One of the great things about any sport can be the surprises.
Whether it’s a player coming out of retirement, a rookie excelling, a major signing being made or a team going from an underdog to a contender. It’s what makes sports enjoyable and watchable.
In the NBA, often times pre-season predictions can be very wrong. With 82 games on the schedule and throw in injuries, good and bad trades, players overachieving, and some underachieving, there are a lot of variables.
In this article, I will look at the teams that have over-achieved in some capacity. Whether it is doing better than pre-season expectations, dealing with general adversity, or gelling better than we ever would have thought. Let’s start the list.
10. Charlotte Hornets
Why they overachieved – Dwight Howard didn’t curse the team
A trend became apparent in the NBA in recent years – Dwight Howard fitted nowhere. Whether it’s a disappointing run last year with Atlanta, or a failed stint with the Lakers and Rockets. Dwightitis was real.
This year, the addition of Howard wasn’t met with much applause. Lots of columnists predicted the Hornets to feature in the tank race at the end of the season, giving them very little upside in general.
The Hornets had a terrible start to the season but in 2018 compiled a 23-23 record. That might not look good on paper but a .5 record would have clinched a playoff spot in either the East or the West last year.
Howard surprisingly will enter next season at 32, even though it’s felt like he’s been in the league for ages. With All-Star PG Kemba Walker at the helm, the Hornets may be a few additions away from making the playoffs next year.
9. Brooklyn Nets
Why they overachieved – They didn’t tank as badly as we thought
It might be a pretty bad reason for over-achieving, but if you are the Nets, you get a pass.
The ultimate tanking team of the last 3 years, the Brooklyn Nets, weren’t given any higher expectations going in to the 2017/2018 season. Now at the end of the season – they had their best record since the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett/Celtics oldies era.
The man above, Spencer Dinwiddie, was nominated for Most Improved Player this season for stepping up his game to new heights. It looked like the Nets were doomed after Jeremy Lin suffered a season ending injury at the start of the season, but the combination of Dinwiddie and Russell picked up the slack.
The Nets are by no means a world beater, but they do have some young pieces that could develop in to very useful players. And for the Nets, that’s a rarity.
8. Houston Rockets
Why they overachieved – Two alphas can work sometimes
The addition of Chris Paul to the Rockets backcourt was generally viewed in a positive light, but there were doubts. Both Paul and Harden had very high usage rates for their respective teams before the move.
But somehow, the pairing clicked, and an injury early in to the season to Paul – and later in the season to Harden – allowed one to lead when the other was absent. The Rockets combined for their best regular season record in franchise history, including the Hakeem Olajuwon era.
Now in the post-season, the Rockets are currently tied up with GSW in the Western Conference Finals. James Harden is also a shoe-in for MVP. They’ve achieved pretty much all they can so far, and I’m not quite sure anyone predicted they would get to this all-time high.
7. Toronto Raptors
Why they overachieved – Having their best regular season ever
Another one for the history books. The two conference topping teams logged their best records in NBA history. The Raptors #1 spot in the East never seemed to be in doubt.
Built largely on the success of DeMar DeRozan, the supporting cast of Lowry, Ibaka and Valanciunas just clicked. Throw-in rookie OG Anunoby and they exceeded many expectations at the start of the season.
The Raptors’ showed that having a strong second unit can win lots of regular season games. The emergence of Point Guard Fred VanVleet played a huge part in this, along with rotational players like CJ Miles, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam etc.
Unfortunately, neither the first or the second unit could get it done with the playoffs against LeBron James and the Cavs. Neither can most teams. But they should have their head held high for what they did prior to that.
6. San Antonio Spurs
Why they overachieved – Making the playoffs without Kawhi Leonard
Before the season, this might not have crossed people’s minds. But Leonard suffered an injury early on in to the season, and the dynamic of the Spurs season changed. It not only impacted their ability, but their stature off the court. The whole focus on the Spurs after the injury was ‘When’s Kawhi back?’.
But behind it all, LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up and showed why he should still be regarded as a top player on any team. The grizzled vets, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, played important rotational roles in their umpteenth season.
The Spurs even took a game off the Warriors in Round 1 of the Western Conference playoffs. Sure, this season underachieved in the grand scheme of the Spurs success over the last 20+ years. But given the circumstances, and an ageing team, they didn’t do as badly as they could have.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Why they overachieved – Not being far from a playoff spot
Coming in to this season, the Lakers over under was 33.5.
A lot of people thought that was even generous, but they pulled off a 35-47 record to finish the season. In the grand scheme of the table, there were the playoff teams and fringe playoff teams, the tankers, and the LA Lakers in-between.
Much hype was placed on rookie Lonzo Ball after being picked #2 in the draft but he didn’t do all that bad. Late first round pick Kyle Kuzma was a real find for the Lakers being an offensive weapon all season. Sophomore Brandon Ingram showed signs of improvement, while in general the team didn’t show signs of mourning the loss of Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson.
Next season will be an interesting one for the Lakers. With the most cap space in the league, many believe they will be gunning for the likes of a LeBron or Paul George, or both. But they had a good season as far as pre-season expectations are concerned.
4. Indiana Pacers
Why they overachieved – They looked better without Paul George
If you had asked most Pacers fans at the start of the season if they would take 5th in the East and taking LeBron and the Cavs to 7 games in the playoffs, most would have taken it.
There weren’t many supporters of the Pacers/OKC trade that saw Paul George part ways for Victor Oladipo and Domantis Sabonis. But the latter two proved the doubters wrong.
Oladipo was a finalist for Most Improved Player this year as he saw his PPG total surge in absence of Russell Westbrook. Sabonis proved a very valuable role player, especially in times when star centre Myles Turner was injured.
The Pacers were solid this year, and many will be watching next season closely to see if Oladipo repeats his success, and if other young pieces can make the jump to being better players.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Why they overachieved – The Process worked a season early
For many, the 76ers ‘Trusting the Process’ moniker was a long term matter. Acquiring back-to-back first round picks, they looked to build a team over time that matured in to a contender. But it happened a season or two early.
Philly this year were a dominant force in the Eastern Conference, especially after the All-Star break compiling a 22-5 record. Joel Embiid, a 3rd overall pick in 2014, was finally healthy for a full season. Many expected him to be a force in the season, as they had saw shades of it last season. Markelle Fultz, the first overall pick last year, was expected to do well, but injuries had him sitting on the bench for most of the season.
It was rookie/sophomore (whatever you want to call him) Ben Simmons that changed the dynamic of the whole team. Simmons, originally a forward, was played at Point Guard early on and it stuck. He doesn’t have much of a jump shot, but his passing and rim-making ability makes up for it. Surrounding him with wing shooters in JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyosva strengthened the team as a whole.
The 76ers may be disappointed at losing to a Hospital Celtics team in the semi-final of the playoffs, but they have lots of upside heading in to next season.
2. Utah Jazz
Why they overachieved – A rookie (drafted outside of the Top 10) led them to the second round of the playoffs
Yes. You read that correctly.
Donovan Mitchell, the number 13th pick in last year’s NBA draft, was a dominant force in the playoffs. Mitchell showed up when he needed to show up. It’s just unfortunate he didn’t have a lot of pieces around him to help.
Centre Rudy Gobert was a defensive stalwart all season but just didn’t perform to expectations in the playoffs. Performances from Joe Ingles and Derrick Favors helped the Jazz over the line at times, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.
Having said that, without Gordon Hayward, would you have expected the Jazz to have done so well heading in to the playoffs? After all, they did face off against one of the ‘death two’, the Rockets (the other being GSW of course).
It was a great season for the Jazz in hindsight. Mitchell is a proven future star and one of the best draftees of the last decade.
1. Boston Celtics
Why they overachieved – Making it to the Eastern Conference finals without two of their best players
Many teams can show a significant decline without their star player. We saw it this season with the San Antonio Spurs, the New York Knicks and the Memphis Grizzlies.
But what if two players go down, and it’s just in time for the playoffs? Well, you’re screwed basically. Unless you are the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics this year secured the #2 spot in the Eastern Conference without Gordon Hayward and beat Milwaukee and Philly in the playoffs without Kyrie Irivng. They did however – boast a team made up of an inexperienced PG, a rookie, a sophomore and Al Horford. Just think of it this way:
Imagine the 76ers without Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Imagine Bucks without Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It’s crazy to see how Brad Stevens’ wizadry has brought a group of young players to the forefront of the Eastern Conference. Rookie Jayson Tatum has shined in the playoffs. Centre Al Horford has shown the leadership necessary to bring a team towards playoff wins. Jaylen Brown’s offensive prowess is years beyond his experience. The hardest task of all, replacing Kyrie Irving, was done so by 3rd year player Terry Rozier who hadn’t started a game until a couple of months ago. And he’s done a pretty good job of doing it.
It’s the ultimate underdog story. No one could have written it. The Eastern Conference finals are unwritten, but regardless of the outcome, the C’s have achieved things way beyond any reasonable person’s imagination.
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