The 10 Biggest Surprises from the NBA Season So Far

Zachery HenryFeatured ColumnistNovember 30, 2015

The 10 Biggest Surprises from the NBA Season So Far

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Featuring jaw-dropping performances, record-setting streaks and head-scratching blunders—from Stephen Curry’s undefeated Golden State Warriors to James Harden’s discombobulated Houston Rockets—the 2015-16 NBA season is showcasing the very best, and the very worst, the league has to offer its fans.

    With the NBA regular season already well under way, now’s as good a time as any to rank the top unexpected moments that have captivated our attention this season.

    Qualifying and subsequent ranking works like this: A player will be graded on the extraordinary nature of his performance, taking into account his ability to reproduce equally impressive performances moving forward; a team will be graded on the record it set, while also taking into consideration whether or not the team in question set multiple records or is considered likely to set additional records later in the season; an event will be graded on the overall reaction by the general public, and the corresponding approval or backlash that ensued.

    Without further ado, here are the biggest surprises in the NBA so far this season.

Honorable Mentions

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    While these players didn’t quite make the cut, their notable (or not so notable) performances certainly warrant recognition.

    Draymond Green

    The Walking Triple-Double (a.k.a. Draymond Green) is as instrumental to the Golden State Warriors’ success as anyone.

    His passion, intensity and energy is unparalleled in the NBA. While most of us can’t manage to take our eyes off his superstar teammate, Green is silently stacking the stat sheet on a nightly basis. He has solidified himself as one of the most gifted power forwards currently playing the game, posting new career highs this season in points (13.2), assists (7.1) and blocks (1.4), while also adding 8.2 rebounds per game.

    Jerry West, Golden State Warriors executive, took it one step further when he appeared on KNBR radio (h/t CBS Sports) this week:

    I think honestly we have two of the top 10 players in the league—Draymond Green is the second one,” West said. “He's the most underrated player in the NBA, period. There are very few players, I think, anyone in our organization would trade for him. He's just a remarkable player. Watch him handle the ball, watch him make passes, defensively he's everywhere. If he's not a top 10 player in this league, I don't know who is.

    According to ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, Green has been the fifth-best player in the league this season, behind Stephen CurryRussell WestbrookKyle Lowry and LeBron James.

    It looks like Jerry West might know what he’s talking about.

    Ty Lawson

    The Houston Rockets were considered to be legitimate title contenders this season after it was announced they had acquired Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson in the offseason. 

    Yes, the same Ty Lawson who averaged 15.2 points and a career-high 9.6 assists last season.

    Unfortunately for the Rockets, that Lawson is nowhere to be found.

    Lawson’s offensive production for the Rockets this season has frankly been a joke. Lawson is averaging 7.2 points per game, shooting 34 percent from the floor and 30 percent from the three-point line this season. Known for being a “playmaker,” Lawson is averaging a mere 4.4 assists per game with the Rockets—his lowest output since his rookie season.

    While not all of the Rockets’ early-season woes fall squarely on the shoulders of Ty Lawson, his failure to adjust to the Rockets system is definitely not helping to improve the problem in Houston.

    Lawson’s recent demotion to the Rockets bench is a last-ditch effort by the team to try to get its talented young point guard rolling again.

    For Lawson’s sake, let’s hope it works.

    Damian Lillard

    Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is quickly establishing himself as a bona fide leader in the City of Roses.

    Through the first 16 games of the season, Lillard is averaging 25.1 points and a career-high 7.2 assists per game, which both rank in the top 10 in the NBA.

    Several analysts expected Lillard’s offensive production to skyrocket with the departure of his All-Star power forward teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge. Instead, he has flourished.

    But it’s Lillard’s improved ability as a facilitator that has Blazers fans most excited.

    Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers head coach, told Joe Freeman of the Oregonian that he believes this is just the “natural progression” for his fourth-year point guard.

    “He came into the league as a scoring point guard and he's evolved into more than just that,” Stotts said. “It's heady company to be in the top five in anything. But Dame's done amazing things every year. And I think, honestly, this is just the natural progression for him.”

    Lillard will look to increase his offensive productivity in the months to come, hoping to become just the second player since 1985 to rank among the top five in scoring and assists.

    Others who narrowly missed the cut: Blake Griffin (LAC), Kyle Lowry (TOR), Mario Chalmers (MEM), C.J. McCollum (POR), Jeremy Lamb (CHA).

10. Philadelphia 76ers' Losing Streak

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    The glory days of Allen Iverson seem far removed for a Philadelphia 76ers team that just can’t seem to win games anymore.

    With their latest loss to the Houston Rockets, the 76ers dropped their 17th consecutive game to start the season and 27th game in a row overall dating back to last year.

    And in the process they just keep setting records.

    According to ESPN, the 76ers' 27 straight losses mark a new record in major United States professional sports. Per Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports, this is also the second straight year in which they have started out 0-17.

    The 76ers do have several promising young players that they have high hopes for in the future; however, the future may never come for this franchise if it continues down the road that it's are on.

    ESPN ranks the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers as the “worst NBA team ever” —a spot previously held by the 1988-89 Miami Heat during its franchise expansion.

9. Kobe Bryant

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    In his 20th season in the NBA, Kobe Bryant is having his worst season of his illustrious career.

    He remains the key playmaker for a Los Angeles Lakers team that has opened the 2015-16 season with a 2-13 record. His usage rate, the statistic that measures how often the offense is run through a specific player, is 28.3 percent, leading the team and near his 31.8 percent career average.

    Last season, Bryant shot 37.3 percent from the floor, which set an NBA record for worst shooting percentage ever for a player with a usage rate over 30.

    To put things a little more in perspective, Bryant is shooting even worse this season at 31.5 percent. He is also 16 of 82 from behind the three-point line, shooting 19.5 percent.

    Perhaps Bryant’s worst performance came on the road this season against the undefeated Golden State Warriors. Bryant shot 1 of 14 from the floor, tying his worst shooting effort ever in his career in which he took a minimum of five shots.

    Fans hate to see a player as legendary as the Black Mamba struggling like this. Historians of the game cringe every time they see him jack up another air ball

    For Bryant, it may be a good thing he's planning to walk off into the proverbial sunset after the season.

8. Andre Drummond

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    Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons center, has reminded us time and time again this season why dominant centers can single-handedly control the game of basketball.

    The 7-foot, 22-year-old Piston is entering his fourth year in the NBA and is quickly becoming an unstoppable presence in the paint for the 8-8 Pistons.

    Drummond is averaging 18.4 points per game, along with an NBA-leading 16.9 rebounds this season—5.9 of which are offensive.

    Drummond’s herculean effort so far this season has been historic.

    According to ESPN, he is the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76 to record at least 185 points and 190 rebounds through the first 10 games of a season. He is also the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1970-71 to average at least 20 points and 20 rebounds through the first six games of a season.

    Not bad company to be in.

    Drummond is a nominee for the NBA’s Kia Eastern Conference Player of the Month for November.

7. Kristaps Porzingis

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    “Have you been watching that Knicks rookie power forward?”

    I was asked this question by a friend yesterday. Normally, my answer would be no; I haven’t sat down and watched a full-length New York Knicks game in years.

    Instead, I simply replied: “he’s incredible.”

    The “Knicks rookie power forward” he was referring to is, of course, Kristaps Porzingis.

    Coincidentally, I caught my first glimpse of the 20-year-old power forward when the Knicks squared off against the Houston Rockets on November 21.

    Wow, what can I say? The kid is a beast.

    In 35 minutes, Porzingis poured in 24 points, 14 rebounds, seven blocks and two assists against the Rockets, leading the Knicks to a 107-102 victory.

    For the season, Porzingis is averaging 13.7 points per game in 28.0 minutes of action, while also ranking top 10 in the league in total rebounds (154) and total blocks (32).

    It’s still early in the season, but Porzingis appears to be the steal of the 2015 draft—at least, Magic Johnson thinks so.

    And all of those New York Knicks fans who booed the Porzingis selection on draft day may want to reconsider their earlier assessment of the 7'3" Latvian.

6. The Firing of Kevin McHale

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    On November 18, the Houston Rockets front office made the questionable decision to cut ties with head coach Kevin McHale.

    The winningest head coach in Rockets franchise history, McHale coached the Rockets to a 56-26 record last season, culminating with an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, where they inevitably would lose to the Golden State Warriors.

    But after a 4-7 start to the 2015-16 regular season, McHale was relieved of his head coaching responsibilities and dismissed.

    However, the questions remains: Was it the coach’s fault, or the players’?

    According to the Houston Chronicle, Rockets owner Leslie Alexander wouldn’t place the blame on anyone.

    “The team was obviously not responding on offense; on defense we weren’t playing hard,” Alexander said. “It continued for a while. I’ve never seen my team play as poorly and with less effort. I’m not attributing it to the coach. I had to do something.”

    Now 6-10, the Rockets are giving us little reason to believe that McHale was ever even close to the problem in Houston.

    The Rockets signed McHale to a three-year, $13 million extension less than a year ago; he will be paid over $12 million for the 11 games he coached this season.

5. Rajon Rondo

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    The last time we saw Rajon Rondo, he was in a Dallas Mavericks uniform being benched for backup point guard J.J. Barea.

    A lot has changed since then.

    Now the starting point guard for the Sacramento Kings, Rondo is looking like his four-time All-Star self again.

    “We've witnessed the return of Rondo and—dare we say it—a new and improved version,” writes USA Today's AJ Neuharth-Keusch. “While on the court, he accounts for 58.5 percent of the Kings' assists, 32 percent of their steals and 22.5 percent of their rebounds.”

    In 19 games this season, Rondo is averaging 12.9 points, 10.7 assists, 7.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals on 44.2 percent shooting.

    Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, believes Rondo will be a “max player” next season if he can continues playing at the level he has so far this season.

    “He's a max player next year,” Carlisle told reporters. “Someone's going to have to back up the truck to get him.”

    Rondo has four triple-doubles this season—Draymond Green (three) and Russell Westbrook (two) are the only other players with more than one.

4. Paul George

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    No one expected Paul George, who was coming off one of the scariest injuries in recent NBA history, to be playing as well as he is.

    Except for Paul George.

    “Myself,” George told Sam Amick of USA Today when asked which player he thinks is the best in the league. “I honestly feel that this is my time to prove it. There’s always going to be people’s opinions. There’s always going to be people thinking otherwise. But this is my time to prove it, and I’m ready. I’m ready to show the world.”

    The undisputed leader for the Indiana Pacers, George is playing at an All-NBA first-team level in his first season back on the court.

    In 15 games this season, George is averaging career highs in points (26.4), rebounds (8.4), assists (4.6), field-goal shooting (45.8 percent) and three-point shooting (45.1 percent).

    George is currently ranked sixth overall on’s 2015-16 NBA MVP Award Tracker.

3. Houston Rockets

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    Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

    The Houston Rockets find themselves in the news a lot these days, and it always seems to be for the wrong reasons.

    The news varies from coaching issues, lack of effort, James Harden’s shooting, Corey Brewer's needing to be benched, Ty Lawson's pleading guilty and Khloe Kardashian’s curse.

    And therein lies the problem for the Rockets: too many distractions.

    The Rockets struggled early out of the gate, opening the season with three consecutive 20-point losses, followed by four wins, followed by four losses in a row.

    Their three consecutive losses of 20 points set an NBA record. This is from a team that did not lose three straight games all last season.

    Add in another few wins, and a third string of three consecutive losses, and the Rockets (7-10) find themselves in 10th place in the supercompetitive Western Conference.

    If the Rockets don’t get things turned around soon, they may find themselves sitting at home in May wondering what went so wrong.

2. Golden State Warriors’ Winning Streak

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    If the Houston Rockets are in the news for all the wrong reasons, the Golden State Warriors are in the news for all the right ones.

    When the Warriors won their 16th straight game to open the 2015-16 NBA season, breaking the NBA record for best start to a season, they simultaneously entered the “greatest team ever” debate.

    Yes, as in the greatest team to ever play the game of basketball.

    The Warriors have now won 18 games in a row and are beginning to inch ever close to the legendary NBA record of 33 games in a row achieved by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.

    Outscoring their opponents by a wide margin of 16 points per game, the Warriors are consistently crushing the morale of opposing teams from the opening tip.

    Luke Walton, Warriors interim head coach, understands that eventually their winning streak will come to an end.

    “Eventually we will lose,” Walton said. “It's natural to let down at some point.”

    However, the question should no longer be “When will they lose?” but instead "Who will beat them?"

1. Stephen Curry

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    Ironically, the biggest surprise this season isn’t even a surprise.

    Stephen Curry—the reigning league MVP—is following up his impressive accomplishments last season with an even more sensational 2015-16 campaign.  

    In 18 starts this season, Curry is leading the league with 31.9 points to go along with his 6.1 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game. And his field-goal shooting percentage is a career-best 51.5 percent.

    Curry, known for his three-point proficiency, is also shooting a gaudy 44.3 percent from behind the three-point line. As many expected, he’s taken the most three-pointers this season (203); James Harden ranks second with 150.

    The Warriors point guard is elevating his game to an entirely new level. And the whole time he looks like he’s having the time of his life.

    The scary part? Klay Thompson, the other half of the “Splash Brothers,” believes Curry can be even better.

    “You would think he is on top of his game right now, but there are still areas he can improve, which is hard to think about because he’s so well-rounded in every part of his game,” Thompson told Sam Amick of USA Today.

    If that’s true, Curry could be on track to collect his second MVP award—and, perhaps, another ring while he's at it.