The 10 Biggest Surprises We've Seen in the NBA so Far This Season

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistDecember 7, 2014

The 10 Biggest Surprises We've Seen in the NBA so Far This Season

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    Tyson Chandler and the Sacramento Kings have been two of the best early-season surprises.
    Tyson Chandler and the Sacramento Kings have been two of the best early-season surprises.USA TODAY Sports

    Three things are certainties in life: death, taxes and major NBA surprises.

    Last year, a Phoenix Suns team widely projected for a sub-20-win season stunned the league by ripping off 48 victories and missing the playoffs by just a hair. The Indiana Pacers looked like the Eastern Conference's best team for much of the season, while the Los Angeles Clippers erupted for a franchise-best 57 wins under new head coach Doc Rivers.

    In the first month of the 2014-15 season, we've already seen similarly unexpected storylines unfolding. The Sacramento Kings and Milwaukee Bucks appear to be legitimate playoff contenders after winning 43 games combined last season, while the Western Conference seemingly touts seven or eight true championship threats.

    Which teams and players have most exceeded (or fallen short) of reasonable preseason expectations? Let's take a quick stroll through the league.

Jimmy Butler, All-Star?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Through the first three years of Jimmy Butler's NBA career, he appeared to be a quintessential three-and-D guy—a strong complementary piece to any roster but not one capable of shouldering a heavy offensive load.

    He's lit fire to those perceptions in 2014-15, asserting himself as a true All-Star-caliber player.

    Last season, Butler averaged 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 5.0 free-throw attempts in nearly 39 minutes, shooting a dismal 39.7 percent from the floor and 28.3 percent from three-point range. He posted a below-average player efficiency rating (13.5) while dropping off in terms of true shooting percentage (.522) and win shares per 48 minutes (.131) compared to his 2012-13 marks.

    This year, aside from his downtown shooting, Butler is smashing nearly all of his previous career highs. He's averaging 21.6 points, 5.6 boards, 3.5 dimes, 1.5 takeaways and 8.6 trips to the charity stripe while shooting 49.0 percent from the field, and his PER (21.5), true shooting percentage (.602) and win shares per 48 minutes (.217) are all personal bests.

    "Each year he's been in the league, he's made great strides," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau told SheridanHoops.com's Shlomo Sprung. "The way he's practicing, the way he's preparing, it's just giving him a lot more confidence.”

    Butler is not only the front-runner for this year's Most Improved Player award, as Sprung suggested, but he's clearly deserving of his first All-Star bid too. With injuries having knocked out Bradley Beal and DeMar DeRozan for portions of the season, Butler appears to have the inside track to the East's starting 2 spot.

Charlotte's Unrelenting Mediocrity

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Heading into 2014-15, the Charlotte Hornets had the look of a squad on the rise. Between their $4.5 million rebranding, the free-agent addition of Lance Stephenson and the drafting of Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston, most major sportsbooks pegged the Hornets with the fifth-highest over/under win total in the Eastern Conference.

    After the first month of the season, however, Charlotte is nowhere close to matching those lofty expectations. Despite the wave of positive offseason momentum, the squad is an abject disaster on both ends of the court.

    The Hornets are currently ranked 26th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defensive efficiency, the latter of which is a marked departure from their top-six finish last season. Only one team (the Philadelphia 76ers) has a worse three-point field-goal percentage, and beyond Gary Neal, they don't have a single player shooting better than 36.4 percent from deep.

    Despite their 5-15 record, Hornets center Al Jefferson told ESPN.com's Michael Wallace that he isn't panicking about the team's early-season struggles: "I'm not a psychic, my man. I'm not in panic mode. I'm not the type of guy who sits back and makes excuses for things going bad. We have the talent. We just have to get it together. Once we do, we'll be having a totally different conversation."

    Anyone who bet the "over" on Charlotte this season likely isn't feeling the same way.

Tyson Chandler's Revival in Dallas

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When New York Knicks president Phil Jackson shipped Tyson Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks in a six-player trade this past June, he cited the need to "change some of the [team's] chemistry," per Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com. The 7'1" center didn't take kindly to those remarks, telling ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon, "I did nothing but try to help the culture there the three years I was there."

    One month into the season, it's Chandler, not Jackson, who's getting the last laugh.

    While the Knicks are floundering at 4-17, just two games ahead of the intentionally awful Philadelphia 76ers, the Mavs have exploded to a 15-6 record, with their mammoth center helping lead the way.

    The 32-year-old Chandler looks reinvigorated in his second stint with Dallas, posting career-high per-36-minute averages in points (13.9), rebounds (14.6) and assists (1.6). He's one of just eight players to be averaging at least 11 points and 11 boards per game, leads the league in offensive rebound percentage (17.0) and is shattering his previous career-best PER with a 23.9 mark this season.

    Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle hasn't been shy about heaping praise on the 14-year veteran, telling MacMahon, "What he brings to us with his enthusiasm, with his wanting to be held accountable, holding his teammates accountable, general overall energy—there aren't many guys who bring that on a consistent basis the way he does. He's hugely important to us on the floor, in the locker room, you name it."

    Given how beaten down Chandler looked with the Knicks last year—he posted four-year lows in PER, true shooting percentage and win shares per 48 minutes—his resurgence in Dallas has been quite a pleasant surprise. Jackson would presumably like a mea culpa on those "culture" comments.

Sacramento as a Legit Playoff Contender

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Sacramento Kings haven't won more than 28 games in a season since 2007-08, which made them one of the NBA's most perpetually depressing franchises over recent years. DeMarcus Cousins and Co. appear fully intent on changing that reputation this season, however.

    Through their first 19 games, the Kings are 10-9, despite having played the league's toughest schedule (by far) to date. They've already racked up impressive victories over the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans, and they would have knocked off the Memphis Grizzlies on Nov. 13, too, if not for some last-second heroics from Courtney Lee.

    Cousins deserves the lion's share of the credit for Sacramento's phoenix-esque rise from the ashes. The big man is averaging 23.5 points and a league-leading 12.6 rebounds in just 32.0 minutes, posting career-best marks in PER (27.8), true shooting percentage (.586), total rebound percentage (23.3) and win shares per 48 minutes (.212).

    A viral infection has sidelined him for the Kings' past four games—all but one of which were losses—but he's expected to return sometime this upcoming week, according to a release from the team. As long as he avoids any further complications with his illness, Sacramento should have little trouble ending 2014 with a winning record.

    The Kings won't be competing for a title this year, as their 19th-ranked defense is allowing 104.6 points per 100 possessions, but a playoff berth is a genuine possibility. ESPN.com's Hollinger playoff odds tab Sacramento as having a 57.7 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason, the eighth-best mark in the Western Conference.

    If the Kings played in the East, they'd just about be a playoff lock at this point. Playing in the cutthroat West, where 48 wins might not be enough to qualify, is the biggest detriment to their postseason aspirations.

Andre Drummond's Ice-Cold Start

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Last season, Andre Drummond made fellow NBA big men his playthings. The second-year Detroit Pistons center averaged 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in just 32.3 minutes, leading the league in total offensive rebounds (440), offensive rebound percentage (17.5) and total rebound percentage (22.3).

    With Stan Van Gundy on board as the Pistons new head coach, Drummond entered the 2014-15 season seemingly on the precipice of evolving into a Dwight Howard-esque dominant force down low. Instead, inconsistency and foul trouble have plagued him in the early going, sending Detroit plummeting toward the bottom of the East.

    The Big Penguin racked up at least five fouls in each of his first four games this season, relegating him to averages of 10.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in just 27.2 minutes. He scored 13 or fewer points in each of his first 13 games, and though he's been gobbling boards at close to his career-average rate—he's actually snagging a higher percentage of defensive rebounds than ever—his PER has plummeted from 22.6 last year to 16.1 this season.

    Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Drummond's slow start is his dismal .463 shooting percentage, which marks a significant decline from the .623 he posted last season. He's attempting to expand his offensive game, taking 23.9 percent of his shots three to 10 feet from the basket (compared to 16.4 percent over his first two seasons), but he's converting just 18.8 percent of those looks.

    The UConn product is coming on strong as of late—he's posted four double-doubles over his past six games, averaging 17.2 points, 12.8 boards and 2.5 blocks in 33.2 minutes—which makes his ice-cold start even more difficult to explain. Pistons fans have to hope that his early-season struggles were simply an adjustment period to Van Gundy's system.

Milwaukee's Not-So-Sneaky Friskiness

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    For all the attention the Philadelphia 76ers received last year due to their supposedly unparalleled awfulness, the 15-win Milwaukee Bucks seemed to somehow slip under the radar. It was the Bucks, not the Sixers, who ended the season with the league's worst record, which helped them snag the No. 2 overall pick this past spring.

    They won't be repeating that feat in 2015, barring an unforeseen catastrophe. Milwaukee already has 11 wins in its first 21 games, along with close losses to the Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks.

    The Bucks haven't been scoring all that efficiently—their 101.4 points per 100 possessions ranks 20th in the league. It's their defense that's been keeping them in games, as they're conceding just 100.3 points per 100 possessions, the NBA's seventh-best mark.

    Under the tutelage of new head coach Jason Kidd, point guard Brandon Knight is in the midst of a career year, posting new per-36-minute highs in points (19.7), assists (6.5), rebounds (5.4), three-pointers (2.0) and steals (1.7), not to mention PER (19.7), true shooting percentage (.577) and win shares per 48 minutes (.148).

    With Knight, Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo as true franchise building blocks, and bounce-back years from O.J. Mayo and Larry Sanders, the Bucks have the makings of a rebuilding franchise on the rise. Given the dismally weakened state of the Eastern Conference, a playoff berth is within reach for this squad.

Marreese Speights, Bench Bulldozer

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    USA TODAY Sports

    For the first six years of Marreese Speights' NBA career, he was largely an afterthought, averaging just 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in 15.7 minutes per game. That's all changed during his second season with the Golden State Warriors, however.

    With a strained hamstring still sidelining David Lee, Speights has seized his opportunity off the bench, averaging 12.4 points and 4.9 rebounds in just 15.8 minutes. He's shooting a career-best 54.7 percent from the floor and has especially exploded as of late, averaging 16.3 points and 6.0 boards in 19.1 minutes over the Warriors' last nine games.

    Speights leads all players in points per 36 minutes (28.2), helping bolster a bench that ranks among the lowest in scoring, per HoopsStats.com. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr deemed him "my new favorite player" when speaking with Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle recently.

    "He's amazing," Kerr said. "He just keeps producing every time we throw him out there...The production he has given us is remarkable, and he's earned that backup role. He's going to play a lot for us."

    Speights credited his offseason preparation for his explosive early-season play, per Simmons, saying he went through two "training camps" before the team's official camp kicked off in early October. Whatever the case, the Warriors won't complain with the results.

Memphis' Two-Way Excellence

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    The Memphis Grizzlies thriving on defense shouldn't come as a surprise. They were ranked among the top 10 in defensive efficiency each of the past four seasons, and this year is no different, as they're coughing up just 99.2 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-best mark in the league.

    It's their offensive potency, however, that should be giving opponents pause. The grit-and-grind Grizzlies haven't ranked among the league's top half in offensive efficiency since the 2006-07 season; however, this year they're currently ninth, scoring 105.8 points per 100 possessions.

    That two-way excellence is what makes Memphis legitimate championship contenders. SB Nation's Mike Prada explained how the offensive transition from a Zach Randolph-centric squad to one centered on Marc Gasol unlocked the Grizzlies' offensive potential:

    Randolph's decline, while slight, was also inevitable. A knee injury in 2012 was the first indicator that Randolph couldn't carry the load the same way he once did. A transition needed to happen, and preferably one that still featured Randolph as a key supporting player because he still has a lot to offer. Second-year coach Dave Joerger's task was to manage that transition and build an offense that could rise to a championship level while still not departing too much from the team's core identity.

    This is where Gasol's versatility has become a godsend. He's always had the size, touch and moves to be The Man, but Joerger has finally coaxed the aggression out of his exceedingly-unselfish approach. A leaner Gasol has responded, while Randolph has accepted a secondary role thanks in large part to his close relationship with Gasol and an offseason contract extension that took away any angst about his future.

    Championship-winning squads almost always feature top-10 offenses and defenses. While the Grizzlies had little trouble on the defensive side of the ball in recent seasons, their offensive potency this year has transformed them from a frisky playoff team into a legitimate title contender.

Denver's Bounce Back

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    Two weeks into the season, the Denver Nuggets looked dead in the water. After a 10-point opening-night win over the Detroit Pistons, Denver dropped its next six games, coughing up an average of 116.5 points over that span.

    Starting with a 106-97 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 17, however, the Nuggets began looking like an entirely new team. Including the Cavs game, Denver won seven of its next eight contests, including a 20-point blowout of the New Orleans Pelicans and a five-point home win over the Chicago Bulls.

    What helped key the turnaround? Defense. After allowing 113.4 points per 100 possessions in those first seven games—a mark that would rank dead last across the entire season—the Nuggets conceded just 106.4 points per 100 possessions in the eight-game span from Nov. 17 through Dec. 1.

    Point guard Ty Lawson started the season ice-cold, averaging just 13.6 points and 7.8 assists while shooting 40.0 percent over his first five games. Since that time, he's put up 17.6 points and 11.2 assists on 42.7 percent shooting, which is more in line with his monster 2013-14 season averages.

    The Nuggets still appear to be in no-man's land with their roster, as they have 13 players averaging at least 11.5 minutes per game but only two are playing more than 30 minutes per contest. No matter what happens on the trade market, Denver won't be as easy of an opponent as the first two weeks of the season would have suggested.

No Lottery Reform…Yet

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    Grantland's Zach Lowe dropped a bombshell in early October when he reported the NBA would consider reforming its lottery system at a board of governors meeting later in the month (via NBC Sports' Dan Feldman). Lowe suggested the vote "might reach 29-1, with only Philly against."

    Even the day before the meeting, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, "Draft lottery change is coming on Wednesday, and there's no stopping it." Officials from Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, two teams opposed to the change, had reportedly "already given up on the possibility of defections to their side," per Woj.

    A funny thing happened over those next 24 hours, though: A slew of defections sprung up from seemingly nowhere. Ultimately, the final vote was 17-13 in favor of the new lottery system, which fell six votes short of the number required to enact the change.

    After the board of governors meeting, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver explained to reporters what caused the sudden reversal of fortune:

    I think, in essence, the owners were concerned about unintended consequences. I think we all recognize we need to find the right balance between creating the appropriate incentives on one hand for teams to, of course, win, and on the other hand allowing for appropriate rebuilding and the draft to work as it should in which the worst performing teams get the highest picks in the draft.

    There's no guarantee NBA owners don't do an about-face and enact a revised lottery-reform proposal within the next few months. However, given the pre-meeting reports from Lowe and Wojnarowski, the final vote from October can't be seen as anything but perhaps the biggest surprise of the NBA season to date.

    All statistics via Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/stats and are current through Friday, Dec. 5. 

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