The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From breakout stars to otherworldly performances to season-altering injuries, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what's stood out?
For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren't in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA's biggest revelations this season. And it's just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.
To break down the rest of the league's biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.
The Rookies Are Stealing the Show
Chris Ballard: It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as how. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward. We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV?
The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard
Rohan Nadkarni: Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs' do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it's unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it's interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn't even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.
What will the Spurs' ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden's in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas.
It's a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (potentially on Tuesday), it's receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence.
Houston is THIS Good
Ben Golliver: Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.
James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).
Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they've played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.
The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets' offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season's top thrill.
The Thunder's Sputtering Makeover
Lee Jenkins: As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers. At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.
The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade
Chris Johnson: The reaction to the Paul George trade was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit.
Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City's dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.
Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads
Andrew Sharp: Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when Rudy Gobert went down with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz.
Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he'd been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn't have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future.
The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he's averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He's running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he's exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he's been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June's draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it's all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell's upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He's like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he's bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense.
The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah's lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That's OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing's certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected.
The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule
Jeremy Woo: There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They're playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago.
LeBron Is Still LeBron
Matt Dollinger: Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I'm still blown away by what we're seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving's surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas's prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That's not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it's no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn't go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won't be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we'll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.