Every year there are NBA teams that surprise people.
Whether that be from exceeding expectations or falling short, NBA seasons rarely follow the chalk.
The 2021-22 season is no different.
Golden State, Chicago, and Memphis are better than most anticipated before opening night.
And the Cleveland Cavaliers are light years ahead of where pundits thought they would be.
But for every surprisingly good team, there must be a surprisingly bad team.
There are only 1,230 wins to go around and if one team takes more than expected, one team must take fewer.
These three NBA teams have fallen short of preseason expectations so far and are surprisingly in the lottery discussion.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
First up is the Portland Trail Blazers, the sixth seed in the Western Conference last season.
Heading into the 2021-22 season, many predicted the Blazers would once again make the playoffs.
Instead, the Trail Blazers have faltered out to a 13-21 start, losing 13 of their past 16 games.
Lillard has not been the gravity-bending force he has been in years past.
And paired with McCollum missing time due to a collapsed lung, the Blazers have struggled.
Their defense has remained in the bottom five like years past, surrendering 111.9 points per contest.
And while a top-six offense has kept them afloat the past three years, it has fallen to 13th this season.
McCollum’s lung has reportedly healed so he should be set to begin the process of returning to the lineup.
Great news: Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum’s collapsed right lung has fully recovered and he will be re-evaluated in one week, team says.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) December 24, 2021
But Portland does not seem primed to turn the ship around.
Billups has been disappointing in his first season at the helm.
Questionable tactics and substitution patterns have led to numerous stories already that Billups is losing the team.
Portland has made the playoffs eight consecutive seasons and seemed primed to make it nine this year.
As it stands now, though, they will be drafting in the lottery next year.
2. Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks seemed like a team on the rise last year.
They won seven of their last eight games to surge into the five seed and make their first playoff appearance since 2017.
Atlanta completed a gentleman’s sweep of the New York Knicks before shocking the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round and advancing to the Conference Finals.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks would dispatch of them in six games but the Hawks displayed potential.
Trae Young made the leap to superstardom and their bevy of young wings all showed promise.
Trae Young has played like someone ready to enter the top-10 superstar discussion this season, thanks in part to his altered scoring approach where he embraces the midrange: https://t.co/mtYx4HnqL9
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 9, 2021
John Collins was brought back and 10 of the 11 rotation players to average 20+ minutes per game returned.
This year has not gotten off to the desired start.
Atlanta is 15-19, good for the 10th-worst record in the league.
Young and Collins continue to power an offense that is 10th-best in the league.
And looks even better when you see their gaudy 113.3 offensive rating – second-best in the league.
But the defense is not up to par.
Atlanta surrenders 110.3 points per game – seventh-worst – which correlates to a defensive rating of 113.3 – fourth-worst.
The offense is right in-line with last year’s team that made a Cinderella run.
But last year’s team only gave up 111.4 points per game – good for 12th-best in the league.
A number that shrunk to 109.8 per game under McMillan.
The defense has not followed the Hawks into 2021-22.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Finally, we have the Los Angeles Lakers.
A team led by LeBron James that has been championship-or-bust since he arrived.
And right now, they do not appear to be a championship team.
LA is a disappointing 17-19 through 36 games and has lost six of their last seven.
Even with LeBron averaging 32.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists across those seven games.
LeBron is averaging 32.4 points in 37 minutes per game over the last seven games. The Lakers are 1-6 in that stretch. He's now second in the league for minutes per game but without him on the floor the offense is absolutely putrid.
I'm so fascinated by how this is going to end.
— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) December 30, 2021
James’ co-star, Anthony Davis, has missed the last six with a strained MCL and is out for the immediate future.
Their big offseason acquisition in Russell Westbrook has not paid dividends as the Lakers had hoped.
His 19.7/8.1/8.3 stat line is impressive, but his poor shooting ability has hindered offensive spacing.
Not a winning formula in the modern-day NBA.
But the bigger issue is on the defensive end.
The 2020-21 Lakers allowed the second-fewest points per game and had the best defensive rating.
This year, those rankings had plummeted to 27th and 12th, respectively.
The lack of frontcourt depth is the reason LeBron got his first career start at center against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night.
Outside of 21-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker, the Lakers have very little trade ammunition.
So Los Angeles will be hoping for internal improvements.
If not, the Lakers may be in danger of finishing in the lottery for the second time in LeBron’s four years donning the purple and gold.