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Roundtable: Most Pleasant Surprises and Biggest Disappointments

The four fellows of The Lottery Mafia share some thoughts on the NBA teams that have been the most pleasantly surprising and disappointing.

MOST PLEASANTLY SURPRISING

Josh Cornelissen: There are a number of ways this question could be answered, from “even better than our high expectations” (Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics) to “not quite as terrible as we expected” (Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, even Phoenix Suns somehow). But instead I’ll take the team we thought would be mediocre that has established itself as a contender in the Eastern Conference. The Detroit Pistons looked stale coming into the season, but instead they are taking down elite teams left and right and proving their success to be more than a hot start (looking at you, Orlando). Reggie Jackson looks healthy, Andre Drummond has FINALLY accepted his role, and Avery Bradley has settled the defense down into a solid unit. And amidst it all, Tobias Harris has become a go-to scorer. That combination of things is quite surprising, and it has yielded very positive results. Shouts: Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Pelicans.
Jon Elliot: Due to the small sample size phenomenon, we had a bunch of candidates for most surprising team just a few weeks into the season. Now, around a month and a half in, teams such as Orlando, Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Clippers, and Memphis have plunged to the depths of their conference’s lottery standings. Few teams have been consistently overachieving or overperforming during the 2017-18 campaign. The most surprising of these has been the downtown Detroit Pistons. Playing in their new facility in the heart of the Motor City, the Pistons have shown consistent grit and improvements in several facets of their game. Sitting atop the Central division is an accomplishment while the King still resides in “The Land”. Not only are the Pistons 14-6, they are beating playoff-caliber teams. They have won in Boston, OKC, Minneapolis, AND the Bay. Consider this as a huge reason for the change: last year, Detroit ranked 25th in offensive rating. This year? Seventh. Their defense has held up as well (11th last year and 12th this year). Oh and by the way, Andre Drummond is *wait for it* making free throws.
Gabriel Allen: The answers here mostly have to do with our personal expectations entering the season, and the Pistons have already been taken (twice). The Pacers have been pleasantly surprising, but a Victor Oladipo breakout year always loomed as a possibility in my eyes. The most pleasantly surprising team for me has been the New York Knicks. Before the regular season began, I would’ve taken the under (I think it was 30?). However, they’ve actually been incredibly competent through the first two months. Who knows if (or how long) they’ll remain a real threat in the race for the playoffs? But at least they’re competing.
Ilia Shatashvili: If I told you the Celtics jump out to a 19-4 start before the season began, I bet you would either call me crazy or expect Gordon Hayward to have made a leap into MVP consideration. Unfortunately, he suffered a gruesome injury in the first half of his Celtics debut on opening night. In his absence Kyrie Irving has vaulted into MVP consideration, Stevens has kept a top-five defense with a roster that only kept three players from last season, Jaylen Brown has gained some swagger, and Jayson Tatum has surprised his pre-draft doubters. The Celtics are on pace to blow away all expectations, but will probably come back down to earth. Ultimately they will be judged by how they do against LeBron James in the playoffs, but even Danny Ainge would be lying if he said he isn’t surprised by how quickly this team has come together to play at such an elite level. Their biggest concern may come at the trade deadline, where Ainge may be tempted to take a shot at Jahlil Okafor. He may be advised to review the story of Icarus first.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS

JC: It’s disappointing that the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz are all dealing with the loss of star players, because each has the potential to be something special with all hands on deck. But injuries are largely out of a team’s control. The most disappointing team in the league has to be the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sure, we can point to their strong point differential and suggest this team is better than their record. Their defense has been strong. But this team had the potential to be something special, and they have only demosntrated that a handful of times this season. Russell Westbrook has been inefficient, Paul George passive, and Carmelo Anthony hot and cold. Patrick Patterson has seemingly fallen off of a cliff. And this team has to find a fifth player to close games with. As Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter look like All-Stars out East, OKC has serious bench problems. In all, a team that should be in the mix for home court advantage is many steps outside of the playoff picture right now. They should be better. Shouts: Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat.

 

JE: Memphis and Los Angeles had playoff aspirations not long ago, but it seems like those dreams have been lost and forgotten already. Reasonable doubt (shouts to Jay-Z) would lead most to assume that a Memphis team without Z-Bo and the Grindfather would end their playoff runs, at least temporarily. And it was a pipe dream to assume the oft-injured Blake Griffin would lead an inspired MVP campaign with DeAndre Jordan as the second option on a defense-first (and perhaps defense-only) team without setbacks along the way. Now, Memphis has fired its coach and Blake will (again) miss at least a month with another injury. Take that for data. However, the most disappointing squad has to be the Thunder, a team that some said (albeit foolishly) would have a possibility of dethroning the Warriors. Meanwhile most assumed they would be an exciting top-4 seed in the supposedly stacked Western Conference. 20 games in, the Thunder have lost 12 of their contests, players are mad, not frustrated, and the team is losing embarrassingly to legitimately bad teams. Outside of a win against the Warriors in a confusing game for Golden State, the only winning teams the Thunder have beaten are the Bucks, Pacers, and Knicks, who all have a combined record of 33-29. Everyone knows that the defense is there for the versatile Thunder, however a group with three primary options is ranked 22nd in Offensive Rating, just above Memphis and Atlanta. Even with Russell Westbrook surrounded by Steven Adams and shells of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis last year, the Thunder still finished with the 17th-best offense. A team with this much firepower should not be so inept at scoring. They still have five months to figure it out, but with Melo and PG13 essentially on one-year deals, it seems like the All-Star break is going to be a more realistic deadline to correct the problems to avoid longer lasting issues into the postseason and beyond.

 

GA: To avoid Connect Four from taking place, I’m going with the 5-17 Dallas Mavericks. Perhaps it should be no surprise, but rookie Dennis Smith is struggling. Forget being on the same page, Nerlens Noel and Rick Carlisle are not even reading the same book; and Dallas somehow has the worst record in the Western Conference. Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavs will very likely lose 50 games for the first time in his 20-year career during what might be his final NBA season. Sad.

 

IS: The Thunder entered the year with optimism coming off Westbrook’s triple-double heavy MVP campaign that also resulted in 47 regular season wins. That optimism resulted in heightened expectations the moment Sam Presti was able to acquire Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Many touted these moves as Executive of the Year-winning before the season even started. Most expected the team to possibly take a few weeks to mesh and eventually slide into a homecourt playoff slot. A couple of months into the season and the “meshing” could not be going any worse. Westbrook is struggling to adapt back to a role he had with former running mate Kevin Durant, where the offense does not necessarily have to revolve through him 24/7. George has oscillated between scintillating and subpar while trying to find his rhythm. Remember this is someone used to having the offense revolve around him. Anthony has probably struggled more than his partners in crime simply because as a pure scorer he has never been a second option let alone a third option. Even in his prime on Team USA, Melo was often the top option on offense. Perhaps they will round into form, and nobody enjoys facing a three-headed monster as talented as them in the playoffs, but don’t expect them to scrap their way back into homecourt advantage in the West. In the long run what most Thunder fans don’t want to hear but are certainly well aware of is the fact that only Westbrook is locked in past this summer. There is an immediate sense of urgency for this team to turn things around.

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