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The NBA’s Most Surprising (and Disappointing) Teams At Season’s One-Third Mark

Zion Williamson (left) and Steph Curry (right) occupy opposite ends of the NBA spectrum this season.
Zion Williamson (left) and Steph Curry (right) occupy opposite ends of the NBA spectrum this season. Erik Drost and Keith Allison/Wikipedia

Each new NBA season, Eastern and Western Conference squads relaunch with renewed hope for the upcoming season. Whether it’s title aspirations or just a defined move up in the hierarchy, there’s always promise in an 82-and-0 record. By December, the reality of those aspirations has set in.

The unexpected visits in many forms, blessing the fortunate teams with chemistry and clutch performances and the unlucky with injuries to limbs and egos. As the season winds down its first third, it’s a good time to assess which rosters have gelled and which have crumbled. Let’s take a look at six squads with surprise starts and brutal busts in the league thus far.

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Eastern Conference

Chicago Bulls

Since last year’s trade deadline acquisition Nikola Vucevic, the Chicago Bulls have been one of the most aggressive teams in basketball, shifting into win-now mode after years of trying to build from the draft.

The team paid DeMar DeRozan likely more than he would’ve earned on the open market in a major sign-and-trade, and acquired Lonzo Ball so quickly after the opening of preseason business that the team is under investigation for tampering.

The result of ditching one plan to seemingly slap veteran parts together? Achieving the second-best Eastern Conference record in the season’s first two months. Da’ Bulls currently sit at 17-10 and will be stuck there for the time being as the team is in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak.

To declare Chicago title-contenders would seem almost unfathomable two months ago, but now that that reality is here, the team only seems to be pointing up as its young, developing players to get healthy. It really has been something to watch new head coach Billy Donovan get this team to play elite-level basketball. As DeRozan dumps in mid-range buckets at a 25 PPG clip, Ball and newly-signed backup point guard Alex Caruso act as engines for both the young Bulls and brilliant holdover Zach LaVine.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Long searching for an escape from LeBron’s shadow, the 2022 Cleveland Cavaliers are providing a shiny, yet strange new on-court product. This group is all-in on first-year coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s defense-first philosophy. As of this week, the Cavs allow only 101.9 points per game, second in the league to Golden State. This past Monday was already the 12th time this season they’ve held an opponent under 100 points.

By stopping their opponents from scoring, the team has already far exceeded expectations with a starting squad unusual in the modern NBA, aided by their new coach, and a rookie blue-chip phenom. “Tower City,” named after a downtown Cleveland neighborhood, headlines a jumbo-sized starting lineup featuring the seven-foot Evan Mobley, six-foot, 11-inch Jarrett Allen, and seven-foot Lauri Markkanen.

The No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft, Mobley’s averaging 13.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.8 blocks while showing a veteran’s moxie. It helps, of course, that Mobley can guard any position player, from centers to guards, with ultra-quick feet and long arms. He has changed the Cavs’ identity and trajectory. In November, for example, the team went 0 and 4 while he was out with an elbow sprain.

It remains to be seen how they’ll play with elevated expectations, but for now, the Cavs are a wonderful early Christmas gift for Cleveland fans.

Indiana Pacers

In the pandemic-shortened 2020-2021 season, the Pacers surged to the playoffs in the season’s second half only to be stopped in their tracks with a sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat.

Boasting a talented point guard in Malcolm Brogdon, all-star center in Domantas Sabonis, small forward scorer Caris LeVert and a solid lynchpin in Myles Turner, ownership fired head coach Nate Bjorkgren to replace him with Rick Carlisle, one of the more respected NBA minds as well as the Pacers’ former coach. The results, though, have not been good.

Indiana currently boasts the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference at 12-17, ahead of only the rebuilding Magic and Pistons. The team ranks in the bottom half in points, points allowed, offensive rating, and defensive rating while seeing slippage from Brogdon and Sabonis.

Despite this being one of the biggest disappointments in the young NBA season, Indiana still has the talent to turn things around. Trade rumors are flying and with several in-demand assets, a shake-up might be what the Pacers need to shake their current doldrums.

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Western Conference

Golden State Warriors

NBA analysts figured that the Warriors would likely rebound and improve after suffering through two injury-riddled and roster-rebuilding seasons. Nobody except maybe the most die-hard Golden State fans figured in a return to become the NBA’s most dominant team. And yet, just like death, taxes, and COVID-19 variants, the Warriors are back to being inevitable again.

The offense is humming, led, of course, by the now all-time NBA three-point basket leader Steph Curry. Now with two years in Steve Kerr’s system, Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole have been revelations — two scorers who can carry the team when Steph is not.

Outside of the spotlight of Curry’s beautiful rainbows, defense is what has really carried this team. This year, with Draymond Green back at full strength and a veteran dog mentality fueling not only Wiggins but recently-acquired players like Nemanja Bjelica, Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors are leading the league in points against.

With Klay Thompson set to return in just a few weeks from a two-and-a-half-year absence and big man James Wiseman hoping to return from injury soon, there are more than enough pieces there for The City fans to be dreaming of another Bay Area title.

Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves might be the biggest surprise team in the Western Conference. New coach Chris Finch has got DeAngelo Russell cooking, Anthony Edwards soaring, and Karl-Anthony Towns scoring. This allows the coach to surround his go-to trio with defensive stalwarts like Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt.

Entering December, the Wolves blew everybody’s expectations away by landing in seventh place with an 11-10 record after winning seven of eight games with the league’s fourth-ranked defense over that stretch. Alas, in the midst of the Western Conference’s toughest December schedule (all 14 Wolves’ December matchups are against teams that entered the month at .500 or better), they have slipped to ninth place at 12-15.

Wednesday’s game at Denver begins a critical stretch that could see the team firmly establish itself in the playoff race or fall back to lottery notoriety again. Minnesota returns home for games against the L.A. Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks before returning to Dallas to complete a home-and-home set.

L.A. Lakers

With Damian Lillard’s three-point percentage falling off of a cliff in Portland and injuries decimating Denver and New Orleans, there’s plenty of competition for biggest disappointments in the West, but drama in L.A. is always the juiciest, especially when it appears that the NBA’s royalty may have chosen the wrong knight.

After squashing a deal for Sacramento’s Buddy Hield, a smooth-shooting perfect fit to ease space for the jumbo-sized combo of Lebron at point-forward and Anthony Davis at center, the Lakers opted to go big, trading multiple players and draft assets for former MVP Russell Westbrook.

While Westbrook is far from a bad player, his ball domination and low field goal percentage are the last things that the Lakers need. There have already been discussions about moving Westbrook, but at a cost north of $44 million for each of the next two years, there are probably not a lot of partners available willing to take on a declining player on an onerous deal.

At 15-and-13, the Lakers currently sit in sixth place in the West. While this might be a respectable appearance for an up-and-coming squad, it’s a severe let-down for a team once considered the best in the West.

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