Ranking NBA's biggest early surprises: New-look Suns, unrecognizable Warriors, Lakers defense lead the way
Every time you think you're getting a grip on the NBA, a wrench gets thrown into the works
The thing we most love about sports is the stuff we never see coming. They don't make movies about the favorite winning the game they're supposed to win -- instead it's the scrappy underdog who defies the odds and people's expectations with an unprecedented show of fortitude. A lot in the NBA has gone according to plan so far in the 2019-20 season -- the Clippers, Lakers, 76ers and Bucks are all among the league's best, James Harden is leading the league in scoring -- but there are also plenty of storylines we never could have predicted.
With that in mind, we decided to go through and rank the biggest early surprises so far this season. Of course, with just a seven- or eight-game sample size, many of these things are sure to change by season's end. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate them (or criticize them) for what they currently are. Oh yeah, and we've also defined the level of each surprise by using a GIF -- because GIFs are awesome. Enjoy.
1. The Phoenix Suns are ... good?
After averaging fewer than 22 wins over the last four seasons, the Suns are the feel good story of 2019-20 so far. They've been in the top three in net rating for pretty much the entire season, and already have signature wins over the Clippers and 76ers, both of which were undefeated at the time. Defense is the most glaring change, where they've gone from allowing 114.2 points per 100 possessions last season (29th in the NBA) to just 100.9 this season. Devin Booker continues to be elite offensively, but his improved defense, along with the additions of players like Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes and Jevon Carter, have allowed the Suns to thrive even without last year's No. 1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton.
2. The Santa Cruz Warriors
Even with a healthy Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and D'Angelo Russell, the Warriors looked terrible to start the season. Once those three went down with injury -- with Klay Thompson already out -- they've been fielding a roster that looks more like their Santa Cruz G League affiliate than an NBA team. The practically unrecognizable youngsters have played hard, and even picked up an over the Blazers, but for the Warriors to go from a perennial championship favorite to the top half of the lottery in such a short time is absolutely jarring.
3. Karl-Anthony Towns leading NBA in 3s per game
Not sure you could have gotten odds on it, but if you would have bet on Karl-Anthony Towns leading the NBA in 3-pointers per game two weeks into the season, you'd probably be very rich right now. The big man is making more than four 3-pointers a night at over a 46 percent clip -- simply a remarkable display. We knew Towns could shoot, but the volume at which he's been hitting basically puts him at Curry-level production from deep. Combine that with his devastating offense inside the 3-point line and his nearly two blocks per game, and you have an early season MVP candidate.
4. Run N' Gun Heat
Not only have the Heat raced out to an impressive start, but they're also doing it in a much different way. Miami is in the top 10 in pace this season, a far cry from the 23rd they finished in 2018-19. Part of that is replacing Hassan Whiteside with Bam Adebayo, and part of it is playing the first few games without Jimmy Butler. During the three games without Butler, the Heat led the league with 109.53 possessions per game, according to NBA.com. Since Butler has returned, they've gone down to 102.13. Either way it's much faster than the 98.74 pace they put up last season, and it seems to be working as the Heat look like a playoff lock at 5-2 to start the year.
5. Andre Drummond seeing 20/20
No NBA player has averaged over 20 points and 20 rebounds in a season since Wilt Chamberlain in 1969, according to Basketball Reference. Pistons center Andre Drummond is getting pretty close to that during his first handful of games of the 2019-20 season. Anyone who's seen Drummond play knows he's a great rebounder, but he's stepped up his offense considerably in Blake Griffin's absence to start the year, showcasing some surprisingly agile maneuvers around the basket and a nice floater game. Averaging 20-20 might not be possible when Griffin comes back, but even if he wound up at 18 and 18 he'd be in some pretty elite company -- the last NBA player to do that was Elvin Hayes in 1973-74.
6. Luka Doncic nearly averaging a triple-double
Doncic was the runaway Rookie of the Year last season, but part of the reason why two players were drafted ahead of him (and why he was traded for another) is that some felt he was closer to his ceiling than other prospects -- that he'd outshine his peers as a rookie because of his international experience, but he'd plateau as others continued to rise. So far that's not looking like a great assessment. Whether it's better conditioning, a more complete roster around him or simply natural progression, Doncic is clearly on another level this season. He's nearly averaging a triple-double while scoring over 26 points per game, and is drawing comparisons to LeBron James in terms of his ability to take over in the clutch. He's also seen significant bumps in field goal and 3-point percentages, which means he could regress, but more likely means he's become aware of which shots to avoid taking. Luka is here to stay -- the only question is how far he can rise.
7. Reeling Rockets
Giving up 158 points to the Wizards, then getting absolutely blown off the court by the Heat was a pretty rough one-two punch for Houston. Russell Westbrook seems to be fitting in well enough offensively, putting up near triple-double numbers as usual, but James Harden has massively struggled with his shot, making under 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from 3-point range. Plus Eric Gordon has been a non-factor all year long. Even if all those players start clicking, however, the defense is the primary concern. Houston is a bottom-three defense and has consistently looked as poor as any team in the league on that end. Can they turn it around? Last year they were middle of the pack in defensive efficiency after finishing seventh two seasons ago, so the decline has been steady. But don't forget the Rockets started off last season terribly before going on a run to finish with 53 wins.
8. Los Angeles Lakers a defensive juggernaut
The Lakers were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team last season, and most people focused on the offense when thinking about which offseason additions would complement LeBron and Anthony Davis. Players like Danny Green and Avery Bradley have clearly bolstered the defense, however, as the Lakers sit second in the NBA, allowing just 97.9 points per 100 possessions en route to a 6-1 start.
9. Chicago Bulls are a disaster
I can hear you already. How can a team that won 22 games last season starting off horribly be a surprise? Fair enough, but the Bulls were a sneaky playoff pick this offseason by many credible experts given their talented roster led by Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter. Those experts have now hired Mr. Robot to try to delete any history of such predictions from the internet. The Bulls have navigated a favorable early schedule with the grace and delicacy of a hippo on ice skates, with losses to the Hornets, Knicks and Cavs. Even what looked like a statement win over the Lakers turned into a horrendous loss, as they were outscored 38-19 in the fourth quarter to fall to 2-6. They picked up a win over the shorthanded Hawks on Wednesday and there's plenty of time to turn things around, but this is far from the start Bulls hopefuls were expecting.
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