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The most surprising developments of the NBA season

Yardbarker logo Yardbarker 1/9/2019 Pat Heery, Yardbarker
Nikola Jokic standing posing for the camera © Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

The ultimate outcome of the 2018-19 NBA season still might feel inevitable to most fans. However, that is not to say this season hasn’t been without surprise. Thanks to this past summer’s player movement and the league-wide increase to the pace of play, a number of young stars have made leaps and accelerated their respective teams’ expectations. By the same token, some players and teams have struggled in ways most people weren’t expecting. At this point in the season, trends have started to become a reality. Let’s take a look at which developments have been the most surprising thus far:

1) Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are great

It’s usually tough for a player who averaged 27 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists per game the previous season to show up the next season and look noticeably better. Yet, that’s what Giannis Antetokounmpo has accomplished this season. Despite playing almost four fewer minutes per game this year, he’s averaging 27 points, 13 rebounds and over six assists a night. His field-goal percentage is up about six percentage points, and he’s dominating the paint like prime Shaquille O’Neal. Antetokounmpo is the NBA’s first-ever point-center.

As he takes aim at his first MVP award, Antetokounmpo has the Milwaukee Bucks competing for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer has built a perfect system around Antetokounmpo’s strengths and has Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcom Brogdon and Brook Lopez all playing some of the best basketball of their respective careers. It’s probably safe to say that Giannis and Co. won’t be exiting from the first round of the playoffs again for a long, long time.

2) Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets are also great despite all their injuries

Despite Will Barton, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap missing a combined 57 games this season, the Denver Nuggets somehow have the best record in the loaded Western Conference. When you also consider that the team’s two splashy offseason acquisitions, Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr., haven’t played a single game either, it’s truly staggering how well the Nuggets have played so far.

Denver’s success is directly tied to Nikola Jokic’s leap from borderline All-Star to borderline MVP candidate. The fourth-year center is averaging 19 points, 10 rebounds and almost eight assists per game. Only one big man in NBA history has averaged at least 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists per game — his name was Wilt Chamberlain. Stats aside, Jokic’s passing abilities are so transcendent that the Nuggets haven’t needed a traditional point guard when he’s been on the court, which has allowed Jamal Murray to emerge as a one of the better scoring guards in the conference. With the “Joker” firing no-look passes that seem to defy the laws of physics, the Nuggets’ role players have been taking advantage of a plethora of open shots and driving lanes.

3) The Kings are actually kind of competitive

After a decade of front office mismanagement, the Kings have finally found a franchise player in De’Aaron Fox. (Just imagine if they’d drafted Luka Doncic like they should have!!) In just his second season, Fox has established himself as a future superstar point guard and is already averaging 18 points and nearly eight assists per game while shooting 38 percent from long distance.

Fox isn’t the only reason for hope in Sacramento either. Flanking Fox are two great shooters in Buddy Hield, who is scoring 21 points a game and hitting 44 percent from three, and Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is putting up 16 points a night and nailing 37 percent from beyond the arc. The Kings also have two hyper-athletic big men to push the pace in Willie Cauley-Stein, who is playing the best basketball of his life, and Marvin Bagley, who is as fast and bouncy as any big man in the league.

With a solid coach in Dave Joerger and a strong young core, the Kings are 20-20 and have a legitimate chance to make a playoff push if they make the right move at the trade deadline.

4) The Clippers are legitimately competitive 

Speaking of surprising starts, the Los Angeles Clippers, who many figured would spend the season developing youngsters, trading veterans for future assets and clearing cap space in preparation for this summer’s loaded free-agency class, are competing for home court in the first round of the playoffs. Coach Doc Rivers is putting on the best coaching performance of his career and has Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell all playing as well as they’ve ever played. Speaking of surprises, Harris got off to such a strong start that he was named the Western Conference Player of the Month in November...over the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden — you get the point. Raise your hand if you saw that coming?

5) The Wizards are a dumpster fire

Here’s a quick highlight reel of the Washington Wizards franchise the past five months:

- This past summer, the rumors of “Club” John Wall’s hard-partying lifestyle were confirmed by this hilarious Team USA photo.

- Later in the summer, the team signed Dwight Howard, Austin Rivers and Jeff Green in free agency.       

- Earlier this season, during a tumultuous practice, Wall and Kelly Oubre berated head coach Scott Brooks, while Bradley Beal berated at team officials and nearly fought Austin Rivers.

- And last but not least, the Wizards recently announced that Wall will have season-ending heel surgery and won’t resume basketball activities for the next six to eight months.

In sum, every potential contributor for the Wizards has basically either been injured or regressed this season (besides Beal). If all of that wasn’t enough, take a look at the Wizards’ salary cap situation for the next couple of years. Oh, boy. Bet that’ll be fun paying Wall an average of $42.3M per year over the next four seasons!

6) Derrick Rose is a good player again

While his legacy will always be complicated by his injuries and off-the-court legal troubles, one thing is certain today: Derrick Rose is a good NBA player again. He doesn’t have the same vertical athleticism that once made him the NBA’s most dynamic point guard, but he’s fully regained his lateral quickness and is shooting the ball better than ever. He’s even had some legitimate “moments” this season, including a career-high 50 point game against the Utah Jazz (the team that waived him last season) and a big game against the Chicago Bulls where the Chicago fans began chanting “M-V-P” for him at the free-throw line.

Nobody saw this turnaround coming — well, except the now-unemployed Tom Thibodeau, who enabled Rose to regain some confidence in his game by deploying him as a shooting guard. The results have been staggering, as Rose is averaging 19 points and five assists per game and shooting a career-best 46 percent from three. Even the biggest Rose skeptics (including yours truly) must admit that Rose has been a plus-player this season and one of the T’Wolves’ lone bright spots in a drama-filled season.

7) Chris Paul is struggling, but James Harden’s got his back

On paper, Chris Paul is averaging 16 points and eight assists per game. Not bad, right? Wrong! This is the Point God we’re talking about here. For one, Paul is averaging a career-high three turnovers per game despite having one of the lowest usage rates in his career. Moreover, his shooting splits across the board are down, including career-lows in field-goal and free-throw efficiency. And if that wasn't enough, Paul’s pesky hamstrings are acting up again, causing him to miss games and not play his usual stellar defense.

Fortunately for the Rockets, James Harden is playing the best basketball of his life — or anyone’s life for that matter — as of late. In fact over the past 14 games, Harden is averaging about 40 points a night and the Rockets are 12-2! Paul’s injury did not send Houston into the free fall some were expecting. However, the Rockets’ chances of contending in the West are still contingent upon the Point God shouldering some of the Sisyphean load Harden has been carrying in Paul’s absence.

8) Draymond Green is slipping

In 2015-16 when Draymond Green was at the absolute peak of his powers during the Warriors’ 73-9 season, he averaged 14 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists per game and shot 39 percent from three. He was also the best and most versatile defender in the league. On paper, he was a good player, but on the court, he was a one-of-a-kind superstar who made winning plays all over the place. For that season, and the two that followed, Green had the kind of on-court impact typically associated with the NBA’s most elite players.

This season has been a different story. Green is scoring only seven points per game, and his three-point shooting has gotten so bad (24.6 percent) that other teams don’t even bother covering him anymore. While he’s still a great passer, he’s averaging three turnovers a game. When you factor in this with the early-season debacle with Kevin Durant, you can start to see the makings of an anti-Draymond narrative if the Warriors were to somehow not three-peat as NBA champions.

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Video by FOX Sports

9) Trae Young can’t shoot, but Luka Doncic sure can

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Trae Young? It’s him burying some deep three-pointer, right? Well, you’ll be surprised to learn that Young is shooting only 29 percent from three on about five attempts per game and under 40 percent from the field on 14 attempts per game. Obviously, we knew that playing against bigger, stronger, faster NBA athletes every night was going to be an adjustment for Young, but for a guy who was drawing Steph Curry comparisons in college, these shooting splits are a little concerning. It’s tough to be a volume scorer in the NBA if you’re that inefficient.

On the other hand, the guy whom Hawks traded Young for, Luka Doncic, might make the All-Star Game as a rookie. Put simply, Doncic has been phenomenal. He’s averaging close to 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game while turning the Mavericks into a playoff contender and must-watch TV on some nights. People can disagree about Doncic’s ceiling as a player, but it’s clear that his floor is as high as any prospect in recent memory.

10) Marcus Morris is the Celtics’ best forward

Coming into the season, everyone was focused on the Celtics’ sexy trio of small forwards: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward. That trio, along with Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, were supposed to be the most formidable starting five in the league. Shockingly that lineup had the worst offensive rating of any lineup to play at least 100 minutes in the NBA, and the aforementioned trio struggled immensely early on. Tatum came into the season launching contested long-twos like he was Kobe Bryant. Brown has been playing tepidly in his reduced role. And on most nights, Hayward has looked like a shell of the player he was in Utah. Fortunately for Boston, contract year-Marcus Morris came to the rescue.

A quarter of the way through the season, Brad Stevens benched Hayward in favor of Morris, and the Celtics ripped off nine of their next 10. Not only has Morris fit better in the starting lineup, but also he’s played the best basketball of his career and is averaging over 15 points and six rebounds per game while flirting with the 50-40-90 Club. Morris has turned himself into arguably the best three-and-D role player in the NBA and has played better than any Celtic not named Kyrie this season.

Related Slideshow: 2018-19 NBA Season (Provided by USA TODAY Sports)

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