The 10 Biggest Surprises and Disappointments of the 2021-22 NBA Season
An early-April roundup of 2021-22's biggest surprises and disappointments is the perfect way to illustrate just how bad we all are at projections.
Sure, it's easy to forecast at the extremes. We all knew the Phoenix Suns would be great, while the Oklahoma City Thunder were predestined to suck—which is fine; they're doing it on purpose.
But when you look back at the storylines that defined the year, and at the players who produced them, it's remarkable just how hard it was to see most of them coming.
As usual, the NBA refused to stick to the script.
Surprise: Ja Morant's Ascent
There were probably some starry-eyed Memphis Grizzlies loyalists who predicted Ja Morant's third-year climb to fringe-MVP status, but those of us trying to stay objective didn't see this coming.
Another year of incremental growth? Sure.
A leap into the NBA's top tier of superstars while, by the way, lifting the Grizzlies to the West's No. 2 seed and imbuing them with the unofficial league lead in confidence and swagger? Less foreseeable!
Morant tacked 8.5 points onto his scoring average, racking up his 27.6 points per game with improved efficiency from the field and from deep. Even with a huge spike in usage rate, the spring-loaded point guard set a career high with a 57.5 true shooting percentage, bumping that figure above the league average for the first time.
It was as if Morant simply turned the dial up on his entire game. He continued to showcase inspired ball-handling craft that often looked invented on the spot, yet his work way up above the floor overshadowed what he did with two feet planted on it.
Skeptics will point to the Grizzlies' sterling play in games Morant missed this season. Some of that is attributable to his poor play on D, but the more charitable way to view Memphis' success without its best player is as a testament to the talent on the rest of the roster and the quality of head coach Taylor Jenkins' preparation.
Full validation will (or won't) come in the playoffs. But Morant's rise was among the most exciting surprises of the regular season.
Disappointment: The Lakers' Total Collapse
There's no joy in seeing a team crumble, but victory laps are hard to come by in the preseason prediction game. So I'm taking one here for being among those who thought the Los Angeles Lakers were ticketed for trouble from the jump.
Remember, even though there were red flags flying high when Los Angeles dealt half its rotation for Russell Westbrook, this team still began the season with the second-best title odds and an expected win total in the 50s. That means the Lakers' slog of a year wasn't the consensus expectation.
Whatever you thought about the team and Westbrook's impact on it before the campaign, what happened in Los Angeles is still a resounding disappointment. LeBron James' age-37 season was historically productive, another entry in his ever-expanding GOAT portfolio. It also officially went to waste as the Lakers fell short of the play-in tournament.
Injuries played a role, but that doesn't make the Lakers' fate any less dispiriting. If anything, deteriorating health for aging (James) and increasingly injury-prone (Anthony Davis) players casts a shadow over the team's future. With the present looking so bleak, that's a real double whammy.
That 2020 title feels like it happened 10 years ago.
Surprise: DeMar DeRozan's Career Year
The aging curve alone made what DeMar DeRozan did this year seem impossible. Age-32 seasons are usually marked by gentle decline, and that's if the player in question is lucky. DeRozan ignored that trend en route to the best season of his career.
He's on pace to average a personal-best 28.2 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting, complete with a near-career-high 23.4 player efficiency rating.
Though the Chicago Bulls' second-half swoon knocked him out of serious contention, DeRozan spent much of the season as a top-five MVP candidate. Coming out of the All-Star break, he was seventh in an MVP straw poll conducted by ESPN's Tim Bontemps.
That individual success translated to the team for just the second time in DeRozan's career. Not since 2011-12 had DeRozan produced a positive on/off split. He was firmly in the black for this year's Bulls.
Perhaps most satisfyingly, DeRozan did it his way. He made more mid-range shots than all but four other players even attempted, though his most memorable buckets ironically came from behind the three-point line.
It was fair to expect DeRozan would help Chicago's offense this season, even if he lost a step or couldn't quite find a rhythm on his new team. He went way beyond those modest expectations and should get All-NBA consideration for the first time in nearly a half-decade.
Disappointment: Knicks' Offensive Woes
You didn't have to go too far out on a limb to predict the New York Knicks would struggle to repeat the feats of 2020-21, which included a 41-31 record and a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.
But if you were a skeptic, you almost definitely got the cause for their struggles wrong.
See, it was easy to look at last year's league-low 33.8 percent opponent shooting from three-point range and forecast regression. The Knicks couldn't stay that lucky, and their defensive efficiency was due to fall off when opponent accuracy normalized—or so the thinking went. In reality, the Knicks either stayed lucky, or their suppression of opponent shooting was legitimate. New York's opponents again hit treys at low rates, and the resulting change in opponent effective field-goal percentage was minimal.
The Knicks ranked second in the league in that stat in 2020-21, and they were a solid eighth this year.
The trouble arose where it wasn't supposed to after an offseason spent bolstering a suspect offense. But Kemba Walker flopped, Evan Fournier didn't make a difference, Derrick Rose missed more time and Julius Randle fell off to an alarming degree.
Even worse, the Knicks never found any chemistry with their most important lineups. The bench outperformed the starters (from a plus/minus perspective) by hundreds of points. That is not a typo.
Yes, the defense slipped a little. But it wasn't the Knicks' undoing. It was the poor performance of offseason additions, combined with Randle's total failure to replicate last year's work that torpedoed New York's campaign. The team's turnover rate went up, its effective field-goal percentage went down and all that focus on improving the scoring resulted in an offensive rating that climbed a grand total of three-tenths of a point over last season's rates.
Surprise: The Robert Williams III Experiment
The Boston Celtics will finish 2021-22 with the league's top defense and home-court advantage in their first-round playoff series, results that seemed unlikely midway through the season. Boston was 17-19 when the calendar flipped to 2022.
Since then, the Celtics have been the most dominant team in the league, racking up blowouts behind an All-NBA surge from Jayson Tatum and a defense so in sync that it feels like telepathy is involved. But one of this season's most impressive turnarounds might never have happened if not for some outside-the-box thinking.
In the middle of January, big man Robert Williams III stopped guarding centers and instead marked the opponent's least threatening forward, usually stationed in the corner. Cross-matching isn't a new concept, but you typically see this extreme version of it deployed sparingly—usually as a playoff curveball. Hop into the way-back machine and think of Andrew Bogut "guarding" Tony Allen to help the Golden State Warriors eliminate the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Celtics basically decided to take that unusual tweak and make it their base defense.
Williams roved off the ball, swooping across the lane to spike shots into the stands and supercharging a Boston defense that also had Marcus Smart zipping all over the floor. Nobody was even close to being as stingy as Boston after Jan. 15, the first time Williams played his rover role.
A torn meniscus could limit Williams in the playoffs, and even if he makes it back to full strength, Al Horford may be overextended with the switch responsibilities he shoulders while guarding centers. Postseason offenses will be ready for Boston's tactics.
Still, it's no less remarkable that the best regular-season defense was built on such a bold change.
Disappointment: The Warriors' Best Barely Played
Thompson didn't debut until Jan. 9, a date that marked the beginning of Green's two-month absence because of a back injury. When Green returned March 14, he was still on a minutes restriction and not starting games, which limited his time with Thompson and Curry. And then Steph's regular season ended two days later when Marcus Smart dove for a loose ball and caught the two-time MVP's left foot underneath him.
The Warriors were one of the best teams in the league with just Curry and Green healthy to start the season, going 29-9 and tying for the top spot in net rating before Thompson made it back onto the floor. That early run suggested the Dubs were contenders—with or without Thompson. Who knows how the standings might have looked if all three had been healthy?
Golden State heads into the playoffs with one of the widest spectrums of possible outcomes.
If Curry isn't healthy and able to return for the first round, the Warriors could lose to anyone they meet. If he's fully recovered from the sprained ligament in his foot, and if Green rounds into form and if Thompson finds his stroke more consistently, Golden State should be viewed as a legitimate threat to win the whole thing.
Or, at least we think so.
We only got 11 minutes to form that opinion.
Surprise: The Whole Harden-Simmons-Nets-76ers Thing
Maybe we should have led with this one, considering the way its out-of-nowhere emergence, layered complexity and sheer volume of star power overtook this season's narrative cycle for longer than any other story.
It may seem hard to remember now that the trade is two months behind us, but the Ben Simmons saga, which eventually folded in James Harden and two Eastern Conference contenders, was this season's most compelling chain of events.
The tension between Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers wasn't necessarily a surprise—not after Simmons' postseason flameout and ensuing reports that the Sixers explored trading him in the offseason. But when Simmons told the team he wouldn't report to September training camp, the intrigue intensified.
From that point through the middle of February, the whole affair grew tentacle after tentacle, eventually involving virtually half the league in trade rumors. Sixers top executive Daryl Morey upped the surreality by threatening to hold on to Simmons for literal years—if that's what it took to get the deal he wanted.
Toss in Harden forcing extrication from his second team in as many seasons, the related Kyrie Irving vaccine-mandate fiasco and even the angst over Philly squandering an MVP-caliber season from Joel Embiid, and this thing had far-reaching implications and daytime-talk-show levels of drama.
Holdouts and trade requests have been around for a while. But until this year, we hadn't seen any as protracted and, potentially, landscape-altering as the ones involving this situation.
Disappointment: No Zion
Lest we forget, Zion Williamson concluded the 2020-21 season as just the seventh player in history to average at least 27.0 points per game with a true shooting percentage north of 64.0 percent.
That's an all-timer of an offensive year from a guy playing his age-20 season. The sky was the limit, but a fractured foot kept Zion from ever getting off the ground in 2021-22. Despite professing readiness for opening night when speaking to reporters at media day, Williamson will almost certainly conclude this campaign with zero minutes of court time.
Had the New Orleans Pelicans been more transparent about Williamson's health status following offseason foot surgery, maybe we could have tempered our expectations. But even a pessimistic outlook would have featured Williamson playing at some point during the year. Based on similar injuries suffered by other players, Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com pegged Zion's recovery timeline at eight to 10 weeks, and that was on the "safer" side.
It would have been reasonable to hope for Williamson's return in January, or at least before the All-Star break. But setbacks intervened.
Now, with less than a week left in the season and the Pels locked into a play-in spot, it's hard to imagine Zion getting back on the floor.
Here's hoping this is the last time we include anything involving Williamson in a season-ending list of disappointments.
Surprise: The Ridiculously Good 2021 Draft Class
The 2021 NBA draft class was widely expected to be better than the 2020 version, but that wasn't saying much. Cade Cunningham was a clear top choice, but there were doubts about his superstar upside, making him the rare projected (and actual) No. 1 pick whose biggest selling point had more to do with his floor than his ceiling.
Evan Mobley looked too skinny. Scottie Barnes didn't even start for his college team. Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga were megawatt athletes, but could they play?
Fast-forward to April, and the 2021 class stacks up well against the best of all time.
Mobley appears to be a transformational defensive piece in the mold of Kevin Garnett, Cunningham has some Luka Doncic-esque flashes of on-ball poise, Barnes can do everything, Kuminga and Green have clear superstar upside. Franz Wagner, another purportedly low-upside pick, was arguably the Orlando Magic's best player this year. And that's to say nothing of the massive contributions from guys further down the draft order such as Alperen Sengun, Herb Jones and Ayo Dosunmu.
The Athletic's John Hollinger thinks these 2021 selections might even be a historically good group: "For whatever reason, this year's class hasn't had the 2018-level hype. But in terms of the depth of quality players, guys who matter, this could be the best draft in a quarter-century."
Consider: That vaunted 2018 class had 19 players log over 1,000 minutes as rookies. The 2021 crew already has 19. In 2018, 14 rookies totaled at least 500 points. This year, 15 first-year players have cracked that mark. More advanced metrics? In 2018, 26 rookies amassed at least 1.0 win shares. This year, it was 25.
At the very least, these rookies were debatably as productive as the class that featured Doncic, Deandre Ayton, Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges and a half-dozen other quality starters.
That was far from the expectation.
Disappointment: We Have to Choose One MVP
Nobody had averaged at least 30.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game since 1976, and both Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo could hit those numbers this season.
Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic are in line to produce the first player efficiency ratings above 32.0 in league history, with Jokic likely to set the all-time mark. That's not the only historic high Jokic will achieve this season; he's also going to blow away the RAPTOR total Stephen Curry produced in his unanimous MVP year of 2015-16, which was the best mark in FiveThirtyEight's database (going back to 2013-14).
Jokic is also a good bet to set the record in box plus/minus.
Embiid carried the Philadelphia 76ers without Ben Simmons and will lead the league in free throws made and attempted, a testament to his craft and physically dominant play.
Antetokounmpo, who once spent more time at shooting guard than any other position, played center for a larger share of minutes than ever, leading lineups that outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions.
Embiid tied the post-merger record with a dozen 40-point, 10-rebound games.
These guys have bowled the league over all year, taking on challenges, covering for injured or absent teammates and putting up numbers we've never seen. And we're supposed to pick just one of them for this season's top individual honor?
A wholly deserving somebody—two somebodies, actually—will wind up without an MVP trophy.
Yep, that's disappointing.