It’s December! That means the air is colder, the coffee tastes better, and we are now a quarter of the way into the NBA season, which means teams can no longer use a new season as an excuse for their play on the court. While some teams would love for everything that’s happened to this point to be wiped clean and get a fresh start that just isn’t going to happen. Other teams wouldn’t mind if the season ended right now, as they could dust off their hands and write this off as an accomplishment.
This is really just a roundabout way of saying that there have been a handful of teams that have disappointed us so far. Whether it’s not meeting expectations, playing a style of basketball that’s just not enjoyable to watch, or a mixture of the two. Then there’s a handful that have shocked us. This group is teams that are playing beyond our expectations in some capacity whether it’s just being better than expected, being far more fun to watch than they have any right to be, or not being an absolute tire fire for once. Speaking of which.
Surprise – Suns
The Suns have been one of the NBA’s worst franchises for about five years now. Not just from a wins and losses perspective, but from an overall franchise health one. Phoenix coach Monty Williams is its fifth head coach in as many years. Eric Bledsoe infamously tweeted his way out of town, they were the first team since the seven win Bobcats to finish last in offense, defense, and net rating. They’re also one of this season’s biggest surprises because for the first time in years they look like an actual NBA team.
Right now, the Suns 9-10 record might not seem all that impressive, but look at how they started the season. 5-2 with wins over the Clippers and Sixers. Injuries, a PED suspension to Deandre Ayton and some general regression have pushed them back below .500, but this is a team that competes most every night and looks competent doing so. Their 1.9 net rating is not only positive but puts them at 12th in the NBA. Devin Booker is an exciting offensive maestro and there are surprise standouts from vets across the roster. Aron Baynes, in particular, is making an early case for Most Improved Player. The Suns are miles better this season, and for the first time in years, there is reason to have optimism in Phoenix.
Disappointment – Bulls
If you want a great example of what poor coaching does to a team then look no further than the Bulls. This is a team that should be competitive. In an Eastern Conference severely lacking talent, many of us looked to the Bulls as a source to fill that gap. Otto Porter Jr, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen weren’t going to win a title this year, but a playoff spot didn’t seem that far out of reach, particularly after adding some solid veterans in free agency like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky. It still technically isn’t out of reach, but so far the Bulls haven’t shown much in the way of positives to start the season.
Despite a roster full of scoring options, the Bulls have the 28th ranked offense in the NBA. They don’t make up for it on the defensive end where they’re a pedestrian 14th in defensive efficiency. Their 7-14 record puts them in the same category as the Cavs and Wizards when most expected them to be in the same range as the Magic. Much of this falls on the shoulders of Jim Boylen, who has struggled to get the most out of his group, particularly on offense. There’s a recognition of talent on the roster, but right now that talent is not playing to expectations. He recently made headlines for randomly benching LaVine. It didn’t go over well. He needs to fix something soon, or another mutiny could be on the way in Chicago.
Surprise – Mavericks
A quick glance at the Mavericks roster leaves a lot to be desired. Sure there’s a future budding star like Luka Doncic, but the pieces around him just feel like a weird combination of role players that don’t mesh together. This is very much still a roster in the progress of being built, but that hasn’t held back what has been a surprising start to Dallas season. The key to that surprising start has been everything that Luka has done.
We don’t need to go too much into detail on Luka himself, as you can read all about his exploits this season here, but he’s been the leader of a historically good offense. The supporting cast around Doncic has been impressive — even if there’s clear room for Kristaps Porzingis to improve as the second star next to Doncic. The Mavs have almost the same net rating as the Lakers right now despite playing a tougher early season schedule. Their 13-6 record has them in the thick of the playoff race, and as long as Doncic stays healthy there’s an expectation for them to remain that way throughout the rest of the season. This team is ahead of schedule looks the part of a legitimate threat in the West.
Disappointment – Warriors
Is it fair to call the Warriors a disappointment? Two of their three best players and future Hall of Famers are likely lost for the season. Kevin Durant left. D’Angelo Russell is also battling injuries. Even their NBA caliber rotation players have been hurt. Well have you considered that going into a December 2nd matchup with the Hawks, who were riding a 10-game losing streak, they were an underdog by 6.5 points and proceeded to lose by 25? They have a horrific defense. Their roster is a mish-mash of faces that only the most hardcore of NBA fans would recognize.
The Warriors are not a disappointment because of injuries, they’re a disappointment because they somehow have failed to meet the small expectations that were put on them because of those injuries. This was expected to be a down year for Golden State. When it became apparent that it would be without Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, most of us reacted accordingly, but few expected the Warriors to plummet to the bottom of the league. To go from title to the worst record in the league is absolutely a disappointment.
Surprise – Heat
When the Heat traded for Jimmy Butler they did so with the expectation of taking their team out of mediocrity and into general playoff contention. A quarter of the way through his first season in Miami, the Heat are doing more than just competing for the playoffs again. Miami has become something of a dark horse title contender early in the season and, along with the Celtics and the Raptors, have made what was thought to be a two-team race between Philly and Milwaukee a much more intriguing battle in the East.
Miami has cooled off a little since its 6-2 start, but only slightly. The Heat have just gone from having the NBA’s best net rating to the seventh best. They no longer have a top 10 offense to match their top 10 defense, but they’ve continued to win games. As long as they continue to do that they’ll be a factor in the East. Miami could also be a trade candidate at the deadline with some big expiring deals that could be moved. A big trade could push Miami right to the top of the conference. Chris Paul anyone?
Disappointment – Spurs
The Spurs have not missed the playoffs since 1997. There has been nothing in sports more consistent than watching San Antonio in April and May. Even with the retirement of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Learond leaving this team still managed to make the playoffs last season behind DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Right now that pairing appears to be part of the reason they’re off to a 7-14 start, with a net rating of -4.0.
The playoff streak feels very much in doubt. The Spurs aren’t being held back by injuries or a new core meshing together. This team just lacks the talent necessary to win games out West. A mid-season trade of DeRozan or Aldridge doesn’t just feel like a possibility, but rather a necessity to shift their timeline and build around younger players like Dejounte Murray and Derrick White. The Spurs not making the playoffs was always a possibility in this year’s loaded West, but few thought the floor for this team could be this low.
Surprise – Raptors
If you thought the Raptors were going to be a 15 win team at the start of December then you are a lying liar who lies. The Raptors made a rental season work with Kawhi Leonard and snagged a title out of it. Pascal Siakam was really good and Fred Van Vleet had some incredible moments. Kyle Lowry was the longtime piece that finally got his ring. There was a lot to love, but with Leonard heading West they were supposed to take at least a bit of a step back, with the slight possibility of them becoming sellers at the deadline with their roster full of expiring veteran contracts.
That’s when Siakam proved to be more than just a solid starting piece. He’s exploded into a star this season and Nurse has done a masterful job of filling the voids that Leonard left. Toronto has a top five offense and defense with the second best net rating in the NBA, despite injuries to Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka. There’s currently no team better at shooting the deep ball and they’ve managed to find depth where few expected. Even the most optimistic Raptors supporters did not see this start coming, especially factoring in some key injuries. It will be fun to see if they can keep this up throughout the season, but for now they’ve managed to not skip a beat.
Disappointment – Blazers
To go from the Western Conference Finals to questions on if you’re going to make the playoffs is certainly a disappointment. The Blazers have stumbled out of the gate and after shuffling the deck a bit, it’s felt like none of their summer acquisitions have worked out in their favor. Mario Hezonja has been a disaster and Hassan Whiteside has been not even close to the placeholder Portland wanted him to be while it waits for Jusuf Nurkic, and now Zach Collins as well, to recover from injury.
With an 8-12 record and a pitiful defense, Portland’s season felt like it was slipping away, but perhaps Carmelo Anthony can save what has so far been a disastrous start. He’s playing pretty well and providing a much needed offensive pop from the wing, something they simply hadn’t had. Maybe when Nurkic and Collins come back the Blazers can go on a run, but they have quite a hill to climb. This team considers itself a contender and not just for the 8-seed. Barely sneaking into the playoffs would be a disappointment. Missing entirely would constitute a disaster.