Biggest Surprises and Disappointments from NBA's First Half

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 5, 2021

Biggest Surprises and Disappointments from NBA's First Half

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    At the extremes, an NBA season is predictable.

    You could have bet the house on the Minnesota Timberwolves not finishing first in the West or the Los Angeles Lakers not sinking to the bottom of the standings. There's no real risk of getting those forecasts wrong.

    Almost everything else is up for predictive grabs, though. We know that because the 2020-21 campaign is at its halfway point, and some of the biggest stories were hard to see coming a few months ago. The league, as ever, has been whipping curveballs at us all year.

    One absence from our list of surprises: LeBron James.

    Normally, a 36-year-old spending much of the year atop the MVP straw polls would register as a seismic shock. But we can't pretend James' longevity is surprising anymore. And we can't keep telling ourselves "this is the year he slips." We're always wrong. His ongoing greatness just fails to meet the definition of a surprise.

    In 2045, James will be averaging a triple-double and leading the Akron Lakers (yeah, he moved the franchise) to their sixth straight title, downing Canon Curry's San FranOakland Warriors. And we'll all shrug and agree, yeah, that's about right.

Surprise: Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid: MVP Candidates at Center

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic came into this season with massive expectations. Both had already made a pair of All-NBA teams, both had ridiculously productive statistical track records, and both had already been responsible for considerable team success despite their relative youth.

    It's not a surprise they're playing well.

    But the NBA was marginalizing centers. That's been the narrative for several years, right? Bigs were going extinct. Playoff teams built around hulking 5s, no matter how dominant, couldn't seriously contend for a title. The rising tide of three-point shooting, the necessity of defensive switchability, the doubling down on skill over size—all of it suggested there was some kind of cap on how effective a true big man could be.

    This season, Jokic and Embiid are forcing a reconsideration of all that.

    Maybe those old-school types really are being shoved out of the game. But these two are legitimate MVP candidates, probably ranking somewhere in the top three on most informal ballots. You have to go all the way back to 1999-00 (Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning) to find the last time two true centers showed up in the top three in MVP voting.

    Embiid's balletic feet, raw strength, offensive polish and savant-like foul-drawing have made him the hardest frontcourt cover in the league.

    Jokic's passing and three-level scoring have all hit new levels this year. He's not Embiid's equal defensively, but he's an offensive genius and in the best shape of his life. He plods when he wants to now, not because that's his only speed. He's got another gear when he needs it.

    Embiid and Jokic are both top-three in win shares and box plus/minus, and they're first and second, respectively, in FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR WAR metric.

    By whatever statistical measure you choose, or even if you rely only on the eye test, these two are dominating like never before.

    Forget the demise. We might be witnessing the rebirth of the center.

Disappointment: The Milwaukee Bucks Defense

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    When you finish first in defensive efficiency for two straight years, there's nowhere to go but down.

    Still, we (and the Milwaukee Bucks themselves) couldn't have expected a defensive dip quite this significant. Milwaukee currently sits just outside the top 10 in defensive rating. While that's not necessarily a position that disqualifies the Bucks from serious contention—especially with their second-ranked offense holding strong—it's still jarring to have to scroll down so far to find them.

    We've criticized the Bucks for their strategic inflexibility over the past couple of years. They've dominated in the regular season, only to fall short in the playoffs as opponents "solve" their relatively regimented, system-based schemes. So it's really not fair to pile on Milwaukee and its defense because at least some of the disappointing results owe to experimentation.

    The Bucks are switching more, and they're generally expanding their options on D. That should help them be more adaptable in a playoff series, and isn't that really what we've wanted from them all along?

    Maybe we need to temper our disappointment with a little more understanding. Milwaukee is basically trying what we've all been asking it to try.

    Finally, Bucks opponents are scorching-hot from three. Milwaukee's base scheme is still to wall off the rim and allow plenty of deep shots, so that high conversion rate is hurting its overall defensive numbers. When other teams' long-range hit rates regress to the mean, the Bucks' defensive profile will improve.

    Though it's been a disappointment so far, there's a lot of reason to suspect Milwaukee will climb back into the top five on D during the second half.

Surprise: The Seamless Assimilation in Brooklyn

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    James Harden's ball-dominant style had reached almost unfathomable proportions with the Houston Rockets, to the point that it was fair to wonder if he could even remember how to play any other way.

    That concern was top of mind when he landed on the Brooklyn Nets, a team that already had a pair of extremely high-usage offensive superstars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Durant was also coming off a torn Achilles, and Irving had his own injury history—not to mention a track record of moodiness. Durant's last half-decade had also been defined as much by a sense of unrest as his unparalleled scoring brilliance.

    The "there's only one ball" handwringing was inevitable.

    Turns out we didn't need to worry.

    Harden assumed the point guard role from the outset (with Irving's blessing) and is slinging the ball around like he doesn't care if he ever scores another point. In his age-31 season and with an MVP award already on his mantle, Harden is suddenly posting his lowest usage rate since he was a 22-year-old reserve with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    He's not just accepting a different role. He's thriving in it, propelling the Nets on a course that could see them finish with the highest offensive rating of all time.

    The Nets' trio of stars has only seen the floor in seven games so far, but they're scoring like gangbusters. It may not matter if they ever figure out how to cobble together a league-average defense.

    Brooklyn is a contender because of its talent, sure, but none of this would be working if not for buy-in from all three of Harden, Durant and Irving. The seamlessness of their partnership has to stand out as one of the half-season's biggest surprises.

Disappointment: Mike Conley's All-Star Drought Continues

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    This might have been Mike Conley's last, best chance to ditch the title of Best Player to Never Be an All-Star.

    His Utah Jazz crushed the first half of the season, running up the league's top record and net rating. No Jazz regular has a greater positive effect on the team's point differential, and the redemption angle (Conley was mostly bad last season) added even more heft to his All-Star case.

    Conley is playing under 30 minutes per game, but his rate stats are as good as they've ever been. He's on pace to average more assists and rebounds per 36 minutes than ever, and his true shooting percentage has only been higher in one other season of his career (2016-17). 

    It just wasn't to be—although Conley, a consummate pro, is probably happier about his team's success than he would have been about finally landing on the All-Star roster.

    This is a purely sentimental disappointment, but it still stings.

Surprise: The Knicks Are Good!

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Athletic's Mike Vorkunov made the following point at the end of February when the New York Knicks were 18-17: "This is just the third time in the past 20 years that they have had a winning record after 35 games."

    When something happens just three times out of 20, it's a surprise by definition. New York, now 19-18 at the season's halfway point, remains, by its own low standards, historically successful.

    The Knicks came into this season with their over/under win total set at 22.5, tied for the lowest in the league. Teams are bunched in the standings as parity reigns in the East, and New York is closer to slipping all the way out of a play-in scenario than it is to moving into the top three in the conference.

    But let's not overthink this too much. A team that was supposed to be very, very terrible—that has been very, very terrible for two decades—is actually pretty good.

    We can't go any further without noting the Knicks' excellent defensive performance is tied to unsustainably poor opponent three-point shooting. That's been the specter hovering over the season to this point, and it'd be a mistake to expect New York to continue its good fortune on that front.

    The Knicks can worry about regression if or when it shows up. For now, they've got an All-Star in Julius Randle, exciting young talent in Immanuel Quickly, RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson and Obi Toppin and a head coach in Tom Thibodeau who, as advertised, has his team playing with intensity and defensive purpose.

Disappointment: James Wiseman's Hands

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    James Wiseman has a catching problem.

    The Athletic's John Hollinger relayed one such instance here, but Wiseman has been bobbling passes, rebounds and loose balls multiple times in every game he's played.

    There haven't been many guys in league history with his size, speed and raw skill. Wiseman's potential remains immense, as evidenced by the flashes of overwhelming athleticism he mixes in alongside his mistakes. But Wiseman's reaction times are all a beat slow—whether it be rebounding, rotating or readying himself for catches underneath.

    The game is moving too fast for Wiseman, which should be the expectation for a 19-year-old with three games of college experience. It's possible his struggles to cleanly handle the ball stem from the same issues that afflict most rookie bigs: There's just too much to process at all times, and he gets a little overloaded. It's also possible Wiseman, who's already a notoriously tough critic of himself, is in his own head a little bit.

    Bad hands are mysterious. Some players never overcome them, and it's possible that'll be the case for Wiseman. Or, as the game slows down and Wiseman gets more reps, he might just start handling rebounds cleanly and hauling in every lob and dump-off pass the Warriors send his way.

    Golden State's young center is going to have a long NBA career regardless, but his path to stardom may largely depend on whether he can start catching the ball. Considering his significance to a marquee franchise—one that has aims of rejoining the cast of serious contenders as soon as next season—this particular disappointment could have far-reaching consequences.

Surprise: LaMelo Ball Is Special

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    No team can pretend it knew LaMelo Ball would be this good.

    The Minnesota Timberwolves and Golden State Warriors obviously had no idea, and the fact that neither could find takers for their top-two picks, which were available via trade ahead of the draft, indicates nobody else saw what was coming, either.

    Ball slipped to third, and the Charlotte Hornets will spend the next several years praising their good fortune.

    Whatever "it" is, Ball has it. He's a remarkably intuitive passer and on-court thinker. He anticipates, sees angles others don't and acts on instincts (which are usually right) in a split-second. It's like he's playing improvisational jazz at 1.5x speed. His style is infectious in all the best ways; he's why the Hornets are among the league's most enjoyable watches.

    Flash back to predraft evaluations, and none of this seemed possible.

    Few doubted Ball's passing eye, and many liked his size at the point. But he never showcased a reliable three-point shot as an amateur, his defense was nonexistent, and he lacked the lift and body control to score inside. His bust potential seemed high.

    An offense-only primary ball-handler who might not ever be able to shoot off the dribble and can't finish at the rim? That's a tough type to build around in the modern NBA.

    Ball showed up in Charlotte a better and more complete player than anyone could have imagined. Though he's still subject to errors of exuberance on offense and gets snoozy off the ball on D, he's already among the game's best passers, and his 36.7 percent hit rate from deep is totally acceptable. Better still, he's adding new wrinkles and shoring up weaknesses at light speed.

    He basically closed out the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 24 by playing iso-ball against switches. That wasn't in his bag in January. Ball is taking mere weeks to improve his game in ways that typically take years.

    Maybe the rookie wall is coming. But there's no denying that to this point, Ball looks like the surest cornerstone in the draft—one with multiple All-Star Game appearances in his future.

Disappointment: The Unhealthy Hawks

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    Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

    In the wake of Lloyd Pierce's dismissal as head coach, we're learning the Atlanta Hawks' locker room might not have been particularly healthy. But this is more literal.

    It's about how injuries have kept Atlanta from seeing what all of its offseason acquisitions can do.

    Imagine how different the Hawks' outlook (and position in the standings) might be if Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn and Onyeka Okongwu had been healthy from the jump. Atlanta was among the most aggressive teams in free agency, adding defensive help and players who could prop up the offense whenever Trae Young needed a break. They addressed key needs and figured to at least get the Hawks over .500, if not all the way into one of the East's top five or six playoff spots.

    Instead, Atlanta's offense still comes undone without Young. And its backcourt defense—absent Dunn, in particular—is still a weak point.

    Add to that the loss of breakout sophomore De'Andre Hunter to knee surgery, and the Hawks start to seem downright snakebit.

    Sure, every team has had its share of health-and-safety and injury issues in this strange season. But Atlanta never even got started before bad health luck upended everything.

    Perhaps better fortune is ahead. If the Hawks can get all hands on deck for the second half of the season, the jumbled-up East could still afford them a chance to move up the standings.

    Despite so much going wrong, Atlanta is still only one hot week away from climbing as high as fourth in the conference.

Surprise: The Utah Jazz Are Crushing the League

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    In a thrilling victory for your crotchety old high school coach and adherents of "playing the right way" everywhere, the Utah Jazz are running roughshod over the NBA.

    Utah was a playoff team last year, despite Mike Conley spending most of the season in search of his bearings, so it stood to reason plenty more wins were in store in 2020-21.

    But the league's best record and net rating by a mile? A 22-2 stretch? The West's top seed? Wins over the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers in a two-week span?

    Don't pretend you knew that was in the cards.

    In a league increasingly defined by thrown-together superteams, the Jazz are a throwback testament to continuity, chemistry and the value of rep after rep in the same system.

    That isn't to downplay Utah's talent. Its eight-man rotation is arguably the best in the league. Rudy Gobert looks primed to win his third Defensive Player of the Year award, he and Donovan Mitchell are both All-Stars, Conley is reinvigorated, Joe Ingles is eminently crafty and Jordan Clarkson has an inside track to Sixth Man of the Year.

    It's not like Quin Snyder draws up schemes to make middling players look better than they are. But the Jazz are benefiting from some old-school roster-building faith. This is what can happen when a core grows together over several years.

    The sheer rarity of Utah thriving this way makes it a surprise worth treasuring. 

Disappointment: The Houston Rockets' Run Is Over

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    On the topic of sustained winning in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs always come to mind first. Close behind over the past few decades: the Houston Rockets.

    Only once since 2002-03 has Houston finished with a losing record. Whether led by Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady or a strange group of castoffs or James Harden, the Rockets have been reliably competitive for nearly 20 years—an eternity in the NBA.

    Now? Not so much.

    A happy Harden probably would have resulted in another playoff berth, but that situation moved past its expiration date. The pared-down post-trade Rockets are on a 13-game losing streak with no end in sight. Forget making it back to .500 or sniffing a playoff spot; if this trend continues, Houston will be lucky to win a third of its games this season.

    No team stays on top forever, but the Rockets had mastered the trick of remaining competitive for a ridiculously long time. Maybe Houston's struggles aren't a disappointment for other West teams that want the playoff spot it's finally going to vacate, but it's disheartening to see a franchise that had done so much winning come apart like this.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Wednesday, March 3. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.