With one quarter of the 2017-18 NBA season having passed, we have seen a lot of overachievers in the league, but also some teams and players who are really underperforming so far. The NBA map was seriously re-organized in the off-season, and besides the creation of numerous new super-teams, some of them are still struggling to find their true identity.
However, there are other teams who were expected to flop hard this season but have actually been quite competitive so far. Here is a look on who is hot, and who is not:
5 Biggest Surprises
5. Indiana Pacers and Victor Oladipo
The Indiana Pacers knew that it would be hard to hold on to Paul George after this season, with his contract expiring and all, so they traded him to the OKC in exchange for Victor Oladipo, sophomore Domantas Sabonis. Moreover, they signed PG Darren Collison, along with Bojan Bogdanovic, a true sharp-shooter, and also G Lance Stephenson. They also traded the rights to Emir Preldzic to the Raptors in exchange for G Cory Joseph.
While someone would expect them to take some time to find the chemistry with so many players coming in and out, the Pacers have actually found their next leader in Oladipo. The 5th year talented guard has been unable to fulfill his true potential in Orlando and OKC, but this season he has been greatly improved. He has career-highs in points (23.4), rebounds (5.0), steals (1.9) and even blocks (1.1). In a team that also features prospect C Miles Turner, the Pacers have built a really strong core of young and talented players. They might be sitting at the 9th spot of the Eastern Conference (W12 - L11), but once Miles Turner gets back on track from his injuries, the Pacers will be a really scary team in the East.
4. Detroit Pistons and Andre Drummond
The Detroit Pistons GMs are rubbing their hands while watching Andre Drummond this season, as the big man has greatly improved a lot of aspects of his game. Not only he has found individual success with his numbers, but he is really helping the team be a better version of itself. However, the Pistons traded Marcus Morris to the Celtics in exchange for Avery Bradley, who has really found a spot in his new team.
Moreover, Tobias Harris is probably having a career-season with 19.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg and a whopping 2.8 three-pointers per match. Reggie Jackson is also having a really strong season so far with 16 ppg to go along with 5.7 apg. The Pistons are currently sitting at the 4th spot of the Eastern Conference (W14 - L8), mostly due to Drummond's improvement. The former 9th overall pick is averaging career-highs in rebounds (15.0), assists (4.0), steals (1.6), but his greatest feat so far has been the improvement of his free throw percentage. Drummond never averaged more than 41.8% in his career, but this season he has raised it to a respectable 64.8. Amazing progress for a really good player and the Pistons have surely made a case for the 3rd best team in the East.
3. Lauri Markkanen
The Chicago Bulls went on a full-on re-build this season, and in order to do so, they had to trade away Jimmy Butler, among others. For a rebuilding franchise, giving out Jimmy Butler in exchange for Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn and a promising rookie like Lauri Markkanen seemed like a pretty good deal at the time. The only problem was that Lavine was, and still is injured, while Kris Dunn suffered an injury in the pre-season. Lauri Markkanen stepped up in his rookie season, as he scored 16 points in his debut, and went on to score 10 triples in his first 3 matches. He set an NBA record for most three-pointers in the first three games of an NBA career.
Lauri was also really lucky due to an altercation between Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic in the practice, that left the former suspended for 8 matches, and the latter out for two months with facial fractures. Markkanen has been on fire in his rookie season with 14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 2.4 triples per match. However, the return of Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic has already started to take a toll on Markkanen's productivity, but he still remains the starter for the Bulls.
2. Kyle Kuzma
Kyle Kuzma didn't have the spotlight on him when the NBA Draft happened, but he has found a path to consistent minutes with the Lakers, and he has been amazing. The Lakers have recently changed their front office, and the new GMs have somewhat shaped up the Lakers this season. Despite the massive amount of talent they already had prior to this season, the Lakers traded Mozgov and Russell to the Nets, in exchange for Brook Lopez and Kyle Kuzma.
However, Kuzma needed some luck in order to steal the starting job from both Nance and Randle, as Nance suffered an injury that left him out for a month, while Randle is used more like a backup Center. Kuzma has been stunning so far in the season, with 16.5 ppg and 6.3 rpg, and he has already scored 20+ points on 7 occasions, while he has recorded a career-high 30 points. The crowded Lakers frontcourt is probably going to change soon, with Randle most likely going to be traded, so sky's the future for the 27th pick of the 2017 NBA draft.
1. Donovan Mitchell
Which brings us to the number 1 player in our list, who has been without a doubt Donovan Mitchell. Leaving out Ben Simmons, Mitchell has been by far the most impressive rookie so far in the season, and he is also the steal of the draft. The Utah Jazz acquired the draft rights to Donovan Mitchell (13th overall pick) from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for forward Trey Lyles and the draft rights to Tyler Lydon (24th overall pick). The Jazz probably pulled the steal of the century with that trade, as neither Trey Lyles nor Tyler Lyndon have been anywhere close to what Mitchell has done.
The rookie has been truly stunning so far in the season, posting averages of 16.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.3 spg and 2.3 triples. He recently recorded a massive career-high with 41 points, to go along with 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and also a career-high 6 triples. He has actually started some matches over Ricky Rubio, and should anything happen to the Spanish, Mitchell is going to be posting monster lines. If it only weren't for Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell would surely be awarded the Rookie of the Year award.
5 Biggest Disappointments
5. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have been by far the most unlucky team in the NBA in recent years, mostly because they can't stay healthy. They have been destroyed by injuries the past 3-4 seasons, but their so-called "Grit and Grind" mentality never left them. They have been consistently making the play-offs in each of their previous 7 seasons, but they have only made it to the Conference Finals, where they were swept by the Spurs in 2012-13.
Now that a lot of super-teams have been formed in the Western Conference, the Grizzlies' future looks bleak at best. They are currently sitting at the 13th spot of the Western Conference (W7 - L15), with a worse record than the Suns. Yes, the Suns. They are currently on an 11-match losing streak, but to be honest, they have been missing star guard Mike Conley for quite a while now, who has been - you guessed it - injured. With their season currently on a downward spiral, it won't be long before the Grizzlies start a re-build, and sink into obscurity.
4. Nerlens Noel
Noel was once said to be one of the biggest prospects in the NBA, mostly because of his physique, and his defensive game. However, Nerlens Noel has had quite the unimpressive career so far, and it might not be his fault entirely. He signed a 1-year, $4.1 million contract with the Dallas Mavericks at the end of last season, hoping to play well this year, and maybe earn some better wage next season.
However, the reality has been the exactly opposite than he imagined. The Mavericks are having a bad season overall, but they are amongst their re-building process, so that will take time. One would imagine that a young and talented player like Noel could be a core part of what the Mavs are doing, but Noel has appeared in 18 games this season and hasn’t played more than 5:35 of a game since November 4th. He lost his place to Salah Mejri, and as if that wasn't enough, he was spotted in the media dining room eating a hot-dog at the half-time of their home match against the Clippers. For whatever reason, Noel has fallen out of favor with coach Carlisle, and he might probably need a change of scenery in order to revive his career.
3. Karl-Anthony Towns' Defense
Karl-Anthony Towns might already be one of the best bigs in the NBA in his very short career, but his defense is something that really needs to be improved. Towns ranked last among centers in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus last season, and the numbers keep reinforcing the fact that he is not a good defender overall. The Wolves actually struggled defensively with him on the court, posting a 110.8 defensive rating. When he was sitting on the bench, however, their rating improved exponentially to 103.6 which would’ve been fifth-best in the NBA.
You would expect that he would have addressed these issues in the off-season, but the problems have actually grown into something much worse. Not only he has been caught being lazy on the defense, but even when he does actually defend, he is committing a ton of fouls. This season he is averaging a career-high 3.5 fouls per match, which ranks him at the bottom 10 percent of big men. This means that when he is trying to defend, he is making mistakes and allowing the opposition to the free throw line. Even though he is an amazing weapon on the offense, his defense needs a lot of work.
2. Lonzo Ball Percentages
Lonzo Ball has been surrounded by media the past few years, but the main reason behind that is his father's antics, and not his own actualy skill. The Lakers believed in him when they drafted him at the 2nd overall pick of the 2017 NBA draft, and he has actually lived up to the hype. However, despite being a constant triple-double threat, Lonzo Ball has one really bad weakness - his shot.
He has only scored double-digits in just 7 of the Lakers' 22 matches so far, while you would expect the 2nd pick to have done much better. He might be posting almost triple-double averages so far with 9 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 7.1 apg, which is really impressive for a rookie, but his percentages are probably the worst we've seen in the NBA, at least in a long time. His 31.8% in the FGs is the worst among players who have played more than 20 matches so far in the season, while his 73.8% in the free throws is something that also needs improvement. And it's not like he refrains from shooting, he shoots at least 10 times per night, which really destroys his overall outlook. Experts say that broken shots can, in fact, be fixed, but it will take a long time for him to shoot properly.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder Big 3
The Oklahoma City Thunder looked really weak after the departure of Kevin Durant, but Russell Westbrook went nuts last season, averaging a triple-double. He had little help from other players like Oladipo, Kanter and Adams, so the OKC board took drastic measures in the off-season, looking to create a contender.
They traded Kanter, McDermott and a second-round pick to the New York Knicks in order to get Carmelo Anthony and Oladipo and Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers for Paul George. And boom, there you have it, a Big 3 that should be a dominant force in the Western Conference. However, the reality is that the Western Conference has been greatly improved in the off-season, and the Thunder have yet to find a way to find chemistry between all three superstars. They are currently sitting outside the play-off spots, at the 9th spot of the West (W10 - L12), and they have won just two of their eleven road matches of the season. Moreover, they have the 6th worst offense in the league, despite having Westbrook, George and Carmelo.