The NBA season is underway and with most teams having around 20 games under their belts, we can kinda, sorta see some things taking shape through the first quarter of the season. The huge offseason news was LeBron James joining the Lakers and after all the hype we’ve heard about it, it’s honestly been…kinda boring. Though LeBron in L.A. has been a snoozefest, we’ve seen some other things happen around the league that have been very interesting. In the words of my friend and Combine colleague Spencer Aguiar, “Dwight Howard should’ve had a 99 rating in ball handling on NBA 2K this whole time!” Let’s take a look at the five biggest other surprises of the NBA season…so far.
#5. Kawhi Leonard’s Impact
We all thought that Kawhi Leonard was capable of being a true superstar, but damn! Leonard has announced his presence with authority in Toronto. After all the drama that went down in San Antonio last year, NBA fans were left with a lot of questions about Leonard, who seemed at best mercurical and at worst a legit head case, after feuding with legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich last season (the feud has spilled over into this season, through the media). While we don’t yet have a definitive answer to some of the off-the-court questions, Leonard’s play on the court is speaking for itself.
Leonard and the revamped Raptors have come out of the gate firing with a league-best 20-4 record. The combination of Leonard’s arrival and Nick Nurse’s promotion have been a shot in the arm for an organization that has continuously banged its head into the Eastern Conference playoff glass ceiling. We knew that LeBron’s departure would create a power vacuum in the East, but most of us assumed the Boston Celtics would take control of the conference in short order. Instead, the new-look Raptors have leaped to the top of the heap. It’s extremely early and Toronto has a long way to go. We’ve seen them dominate in the regular season, only to falter in the playoffs before. They need to keep Leonard healthy (he’s missed six games for precautionary reasons) and secure home court advantage.
The elephant in the room for Toronto is what happens with Leonard after this season when he becomes a free agent. Though the Raptors currently appear to be a better team with Leonard, they did take a huge risk when they traded for him. Toronto gave up an excellent player in DeMar DeRozan to acquire Leonard. The Raptors have no guarantee that Leonard will stay north of the border past this season. It will be interesting to see what Toronto can pull off in what amounts to a “do or die” season.
#4. The Sacramento Kings
There isn’t going to be a championship parade in Cow Town anytime soon, but the Kings actually look…talented. DeMarcus Cousins ain’t walking through that door, but that might not be a bad thing. For the first time, it looks as though the Kings side of the Cousins trade might not be completely horrible.
Buddy Hield, the much-maligned player at the center of the Cousins deal, has come out firing this season. Hield is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and minutes in 2018 and is starting to resemble the electrifying player we saw at Oklahoma. De’Aaron Fox, whom the Kings selected behind Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, has looked superior to both so far. Fox is averaging over 17 points and seven assists per game, and is an absolute blur with the ball in his hands. The Kings selected Marvin Bagley with the number two overall pick in this year’s draft. While passing on Luca Doncic seems to be a big mistake at the moment, Bagley has played very well when he’s seen the court and should be a key part of the Kings core moving forward. Sacremento’s other big man, Willie Cauley-Stein, is another King that’s posting career-best stats this season.
A .500 record won’t get you anywhere in the Western Conference, but it’s refreshing to see an organization at least attempt to build a young core through the draft in this era of “super teams” that are stocked with free-agent mercenaries that are trying to check “winning a championship ring” off their to-do lists.
#3. Boston Stumbles Out of the Gate, While The Clippers Start Hot
When I talked above about the Toronto Raptors strong start, I mentioned that the Boston Celtics were the team everyone assumed would grab the top spot in the East. That may very well end up being the case, but the Celts have gotten off to a very rocky .500 start. You can read an amazing in-depth breakdown about Boston’s struggles here, but the Cliffs Notes version is that Brad Stevens, a coach that has made a career out of exceeding expectations with limited talent, is struggling with the most talented roster he’s ever had.
The Celtics have a lot of talented parts that haven’t added up to a great whole…yet. Stevens is one of the sharpest coaches in basketball and will get things figured out by the time the playoffs roll around, but the emergence of teams like the Raptors, Bucks, and Sixers are going to make a Boston coronation, that once seemed like a foregone conclusion, much more difficult than anticipated just a couple of months ago.
Even after all these years, Doc Rivers and the Boston Celtics still seem to be linked. After his amazing run with the Celtics, Doc headed west to coach a talented Clippers roster. Now in his sixth season with the Clippers, Rivers has seen stars like Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Deandre Jordan leave town.
In sort of an inverse situation as Boston’s Stevens, Rivers has the least talented roster of his Clippers tenure. Doc has surprisingly led this group to a 15-7 start, good for second in the Western Conference. Talented players like Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, and Montrezl Harrell that have bounced around the league, have found a home in L.A. Rivers has veterans Lou Williams and Patrick Beverly, along with human meme Boban Marjanovic, anchoring a surprisingly effective second unit. It’s not likely that this collection of misfits can keep pace in the high-octane West, but it will be fun to watch Rivers and this group of NBA castaways try to keep up with the big boys.
#2. Golden State Might Be Human
You know the part in Rocky IV when Rocky finally connects with a punch and cuts Drago? When he comes back to the corner Duke says, “You see? He’s not a machine, he’s a man!”
I kind of feel like the Warriors are Ivan Drago. They’ve been destroying people for years, but they’ve been cut above the eye in this young season. Injuries and in-fighting have been the biggest culprit of Golden State’s lackluster month and like Drago, the Warriors are still awesome, but I think the other teams in the NBA are seeing they are at least human.
It’s probably not fair to even suggest that the Warriors are anything other than phenomenal. Five of their seven losses have come with Steph Curry out of the lineup, while Draymond Green has been in street clothes for four of the Warriors losses.
Chances are, the Warriors will be just fine and win yet another championship this season, but it is interesting to see a chink in their armor. It feels like this might be the last season that we see this team as it’s currently constructed, with Kevin Durant almost certain to sign a long-term deal elsewhere. This team has been historically good and it will be fun to see them make one last run in the postseason.
#1. Jimmy Buckets To Philly
After a much-heralded reunion with Tom Thibodeou, his former coach in Chicago, things imploded in Minnesota over the summer. Butler held up his end of the bargain last season, taking the Timberwolves to the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season. The four-time All-Star led Minnesota in scoring and attempted to light a competitive fire under the talented duo of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
Despite the talented nucleus that Minnesota possessed, the ultra-competitive Butler began to feel that neither Towns nor Wiggins had what it would take to win a championship. Butler’s unhappiness became public in mid-September when it was publicized that he had requested a trade. This was punctuated by the now-legendary practice in October, when Butler showed up to the Wolves facility and went scorched earth on everyone in attendance.
While Butler is a highly desirable player, his contract situation made dealing him difficult. A player option to become a free-agent after this season spooked possible trade suitors. The two teams that we kept hearing about as likely destinations for Butler were Houston and Miami. The one team that we never heard about, until the trade was complete, was the Philadelphia 76ers.
Sometimes the most obvious solutions to problems don’t dawn on us until after the problem is solved. This was the case with the Butler-to-Philly deal. The young, up-and-coming Sixers were reportedly looking to add another star to their dynamic duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but no one had connected the dots to Butler. Philly thought they added this third piece through the draft with their selection of Markelle Fultz with the number one pick in 2017, but Fultz’s stay in Philly has been a bizarre disaster.
With LeBron James’ departure from the East, the Sixers front office is looking to seize control of the conference now. Their willingness to gamble on Butler signals their belief that they can compete for the Eastern Conference title this year. It’s also a sign that Philly believes in the mental makeup of both Embiid and Simmons, and their ability to withstand Butler’s Jordan-esque competitiveness and demanding personality.
I’m not sure if it has yet dawned on Butler that this might be his last chance to play the part of savior for a team. If he can’t make things work both off and on the court with this talented young Sixers roster, then we might start believing that he’s the real problem. Both Embiid and Simmons are legitimate MVP-caliber talents, the question now is whether they will wilt under Butler’s pressure or be driven to championship heights by it.