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The NBA’s 12 biggest surprises so far

This is what has surprised us in the NBA this season.

Charlotte Hornets v Miami Heat Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

We’re nearing the quarter-of-the-year mark in the 2019-20 season and the Lakers are on top, Giannis Antetokounmpo is angling for his second straight MVP award, and the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George Clippers look so hard to stop. In some ways, October and November have gone how we thought it would for the NBA’s elites.

The middle and lower rungs of the league aren’t playing how we thought, though. Nearly 20 games into the season, it might be time to start accepting what we’re seeing as fact, not fluke.

Here are the biggest surprises so far.

The Miami Heat are legit

There were tempered expectations in Miami, even after signing Jimmy Butler over the summer. The Heat have just one superstar and a fleet of role players who couldn’t make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference last year. Now, they’re 12-5, with the ninth-best net rating in the league, ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets.

The addition of Butler isn’t the only reason for the improvement in Miami, though he’s turned into an incredible playmaker averaging a career-best seven assists. Bam Adebayo is making a leap as an elite defender averaging nearly three steals and blocks combined per game, and a career-best 15 points and 10 rebounds. Kendrick Nunn is also a Rookie of the Year candidate, Duncan Robinson is filling in a shooting role, Justise Winslow is a good defender and Goran Dragic has embraced a bench scoring niche. The Heat are for real.

The Phoenix Suns could make the playoffs

The Suns have been one of the NBA’s worst teams for four straight years. The team brought in Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, and Dario Saric in the offseason, but nobody took them seriously as a playoff contender. Now, they’re 8-9, sitting at No. 8 in a Western Conference that isn’t nearly as scary as it once was.

Rubio taking the lead at the point has freed Devin Booker into the best season of his career so far, and that’s been everything for Phoenix. Booker’s shooting a career-best 42 percent from three, and a best-ever 63.8 percent true shooting for 25 points. Baynes, in place of a suspended Deandre Ayton, has turned into a Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, averaging 15 points and six rebounds on 42 percent three-point shooting. The Spurs, Blazers and Pelicans are all off to horrid starts to the year. That last spot in the West looks like the Suns’ to lose.

Luka Doncic might be MVP

Smart people knew this day would eventually come for Doncic, but nobody knew it would happen in the second year of his career. Doncic is averaging 30 points, 10 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game on 62.5 percent true shooting. Doncic is everything for the Dallas Mavericks.

Dallas sits at 11-6 because of an offense the 20-year-old orchestrates, and looks likely to make its first playoff appearance since 2016. The Suns and Kings really passed over this guy. Good grief.

Andrew Wiggins is better than ever

After the first few games of the season, we were eager to write Wiggins off as a completely average player in the NBA who failed to reach the hype of a lottery pick, better yet a No. 1 pick. But Wiggins is finally figuring out how to use his physical tools to win.

In his sixth year, Wiggins is averaging a career-best 25 points per game with four rebounds and three assists. His true shooting percentage is a career-high 55 percent, his turnover percent is at an all-time low, and for the first time in his career, his win shares per 48 minutes are above league average. Taking the most three-points shots of his life and fewest long-twos, Wiggins is enjoying the best shooting numbers of his career, and the Wolves are now 10-8. Minnesota could be on its way to its second playoff appearance since 2005, if Wiggins can keep delivering.

Dwight Howard is good again

After Howard wasn’t good in LA the first time, or Houston, or Atlanta, or Charlotte, or Washington, he’s playing very well with the Lakers this season on his second stint with the franchise. LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ Lakers are off to a 16-2 start, and Howard’s played a key role in it — by playing in a more restrained role than ever before.

Howard’s taking less than four shots per game, but making 75 percent of them. He’s finishing lobs and layups from the superstars of his team, and fitting in well as a role player, a position he’s finally accepting. Howard’s also making a huge mark on the defensive end, where the Lakers rank second-best in the league. Howard is back, and nobody thought that’d be possible.

Chris Paul hasn’t had any drama in OKC

Paul got a crap deal when he was shipped from a good Rockets team to a tanking Thunder one after being swapped with Russell Westbrook. With Paul George out of town, Paul is stuck with Danilo Gallinari, Steven Adams, and a bunch of young players. That’s not where superstars want to be in the final years of their career.

But so far, there’s been little drama in OKC. The Thunder are 6-11, and Paul’s averaging 16 points, six assists and four rebounds sharing the guard spot with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Will the good times last? Maybe not. But for now, Paul’s having a nice impact in OKC.

The bottom of the Eastern Conference sucks

The top six teams in the East are the Bucks, Raptors, Heat, Celtics, Pacers and Sixers, and it’ll probably finish that way in whatever order. The rest has been ugly. Disappointingly, the Nets haven’t been as good as we thought, and no other team has stepped up. Those last two playoff spots might go to really undeserving sub-.500 teams.

After the top six, the Nets have .500 record, and everyone else is below that. Every other team has a negative net rating, with the Magic leading the pack, being outscored by 1.01 points per 100 possessions. Will the first round of the playoffs be brutally lopsided? Looks likely.

The Spurs are a mess

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have defied logic for years, but finally San Antonio’s outdated system isn’t working. The Spurs are 6-13, being outscored by 3.45 points per 100 possessions, ninth-worst in the league, and there’s little reason to believe that without a trade, anything will change. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge don’t fit. This year could be San Antonio’s first to end during the regular season since 1997.

The Pacers without Victor Oladipo are pretty good

We’re all awaiting the return of Oladipo, one of the 2017-18 season’s breakout stars who suffered a ruptured quad tendon in January, but Indiana’s doing pretty well in his absence. The Pacers are 11-6 with the seventh-best net rating in the league, and thriving with their new offseason signee, Malcolm Brogdon.

Brogdon’s averaging career-highs in scoring (19) and assists (8.1), leading the Pacers’ offense. Damantas Sabonis and T.J. Warren have been steady too. The Pacers will be even better when Oladipo returns, but they’re playing well enough without him now.

Carmelo Anthony is back in the NBA

Anthony went 376 days without playing an NBA game until the Portland Trail Blazers signed him in November. Five years ago, Melo struggling to find an NBA job was unthinkable, but poor stints with the Rockets and Thunder showed glaring flaws in his game. Those flaw still exist, and Anthony still isn’t very good (especially defensively), but he’s scoring 17 points on 45 percent shooting.

Melo’s fun for fans to watch (for half of the game) and that’s enough to appreciate (for now). Another chance was never guaranteed.

Markelle Fultz is a pretty good player

Few athletes have had a stranger start to their career than Fultz. After a tumultuous two years in which a shoulder injury forced him to reinvent his jump shot, he’s found a landing spot with the Orlando Magic, and he’s turning into an NBA player.

Fultz is a starter in Orlando, where he averages 11 points and four assists per game. He still only shoots 21 percent from three, but 50 percent overall, and he’s a capable defender with more than a steal per night. Is he a superstar No. 1 pick? Absolutely not. But he’s playing like a serviceable player, which we hadn’t seen before.

The Wizards’ offense is amazing

Without John Wall or Kelly Oubre or Tomas Satoransky or virtually any good player they’ve had on the roster the last couple of years not named Bradley Beal, the Wizards have somehow scraped together the second-best offense in the league. They score 114.89 points per 100 possessions, behind only Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks. They space the floor really well, and shoot 38 percent from distance. Beal is having a career year, scoring 29 points per game, Thomas Bryant is scoring 14, Davis Bertans 13, and even a revitalized Isaiah Thomas is scoring 11. The Wizards are painfully bad to watch defensively, but nobody saw an offensive juggernaut coming.