The NBA features the unexpected.
Kawhi Leonard’s giant mitts rip balls away from strong two-hand grips. Steph Curry turns contested crossover dribbling into wide-open three-point looks. Kevin Love makes retreating defenses futile with outlets from one key to the other.
Like its stars, the NBA has given us a ball fake and a blow-by to start the season with things we did not see coming over the first three weeks of play.
Early-season surprises do not always last until April, just as fast-starting teams frequently do not, but these five storylines have surprised the NBA world so far.
Finding their way amid change is to be expected. Hitting their stride once Isaiah Thomas joins the action is logical. But Cleveland is losing like the seasons before its fans pulled their LeBron James jerseys out of mothballs or ashes.
The Cavaliers did not just hit a recent losing streak. They skidded against a streak of losers, getting beat consecutively by Brooklyn, New Orleans and New York (combined 85-161 last season) before the post-Paul George Indiana Pacers dogpiled on Cleveland.
The last time this sort of lethargy hit the Cavaliers, they were ending the 2016-17 regular season and flipped the switch to win their first 10 playoff games. James has a way of working things out.
Cleveland has alarming defensive deficiencies and a lack of chemistry, neither of which get fixed by Thomas. The Cavs also have the will and skill of James, who has pushed his teams to the past seven NBA Finals.
A firing is surprising enough after the NBA went the entire 2016-17 season and 2017 offseason without a coach getting canned. But a firing three games into the season is all the more startling.
After an 0-3 start with two of the losses coming by 48 and 42 points, the Suns fired coach Earl Watson. There were low expectations for the latest Suns rebuilding job, but his tenure did not even reach those with a 33-85 mark since replacing Jeff Hornacek in February 2016.
Watson’s firing coincided with Eric Bledsoe’s “I don’t wanna be here” tweet and subsequent excuse that he meant the hair salon. The Suns did not buy it from a player who once cut off communication with the franchise for an entire offseason when he was seeking a contract extension. Phoenix announced that Bledsoe no longer would be with the team while it sought a trade.
What is most surprising in Phoenix is that Jay Triano, the Canadian national team coach and former Raptors coach, looks like a Coach of the Year candidate for piecing together the rubble. Starting 27-year-old rookie Mike James at point guard and returning rookie Josh Jackson to his natural small forward spot, the Suns emerged under Triano for more wins in his first 10 days on the job (four) than Watson had in his final 22 games (three).
Until Memphis’ Monday and Wednesday losses, the mighty Western Conference was being led by two teams widely forecast to be on the decline — the Grizzlies and the Clippers.
Memphis knocked off Houston twice and also beat Golden State despite players coming off injuries and Mike Conley and Marc Gasol not playing to capabilities. The Grizzlies’ identity seemed at risk with the departures of Grit-and-Grind legends Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, but Chandler Parsons’ body and shooting form are structurally better and Tyreke Evans is playing like a top talent on a one-year contract.
Grizzlies coach David Fizdale tried to increase Memphis’ pace and three-point shooting to fit the modern NBA style last season. This season, there is a more fluid look for that.
That ball movement exists with the Clippers too, as the offense turned more collaborative and free with Chris Paul in Houston. Blake Griffin is a next-level threat with three-point range added to his repertoire of using speed on bigger defenders and strength on smaller defenders. The defense is strong with DeAndre Jordan at the rim and Patrick Beverley pestering the ball.
The Clippers’ bench remains suspect, especially after Milos Teodosic’s foot injury, but Lou Williams has been an efficient sixth man with unexpectedly solid playmaking.
It is no simple injury bug when several stars’ health has put them out of action.
Gordon Hayward gruesomely broke his leg five minutes into his Boston debut. Paul has not played since his Houston debut because of a knee issue. Jeremy Lin was lost for the season after one game for Brooklyn because of a ruptured right patella.
Thomas, San Antonio’s Leonard and Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker started the season out injured, with Thomas and Parker not expected back until January and Leonard’s quadriceps injury remaining mysterious. There is no timetable on the return of Utah’s Dante Exum, who underwent surgery on a left shoulder that was dislocated in a preseason collision.
There also has been a noticeable amount of day-to-day sprains and strains, which could coincide with this year’s introduction of a shorter training camp and preseason.
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo was projected over his first four seasons as a player who could vie for a Most Valuable Player trophy someday. MVP conjecture is now turning to MVP conversation.
That discussion usually doesn’t stray much from James, Curry, Leonard, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. But with an offseason challenge from Kobe Bryant to win it and Durant saying that Antetokounmpo could become the best player ever, the “Greek Freak” is playing like he could hang in the MVP-watch talk if Milwaukee wins more.
He averaged 33.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in seven October games while shooting 63.2% from the field. In his fifth season, his stronger frame has made him more difficult to deny where he wants to go on the floor. And he has not even figured out a three-point touch yet.