NBA Early Season Surprises

Note: I will not focus on the Jimmy Butler situation in Minnesota, as we all know it is time for him to get out of that organization.

Denver Nuggets Hot Start

Utah Jazz v Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets have easily been one of the best teams in the NBA throughout the first two weeks of the season. As I stated during my 30 Teams in 30 Days series, I believe the Nuggets will be a playoff team at the culmination of the 2018-19 season. Did I think they would currently be the number two team in the Western Conference after an 8-1 start? No, I had them pegged as a 6 to 8 seed, and I do not think anybody, except Nuggets fans themselves, could foresee this squad’s success.


The Nuggets beat the Warriors 100-98 on their October 21st matchup. They also beat the Clippers, Pelicans, and Jazz, three teams who will be in the playoff race come April. They also beat a Sacramento Kings team that is currently 6-4 in the 6th seed in the West. Currently, their entire starting five of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic are all averaging over 13 points per game and none of them average over 19. Jokic, in particular, is continuing to solidify himself as the 4th best center in the entire NBA behind Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and (healthy) DeMarcus Cousins and is currently pouring in 18 points on 51.9/37.9/84.8 shooting with 10 rebounds and 7.7 assists (which leads the team) on a nightly basis. Not often, if ever, do you see a center operating as the team’s floor general and leading the team in assists. If only he could play some quality defense, Jokic could really make an interesting conversation with the three aforementioned centers.


Gary Harris is the present-day leading scorer for the Mile High City at 18.9 points per game and is only knocking down 26.8% of his threes. If those threes start to fall as we have grown accustomed to over the past several seasons, Harris could easily surpass the 20 PPG mark and throw himself into the Most Improved Player award conversation.


Just to pile it on some more, the Nuggets bench is averaging 42.9 points per game behind the efforts of an 11-man rotation featuring Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, and Torrey Craig off the pine. We must also remind ourselves that this team is not completely healthy yet. Isaiah Thomas and rookie Michael Porter Jr are both still recovering from injury. Maybe the Nuggets are legit this season.


Rockets, Lakers, Wizards Struggle Early On

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves

These are three teams who were all expected to lock up a top-five seed in their respective conferences but are now 3-5, 4-6, and 2-7, respectively.


It is easy to see that the Rockets are really missing the defensive abilities of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, both of whom signed elsewhere over the offseason. Instead, they have a combination of Eric Gordon, Carmelo Anthony, and Gerald Green, of which none are known for their lockdown defense. James Harden and Chris Paul are still the best backcourt in the NBA, who are averaging a combined 47 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 17.3 assists per game. Even Carmelo Anthony is averaging 15.5 points with a slash line of 44.6/37.3/68.2 in 31.3 minutes after an abysmal season last year in Oklahoma City. Their struggles can be attributed to a 107.2 offensive rating (down from a league-leading 114.7 last year) and a 113.1 defensive rating (down from a 6th-best 106.1 last year). They rank 23 in the league and both categories.


Some may have expected the Lakers to struggle. I had them in the upper half of the Western Conference coming into the season, but right now, look nothing like a title contender (not that it matters because Golden State). LeBron James is still doing GOAT things, averaging 26.8, 7.6, and 7.7 on a nightly basis, but he alone cannot win games with the Lakers’ current roster. Kyle Kuzma has played great off the bench thus far with 19 PPG. Javale McGee is the league leader in blocks per game at 3.4 in only 26 minutes per game. Brandon Ingram is a fine role player but his outburst against the Rockets on October 20th suspended him for 4 games, two of which were losses to the Spurs. They lost to a putrid team in the Timberwolves and beat the 2-7 Mavericks by 1 point. I don’t know what everybody else was expecting, but it most likely was not this.


Now what in the hell is going on with the Wizards? A team that was expected to be in the top five in the Eastern Conference are 2-7 with their only wins coming against the Trail Blazers in overtime and against the New York Knicks. John Wall and Bradley Beal both look fine scoring the ball, averaging 21.2 and 23 PPG, respectively, but Wall is coughing up the ball a career-high 4.2 times per game while averaging a career-low 7.3 assists. Yes, starting center Dwight Howard has only played in two games so far this season, but this roster should be good enough to beat the Kings, Grizzlies, and Clippers. There is plenty of time for the Wizards to rebound, but if it doesn’t come soon, is it time for them to offload Bradley Beal?


Is Derrick Rose Back?

drose 50 pt

The Timberwolves are now 4-6 after losing 111-81 last night against the Trail Blazers. Jimmy Butler is miraculously still a member of this team after sitting out the past couple games. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins still don’t play with heart. But guess who looks like he’s back. The youngest MVP in the history of the NBA, Derrick Rose, is having his best season since being a member of the Chicago Bulls. In 27.1 minutes per game off the bench, Rose is scoring 17 points per game on 44.5% from the field and a career-best 37% from three point range.


If that isn’t enough, DRose gave everybody the best treat on Halloween night: a 50-point outburst against the Utah Jazz in 41 minutes on 19/31 shooting. After the game, you could visually see Rose sobbing tears of joy and happiness after years of trials and tribulations to return to the player he once was. After the game, he was able to celebrate with two guys that were with him through his pain and suffering on the Bulls: Taj Gibson and Luol Deng. Was former Bulls teammates Jimmy Butler there to celebrate too or was he too busy hating Minnesota? Who knows, but that was one of the most beautiful sights an NBA fan could witness. Rose gave us one more night of vintage DRose and that is all I could possibly ask for.


Who Are These Sacramento Kings?

fox and hield

If you’re at home asking yourself, “Who are these Sacramento Kings?” and “How is this a team better than .500?”, trust me, you are not alone. The Kings are currently 6-4 and the 6th seed in the Western Conference. I will be one of the first to say that I do not think their success will last. But I will also say this: the Kings are first in the league in pace, and rank 13th and 18th, respectively, in offensive and defensive rating. This is a much better team than we have grown used to since the days of Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, and Chris Webber, but I personally do not believe this is a playoff team.


Both De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are off to tremendous starts this season. Fox is averaging 18.6 points and 7.6 assists and is the reason the Kings lead the league in pace. The second-year guard out of Kentucky may be the fastest player in the league and is electric in transition. It also helps that his teammates are knocking down threes at an uncharacteristically high rate. Buddy Hield is pouring in just under 20 points per game on 48% shooting from three and is looking like a top candidate for Most Improved Player. Fox and Hield are turning into one of the best young backcourts in the league, and if they can keep this play up, the Kings really may be a borderline playoff team come the spring.


Outside of Hield, there are five other Kings knocking down over 40% of their threes.

  • Troy Williams: 66.7% on 3 attempts per game
  • Nemanja Bjelica: 53.8% on 3.9 attempts per game
  • Marvin Bagley: 50% on 1.2 attempts per game
  • Ben McLemore: 44.4% on 1.8 attempts per game
  • Iman Shumpert: 40.5% on 4.6 attempts per game

Surely these numbers cannot be maintained, but the Kings have been a very fun team up to this point in the young 2018-19 season. I’ll be honest, I will be rooting for them this season, especially if the number one overall pick in the 2019 draft is out of reach (because if they did secure that pick, it would go to the Sixers instead of the Celtics). This has been the biggest surprise of the NBA season to me so far outside of that guy in Minnesota openly sitting games so that his front office will trade him.


Blake Griffin is BACK and Better Than Ever

blake griffin

In his age 29 season, Blake Griffin is having the best year of his career through 8 games. His current average of 28.6 points per game is not only the highest of his career, but it is also the second-best average in the league right now behind Steph Curry’s 32.5 PPG. Not to mention, he scored a career-high 50 points against Philadelphia on October 23rd in an overtime victory, while also turning in one of his five double-doubles in eight games of the 2018 season.


From the power forward spot on the floor, Blake Griffin often operates as a point-forward, leading fast breaks and bringing the ball up the floor, resulting in a team-high 4.5 assists per game, more than both point guards Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith. He is also splashing a career-best 45.7% from three on a career-high 5.8 attempts per game.


Blake is solidifying himself as a superstar once more in the NBA after four straight seasons of missing 15+ games with injury. If Griffin can stay healthy and maintain this production, Griffin will be a bonafide All Star and MVP candidate, while most likely leading the Pistons to a playoff appearance.


*All stats taken from Basketball Reference


Pictures Courtesy of:

Hoops Hype (Jokic)
Fansided (LeBron)
WGN (D Rose)
NBC Sports (Fox and Hield)
SB Nation (Blake Griffin)


Mike Johnston

Glenside, PA

University of South Carolina ’21

Twitter: @mjohnston0880

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