remarkable 22 straight years, the Spurs finally missed the postseason last year. This year, they are locked in despite being counted out yet again.
There are no true stars on this Spurs team, in fact, they are the only team in the Western Conference that is currently in the playoff race yet did not have a player representing them at the All-Star game. Despite that, they consist of a balanced collection of gritty and skilled players such as DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dejounte Murray, and Derrick White to name a few. Under the influence of Gregg Popovich, this Spurs team will always fly above everyone’s expectations. It would be a mistake to count them out this early, the Spurs are always here to stay.
I’m sure you’re wondering, “how can the Timberwolves be one of the biggest disappointments when they were expected to struggle this season?” The answer goes beyond the numerals you’ll see in the win/loss column.
Over a year ago in February of 2020, the Timberwolves reached a deal to send former number one pick Andrew Wiggins, a 2021 first round pick (top three protected), and a 2021 second round selection to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for D’Angelo Russell, a player the Timberwolves had coveted for a long time. The problem with this? Neither Russell nor Karl-Anthony Towns have sustained their health. The two have rarely shared the floor together.
This trade was completed over one year ago, and Russell and Towns have only played a total of five games together since the trade that sent Russell to Minnesota. Their bench is very underwhelming, and their young talent is just that, young and inexperienced. They will continue to learn through their mistakes and time in the league but with the possibility of their first-round pick conveying to the Warriors (top 3 protected this season) and no form of consistency, something needs to change in Minnesota, sooner rather than later.
The Mavericks have picked up their pace since their disappointing start to the season but have still not quite lived up to the expectations. Like the Timberwolves, part of the reason the Mavericks are on this list is not only because of their slightly underwhelming 18-16 record, but because they also do not have control of their 2021 first round pick.
That pick was traded to the Knicks as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade. They currently reside in the eighth seed in the West but are in danger of falling out of the playoff picture if they don’t come out of the gates rolling in the second half of the season. The Mavericks’ struggles can be accredited to their lack of production out of their centers as well as defensive shortcomings.
At the time, the Mavericks made the trade to acquire the sweet shooting 7’3 Latvian Porzingis, thinking about the possibility of pairing him with Luka Doncic and creating their dynamic duo of the future. Now the honeymoon phase is over and if the team continues to struggle, fingers are going to be pointed soon and somebody is going to have to take the blame.
When news broke that the Wizards acquired Russell Westbrook to pair with Bradley Beal, most expected the Wizards to be a playoff team. Safe to say they are falling way short of those expectations. Like the Mavericks, the Wizards have also improved their recent play and are currently 14-20 and 12th in the lackluster Eastern Conference.
Beal is having a tremendous season; he was just named an All-Star starter and currently leads the league in scoring at 32.9 points per game. Outside of their starting backcourt though, talent is still developing in Washington. That budding talent includes Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura, and Thomas Bryant. It’s not time to panic for the Wizards but it’s time to consider bringing in reinforcements before the trade deadline to emphasize a playoff push.
After shocking the world by knocking off the first seeded Milwaukee Bucks and appearing in NBA Finals last season, the Heat have fallen off and are seeking a way to return to the top of the mountain. Part of their falloff can be faulted on health and rotation inconsistencies, headlined with missed games by Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro.
The Heat have turned a corner and have gotten themselves back to an 18-18 record, which is good for sixth in the East. If the core of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo manages to stay healthy, we can expect a rapid turnaround for the Heat. They shocked the world one time, who is to say the team from Miami doesn’t have a little magic left in them?