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Most Surprising NBA Teams So Far: Legit or Fluke?

Almost a month into the NBA season, there have been numerous teams who have significantly exceeded or failed to meet expectations. While most teams go through several ups-and-downs throughout the grueling 82-game NBA season, the first month of basketball can be a key indicator for what the future holds. Here are the four most surprising teams thus far, including an assessment as to whether or not their performance will continue.

Golden State Warriors (11-1): Legit

November 10, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) and guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrate against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second quarter at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors have been extremely impressive to open the season, winning eleven of their first twelve games and only losing one game in overtime. Led by Stephen Curry, the Warriors are looking like the team that went to five straight NBA Finals again— even though they are still without Klay Thompson, who could return before Christmas. The Warriors are also missing James Wiseman, the second overall pick in the 2020 Draft, who is set to return around Thanksgiving. At full strength, this Warriors team could be championship favorites.

Golden State’s 11-1 start has been no joke. Across these twelve games, the Warriors have an average +14.7 point scoring margin, almost double the next best team. They aren’t just squeaking out wins; they are dominating teams from start to finish. Per Team Rankings, the Warriors lead the league in assist percentage (69.8%), effective field goal percentage (56.1%), true shooting percentage (59.2%), points per game (116.2), and defensive rating (98.7), while ranking second in offensive rating (112.8). The Warriors are an elite offensive team again, one that plays beautiful basketball through their floor spacing and flawless ball movement.

More surprising has been their NBA-leading defense so far. Aside from Draymond Green, the Warriors don’t have a roster full of All-Defensive Team players. Rather than individual defense, they rely on their collective team defense. The Warriors are elite at disrupting passing lanes, leading the NBA in steals per game (10.8) and ranking second in deflections per game (18.3). Athletic defenders like Andrew Wiggins, Gary Payton II, and Andre Iguodala have been fantastic at forcing turnovers and wreaking havoc on the defensive end. In addition, the Warriors creatively mix up their defensive schemes to keep opposing offenses off-balance, playing the fifth-highest rate of zone defense in the NBA (5.1%). Most recently, the Warriors used a box-and-one to limit Zach LaVine when the Warriors hosted the Bulls.

The Warriors have been far and away the best team in the NBA on both sides of the ball through the first month of the season, and they aren’t even at full strength yet. With a blend of young players and veteran leadership, the Warriors have a deep and talented roster that clearly has the chemistry to be an elite team. The Warriors are legit again, and they are looking like the team to beat out West.

Washington Wizards (8-3): Legit

Oct 30, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) talks with Wizards center Montrezl Harrell (6) against the Boston Celtics at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After trading Russell Westbrook for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and draft picks in the offseason, it seemed like the Wizards were heading towards a rebuilding phase. However, that hasn’t been the case. In recent years, the Wizards have always been a competent offensive team. They averaged 116.6 points per game last season, good for third in the NBA. However, the Wizards also allowed an NBA-worst 118.5 points per game. So far this season, first year head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has inspired this team to play elite defense. The Wizards are fourth in the NBA in defensive rating (102.9) and they hold opponents to a 48.3% effective field goal percentage, best in the NBA. The Wizards have a lot of motivated players with a chip on their shoulder and it’s been evident through their effort on defense. Aside from forcing opponents to shoot a low percentage, the Wizards also secure an NBA-best 38.9 defensive rebounds per game, limiting second chances. Replacing Westbrook with Spencer Dinwiddie has slowed their pace considerably, helping their defense get set consistently. The Wizards rank 14th in pace this year after leading the league last year.

The quartet of Bradley Beal, Spencer Dinwiddie, Montrezl Harrell, and Kyle Kuzma has exceeded expectations this year. Most notably, Harrell has seemingly brought a new life to this team. The energetic big man is averaging 18.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, shooting 64% from the field and even receiving MVP chatter early in the year. Washington’s All-NBA guard Bradley Beal has been underwhelming thus far, averaging just 23.3 points per game after averaging over 30 points per game each of the past two seasons. Beal is only shooting 40.7% from the field and an uncharacteristically low 25% from three. However, he has impressed on defense, posting a career-best 100.1 defensive rating thus far. Even amidst Beal’s shooting struggles, the Wizards have won games, something that would’ve been difficult to say in years prior.

The Wizards hold the NBA’s ninth-hardest strength of schedule thus far, so it’s fair to say that this team is for real. Currently sitting atop the East, the Wizards are a well-rounded team with plenty of hungry players looking to prove their worth. The Wizards are capable of being a top-ten team on both sides of the ball, and if they continue to build chemistry, they can keep getting better.

Cleveland Cavaliers (8-5): Fluke

Oct 23, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Ricky Rubio (3) and center Evan Mobley (4) celebrate after the Cavaliers be a the Atlanta Hawks at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cavs got off to a hot start this season, but it’s hard to imagine them maintaining their position in the top third of the East. The three big-man lineup with Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen has surprisingly worked so far, but having three seven-footers playing alongside two undersized guards in Darius Garland and Ricky Rubio seems like a recipe for disaster. The Cavs lack floor spacing and consistently face challenges matching up on defense, making it seem inevitable for everything to fall apart eventually. More and more NBA teams are targeting athletic wing players, something the Cavs lack and struggle to match up against. The Cavs don’t have the offensive firepower to compensate for their less-than-ideal defensive matchups, especially after losing Collin Sexton to injury.

While Garland and Rubio have played well as orchestrators of the offense and the big man duo of Mobley and Allen has exceeded expectations, this team lacks depth. Without Sexton, the Cavs are going to need increased contributions elsewhere, but they don’t have many options to turn to. With a bench unit consisting of an aging and injury-prone Kevin Love, Cedi Osman, Issac Okoro, Dylan Windler, and Dean Wade, the Cavs simply don’t have the depth or talent necessary to be a serious threat in the East. The Cavs are a team that scores by committee, with eight players (including Sexton) averaging 9.9 or more points per game. Their leading scorer, Darius Garland, averages 16.3 points per game, a low number in today’s NBA. Although they are balanced, they lack a go-to option to close out games and struggle to score at times.

Atlanta Hawks (4-9): Fluke

Oct 14, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) celebrates after a three pointer with guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (13) against the Miami Heat in the first half at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last year, many expected the Hawks to build off their success this season. However, they have struggled and have just four wins through their first 13 games. In particular, the Hawks have struggled mightily on the road, winning just one out of nine road games. The Hawks have also struggled with closing games, playing several tight games that they probably should’ve won. Luckily for the Hawks, their schedule gets much more friendly from here on out. The Hawks have had the hardest strength of schedule in the NBA thus far. The Hawks are currently on a six game losing streak with losses to the Nets, Suns, Warriors, Nuggets, and Jazz twice. These five teams are arguably the top five teams in the NBA right now, and the Hawks played each of them on the road. The Hawks have kept the game close against several of these elite teams, but they just haven’t been able to stay connected for a full 48 minutes. It’s been a common theme for them to fall apart for a stretch, where their opponent capitalizes and outscores them by double digits.

Despite the poor start, this isn’t uncharted territory for the Hawks. Last year, the Hawks started the year with a 14-20 record, 11th in the East with the All-Star break looming. After firing Llyod Pierce and naming Nate Mcmillan their interim head coach, the Hawks closed the year 27-11 and captured the fifth seed with a 41-31 record. From there, the Hawks continued their success and made the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks. A similar story could be in the works this year. Bringing back almost the exact same team from last year, the Hawks are extremely talented and should be able to turn things around. Just thirteen games into an 82-game season, there is no reason for the Hawks to panic yet.

Superstar Trae Young started the year slow, struggling to adapt to the new rule changes, but he has really picked it up as of late. In his last four games, Young has scored 30, 27, 28, and 31 points in each. In addition, having young wings DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish healthy provides a huge boost for the Hawks on both sides of the ball. The two 2019 lottery picks have shown great promise both as scorers and as elite wing defenders. John Collins, Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Kevin Huerter, key contributors during last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, have all been slightly underwhelming so far this year. It seems like just a matter of time before a team with this amount of talent begins to click. With an upcoming home stand and a significant step down in competition, look for the Hawks to get hot and round into form.

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