As the NBA season reaches its midpoint, now seems an appropriate time to reflect on what this season has brought us. Some things remain the same from past years; LeBron James is carrying his team toward the NBA Finals, three-point shooting rates continue to increase and the majority of rookies have struggled mightily thus far (save for Ja Morant). But some things have changed, and rather drastically at that. Here are the three biggest surprises of the NBA season so far.
The Eastern Conference has rebalanced the power dynamic between the two conferences. The West’s utter dominance over the East has been well documented in the past, as the West won 56.7% of inter-conference matchups from 1999-2018. While the West still holds a good record in head to head matchups compared to the East this season, there are arguably the same number of playoff contenders in each conference.
For years, the Western Conference playoffs have been notoriously more difficult to qualify for than their Eastern counterparts. Even as recently as last year, 48 wins were needed to qualify for the eighth seed in the West, whereas the Pistons squeaked into the playoffs in the East with 41 wins.
This season, both current eighth seeds have won only 18 games (Magic and Grizzlies) while playing sub-.500 basketball. Meanwhile, six teams in each conference have won at least 60% of their games, a significant divergence from last season when only three Eastern squads accomplished this feat compared to five Western conferences.
Another standout quality of this season has contributed to the East’s ascension; the lack of multi-star teams. The 2010s were dominated by teams featuring multiple future hall-of-famers. From LeBron’s Heat to Tim Duncan’s Spurs to Steph Curry’s Warriors, it seemed that at least two future hall-of-famers were required to win the NBA Finals. This season, multiple teams have excelled while featuring only one bona fide superstar, and a few appear to be serious championship contenders.
The Bucks stand out among the crowd. Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is having another historically dominant season, leading his team to a league-best 35-6 record. But he is the only true star on his team, and while a case can be made for Khris Middleton, none of his teammates are locks for the All-Star Game.
Instead, Bucks General Manager Jon Horst has surrounded Giannis with talented veterans who perfectly complement his game, from excellent ball-handlers Eric Bledsoe and George Hill, sweet-shooting forwards Ersan Ilyasova, Wesley Matthews, and Kyle Korver, and stout rim protectors Brook and Robin Lopez. This formula has been replicated across the league, as teams like the Heat (Jimmy Butler), Raptors (Pascal Siakam), Pacers (Domantas Sabonis), Jazz (Donovan Mitchell) and Mavericks (Luka Dončić) have surrounded their respective stars with deep, versatile casts of role players to achieve success.
Finally, the biggest surprise team in the league thus far has been the Oklahoma City Thunder. After swinging the two biggest trades of the offseason in only a few days, expectations were low. And understandably so, as the Thunder swapped in-their-prime superstars Paul George and Russell Westbrook for an aging Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and seven (not a typo) first round picks. Rather than sink into oblivion while shipping off their veterans for draft picks, the Thunder exceeded all expectations and transformed into a legitimate playoff team.
The Thunder’s 22-17 record can largely be attributed to its three-headed monster of guards Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder. Paul has continued to be the Point God, exhibiting elite shooting splits and assist-to-turnover ratio while being the most clutch scorer in the league during crunch time. Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the frontrunners for the Most Improved Player award, has nearly doubled his scoring output from last season (10.8-19.9) on a slight drop in efficiency while playing excellent defense.
Finally, Schroder leads the discussion for Sixth Man of the Year, scoring 18.3 points per game with 52.5/35.2/81.7 splits, easily his most efficient year as a pro. These three, with contributions from Gallinari, Steven Adams and others have turned the Thunder into a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.