Early Surprises

By Josh Eberley #41

We’re rolling and the NBA never disappoints in its ability to surprise early on. Joel Embiid is balling, Ben Simmons is a phenom, the Boston Celtics don’t remember what a loss feels like and the Oklahoma City Thunder are outside of the playoff race. Some things will correct themselves and some won’t but why worry about that now? Revel in the moment and enjoy the early surprises of the NBA campaign.

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The Detroit Pistons

Are you kidding me? The Pistons are tied for second place in the Eastern conference with an 11-5 record. They own the eighth best net rating in the NBA (+3.2) and that’s after finishing with the 22nd best net rating (-2) last season.

The Pistons brought in Avery Bradley on the cheap, thanks to some unforeseen Boston Celtics cap issues, unfortunately losing Marcus Morris in that deal. However, they added Luke Kennard in the draft, and Langston Galloway and Anthony Tolliver via free agency.

Reggie Jackson, malcontent in Oklahoma City, thrived immediately in Detroit. After a competitive four games vs. Cleveland in the 2016 playoffs, many expected grandiose development but injuries and distractions plagued Jackson and the Pistons in 2016-17. Shut down in March last year, Detroit fans hoped they’d get the old Jackson back this year. As Duncan Smith puts it, “The rehab seems to have been a success.” Jackson has got back to where he was a year ago, a difference maker offensively. Jackson is sporting a career high True Shooting Percentage(.554).

Jackson’s renewed focus and healthy knees aren’t the only areas of issue the Pistons corrected, the heavily criticized Andre Drummond has also shown a revitalized since of purpose. After shooting 38 percent from the free throw line over his first five seasons, Drummond can finally refer to the free throw line as a charity stripe – having knocked down 64 percent of his attempts from there this season.

Last but certainly not least, Tobias Harris. Harris is one of only 13 NBA players 25 or under to be averaging 20 or more points a game. His .597 TS% is tied with Bradley Beal and Joel Embiid. He’s having a beautiful offensive start to this season and if his jump is for real, the Pistons might have found the #1 scorer they’ve been lacking. Harris also ranks sixth across the entire league for triples made, his 44 hits have him only three back from Steph Curry.

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Tyreke Evans

The return of Tyfreak! The Memphis bench unit has been cooking, amongst the best lineups in the NBA and the majority of that is owed to Evans resurgence. The man who heisted Rookie of the Year from Curry all those long years ago (2010) is reminding us just why that happened.

Evans is only 28 years old and while both injuries and bumpy stints in Sacramento and New Orleans made him a forgotten man, the talent has always been there. Head coach David Fizdale has given Evans an opening for that talent to shine through and Evans is rewarding that trust in a sensational way.

Evans has essentially replaced Vince Carter as the first guard off the bench, except his younger legs are giving the Grizzlies second unit a lot more. Evans is actually second on the team in points per game (17.7) while providing some playmaking

Reminder, this offseason the New Orleans Pelicans extended Jrue Holiday over the course of five years to the tune of $126 million. Evans, who was dealt back to the Sacramento Kings last season in the DeMarcus Cousins deal was essentially a throw-in in the trade. Granted, Evans is one year older than Holiday and more of an injury liability, he’s could’ve given the Pelicans more while making less.

This season:

Tyreke Evans
28 MPG, 17.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.4 APG and a .607 TS%.

Jrue Holiday
38.5 MPG, 14.4 PPG, 5 RPG, 6.4 APG, and a .517 TS%

Keep making them pay, Tyfreak.

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The Boston Celtics

Danny Ainge’s moves or lack thereof were challenged frequently and with ferocity over the last year. The lackluster effort to add a star at last year’s deadline and the patience to sit through a flurry of star movement this offseason was puzzling. However, Ainge knows best. Clearly.

After the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, and Denver Nuggets simmered on Kyrie Irving trade offers, Ainge swooped in with a mega package. Cynics lunged from every corner of the globe, how could Ainge of all people part with so much (their best, albeit injured, player Isaiah Thomas, the very useful Jae Crowder, potential contributor Ante Zizic, the very valuable and non-protected Nets No. pick in 2018 given and a second-round pick) the Cavaliers weakened position? Once again, Ainge made the skeptics look silly. Kyrie Irving got flipped, Isaiah Thomas wrote one hell of a letter, and the Nets pick became Koby Altman’s burden to bear.

The Boston Celtics have the best record in the NBA and it’s beyond nitpicking after a stellar win at home vs. Golden State last week. Irving has thrived in Boston. His defensive effort is light years ahead of where it was in Cleveland, even amidst a shooting slump he looks home. But it’s more than Irving. Al Horford has been the Celtics best and most consistent player. A rock at both ends that has stabilized the offense and supercharged the defense. Jayson Tatum is so far ahead of where every non-Boston based analyst had him before the draft. Another tip of the cap for Ainge and his staff: Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier—all players that were wisely kept in the Irving deal—have all taken the a step forward, a necessity in light of the Gordon Hayward injury.

The Celtics journey however small to start this season has been unimaginably incredible. They lost  Hayward on night one and the Celtics didn’t just weather the storm, they’ve rode it with a poise and grace that seemed impossible given both their age and lack of time playing as a unit. Bravo, Brad Stevens. Bravo, Danny Ainge. Bravo, Boston.

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Kristaps Porzingis

Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose are gone. Phil Jackson’s passive-aggressive approach is also gone. They flew out so Porzingis could fly up. Anthony and Rose were big names for the MSG marquee, but their combined usage and play style hampered the growth of the Knicks. Uut of their ashes rises another mythical creature, one that gallops and features a horn.

Porzingis, who was hilariously on the trading block this offseason has banged out an MVP worthy start.

Porzingis is averaging:

28.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.2 BPG, and a .592 TS%.

Everyone loves the next big thing, in the NBA it’s a literal obsession to find a big man who possesses the skills of a guard. Anthony Davis to Karl-Anthony Towns to Joel Embiid to Nikola Jokic to Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Porzingis who was almost forgotten from that mix last season has played as well any of them. In addition, the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets were all vetted as playoff teams prior to the season. The New York Knicks being above .500 is nothing short of a miracle.

The impact of Porzingis extends beyond the box score, Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. have been near unstoppable together in crunch time.

That Porzingis would be a revelation this season isn’t the surprise, but how good he would be so quickly is.

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The Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers coasting is not new. A LeBron James-led team struggling to show up in essentially meaningless games before Christmas is not new. In fact, it seems like the Cavs go through such stretches at some point during the season, only to right itself come the playoffs. That said, the defensive shortcomings of this Cleveland squad can’t simply be written off due to a switch being or not being flipped, not this time.

The Cavs have been on a mini-tear of late (four straight wins), but they have all been against inferior teams (unless you count the 8-7 Knicks as elite). What is most concerning is the that the Cavaliers have the worst defensive rating in the entire NBA. Lottery-bound outfits like the Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls, who have a combined seven wins, get up and down the court better. The combination of Isaiah Thomas being sidelined with the hip injury and the Brooklyn Nets providing resistance to a plum draft pick come June essentially makes the trade Jae Crowder for Kyrie Irving. As I’m sure you can imagine, that is not going well.  The additions of Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade have been less than stellar at either end. Heck, the Cavs best offseason addition to date might be Jeff Green.

Thomas will return and with him a more productive offense that isn’t utterly reliant on 15th year LeBron James. However, how does that help the defense? Thomas, who is widely regarded as one of the NBA’s worst defenders and finished second last of 468 qualified players via ESPN’s defensive real plus minus metric ain’t patching that hole.And let’s not forget how much November/December wear-and-tear will affect James come April/May.

The Cavaliers are old, simply put. In December, LeBron will turn 33; Wade will be 36 before All-Star; Channing Frye (35 in May) and Kyle Korver (37 in March) are not getting any more spry. Jose Calderon is as old as he looks (36). And to think last year at this time, 37-year-old (26 at the time) was still playing key minutes for the team.

Kings don’t just yield the throne to go play minor baseball, they fight until their last. So, until LeBron heads West or falls in the playoffs, the East is still has. Just don’t bet on the playoffs being a cake walk for the Cavaliers like they were last season. James and his Cavs will have to knuckle down if they want round four with Golden State.