NBA Breakdown: What Outcomes from the First Three Weeks Tell Us About This Season’s Potential Playoff Contenders

Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic in action against the Washington Wizards during the game on November 15, 2014 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. (Photo courtesy of Keith Allison on Flickr)

We’re only three weeks into the NBA season, but a number of intriguing surprises have already emerged. With defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland’s abysmal start to the year and the Orlando Magic’s hot start, many are questioning their preseason predictions across the league.

But there is no need to worry my 5C basketball fans: I’ve got you covered with an in-depth breakdown of the league’s most surprising teams. Let’s take a look at six teams that are either floundering or exceeding expectations, and see if we can make any sense of them.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies have had success in previous years thanks to their ‘Grit n’ Grind’ methods, but many expected them to experience a downfall this year. In fact, Las Vegas gambling bookmakers set their expected win total for the season at 38, which would have them finish three games under .500. With veterans Zach Randolph and Tony Allen departing the team and marquee signing Chandler Parsons still struggling from injuries, many expected it to be pretty lonely for all-star duo Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. However, after a 6-4 start with wins against the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets, and Los Angeles Clippers, the ‘Grit n’ Grind’ mentality appears to still be paying dividends for Memphis. The Grizzlies have held teams to only 98 points a game and have the fifth highest defensive rating in the NBA. Parsons has returned nicely, shooting the ball particularly well, and free agent signing Tyreke Evans has been a solid player off the bench. If their defense continues and their star players stay healthy, don’t be surprised if Memphis can secure a solid playoff spot in a tough Western Conference.

Sacramento Kings

Unfortunately, the Kings seem like the same old Kings. With a 3-8 record, things have not looked good; they currently average only around 94 points a game (second lowest in the NBA) and have the second worst defensive rating in the NBA. While nobody really had high expectations for the Kings this season, avid NBA fans were hopeful that the mix of exciting young talent brought by Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox and veteran leaders such as Vince Carter and George Hill could make an exciting team. However, this has not been the case. Part of the reason their offense has done so poorly is their slow pace; they currently average 95 possessions a game, the lowest mark in the NBA. Additionally, they are last in the NBA in three point field goal attempts per game and are only shooting 35% from three-point range. If the Kings want to be the fun team we had hoped for, then they have major problems to fix on both ends of the court.

Indiana Pacers

The early success of this team feels therapeutic for all parts of Pacer Nation. The fans and organization needed to move on from the exhausting Paul George saga, and newly acquired Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis needed relief after an exhausting season playing beside reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. Many experts doubted the skills of Oladipo and Sabonis and expected young star Myles Turner to fend for himself as the Pacers finished as one of the worst teams in a weak Eastern Conference. What many overlooked were the detrimental effects that playing with Westbrook, possibly the most ball-controlling player of all time, had on Oladipo and Sabonis’s play. It turns out, when they can touch the ball, Oladipo and Sabonis are pretty good players. Oladipo currently averages over 24 points a game and Sabonis is putting up double-double figures. The weight off their shoulders allows the Pacers to play with no pressure to succeed. If Oladipo and Sabonis continue this start, along with Turner’s growth and the good supporting play we’ve seen from the rest of the starting lineup, then the Pacers could certainly be in the playoffs in April.

Orlando Magic

If the Magic can continue to play their game, we may just see them secure a playoff spot at the season’s end. Orlando has been the biggest positive surprise of the NBA season, as they sit at 7-4 with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. This start is no fluke either; the Magic have notched impressive wins over both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs. Last year, the Magic finished at an abysmal 29-53, and all they added to their team were shooting guard Jonathon Simmons and first round draft pick Jonathan Isaac. So, what changed? For starters, former fourth overall pick Aaron Gordon has seemed to make the much anticipated ‘leap’ to be nearly all-star caliber, averaging significant career highs in points per game and rebounds per game. Last year, Orlando was completely overstocked with power forwards, so Gordon was forced to play a majority of his time on the court at small forward instead of his natural position at power forward. This year, Gordon has played most of his minutes at the power forward position where his athleticism is above average for his position, allowing him to spread the floor and have an advantage over his defender. Gordon’s numbers, combined with Evan Fournier’s best season start in his career, have made the Magic a high-powered offense. While this has been a great start, there will likely be regression as it will be difficult for the Magic to maintain some of their ridiculous stats, like Fournier’s 48% three-point field goal percentage and Jonathon Simmons shooting 52% overall. However, even with regression, expect them to make a strong postseason push.

Oklahoma City Thunder

With Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony continuing to harmonize, don’t be surprised if the Thunder end up in the top half of the Western Conference as they begin to win more close games. After the team acquired Anthony and George in the offseason, many gave the Thunder the official ‘superteam’ seal. However, though the duo seems to be meshing into the lineup well, with both of them averaging over 21 points a game, and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook is still averaging a triple-double and the team is sporting one of the best defenses in the NBA, the Thunder somehow have stumbled to a 4-5 record. However, by looking at their schedule, you’ll find that three of these losses were to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trailblazers, two other competitive Western Conference teams with playoff aspirations, by a total margin of nine points. Losing a number of close games early can be tough, but OKC’s scoring margin is +12.5, which is usually a good sign, and there seems to be no glaring trouble besides the lack of depth. OKC’s success appears to be close on the horizon.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Last but not least, we must address the disaster that is the Cleveland Cavaliers, the three-time reigning conference champs, who currently sit in the bottom half of the East. The Cavs are 5-7, with losses coming from mediocre teams including the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks. In reality, there have not been many positives so far this season. The team has the worst defense in the league, as players such as JR Smith and Kevin Love have continued to be defensive liabilities, and newly acquired forward Jae Crowder can only help so much. With star point guard Isaiah Thomas out and Kyrie Irving gone, the team has a void at the point guard position that has not been filled. Lebron James, while still putting up phenomenal numbers, can only carry the load so much. However, it’s not like we haven’t seen this before. A staple of a Lebron James team is a period during the season where the team struggles (especially on defense) and everyone begins to question both Lebron and his team’s ability to return to the NBA Finals. While the quality of the Eastern Conference is better than we expected, I still think the Cavaliers are the favorite to repeat as conference champs, because they still have the best basketball player in the world on their team and will be gaining an incredible talent in Thomas midway through the season. Don’t be surprised if by Christmas we are laughing at ourselves for doubting the King and if we see the Cavaliers on the path to the NBA Finals once again.

The start of the season has been entertaining for sure. Many teams in the Eastern Conference that were expected to be mediocre have come out hot, making the established Cavaliers reevaluate their strategy to hold on the throne. It seems that an overwhelming number of teams will be fighting for those eight playoff positions in the Western Conference, especially for spots in the lower half. If everything continues at this trajectory, then we are in for another thrilling NBA Finals.

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