The beginning of each regular season in the NBA is always full of surprises. So far this year, the Hawks have really struggled, DeMar DeRozan is taking threes again, and the Wizards are fourth in the Eastern Conference. You just never know what can transpire over the course of 20 basketball games. In this article, I’ll be discussing five of the biggest surprises of the 2021-22 NBA season with one quarter in the books.
The Phoenix Suns’ historic run
Everyone expected Phoenix to be really good this year. They were the runners-up to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee in last season’s Finals, but there are always concerns of a team-wide “hangover” after such a long playoff run. Between that and simple regression, it wouldn’t have been outrageous to see Phoenix take a few steps back in terms of record and playoff seeding.
Yeah, about that. The Suns are currently on a 17-game win streak, tied for a franchise record set in the 2006-07 season. They haven’t lost in over a month, most recently taking down the 18-3 Warriors. Devin Booker was hitting his stride before a hamstring strain on Tuesday night, and Chris Paul leads the league in assists per game. Mikal Bridges remains steady as a 3-and-D stalwart, and Deandre Ayton is becoming a more assertive rebounder. Streaks cannot last forever, but the Suns’ push for a top seed in the Western Conference this season seems written in stone.
Damian Lillard, in a serious slump
Lillard is one of the best scorers in the league, having averaged at least 25 points per game for six seasons since 2016. He’s built a career off of clutch baskets and logo three-pointers—a constant source of adrenaline that makes him an extremely entertaining player to follow. But it also makes his early-season struggles this year so difficult to watch.
“Dame Time” is mired in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, converting just 39.7 percent of his field goal attempts and 30.2 percent of his three-point tries. His inconsistency from one game to the next is simply uncharacteristic, especially from behind the arc. And the Trail Blazers have struggled because of it, sitting at 11-11 and being forced to lean on CJ McCollum to pick up the slack. Worse yet, Lillard will be out for at least 10 days with lower abdominal tendinopathy, something he’s been dealing with since the Olympics in the summer. This time off could be a much-needed reprieve that he uses to return to form for the rest of the year—NBA fans can’t wait to see him on the floor again.
Miles Bridges’ offensive breakout
In October, the Charlotte Hornets offered Bridges a 4-year, $60 million contract extension. He rightfully declined it, confident that he could find a sweeter deal as a restricted free agent next summer. That confidence is certainly paying off now.
Bridges is averaging 19.8 points per game, almost twice his average over his first three seasons in the league. His place in Charlotte’s lineup has evolved—his game was confined to a 3-and-D role early in his career. But this year, Bridges is reaching the basket more, doubling his drives per game versus last season. This heightened aggression enables him to use his 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame to his advantage, getting what he wants inside the paint. Bridges has shown his value as the ideal complementary player, and this coming summer, it’ll surely merit more than $15 million per year.
Jonas Valanciunas, doing all he can
The Pelicans are having a difficult season made even more painful by the fact that Zion Williamson hasn’t suited up for an NBA game since May 4. At a dismal 6-17, it could already be too late to think about a playoff run. Bright spots have been few and far between, but apparently, no one told Jonas Valanciunas. The Lithuanian big man is enjoying arguably the best individual season of his 11-year career, averaging 19.3 points and 12.4 rebounds while shooting a career-high 51.7 percent from deep.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. 51.7 percent is a wildly efficient figure, even for the league’s best shooters. Enter November 29. That night, Valanciunas was a man possessed, torching the Clippers for 39 points and 15 rebounds in 32 minutes, hitting 15-for-24 from the floor and 7-for-8 from three-point range. This is a new Jonas—after attempting 57 three-pointers all of last season, he has already heaved 58 in a month-and-a-half. Desperate times in the NBA call for offensive experimentation. Of course, Valanciunas isn’t the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki (his coach says otherwise), but having a big man capable of stretching the floor is a massive advantage in today’s NBA.
Boston Celtics are out of sync
In 2020, Brad Stevens’ last year as head coach, the Celtics had a strange and disappointing campaign. They found themselves in NBA purgatory at 36-36, squeezing into the playoffs but falling to the Nets in the first round. Nonetheless, things were looking up. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the NBA’s best young core, and accompanied by new additions Dennis Schroder and Al Horford, it appeared that the Celtics would right the ship in 2021.
But it’s been the same old story of mediocrity—Boston currently sits at 11-10, good for eleventh in the Eastern Conference. Neither Tatum nor Brown seem interested in sharing the ball (5.9 combined assists per game), and it’s already created some tension. Marcus Smart said himself that “[Tatum and Brown] don’t want to pass the ball.” Between Tatum’s dismal efficiency and a lack of reliable bench production, the Celtics are quickly finding themselves scrambling for answers.