With most teams having not played more than nine or ten games played so far, it is way too early to make many meaningful conclusions away. Having said that, premature judgments are what the internet exists for. So, let’s knock around some snap judgments….
Best Surprise: Phoenix Suns
The Suns are clearly the biggest positive surprise so far. They looked like the worst team in the West on paper and that was before Deandre Ayton was suspended. Somehow, they are 6-3 and have the second best SRS in the West (though they are in a virtual tie with the Jazz and Clipps). The Suns were miserable in all phases of the game last year (28th on offense and 29th on defense). Now, they are very good in those phases (5th on offense and 9th on defense).
Who gets the credit for this? Primarily, new coach Monty Williams appears to be getting the entire team to play defense. On the player side, the Suns have dumped some guys who were truly bad last season. Josh Jackson’s struggles were pretty obvious (-4.8 BPM, -1.4 VORP) and he soaked up almost 2,000 minutes and had off court problems. Unlike Jackson, Jamal Crawford was a good influence as a venerable vet but his numbers were even worse on defense (-6.0 BPM, -1.2 VORP).
Flipping out those two for Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric has been a huge step forward. Saric has been his usual reliable self but Rubio has played like an All-Star (18.2 PER, 3.8 BPM). The other conspicuously positive presence is Aron Baynes, who is putting up Nikola Jokic-like numbers (25.4 PER, 9.5 BPM(!)). On top of that, Baynes has taken over four three per game and is making .474% of them.
Needless to say, a team built around Rubio and Baynes being All-Stars doesn’t seem sustainable. Baynes is 33 and has always been an offensive liability. He probably won’t continue to shoot like Steph Curry. It is possible that Baynes could add new value as a three-point spacing guy (a la Brook Lopez) but he should regress heavily. Ditto for Rubio, who is firmly established as a slightly above-average point. Even with regression, the Suns look they have a chance to be taken somewhat seriously (i.e. fringes of the playoffs), which would be nice for the fans who haven’t had a playoff team since 2009-10.
Worst Surprise: Golden State Warriors
There really are no truly surprise bad teams. Most of the bad teams (cough *Knicks* cough) were anticipated but the Warriors complete implosion is sort of a surprise. Before the season, GSW seemed like a solid playoff team. That was before Steph Curry’s injury and Draymond Green’s more minor nicks. Without Curry, the lottery is expected. That the Warriors look like similar to a random pre-Steve Kerr Warrior team is a bit more surprising. That is until you scroll the remaining talent. Hell, the Warriors’ minutes leader is Glenn Robinson III and the rest of roster is made up of fringe players and D’Angelo Russell (who is playing the role of designated all-offense/no-defense star a la Purvis Short).
The Warriors are still decent on offense without Curry (13th) but that defense is the worst in the NBA so far. That’s not a big deal now with the team being so bad but can they recover from this? A foundational piece of the GS defense has always been Green and he has not been good either. Rather, Green’s defense has rated as poor this season (-0.6 DBPM) against a career average of 3.7 in that category. This could be a because of the injuries, small sample size, or lack of energy in a futile situation. Whatever it is, though, Warriors’ management has to be a bit worried that Green may not recapture that zeitgeist on defense when Curry and Thompson are finally ready to return.
Rookies to Watch
Advanced stats tend to hate rookies, even players who were obviously going to be great. Remember when Kevin Durant rated negatively as a rookie on a terrible OKC team (his BPM was -1.4 that season)? So, we shouldn’t be too hard on any rookies who rate poorly ten games into a career. Nevertheless, early returns don’t show any obvious future stars. So far, the only rookies with positive BPM in over 160 minutes are Brandon Clarke and PJ Washington. Clarke has been solid in all facets (and has a gaudy 22.6 PER so far) as a key bench player for Memphis, while Washington has earned a starting job on a meh Charlotte team.
The Heat have done a nice job with Kendrick Nunn, an older rookie (at 24), who has made an immediate impact. Given his age, Nunn seems to project as a solid role player. He is very much in the tradition of other Heat finds like Voshon Lenard, Udonis Haslem, Anthony Carter, useful low-cost players.
In pure opportunity terms, RJ Barrett has, by far, the most minutes played (we all remember Dave Fizdale’s comments on this issue) but has been a really poor high volume shooter (.441 eFG%). Barrett’s shooting is bad but a bunch of players have been way below even that level:
-De’Andre Hunter, Hawks: .367 FG%, .286 3FG% in 258 minutes
-Coby White, Bulls: .344 FG% and .212 3FG% in 239 minutes
-Jarrett Culver, T-Wolves: .341 FG%, .278 3FG% in 214 minutes
-Darius Garland, Cavs: .330 FG%, .267 3FG% in 255 minutes
-Jordan Poole, Warriors: .284 FG%, .288 3FG% in 301 minutes
-Cam Reddish, Hawks: .246 FG%, .214 3FG% in 215 minutes
Last year, Trae Young started out as a prolifically terrible shooter and came around. Hopefully, these players adjust but the early returns are not encouraging. We will just have to wait for Zion Williamson to see if a star emerges this season, because for now all we have is an eventual return that’s already putting New Orleans at +8.5 on Christmas.