Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant

<p>The message delivered by ESPN president John Skipper on Wednesday afternoon to nearly 500 analysts, commentators, play-by-play voices, reporters and writers was clear:</p><p>ESPN remains the No. 1 brand in sports media.</p><p>In what the network tabbed as “Talent Gathering 2017,” Skipper and a host of ESPN senior management addressed the company’s front-facing talent (meaning those who present themselves to the public via audio, digital or television) at the company’s Bristol headquarters. The topics at the presentation included ESPN’s current priorities, the recent changes to the company’s social media policy, how political and social issues should be handled by editorial staffers, how the company approaches sexual harassment allegations and upcoming initiatives. Staffers sat on folding chairs at the ESPN KidsCenter, which serves as a daycare center when not hosting talent gatherings.</p><p>“Skipper’s message was we need to control the sky-is-falling narrative better since that’s just not the case,” said one staffer in attendance. “I would say the first hour was rally the troops, a big-time pep rally: here’s our great data, look at our great numbers. The next time someone is telling you we are losing steam, it just isn’t the case.”</p><p>“The two tent poles were confidence and pride,” said another ESPN staffer.</p><p>Skipper cited the company’s NBA deal—ESPN has committed $12.6 billion for the rights to the NBA through 2025, a dollar figure that has been criticized in some circles—as a good one for ESPN. He cited the increased viewership numbers for the NBA this year (over 20%) and told staffers that the NBA was “an ascendant league” and “I challenge vigorously” anyone who said ESPN overpaid.</p><p>Social media was a major topic of discussion, especially given the many times ESPN has found itself in the news in this area. That part of the presentation was handled by vice president Kevin Merida, the editor in chief of The Undefeated and a former managing editor of <em>The Washington Post</em>. Merida emphasized not to enter into political areas, though made clear that if a politician waded into the sports sphere, commentators could comment. SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt introduced Merida and was self-deprecating about how little value there was in engaging in back and forth with people on Twitter.</p><p>Merida pointed out to the group that there was a clause in the social media policy where management reserved the right to take action if staffers violated it. “He was very measured and I thought appealed to the people with reason in the room,” said one ESPN staffer. Merida told the audience that he had spoken to ESPN on-air staffers who are active on Twitter—including Pablo Torre, Sarah Spain and Van Pelt—to get feedback on their social media experience. </p><p>Barry Blyn, a vice president of consumer insights, was charged with letting staffers know about ESPN’s social media numbers and also hyped the growth of First Take—a show that once threatened Warriors star Kevin Durant on-air—since moving from ESPN2 to ESPN. Executive vice-president Connor Schell showed a sizzle reel of the best of ESPN Films including its 30 for 30 documentary series and pushed how committed ESPN is to storytelling.</p><p>At the two hour mark, Skipper asked for questions from the audience. One source said there were just a handful questions for the ESPN president. “The smart people in the room, I’m not sure they would choose that forum to raise their concerns to John,” said another ESPN staffer.</p><p>Skipper was asked about the <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-12-13/disney-s-fox-deal-what-we-know-and-what-we-still-want-to-know" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:reported Fox-Disney deal" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">reported Fox-Disney deal</a> (he didn’t say much) and another question from a football analyst centered around what talent could do if a politician made a comment about sports? There was also a question about how ESPN handles sexual harassment. Staffers in attendance said Skipper reiterated that ESPN has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment. (No doubt ESPN talent is well aware of Jami Cantor, a former wardrobe stylist for the NFL Network,<a href="https://www.si.com/tech-media/2017/12/12/nfl-network-sexual-harassment-jami-cantor-lawsuit-faulk-mcnabb-weinberger" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:filing an amended complaint" class="link rapid-noclick-resp"> filing an amended complaint</a> in Los Angeles Superior Court against NFL Enterprises. In it, she named NFL Network producers and on-air talent as subjecting her to unlawful discrimination and retaliation.) A source said Skipper told the crowd he did not believe sexual harassment was a major issue at ESPN and reiterated in strong terms that he encouraged all staffers to send him emails or set up a meeting with him if they believed any HR violations existed.</p><p>After the presentation ended, staffers were treated to sliders, sushi, parfait and coffee among other food. ESPN Front Row, a website run by ESPN PR, offered its recap here of the events <a href="https://www.espnfrontrow.com/2017/12/espn-commentators-gather-summit-bristol/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:here" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">here</a>.</p>
ESPN President John Skipper Discusses Social Media Policy, Priorities at 'Talent Gathering 2017'

The message delivered by ESPN president John Skipper on Wednesday afternoon to nearly 500 analysts, commentators, play-by-play voices, reporters and writers was clear:

ESPN remains the No. 1 brand in sports media.

In what the network tabbed as “Talent Gathering 2017,” Skipper and a host of ESPN senior management addressed the company’s front-facing talent (meaning those who present themselves to the public via audio, digital or television) at the company’s Bristol headquarters. The topics at the presentation included ESPN’s current priorities, the recent changes to the company’s social media policy, how political and social issues should be handled by editorial staffers, how the company approaches sexual harassment allegations and upcoming initiatives. Staffers sat on folding chairs at the ESPN KidsCenter, which serves as a daycare center when not hosting talent gatherings.

“Skipper’s message was we need to control the sky-is-falling narrative better since that’s just not the case,” said one staffer in attendance. “I would say the first hour was rally the troops, a big-time pep rally: here’s our great data, look at our great numbers. The next time someone is telling you we are losing steam, it just isn’t the case.”

“The two tent poles were confidence and pride,” said another ESPN staffer.

Skipper cited the company’s NBA deal—ESPN has committed $12.6 billion for the rights to the NBA through 2025, a dollar figure that has been criticized in some circles—as a good one for ESPN. He cited the increased viewership numbers for the NBA this year (over 20%) and told staffers that the NBA was “an ascendant league” and “I challenge vigorously” anyone who said ESPN overpaid.

Social media was a major topic of discussion, especially given the many times ESPN has found itself in the news in this area. That part of the presentation was handled by vice president Kevin Merida, the editor in chief of The Undefeated and a former managing editor of The Washington Post. Merida emphasized not to enter into political areas, though made clear that if a politician waded into the sports sphere, commentators could comment. SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt introduced Merida and was self-deprecating about how little value there was in engaging in back and forth with people on Twitter.

Merida pointed out to the group that there was a clause in the social media policy where management reserved the right to take action if staffers violated it. “He was very measured and I thought appealed to the people with reason in the room,” said one ESPN staffer. Merida told the audience that he had spoken to ESPN on-air staffers who are active on Twitter—including Pablo Torre, Sarah Spain and Van Pelt—to get feedback on their social media experience.

Barry Blyn, a vice president of consumer insights, was charged with letting staffers know about ESPN’s social media numbers and also hyped the growth of First Take—a show that once threatened Warriors star Kevin Durant on-air—since moving from ESPN2 to ESPN. Executive vice-president Connor Schell showed a sizzle reel of the best of ESPN Films including its 30 for 30 documentary series and pushed how committed ESPN is to storytelling.

At the two hour mark, Skipper asked for questions from the audience. One source said there were just a handful questions for the ESPN president. “The smart people in the room, I’m not sure they would choose that forum to raise their concerns to John,” said another ESPN staffer.

Skipper was asked about the reported Fox-Disney deal (he didn’t say much) and another question from a football analyst centered around what talent could do if a politician made a comment about sports? There was also a question about how ESPN handles sexual harassment. Staffers in attendance said Skipper reiterated that ESPN has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment. (No doubt ESPN talent is well aware of Jami Cantor, a former wardrobe stylist for the NFL Network, filing an amended complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court against NFL Enterprises. In it, she named NFL Network producers and on-air talent as subjecting her to unlawful discrimination and retaliation.) A source said Skipper told the crowd he did not believe sexual harassment was a major issue at ESPN and reiterated in strong terms that he encouraged all staffers to send him emails or set up a meeting with him if they believed any HR violations existed.

After the presentation ended, staffers were treated to sliders, sushi, parfait and coffee among other food. ESPN Front Row, a website run by ESPN PR, offered its recap here of the events here.

In case you needed one more indication that this isn’t your grandfather’s NBA, consider this: Going into Tuesday night, the man leading the NBA in blocked shots was a small forward. Granted that small forward — Kevin Durant — is basically 7 feet tall with Go Go Gadget arms the length of a school bus. […]
The Warriors Are Blocking Shots At A Staggering Rate
In case you needed one more indication that this isn’t your grandfather’s NBA, consider this: Going into Tuesday night, the man leading the NBA in blocked shots was a small forward. Granted that small forward — Kevin Durant — is basically 7 feet tall with Go Go Gadget arms the length of a school bus. […]
In case you needed one more indication that this isn’t your grandfather’s NBA, consider this: Going into Tuesday night, the man leading the NBA in blocked shots was a small forward. Granted that small forward — Kevin Durant — is basically 7 feet tall with Go Go Gadget arms the length of a school bus. […]
The Warriors Are Blocking Shots At A Staggering Rate
In case you needed one more indication that this isn’t your grandfather’s NBA, consider this: Going into Tuesday night, the man leading the NBA in blocked shots was a small forward. Granted that small forward — Kevin Durant — is basically 7 feet tall with Go Go Gadget arms the length of a school bus. […]
Kid Bursts Into Tears When Kevin Durant Gives Him Pair of Shoes
WATCH: NBA Star Kevin Durant Giving This Boy a Pair of Signed Shoes Will Give You All the Feels
Kid Bursts Into Tears When Kevin Durant Gives Him Pair of Shoes
CBS Sports NBA writer Reid Forgrave joins Chris Hassel to discuss if Kevin Durant is making an early season case for MVP especially since the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
Is Durant making a case for early season MVP?
CBS Sports NBA writer Reid Forgrave joins Chris Hassel to discuss if Kevin Durant is making an early season case for MVP especially since the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
CBS Sports NBA writer Reid Forgrave joins Chris Hassel to discuss if Kevin Durant is making an early season case for MVP especially since the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
Is Durant making a case for early season MVP?
CBS Sports NBA writer Reid Forgrave joins Chris Hassel to discuss if Kevin Durant is making an early season case for MVP especially since the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
CBS Sports NBA writer Reid Forgrave joins Chris Hassel to discuss if Kevin Durant is making an early season case for MVP especially since the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
Is Durant making a case for early season MVP?
CBS Sports NBA writer Reid Forgrave joins Chris Hassel to discuss if Kevin Durant is making an early season case for MVP especially since the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
CBS Sports NBA writer Reid Forgrave joins Chris Hassel to discuss if Kevin Durant is making an early season case for MVP especially since the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
Is Durant making a case for early season MVP?
CBS Sports NBA writer Reid Forgrave joins Chris Hassel to discuss if Kevin Durant is making an early season case for MVP especially since the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green.
Warriors star makes a kid&apos;s day
Kevin Durant brings fan to tears with autographed shoes (video)
Warriors star makes a kid's day
Warriors star makes a kid&apos;s day
Kevin Durant brings fan to tears with autographed shoes (video)
Warriors star makes a kid's day
In 2016, basketball superstar Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to California. After years playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in order to play a different brand of basketball, experience a new city, and invest in nearby Silicon Valley. The move was wise—he won a championship in…
How tax reform will play out for professional athletes—and regular rich people
In 2016, basketball superstar Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to California. After years playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in order to play a different brand of basketball, experience a new city, and invest in nearby Silicon Valley. The move was wise—he won a championship in…
In 2016, basketball superstar Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to California. After years playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in order to play a different brand of basketball, experience a new city, and invest in nearby Silicon Valley. The move was wise—he won a championship in…
How tax reform will play out for professional athletes—and regular rich people
In 2016, basketball superstar Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to California. After years playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in order to play a different brand of basketball, experience a new city, and invest in nearby Silicon Valley. The move was wise—he won a championship in…
In 2016, basketball superstar Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to California. After years playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in order to play a different brand of basketball, experience a new city, and invest in nearby Silicon Valley. The move was wise—he won a championship in…
How tax reform will play out for professional athletes—and regular rich people
In 2016, basketball superstar Kevin Durant decided to take his talents to California. After years playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in order to play a different brand of basketball, experience a new city, and invest in nearby Silicon Valley. The move was wise—he won a championship in…
<p>I love podcasts and 2017 offered an absurd amount of quality choices. The medium features so much talent and creativity right now—and the sports space is one of the most exciting places for audio. Below are my picks for sports podcasts of the year, which are entirely subjective to my tastes. The great news is this list could honestly include probably 100 podcasts—and shout-out to <a href="http://www.nba.com/the-starters-podcasts#/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:The Starters" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">The Starters</a> for their continued success from podcast to NBA TV show. (Away from sports, the three best pods I listened to in 2017 were: <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/podcasts/the-daily" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:The Daily" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">The Daily</a> (from the New York Times), <a href="https://www.missingrichardsimmons.com/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Missing Richard Simmons" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Missing Richard Simmons</a> and WNYC’s <a href="http://www.wnyc.org/shows/otm/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:On The Media" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">On The Media</a>.)</p><p><strong>THE TOP PICK: </strong><strong><a href="http://www.mlwradio.com/something-to-wrestle-with-bruce-prichard.html" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Something To Wrestle with Bruce Prichard" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Something To Wrestle with Bruce Prichard</a></strong></p><p>The pro wrestling space has a number of great podcasts but this pod is at the top. Hosted by Bruce Prichard (a longtime wrestling producer and personality, most notably as Brother Love in the then-WWF) and Alabama mortgage broker/podcaster Conrad Thompson takes a singular episode or person from wrestling’s past (such as The Montreal Screw Job or The Rock’s beginnings in 1996 and 1997) and examines it over the course of multiple hours. Thompson is a mortgage broker by trade but he approaches his research on each topic with a historian’s zeal. Prichard was WWE Chairman Vince McMahon’s right hand man for many years and was in the middle of so many behind-the-scenes episodes of the pro wrestling business. He’s a natural storyteller and though he clearly has his biases and POVs, his recall for things that happened two or three decades ago is exceptional. The show had great episodes all year including a 4-hour and 10-minute podcast on Randy (Macho Man) Savage in September but the pod of the year for me came in March when Something To Wrestle With profiled <a href="https://art19.com/shows/something-to-wrestle-with-bruce-prichard/episodes/aad4c0db-51b3-49a7-ba23-70dda7edb53f" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Roddy Piper" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Roddy Piper</a>, one of the most charismatic pro wrestling stars and a crossover figure into popular culture. Prichard was particularly close with Piper at the end of his life (Piper died in 2015) and the last 20 minutes of the show — with Prichard breaking down multiple times—was remarkably honest audio.</p><p><strong>HONORABLE MENTION: <a href="https://www.podcastone.com/pardon-my-take" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Pardon My Take" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Pardon My Take</a></strong></p><p>Last year’s top pick continues to entertain millions with Bilal Powell-like grit. Barstool Sports staffer Dan Katz and PFT Commenter (his real identity remains intentionally hidden) co-host an authentic and hilarious NFL-centric pod featuring non-traditional interviews with professional athletes and sports journalists. Over the past 12 months, this podcast has grown to the point where major sports figures are featured on it weekly (e.g. Geno Auriemma, Danica Patrick, Max Scherzer etc.), which has created some hilarious moments. Katz and PFT Commenter were also part of one of sports media’s most notable stories of the year: ESPN entered a partnership with Pardon My Take and Barstool Sports to create an over-the-air television show…and then <a href="https://www.si.com/tech-media/2017/10/23/espn-cancels-barstool-van-talk-pft-commentator-big-cat-pardon-my-take" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:pulled the show" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">pulled the show</a> after one episode.</p><p><strong>HONORABLE MENTION: <span>ESPN 30 for 30 podcasts</span></strong></p><p>Full marks to ESPN for <a href="https://www.si.com/tech-media/2017/07/02/media-circus-30-30-podcast-jody-avirgan" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:investing in longform audio storytelling" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">investing in longform audio storytelling</a>. The 2017 debut of 30 for 30 Podcasts—a series mostly narrated by Jody Avirgan—is audio storytelling at the highest level. I absolutely loved two episodes in Season One: “<a href="https://30for30podcasts.com/episodes/the-trials-of-dan-and-dave/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:The Trials of Dan and Dave”" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">The Trials of Dan and Dave”</a> (on the 1992 Reebok campaign of decathletes Dan O’Brien Dave Johnson) and “<a href="https://30for30podcasts.com/episodes/a-queen-of-sorts/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:A Queen of Sorts" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">A Queen of Sorts</a>” (on poker star Phil Ivey and &quot;Kelly&quot; Cheung Yin Sun trying to beat famous casino houses with an elaborate baccarat scheme.)</p><p><strong>HONORABLE MENTION:</strong> The Bill Simmons Podcast: (<a href="https://soundcloud.com/the-bill-simmons-podcast/kevin-durant-iv-ask-kevin-anything-part-1-ep-251" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:The episodes with Kevin Durant" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">The episodes with Kevin Durant</a>)</p><p>Simmons and Durant have done multiple podcasts and have a great on-air rapport. The appearances revealed a side of Durant we don’t often see.</p><p><strong>HONORABLE MENTION:</strong> <a href="http://www.espn.com/espnradio/podcast/archive/_/id/14805210" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Around The Rim with LaChina Robinson" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Around The Rim with LaChina Robinson</a></p><p>Robinson’s dedication to women’s basketball was chronicled by <a href="https://sports.vice.com/en_ca/article/gva55q/lachina-robinson-wants-to-be-the-voice-of-womens-basketball" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Vice Sports last year" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Vice Sports last year</a> as she covers both the college game and the WNBA for various networks. Her weekly Around The Rim podcast features the game’s biggest players, who rarely get the opportunity to go long in this kind of mainstream media format.</p>
The Best Sports Podcasts of 2017

I love podcasts and 2017 offered an absurd amount of quality choices. The medium features so much talent and creativity right now—and the sports space is one of the most exciting places for audio. Below are my picks for sports podcasts of the year, which are entirely subjective to my tastes. The great news is this list could honestly include probably 100 podcasts—and shout-out to The Starters for their continued success from podcast to NBA TV show. (Away from sports, the three best pods I listened to in 2017 were: The Daily (from the New York Times), Missing Richard Simmons and WNYC’s On The Media.)

THE TOP PICK: Something To Wrestle with Bruce Prichard

The pro wrestling space has a number of great podcasts but this pod is at the top. Hosted by Bruce Prichard (a longtime wrestling producer and personality, most notably as Brother Love in the then-WWF) and Alabama mortgage broker/podcaster Conrad Thompson takes a singular episode or person from wrestling’s past (such as The Montreal Screw Job or The Rock’s beginnings in 1996 and 1997) and examines it over the course of multiple hours. Thompson is a mortgage broker by trade but he approaches his research on each topic with a historian’s zeal. Prichard was WWE Chairman Vince McMahon’s right hand man for many years and was in the middle of so many behind-the-scenes episodes of the pro wrestling business. He’s a natural storyteller and though he clearly has his biases and POVs, his recall for things that happened two or three decades ago is exceptional. The show had great episodes all year including a 4-hour and 10-minute podcast on Randy (Macho Man) Savage in September but the pod of the year for me came in March when Something To Wrestle With profiled Roddy Piper, one of the most charismatic pro wrestling stars and a crossover figure into popular culture. Prichard was particularly close with Piper at the end of his life (Piper died in 2015) and the last 20 minutes of the show — with Prichard breaking down multiple times—was remarkably honest audio.

HONORABLE MENTION: Pardon My Take

Last year’s top pick continues to entertain millions with Bilal Powell-like grit. Barstool Sports staffer Dan Katz and PFT Commenter (his real identity remains intentionally hidden) co-host an authentic and hilarious NFL-centric pod featuring non-traditional interviews with professional athletes and sports journalists. Over the past 12 months, this podcast has grown to the point where major sports figures are featured on it weekly (e.g. Geno Auriemma, Danica Patrick, Max Scherzer etc.), which has created some hilarious moments. Katz and PFT Commenter were also part of one of sports media’s most notable stories of the year: ESPN entered a partnership with Pardon My Take and Barstool Sports to create an over-the-air television show…and then pulled the show after one episode.

HONORABLE MENTION: ESPN 30 for 30 podcasts

Full marks to ESPN for investing in longform audio storytelling. The 2017 debut of 30 for 30 Podcasts—a series mostly narrated by Jody Avirgan—is audio storytelling at the highest level. I absolutely loved two episodes in Season One: “The Trials of Dan and Dave” (on the 1992 Reebok campaign of decathletes Dan O’Brien Dave Johnson) and “A Queen of Sorts” (on poker star Phil Ivey and "Kelly" Cheung Yin Sun trying to beat famous casino houses with an elaborate baccarat scheme.)

HONORABLE MENTION: The Bill Simmons Podcast: (The episodes with Kevin Durant)

Simmons and Durant have done multiple podcasts and have a great on-air rapport. The appearances revealed a side of Durant we don’t often see.

HONORABLE MENTION: Around The Rim with LaChina Robinson

Robinson’s dedication to women’s basketball was chronicled by Vice Sports last year as she covers both the college game and the WNBA for various networks. Her weekly Around The Rim podcast features the game’s biggest players, who rarely get the opportunity to go long in this kind of mainstream media format.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 11: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors shoots the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 11, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Durant leads short-handed Warriors past Portland 111-104
OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 11: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors shoots the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 11, 2017 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
December 11, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) shoots the basketball against Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard (11) during the second quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors
December 11, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) shoots the basketball against Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard (11) during the second quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Golden State Warriors&#39; Klay Thompson (11) high fives teammate Kevin Durant during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson (11) high fives teammate Kevin Durant during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson (11) high fives teammate Kevin Durant during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant, left, head coach Steve Kerr and Klay Thompson during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, left, head coach Steve Kerr and Klay Thompson during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, left, head coach Steve Kerr and Klay Thompson during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant, left, and head coach Steve Kerr during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, left, and head coach Steve Kerr during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, left, and head coach Steve Kerr during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant (35) dribbles past Portland Trail Blazers&#39; Damian Lillard (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) dribbles past Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) dribbles past Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant (35) is defended by Portland Trail Blazers&#39; Evan Turner (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) is defended by Portland Trail Blazers' Evan Turner (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) is defended by Portland Trail Blazers' Evan Turner (1) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant (35) celebrates after his team scored from the bench next to teammates JaVale McGee, left, and Klay Thompson during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won, 111-104. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) celebrates after his team scored from the bench next to teammates JaVale McGee, left, and Klay Thompson during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won, 111-104. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) celebrates after his team scored from the bench next to teammates JaVale McGee, left, and Klay Thompson during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won, 111-104. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant (35) is defended by Portland Trail Blazers&#39; CJ McCollum (3) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won, 111-104. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) is defended by Portland Trail Blazers' CJ McCollum (3) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won, 111-104. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) is defended by Portland Trail Blazers' CJ McCollum (3) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. The Warriors won, 111-104. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Evan Turner gets the rip from Kevin Durant then goes the other way for the easy slam.
Steal of the Night: Evan Turner
Evan Turner gets the rip from Kevin Durant then goes the other way for the easy slam.
Evan Turner gets the rip from Kevin Durant then goes the other way for the easy slam.
Steal of the Night: Evan Turner
Evan Turner gets the rip from Kevin Durant then goes the other way for the easy slam.
Evan Turner gets the rip from Kevin Durant then goes the other way for the easy slam.
Steal of the Night: Evan Turner
Evan Turner gets the rip from Kevin Durant then goes the other way for the easy slam.
Evan Turner gets the rip from Kevin Durant then goes the other way for the easy slam.
Steal of the Night: Evan Turner
Evan Turner gets the rip from Kevin Durant then goes the other way for the easy slam.
Portland Trail Blazers&#39; Damian Lillard (0) drives past Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) drives past Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) drives past Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Portland Trail Blazers&#39; Damian Lillard, center, drives to the basket as Golden State Warriors&#39; Nick Young, right, and Kevin Durant (35) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, center, drives to the basket as Golden State Warriors' Nick Young, right, and Kevin Durant (35) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard, center, drives to the basket as Golden State Warriors' Nick Young, right, and Kevin Durant (35) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Portland Trail Blazers&#39; Damian Lillard (0) is defended by Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) is defended by Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard (0) is defended by Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant drives to the basket against the Portland Trail Blazers during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant drives to the basket against the Portland Trail Blazers during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant drives to the basket against the Portland Trail Blazers during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors&#39; Kevin Durant (35) shoots as Portland Trail Blazers&#39; CJ McCollum defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) shoots as Portland Trail Blazers' CJ McCollum defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant (35) shoots as Portland Trail Blazers' CJ McCollum defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
<p>Matt Barnes announced his retirement from the NBA Monday in an <a href="https://www.instagram.com/p/BckrdAClO3l/?hl=en&#38;taken-by=matt_barnes9" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Instagram" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Instagram</a> post. </p><p>Barnes, 37, has played 15 years in the league, spending time with nine different teams during his career. Last season, he picked up his first career NBA title when he signed with the Warriors toward the end of the year after Kevin Durant went down with an injury.</p><p>Barnes started his career with the Clippers in 2004 after he was drafted by the Grizzlies in the second round of the 2003 draft and was immediately traded to the Cavaliers, who waived him before the start of the 2003-04 season.</p><p>From there, Barnes signed with the Kings the next offseason, and after playing 43 games with Sacramento, he was traded to the 76ers. He did not play in Philadelphia, and signed with the Knicks the following summer, but was waived by New York early in the 2005-06 season. He then went back to the Sixers for the remainder of that season.</p><p>Barnes would then make his first extended stop with a team when he played two seasons with the Warriors. After that, he spent one year with the Suns and one year with the Magic before ending up back in Los Angeles, this time with the Lakers. When he was finished with his two years with the Lakers, Barnes spent three more years in Los Angeles with the Clippers. </p><p>From there, Barnes went to the Grizzlies for one season, and then went back to Sacramento the next offseason. After being waived by the Kings in February, he signed with the Warriors for a second time where he closed out his career.</p><p>For his career, Barnes averaged 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 43.6 percent from the field.</p>
Matt Barnes Announces Retirement on Instagram After 15-Year Career

Matt Barnes announced his retirement from the NBA Monday in an Instagram post.

Barnes, 37, has played 15 years in the league, spending time with nine different teams during his career. Last season, he picked up his first career NBA title when he signed with the Warriors toward the end of the year after Kevin Durant went down with an injury.

Barnes started his career with the Clippers in 2004 after he was drafted by the Grizzlies in the second round of the 2003 draft and was immediately traded to the Cavaliers, who waived him before the start of the 2003-04 season.

From there, Barnes signed with the Kings the next offseason, and after playing 43 games with Sacramento, he was traded to the 76ers. He did not play in Philadelphia, and signed with the Knicks the following summer, but was waived by New York early in the 2005-06 season. He then went back to the Sixers for the remainder of that season.

Barnes would then make his first extended stop with a team when he played two seasons with the Warriors. After that, he spent one year with the Suns and one year with the Magic before ending up back in Los Angeles, this time with the Lakers. When he was finished with his two years with the Lakers, Barnes spent three more years in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

From there, Barnes went to the Grizzlies for one season, and then went back to Sacramento the next offseason. After being waived by the Kings in February, he signed with the Warriors for a second time where he closed out his career.

For his career, Barnes averaged 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 43.6 percent from the field.

<p>If Kevin Durant&#160;plays as inspired as he has over the past two games, it probably won&#39;t matter who the Blazers have guard him...</p>
Gameday: Warriors double-digit favorites vs Blazers

If Kevin Durant plays as inspired as he has over the past two games, it probably won't matter who the Blazers have guard him...

<p>The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/09/giannis-antetokounmpo-scoring-offense-bucks-eric-bledsoe-trade" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:breakout stars" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">breakout stars</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/05/chris-paul-james-harden-houston-rockets-offense-lineups-mike-dantoni" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:otherworldly performances" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">otherworldly performances</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/10/18/gordon-hayward-leg-injury-celtics-kyrie-irving-outlook" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:season-altering injuries" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">season-altering injuries</a>, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what&#39;s stood out?</p><p>For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren&#39;t in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA&#39;s biggest revelations this season. And it&#39;s just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.</p><p>To break down the rest of the league&#39;s biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.</p><h3><strong>?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Ballard:</strong> It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as <em>how</em>. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/08/donovan-mitchell-jazz-louisville-rudy-gobert-derrick-favors" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward.</a> We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV? </p><h3><b>The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard</b></h3><p><strong>Rohan Nadkarni: </strong>Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs&#39; do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it&#39;s unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it&#39;s interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn&#39;t even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.</p><p>What will the Spurs&#39; ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden&#39;s in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas. </p><p>It&#39;s a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (<a href="http://www.nba.com/article/2017/12/07/reports-san-antonio-spurs-kawhi-leonard-could-return" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:potentially on Tuesday" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">potentially on Tuesday</a>), it&#39;s receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence. </p><h3><strong>Houston is <em>THIS</em> Good</strong></h3><p><strong>Ben Golliver: </strong>Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.</p><p>James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).</p><p>Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they&#39;ve played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.</p><p>The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets&#39; offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season&#39;s top thrill.</p><h3><strong>The Thunder&#39;s Sputtering Makeover</strong></h3><p><strong>Lee Jenkins:</strong> As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising <a href="https://www.sicovers.com/now-this-is-going-to-be-fun-the-la-lakers-2012-october-29" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers.</a> At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.</p><h3><strong>The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Johnson: </strong>The <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/06/30/paul-george-trade-russell-westbrook-okc-thunder-indiana-pacers-lakers" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:reaction to the Paul George trade" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">reaction to the Paul George trade</a> was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit. </p><p>Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City&#39;s dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.</p><h3><strong>Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?</strong></h3><p><strong>Andrew Sharp: </strong>Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/12/rudy-gobert-injury-news-fantasy-updates-jazz" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Rudy Gobert went down" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Rudy Gobert went down</a> with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz. </p><p>Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he&#39;d been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn&#39;t have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future. </p><p>The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he&#39;s averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He&#39;s running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he&#39;s exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he&#39;s been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June&#39;s draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it&#39;s all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell&#39;s upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He&#39;s like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he&#39;s bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense. </p><p>The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah&#39;s lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That&#39;s OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing&#39;s certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected. </p><h3><strong>The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Jeremy Woo: </strong>There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They&#39;re playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago. </p><h3><strong>LeBron Is Still LeBron</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Matt Dollinger:</strong> Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I&#39;m still blown away by what we&#39;re seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving&#39;s surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas&#39;s prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That&#39;s not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it&#39;s no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn&#39;t go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won&#39;t be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we&#39;ll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.</p>
The NBA's Eight Most Surprising Storylines So Far

The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From breakout stars to otherworldly performances to season-altering injuries, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what's stood out?

For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren't in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA's biggest revelations this season. And it's just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.

To break down the rest of the league's biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.

?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show

Chris Ballard: It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as how. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward. We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV?

The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard

Rohan Nadkarni: Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs' do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it's unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it's interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn't even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.

What will the Spurs' ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden's in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas.

It's a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (potentially on Tuesday), it's receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence.

Houston is THIS Good

Ben Golliver: Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.

James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).

Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they've played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.

The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets' offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season's top thrill.

The Thunder's Sputtering Makeover

Lee Jenkins: As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers. At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.

The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade

Chris Johnson: The reaction to the Paul George trade was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit.

Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City's dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.

Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?

Andrew Sharp: Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when Rudy Gobert went down with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz.

Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he'd been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn't have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future.

The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he's averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He's running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he's exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he's been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June's draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it's all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell's upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He's like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he's bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense.

The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah's lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That's OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing's certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected.

The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?

?Jeremy Woo: There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They're playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago.

LeBron Is Still LeBron

?Matt Dollinger: Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I'm still blown away by what we're seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving's surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas's prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That's not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it's no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn't go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won't be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we'll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.

<p>The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/09/giannis-antetokounmpo-scoring-offense-bucks-eric-bledsoe-trade" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:breakout stars" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">breakout stars</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/05/chris-paul-james-harden-houston-rockets-offense-lineups-mike-dantoni" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:otherworldly performances" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">otherworldly performances</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/10/18/gordon-hayward-leg-injury-celtics-kyrie-irving-outlook" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:season-altering injuries" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">season-altering injuries</a>, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what&#39;s stood out?</p><p>For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren&#39;t in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA&#39;s biggest revelations this season. And it&#39;s just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.</p><p>To break down the rest of the league&#39;s biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.</p><h3><strong>?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Ballard:</strong> It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as <em>how</em>. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/08/donovan-mitchell-jazz-louisville-rudy-gobert-derrick-favors" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward.</a> We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV? </p><h3><b>The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard</b></h3><p><strong>Rohan Nadkarni: </strong>Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs&#39; do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it&#39;s unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it&#39;s interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn&#39;t even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.</p><p>What will the Spurs&#39; ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden&#39;s in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas. </p><p>It&#39;s a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (<a href="http://www.nba.com/article/2017/12/07/reports-san-antonio-spurs-kawhi-leonard-could-return" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:potentially on Tuesday" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">potentially on Tuesday</a>), it&#39;s receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence. </p><h3><strong>Houston is <em>THIS</em> Good</strong></h3><p><strong>Ben Golliver: </strong>Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.</p><p>James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).</p><p>Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they&#39;ve played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.</p><p>The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets&#39; offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season&#39;s top thrill.</p><h3><strong>The Thunder&#39;s Sputtering Makeover</strong></h3><p><strong>Lee Jenkins:</strong> As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising <a href="https://www.sicovers.com/now-this-is-going-to-be-fun-the-la-lakers-2012-october-29" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers.</a> At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.</p><h3><strong>The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Johnson: </strong>The <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/06/30/paul-george-trade-russell-westbrook-okc-thunder-indiana-pacers-lakers" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:reaction to the Paul George trade" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">reaction to the Paul George trade</a> was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit. </p><p>Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City&#39;s dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.</p><h3><strong>Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?</strong></h3><p><strong>Andrew Sharp: </strong>Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/12/rudy-gobert-injury-news-fantasy-updates-jazz" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Rudy Gobert went down" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Rudy Gobert went down</a> with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz. </p><p>Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he&#39;d been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn&#39;t have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future. </p><p>The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he&#39;s averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He&#39;s running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he&#39;s exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he&#39;s been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June&#39;s draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it&#39;s all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell&#39;s upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He&#39;s like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he&#39;s bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense. </p><p>The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah&#39;s lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That&#39;s OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing&#39;s certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected. </p><h3><strong>The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Jeremy Woo: </strong>There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They&#39;re playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago. </p><h3><strong>LeBron Is Still LeBron</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Matt Dollinger:</strong> Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I&#39;m still blown away by what we&#39;re seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving&#39;s surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas&#39;s prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That&#39;s not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it&#39;s no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn&#39;t go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won&#39;t be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we&#39;ll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.</p>
The NBA's Eight Most Surprising Storylines So Far

The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From breakout stars to otherworldly performances to season-altering injuries, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what's stood out?

For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren't in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA's biggest revelations this season. And it's just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.

To break down the rest of the league's biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.

?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show

Chris Ballard: It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as how. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward. We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV?

The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard

Rohan Nadkarni: Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs' do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it's unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it's interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn't even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.

What will the Spurs' ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden's in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas.

It's a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (potentially on Tuesday), it's receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence.

Houston is THIS Good

Ben Golliver: Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.

James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).

Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they've played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.

The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets' offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season's top thrill.

The Thunder's Sputtering Makeover

Lee Jenkins: As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers. At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.

The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade

Chris Johnson: The reaction to the Paul George trade was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit.

Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City's dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.

Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?

Andrew Sharp: Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when Rudy Gobert went down with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz.

Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he'd been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn't have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future.

The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he's averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He's running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he's exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he's been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June's draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it's all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell's upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He's like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he's bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense.

The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah's lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That's OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing's certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected.

The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?

?Jeremy Woo: There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They're playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago.

LeBron Is Still LeBron

?Matt Dollinger: Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I'm still blown away by what we're seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving's surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas's prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That's not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it's no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn't go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won't be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we'll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.

<p>The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/09/giannis-antetokounmpo-scoring-offense-bucks-eric-bledsoe-trade" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:breakout stars" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">breakout stars</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/05/chris-paul-james-harden-houston-rockets-offense-lineups-mike-dantoni" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:otherworldly performances" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">otherworldly performances</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/10/18/gordon-hayward-leg-injury-celtics-kyrie-irving-outlook" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:season-altering injuries" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">season-altering injuries</a>, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what&#39;s stood out?</p><p>For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren&#39;t in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA&#39;s biggest revelations this season. And it&#39;s just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.</p><p>To break down the rest of the league&#39;s biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.</p><h3><strong>?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Ballard:</strong> It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as <em>how</em>. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/08/donovan-mitchell-jazz-louisville-rudy-gobert-derrick-favors" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward.</a> We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV? </p><h3><b>The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard</b></h3><p><strong>Rohan Nadkarni: </strong>Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs&#39; do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it&#39;s unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it&#39;s interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn&#39;t even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.</p><p>What will the Spurs&#39; ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden&#39;s in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas. </p><p>It&#39;s a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (<a href="http://www.nba.com/article/2017/12/07/reports-san-antonio-spurs-kawhi-leonard-could-return" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:potentially on Tuesday" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">potentially on Tuesday</a>), it&#39;s receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence. </p><h3><strong>Houston is <em>THIS</em> Good</strong></h3><p><strong>Ben Golliver: </strong>Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.</p><p>James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).</p><p>Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they&#39;ve played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.</p><p>The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets&#39; offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season&#39;s top thrill.</p><h3><strong>The Thunder&#39;s Sputtering Makeover</strong></h3><p><strong>Lee Jenkins:</strong> As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising <a href="https://www.sicovers.com/now-this-is-going-to-be-fun-the-la-lakers-2012-october-29" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers.</a> At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.</p><h3><strong>The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Johnson: </strong>The <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/06/30/paul-george-trade-russell-westbrook-okc-thunder-indiana-pacers-lakers" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:reaction to the Paul George trade" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">reaction to the Paul George trade</a> was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit. </p><p>Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City&#39;s dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.</p><h3><strong>Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?</strong></h3><p><strong>Andrew Sharp: </strong>Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/12/rudy-gobert-injury-news-fantasy-updates-jazz" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Rudy Gobert went down" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Rudy Gobert went down</a> with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz. </p><p>Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he&#39;d been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn&#39;t have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future. </p><p>The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he&#39;s averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He&#39;s running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he&#39;s exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he&#39;s been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June&#39;s draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it&#39;s all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell&#39;s upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He&#39;s like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he&#39;s bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense. </p><p>The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah&#39;s lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That&#39;s OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing&#39;s certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected. </p><h3><strong>The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Jeremy Woo: </strong>There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They&#39;re playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago. </p><h3><strong>LeBron Is Still LeBron</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Matt Dollinger:</strong> Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I&#39;m still blown away by what we&#39;re seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving&#39;s surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas&#39;s prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That&#39;s not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it&#39;s no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn&#39;t go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won&#39;t be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we&#39;ll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.</p>
The NBA's Eight Most Surprising Storylines So Far

The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From breakout stars to otherworldly performances to season-altering injuries, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what's stood out?

For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren't in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA's biggest revelations this season. And it's just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.

To break down the rest of the league's biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.

?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show

Chris Ballard: It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as how. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward. We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV?

The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard

Rohan Nadkarni: Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs' do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it's unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it's interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn't even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.

What will the Spurs' ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden's in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas.

It's a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (potentially on Tuesday), it's receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence.

Houston is THIS Good

Ben Golliver: Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.

James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).

Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they've played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.

The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets' offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season's top thrill.

The Thunder's Sputtering Makeover

Lee Jenkins: As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers. At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.

The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade

Chris Johnson: The reaction to the Paul George trade was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit.

Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City's dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.

Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?

Andrew Sharp: Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when Rudy Gobert went down with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz.

Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he'd been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn't have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future.

The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he's averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He's running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he's exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he's been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June's draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it's all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell's upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He's like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he's bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense.

The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah's lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That's OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing's certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected.

The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?

?Jeremy Woo: There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They're playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago.

LeBron Is Still LeBron

?Matt Dollinger: Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I'm still blown away by what we're seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving's surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas's prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That's not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it's no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn't go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won't be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we'll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.

<p>The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/09/giannis-antetokounmpo-scoring-offense-bucks-eric-bledsoe-trade" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:breakout stars" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">breakout stars</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/05/chris-paul-james-harden-houston-rockets-offense-lineups-mike-dantoni" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:otherworldly performances" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">otherworldly performances</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/10/18/gordon-hayward-leg-injury-celtics-kyrie-irving-outlook" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:season-altering injuries" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">season-altering injuries</a>, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what&#39;s stood out?</p><p>For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren&#39;t in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA&#39;s biggest revelations this season. And it&#39;s just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.</p><p>To break down the rest of the league&#39;s biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.</p><h3><strong>?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Ballard:</strong> It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as <em>how</em>. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/08/donovan-mitchell-jazz-louisville-rudy-gobert-derrick-favors" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward.</a> We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV? </p><h3><b>The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard</b></h3><p><strong>Rohan Nadkarni: </strong>Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs&#39; do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it&#39;s unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it&#39;s interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn&#39;t even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.</p><p>What will the Spurs&#39; ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden&#39;s in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas. </p><p>It&#39;s a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (<a href="http://www.nba.com/article/2017/12/07/reports-san-antonio-spurs-kawhi-leonard-could-return" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:potentially on Tuesday" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">potentially on Tuesday</a>), it&#39;s receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence. </p><h3><strong>Houston is <em>THIS</em> Good</strong></h3><p><strong>Ben Golliver: </strong>Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.</p><p>James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).</p><p>Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they&#39;ve played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.</p><p>The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets&#39; offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season&#39;s top thrill.</p><h3><strong>The Thunder&#39;s Sputtering Makeover</strong></h3><p><strong>Lee Jenkins:</strong> As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising <a href="https://www.sicovers.com/now-this-is-going-to-be-fun-the-la-lakers-2012-october-29" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers.</a> At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.</p><h3><strong>The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Johnson: </strong>The <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/06/30/paul-george-trade-russell-westbrook-okc-thunder-indiana-pacers-lakers" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:reaction to the Paul George trade" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">reaction to the Paul George trade</a> was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit. </p><p>Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City&#39;s dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.</p><h3><strong>Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?</strong></h3><p><strong>Andrew Sharp: </strong>Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/12/rudy-gobert-injury-news-fantasy-updates-jazz" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Rudy Gobert went down" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Rudy Gobert went down</a> with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz. </p><p>Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he&#39;d been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn&#39;t have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future. </p><p>The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he&#39;s averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He&#39;s running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he&#39;s exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he&#39;s been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June&#39;s draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it&#39;s all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell&#39;s upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He&#39;s like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he&#39;s bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense. </p><p>The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah&#39;s lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That&#39;s OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing&#39;s certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected. </p><h3><strong>The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Jeremy Woo: </strong>There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They&#39;re playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago. </p><h3><strong>LeBron Is Still LeBron</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Matt Dollinger:</strong> Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I&#39;m still blown away by what we&#39;re seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving&#39;s surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas&#39;s prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That&#39;s not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it&#39;s no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn&#39;t go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won&#39;t be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we&#39;ll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.</p>
The NBA's Eight Most Surprising Storylines So Far

The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From breakout stars to otherworldly performances to season-altering injuries, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what's stood out?

For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren't in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA's biggest revelations this season. And it's just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.

To break down the rest of the league's biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.

?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show

Chris Ballard: It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as how. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward. We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV?

The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard

Rohan Nadkarni: Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs' do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it's unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it's interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn't even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.

What will the Spurs' ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden's in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas.

It's a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (potentially on Tuesday), it's receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence.

Houston is THIS Good

Ben Golliver: Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.

James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).

Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they've played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.

The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets' offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season's top thrill.

The Thunder's Sputtering Makeover

Lee Jenkins: As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers. At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.

The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade

Chris Johnson: The reaction to the Paul George trade was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit.

Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City's dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.

Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?

Andrew Sharp: Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when Rudy Gobert went down with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz.

Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he'd been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn't have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future.

The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he's averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He's running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he's exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he's been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June's draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it's all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell's upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He's like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he's bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense.

The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah's lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That's OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing's certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected.

The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?

?Jeremy Woo: There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They're playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago.

LeBron Is Still LeBron

?Matt Dollinger: Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I'm still blown away by what we're seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving's surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas's prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That's not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it's no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn't go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won't be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we'll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.

<p>The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/09/giannis-antetokounmpo-scoring-offense-bucks-eric-bledsoe-trade" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:breakout stars" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">breakout stars</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/05/chris-paul-james-harden-houston-rockets-offense-lineups-mike-dantoni" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:otherworldly performances" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">otherworldly performances</a> to <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/10/18/gordon-hayward-leg-injury-celtics-kyrie-irving-outlook" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:season-altering injuries" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">season-altering injuries</a>, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what&#39;s stood out?</p><p>For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren&#39;t in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA&#39;s biggest revelations this season. And it&#39;s just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.</p><p>To break down the rest of the league&#39;s biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.</p><h3><strong>?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Ballard:</strong> It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as <em>how</em>. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/12/08/donovan-mitchell-jazz-louisville-rudy-gobert-derrick-favors" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward.</a> We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV? </p><h3><b>The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard</b></h3><p><strong>Rohan Nadkarni: </strong>Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs&#39; do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it&#39;s unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it&#39;s interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn&#39;t even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.</p><p>What will the Spurs&#39; ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden&#39;s in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas. </p><p>It&#39;s a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (<a href="http://www.nba.com/article/2017/12/07/reports-san-antonio-spurs-kawhi-leonard-could-return" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:potentially on Tuesday" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">potentially on Tuesday</a>), it&#39;s receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence. </p><h3><strong>Houston is <em>THIS</em> Good</strong></h3><p><strong>Ben Golliver: </strong>Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.</p><p>James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).</p><p>Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they&#39;ve played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.</p><p>The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets&#39; offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season&#39;s top thrill.</p><h3><strong>The Thunder&#39;s Sputtering Makeover</strong></h3><p><strong>Lee Jenkins:</strong> As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising <a href="https://www.sicovers.com/now-this-is-going-to-be-fun-the-la-lakers-2012-october-29" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers." class="link rapid-noclick-resp">the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers.</a> At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.</p><h3><strong>The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade</strong></h3><p><strong>Chris Johnson: </strong>The <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/06/30/paul-george-trade-russell-westbrook-okc-thunder-indiana-pacers-lakers" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:reaction to the Paul George trade" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">reaction to the Paul George trade</a> was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit. </p><p>Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City&#39;s dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.</p><h3><strong>Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?</strong></h3><p><strong>Andrew Sharp: </strong>Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when <a href="https://www.si.com/nba/2017/11/12/rudy-gobert-injury-news-fantasy-updates-jazz" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Rudy Gobert went down" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Rudy Gobert went down</a> with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz. </p><p>Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he&#39;d been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn&#39;t have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future. </p><p>The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he&#39;s averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He&#39;s running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he&#39;s exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he&#39;s been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June&#39;s draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it&#39;s all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell&#39;s upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He&#39;s like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he&#39;s bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense. </p><p>The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah&#39;s lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That&#39;s OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing&#39;s certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected. </p><h3><strong>The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Jeremy Woo: </strong>There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They&#39;re playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago. </p><h3><strong>LeBron Is Still LeBron</strong></h3><p>?<strong>Matt Dollinger:</strong> Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I&#39;m still blown away by what we&#39;re seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving&#39;s surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas&#39;s prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That&#39;s not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it&#39;s no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn&#39;t go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won&#39;t be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we&#39;ll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.</p>
The NBA's Eight Most Surprising Storylines So Far

The 2017–18 NBA season is nearing the two-month mark. From breakout stars to otherworldly performances to season-altering injuries, the 2017–18 NBA campaign has already given us a little bit of everything. But what's stood out?

For starters, Golden State and Cleveland aren't in first place despite meeting in the Finals the last three years. That space is occupied by Houston and Boston, two of the NBA's biggest revelations this season. And it's just who–but how. The Celtics are currently No. 1 in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, while the Rockets are leading the pack despite missing Chris Paul for several weeks and integrating him into their league-leading offense.

To break down the rest of the league's biggest surprises so far, The Crossover asked its staff to name their most stunning storylines of the season.

?The Rookies Are Stealing the Show

Chris Ballard: It’s not so much that the rookie class is surprising—though it certainly is—as much as how. We expected to talk about Lonzo and Markelle (and we have, though not always for the reasons we expected). We didn’t expect to have arguments about whether Donovan Mitchell is better than Gordon Hayward. We didn’t expect to read 3,000-word profiles of Kyle Kuzma, or see (albeit misguided) comparisons between Lauri Markkanen and Dirk. We’re only two months into the season and already a redo of the draft would look dramatically different. Would Jordan Bell go top 15? Mitchell No. 1? Who wants to pass on John Collins? Then again, it’s not like you’re taking him over Jayson Tatum, who’s already a crucial cog for the East’s best team. Indeed, half of the first rounders are either starters or important contributors already. And that’s not even counting “rookie” Ben Simmons, who’s become so good so fast that Shaq’s recent comparison of him to Penny Hardaway actually feels a bit like a slight. Add it all up and you have the most fun, bizarre, entertaining rookie campaign in memory. I mean, two years ago who could have imagined that Lakers-Sixers games would be must-see TV?

The Delayed Debut of Kawhi Leonard

Rohan Nadkarni: Remember Kawhi Leonard? The Spurs' do-it-all star missed the first quarter of the NBA season, and it's unclear if his injury was that serious or if the Spurs were being that cautious. Still, it's interesting that a consensus top-five player in the NBA can miss so much time and it doesn't even register as a major storyline around the league. The Spurs (19–8) have hummed along without Leonard, which is perhaps not surprising. Gregg Popovich could probably MacGyver a formidable team in the West with Smush Parker and Michael Beasley playing the roles of Stockton and Malone. But for San Antonio to be third in the West, without Leonard, ahead of the likes of Minnesota and Oklahoma City, is pretty remarkable.

What will the Spurs' ceiling be once Kawhi is fully integrated back into the lineup? How will he mesh with Rudy Gay? Will LaMarcus Aldridge continue his mid-career renaissance? These are questions that would have been absurd to ask at the end of last season. Leonard, an in-his-prime superstar, should be in the midst of an MVP Revenge Tour similar to James Harden's in Houston. Instead, he may not look fully healthy until Christmas.

It's a testament to the Spurs that they can lose one of the best players in the league and play so well that no one really worries about it. Hopefully whenever Kawhi does return (potentially on Tuesday), it's receives more attention than his inconspicuous absence.

Houston is THIS Good

Ben Golliver: Everyone knew the Rockets would be good. But this good? Consider: Houston (20–4), winners of nine straight, owns the NBA’s best record, top point differential, No. 2 offense and No. 5 defense. They’re on pace for 68 wins, which would smash their franchise record of 58, and their +11.2 average margin of victory would rank fifth in NBA history, surpassing some of the most dominant teams of the past decade, including the 73-win 2016 Warriors and the 2008 Celtics.

James Harden’s MVP-level play and Mike D’Antoni’s diabolical offense combine to guarantee a high baseline of success, but the Rockets entered the season with numerous pressing questions. Harden struggled badly late in a second-round loss to the Spurs last postseason. Chris Paul, the top prize of Houston’s strong summer, was lost to a knee injury on opening night. And D’Antoni had to replace five of his top 11 players from last year while incorporating numerous new faces (Paul, P.J. Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).

Instead of slogging through some post-shakeup, early-season struggles—a la the Thunder or the October Cavaliers—the Rockets have smacked virtually everyone they've played. The Harden-led attack looks fiercer than ever, with its centerpiece star masterfully balancing one-on-one isolation with pinpoint passing to shooters. Paul has excelled in his staggered role since his return, effectively taking a backseat to Harden when they are on the court together and leading the outside-in attack when Harden sits. With Harden and Paul both capable of making and assisting on threes, the Rockets are tracking toward all-time records for threes made (15.9) and attempted (43.2) per game.

The most pleasant part of the surprising Rockets has been their defense, which is more disciplined, connected and committed than in recent years. The finger-pointing that marked the Dwight Howard era and Harden’s regular energy-saving naps are long gone, replaced by interchangeable lineups that force turnovers, lead the league in defense rebounding, and help keep the Rockets' offense playing at its desired pace. Houston boasts that magical quality shared by many newly-formed juggernauts: Harden and company know they are really good, they have a massive chip on their collective shoulder because of postseason failures, and they’re not yet complacent or bored with each other. Watching Houston chase its sky-high ceiling at breakneck speed has been this season's top thrill.

The Thunder's Sputtering Makeover

Lee Jenkins: As the sucker who picked the Thunder to finish second in the Western Conference—ahead of the Rockets—I’m stunned that they seem to be reprising the 2012-13 “Now This Is Going To Be Fun” Lakers. At least those Lakers had a decent excuse. They suffered from mass injuries, starting with Steve Nash, who broke his leg in the second game, and ending with Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles tendon. The Thunder have no good alibi, already falling to the Mavericks, Kings, Nets and Magic. This season represented a second chance for Russell Westbrook, Billy Donovan and a franchise spurned by Kevin Durant, to show they could retain a co-star. But so far, they have failed Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony hasn’t helped. There is time for Oklahoma City to turn its season around, and recent wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Utah prove an about-face is possible. But only two months remain until the trading deadline and the ticking clock grows louder.

The Pacers Won the Paul George Trade

Chris Johnson: The reaction to the Paul George trade was harsh and nearly unanimous: The Pacers got fleeced. In parting ways with a superstar for an underwhelming guard on a bloated contract (Victor Oladipo) and a second-year big man coming off an underwhelming rookie season (Domantas Sabonis), Indiana had settled for a package that fell well short of the sort of picks-and-prospects bundle that rebuilding teams coveted. Had the Pacers acted sooner, the thinking went, they could have netted a bounty for George. Well, maybe Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard saw something in Oladipo and Sabonis that the rest of the league did not. Two months into the new season, the Pacers are in the thick of the East playoff race, and both Oladipo and Sabonis have made sizable leaps from last season. After serving as a bystander to Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage in OKC, Oladipo is shouldering a much bigger offensive workload and scoring at a more efficient clip (24.5 PPG on 48.8 FG% and 44.4 3P%) for the Pacers. Sabonis has changed his shot distribution for the better—trading threes for close-range looks—and is playing a far larger share of his minutes at center than he did with the Thunder, which feels like a better fit.

Helping reverse the narrative is also Oklahoma City's dismaying start. With George riding shotgun to Westbrook as part of a Big Three, the Thunder have gotten out to a 12–13 start. That probably won’t hold for long—Oklahoma City’s point differential paints a rosier picture, but there’s no denying that it’s disappointing to see a squad with so much star power stumbling its way through the first two months. George (20.7 PPG on 41.6 FG%) is still finding his way in a new offensive ecosystem alongside Russ and Melo. Oklahoma City has time to work things out, but the moved-up trade deadline narrows the window for GM Sam Presti to evaluate his new-look outfit before considering detonating the George experiment and shipping him elsewhere.

Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Are Turning Heads?

Andrew Sharp: Coming off four straight losses, Utah was 5–7 when Rudy Gobert went down with what was expected to be a 4-6 week injury. Between an offense that had begun to sputter and a defense that was about to lose the best rim protector on the planet—it was expected to be the end of the Utah Jazz.

Then Derrick Favors replaced Gobert and looked fantastic. He reminded the rest of the league of the player he'd been before injuries sabotaged his game the past few years. That was the first step to Jazz resurrection, And just as important, Favors didn't have to play next to Gobert, and the newfound spacing gave the Jazz offense just enough room to discover the future.

The future in Utah is Donovan Mitchell. Over the past 30 days he's averaged 20.3 PPG on 46% shooting. He's running pick-and-rolls with the poise of a veteran, he's exploding to the rim as the Jazz spread the floor, and he's been as impressive as any rookie in the NBA. Given his pedigree—the No. 14 pick in June's draft, who averaged 15.8 PPG at Louisville—it's all kind of mind-blowing. Even the draft nerds who believed in Mitchell's upside did not envision this type of brilliance. He's like the player most scouts said Dennis Smith Jr. would be, except he's bigger, more accurate from the perimeter, and better on defense.

The Jazz (13–14) season will still experience some ebbs and flows. Gobert is back now, but Utah's lost three straight. The West is still full of All-Stars, and Quin Snyder still has to find a way to resolve the spacing and scoring issues that are inevitable with Gobert, Favors, and Ricky Rubio on the floor. That's OK. As the post-Gordon Hayward answers become clear, one thing's certain: Donovan Mitchell is going to make this transition a lot more entertaining than anyone expected.

The 76ers Are Ahead of Schedule?

?Jeremy Woo: There’s one correct answer to this question, which feels correct because it contains not just one, but several elements of legitimate shock: the Sixers. It’s hard to even decide what constitutes the biggest surprise on this team. Is it Ben Simmons emerging this close to fully-formed, demolishing defenses with passes and dunks? Is it the bizarre, stilted start to Markelle Fultz’s career and the fact the No. 1 pick decided to change his free throw motion? No, it’s definitely the fact that Joel Embiid is approaching two months of clean health, right? I guess we can just check all of the above here. Long story short, the Sixers are ahead of schedule and boast the NBA’s most exciting cast of characters. They're playing .500 ball (fine), challenging for the playoffs (great) and just might have the league’s next elite star pairing (!), none of which we could have been sure about a few months ago.

LeBron Is Still LeBron

?Matt Dollinger: Are we still allowed to be surprised by LeBron James? After 14+ years, many fans have become numb to his greatness, but I'm still blown away by what we're seeing on a nightly basis. Despite Kyrie Irving's surprise departure, Isaiah Thomas's prolonged absence and a relatively new supporting cast, James is averaging 28.3 PPG, 8.7 APG, 8.3 RPG on 57.6 FG% and 41.7% from deep. That's not just another ho-hum year from LeBron. Each one of those numbers is above his career averages—AT AGE 32. James has logged more than 50,000 minutes over his 15-year career, yet he looks like Gregg Popovich has been carefully monitoring his minutes since birth. While young bucks like Giannis and Embiid are stealing the show on a nightly basis, Old Man LeBron continues to quietly and methodically destroy any opponent in his way. Maybe it's no longer en vogue to be awed by what James can do on the court, but it shouldn't go overlooked either. One day (most likely 20-30 years from now), LeBron won't be in the NBA anymore and fans will miss the dependable dominance of The King. That or we'll all be bowing down to LeBron Jr.

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