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The NBA's Happiest Surprises This Season
The things I didn't expect but loved to see
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We’re approaching the end of the NBA year, and it’s time to start taking stock of the regular season in its entirety. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be running through my happiest surprises, biggest disappointments, and end-of-season awards before moving on to playoff coverage. So check back often!
Happy Surprise #1: Familiar Faces
The silver lining to the jumble of COVID-related absences from earlier in the year was seeing old friends again. Lance Stephenson returned to his favorite city in the world by outshining Kyrie Irving in his debut for Indiana. Joe Johnson checked into a game at 40 years of age (still younger than Udonis Haslem, mind you). And Isaiah Thomas, of course, finally earned a real role and a real contract with the Charlotte Hornets.
Many others also returned to the league for a final 10-day bow, like CJ Miles, Darren Collision, and Brandon Knight.
Some of these players have been out of the league since 2019. It’s rare for players to get second chances when they’ve washed out of the league and even rarer for someone to get third or fourth shots. But it’s always worth celebrating when someone does beat the odds.
Happy Surprise #2: The Grizzlies Are Great
The Memphis Grizzlies are the second-youngest team in the NBA. They have two guys (Steven Adams and Kyle Anderson) who are 28 years old; they are the oldest, the grizzled vets. And yet, this team has championship aspirations this season!
It was impossible to see this coming. The Grizzlies were a solid team last year, but they were middle of the pack and lost in a gentleman’s sweep to the Jazz in Round 1 of the 2021 playoffs. It was reasonable to expect some improvement, but without major offseason upgrades and in a crowded Western Conference, it was hard to see Memphis making much noise.
Memphis has the second-best record and the second-best point differential in the NBA. They lead the league in offensive rebounding and steals forced. They talk a ton of trash but back it up on the court.
Ja Morant has had an All-NBA-caliber season and has compiled possibly the greatest single-season highlight reel ever assembled. In other words, he’s been incredible, but the Grizzlies are somehow 18-2 even without him. They’re deep, fearless, and ready to convert skeptics into believers.
A common NBA trope is that young teams need to take their lumps before they can truly experience success, but the Grizzlies will put that to the test.
Happy Surprise #3: The Cleveland Cavaliers Are Ahead Of Schedule
Well, time to eat some crow. Before the season, I predicted the Cavs would finish 13th in the East. Instead, they’ve been in the playoff picture all season long despite an unrelenting barrage of injuries, and they look primed to be a force in the East for years to come.
Point guard Darius Garland making a third-year leap to All-Star is the driving force behind the Cavs, but many other factors are at play.
Rookie Evan Mobley has been an All-Defensive Team candidate from Day 1. Center Jarrett Allen has shown impressively versatile offensive and defensive skills, letting him coexist with two other seven-footers in the starting lineup. Kevin Love will receive some Sixth Man of the Year consideration after embracing his role as gray-haired mentor and bench gunner. Isaac Okoro, the second-year wing, has dramatically improved his offensive skills while locking down the opponent’s best perimeter player.
This team might still be one or two moves away from true contender status, but with improved health next year, they should be in the mix for a top-four seed in the East. For the first time in two decades, the Cavs have found success without LeBron.
Happy Surprise #4: Crazy Trades
Trade talk is the lifeblood of the NBA’s midseason, when teams have started to figure out who they are and what they still need, but we’ve rarely, if ever, had a trade deadline like this one.
I recapped it all in excruciating detail back in February (somehow less than two months ago). There was something for everyone: long-awaited blockbusters (Ben Simmons for James Harden), franchise resets (the Pacers trading Domantas Sabonis for Kings' guard Tyrese Haliburton, the Mavs trading Kristaps Porzingis for former Wizard Spencer Dinwiddie), complementary stars for picks (CJ McCollum to the Pelicans for picks and the surging Josh Hart), and contenders loading up on depth for this year and next year (Clippers with Norm Powell and Robert Covington, Celtics with Derrick White).
Expectations were all over the board for whether this would be an active trade season or not, but nobody predicted the sheer number of high-impact trades that occurred. In an NBA where trade talk is almost always a pipe dream for fans, a frantic and festive few days revitalized the league.