In the COVID-19 era, few occurrences come as much of a shock anymore. However, the NBA knows no limits to breaking expectations. Last year, the NBA designed a bubble fitting to finish the 2019-2020 season. The Association’s knack for “breaking the internet” seems yearly. Both nostalgia and clairvoyance balance the 2021-22 NBA season surprises, again making the NBA a hot topic.
Golden State Warriors Dominance
Following Kevin Durant’s departure from the Golden State Warriors, it seemed a cloud of doom-and-gloom followed the three-time NBA championship franchise.
Adding insult to literal injury, Golden State became an afterthought, despite running the NBA for three consecutive seasons. Nearly recovered from a torn ACL injury suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals, Klay Thompson experienced another setback leading up to the 2020-2021 season. Thompson tore his Achilles in a workout on the same day as the 2020 NBA draft, a day synonymous with hope- a tragic irony.
An alternate reality became their existence. The Warriors became a lottery team after the young-and-hungry Ja Morant-led Memphis Grizzlies knocked out the three-years removed dynasty from the play-in tournament.
By acquiring two lottery picks from the Minnesota Timberwolves, it seemed Golden State set itself up for another blockbuster trade. However, the “light years” franchise stayed pat, opting to develop the young prospects while prepping its battle-tested stars for another playoff run.
Starting 18-2 in the first 20 games stunned the league, especially in light of Thompson’s injury status. Although the league’s sole unanimous MVP flirted with the MVP trophy last season, the team’s dominance comes as a pleasant surprise.
Stephen Curry’s support group, aside from defensive star Draymond Green, consists of young-and-unproven players in addition to the heavily scrutinized Andrew Wiggins. Despite the assumed massive void of both shooting and defense caused by Thompson’s absence, the Warriors currently sit at the top with an outstanding 27-7 record.
Best record aside, advanced stats further imply what’s next for the Warriors. Back to title-contending status, Golden State ranks fourth in offensive rating and miraculously, first defensively.
Furthermore, it’s not that they are winning; it’s how they defeat their opponents. Beating their opponents by an average of 10 points per contest, the Warriors, by definition, are a dominant team.
Coming of Age
Before Wiggins found himself on the Warriors in a then-perceived salary dump trade, criticism dominated the discourse of the former draft darling. Without morphing into the superstar player draft experts once believed he’d achieve, Wiggins changed his narrative by fitting in offensively and standing out defensively within a team concept.
Speaking of feel-good stories, Michigan alum Jordan Poole found his calling as Curry’s backcourt support. Ironically, Poole’s genesis came during a season where No.30 missed significant time due to a broken hand. Now, he gracefully fits alongside the two-time MVP.
Sliding through screens, thriving from space granted by Curry’s gravity, but more importantly, providing a cushion for the highly-scouted superstar- Poole benefits as he provides, fluidly. From averaging 8.8 points on a lottery-bound team to starting on a contender, nothing says surprise like Poole’s third season in the league.
With Green as Curry’s running mate and a few coming-of-age performances from unlikely players, the Warriors are out to shock the world for the third time in the 2021-22 NBA Season.
DeMar DeRozan Leading the Bulls Back to Relevancy
Falling into a state of comatose regarding NBA pertinency, DeMar DeRozan’s three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs acted as a veil for the connoisseur of the mid-range jumper. Once the star of the league’s favorite underdog Toronto Raptors, then, unceremoniously, became the best player of a team running on a treadmill to nowhere.
Now, back in the Eastern Conference, on a team rich in history, DeRozan positions himself to lead the Chicago Bulls to the top of the NBA.
The Bulls’ acquisition of DeRozan came with many a doubter. Honestly, in light of DeRozan’s time as the primary option, many of the critiques rang validly. However, unlike typical athletic stars, Derozan’s career seems to have found its prime state in year 13; consider the 2021-22 NBA Season, DeRozan’s vintage season.
Pushing the Future By Honoring the Past
DeRozan, known for isolation ball, is now the maestro of the Bulls’ identity. No longer a mere scorer, the USC alum controls the Bulls’ gravitational pull- the reverse Warriors effect. Last, in three-point attempts league-wide, Chicago organically molded to DeRozan’s playstyle yet holds the sixth-best offensive rating.
Like his idol, the late, great Kobe Bryant, DeRozan shares the same respect for the mid-range game. Akin to Dirk Nowitzki, Kawhi Leonard, and Bryant, DeRozan excels at the elbow, and doing so in today’s game symbolizes the odyssey of the former Raptor.
DeRozan’s role as the crafty veteran aged like fine-wine is quite the revelation. Leading a core consisting of players without playoff success, better yet a postseason berth, signals growth and an extension of No.11’s stardom.
Second-ranked in the much-improved Eastern Conference, the DeRozan-led Bulls look to recreate magic playing retro-style ball.
Cleveland Cavaliers Being Good Without LeBron James
Not Your King James Cavs
The last time the Cleveland Cavaliers finished with a winning record without LeBron James’ generational talent, Jordan ran the league. Think about it: the previous NBA playoff birth clinched by Cleveland came two years after the original Space Jam. Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton’s favorite alley-oop beneficiary, led the team in scoring.
Following Akron’s proudest achievement’s second departure, as you’d imagine, it didn’t get better. Since James went Hollywood, the Cavaliers accumulated a losing record of 80-173. However, following trading for Jarett Allen then drafting Evan Mobley, the Cavaliers culminated the big-man offseason by trading for Lauri Marrkanen.
At face value, the Cavaliers acquired three big men equipped with different skill sets. However, acquiring as many frontcourt players seemed like an ill-advised move in the modern era. Furthermore, re-signing Allen for $100 million set NBA Twitter ablaze.
Conversely, harping on ballooned contracts in a league where nearly every deal finds salvage via trade seems like a useless exercise for a small market team. “Overpaying” for talent is the cost of doing business.
It’s an astonishing occurrence, quite frankly. No one of notability saw the Cavaliers as a playoff team, let alone a top-five team in the Eastern Conference. Yet, despite undergoing logic-defying roster transactions, the Cavaliers are succeeding with No.23.
Youth With Efficiency
Typically, rookies struggle on defense; no surprise there. To put rookie Mobley’s defensive influence in perspective, he resides in the 94 percentile in opponents’ effective field goal percentage according to CleaningtheGlass.com However, thanks to a physical build and high defensive IQ, Mobley carries himself as a 10-year professional. There is no telling where the Cavaliers record would sit if Mobley didn’t miss extended time due to a hip injury suffered earlier in the season.
Although the big men of the roster deserve praise for succeeding, a particular young Cavaliers guard flirts with All-Star status. While not a household by any means, Darius Garland is putting up numbers of which allude to elite status. Utilizing CleaningtheGlass.com efficiency differential stat magnifies the significance of Garland’s place on the roster. The 21-year-old guard is a +14.3, good enough for the 95th percentile in the league.
Even if the Cavaliers slide to the bottom tier of the playoffs, a winning season remains the best outcome previously imagined. Cleveland thriving without James is indeed a massive bombshell for the 2021-22 NBA Season.