We are officially two weeks into this brand new 2020-2021 NBA season and now that we have seen 7-8 games from most teams, it’s becoming more clear who’s improved and which teams have regressed. Early in this season, we have seen some teams that have exceeded expectations and some teams that have come out of the gates slow. Among those teams, are some surprising candidates that most NBA experts couldn’t see coming. While it is still early, if these trends continue, the playoff picture in both conferences could look a lot different. Without any further ado, here are some of the most surprising and disappointing teams up to this point in the season.
Teams On The Rise/ Most Surprising Teams
The Orlando Magic are currently sitting at 6-2, and second place in the Eastern Conference. The last two years for the Magic have been slightly encouraging, making the playoffs as a 7 and 8 seed the last two years and hanging around .500 or so. Even with these playoff appearances, the Magic have quickly been taken care of by the Milwakuee Bucks and Toronto Raptors in the first round both of those years.
But so far this season, the team looks like they have taken a step forward in the Eastern Conference. While the Magic’s best win is against the Miami Heat in their opener, they have gone on to beat the Wizards and Cavaliers twice already. While their 6-2 record might be a little deceiving, the improvement in players like Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross is real. Vucevic is averaging 21 points and 10 rebounds a game on a 50% field goal percentage. Terrence Ross is among the best role players in the league, coming off the bench averaging a career high 20 points, shooting 46% from three point range.
Just as it looked like the Magic had a solid 8 man rotation, Markelle Fultz unfortunately tore his ACL in a game against the Cavaliers on Wednesday night. Fultz was starting at point guard, and averaging 13 points and 5 assists a game. Once again, Fultz’ career has been sidetracked by injury and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Fultz will miss the rest of the season, and the Magic will need to rely on rookie point guard Cole Anthony to make a jump, and begin to step into that role. But at 6-2, the Orlando Magic have been pleasantly surprising and hopefully they can continue to turn heads and put the Eastern Conference on notice.
New York Knicks:
It feels too good to be true. Are the Knicks finally an average team that can contend in the Eastern Conference? Well, if you’re basing your answer off the team’s first 8 games this season, the answer would be yes. The New York Knicks are 5-3 and are the 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. After starting out with two tough matchups with the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers, the team has won 5 of their last 6 games, including a 20 point blowout win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Pacers, and most recently an 18 point comeback against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday Night.
Julius Randle has taken a clear step forward, and is averaging 23 points 12 rebounds and a career high 7 assists per game. Sophomore R.J Barrett has also taken on an increased role and is currently among the leaders in minutes per game at 38. He has taken full advantage of his increased playing time, averaging 17 points 7 rebound and 3 assists per game. It’s clear these two guys are the leader of this team, and it appears that Tom Thibodeau has installed a culture change that the guys are buying into. Newly acquired Austin Rivers has also provided a spark off the bench that this team desperately needs, and has been the clutch time performer for this team so far.
Rookie Immanuel Quickley has looked more than competent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up sneaking into the starting lineup at some point this season. The team is looking to get back first round pick Obi Toppin, Alec Burks, Frank Ntilikina, and Nerlens Noel who are all currently out due to injury. Even without those pieces, the Knicks have put together some quality wins against good playoff teams, and if these first eight games are any indication of where this team is headed, it looks like the Knicks might have a promising future.
While the Phoenix Suns’ early season success might not be a complete surprise to all NBA fans, it’s worth noting just how good the team has been so far this year. They are currently sitting at the top of the Western Conference with a record of 6-2. The acquisition of Chris Paul has brought veteran leadership that this team has desperately needed since drafting Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.
Devin Booker is doing what he’s best at: Getting buckets. Booker leads the team in points per game with 21, and Mikal Bridges has been a pleasant surprise, giving the Suns a solid 14 points and 5 assists per game. Chris Paul is dishing out 8 assists a game, and is the clear leader on the floor at all times. With Paul, Booker, Bridges, Crowder, and Ayton, the Suns have put together one of the better starting fives in the NBA. Dario Saric and Cameron Johnson have also been giving the team meaningful minutes off the bench.
The biggest surprise has been the team’s defense. They are currently leading the NBA in OPPG, only allowing an average of 100.6 per game. This is notable, because it’s clear this team has the offensive firepower to compete with the best of the best. If they can keep up this level of defense, and continue to get better on the offensive end, the Phoenix Suns will be a real contender in the Western Conference.
Honorable Mention: Philadelphia 76ers (7-1), Cleveland Cavaliers (4-4), New Orleans Pelicans (4-4), Sacramento Kings (4-4)
Most Disappointing Teams
After winning the championship in 2019, and winning 53 games in the regular season last year, the Toronto Raptors look to be gassed from their bubble playoff run. It’s understandable that some teams might be getting off to slow starts due to the quick turnaround of this season, and the extremely limited offseason. But it doesn’t seem to have affected teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Clippers, etc.
The team has gotten out to a 1-6 start, and if they don’t start to turn it around soon, they could find themselves looking from the outside of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. It’s strange that a team with this talent has gotten off to such a slow start, but when you look a little deeper their record seems to be what they are. In 5 of their 6 losses, the Raptors have been up by double digits at some point in the game. Pascal Siakam appears to have taken a step back, which is disappointing after how great he played during the team’s title run.
They’ve also had a brutal schedule, losing to teams like the Celtics, Suns, Pelicans, and 76ers. But nevertheless, the Toronto Raptors are sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and with multiple new teams in the mix competing for a playoff spot, the Raptors will have to figure it out fast.
Out of all the teams that have been negatively affected by the shortest offseason in NBA history, the Miami Heat seem to be at the top of the list. After reaching the NBA Finals in last year’s Orlando Bubble Restart, the Heat have gotten off to a sluggish 3-4 start.
Bam Adebayo has continued to improve on his impressive campaign last year, but Tyler Herro and Jimmy Butler have slowed down a bit. Currently Herro is taking around five three pointers a game, and only hitting them at a 29% clip. Meanwhile Jimmy Butler has yet to make a single three point jump shot this season. Along with his woes from three point range, Butler is shooting at an unimpressive 40% FG percentage.
If this team wants to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals, they will need him to be much better than that. Along with the Raptors, the Heat have also had a rough schedule to start out the season, playing the Bucks twice, along with the Mavericks and Celtics which were both losses. The Celtics loss came on Wednesday night, after rookie Payton Prichard got a put back to go with 0.2 left on the clock, as the Celtics barely escaped 107-105. I’m not as concerned about the Heat as other teams, and I’m sure they will still be a top 5-6 seed in the Eastern Conference. If the Miami Heat can figure out their three point shooting struggles and get on a roll, I don’t think this slump will last long.
Before this season started, I was extremely high on the Dallas Mavericks and their potential with superstar Luka Doncic at the helm. But so far this season, the Mavs have been underwhelming. Luka is doing what Luka does, averaging 25 points 9 rebounds and 7 assists and leading his team in almost every statistical category.
The problem for the Mavericks in the early part of this season has been the supporting cast. The team is still missing their second best player in Kristaps Porzingis, who has yet to play a game this season. The team expects him back soon, but as of right now, the team’s second leading scorer is Tim Hardaway Jr. who is averaging 17 points a game. In reality, Hardaway is a third option on a playoff team, but with Porzingis’ absence he has had to become the second option for this team. After Josh Richardson and Jalen Brunson, the options really start to fall off a cliff, with guys like Dorian Finney Smith and Maxi Kleber who have been asked to take on a bigger role. These guys are solid role players, but without Porzingis the ceiling on this team is severely hindered.
What’s strange about the Mavericks is that they’ve beaten teams like the Heat, Clippers (51 Point blowout!), and the Rockets, but have fallen to the Bulls and Hornets which are games this team shouldn’t be losing. It’s still too early to tell with the Mavericks due to the Porzingis injury, but up to this point the Mavericks have been one of the more disappointing teams in my opinion.
Honorable Mention: Washington Wizards (2-6), Memphis Grizzlies (2-5), Denver Nuggets (3-4), Portland Trail Blazers (3-4)
All in all, it’s still way too early to say for sure whether these current trends will continue. I’m still expecting the Knicks to go back to being the lottery contender that they’ve been for so long. I think the Heat and the Raptors still have time to turn it around and assert themselves as contenders in the Eastern Conference. But as for right now, these are the observations I’ve made 7-8 games into this brand new NBA season. It looks like there will be some new faces in the playoffs this year so that’ll be super entertaining to watch. But for the time being, I’m just enjoying all the regular season basketball I get to watch every night, and basking in the glory of the Knicks being over .500 for as long as I can.