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Shea: 5 Surprises of the NBA Season

The NBA season, like everything, undergoes change over time. Some of those changes are predictable, for example Brandon Ingram’s rise to stardom. However, some of those changes are unpredictable, and can have lasting implications on the league. The following will take a
brief dive into five of the most notable surprises of the 2020 season.

1. Devonte’ Graham’s Rise in Charlotte
Graham understandably started a measly three games for the Kemba Walker-led Hornets last season, and spent most of the season in the G League playing for the Greensboro Swarm. His official per-game tallies in the 46 NBA games he saw time in during the 2018-19 season: 14.7 minutes per game, 4.7 points and 2.6 assists per game while shooting 28% from three. To emphasize Graham’s progress, his current season numbers through 63 games: 35.1 minutesper game, 18.2 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 37% from 3 on over 9 attempts per game!

The disparity in the averages from season-to-season gives Graham an extremely strong case for the Most Improved Player award. To give a little context on the Charlotte point guard situation, on July 6, 2019, Boston and Charlotte agreed to a sign-and-trade that would swap Terry Rozier, a promising young backup point guard that was thought to have more potential to unlock with an increase in usage, with Kemba Walker, a perennial All-Star. Rozier’s contract
extension would cost Charlotte about 57 million dollars over three years.

It is fair to say that Graham’s prominence pleasantly surprised Charlotte’s management. However, had Charlotte’s
management had known what they had in Graham, they could have spent the nearly $20 million dollars that was spent on Rozier to help improve their roster elsewhere. Coach James Borrego certainly didn’t mind the unconventional backcourt of a pair of 6-foot 1-inch point guards, starting the duo in 53 of a possible 63 games.

2. Miami’s Revelation
Miami, in their first season post-Dwyane Wade era, has exceeded expectations. A 41-24 record seats the Heat 4th in the East, somewhat comfortably. Going into the season, it was easy to pencil in the top 4 teams in the East being Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Toronto. To the East’s dismay, Miami has commanded attention over the course of the season as a tough-out in any playoff series, with the emergence of key role players. Miami’s front office deserves praise as they were able to unearth two usable players from the undrafted player pool over the past two drafts. Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn have found themselves getting called upon often for the East’s fourth best team. Each have started at least 60 of the 65 possible Heat games this year, averaging 30 minutes per game a piece. Another surprise for possibly the most-surprising team in the league this season has been Bam Adebayo. Adebayo,who was named to his first All-Star team, has improved dramatically in all aspects of his game and is still only 22 years old. Adebayo has averaged 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in about 34 minutes per game.

This all-around dominant performance and massive progression has turned heads league-wide after Adebayo averaged 8.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks per game in just over 23 minutes per game in his second season, last year. He, along with Devonte’ Graham, deserves serious consideration for the Most Improved Player award.

3. Golden State finds themselves in a not-so-golden state
Going into this season, to say that the Champions of the NBA for three of the past five seasons were going to finish the season with the worst record in the league would have garnered many laughs. Yes, Klay Thompson had recently torn his ACL in the Finals the previous season, and wasn’t expected to return until at least after the All Star Break, if at all. But, they still had their franchise centerpiece in Steph Curry and General Manager Bob Myers had just inked a deal with free agent guard, D’Angelo Russell. It was expected that they would be toward the back end of the West, but still in the playoff hunt. If all was to go as planned, they would get a late-season surge that would put them into favorable playoff positioning when Klay Thompson would hopefully return. All of their plans of winning anything this season came to a sudden halt when Steph Curry broke his hand during the fifth game of the season. Golden State’s management subsequently was forced to enter full-rebuild mode. D’Angelo Russell, who had only been on the team for a few months, was traded at the deadline to satisfy a position of need in Andrew Wiggins. The Warriors, as it stands today, have the worst record in the league, at 15-50. This would be the first season in the past five years to not have a Warriors Finals appearance. Even though this season has been overlooked in Golden State, they are
primed to make an aggressive Finals run in 2021. Being one of the three teams with the highest chance at the #1 pick in the upcoming draft, Golden State’s management has optionality. They
could trade their first round pick and/or Andrew Wiggins for a proven star to help their core of Curry and Thompson win-now at the later stages of their careers, or they could make the pick
and keep Wiggins to help ensure success for the post-Curry, Thompson era.

4. Houston downsizes
Near the trade deadline in February, Houston General Manager, Daryl Morey, shook up the league with a trade that sent productive starting center, Clint Capela packing. In return, Houston gained the services of Robert Covington. Covington, one of the two players in the trade that sent Jimmy Butler out of Minnesota last season, has made a name for himself as a 3-and-D player, a skillset today’s NBA covets, as the ability to shoot threes and the ability to defend multiple positions on defense tantalizes most every NBA front office. The move to abandon Capela who, in each of his last three seasons including this year, had averaged a double-double with points and rebounds, while also averaging over 1.5 blocks, puzzled many NBA media personalities. Houston was trying to be ahead of the curve, as basketball heads increasingly closer to being played without position designations.

The contrarian move by Morey was paying off early on, as the Rockets had opened up the floor for Russell Westbrook, while not losing much of a step in rebounding as Russell Westbrook and James Harden are
both above-average rebounders from the guard position, and not giving up much in rim protection either since Robert Covington has remarkable hands, which cause him to protect the rim at an above-average effectiveness. The long-term impact of this move has yet to be revealed as the season was halted by the coronavirus before we would get to see how this smallball lineup would fair in a playoff environment.

5. Next Season’s Salary Cap
The league’s annual salary cap growth has correlation to the amount of revenue the league brings in yearly. Just two seasons in history have experienced a drop in the salary cap from the previous season, and 2021 could be a third. It would have been reasonable to project another jump in the salary cap before this season started. Unfortunately, unprecedented events have hurt the NBA significantly this season. First, it was the controversy surrounding Houston’s GM
Daryl Morey’s tweets in support of Hong Kong, which led to China pulling all of its ties with the NBA, resulting in a significant dip in NBA revenue. The NBA’s salary cap projections still estimated a growth in next year’s cap after this incident, albeit a lower total than previously projected. However, that changed in March as the coronavirus introduced itself to North America, causing shutdowns of just about every sport organization and lockdowns of cities worldwide. With the NBA and most of the world protecting themselves by suspending activities, the NBA will certainly face a decrease in the 2021 salary cap as a result of the lingering uncertainty surrounding the fate of the remainder of this season.

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