It happens every offseason. Teams sign players, the media gives its assessment on how well that team looks on paper and makes predictions based off that. Some teams, like the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, are easier to do the eye test with. They both have two superstars, so they should be among Western Conference contenders. On the other end of the spectrum, teams like the Knicks and Wizards have such a dysfunctional track record that it's easy to write them off after doing little to improve in the offseason.
Every year, though, there are always a handful of teams who we are wrong about after the season starts. Whether it be the team was overhyped coming into the season, or not enough credit was given to the roster that the front office constructed. Whatever the reason, we're forced to reconcile with the fact that those preseason narratives were wrong, and some teams have been doing better -- or worse -- than predicted. With a quarter of the season down, here are five teams who have played against their preseason narratives.
Better: Toronto Raptors
After Kawhi Leonard left for Los Angeles, many assumed that the Raptors would slip in the Eastern Conference this season. While they weren't projected to completely implode, they were on any preseason championship odds lists either. The idea of unloading the expiring contracts of Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in order to build for the future was talked about more than the Raptors' championship run this summer. However, instead of closing the chapter on this era of the Raptors, Toronto ran it back with mostly the same squad, and so far it's paid off as it sits at 15-5, good for second place in the East.
Pascal Siakam could very well win Most Improved Player again, becoming the first player in league history to do so, after taking another seismic leap in Toronto. His numbers are up across the board, averaging 25.1 points a contest while shooting a career-best 38.4 percent from beyond the arc. Fred VanVleet is having a career year after rising to stardom last season, and OG Anunoby has slid into the starting lineup in place of Leonard, and has become a stout defender, while remaining incredibly efficient on offense.
Toronto ranks third in the league in net rating (7.9), just ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers, a team it has already beaten this season. The Raptors are one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league, and also one of the best transition teams as well. They have played against the narrative that they would be an ordinary team this season without Leonard, and they've proven to everyone that they should be mentioned right alongside other East favorites as title contenders.
Worse: Chicago Bulls
At Zach LaVine and Lauri Markannen all echoed the same sentiment: playoffs or bust. At the start of the preseason, FiveThirtyEight gave the Bulls a 54 percent chance of making the playoffs. ESPN's Kevin Pelton called them the most underrated team in the Eastern Conference. Fast forward to today and the Bulls are sitting at 8-14 and 10th in the East standings. To be fair, they're only 2.5 games outside of that eighth seed currently, but the Bulls have been playing truly uninspired basketball., everyone from general manager Gar Forman and vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, to head coach Jim Boylen and franchise players
LaVine and Markannen have failed to establish any sort of consistent chemistry on the floor together. Markannen has been the more concerning of the two, as he's struggled greatly after opening the season with a 35-point, 12-rebound performance. His scoring and rebounding numbers have regressed from a season ago, his field goal percentage has taken a dive and on most nights he's getting out-muscled by larger defenders.
The Bulls have picked up ugly losses to the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, and fallen apart in close games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks. Each time the Bulls look like they're about to turn a corner, they end up suffering an embarrassing loss, like the 104-90 loss to the four-win Golden State Warriors. Whether the blame should be placed on Boylen, the front office, the players or a little bit of all three, the Chicago Bulls do not look like the underrated team that has a chance of surprising anyone and sneaking into the playoffs this season.
Better: Miami Heat
In a summer of dynamic duos, Jimmy Butler opted to lone wolf it in Miami. Heading into the season, the Heat were considered an average team at best. Preseason polls by ESPN and FiveThirtyEight had the Heat finishing seventh in the East, with just a 74 percent chance of making the playoffs. Now, a quarter of a way through the season, not only is Miami one of the last three remaining teams with an unbeaten home record, but it's sitting at 15-6 -- good for third place in the NBA -- and projected to finish with 49 wins.
While Butler fits perfectly with the "Heat Culture," it's the plethora of young players, two of which are serious Rookie of the Year candidates, who have been the main storyline in Miami. Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro have essentially taken turns being the best rookie on this team every night, with Nunn averaging 15.3 points, and Herro putting up 13.6 a contest. Bam Adebayo , averaging a double-double so far this season. Meanwhile, Duncan Robinson is shooting 43.5 percent from the 3-point line, which is second on the team behind, surprisingly, Meyers Leonard, who leads the league in 3-point percentage (53.8).
Without Butler, the Heat would be just another exciting young team to watch that likely wouldn't make an impact in the East. With Butler, however, Miami has become a real threat. Before the season started, it was one move away from being a contender, but now,in the league.
Worse: San Antonio Spurs
It's been two decades since the Spurs missed the playoffs. Every year when they're supposed to be down, they prove everyone wrong and make a postseason appearance anyway, which is why they're always given the courtesy in preseason rankings of being picked to reach the playoffs. However, after seeing them through the first quarter of the season, it's safe to say that the Spurs' postseason streak will officially end.
DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are putting up respectable numbers, but it's far from enough to pull out wins in the competitive Western Conference. An eight-game losing streak, which included losses to the Orlando Magic, Memphis Grizzlies and Washington Wizards, dug the Spurs (8-14) into a hole they might not be able to get out of later in the season. They're not seeing the type of production most expected from Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, and they're one of the worst defensive teams in the league, allowing 116 points a night.
For years, the Spurs' defense has been their calling card, but this year's squad has even head coach Gregg Popovich stumped about who his best defensive players are. Last season, the Spurs took the superior Denver Nuggets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs, and they were able to get to that point because of their defense. This year, though, this team doesn't even look like it could win one game if it miraculously got that far.
Better: Phoenix Suns
The Suns' hot start has slowed down due to injuries, but it cannot be denied that they have made almost a complete 180 from where they were a season ago. Phoenix has been a bottom-feeder in the league for years, and nothing it did in the offseason changed those expectations heading into this season. ESPN and FiveThirtyEight had the Suns finishing second-to-last in the West at the start of preseason, with just a 14 percent shot at the playoffs. Now, behind the coaching of Monty Williams, the Suns are a legitimate playoff contender.
Adding Aron Baynes has proven to be the best move the Suns made this offseason, as the ex-Celtic is leading the team in 3-point percentage and bringing a level of intensity and toughness the team had been lacking. They picked up early-season wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers behind their seventh-ranked offense, where they shot north of 50 percent from the field in both games. Devin Booker's usage percentage is down from 32.9 to 28.1, which is a sign that the Suns don't need to rely entirely on him to put up points. For the first time in years, the Suns are a watchable team, and have showed that they're heading in the right direction rather than back to the lottery for the 10th straight year.