Ranking the NBA's 10 Biggest Surprises Halfway Through 2021-22

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2022

Ranking the NBA's 10 Biggest Surprises Halfway Through 2021-22

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    As the 2021-22 NBA season nears its halfway point, it has provided no shortage of twists, turns and didn't-see-that-comings.

    From non-stars making All-Star leaps to a former All-Star rocketing into the MVP race, an ex-juggernaut getting its groove back to a pair of unlikely powers rising in the East, the basketball world (like the world at large) has birthed one unpredictable event after the next.

    The top 10 (pleasant) surprises are all compiled here and ranked based on significance, sustainability and degree of astonishment.

10. The Blasts from the Past

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    On surprise factor alone, this blows everything out of the water. There isn't a Bingo card in this universe or any other that had all of these familiar faces returning like the ghosts of NBA past to help cover up COVID-related absences.

    Almost overnight, basketball's way-back machine began time-traveling players into the present and on NBA rosters for the first time in years. Justin Anderson, C.J. Miles and Brandon Knight all came back after a full season hiatus, but they were relatively fresh on the minds compared to some of the other resurfacing pros.

    Lance Stephenson, Greg Monroe, Nik Stauskas and Darren Collison all logged their first NBA minutes since 2018-19. Joe Johnson played for the first time since 2017-18. Mario Chalmers, who hadn't had an NBA gig since April 2018, even found his way back to the Miami Heat.

    For all of the twists and turns this season could have taken, this was unimaginable. Yet, because this is so specific to today's unique global circumstances, and since all of these comebacks could soon prove temporary, it feels wrong to rank this any higher. It absolutely deserves a mention, though.

9. Jonas Valanciunas Finding a 3-Ball at Age 29

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    If recent NBA history has taught us anything, it's probably that no one should be surprised when a modern player—usually a big man—suddenly adds the long ball to his arsenal.

    Oh, well. I'm still pleasantly surprised any time an established, productive post player goes into the offseason as a non-shooter and returns as a legitimate spacer. Like Brook Lopez and Nikola Vucevic before him, Valanciunas had already carved his niche as a physical paint presence, but he saw stretchiness as his key to survival.

    "I don't want to disappear," he said in December, per NOLA.com's Christian Clark.

    Valanciunas, who only attempted four three-pointers across his first five seasons, has already splashed a career-high 37 in 36 games. He's hit at least three triples five times, had five-plus in two contests and went 7-of-8 during a 39-point eruption in late November. More importantly, he's burying his long-range looks at a 43 percent clip, making him one of only 13 players to be that accurate on multiple perimeter shots per game.

8. Golden State's Rapid Rise Back to the Top

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Should I be surprised that a squad following the lead of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green is dominant? Maybe not. But those two were around and awesome last season and the Golden State Warriors still couldn't snag a playoff spot.

    Expectations were obviously heightened for this season, but that was mostly because of the returns of Klay Thompson and James Wiseman. Neither has debuted yet, and the Dubs still sit second in both winning percentage (.763) and net rating (plus-8.7). Prior to a 2-3 post-Christmas skid, they were steamrolling at a 67-win pace. For context, 67 wins would match the second-highest total in franchise history.

    On one hand, the success feels natural. The Curry-Green-Steve Kerr triumvirate has been absurdly effective more often than not, and their Curry-centric, movement-based system can hum like it did during the Bay Area's best of times.

    On the other hand, this club couldn't escape the play-in tournament last season, made its biggest free-agency splashes with Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica, added a pair of lottery picks who don't play much and is suddenly borderline unbeatable? That's not natural, folks.

7. Miles Bridges Making an All-Star Case

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Charlotte Hornets had a close-up view of Miles Bridges' first three NBA seasons. They weren't blown away. If they had been, they would have offered more than the four-year, $60 million extension he declined in October.

    That was a relatively reasonable offer then, as he seemed rock-solid but certainly not special. And then this season happened.

    After an inconspicuous 13-point debut, Bridges went on a rampage and announced his arrival as a rising star or something in the same galaxy. Back-to-back 30-plus-point barrages turned heads, and no one has looked away since. A former complementary finisher, he's now creating more of his own offensive opportunities (and finding shots for others) and morphing into a nightly 20-point provider.

    He claimed the campaign's first Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor, and he has maintained that momentum two-plus months later. His stat line essentially features one personal best after the next. He has changed his entire career trajectory, and he has the Hornets' arrow pointing up—provided, of course, they're willing to meet his skyrocketing cost in restricted free agency.

6. The Best Lineup in Basketball (Yes, Really)

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    Around the Association, 212 different lineups have logged at least 35 minutes together. The most effective fivesome of that entire group belongs—as everyone surely expected—to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    This may not be the case of small-sample size theater, either, as the unit has logged 142 minutes together across 13 contests. Minnesota, by the way, is 10-3 in those outings thanks in a massive part to the mind-numbingly great two-way play of its preferred first five: Patrick Beverley, D'Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jarred Vanderbilt and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    That lineup may not read like murderers' row, but it has, statistically speaking, been body-bagging opponents all season. It owns an offensive rating of 136.9 and a defensive rating of 86.4, which, for the non-math majors in the audience, equates to a nightly advantage of—wait for it—50.5 points per 100 possessions (!). I've never used this word before, but the moment is begging me to let it fly: Egads!

    Will this sustain over an entire season? No chance. Does it make a lot of sense? Not really, although Beverley and Vanderbilt are exactly the kind of low-maintenance, defense-first players who can complement the high-usage trio of Russell, Edwards and Towns. But even if the extreme dominance drops, Minnesota might have unlocked a valuable two-way formula here.

5. Freshman Scoring

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The fact that there are potent scorers in this rookie class isn't surprising, but the players responsible for a lot of the buckets sure are.

    The freshman scoring title was supposed to be decided by a two-player race between top picks Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green. Instead, it's Franz Wagner leading the charge with more points than he averaged in college (15.8) and already more 20-point outbursts (10) than he had across two seasons at Michigan (six).

    Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes were supposed to be instant-impact defenders who would maybe show signs of offensive life over the course of the season. Mobley is already pumping in 14.8 points per game on 50.1 percent shooting and hitting 44.1 percent of his pull-ups. Barnes is averaging nearly five more points per game than he did at Florida State (15.1, up from 10.3) and has more than doubled his threes (23, 11).

    If NBA teams knew Herbert Jones could be a competent offensive player—at any point of his career—they never would've let the ace defender slip to the second round. But they doubted, so they did, and the New Orleans Pelicans have been thanking their fortunes ever since. He already has 14 double-digit efforts under his belt, including a 26-piece that bettered his output in any of the 129 games he played at Alabama.

4. Desmond Bane's Power-Up

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Desmond Bane wasted little time establishing himself as the one that got away at the 2020 draft. The 30th selection snagged an All-Rookie spot while shining in a three-and-D role that seemed it might fit him like a tailored suit for the next decade-plus.

    But Bane had other plans, which apparently included gaining access to the Mushroom Kingdom and swiping one of Mario's star power-ups.

    Bane the three-and-D ace is out; Bane the 17.4-points-per-game scorer and reliable shot-creator is in.

    Despite doubling his shot attempts, his shooting rates haven't faltered (46.6/41.6/90.6). Despite a big jump in usage percentage (from 16.1 to 22.7), his turnover percentage has dropped (10.2 to 8.8). Despite creating more of his offense and handling a much more significant role, his true shooting percentage has barely budged (60 percent last season, 58.5 now).

    After shattering expectations as a rookie, he has engineered another exponential leap for a follow-up. The Memphis Grizzlies can't wait to see what's next.

    "He's only scratching the surface of what he can be," Grizzlies skipper Taylor Jenkins said, per The Athletic's Mike Vorkunov.

3. DeMar DeRozan Joining MVP Race

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Who peaks in their age-32 season? DeMar DeRozan, apparently.

    He's been an All-Star before (four times) and a stat-sheet filler for the better part of a decade, but he's never been this. He's an MVP candidate—not a fringe candidate, not a sneaky sleeper, but someone fully in the running and keeping pace with everyone.

    From one game-winner to the next, one bananas box score after another, he's leading the charge of the Eastern Conference's best team (more on that in a minute). Prior to this season, his teams had played better without him in 11 of his 12 years. Now, the Bulls are bulldozing teams by 9.7 points per 100 possessions when he plays and being outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions when he doesn't.

    "He has come here for the right reasons," Bulls assistant Chris Fleming said, per NBC Sports Chicago's K.C. Johnson. "He really wants to be part of a winner."

    DeRozan is turning the Bulls into a winner and reaching a level he never previously approached. The leap from really good to great might be the hardest in all of sports, and DeRozan is making it as a 32-year-old.

    Even the most optimistic Chicago backers couldn't have seen this coming. DeRozan hasn't been an All-Star since 2017-18, which is the last (and only) season in which he finished top 10 in MVP voting (he was eighth). His 26.9 points per game are his most since 2016-17 (and second-highest of his career), and his 36.2 three-point percentage is easily the best he's ever posted.

2. Big Cavs Winning Big

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    Lauren Bacho/Getty Images

    The Cleveland Cavaliers have stuck with their jumbo-sized formula all season—at least, when health has allowed them to—and the style probably still has its skeptics.

    But how can anyone argue with the results? The Cavaliers, a laughing stock since LeBron James bolted out of Northeast Ohio in 2018, are within striking distance of a top-four seed in the East and are thrashing opponents by 15.3 points per 100 possessions when rising point guard Darius Garland shares the hardwood with the towering trio of Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen.

    It's a frontcourt-wide zag against the league-wide zig toward small-ball, and it could not be paying...well, bigger dividends for Cleveland's finest.

    "The other teams really feel that size," coach J.B. Bickerstaff told ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

    Just last season, the Cavs were buried at 25th in defensive efficiency. Now, that same unit sits third overall and tops in the Eastern Conference. Throw in an offensive jump of more than 10 spots (28th to 14th), and you have the two-way formula for Cleveland to not only book its first post-LeBron playoff trip but also potentially bypass the play-in tournament to get there.

1. Bulls' Run to No. 1

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Before the season, Chicago's best-case scenario peaked around or maybe a hair above the play-in tournament. When oddsmakers assessed this club in mid-October, they tagged this team for 43.5 wins, putting them seventh in the East and firmly in the play-in hunt.

    Bull-ish supporters (pun partially intended) might have given the club a shot at the fourth or fifth seed, but that could've been pushing it.

    About that...43.5 wins is a .530 winning percentage. Chicago carried a .714 clip into Friday night, which is a 59-win pace. The Bulls have cleared that mark just six times in their franchise's existence and only once without the assistance of Michael Jordan.

    This. Is. Staggering. Maybe even more so is the fact that it looks totally legit. The offense is the league's fourth-best, and it probably has another level to reach since Nikola Vucevic hasn't been as sharp as normal. The defense, spurred by the offseason additions of Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Chicago-born rookie Ayo Dosunmu, sits 12th overall.

    When Chicago assembled this roster, more than a few people give it a side-eye (yours truly included). The Bulls noticed and used it to help fuel their ascension.

    "We took it personally," DeRozan said recently on ESPN's NBA Today. "We let our game speak for itself."

    The Bulls are speaking basketball poetry, and their championship credentials are ironclad.

                

    Statistics are accurate through Thursday's games and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference, unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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