NBA: The Biggest Surprises at the Halfway Point
Somehow, we’re at the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA season. It feels like the beginning of the league’s new season was only yesterday, yet here we are, mere weeks away from the All-Star break and the inevitable playoff push that follows it. In many ways, the NBA’s first 41 games went according to the script laid out for the league before the season began.
The same old title contenders sit atop the standings, many of the same players who we see in the headlines are stealing the media’s attention, and teams that many expected to struggle are, well, struggling. While that may be the case, several unexpected things have occurred, which keep the league honest and entertaining. From players making major improvements to expected contenders struggling, here are some of the most surprising things that have happened so far this NBA season.
A surprising rookie
The talents of D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jahlil Okafor highlighted this year’s rookie class, but no other player from that class is making more headlines and highlight reels than New York Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, a player drafted after all three of the aforementioned names. Porzingis, who was greeted with boos by Knicks fans at the draft, has been a bright spot for a team that has surprisingly stayed in playoff contention so far this season (more on that in a bit).
No. 6 is third among rookies in scoring, second in rebounds, first in blocks, and second in double-doubles. People doubted Porzingiz’s ability as an international player coming out of the draft, but in the first half of his first NBA season he easily proved those doubters wrong. The Latvian native has to be considered one of the most surprising players in the entire league at this point.
Players on the rise
Players like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James are taking care of business as usual this season, leading the league in several significant categories and putting their respective teams in great positions as games become more meaningful. It’s not shocking that these players are doing so well, but the rise of few other players this season is more than noteworthy.
Among the players with surprisingly dominant seasons is Detroit Pistons’ big man Andre Drummond. In just his fouth season out of UConn, Drummond is leading the league in rebounds by a significant margin. He is also second on the Pistons in scoring and has a strong player efficiency rating of 22.8, which ranks him among the top 15 players in the NBA. Even better, Drummond has improved nearly all of his numbers from previous seasons. Thanks to his presence, Detroit can think about the playoffs for the first time in several seasons.
Another impressive player this season is the Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside. Also in his fourth professional season, Whiteside is grabbing more than 11 boards per game (good for fourth in the league) and is blocking a league high 3.97 shots per contest. His scoring is still relatively low, but Whiteside’s emerging presence has Miami looking like a top team in the Eastern Conference.
A season ago, the Houston Rockets were in the Western Conference Finals, just three victories away from an NBA Finals appearance. This season, they’ve stumbled their way to a mediocre record and sit at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture (currently seventh). James Harden is still scoring at a high rate and Dwight Howard is still a force on the glass, but when you fire your coach early in the season and look nothing like the team that competed for a championship a season ago, you deserve the title of most disappointing team in the NBA at the halfway point.
Other disappointing teams in the league include last year’s playoff teams, the Washington Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks, who both sit outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. You also have to include the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that many expected to improve upon their playoff appearance a season ago. Instead they hold one of the six worst records in the league at the halfway mark.
Unexpected teams making waves
Opposite of the most disappointing teams at the NBA midseason are those that have unexpectedly risen in the standings. The Toronto Raptors accelerated to second place in the East thanks to DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. The race for the second spot is key, as no team is likely to catch the top team in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers. With teams like the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, and Atlanta Hawks lurking, the Raptors have surprisingly held their own and could be legitimate contenders to take on the Cavs in the conference finals.
You also have to give credit to the New York Knicks. A team that had a terrible season a year ago currently finds themselves within two games of a playoff spot in the East. Most people expected New York to be one of the worst teams in the league, but a combination of Carmelo Anthony and Porzingis propelled the team’s growth. They might not make it to the postseason, but when you consider the fact that they already have more wins this season than they did all of last season, the Knicks deserve some recognition.
Last, but not least, the San Antonio Spurs?
We aren’t saying it is a surprise that the San Antonio Spurs are, once again, one of the best teams in the league and have set themselves up for another NBA title run with their terrific first half (35-6 through 41 games). This team is so well coached by Gregg Popovich that they always have a chance to make history.
It’s the way that the Spurs are winning these days, however, that is so impressive. Signing LaMarcus Aldridge was huge for San Antonio in the offseason, and the way they integrated the versatile big man into their system has been a work of art. He complements the other great players on the Spurs’ roster so nicely that it’s almost like he’s been there for a decade.
Furthermore, the emergence of Kawhi Leonard as a legitimate MVP candidate is another testament to the great organization that has been created in San Antonio. Those two players and several others could see the Spurs run away with the West in the second half, even with the presence of the Golden State Warriors. So no, it’s not surprising that the Spurs are so good yet again in 2015-16, but it’s the way they keep getting things done that we should all pay attention to.