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The 9 Biggest NBA Early Season Surprises

NBA insider Keith Smith reviews the season so far and gives us his biggest surprises on the young NBA season. Who has exceeded expectations so far and who has fallen flat?
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The 9 Biggest NBA Early Season Surprises

The NBA season is a month old and has been filled with early surprises. Some teams have played far better than expected. Some players have exceeded expectations or taken their games to a new level. Here’s eight standouts a month into the season (all records and stats as of games played through November 18)

For the latest NBA odds, click here

NBA Early Season Surprises

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs eschewed current NBA small-ball standards and rolled out a lineup that looked like it was created in a 1980s fever dream. Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen and rookie Evan Mobley started together in a frontcourt that all threatened being 7-feet tall. And you know what? It worked!

Despite suggestions that the Cavaliers would struggle to defend, it was Mobley being a two-way terror that unlocked the potential of this group. His ability to play on the perimeter on both ends of the floor allowed Cleveland to play these jumbo-sized lineups. Injuries and illnesses have hit the Cavs hard recently, but they’ve still been one of the fun stories of the early season.

Want to bet on the Cavs to make the NBA Playoffs? Check out their latest odds here

DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan was never as “washed” as some wanted you to believe. He was reborn in the bubble season, as the San Antonio Spurs leaned into playing four smalls around one big. That cast DeRozan as a playmaking four. He excelled and the Chicago Bulls have amplified that role.

DeRozan is having an all-around career year for the Bulls. He’s averaging 26.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists. The only reason his assists are down a bit is because he’s sharing the playmaking load with Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball. The most unexpected surprise? DeRozan is shooting a respectable 35% from behind the arc on 2.7 three-point attempts per game.

DeMar DeRozan's latest NBA MVP odds

Golden State Warriors

Yes, most expected the Warriors to be back to being a good team. They’re healthy again and they’ll get Klay Thompson and James Wiseman back sooner, rather than later. But no one outside of Dubs homers expected this.

Golden State is currently winning at a 71-win pace. That will slow down…probably. Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level and putting together another historic shooting season. Draymond Green is doing his thing. And all the kids who got experience when the team was bad the last couple of years? They’re all rotation contributors now. The Warriors probably won’t win 70 games, but 60-plus and an NBA Finals run isn’t out of question.

Get the latest NBA championship odds here

Wendell Carter Jr.

You’re probably saying “What? Who? Why?” and that’s kind of fair. The Orlando Magic are just 4-11 (worst in the Eastern Conference). They have no notable stars as of yet. But the Magic are loaded with interesting young players who are figuring things out. Carter is one of the brightest of the bunch.

Orlando has gone with a double-big lineup featuring Carter starting alongside Mo Bamba. It’s working because Carter has been excellent on the perimeter. He’s knocking down 44.8% from deep on 3.9 three-point attempts per game. Carter is also averaging a career-high 2.3 assists per game, and that number would be higher if Orlando finished off more of his passes. Their record suggests otherwise, but take a peek at Carter and the Magic. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how fun they are.

Think the Magic can exceed their season win total? Check out the odds here

Washington Wizards

A two-game losing streak knocked the Wizards out of first-place in the Eastern Conference, but that shouldn’t diminish their impressive start. Washington has played a weak schedule so far, but you can only play the teams in front of you. If we criticize teams for bad losses, we shouldn’t completely diminish winning games over poor teams.

Why is the Wizards start sustainable? They have a new commitment to defense. After years of playing track meets where the goal was to get to 120 points first, Washington has slowed the game down and is defending. They still have Bradley Beal as a supreme scoring weapon and all the rest of the pieces just fit. The Lakers castoffs have played in a million big games, and Spencer Dinwiddie doesn’t fear any moment. Look for the Wizards to fight for homecourt advantage all season long.

The Wizards' odds to make the NBA Playoffs have been slashed. Find the latest odds here

Ja Morant

Sometimes you can tell when a player is making a superstar leap. That started for Morant last season. He started taking over games and willing the Memphis Grizzlies to wins. This year, Morant has gone a step further.

In his third-year, Morant has upped his scoring to 26 points per game, while still averaging 7.1 assists. He’s also grabbing a career-high 6.3 rebounds per game. Watching Morant rip and run coast-to-coast is one of the most breathtaking sequences in the NBA.

More importantly than just counting stats, Morant’s work on his jumper is paying off. He’s at 38.4% from behind the arc. He’s up over 50% shooting for the first time in his career. And the Grizzlies are starting to win too. Add it all up, and we’re witnessing the start of a first-time All-Star season.

Can Ja Morant win NBA's Most Improved Player? He's currently the favorite

LA Clippers

After a rocky start, the Clippers have gone 8-2 in their last 10 games to push up the standings to fifth-place in the Western Conference. Many wrote off LA without Kawhi Leonard. The prevailing theory was that the depth of the West would push them down to the Play-In Tournament or out of the postseason entirely.

Instead, the Clippers depth has shown up. Paul George is leading a versatile group of playmakers and scorers who defend their tails off nightly. There’s no timetable for Leonard’s return, but Marcus Morris, Serge Ibaka and others should make their way back sooner, rather than later. That depth will serve the Clippers well in a playoff push.

Find the latest NBA Championship odds here

Chris Paul

Maybe this one is cheating a little, but not enough people know just how good Paul has been this season. The 36-year-old is playing more minutes per game than he has in six years. And he’s delivering on a nightly basis.

Paul is leading the NBA with 10.5 assists per game. He’s also been near the top of the league in steals, nabbing 2.4 a night. And Paul remains the maestro of the midrange, as he’s scoring 14.1 points per game on over 46% shooting. Oh, and the Suns are 11-3 and look every bit as good as last season’s NBA Finals team.

Can Chris Paul win NBA MVP?


This one is a bonus, because this rookie class hit the NBA and has been awesome. There are no less than five or six players about whom you could say “He might be the best player in this class in a few years” and that’s great for the NBA. Some of their teams are terrible, but that’s by design. Throw out the records and watch these kids play. You’ll come away impressed and excited to watch them develop over the next decade.

Find the latest NBA Rookie of the Year odds here


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