Five of this season's happiest surprises
Plus three more for paying subscribers!
As always, the NBA season has come with its fair share of unexpected outcomes, for good and for ill. Today, we’ll be taking a look at some of the happiest surprises of the year.
1) Shai, ascending
Perhaps no player in the NBA has exploded quite like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander this season.
Already a star before the year began, SGA has springboarded into legitimate top-10-player conversations. He drives like a trucker, finishes like a porn star, and locks people down like a teacher with detention slips. The defense, in particular, is unexpected and epic. His condor-sized wingspan allows him to block shots other guards couldn’t even contest, and his high intelligence lets him anticipate and jump passing lanes without compromising the team’s defensive structure.
Offensively, he just keeps getting better. You’ll hear people, including me, describe him as “slithery” or “slippery,” but those adjectives obscure the very real athleticism underneath. Shai’s explosive first step and ability to stop on a dime are the subtle knives opening up tiny cracks in the space around him, creating just enough room for a finger-roll or high-arcing half-hook. It’s a distinctive style all his own.
SGA’s done all this without relying upon a three-point shot (from himself or others, at least until Isaiah Joe arrived) or the help of a mammoth screen-setter. Imagine what he could do with a better offensive infrastructure around him.
2) The Kings aren’t just good…they’re great
Mea culpa, Sacramento.
I correctly predicted before the season that the Kings would be a top-five offense and a bottom-five defense (they just recently climbed to sixth-worst, if we’re being technical). I did not expect them to have the best offense in the league's history, and I certainly did not expect them to be the favorite for the second seed in a wacky Western Conference.
Are there warning signs? Sure. The team has been impossibly healthy in a year where an incredible number of injuries has beset everyone else: as John Hollinger pointed out recently, all eight of the Kings’ top players have played in at least 59 of their 66 games so far. The defense, indeed, is terrible. The players try, but this is a small team with minimal defensive talent among their big-minute players. The Kings have a hard ceiling on what they can do on that end.
But Sacramento has been incredible in the clutch all season; they have a unique and difficult-to-guard offensive scheme; and they have fantastic shooting up and down the roster. Nobody has been able to successfully slow them (outside of Toronto), and they’ll have an absolutely wild home crowd cheering them on with home-court advantage in at least one round and likely two.
Coach Mike Brown will deservedly be the runaway Coach of the Year winner, and he has the players feeling confident about their odds against anyone. I can’t wait to watch them play in the ‘yoffs for the first time in 20 years. Light the Beam, baby! Light it up!
(Let’s just hope they avoid the Lakers in Round 1…)
3) Take fouls are (mostly) gone
The scourge of the NBA over the past few seasons, the take foul, is finally (mostly) abolished! You’ll still see it here and there, under the guise of “making a play on the ball.” Anecdotally, however, the game flow has been loads better this season. The resuscitation of fast breaks, like scientists bringing back the dodo bird, is a big reason why. So goodbye, take fouls, and good riddance. You will not be missed.
4) The Knicks have a promising present and future
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the offseason, there was a lot of hand-wringing about whether the Knicks had overpaid Jalen Brunson. Now, he’s looking like he might be on one of the best contracts in the league.
The Knicks have been — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — one of the best teams in the league since the trade deadline deal for grinder wing Josh Hart, going 10-4 over that stretch. Hart’s addition to the younger, better lineups that coach Thibs has been using added some much-needed NOS to the engine, supercharging their attack while shoring up their defense. To wit: in Hart’s 379 minutes, the Knicks score 11.3 more points on offense and allow 10.1 fewer points on defense per 100 possessions. Those are some of the widest on/off splits in the league.
The Knicks’ greatest strength may be their actual physical strength: they are top-five in both offensive and defensive rebounding in that time frame. Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle, Hart, Sixth Man of the Year candidate Immanuel Quickley, and even RJ Barrett are good-to-great positional rebounders. Sometimes, it feels like they can smack the ball off the backboard to themselves until they finally get a tip-in.
The top of the East is loaded for bear, and it’s hard to imagine New York taking down one of Philly, Boston, or Milwaukee. But a first-round series against Cleveland would be winnable, and the Knicks wouldn’t be frightened to play the big boys.
A surprisingly full chest of assets has the Knicks in play for another major superstar, too. If recent history has shown us anything, it’s that it won’t be long before someone unexpectedly decides they need a new home. And the Knicks are in a pretty good position to capitalize.
It’s been a long time, but Knicks fans should feel good about both the team today and what tomorrow may bring.
5) Playoff Parity
We saw a number of win-now trades over the last year or so for teams that think they have a puncher’s chance at a championship. A funny thing, though. When every team is getting better, nobody is getting better. That’s how you end up with the Hawks (definitely not a pleasant surprise) trading three first-rounders for an All-Star guard and ending up in the same place as last season.
But it’s led to the most exciting playoff race in league history.
The Western play-in bloodbath has been well-covered, but there’s drama up and down the standings. The Nuggets are dominating the West but still have an outside shot at home-court advantage in the Finals if they can beat out Milwaukee. The Grizzlies and Kings are locked in a tight battle for the two-seed, and after those top three, any team from the Suns down to the Jazz could end up as the four-seed or the twelve-seed.
The East has slightly more stratification, but that’s not saying much. The Bucks are still trying to get home-court advantage through the playoffs. The Celtics want to hold onto the second seed as Philly nips at their heels. The Cavs are pretty safely ensconced at four, but the Nets and Knicks are tied for fifth. The Heat seem relatively stable at seven, then the Hawks, Raptors, Bulls, Wizards, and Pacers are battling for the three remaining play-in slots.
Add it all up, and there will be drama up and down the standings up until the final day of the season. Every night there are multiple games with massive playoff implications, and it’s thrilling.
**Three more happy surprises below for paying subscribers! Please grant ME a happy surprise and consider a paid subscription today!**