Two months into the NBA season, we are beginning to see which teams are playoff contenders, which are still in the hunt to make the postseason, and which are simply struggling to win games. Here are four teams that have surprised me with their performances so far.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers were clearly in rebuilding mode last year. They traded perennial All-Star point guard Chris Paul to Houston before the 2017–18 season, traded superstar power forward Blake Griffin to Detroit during the season, and then let center DeAndre Jordan go to Dallas in free agency this past offseason.
They traded their two 2018 first-round draft picks to get Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, traded Austin Rivers for Marcin Gortat, and really didn’t make a lot of other moves to bolster their roster. L.A.’s plan seemed to be to tank this year, get one of the top players in the ’19 draft, possibly get a superstar using cap space in the offseason, then jump back into contention for the ’19–20 season.
What no one counted on was Tobias Harris. He was one of the key pieces in the Griffin trade and was considered a promising young big man who could become an elite scorer someday. That someday came sooner than expected. He’s currently averaging 21.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and he is shooting 51.3% from the floor and 40.3% from beyond the three-point line. With players such as Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari playing well too, the Clippers have a record of 17–13 and are tied for fifth in the West. Not bad for a team that got rid of its Big 3 less than a year ago.
Not all surprises are good, and the Rockets have not been good this season. Houston finished 65–17 last year and fell one game short of toppling the eventual champion Warriors in the Western Conference finals. The Rockets were supposed to pick up right where they left off and be at the top of the West. During the offseason, they lost Trevor Ariza to the Suns and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Clippers but signed Carmelo Anthony, one of the best scorers of all time. Things seemed to be going well—until the regular season began.
What people underestimated was the value of Ariza. While he averaged only 11.7 points and 3.9 rebounds last year, he was the Rockets’ best wing defender and would guard—and somewhat contain—guys such as Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and other dominant wing players. When he left, the Rockets’ defensive rating went from seventh to 27th in the league. Anthony didn’t help them much and was cut after a few games. The Rockets are 14–14, so there is still hope for them to turn it around, but they’ll need to play better defense down the stretch.
The Nuggets weren’t terrible last season, finishing 46–36 and in ninth place in a tough Western Conference. This season, the expectation was that Nikola Jokic would lead them to a sixth, seventh, or eighth seed in the playoffs; however, that is not what is happening. The Nuggets are currently first in the West, ahead of teams such as the Warriors, Rockets, and Thunder. Behind Jokic’s 17.7 points, 9.9 boards, and 7.5 assists, this team is currently 20–9.
Perhaps the craziest part of the Nuggets’ season is that they only have one former All-Star on their team, Paul Millsap, and he’s already 33 years old. Denver is facing teams with two, three, even four All-Stars—and still beating them. Something else that makes this even weirder is that the Nuggets really didn’t make that many offseason moves. They signed point guard Isaiah Thomas and drafted Michael Porter Jr. 14th in the 2018 draft, but neither one of them has played this year. The Nuggets have simply progressed from last year. While it’s too early to tell if their production will last, the Nuggets are playing like contenders right now.
The Wizards have been an interesting franchise to watch over the last few years. They have two All-Star players in John Wall and Bradley Beal, but management has failed to surround them with complementary players. Nevertheless, Washington made the playoffs the past few seasons, sliding in as the eighth seed last year after finishing with a 46–36 record. The Wizards even took the top-seeded Raptors to six games, so people expected them to make some moves and contend this year. Washington traded Gortat to the Clippers for Rivers and signed Dwight Howard and Jeff Green, and it looked like the team might actually have a solid season. But this has not been the case.
Washington has started off the season with a dismal 12–18 record, and there are rumors about the team trading away Wall or Beal. It’s hard to pinpoint where the Wizards went wrong, but their defense has just been lacking overall. Even after adding a former Defensive Player of the Year in Howard and adding another guy who is a solid guard defender in Rivers, Washington is still 28th in defensive rating, only ahead of the Knicks and Cavs. Luckily for the Wizards, they’re in the weaker Eastern Conference; right now they are only 2.5 games back of the eighth-place Magic.
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