The NBA’s biggest surprises, halfway through the season–Part 1

There are only three teams over .500 in the Eastern Conference. Lance Stephenson is somehow not just a rotation player, but a…great one? I still barely know who Lance Stephenson is. The casualty list of serious injury to franchise cornerstones is higher than usual: Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Russell Wesetbrook, Chris Paul, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez and Al Horford, amongst others. Derek Fisher is still getting major minutes for one of the best teams in the league.

It’s been a weird NBA season. Very weird.

Somehow, we’re almost at the halfway mark of the year and I’ve been astounded at every turn. Just to round up how we’ve gotten to where we are, here are some thoughts on some of the biggest surprises of the year:

The Brooklyn Nets are getting better, but have generally been pretty horrible

Pretty easy to summarize: a ton of injuries + a bad coach = a bad team.

However, what’s most surprising is how none of us saw this coming. Even this prestigious blog predicted the Nets would finish third in the Eastern Conference. I would have locked that in knowing just how completely barren they are of competent teams east of the Mississippi. Most of us figured that adding the defensive monstrosity of Kevin Garnett, the late game shot making of Paul Pierce and adding pieces like Jason Terry and Andre Kirilenko to the bench would make this one of the toughest, most physical teams in the league.

What we all failed to realize is that Kevin Garnett, at age 37, might be done. That Paul Pierce was first hurt, but always looking wistful of his Celtics days gone by. That Kirilenko would sit out nearly half the year with back spasms. That Brook Lopez, the team’s best player, would break his foot yet again. That Deron Williams, with a long history of ankle injuries, would only play great sporadically, and play at all for just 22 games. That Jason Kidd was a rookie coach and would act like one.

Most shockingly, even if everyone was healthy, which they aren’t, we all didn’t see that this couldn’t run and didn’t really have any athletes so to speak. This squad is plodding, slow and can really only play at one speed. They aren’t grinders in the mold of Memphis or Indiana and don’t space the floor well enough.

It’s shocking how bad the Brooklyn Nets are, but it’s more shocking that none of us saw it coming.

The mediocrity of the Charlotte Bobcats

The Bobcats have been the worst franchise in basketball over the past decade. With just one season with a record over .500 and owners of the worst winning percentage in NBA history (in 2011-2012), Charlotte has had enough filth wash over them that they needed to change their names back to the Hornets.

Expectations for the season were higher than they’ve been the past two seasons, but not by much. New coach Steve Clifford wasn’t predicted to move the needle much, and new signee Al Jefferson wasn’t supposed to help at all defensively (though he was thought to be a boost scoring-wise). MAMBINO had them as one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference because of their inexperience (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jeff Taylor, Cody Zeller), one way play (Jefferson, Kemba Walker, Ben Gordon) or maybe just the fact that they didn’t look very good (Jeff Taylor, Bismack Biyombo). I expected them to be inefficient gunners and lackadaisical defensively.

Stunningly, the Bobcats have defied expectations and have been very, very good on defense and absolutely awful scoring the rock. They’re 6th in the league in points allowed and 7th in defensive efficiency—almost the flip side of where I thought they’d be at the beginning of the year. I’m still not sure how they’re doing it, other than they do have athletes and apparently, a great coach who has instilled great defensive values in them. Jefferson has been especially adequate as a defender in the paint, a proposition that many thought impossible before the year.

The Bobcats probably won’t make the playoffs because they’re so awful at scoring (28th in both points per game and offensive efficiency), but they’re on pace to win over 30 games for the first time in four seasons and maybe make the playoffs in the terrible, terrible Eastern Conference.

The mediocrity of the Minnesota Timberwolves

While the Bobcats have been surprisingly mediocre, so have the Minnesota Timberwolves. Except for the latter, it’s not a good thing.

The Wolves were expected to finally vie for their first postseason appearance in a decade this year, finally putting together a healthy roster of players that looks on paper like a very good squad. Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger looks like more than enough to make the playoffs, after all. The problems however, start with that five.

Chase Budinger has been hurt this entire half of the season, subtracting an excellent three-point shooter from a team that desperately needs spacing for Pekovic and Ricky Rubio. For the Spanish point guard, it’s been well documented that he’s put up one of the all-time worst shooting performances thus far, providing the team with solid passing but not much else. Past them, we’re looking at a bench with little defensive ability thanks to J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved. The defensive efficiency numbers aren’t damning, with the team 9th overall. But because of the pace they play at, the Wolves give up the 7th most points in the NBA, making any night they can’t hit shots a recipe for disaster. Seeing as Minnesota is 19th in three-point percentage, this can and will happen.

The Timberwolves aren’t terrible—hovering around .500 at the mid-way mark. However, they’re far from one of the six best teams in the Western Conference, a place where they should be. A lot of this is on Rubio’s shoulders, as the team’s best three players have been Love, Pekovic and then probably Martin. Many of the postseason expectations came from those that expected Rubio to be a borderline All-Star. He’s not and apparently, so have gone the Timberwolves.

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