The NBA’s biggest surprises, halfway through the season–Part 2

Yesterday, we took a look at some of the biggest surprises for this half-NBA season, including the surprising mediocrity of the Charlotte Bobcats and Minnesota Timberwolves (but perhaps not in the same context) and just how terrible the Brooklyn Nets are. Peep the second half right here!
 
Portland’s excellence despite their defensive shortcomings
 
Under almost any metric you can interpret, the Portland Trail Blazers are the best offense in the NBA. Led by Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, they can beat you in almost any fashion. They are willing and accurate three-point shooters, deadly from mid-range and potent in almost every rotation with guys like Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and now C.J. McCollum. The numbers are all there—they have the most offensively versatile starting five in the NBA and a very good bench behind them. In that sense, it’s no surprise they have the fifth best record in the NBA.
 
But defensively they’re not very good. They allow the 4th most points per game, coming in 22nd in defensive efficiency. They are the worst squad in the NBA at forcing turnovers and 22nd in opponent’s offensive rebounding numbers. Luckily, this team scores so well that they’re not often penalized for their defensive lapses. In many ways, they’re the lucky versions of the Minnesota Timberwolves—high scoring, efficient but with two closers at the end of games instead of Minny’s one. Portland could very well continue to thrive during the regular season, but I’m not sure how well they’ll fare during the playoffs with such mediocre to poor defensive scheme.
 
The completeness of Lance Stephenson
 
“Born Ready” Lance Stephenson was a Brooklyn, NY playground prospect, whose legend and skillset earned him a spot as one of the most highly recruited teenagers in the country. After spending one very mediocre season at the University of Cincinnati that was marred with rumors of him being difficult to coach, Stephenson made the jump to the NBA. Unsurprisingly, he was drafted 40th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft by Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers. His per game numbers in his first two NBA seasons were extremely uninspiring (just 54 total games played with averages of 2.6/1.3/1.2), especially for two decent, but unspectacular NBA squads. There was no doubt that he could be a very good pro defender, but it seemed that a player like Tony Allen was his comparative ceiling.

Last season was a gigantic turnaround for Stephenson, as he started 72 games, averaging 9/4/3 while playing great D for the Eastern Conference Finals-bound Pacers. He was still questionably a NBA-caliber starter, but unquestionably a NBA player. A lot of concerns had been thrown by the wayside.

This season? I’m concerned with how none of saw this coming.

Stephenson is averging 13.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 5.2 apg, while starting 39 games for one of the three best teams in the NBA. He’s an amazing, though sometimes careless passer, a willing scorer, a great rebounding guard and a world-class defender. He is, in a sentence, one of the best all-around players in the NBA and a potential All-Star. It’s stunning just how good Born Ready really is.

Michael Carter-Williams being more than just a hard name to remember

Michael Carter-Williams, or MCW as he’s known to the weary typists of the blog world, looked like a draft bust waiting to happen. As a 21 year-old sophomore at Syracuse, the point guard prospect was known as a facilitator, but not much else. He finished the year with some putrid shooting percentages at ‘Cuse, hitting less than 40% of his shots overall and less than 30% from the college three-point line. To top it off, he was 6’6” but just 185 pounds, a damning situation for his durability. Thus, his being picked 11th in a what was considered a very weak 2013 NBA Draft. And then he shocked the hell out of everyone.

The spindly legged point has been more than capable for the terrible, but not historically terrible Philadelphia 76ers. The team, having purged nearly all tradeable assets from its cupboard, looked to be headed towards one of the worst seasons in NBA history. Their best two players looked to be Thaddeus Young and Even Turner, a situation that only looks worse when examining who the third, fourth and fifth best players were: Spencer Hawes, Tony Wroten and Lavoy Allen. Look, I know a lot about the NBA, and the Sixers feature several rotation players that even I’ve never heard of (who are Hollis Thompson and Brandon Davies? No, someone tell me). The supporting cast is bleak.

Despite all of that, Carter-Williams has been a fantastic playmaker (not a completely surprising outcome) with over 7 assists a night . But what has been surprising is what an apt scorer he’s been. MCW is a terror in the lane, getting to the hoop with remarkable proficiency and scoring 17 ppg. I’m not sure I can really express just how unbelievable he’s been in the lane this year—you just have to see it for yourself in this clip of a duel he had with Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving:

On the downside, he’s still a really terrible shooter from the arc, heaving bricks at under 30%, but he’s given hope that he can fix that over time. But that’s just what he’s got to work on–he’s already surpassed most people’s wildest expectations for how good he could be.

The Phoenix Suns. Almost everything about them

Like the Sixers, the Phoenix Suns traded away almost every single asset they had in the hopes of rebuilding this year. In fact, they really were looking to dump almost any semblance of NBA experience in trying to tank the season and be bad enough to grab a high selection in this year’s loaded NBA Draft.

Unfortunately—or fortunately, if you’re the kind of person that cares about watching teams win NBA games—the Suns and new head coach Jeff Hornacek had other designs.

The Suns have started off with a 23-17 record, dancing on the bottom of the playoff ladder for the first half of the year and already crushing their preseason over/under number of 19 1/2 wins. The key has been a very good offensive attack and a stunningly solid defense that allows just the 18th most points per game. The scoring has been spearheaded by the starting point guard duo of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic who have worked better together than anyone, including this blog, could have ever predicted. Most felt that the two score-first guards would be an abject disaster together on both ends of the floor, but surprisingly, they’ve complimented each other nicely. Both players are equally adept at distributing and getting to the hoop (both getting over five FTA per game), though Dragic is the better three-point shooter (at over 38% from the arc). They’re able to trade off very easily who is penetrating versus spotting up, a type of versatility that most people didn’t figure the two would care much about. Most figured that they’d have a difficult time divvying up these duties, as they’ve gone their entire careers as score-first point guards—that hasn’t happened at all.

Defensively, Bledsoe has continued to do what he did his whole Clippers career: lock down as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Coach Hornacek has gotten players to buy in, as the Suns allow one of the lowest shooting percentages from the three-point line in the league. Guys like Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green, the Morris Twins and P.J. Tucker might not be notable for pretty much anything in their NBA careers, but their unbelievable athleticism gives them an edge in almost any matchup defensively. It’s almost inexplicable.

In essence, the Suns are what the Lakers should have been—an athletic squad of shooters led by a dynamic guard combo that could form a somewhat decent defense if they showed a little discipline and effort. Phoenix plays extremely hard, with a competence far beyond their years and experience. Few people thought they would be capable of doing this. It might all stop with Eric Bledsoe on the shelf for the next few weeks, but what they’ve done up until this point has been remarkable.

James Harden’s unforgiveable defense

James Harden has never been a great defender, even when surrounded by a number of lock-down artists in Oklahoma City. However, he was never outwardly terrible or even a liability.

I’m not sure what happened, but he’s somehow become one of the most glaringly awful defenders in the league. He regularly sees defenders blast by him on every wing possession, allowing teammates Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones clean up his messes. Look no further than his game against the Lakers in November, when Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake regularly left the cement footed Harden in the dust time after time. There aren’t a lot of statistics I can point you to. Just watch these videos:


 

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