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Are the NBA’s Three Surprise Teams for Real?

The Magic, Pistons, and Grizzlies have surged to the top of the NBA standings. Will their strong starts carry on into season? We break down the cases for all three.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After two weeks of play, the NBA standings look like the Upside Down. The Grizzlies are 5-2, first in the Western Conference. The Magic are 5-2, and tied with the Warriors for the league’s best net rating. The Pistons are 5-3, fifth in the Eastern Conference. These early-season surprises seem like outliers, but they all have three things in common: a tweaked system, an emerging player, and a key new addition.

Are they for real? Well, if that question refers to these teams finishing at the very top of their respective conferences, the answer is “no.” But could they stay afloat in the playoff chase, or even land home court in the first round? That’s a more interesting conversation.

Orlando Magic

Tweaked System: In Frank Vogel’s first season in Orlando, the Magic head coach installed a slow-it-down, grind-it-out system. You might’ve done the same had your front office just acquired Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka when Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon had already struggled to space the floor together. But as the season progressed, Vogel realized the team needed to change. They began playing faster with better spacing and more ball movement. Biyombo’s minutes waned and Ibaka was traded for Terrence Ross and a 2017 protected first-rounder. The Magic still struggled, but their more modern style offered hope for the future.

That hope has begun to bear fruit this season. Orlando’s pace ranks third in the NBA, and it has the best half-court scoring offense, per Synergy Sports. The team ranks first in 3-point percentage and third in assist-to-turnover ratio. The Magic’s defensive rating is 100.4, which ranks ninth. The systematic changes are the foundation of their progression, but X’s and O’s can go only so far. Orlando’s players are also excelling on an individual level.

Emerging Players: Aaron Gordon was drafted fourth overall in 2014 and has been developed at a slow but steady rate. The 22-year-old is currently averaging 21 points, nine rebounds, and 2.4 assists. The predraft Blake Griffin comparisons are starting to look pretty prescient, especially if we’re talking about the new Blake. Gordon has hit 13 of his 22 3-point attempts so far this season. That’s an unsustainable rate, but he might not see a major drop-off going forward. Gordon has always had pretty good touch. The question was whether he could revise his mechanics. His free throw form has come a long way since he shot just 42.2 percent from the line as a freshman at Arizona. Now his shooting mechanics have done the same.

The big difference is that Gordon has turned his feet when he lands, or “sweeps and sways,” which is a technique that helps alleviate tension in the upper body by turning the hip forward, thus generating more power when he releases the ball. He’ll need to maintain those mechanics over a full season, but the changes are an encouraging sign of real progress.

Nikola Vucevic has also stepped a few feet back behind the 3-point line and found success. Vucevic hit only 23 of 75 triples last season (30.7 percent), so his early numbers (13-of-32, 40.6 percent) may not be sustainable. But he now looks more comfortable taking the shot. At the least, the spacing a stretch-5 provides, even if his shots aren’t falling, can drastically help an offense.

Evan Fournier is also thriving. He's averaging 22 points on an unbelievable 64.4 effective field goal percentage, thanks in large part to the lanes Vucevic has helped create. Lanes are open whether he’s looking to slash:

Or whether he’s looking to cut:

The Magic are featuring lineups that create space by forcing the opponent’s center to wander toward the 3-point line. Vucevic has opened up opportunities all over the court, and the rest of the team has taken full advantage.

Key New Additions: Equally important to the progress of Orlando’s returnees is its newfound depth. Jonathon Simmons said he left the Spurs to “release the animal” inside of him, and he certainly has with the Magic. San Antonio was critical for Simmons’s development, but now that he’s been allowed to do more, he’s running with the opportunity—literally. Simmons has logged 12 transition possessions already this season, while scoring 1.7 points per possession, which ranks in the 99th percentile of all players. The 6-foot-6 wing is averaging 16.7 points while energizing the second unit with his high-intensity defense and high-tempo offense.

Plays like this are now commonplace for a once-shallow Orlando second unit. If the season ended today, Simmons would arguably be the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year. Jonathan Isaac, the no. 6 overall pick, would have a case for All-Rookie Team honors because of his immense defensive contributions. Isaac is already what the Magic wished Biyombo was: a versatile defender who protects the rim and rebounds. It’s rare to find a young player who is so good instinctively while effectively defending so many positions without fouling and rebounding at a high level.

Are They for Real? Orlando is better than we thought it’d be. Las Vegas oddsmakers set its over-under at roughly 34.5 wins, which looks quite low in hindsight. The Magic are going to be competitive. They’re going to be fun because of youngsters like Gordon and Isaac and their emerging talents like Fournier and Simmons. Once Elfrid Payton returns, they’ll have a point guard who can help stabilize the offense.

The problem is their early success is largely dependent on scorching-hot shooting. They’ve hit 44.1 percent of their 3s and 44.4 percent of their midrange jumpers. They won’t keep that up. They’re not the Warriors. The Magic have also attempted 38.3 percent of their shots from midrange or in the paint (non-restricted area), which is the ninth-highest rate in the league. The Spurs, Raptors, and Clippers made the playoffs by living in the midrange last season, but the Magic lack the same level of offensive firepower to keep it up.

A closer look also shows multiple moments this season when Gordon and Fournier have been visibly frustrated with each other, tossing their hands up when the other pounds the air out of the ball. Simmons and point guard D.J. Augustin have also had moments when they try to get theirs first. Their overall approach has had success so far, but teams that play selfishly don’t tend to maintain high levels of offensive efficiency over the course of the season. No one on this team has earned the right or the status to dominate the ball, and they should play like it.

Orlando’s early shooting may also be compensating for its defense. Scoring more limits transition opportunities. But it’s not as if their half-court defense has been great. The Magic are doing a much better job of switching screens, but teams are attempting 35.1 percent of their shots in the restricted area and also getting to the free throw line. Those numbers may rise as teams begin getting out on the break more often. A similar rise may happen at the 3-point line, where opponents are shooting just 27.8 percent from 3 against them—a league low that is more or less sheer luck.

That doesn’t mean the Magic will automatically stink moving forward. Indeed, a lot has gone in their favor early in the season, but real progress has already been made here. Some much-needed player development should keep them in the playoff hunt as the season wears on. For a franchise that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since 2011-12, that’s a victory.

Detroit Pistons

Tweaked System: The Pistons were supposed to take the leap two seasons ago. They finished the 2015–16 season with a 44-38 record and pushed the eventual champion Cavs in a four-game sweep. Then the team unraveled, finished 37-45 last season, and their players all looked unhappy, at least from the outside. Things are different now. Even after an ugly road loss to the Lakers on Tuesday, the Pistons are tied for fifth in a suddenly wide-open Eastern Conference, with a net rating that puts them in the league's top half.

Play Type Distribution (Synergy Sports)

Play Type 2017-18 2016-17 Difference
Play Type 2017-18 2016-17 Difference
Spot Up 22% 18% 4%
Hand Off 9% 4% 4%
Post Ups 3% 9% -6%
Pick-and-Roll 21% 27% -6%

Stan Van Gundy’s offense was predictable last season. The Pistons ran pick-and-roll at a near-league-high rate and fed the post far too much, despite scoring poorly out of both play types, per Synergy. As a result, they had the league’s 25th-ranked offense. Now the offense is less predictable thanks to more dribble handoffs and searching for open 3s (15th in 3-point attempts this season, up from 26th).

Emerging Players: Reggie Jackson has apparently woken up from a spell. A 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio is quite remarkable for a player who recently induced headaches. “The game is going to tell you what to do,” Jackson said Sunday. “This year, I’m not trying to come down and force anything. I’m just playing aggressive.”

Jackson’s words apply to the rest of the returning players, too. Drummond is playing with renewed energy, as The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy detailed last month. Over one-quarter of the center’s shooting possessions last season came from the post, but he has recorded only 11 post-ups so far this season. Drummond is not getting as many offensive touches, but he’s setting screens, hitting free throws after revising his mechanics, sucking up rebounds like Kirby, and playing hard on defense.

Tobias Harris has also capitalized on Detroit’s better ball movement by scoring more efficiently, shooting more 3s, and displaying better patience. He won’t sustain his 43.8 3-point percentage, but he’s always been a player that can be leaned on to get buckets at the end of the shot clock and should keep providing a spark.

Stanley Johnson’s 0-for-13 performance in Detroit’s season opener made waves, and he’s also excelled this season when defending the opponent’s best wing or forward. It’d be great if his scoring develops (8.6 per game this season), but the Pistons are getting what they need at this point from their 21-year-old forward.

Key New Addition: In Detroit’s 115-107 win over the Warriors on Sunday, Avery Bradley scored a team-high 23 points, but it was his defense that set the tone for the entire game. That’s been the case the entire season, too. Sure, his averages (14.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.5 steals) don’t pop off the page. But Bradley’s impact goes far beyond the box score.

Bradley didn’t “lock down” Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or Kevin Durant in Detroit’s win over Golden State. That’s impossible. But he did make life harder on each player by playing full-throttle defense right from the opening tip. Curry shot the ball only twice in the fourth quarter because Bradley stuck to him like glue and flat-out prevented him from even releasing the ball in situations he normally would with ease.

Watch Bradley almost single-handedly cause a 24-second violation:

This is just one play of many from Bradley’s incredible night against the Warriors. The rest of the team has followed Bradley’s lead. “We wanted to have that old-school Detroit basketball mentality that is going out there, grinding out each and every game, and playing defense first, and letting the rest of the game come to us,” Bradley said on ESPN’s The Jump. “Everyone accepted that and they wanted to challenge themselves to go out there and defend each and every night.”

Are They for Real? There’s little in the numbers that points to the Pistons being phony. They aren’t scoring or shooting 3s at an unsustainable rate (their offensive rating is 104.8, which ranks 12th). Opponents are shooting 34.6 percent from 3 against them, which is about average. Their defensive rating is 13th. Teams are attacking the paint at will, both in the half court and transition, and scoring second-chance points at a near-league-best rate. They are what the stats show: a team that is better than expected but still has fundamental flaws that will keep them out of the top four in the East.

It’s not inconceivable that they finish over .500 if Jackson and Drummond maintain their recent strong play. But the Pistons will need to prove they won’t fall back into their bad, old habits. They looked disinterested in Tuesday’s loss to the Lakers. Just when it seemed like the team turned a corner, they missed rotations, forced the issue on offense, and made careless passes. Drummond had some lazy moments that’ll cause Van Gundy’s blood pressure to rise. The Pistons can’t be a team that goes gangbusters against the Clippers and Warriors, then takes a night off against the Lakers. That’s not what truly good teams do.

If there’s one reason for optimism it’s that Van Gundy simply has more options to turn to. Last season’s bench was weak, but this season he’s gone with up to 11 players in the rotation. Anthony Tolliver, a key rotation player in 2014–15 and 2015–16, is back and contributing; he played wonderfully against Blake Griffin and the Clippers in Saturday’s win. Van Gundy has mixed in Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard, Detroit’s two most recent first-round picks. Jon Leuer and Ish Smith are now complemented off the bench by sparkplug Langston Galloway.

If the team keeps playing with an “old-school Detroit basketball mentality,” especially on the defensive end, the Pistons could keep surprising. Maybe they won’t end up with one of the best records in the East, but fifth- or sixth-best is nothing to scoff at considering their preseason expectations.

Memphis Grizzlies

Tweaked System: The Grizzlies are sticking to Grit ’n’ Grind but adding a new twist. They’re switching 24.9 percent of on-ball screens this season compared to only 11.1 percent of on-ball screens last season, per tracking data provided to The Ringer. Watch the video below to see their aggressive switching scheme in action:

The Grizzlies are also playing with active hands and frequently causing turnovers and deflections. Opponents rarely get to the rim, attempting only 30.4 percent of their shots in the paint, per NBA.com. All told, the Grizzlies are allowing only 97.6 points per 100 possessions, which might come as a surprise for a team that lost Tony Allen.

But Memphis has plenty of players following in the footsteps of the Grindfather: James Ennis III, Dillon Brooks, Tyreke Evans, Jarell Martin, and Chandler Parsons, among others. In the frontcourt, Zach Randolph’s departure has been addition by subtraction. David Fizdale is now able to play more versatile lineups that can switch and space the floor. Through seven games, 37.1 percent of Memphis’s attempts have come from downtown, which ranks sixth in the NBA, compared to 31.7 percent last season, then ranked 13th. The Grizzlies still hit only about a third of their 3s, but the fact they’re effectively spacing the floor has helped open up driving lanes for the entire team.

Emerging Players: Martin was on the Grizzlies’ roster bubble just a month ago. On Tuesday, the Grizzlies picked up Martin’s fourth-year player option. The 25th overall pick in 2015 has been exposed at times defensively (he’s still not as good as JaMychal Green, who’s been out since the season-opener with a high ankle sprain), but Martin pops up on film as a player who does a good job of switching screens. What more could the Grizzlies ask for from someone who was on the verge of being cut?

Parsons was getting booed by his own home crowd to start the season. Now, Parsons’s basketball résumé in Memphis is starting to catch up with his remarkable dating résumé. While defensive stats are particularly noisy this early, opponents are shooting only 3-for-21 when defended by Parsons, per Synergy. Despite dealing with knee issues most of last season, Parsons is moving well laterally, jumping passing lanes, and hustling through screens. There’s very little to knock him for. Fizdale even trusted him to guard Anthony Davis:

Parsons is also hitting triples (12-of-22), moving the ball, and filling his complementary role on the offense. It’s impossible to know if he’ll stay healthy, but Parsons getting back to playing effective basketball would be a wonderful comeback story.

Key New Additions: The Grizzlies offseason was underwhelming, to say the least. They didn’t have a first-round pick and used their two seconds on Ivan Rabb and Brooks. They also cut 2016 selections Wade Baldwin and Rade Zagorac. Green was brought back after a long restricted free agency. Evans, Mario Chalmers, and Ben McLemore made up their free-agent “haul.” McLemore has yet to play a game after offseason surgery to repair a non-displaced fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. But Evans and Chalmers are doing what they do best.

Evans has been a scoring spark for a bench that offered little-to-no scoring last season. Fizdale has taken advantage of his versatile skill set by using him as a playmaker in the pick-and-roll. Chalmers does the job. He’s a game manager whose playmaking is an upgrade over Andrew Harrison, who is surprisingly starting after injuries to Green, McLemore, and Wayne Selden. Glue guys are important, especially to a team that’s already battling the injury bug.

Brooks, meanwhile, has been one of the most promising second-rounders in the league. He hasn’t shot the ball well (26.7 percent from 3), but Brooks is flying around on defense, making the right play as a smart defender, screening off the ball, rebounding for his position, and doing it all while being tossed into the fire and given 28 minutes a game.

Are They for Real? Two Grizzlies I haven’t mentioned yet are Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. That was intentional, because both have disappeared offensively for longer stretches than usual. Gasol went 1-for-8 in Saturday’s win over the Rockets, then 4-for-15 in a loss against the Hornets. Gasol has been an absolute madman on defense, which is the end of the floor they need him to be at his best. But, despite coming off a career-best season in which he added a 3-pointer, Gasol can’t be the player Memphis leans on offensively every single night—he’s 32 years old now. They need contributions from the secondary players mentioned above, and from Conley, who has been the real disappointment.

Conley, 30, had this moment against the Rockets:

But for the most part, Conley has not performed anywhere close to a max-contract level. He’s averaging 17.3 points and 4.3 assists with a dismal 43.2 effective field goal percentage, which would be a career low (his previous low was 46.2 percent, during his rookie season). Maybe Conley is just off to a slow start. Maybe his new hairdo is obstructing his vision. Or maybe Conley is still bothered by a nagging left Achilles that forced him to miss the end of the 2015–16 season and the playoffs and left him “questionable” for multiple games last November.

Conley turned in a career-best season in 2016–17, but his injury lingering so long should raise some concerns. If the normal Conley returns to form, the Grizzlies will be in the thick of the Western Conference playoff conversation once again. Their revised defensive style is the engine behind their fast start, and it can get better once Selden, Green, and McLemore get back on the floor.