The 10 Biggest Surprises of the NBA Season so Far

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 7, 2021

The 10 Biggest Surprises of the NBA Season so Far

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    After singling out the starkest disappointments of the 2021-22 NBA regular season thus far, it's only right we now spotlight the biggest surprises.

    So let's go ahead and do that.

    Disappointments are, in fact, a version of surprises. Unhappy anecdotes have no place here, though. We're focusing on the most pleasant shocks—performances from both teams and players inciting unanticipated smiles and widened pupils and revelatory whoas.

    Selections will be dictated by consensus expectations ahead of this season. Good for you if you saw any of this coming. But these performances and developments were not the general standard.

    Every type of surprise under the sun is eligible for conclusion. Each one is presented with the caveat of "It's still pretty early," but the goal is to pluck out the unforeseen jolts of adrenaline that are either most worth monitoring in the coming weeks and months or have the best chance at becoming new normals.

Miles Bridges' Star Turn

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    Ticketing Miles Bridges for the Most Improved Player discussion should have never been met without outright, flatlining shock.

    But this?

    Bridges is averaging 22.7 points, 3.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game—benchmarks that are for the most part dramatically north of his career normals. His shooting splits have dipped, but they haven't bottomed out. His 54.4 effective field-goal percentage is comfortably above the league average (51.6) and deflated by two relatively down performances over the past three games.

    Swings of this magnitude aren't uncommon when someone ascends the volume latter so meteorically. Bridges' usage has jumped by more than seven points from last season and not because he's strictly playing a heavier play-finisher role.

    Right around 41 percent of his made baskets this season have gone unassisted. That's up from 24.6 percent in 2020-21. Pull-up jumpers now account for nearly one-quarter of his shot attempts, compared to 16.7 percent last year. The Charlotte Hornets have upped his volume in the post.

    Defenses are more reactive to his drives and aware of his willingness to rip jumpers off the bounce. That extra attention is part of his improvement. Bridges has slung some pretty slick passes on the move and remains a bulldog finisher even as he navigates more bodies around the basket. His step-back three isn't falling like it did last year, but he's finding nylon on 43.6 percent of his spot-up triples.

    Bridges provided glimpses into what he's doing now by the end of last season. What's happening at the moment, though, is on a much larger, more impressive scale.

    And more expensive, too. Because if he keeps this up, Bridges will be a max-contract candidate when he hits restricted free agency next summer.

Chicago's Defensive Performance

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    Pretty much everything the Chicago Bulls have done since last year's trade deadline was met with intense debates about the merits of their actions. Every possible stance was represented up and down the takes spectrum. The closest opinion-havers ever came to consensus entering this season: defensive expectations—or lack thereof.

    Chicago would be a bad defensive team because it planned on playing DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic at the same time, and because it didn't have much, if any, backup-center depth, and because, well, it just had to be.

    Sheesh, were those people wrong. For now, anyway. (Related: I am "those people.")

    The Bulls are fifth in points allowed per possession, a standing that outstrips their offensive efficiency (eighth), and that they've thus far maintained without Patrick Williams, who's expected to miss the rest of the season after suffering a dislocated left wrist. Eight games does not have to be telltale of everything, but at the same time: MY GOD.

    Head coach Billy Donovan has his troops playing an ultra-aggressive style, and it's working. Chicago is third in deflections per game and fifth in opponent turnover percentage, all while keeping a top-11 foul rate. Pick-and-roll ball-handlers look visibly flustered by the Bulls' activity in the half-court, and rival offenses have not been able to capitalize on Chicago's frantic perimeter presence by bumping up their second-chance opportunities.

    Skeptics will have no problem ascribing the Bulls' success to luck. But their vitals don't scream "Happy accident!" Opponents should hit more than 35.2 percent of their wide-open threes, but Chicago aims to limit those looks and is not getting a huge long-range-defense boost in the aggregate.

    Favorable scheduling feels like the largest concern. The Bulls have beaten just one top-10 offense (Utah Jazz) and faced just three overall. Nearly half of their games have come versus bottom-four offenses in the Detroit Pistons (twice) and New Orleans Pelicans.

    That context matters. So do the results. And Chicago has done a pretty good job of gobbling up some low-hanging fruit amid—things like ensuring DeMar DeRozan is always playing with at least two of Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Javonte Green, all of whom have been defending their butts off.

    Expecting the Bulls to sustain a top-five mark goes a touch too far. Their defense currently improves by a team-high 20.5 points per 100 possessions with DeRozan on the floor. That seems untenable given his squads have only ever been statistically better when he plays on the less glamorous twice before. But enough time has passed to at least rethink the preconceptions assigned to the Bulls defense. It might not suck, or even be bad, after all.

Cleveland's Scrappiness

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    What if someone told you before the start of the season the Cleveland Cavaliers would be 6-4 through 10 games while starting Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen in the frontcourt, with Darius Garland missing two games and with Collin Sexton shooting sub-27 percent from three?

    Would you have believed them? Laughed at them? Asked if that was their distress signal and whether they were in some kind of danger? Tuned them out entirely?

    Two games over .500 isn't worth raising a banner. But the Cavs have played through one of the NBA's 10 toughest schedules and scooped up quality victories against the Charlotte Hornets, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors. This list includes, conservatively, maybe two projected lottery teams.

    Hovering above .500 right now, even this early, is no joke. Whether it's sustainable is a different story.

    Allen and Mobley have been switch-proof defensive juggernauts, and Markkanen is trying amid some offensive warts. Cleveland is allowing 99.7 points per 100 possessions when these three share the floor. That stinginess incorporates some noise. Opponents are shooting 55 percent at the rim and 29.6 percent from three during these stretches while notching a 36.2 percent offensive rebounding rate.

    Still, the Cavs' entire start cannot just be written off as a mirage.

    Ricky Rubio has added an air of steadiness to the second unit. Garland is a better playmaker than he was last season. Cedi Osman has splashed threes before, albeit not like this. Perhaps the defense will regress, but the offense has the runway to get better. Markkanen and Sexton will hit more of their shots, and Cleveland has the personnel to keep converting their looks, both tough and easy, at the rim.

    More than anything, the point here is not to bill the Cavs as sleeping giants. They're not. But they don't look like Eastern Conference steppingstones either.

Desmond Bane's Mega Jump

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    Anyone who checked out our top sleeper bet for every major NBA award knew Desmond Bane would be getting this nod. Insofar as voters are prepared to genuinely consider a sophomore, he has entered the Most Improved Player conversation.

    Bane hinted at the capacity to do a lot more on offense during Las Vegas Summer League. That doesn't make his detonation to start the year any less of a "Eureka!" moment.

    Summer league roles for non-stars seldom translate to the regular season, and success in exhibition contests aren't necessarily predictive. This case is different. Bane's play has spilled over to the regular-season Memphis Grizzlies. He's averaging 16.7 points and 2.1 assists while nailing 56.6 percent of his twos and 40.3 percent of his threes, a blend of volume and efficiency he's returning on more complicated usage.

    More than 40 percent of Bane's shots this season are coming as pull-up jumpers, up from 25.5 percent in 2020-21. He's also averaging 6.6 drives per 36 minutes, compared to 5.5 during his rookie year. The Grizzlies have even saddled him with more volume running pick-and-rolls, and the 1.19 points per possession he's scoring as the ball-handler ranks fourth among 92 players who have attempted as many shots.

    Second-year leaps are not uncommon. Sophomores are generally working off a lower baseline. But Bane is not merely benefiting from a repressed threshold. He has taken on a much larger role and responded, so far, with play reminiscent of a co-cornerstone.

Orlando's (Apparently) Killer Starting 5

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    With the Orlando Magic at 2-8, with a bottom-four net rating, you'd expect nearly every nook and cranny of their rotation to be a bummer. That includes the starting five, which doesn't invoke much confidence when looking at it on paper.


    Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr. and Mo Bamba presently form a collective bright spot. They have started every single game for the Magic and are the league's sixth-most used lineup.

    And they're blasting opponents by 15.7 points per 100 possessions.

    That is not a net rating you'd expect to sustain. It's also not one you'd expect to exist at all when Suggs has yet to take off. This group is maintaining a league-average offense as he goes through the motions, on the back of 39.2 percent shooting from above the break. Wagner has been an inside-out delight, and Anthony is draining gnarly jumpers.

    Yours truly would've banked on this gaggle failing hard at the defensive end. It is instead allowing 91.3 points per 100 possessions. Wagner has held his own playing the 3, and the dual-big tandem of Bamba and WCJ has helped limit opponents to 56.5 percent shooting at the rim.

    Make of this what you will. Believable, temporary, somewhere in between, it doesn't matter. The play of this lineup to date is a smack-us-in-the-face type of surprise.

Seth Curry and Philly's Entire Offense, but Mostly Seth Curry

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    Injuries and health-and-safety absences continue to mushroom for the Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons isn't with them either. Did you know that? Somehow, the Sixers are not only above .500 but have the best record in the Eastern Conference. And the league's most efficient offense. Including the top half-court attack. All without Joel Embiid going truly scorched earth.

    Maybe this won't last. In fact, it probably won't. The Sixers are first in shooting around the rim and second in three-point accuracy. They're getting critical contributions from Georges Niang and Andre Drummond. (Bryan Toporek wrote a detailed piece on their importance to date for Forbes.)

    Then again, the Sixers will get healthier. Four of their projected starters have already missed games. Simmons should eventually take the court himself or turn into a package of players who populate the rotation.

    And hey, if Seth Curry's new normal is thermonuclear, who are we to doubt Philly's long-term trajectory? The 31-year-old is averaging 17.8 points per game on unfathomable efficiency that can only be adequately conveyed in bullet-point form. He is:

    • shooting 53.0 percent from beyond the arc
    • downing 66.7 percent of his looks on drives
    • 28-of-43 from mid-range (65.1 percent)
    • posting an effective field-goal percentage of 68.5 on off-the-dribble jumpers, the highest mark in the league among 97 players who have fired off at least 25 attempts
    • notching an effective field-goal percentage of 81.5 on catch-and-shoot jumpers, yet again the league's highest clip among 115 players with as many attempts
    • scoring 2.00 points per possession in transition (seriously), once more the league's best a comically large margin.

    So, um, holy crap. Seth Curry is really good, better than even his postseason explosions portended. And the Sixers, as it turns out, may be much better than expected, short-handed and all.

Sacramento Hanging Tough Amid De'Aaron Fox's Struggles

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    De'Aaron Fox has so far been one of the NBA's biggest disappointments—one of the league's least efficient offensive players bar none. He's shooting 1-of-23 on pull-up triples (4.3 percent) for crying out loud.

    All of this makes the Sacramento Kings' overarching performance that much more shocking. They are one game over .500 entering Saturday, with a top-six offense and top-11 point differential per 100 possessions.

    Collecting two wins over the decimated and downtrodden New Orleans Pelicans is nothing to brag about, but Sacramento has picked up victories over could-be and should-be good teams.

    It has gutted out W's against the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns and absolutely thumped the Charlotte Hornets on Friday. The Kings were ultra-competitive in their second loss to the Utah Jazz and hung tough with the Dallas Mavericks—though, to be honest, the latter isn't saying much these days.

    Anyway, never mind the schedule. Sacramento's best player has spent the vast majority of the season mired in a mega-slump. Treading water at all, let alone getting above .500, is a big friggin' deal.

    Harrison Barnes is on literal, actual fire. Buddy Hield is knocking down threes at a 40-plus percent clip and has tossed a few nifty passes. Richaun Holmes continues to shoot 1 trillion percent* on floaters and not receive enough credit for his base rim protection. Tyrese Haliburton is an all-round joy to watch. I was late filing this piece because I couldn't find a way around Davion Mitchell. The Maurice Harkless minutes have been largely good.

    It's still early and all that yada-yada-yada stuff. But the Kings are surviving almost in spite of Fox right now. Imagine how good they should be when he's a more consistent part of the solution.

San Antonio's Pace

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    In the absence of seasoned and effective half-court creators, the San Antonio Spurs always needed to juice up their pace this season. They knew it. We knew it. They have hinted at it with certain lineups of the past couple of years. But no one should have seen this stark of an uptick coming down the pipeline.

    San Antonio ranks second in average offensive possession time, behind only the Golden State Warriors, according to Inpredictable. Second. In the year 2021. With a 72-year-old Gregg Popovich on the sidelines, not merely enduring the speed but championing it.

    Only two teams are getting up the floor quicker after the opposition makes a shot. Nobody is going through their offensive motions faster following a defensive rebound. (Both stats per Inpredictable.) That bends the brain, if only because it runs contrary to the methodical system they've run in the past.

    Check out their average possession time rankings over the past half-decade-ish:

    Personnel tends to drive stylistic leanings. The Spurs are playing fast because, for once, they're not built to be so deliberate. And the returns aren't great. They are 21st in half-court efficiency and 17th in points per transition play. They are 3-6 through their first nine games.

    Let's agree not to care. This is the closest the Spurs have come to starting over since before Tim Duncan. And they're fun and uncharacteristic and fast. (Also: Devin Vassell. That's it. That's my point.) I, for one, dig it.

Scottie Barnes' Readiness

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    The Toronto Raptors selected Scottie Barnes at No. 4, ahead of consensus favorite Jalen Suggs, in what was believed to be a long-term investment they hoped paid off in gradual increments. He was, in other words, a project. Immediate expectations needed to be tapered, if not entirely checked at the door.

    So much for that.

    Toronto at large is something of a surprise. Creeping above .500, on the back of a five-game winning streak, and posting a top-10 net rating before Pascal Siakam's return from left shoulder surgery is quite the feat. (Happy note: Siakam is due back Sunday!)

    Dalano Banton, drafted at No. 46, is a downhill force and disruptive defender and actually playing. OG Anunoby has entered the Most Improved Player chat. I'm not sure the general public fully appreciates the load currently being ferried by Fred VanVleet. Gary Trent Jr. has turned it up a gear on defense. Svi Mykhailiuk is hitting threes again.

    Maybe I'm colored by my own expectations for the Raptors. They seemed painfully, obviously underrated entering the season. Barnes' play is the biggest surprise either way—more impactful than even Banton's out-of-the-gate impact because of what it means to Toronto's present and future.

    "Feel" has mutated into an overused buzzword around the league. That doesn't change the fact Barnes actually has it. Tons of it. He has hesitation moves baked into his handle. His floor awareness is divine; he seems to mentally throw certain passes before he ever has the ball.

    Some will harp on the absence of a three-point shot, but he's not shrinking the court. He's downing 45.2 percent of his mid-range jumpers—some of which have admittedly come as largely outmoded catch-and-fire looks—on legitimate volume (28-of-62). Defenses have started overreacting to the pressure he puts on the rim, where he's shooting 69 percent (29-fo-42), which opens up pockets of space for everyone else.

    Barnes' success does not feel fly-by-night. He has room to grow—to broaden his offensive portfolio as both playmaker and shot creator. But that's the terrifying point. He's ahead of schedule, already good, yet not nearly complete.

The Raul Neto Experience

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    Raul Neto long ago established himself as a hounding defender who can guard up a beat or two. That wasn't enough for him to bag more than a minimum deal in free agency last season, and the Washington Wizards are currently reaping the benefits from his lack of market.

    Standing 6'1", the 29-year-old remains as gnatty as ever on defense. His hands are sudden; he will breach even tight handles and appear in passing lanes. The Wizards have thrown him up against some wings, and he's holding his own.

    His offensive impact, on the other hand, is revelatory. Everything is clicking for him—at least inside the arc. He is shooting 14-of-18 (77.8 percent) at the rim and 12-of-21 on mid-range jumpers (57.1 percent) and leads the entire league in points scored per possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler (1.47).

    You know, just like we all expected.

    Though he often looks like he'll keel over, face first, when attacking downhill, Neto mostly maintains control and throws defenders off balance with his body's wonky angles and some fancy-schmancy pivot-foot work. He seems comfortable amid the uncomfortable. He threw a ridiculous bounce pass to Kyle Kuzma while on the ground in the Wizards' Friday night win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

    Expanding his role beyond the 20-something-minute reserve will be tough. Spencer Dinwiddie and Bradley Beal are entrenched as the Wizards' go-to guards. But Neto is playing well enough, at both ends, for Washington to start exploring three-guard alignments.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Saturday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.