Late January marked the halfway point for the NBA regular season; most teams have already stomached about 65 percent of their schedules. The season has had its usual ups and downs, but it’s also produced genuine surprises. Here are the top five:
Chicago Bulls not playing up to expectations
The difference between this spot being occupied by Cleveland whittles down to this: The Cavaliers introduced David Blatt this season — who has never coached in the NBA before (Tom Thibodeau is coaching his fifth season in Chicago after spending years as an assistant). Despite amassing three high-grade all-stars on the same team, none of them had played together during an NBA regular season. And LeBron James was sidelined for a two-week stretch in which Cleveland went 1-7. Of course, there were going to be hiccups and of course the Cavaliers have recovered.
Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotić and Aaron Brooks are the only new pieces on the Bulls that play more than 10 minutes per game. This team has dealt with injuries as long as Thibodeau has been there, so it’s no surprise that Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Doug McDermott, Kirk Hinrich, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Gasol have all missed stretches.
When you’re chosen by nearly everyone to at least make the Eastern Conference finals, sitting third — nine games out of first — with 28 games left in the season is surprising. Being a wretched 15-11 at home, with losses to Indiana, Brooklyn, Utah, Orlando and Miami in the United Center, is shocking. A defense that hasn’t ranked lower than third in opponent scoring since 2009-10, simmering at No. 11 is jaw-dropping. Last season, the Bulls allowed opponents to reach the 100-point mark just 16 times. This season, they’ve already allowed opponents to hit that mark 25 times.
Atlanta Hawks take flight under Mike Budenholzer
Look past the fact that the Hawks skated into the playoffs with a losing record last season, reigniting the conversation concerning playoff reform, and they haven’t ranked above 22nd in league attendance in five years. Let’s forget that virtually nobody picked them as even a dark horse Eastern Conference finals candidate, let alone a Finals contender, and that the organization hasn’t won more than 45 games since 2009-10.
Mike Budenholzer has led the Hawks to a 43-11, Eastern Conference-leading record, book-ended by a franchise record 19-game winning streak and four all-stars selections.
It’s fitting that Budenholzer – who spent the years prior to his hiring as Gregg Popovich’s top assistant in San Antonio – is also headed to New York to coach the East this weekend.
In an interview with veteran Elton Brand this year, the 35-year-old power forward told me plainly, “He (Budenholzer) really treats everyone the same; (He’s) very fair in his coaching style. It’s about the team, and the team only. If a guy is open, you pass him the ball — that’s the culture around here.”
Brand draws attention to the lodestone of Budenholzer’s coaching paradigm: complete and utter selflessness. It’s one of the first fundamental components of the game instilled in players at prepubescent ages. The Hawks are a team of auxiliary chess pieces unafraid to facilitate (Atlanta leads the league in total assists). They’re scoring at burgeoning rate, higher than they have in years, and you don’t need to look further to spot the catalyst in the Hawks etching the first 17-0 month in NBA history, becoming just the fourth team ever to put together a perfect month.
What’s perhaps less surprising is that they’re still considered by some as a fairy tale predestined to end. Stephen A. Smith and Colin Cowherd certainly don’t seem to think that they’ll continue to play at the level of efficiency they have been. But this story isn’t flying under the radar any longer.
Josh Smith goes from dispensable to, well, less dispensable
Nearly everyone was comically shocked when Detroit cut 11-year veteran Josh Smith; gutting the $26 million the team owed him over the next two years, plus a salary cap hit.
There’s good news, though: J-Smoove survived and was reborn in Houston. At the time of his waiving, Smith was shooting a grisly 39 percent from the field, 24 percent from beyond the arc, and averaging a career-low 0.2 win shares per game. His portfolio of dribble-drives-kicked-out-of-bounds, mansions built from his fourth-quarter bricks, and natural ability to move around the perimeter without a purpose are legendary. We’ll always have Detroit Josh Smith, and that’s something to cherish.
Since the trade, he’s raised his game in nearly every area and is shooting 52.9 percent from the field in the past 10 games. The Rockets are 12-4 when Smith scores in double figures.
Bucks go from worst team to latent playoff team
It was easy to believe that Jason Kidd’s Machiavellian streak was a limitation — or, at the very least a hitch heading into this season. With a veteran-heavy roster in Brooklyn and just one season of coaching experiencing, some spent more time parsing through the foggy and granular details of his departure (and arguably, the stranger details of his arrival) rather than considering what Kidd was about to bring to Milwaukee. It’s easy to forget that the Bucks were the worst team in the NBA last season because they were somewhat saved from the media scrum by Philadelphia losing an NBA record-tying 27 games. But no, it was Milwaukee – the team that won 15 games and sunk to the depths of the Larry Drew Ocean.
This season, Milwaukee is heading into the all-star break as the East’s No. 6 seed, one of just six teams in the conference with a winning record. All of this without what ostensibly would have been the rookie of the year (Jabari Parker) and, recently, Larry Sanders for myriad reasons. The team has played Kenyon Martin an average of 16.9 minutes per game in the last week, for God’s sake.
Kidd has brought his longball lineup to the team and it’s now dismantling opponents on the defensive end.
Not only has the team created a fortress around its basket, but it’s also among the best shooting teams in the league: No. 5 in field goal percentage, No. 3 in three-point percentage.
Through the teeth of the deft Brandon Knight and imminent perennial all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are done stewing in the muddy bottom-barrel of the NBA. They have an embryonic roster that’ll take them far, an ability to move the ball that’ll take them farther. This team has edified the city of Milwaukee.
Hassan Whiteside: Destroyer of worlds
In the less than two weeks since I wrote about Whiteside, the 25-year-old center has managed to:
- Tell LeBron James that he’ll “meet him at the rim” (risky)
- Tally three double-doubles, including the first 20-20 game for a Miami player in more than a decade and
- Add his seventh and eighth game this season with three or more blocked shots.
The seven-foot behemoth is quickly ascending the best center in the NBA ladder and has emerged as Miami’s defensive linchpin. He’s a testament to the vagaries of chance.
He’s also the only thing standing between the team and complete dystopian-level chaos on the glass (Miami ranks last in rebounding), he’s only getting more efficient as the season wares on.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Huffington Post and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@JPlanos).