NBA Roundup: Basketball’s Biggest Surprises

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Issue 8, Volume 112

By Ty Anant 

As the end of 2021 approaches, we’re about a quarter of the way through the 2021-2022 NBA season. Each team has set into the rhythm of its games, and as a result, pundits have begun to form opinions on how far these teams will go this season. Certain teams have stood out as clear outliers, either completely outperforming their offseason expectations or missing the mark.

The Bulls

The Chicago Bulls have been a team to watch during the 2021-2022 season. For most of the 2010s, the Bulls were a bottom-of-the-barrel team, with win percentages in the low 30s for the past four years. This year, however, the Bulls have pounded out an emphatic 17-10 start to the season, putting them at second in the Eastern Conference.

Over the offseason, the Bulls acquired a couple of key pieces with star guard Lonzo Ball and 2010s All-Star DeMar DeRozan in four and three-year deals, respectively. They also managed to trade for Nikola Vučević last season, who averaged 23.4 points and 11.7 rebounds then. The Bulls’ perennial All-Star, Zach LaVine, is coming off his career-high year averaging 27-5-5. The newly reawakened Bulls were getting a lot of attention over the summer, primarily because of LaVine and DeRozan’s reputations above the rim and Ball’s complementary passing. However, nobody could’ve predicted the extent to which they have dominated their opponents. Their hard-nosed defense and fluid offense have been tearing up the league all season.

However, one of the biggest concerns that the Bulls have is how far they will be able to go in the NBA playoffs. Where it is often necessary to be a superteam (or a two-time MVP) to be a legitimate contender, the Bulls are not taken seriously as ring candidates. Especially with the presence of teams stacked with superstars, such as the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s hard to imagine a team with no true superstars winning it all. However, it’s equally hard to imagine this energized Bulls team hitting a ceiling.

The Suns

The Phoenix Suns are no stranger to the top of the standings. They started off their string of surprises two years ago, when they went undefeated in the 2020 Orlando Bubble. In the NBA playoffs, they continued to prevail against heavily favored opponents in every round before making it to the NBA finals. Because of their past successful years, it’s a bit of a stretch to say the Suns’ performance is extremely surprising. However, they seem to be able to up the ante every year, keeping the rest of the league on its toes and going undefeated 16-0 in November. They set a franchise record win streak of 18, only losing it to the top-seeded Warriors last week. “[This game was a] great look at what it takes to play at the highest level in this league,” Nets coach and Hall of Famer Steve Nash said after the game.

The Suns look like serious contenders to make another finals push this year. They have an advantage over teams like the Lakers, who have drastically changed their roster. The Sun’s core trio of shooting guard Devin Booker, point guard Chris Paul, and center Deandre Ayton has been playing together for multiple years now and has the chemistry of a finals team. The team has a perfect blend of veteran leadership, with forward Jae Crowder, Paul, and young and explosive scorers like Booker, Cams Johnson, and Cameron Payne. They’re also a powerful defensive team, second only to the Golden State Warriors in defensive statistics. The Suns’ play is a powerful mixture of the creative abilities of Paul and Booker, the spot-up shooting of Crowder, Johnson, and Payne, and the effective defensive effort. It’s exciting to see how far the Phoenix Suns can go, and if that means another trip to the NBA finals.

The Lakers

The last team on the roster is a team that has had expectations and reality go in opposite directions so far—the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers’ offseason expectations rose through the roof with their acquisitions of MVP point guard Russell Westbrook and forward Carmelo Anthony adding to the LeBron James-Anthony Davis core that won the 2020 championship. They were compared to the Eastern superteam of the Brooklyn Nets, with some believing that a finals appearance for the team was a foregone conclusion. So far, Anthony has been a brilliant piece for the purple and gold, averaging 13.2 points per game and a staggering 40.3 percent from the three-point line. Additionally, young former G League player Talen Horton-Tucker has been an integral starter, adding aggression and hustle to the older lineup.

However, the Lakers have struggled to stay above .500, currently holding a sixth seed-worthy record of 15-13. One of the factors inhibiting their success is the players’ ages. The Lakers are by far the oldest team in the league with its average age around 30. With the exception of 28-year-old Davis and 21-year-old Horton-Tucker, most of the firepower on the Lakers is reaching the end of their careers. While veteran leadership works on a team like the Suns, who have a strong younger presence and talent, it doesn’t work as well when the team has to rely solely on older players to win every game. Additionally, their offense has been uncoordinated and incohesive. The chemistry between the veteran Lakers and Westbrook has been nowhere near where it needs to be. This weakness is apparent in Westbrook’s 1.8 assist/turnover ratio. Bottom line? The Lakers need to sort out their chemistry issues and figure out how to make their offense look more experienced fast if they want to have a legitimate chance in this year’s playoffs.

While there are certainly many other NBA teams that have amazed fans this year, the Suns, Bulls, and Lakers are some of the most surprising ones. With the narratives and constant highlights from these teams, as well as record-setting seasons and sublime plays from teams like Denver, Golden State, Charlotte, and Washington, this NBA season is certainly set up to be one of the most exciting we’ve seen.