A week into 2021 the real world looks like it is going to be exactly like 2020, which is to say very very shitty, but thankfully the NBA is not the real world. The first two weeks of the 2020-21 NBA season are going exactly how people thought it would go. The Knicks are 5-3 lead by perennial MVP candidate Julius Randle, while the Raptors might actually be the worst team in the league. In the West the Suns are atop the early standings, and if the season ended today the Mavericks and Nuggets would miss the playoffs altogether. See, exactly like we all thought it would go down. In this topsy-turvey season there have been plenty of fun surprises, and sad disappointments across the league. Today we’re going to run through the top five most surprising players during the start of the season, and then we’ll lament the top five most disappointing players to begin 2021. So sit back, get excited, and most importantly remain indoors.
1.) Julius Randle, New York Knicks
Who had Julius Randle breaking out as a legitimate MVP candidate for the Knicks after the first eight games of the season? Be honest absolutely nobody saw this coming from the eighth year point forward. Randle looks like baby LeBron out there running the offense in the Garden. Randle is averaging 23.1 ppg, 12 rpg, and 7.4 apg in 38.6 minutes per game, all career highs, and has led the Knicks to a 5-3 record early on. New coach and NBA fashion icon Tom Thibodeau’s constant yelling from the sideline must be working for the first time since he coached the Bulls to 62 wins in 2011 (we don’t speak of his time in Minnesota). Julius Randle has always been a solid player with the post-Kobe Lakers and pre-Zion Pelicans, but after seven seasons in the NBA most people assumed we had seen everything the Kentucky product had to offer. In his eighth season Randle has, out of nowhere, become a point-forward under Thibodeau’s yelling. His 7.4 assists per game is more than twice his career average of 2.9. If he keeps it up Randle will be a frontrunner for most improved player in 2021. It is the Knicks so Spike Lee, if you’re reading, just brace yourself for the eventual collapse, we all know it’s coming.
2.) Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
The leader of the SexLand backcourt sparked the Cavaliers to a 3-0 start this season and has looked like a bonafide all-star in his third season, and carried what many people thought might be the worst team in the league to a 5-4 record. The third-year guard is averaging a very efficient 25.1 on 53.1 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from three. After major struggles last year, the SexLand backcourt made up of Sexton and second-year point guard Darius Garland is thriving this season as Garland is also one of the most surprising players to start the year. The one missing piece for the Cavs is Kevin Love, not because he’s still an all-star, but because he completes Cleveland’s full sex lineup.
3.) Christian Wood, Houston Rockets
Speaking of sex lineup, Christian Wood might single-handedly keep James Harden in Houston if he continues to play the way he has to start the season. After a breakout season in 2020 in Detroit, Houston acquired Wood in a sign and trade with the Pistons and Wood signed a three-year $41 million contract. Wood has risen to the task of getting Harden to at least have to think about staying in Houston, becoming a potential all-star this season with 23.6 points and 10 rebounds per game. The Rockets have been a little slow out of the gate this season and are just 2-4, but Wood is exciting Rockets fans for another potential deep playoff run if they can keep Harden and Wood together all season. Even if Harden leaves Houston, Wood looks like he can be a franchise building block going forward and should keep the Rockets interesting with whoever they get back in a Harden trade. A list of players I would like to see traded for James Harden for the sake of a smooth transition are: either of LaMelo or Lonzo Ball, Devontae Cacok, Kevin Love, Rudy Gay, Nassir Little, or Shake Milton. Those are my terms.
4.) Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Essentially Wood’s replacement in the Motor City, Jerami Grant has been the lone bright spot in a sea of troubles for the Detroit Pistons this season. The Pistons are probably the worst team in the league, but Grant is having a breakout season. The leading scorer for the Pistons is averaging 24 points and six rebounds in Detroit’s 1-7 start. He’s going to have to do even more since rookie Killian Hayes has been sidelined indefinitely with a hip injury. Grant looks great, but it is fair to say that he wouldn’t look as attractive if he was on any other team, a classic conundrum that I know all about cheering for guys like Al Jefferson, Kevin Love and Karl-Anthony Towns on a Timberwolves all these years.
5.) Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
It’s not surprising whatsoever that Jaylen Brown is playing well to start the season. Everyone knows he was playing at an all-star level last year, but he’s arguably been the best all-around players in the NBA this season. Brown is averaging 26.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game while shooting 54.7 percent from the field and 41.2 from three for the 6-3 Celtics. Brown looks like he’s finally taken the leap and should contend for at least second team All-NBA. Jayson Tatum is still their superstar, but Brown might be a much better sidekick than any of us thought he would be.
1.) Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
At this time last year Siakam was playing his best basketball of his career, with a hot start in 2019-2020 propelling him to a third team All-NBA nod. Since play resumed inside the NBA Bubble in July, Siakam simply hasn’t been the same player. Last year he averaged 22.9 points per game and 7.3 rebounds, but dropped to 16.9 and 5.3 in the regular season bubble, and 17 and 7.5 in the playoffs. Siakam’s slow start to the season is one of the many reasons why the Raptors are 1-6 in the first two weeks, the second worst record in the league. The 26-year-old from Cameroon won Most Improved Player in 2019, was a candidate again last year, and was on the verge of becoming a superstar, but has completely regressed to start the season.
2.) Kelly Oubre, Golden State Warriors
Jesus Christ Kelly Oubre has been just about the worst player in the league to start the season. When Klay Thompson went down with an Achillies injury this offseason, the Warriors traded for Oubre hoping he could bolster the team’s wing depth and provide a spark in Thompson’s absence alongside fellow high flyer Andrew Wiggins. If Steph Curry and Thompson were the Splash Brothers during their dynasty run, Wiggins and especially Oubre have been the trash brothers in the Bay Area. In the first three games this season Oubre shot 7-40 from the field and 0-17 from three. Nobody in the history of the sport has had such a lopsided correlation between how many absolutely insane highlights he’s produced so far this season, while being the worst player in the league through two weeks.
3.) Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Butler’s struggles this season are probably mostly due to exhaustion rather than actual regression. Butler’s Heat had less than two months in between losing the NBA Finals to the Lakers, and opening the 2020-21 season against the Magic. Butler played his ass off in the finals, averaging 43 minutes and trying to single-handedly lead the Heat to a championship. Now Butler and the Heat are struggling in 2021. Miami is just 3-4 and Butler averaging just 13.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game on 40.7 percent shooting. He is seemingly managing his load as he’s missed two games already and is just getting 27.6 minutes per game. Butler is one of the best players in the league, but it’s possibly his heavy minutes under Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and that other place ( remember what we don’t talk about here) is finally catching up with the 31-year-old.
4.) Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Blake Griffin’s quick decline this year is really more sad than it is disappointing. After playing just 18 games last season because of a knee injury. This year Griffin has been sapped of his most important traits in his athleticism and has turned into a spot up shooter. Griffin is attempting 7.8 threes per game, the most in his career. Griffin, who turns 32 in March is currently on the worst team in the league and will be name people bring up at the trade deadline. The one time human highlight reel has seemingly left his best basketball in the past, so lets not remember this Blake Griffin, lets remember the guy who jumped over a Kia and dated Kendall Jenner, that’s the Blake Griffin I’ll always remember.
5.) D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves have a knack for being really, soul crushingly, terrible in every way imaginable. Whether it be defense, coaching, shooting, or just plain old basketball, the Wolves have not been good in almost two decades and have had a revolving door of B-list stars coming through the Target Center doors since our one true savior Kevin Garnett left in 2007. Enter D’Angelo Russell, the second overall pick behind Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015, who was traded to Minnesota last February for D-list star Andrew Wiggins and Minnesota’s top three protected first round pick in 2021. Wolves fans imagined Russell perfecting the pick-and-roll with his good pal Towns, giving this era of wolves fans their version of KG and Stephon Marbury, and the Wolves would finally be cool, and more importantly they’d be good for the first time in a generation. Alas for they are the Timberwolves bad things have to happen, it’s the law. Towns injured his wrist in game two, and Russell has fucking sucked ever since. Minnesota has completely cratered without Towns and are in the midst of a horrifying six game losing streak that will seemingly go on forever. While Russell’s stats aren’t far off of where they’ve been the last few years, he’s shown he’s incapable of really impacting winning in any significant way during the skid. Russell was brought in to be the second star in Minnesota, played like a fourth role player, and the Wolves are going to tank and still lose their 2021 draft pick because we live in a random and chaotic universe.
There we go, this NBA season boys have become men, men have become wolves, and there have been a lot of strange things happening in 2021. Here’s to more surprises and fewer disappointments as we get into the meat of 2021, but most importantly, remain indoors.