Hot Starts: 3 NBA Teams Exceeding Expectations
We are a few weeks into the 2020-2021 NBA Season. The majority of the season lies ahead; however, some teams have already shown improvement from last season. The standings today will eventually change over time, but these teams have come out scorching hot and have shown potential of a playoff berth.
1. The New York Knicks
Pre-Season Expectation: Worst Team in the NBA
Performance: Fringe Playoff Team
The NBA has little faith in the New York Knicks these days. The past ten years have been abysmal for this organization, and this past season played out similarly. The Knicks ended their shortened season last year with a 21-45 record, placing 12th in the Eastern Conference. Between RJ Barrett trying to live up to his potential as a top 3 draft pick and the rest of the dysfunctional cast playing inefficient basketball, the Knicks had a hard time finding their footing.
Although the Knicks didn't make any "blockbuster" moves this off-season, they improved their team tremendously. Drafting Obi Toppin, the high flyer out of Dayton, and Immanuel Quickley, the shifty guard from Kentucky, were smart decisions on draft night for the Knicks. Quickley has shown he has the capability to score the basket at high volume like he did in college with a 16 point performance against Atlanta in only 18 minutes. He averages 16.2 PPG per 36 minutes according to basketball-reference.com. Toppin hasn't played very many minutes this season due to injury, but his ability to finish down low already looks elite. Having a rookie Obi Toppin at the power forward is already a step up from having a 35-year-old Taj Gibson.
They also added NBA veterans Austin Rivers and Alec Burks to their team, who both have played some of the best basketball of their careers thus far. They provide a spark of offense, especially when the Knicks' younger, less experienced players are in a slump. But despite all of the recent acquisitions they've made, the improvement of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett has led to their hot start. Julius Randle is averaging over 23.2 PPG and 7.1 APG through 10 games. RJ Barrett is averaging 16.5 PPG with an improved field goal percentage. Tom Thibodeau is making the most of his key veteran leadership, but also managing his young players minutes accordingly to maximize their production. They stand at 5-5 through 10 games. Knicks fans should be excited about their team for the first time since the Carmelo Anthony era. Even if this season does not end with a playoff spot in the East, they still look to be one of the more promising teams in the league.
2. The Cleveland Cavaliers
Preseason Expectation: Almost no Change from Last Season
Performance: One of the Best Defensive Teams, competing for a playoff spot
The departure of LeBron set the Cavaliers into complete rebuild mode. They chose to begin their rebuild with Colin Sexton and Darius Garland leading their backcourt, two small guards who are ball dominant and can't defend. Last year we saw this backcourt help Cleveland have the worst defensive rating in the NBA, according to teamrankings.com. They ended the season with 19 wins.
With little improvement to their roster from last season, the Cavaliers were not on people's radars this year. However, they drafted Auburn Small Froward Isaac Okoro with the 5th pick in the draft, and he has proved to help tremendously on the defensive end. He has the best perimeter defense on the entire team, and he's only played a handful of games. His effort on defense has also changed the narrative of the Garland/Sexton duo, as the Cavaliers now have the best defensive rating in the NBA. How often do you see a team jump from worst to best in one off-season. Okoro's presence on defense has helped them make their next jump as a team.
Do I think this Cavaliers team is legit? No. Garland and Sexton are playing better than they ever have before, both averaging a career high in points, but I don't see them magically becoming a top duo in the NBA just after one off-season. Also, they do not have wins against great teams. Besides for one win against the top seeded Sixers without Joel Embiid, they haven't proven to me that they can compete with the best teams in the East. They have a stretch if games in late January where they play the Lakers, Nets, Celtics, and Wizards, which will be the real test for this Cavaliers team.
3. The Phoenix Suns
Preseason Expectation: 6th-7th seed
Performance: Tied for the Best Record in the West
Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns have struggled to stay competitive in the past few years. The past decade has not treated this Suns organization well, as they tend to sit at the bottom of a stacked Western Conference. However, this past season looked very promising for this young Suns core. Even though they did not make the playoffs, going undefeated in the NBA Bubble was no small feat. Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges came alive in Orlando, looking to be the next wing players to play alongside Devin Booker for years to come.
The Suns added all-star point guard Chris Paul after a huge trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder. CP3 is one of the best leaders in the NBA today, which is something this Suns team desperately needed. Booker was playing alone basically for the majority of his career, and now that there is someone who can also make clutch plays and play high IQ basketball, some of the pressure is off Booker's shoulders. The Suns addition of Jae Crowder, as well as the improvement of their young supporting cast, has led them to have one of the most well-oiled offensive machines in the league. Paul and Booker set the pace of the offense, Ayton is learning to be a dominant paint presence, and the rest of the team is lethal from the three point line. Their deep roster full of 3 and D basketball players may help them go far in this years playoffs.
The major downside to having Chris Paul however is his production in the playoffs. He's had great teams before with the Clippers and Rockets which have underperformed on the big stage. This roster is well built, and through ten games they have played well together, but this is no where neat the most talented roster Paul has played on. There is a huge question mark on whether or not this team would be able to handle the pressure of the playoffs, especially facing up against teams who have more experience than they do.