Let’s face it, the 2017-18 NBA season has been somewhat of a whirlwind. From the Cavaliers’ struggles and dramatic turnaround to questionable refereeing, a lot has happened in the National Basketball Association.
Whenever we head into a new NBA season, there are some set expectations. Like we all expect the Golden State Warriors to do well and LeBron to be a triple-double machine. However, there are always some outliers. Players, teams, moments etc. that were not supposed to be a part of the whole plan.
With the season coming to a close, we have decided to elucidate, what we felt, were the three biggest surprises of the season. There were quite a few unexpected happenings to choose from, but we have given focus to on-court performances.
Victor Oladipo’s All-Star season
Before the season began, Paul George was traded by Indiana to Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The trade signaled predictions of 30 wins from NBA fans and analysts alike, and for good reason. The Pacers had traded their star player for two players, who at best, had been sidekicks to Russell Westbrook.
Whatever the NBA community was thinking, however, was not what the Pacers or Oladipo, in particular, had in mind. The stats speak for themselves, as Oladipo’s breakout season has powered Indiana to playoff contention this year with the Pacers currently at fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
We’ll touch on the Pacers later, because our first topic of discussion is Oladipo himself. More specifically, Oladipo’s rise to all-star status and his superb play, which itself has made Oladipo a term for players who display stratospheric improvement.
The Hoosier guard was the second-pick by Orlando Magic in the 2013 NBA Draft. As a primer, the 2013 draft class is regarded as the worst since 2000. Oladipo was stuck in the ‘Magic’ oblivion for three years before serving as trade bait for Orlando to acquire Serge Ibaka from the Thunder, where he took a backseat to Russell Westbrook.
So, there weren’t any massive expectations from Oladipo for the 2017-18 season, which is why his star turn comes as a surprise. Oladipo’s rise has been meteoric this season, with an overall improved performance.
The guard is averaging 23.3 points per game, off 47.1 % shooting. Comparatively, his ppg last year was 15.9 and his shooting accuracy was 44.2%. Oladipo’s assists per game have doubled this year, from 2.6 per game last season. Keep in mind that Oladipo has done all of this with a 30% usage rating, with his usage increasing five percentage points from his average of about 25%. While at Oklahoma, Oladipo’s usage rate was 21. 4%, and the increase this season is the largest of any player in the NBA. Such an amazing season rightfully resulted in Oladipo getting his first call-up as an NBA All-Star.
There’s no doubt that Oladipo will be taking home the NBA Most Improved Player award. What is more impressive, however, is how Oladipo has been instrumental in Indiana’s superb season.
The Pacers team has relied on the former Hoosier as it’s main man, and Oladipo has not disappointed. The guard’s 102.6 defensive rating is ninth amongst all NBA starters, and he ranks eighth among starters in the defensive win shares metric. Oladipo’s most impressive defensive stat? He’s recorded at least one steal in 54 consecutive games. That’s the eighth longest steal streak in NBA history.
Oladipo has also stepped up as a big game player for the Pacers. His 35 points earlier in 2018, helped down the Boston Celtics in a tense 97-91 win. Oladipo’s recorded 11 30 point+ games this season, and his season-high points were 47 in a win over the Denver Nuggets.
It’s safe to say nobody expected Oladipo to do so well this year. He had become somewhat of an afterthought while at OKC but has quite literally, exploded this year. His defensive aptitude, and quickness in driving to the basket are reminiscent of Dwyane Wade. A lot of credit for this should be given to Oladipo for his work ethic, and also his off-season prep in building his physique and working on his game. Equal applause should be given to the Indiana front office and coaching staff for trusting in Oladipo to be their main man.
The Houston Rockets being so damn good
Okay, I admit we expected the Rockets to be good. But this good? Really? Did anyone think they could be a better team in the regular season than the mighty Golden State Warriors?
With a 56-14 record, the Rockets are the best team in the Western Conference, being four games ahead of the Warriors. The Rockets’ record is also better than that of the Raptors, who are currently atop of the Eastern Conference rankings.
A more telling statistic for the Rockets has been their impressive record against teams with a +0.500 record. Houston, in 44 games against said teams, has won 34 of them. These wins include two wins over defending champions, Warriors as well as two wins over LeBron’s Cavaliers. One of those wins was a complete demolition, with the Rockets winning
James Harden’s team also recorded a 17-game win streak this season, the longest of any team. Interestingly, Houston had looked a bit vulnerable at the start of 2018, losing five straight. But, with most of their players healthy, the Rockets look like the favorites for the NBA title.
Harden’s amazing season notwithstanding, the Rockets front-office and coaching staff also deserve a lot of credit. Daryl Morey did a great job in landing Chris Paul’s signature through a pre-season trade. Another shrewd move by Morey was to sign P.J. Tucker for a four-year, $32 million contract. Tucker has proved to be a valuable addition from a strong bench, which includes players like Eric Gordon, Nenê and Gerald Green.
Mike D’Antoni, as head coach, has showcased his quality by turning the Rockets into a dual-threat team. While the Rockets were always known for their quick-fire offense, the addition of Paul and the improvement of Clint Capela, have increased Houston’s defensive ability. Last season, Houston’s defense was ranked 18th in the NBA. This year, their defense is ranked 10th. Their offense rating of 113.6 is the best in the league with their net rating of 9.0 being second-best to the Warriors.
Yes, Mike D’Antoni’s men were expected to be better with Paul in the fold. But to be better than a Warriors team with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green? That has proved to be a surprise.
The Pacers and the Jazz defying pre-season predictions
Both Indiana and Utah had somewhat similar pre-seasons. While the Pacers traded away their star player for two young guns, the Jazz lost their best player, Gordon Hayward, to free agency.
Both teams were expected to be lottery pick teams, struggling to get 30+ wins.
Let’s take a look at the numbers now, shall we?
The Pacers, on the back of Victor Oladipo have surged to playoff contention. They currently sit fourth in the Eastern Conference, with a record of 41-30. Incredibly, Indiana sits above the likes of Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers. A playoff spot is all but assured for the Nate McMillan coached team.
While Oladipo has taken center-stage for Indiana, McMillan has also done a good job with the other players on his team. Myles Turner is evolving into a stronger and more physical center, especially during the crunch run to the playoffs. Domantas Sabonis is also having a breakthrough year, posting career better numbers in every stat conceivable.
While the Jazz currently sit in the final playoff spot in their conference, do keep in mind that this is the Western Conference that we’re talking about. The competition here is such that with 40 wins, the Jazz are only three games behind fourth-placed OKC.
For a team that was supposed to be losing, the Jazz have surprised everyone. Credit should be given to Donovan Mitchell’s amazing Rookie campaign. We had him second on our list for the award, but his influence on Utah’s fortunes has made him our favorite for the award now. Ricky Rubio has also finally found his groove at Salt Lake City, contributing immensely to the Jazz’s impressive campaign.
Two teams that were written off at the start are contending for playoff spots. Nothing is more surprising than that.
All stats are as per www.nba.com unless otherwise mentioned.