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What’s Surprised Us In The NBA Season So Far

Every NBA season has its moments. Some will dominate the “SportsCenter” conversation on a given night, like the Lakers’ hot start with Anthony Davis and LeBron James, and some will create longer-term ripple effects, like Steph Curry’s injury, and how abruptly the Warriors’ playoff hopes were tossed aside. But the best moments of a season might be the ones that were the least expected. At the midpoint of the 2019-20 campaign, these are the biggest leaguewide surprises so far.

The Grizzlies are arguably the most fun team in the league

If Phoenix was the team that caught our attention unexpectedly to begin the season, Memphis is the one that’s stolen it as we move toward the second half of the campaign. The young Grizzlies enter their Friday matchup with Cleveland on a six-game win streak — their longest since December 2016 — and they might just be the NBA’s most enjoyable club to watch on a night-to-night basis.

Rookie point guard Ja Morant has infused this team with a new identity, which is now a far cry from the franchise’s Grit-n-Grind era, beloved for its rugged style. This iteration is incredibly fast — top five in the NBA in pace and the fastest offense in the sport when forcing a turnover, according to advanced stats site Inpredictable.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4wWPiFtt3M

Morant has shown a fearlessness when it comes to dunking — or merely trying to dunk — on much taller opponents. The Grizz have a fun, unselfish core of young talent, with big man Jaren Jackson Jr. (however unorthodox his perimeter jumper might look), sweet-shooting forwards Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke, and backup guard De’Anthony Melton. And they’re currently in a dogfight for the West’s final playoff spot.

In a way, the Grizzlies are a bit like last year’s Kings, who played fast, were led by a talented young guard and hung around longer than we expected in the playoff race (before fading late). Memphis may not be ready to take the next step — the team’s uptempo pace of play results in a lot of late-game turnovers — but the Grizzlies are still a joy to watch.

Luka Dončić is an MVP candidate in his second season

No matter how good they are, rookies are usually net negatives on the court as they get a feel for the sheer speed and skill level present in the NBA. So to go from being an NBA rookie to being on the shortlist for MVP candidates as a second-year player is nothing to sneeze at — and that’s what Luka Dončić has done.

For the Dallas Mavericks, the 20-year-old is putting up the sorts of numbers that only LeBron James achieved at his age. And in some cases, he’s exceeding those. Dončić’s performance Wednesday — he had notched a triple-double before the fourth quarter began — marked the 20th triple-double of his career, through just 109 career games. Seemingly every night, he makes the sort of play that forces you to pause the game and rewind it. Take, for instance, this pass Wednesday night. No one should be able to make this pass — let alone place it perfectly in the shooter’s hands.

Outside of Dončić and a banged-up, underperforming Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks don’t have any stars on their roster, but they’re somehow on pace to have the most efficient offense in NBA history. That is a function of what may be a transcendent basketball talent.

Dončić’s performance may not be enough to win an MVP just yet, as Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and James Harden all have an argument there. But to be in the conversation at age 20 is indicative of how incredible he’s been.

Dāvis Bertāns pulls up from Latvia (or close to it)

Whatever you think about the Gregg Popovich-era Spurs, one thing you can say somewhat fairly is that a certain type of player might be able to spread his wings a bit more somewhere else than in San Antonio.1

Former Spur Dāvis Bertāns, now with Washington, might be the most stellar example of this, with his newfound tendency to pull up and shoot from 30 or more feet with the Wizards, who can’t stop much of anything on defense but have become very fun to watch on offense.

Much of that is because of Bertāns, who’s seeing more minutes and has the greenest light he’s ever had on offense. The stretch-four has made fantastic use of it, hitting 43 percent of his triples on almost nine attempts per game. Even more eye-popping: Bertāns has made nine triples (on 14 attempts so far) from 30 feet or more this season, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s Shot Finder. Those nine makes are more than twice as many as he took all of last season2 from 30 feet.

His range and quick trigger from that distance has everything to do with the Wizards’ offense — which ranks ninth overall in fifth in pick-and-pop scenarios — being as potent as it’s been.

The East has so many strong teams

No one would have given you grief if, before the season, you had predicted the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers to finish in the top six of the Eastern Conference. But predicting them to finish in that order, and for each of them to potentially finish with 50 wins? No one expected that. Yet that’s exactly how things have played out through this first half of the season.

No one is catching Milwaukee, which is on pace to hit the 70-win mark and has both a reigning MVP who could easily repeat and the league’s stingiest defense for a second straight year.

The race behind the Bucks is shaping up to be a good one. Even with the Jimmy Butler addition, few pictured Miami in the No. 2 spot. Bam Adebayo’s vast improvement as a playmaker in his third year has been a revelation. So has the scoring from Kendrick Nunn and the shooting from Duncan Robinson. And in a shift from prior years, the Heat offense, eighth in efficiency, has been stronger than its merely average defense, which ranks 14th.

Boston, behind a surprisingly strong defense and a resurgent season from Jaylen Brown, has managed to stay near the top of the East standings as well. The Celtics are tactically sound, punishing foes when they switch on D (105 points per 100 possessions, second in the NBA), while scoring most efficiently after timeouts, per Second Spectrum.

Defending champion Toronto not only lost the Finals MVP in free agency but has also seen every starter3 aside from OG Anunoby miss at least nine games due to injury. Yet that’s helped the team continue to develop young, promising talent like Chris Boucher and Terence Davis, all while the Raptors hang around in the conversation for home-court advantage.

Similarly, the Pacers — coming off a sneakily good offseason — have again weathered the loss of their best player, Victor Oladipo, who’s due to return to the court later this month. Imagining a healthy version of him next to Malcolm Brogdon, who’s shown to be a more-than-capable playmaker, is intriguing — and that could finally give Indiana the best offense it’s had in years. Those two together — along with the likes of T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner — makes for a dangerous squad.

The Sixers are the team that, in many people’s eyes, have underachieved. But the reality is that they haven’t — really, it’s just that the other clubs in the East have blown their initial expectations out of the water. Philly should view this stint without Joel Embiid as an opportunity to get Ben Simmons and Horford going on offense, since things run a lot differently when the big man is sidelined than when he’s on the court.

However things shake out, with this much depth in the East, we have an incredible playoff run to look forward to — which likely isn’t something many would have said before the season.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Although bats regularly get to spread their wings inside the Spurs’ arena, as we documented last season.

  2. Not counting the ones that were merely end-of-quarter desperation heaves.

  3. And reserves Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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