Culture of Hoops

Surprisingly good teams of the first half of the NBA season

Image courtesy of Josh Hallett/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Josh Hallett/Flickr.

As the NBA season grows longer and longer, we begin to get a better picture of the teams who are ready to contend, and those who are on the outside looking in. While a good chunk of the group of contenders were expected to be up there, a few teams each season always jump up and surprise people. This season is no different, with some teams coming out of left field and shocking people with their success, whether it be a team who’s been rebuilding, or a team who has struggled to find the balance to be a contender.

Without further ado, here are the surprising teams of this season’s first half:

1. Phoenix Suns (29-18, Second in Pacific; Sixth in Western Conference)

Entering the 2013-14 season, the expectations were very low for the Suns, who were seemingly in midst of a rebuild. The acquisitions of dynamic guard Eric Bledsoe, big man Miles Plumlee, and high flying wing Gerald Green brought some fresh, exciting players to the desert. Those three, along with point guard Goran Dragic, sharpshooting big man Channing Frye, and the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus) have stunned many with their quick rise to contention.

First-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, who is potentially the front runner for Coach of the Year, has turned the Suns struggles into stronger points. Last season, Phoenix finished 24th in the league in defensive rating. This season, the team currently sits 12th in the league, giving up 102.6 points per 100 possessions. While the team could be without Bledsoe for a while still after knee surgery, Green and mid-season signee Leandro Barbosa have been playing well and picked up the slack with Bledsoe out.

There are some questions as to if they can continue their solid play and how much their lack of playoff experience will hurt them later in the season. While these are some legitimate worries, along with when or even if Bledsoe will return, their stellar play up to this point has them turning heads across the league, including mine.

2. Portland Trail Blazers (34-13, Second in Northwest; Third in Western Conference)

Coming into the season, some people believed that the Blazers would have a shot at competing for one of the final few seeds in the Western Conference. Few thought they would turn themselves into such a force in the league’s tougher conference this season. Head coach Terry Stotts has done one of the best jobs of any coach this season, thanks in large part to the high level of play he’s received from his two All-Stars, LaMarcus Aldridge and reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard.

Offseason acquisition Robin Lopez has stepped in and given the team a player who can allow Aldridge to play his more natural power forward position. Lopez has also put up some of the best numbers of his career, averaging 10.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in the middle. Lopez and fellow starters Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews give the team the perfect group to start and get themselves going every night.

However, there are still some questions regarding the team and how well they will fare come playoff time. They’re in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating, giving up over 105 points per 100 possessions, and come playoff time teams will slow play down, which could hurt their fast break chances. Another potential hiccup for the Blazers could be their bench, which has struggled to produce at times. After finishing last in bench points last season, they rank second-to-last this season, which could hurt them as the season continues to wear on.

3. Toronto Raptors (25-22, First in Atlantic; Fourth in Eastern Conference)

General manager Masai Ujiri, in his first season with the organization after a move in the offseason from the Denver Nuggets, has already made major changes. He traded wing Rudy Gay in a blockbuster deal with the Sacramento Kings, and in return got a package of role players to put around their core of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrance Ross and Jonas Valanciunas. That trade, along with high levels of play from Lowry, DeRozan and big man Amir Johnson, have propelled the Raptors into the spotlight in the weak Eastern Conference.

Like the Suns, Toronto has managed to turn things around on the defensive end of the floor. Last season they ranked 22nd in defensive rating, compared to this season, where they currently sit sixth. They’ve been able to take advantage of a weak division, going 8-2 against their four division foes.

One of the biggest question marks with the Raptors is their ability to play against high levels of competition. Thus far, they’ve gone 8-18 against teams who currently own a playoff spot. They’ve feasted on lesser opponents, but if they hope to make a deep run in the playoffs, they must find a way to beat at least some of the teams they will be competing against come playoff time.

4. Charlotte Bobcats (21-28, Fourth in Southeast; Eighth in Eastern Conference)

Two years removed from the worst record in NBA history, the Bobcats are slowly improving and could make their way into the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. Offseason signee Al Jefferson has come up big for the team, while exciting young point guard Kemba Walker continues to improve on both ends. While their record may not show their improvement as a team, they’ve made a large leap from last season.

Much of their improvement this season is due to their improvements on the defensive side of the ball, and a lot of that improvement can be credited to first-year head coach Steve Clifford. Clifford has been able to turn a Charlotte team that was dead last in the league last season to seventh in the league this season in defensive rating.

While their defense has been a bright spot, their offense has had its fair share of struggles. They rank 26th in offensive rating, compared to 28th last season, but are averaging a tenth of a point fewer per 100 possessions this season. The offense, along with general consistency, are the two major concerns for the Bobcats as they currently sit.

5. Philadelphia 76ers (15-33, Fourth in Atlantic; 12th in Eastern Conference)

While the Sixers aren’t in contention for a playoff spot, they’ve been one of the more surprising teams, to some, thus far. Their record is not favorable, but many believed they would struggle to get to the 15-win plateau, with some even projecting them for under 10 wins. They’re in the early stages of a rebuild, but with some of their young players, and a young coach, the future has the potential to be very bright.

It all starts with Michael Carter-Williams, who has surprised many with his high level of play from the start of the season, and is arguably the front-runner for Rookie of the Year honors. The team is also in good shape, as they have potential defensive anchor Nerlens Noel waiting in the weeds, as he’s recovering from a torn ACL, and the potential to have two lottery picks in this upcoming draft. Add that to coach Brett Brown, and you’ve got a nice, growing nucleus for the future.

All of the young players and potential for big names down the line aside, the team must figure out what it wants to do with some of their veterans. Players like Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, and Thaddeus Young have no place on the team, and they don’t figure to be in the team’s long-term plans. All three players could bring the Sixers a nice haul of either young guys and/or draft picks, so look for them to be moved either by the deadline or, in Young’s case, the offseason.

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