The playoffs are almost here. But before we close the book on the 2017-18 regular season, our staff looks back on the good and bad players and teams we didn’t see coming when this all began back in October.
Which player is the biggest surprise of the regular season?
Justin Verrier: Victor Oladipo. Two and a half years ago, Oladipo was relegated to sixth man behind Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier, a backcourt duo remembered only for its contrasting approaches to hair flop. Now, there might not be six guards—not just 2-guards; guards, full stop—who have had better 2017-18 seasons. The 25-year-old has tailed off some of late (48 effective field goal percentage and 30 percent from 3 since February), but he’s been the engine of a Pacers team that may land home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and he’s almost single-handedly rerouted the direction of an organization that seemed destined for a hard reboot in the not-too-distant future.
Paolo Uggetti: Joel Embiid. Specifically his lower body. An unlucky face contusion at the hands of Markelle Fultz may sideline Embiid for the rest of the regular season (or longer), but Embiid staying injury-free from the neck down and playing at an All-Star level for 63 games is shocking given his injury-filled past. This is a player whose inactivity and inability to stay healthy inspired this site to buy and populate the domain isjoelembiidplayingtonight.com. Sixty-three times this season, the answer to that question has been a resounding yes, and Embiid has put together breathtaking moments and stellar performances that prove he’s a franchise cornerstone and a singular talent who should shape the future of the league. He’s already must-watch TV and a must-follow on Twitter, and he’s taken the league by storm in such an engrossing way that we’ve already started to forget that we doubted he’d ever play again. Embiid may have missed 11 games for precautionary reasons, and he will now miss more because of Fultz’s rogue shoulder, but the hope is that this was the next step on the staircase to stardom and not the peak.
John Gonzalez: Damian Lillard. My answer isn’t a surprise to me, but he has very much been a surprise to others, including some of my otherwise fine colleagues at The Ringer HQ. I have long been a fan of all things Portland in general and all things Lillard in specific. (Not only is he an excellent basketball player who is fun to watch, but he might be the greatest athlete-rapper.) And yet, as recently as late January, some people were still questioning whether he should have gotten an All-Star nod. And then, after he did, there were more questions about where he was picked in the stupid, untelevised draft.
There are still questions about Lillard, but now they make more sense: Where does he fall in the MVP pecking order? And how far can he take the ascendant Trail Blazers in the playoffs? I can’t wait to see what he cooks up in the postseason. To borrow from LeBron, give me Damian Lillard. And to everyone who’s been pleasantly surprised by his play this season, I say welcome and offer a question of my own: What took you so long?
Jonathan Tjarks: Fred Van Vleet. The undrafted point guard went from getting scrap minutes as a rookie to pushing his way into the rotation in Toronto and becoming one of its most important players. There was no reason to expect much from him this season; it didn’t even seem like he had a pathway to minutes as the third-string PG behind Kyle Lowry and Delon Wright. But Van Vleet produced at such a high level whenever he was in that Dwane Casey had no choice but to keep giving him minutes. Now he’s regularly closing games for one of the best teams in the NBA. He’s a knockdown shooter and a tough defender, despite giving up size and athleticism to almost every starting backcourt player in the league, and he’s always in the right place at the right time to make a play on both sides of the ball. The Raptors’ bench has been one of the best stories of the season, and he’s been the captain of it.
T.C. Kane: Jrue Holiday. The Pelicans were billed as a two-man show coming into the season, but they’re 16-9 since DeMarcus Cousins went down in late January. Holiday has quietly put up career highs in points per game (19) and field goal percentage (48.8), and the biggest surprise of all is he’s played in 74 of 75 games for New Orleans. Holiday put up star-level numbers in the Pels’ recent 10-game win streak, and as great as Anthony Davis has been, the 27-year-old deserves a lot of credit for taking his game to another level this season. His name rarely comes up in conversations about the West’s elite guards, but a first-round matchup with Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard would give Holiday a chance to prove he belongs in the conversation.
Which player is the biggest disappointment of the regular season?
Gonzalez: Isaiah Thomas has had an awful run. He hasn’t been healthy all season and might not be for a while, if ever. This time a year ago he was an MVP candidate and the leader of the best team in the Eastern Conference. Now he’s reeling for all sorts of reasons. He lasted all of 15 games in Cleveland—where he openly took shots at his teammates and head coach—before he was loaded into a trade catapult and launched to Los Angeles. Then, just when he thought he was getting his powers back with the Lakers, he got shut down for hip surgery. And all that in advance of what he hoped would be a big payday when he hits free agency this offseason. At 29, it’s fair to wonder whether the guy everyone loved and rooted for last season is gone for good.
Tjarks: Andrew Wiggins is still scoring (18.1 points a game), but he’s not doing it very efficiently (44.4 percent from the field), and he hasn’t figured out a way to impact the game without the ball in his hands. The hope was that playing for Tom Thibodeau and next to Jimmy Butler would make him a better defender, but he’s still a long way away from really channeling his athletic gifts on that end of the floor. He doesn’t have one standout skill at this point in his career beyond dribbling into inefficient shots. He’s only 23, so he has plenty of time to develop, but Minnesota is paying him like a franchise player and it will be hard for it to upgrade its supporting cast around Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns if he can’t become more than what he is at the moment.
Uggetti: Carmelo Anthony. How you think of Melo’s season with the Thunder depends almost entirely on the expectations you had going in. (Mine were low.) At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the statistical decline on offense. This has been Melo’s worst season shooting from the field (40.6 percent), and he’s also posting a career-low 1.3 assists per game. Add in the fact he’s a liability on defense and Melo still getting starter-level minutes is truly puzzling. In an alternate reality, Melo adapts to a role off the bench and becomes a lethal scorer on the Thunder’s second unit. Instead, the offseason addition may be more of a subtraction.
Verrier: I’m gonna be that guy—it’s Markelle Fultz. The rookie’s return this week was one of the most thrilling moments of the season. Having said that, the no. 1 pick in the draft missed five months because of an injury that may or may not have existed and turned Sixers fandom into a prolonged game of Clue. Also: He still can’t shoot! He has a clear window to course-correct his career arc with Embiid out, but for now, he’s a disappointment by any measure.
Kane: John Wall can’t be penalized for getting injured, but this season has not gone according to plan for more reasons than one. His numbers were down across the board before his injury, and his teammates seemed to be having a lot more fun without him on the floor. The Wizards’ locker room issues never reached Bulls or Cavs levels of tumult, but it’s not a great look for the star of a playoff team to be at the center of controversy, especially when the beef plays out on Twitter. Wall’s playoff performance last year had him on a short list for the top players in the East, but his age-27 season ended up being a lost one.
Which team is the biggest surprise of the regular season?
Tjarks: The Blazers have emerged out of the pack in the middle of the West and look like the third-best team in the conference heading into the postseason. Lillard and C.J. McCollum are playing the best defense of their careers, and coach Terry Stotts has pushed all the right buttons in mixing and matching around his stars and developing his young players so they can contribute this season and going forward. We’ll see what happens in the playoffs, and tough decisions await this offseason, but Portland’s run over the past two months has shifted the mood around the franchise. The Blazers have outperformed many teams with more talent than them on paper.
Kane: L.A. Clippers. No one was quite sure what to make of the Clippers coming into the season, but there was no way to see this roller coaster coming. The team wooed Blake Griffin in free agency by showing him his own baby photos and fake-retiring his jersey, so the fact it traded him less than a year into a massive five-year contract was fairly shocking. Doc Rivers had coached 18 seasons prior to this one, and only twice (his first season in Orlando and the injury-plagued 2006-07 Celtics) had he coached a team without at least one All-Star. So the fact his Clippers have scrapped their way into the playoff race behind contributions from two-way players and overachieving sixth men has been inexplicable. They spent big on Danilo Gallinari over the summer, so the fact he’s played only 19 games—actually, that one was pretty predictable. All things considered, this season has been both memorable and successful, whether the Clippers end up making the playoffs or not.
Uggetti: Indiana. Here’s a live look at GM Kevin Pritchard:
“You didn’t believe in the Pacers! Everybody didn’t believe in the Pacers!”
Verrier: Toronto, which flipped Lob City–esque staleness into Spurs-esque dependability. After doubling down on its veteran core last summer by re-signing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors easily could have gone the way of the Grizzlies. But unlike Memphis, Toronto successfully bridged the gap between old and new on its own roster and made the necessary tactical improvements to not only stay the course, but thrive. Here’s where the obligatory “We’ll see what happens in the postseason” goes, but shape-shifting into a bona fide elite team this regular season, all while maintaining the identity that sustained them for years, is nothing to scoff at.
Which team is the biggest disappointment of the regular season?
Gonzalez: Detroit. Imagine building a brand-new downtown arena and then, immediately after opening it, wondering why no one showed up. Imagine that narrative continuing deep into the season, even after you traded for one of the biggest names in the NBA. Then imagine, after landing that super-expensive superstar, your team got worse, not better, and fell out of the playoff race entirely. And now imagine that you’re stuck with the superstar and his bloated contract and also, for the time being, the coach/executive who got you into that mess in the first place, a man who was “told not to tank” and ended up doing it by accident anyway.
Otherwise, the Pistons are doing great.
Uggetti: The Nuggets are frustrating. They will likely miss the playoffs, an egregious outcome given their collection of talent. Sure, Paul Millsap’s injury probably held them back from reaching their true potential, but they haven’t hit enough of a stride to make up ground in the West since his return to the lineup. Gary Harris, who missed the entire seven-game road trip the Nuggets just played, has made a leap, and so has Jamal Murray. But they’re relying on Will Barton, of all people, to help them win close games while still trying to figure out how to best use Nikola Jokic. Mike Malone is headed toward dangerous waters this offseason. I can’t say it’s undeserved with how much Denver has underwhelmed.
Kane: Milwaukee Bucks. If someone had told me before the season that the Bucks would get rid of Jason Kidd, add Eric Bledsoe, and get Jabari Parker back from injury in time for the stretch run, all while Giannis Antetokounmpo made a leap into superstardom, I would have considered them a lock for a top-four seed and crossed my fingers for a LeBron-Giannis conference finals showdown. In reality, the Bucks are on pace to win 43 games, a whopping one-game improvement on last season’s mark, and sit in the eighth spot in the East. It seemed like Milwaukee was ahead of schedule when it jumped from 15 wins to 41 in 2014-15, but the team’s success has stagnated since then. This offseason will be crucial for the Bucks to take the next step toward contention, and finding a long-term answer at head coach would go a long way—although, at this point, they could hire 1996 Phil Jackson and I’d pencil them in at 44-38.
Verrier: Denver still has a chance to make the playoffs, because most West teams still have a chance to make the playoffs, but it has hardly taken advantage of its window, with losses to Dallas, Memphis, and the Lakers in March. Injuries to Millsap and Harris are noted, but a recent string of transactional misfires (trading back in last year’s draft, trading for Devin Harris, trading for and then re-signing the Sort-Of-Good Plumlee) has quietly undercut the collection of high-quality youngsters that raised the bar in the first place. The future is bright in Denver … but this season has been a reminder that exponential growth for any up-and-comer is hardly assured.
Tjarks: Detroit. There weren’t a lot of expectations surrounding the Pistons coming into the season, but given that they went all in on this season twice (by trading for Avery Bradley before the season and then Blake Griffin during it) it wasn’t unreasonable to expect them to snatch one of the playoff spots at the bottom of the Eastern Conference—or at least make the race competitive into the final week of the season. Instead, it looks like the Stan Van Gundy era in Detroit is going to end without a single playoff victory and one of the gloomiest financial outlooks in the league. They are locked into paying a lot of money for Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, and Reggie Jackson, and it’s hard to be too optimistic about their ceiling while their floor could be really ugly.