DimeMag

The 10 Biggest Surprises & Disappointments Of The NBA Season

A little more than halfway through the year and we, the NBA fanbase, have been subject to a few surprises and disappointments we surely didn’t see leading into the 2013-14 season. As far as how the season has gone thus far, a majority of it has been expected. The teams we expected to be at the top of the East are there, and the same goes for most of the West, with the exception of Portland, stunning opponents with some incredible shooting.

Surprises also include those who have made improbable returns and teams that decided to avoid tanking and just make a playoff run, instead.

It seems there have been more disappointments than anything, mainly overzealous expectations. It happens all the time, especially for teams in desperation mode hoping to make a savior out of what turns out to be a role player and not much else.

Players are not exempt of disappointing, either. Whether they fail to meet up to their contract, fail to live up to preseason expectations or can’t make the jump from their rookie to sophomore year, any player can fall into this category if they’re not focused enough on improving.

We take a look at those players and teams who have disappointed, as well as those who have given us needed surprises over the arduous early portion of the season.

(statistics updated as of Friday)

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SURPRISES

1. Greg Oden is still playing
Greg Oden is nearing the point where it will become expected of him to perform and contribute on a consistent basis. We didn’t imagine these developments would be taking place in February. In fact, there was some doubt it would ever come to that point in Oden’s NBA career. Yet here he is in Miami, owning his role, with the Heat salivating at the opportunity to offer more minutes to a strong defensive presence they have never had before.

In seven games with the Heat this year, Oden’s averages are modest, but heartwarming. He’s putting up 3.3 points and 2.7 rebounds per contest, which is 3.3 points and 2.7 rebounds per game more than what he averaged over the previous three seasons, where he dealt with a slew of surgeries and setbacks concerning his knee.

The numbers aren’t what matter at this point. What the Heat are asking for from Oden is to simply be a defensive presence, as well as grab some rebounds on the offensive end and be ready to catch-and-finish when LeBron finds you.

We’ve already had a few instances of Oden flourishing on offense with LeBron serving as facilitator:

It’s on defense, however, where the Heat expects Oden to flourish and turn potential opponent points into fast break opportunities for Miami. Take these two incredible alley-oops the Heat had against the Pistons:

Notice how both fast breaks were initiated? The first came off Oden deflecting an interior pass, while the second was caused by Oden’s presence leading to a turnover that may not have occurred had a less intimidating defender been in Greg’s position.

It’s becoming comical to watch as hopeful guards immediately turn back to the perimeter once they run into the titan of a 7-footer waiting for them. Having Oden on the floor completely changes the gameplan of both the Heat and their opponent, as Greg forces guards into the long jump shots that Miami craves in order to initiate the fast breaks they use to demoralize their opponents.

2. The Phoenix Suns do not want to be an NBA stepping stone
While teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks have embraced the tank, the Phoenix Suns, believed to be a preseason favorite for the No. 1 pick, have gone in a completely different direction.

The Suns are looking to make some waves not in the lottery this summer, but in the postseason. At 29-20, the Suns are three-and-a-half games out of first place in the Pacific Division and third place in the Western Conference playoff race. In a heated West, the Suns have managed a seventh seed, and seem poised to make it to the playoffs with a comfortable margin between them and the ninth seed.

Rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek has not allowed them to take the year off. Instead, he’s converted guys like Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee, cast-offs of Indiana in the deal that sent Luis Scola to the Pacers, into consistent, stable role players, while also turning Goran Dragic into a bonafide All-Star.

Dragic, owner of 20.1 points and six assist per game averages, is also shooting a career-high 51 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc. He’s one of only two guards in the NBA to be shooting above 50 percent, with the other being Dwyane Wade, who is aided by being in the league’s top offense.

His PER of 22.1 has him ranked 15th in the league, ahead of the likes of Dwight Howard, Wade and Paul George. His facilitation has the Suns currently ranked eighth in offensive efficiency.

Dragic is obtaining these averages on a team consisting of role players and not much else, especially with Eric Bledsoe having only played 24 games this season and their first-round draft pick of 2013 Alex Len playing in only 20.

Goran and Hornacek have brought out the best in everyone, resulting in an extremely balanced effort. Six players are averaging at least ten points per game, while eight are averaging at least nine. There are also four rotation players shooting at least 37 percent from beyond the arc, led by Channing Frye–returning from missing the entire 2012-13 season–and his 40 percent.

The work of Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee cannot go unnoticed. Green played 60 games with the Pacers last year and averaged only seven points on 37 percent shooting, while Plumlee was a rookie who could barely sniff playing time, playing in only 14 games and making a total of five shots all year.

This year, however, has been a completely different story. Plumlee has started all 49 games with the Suns and it’s resulting in the former Duke star averaging 9.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Green, meanwhile, is averaging a career-high 13.7 points and shooting 38 percent from three on over six attempts per.

The Suns are a dangerous team. They have many weapons, nearly all of whom can shoot the ball well from deep, are confident, and contain that dangerous mindset of having so much to gain, but nothing to lose. If higher seeds like Oklahoma City, Portland or the L.A. Clippers aren’t careful, the Suns could put a first-round scare into them.

3. The Toronto Raptors trade the problem away
Three days after a nine-point loss to Phoenix that extended their losing streak to five and sent them plummeting to 6-12, the Toronto Raptors appeared to embrace the tank by trading away Rudy Gay.

Or so we thought.

The Raptors haven’t had a losing streak of more than two since then, going 19-13 since trading away Gay, along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray, for Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Greivis Vasquez.

Apparently Gay was just holding everyone back. Since his departure, both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have played like All-Stars, with DeRozan actually making his first All-Star Game this year. Lowry drew genuine outrage in NBA circles after getting snubbed in favor of seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson.

DeRozan is the first All-Star for the Toronto Raptors since Chris Bosh made it in his final year with the team in 2010. Kyle Lowry owns the league’s 32nd best PER. Naturally, both players have flourished now that Rudy Gay isn’t taking away low percentage shots.

Lowry is doing the work of the point guard, rather than allowing Rudy Gay to go isolation and take matters into his own hands. In 18 games with Toronto this season, Rudy was shooting a career-worst 39 percent from the field, needing nearly 19 shots per game to average 19 points.

His replacement, Terrence Ross, is taking up only nine shots per contest and is shooting 41 percent. He’s also shooting 39 percent from three, as opposed to Gay’s 37 percent, and recently had a 51-point game, albeit in a loss.

What we’ve seen dramatically change since the trade is a greater attention to detail, especially on defense. Without anybody noticing, the Raptors are in possession of the league’s sixth best defensive efficiency because they now have a more active defender in Ross filling in for Gay in the starting lineup. Sacramento, meanwhile, has had a losing record since trading for Rudy, despite putting him in a lineup with potential All-Stars in DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas.

4. Mike Budenholzer has the Atlanta Hawks taken seriously
Going unnoticed again, this is the first time the Atlanta Hawks are actually worth taking a look at. They’re not the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers and they most likely won’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, barring divine intervention. It’s pretty much the same story every year: Pretty good, but not nearly good enough to make any noise.

It’s probably the same case this year. However, this Hawks team is plenty different from any of the Hawks teams in previous seasons. That stems from rookie head coach Mike Budenholzer, a former assistant of San Antonio’s Hall of Fame-bound head coach, Gregg Popovich.

The teachings of Popovich can be seen within the Hawks offense. While you’d assume it would be the likes of San Antonio or Miami or the L.A. Clippers leading in the league in assist ratio, it’s actually the Hawks who hold the top spot, led by the floor generals in Jeff Teague and Shelvin Mack.

They also lead the league in assists per game by a full assist. There are seven players on this team averaging at least two assists per, but only one averaging at least four. It’s taking a team effort and an adopted system of one of the league’s best offenses to make it work, but it’s effective and it has the Hawks in position for a playoff spot, despite having Al Horford for only 29 games.

They rank eighth in the league in points per possession, including ranking among the top six on spot-ups, post-ups, off-screens, and offensive rebounds. They also rank seventh in the league in three-point percentage.

Atlanta isn’t exactly chock full of talent, either, especially without Horford. Paul Millsap is an All-Star; Kyle Korver has been shooting lights-out, and Jeff Teague is an above-average point guard, but talent wanes afterwards. The Hawks are doling out rotation minutes to the likes of Shelvin Mack, Mike Scott and DeMarre Carroll, yet are still winning games and ranking among the league’s best offenses.

Maybe we shouldn’t ignore the Hawks this time around, especially if Horford is healthy and ready for the playoffs. With Horford and Millsap filling out the frontcourt and surrounded with shooters in a system that preaches ball movement, Atlanta could finally be worthy of being more than second-round fodder.

5. The Oklahoma City Thunder are winning games with… defense?
All year long we’ve heard about the exploits of Kevin Durant. From his captivating January, to the growing idea that he’s now the frontrunner to win MVP, which would make him the first person not named LeBron James to win it since 2011, Durant has essentially become the Oklahoma City Thunder. Well, except for that part where his team has become one of the league’s stingiest defenses. While the Thunder are an expected sixth in offensive efficiency, they have been equally, if not better, as efficient on the defensive end, where they rank third in the league.

Only the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls allow fewer points per 100 possessions. They possess the Western Conference’s best defense, are sixth in the league in points in the paint allowed, and sixth in three-point percentage allowed. The 23.9 three-point attempts per contest they’re allowing is third in the league, leading one to believe that these are the shots they want their opponent taking.

Most importantly, they’re second in the league in field goal percentage allowed, holding opponents to an average of 43 percent shooting per game. Only the stingy Pacers allow a worse percentage, but that Indiana team also pales in comparison to the offense the Thunder are running. Then again, any team without Kevin Durant at the moment is tough to compete with on offense.

So, how have the Thunder been able to turn a defense that ranked ninth as recently as 2012 to second this year?

Well, the right personnel for one. The Thunder roster has an incredible amount of players who are simultaneously long and athletic, which inevitably leads to a lot of passes being picked off and tipped. That was the case in their blowout win over Miami this year as athletes with length, such as Durant, Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Thabo Sefolosha, Perry Jones and Serge Ibaka were able to stymie every seemingly every pass the Heat were attempting to make.

Activity is also a huge necessity for the Thunder defense to thrive, as well. As noted by Mike Prada of SB Nation, the Thunder defense is considerably better when rested and not on the back end of a back-to-back. The activity generated combined with the length and athleticism of the rotation makes the Thunder a difficult defense to probe and penetrate without crisp, focused passing.

Even when a player is able to get into the lane, the threat of Ibaka, second in the league in blocks per game, and Kendrick Perkins, still a presence despite his dwindling game, loom large.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

6. The state of New York
As I write this, it’s been reported that coach Mike Woodson expects to be fired before the All-Star break.

It still isn’t a good time to be a New York Knicks fan. Or even a fan of their crosstown rival in Brooklyn. Yeah, they’ve played well recently, but is the 22-25 record and needing Shaun Livingston and Andray Blatche to lead your team out of the abyss reason to celebrate?

We’ll start on the Knicks, though. This team is unbelievably awful. I don’t mean that in a “Wow, they’re really, really bad, but this was sort of expected” kind of way, either. It’s more of the “Wow, this team is really bad when they really shouldn’t be” kind of awful.

If you look at their roster, for one, there seems to be an amount of talent that would be enough to make the playoffs in the decrepit East. They have arguably the league’s top scorer in Carmelo Anthony, arguably the league’s post defender in Tyson Chandler, promising young athletes in Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway, Jr., and the reigning Sixth Man of the Year in J.R. Smith.

What does that equate to? A 19-30 record and two-and-a-half games behind the eighth seed, a Charlotte team that’s six games below .500.

Only the Milwaukee Bucks, who currently stand at 9-40, have more home losses than New York. They have the 15th best offensive efficiency despite having a player who is second in the league in scoring and are 23rd in defensive efficiency, facilitated by Tyson Chandler having to sit out a few games earlier this season.

It is stunning to see the Knicks crumble when they have so much talent. Without Anthony on the floor, however, they’re a mess. The offensive rating per 100 possessions drops from 105.2 to 99, while even the defense struggles giving up 104.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and 109.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s off. Overall, the Knicks are a minus-11.3 when Carmelo’s off the floor. Wonder how they’ll adjust if Carmelo decides to no longer squander his talent on a losing team next year.

The Nets, meanwhile, are encouraged by a 22-25 start, despite being in win-now mode and investing most of their spending into two aged veterans who are putting up career-lows across the board. Also, they’re paying Deron Williams–who has played in 31 games and is coming off the bench–$18.5 million to average 13.5 points and 6.9 assists.

Without Livingston and Blatche, this team is in serious trouble. Shaun’s sudden revival and Blatche’s 11.9 points per off the bench have been a necessity for the Nets this year. Aside from Brook Lopez, who has been ruled out for the year, two of the top three PER on the Nets belong to Blatche and Mason Plumlee.

Mirza Teletovic has also responded to the prominent role he’s been given, shooting 42 percent from three, while Alan Anderson is shooting 36 percent from beyond the arc.

This team was meant to compete with the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers over the next two years. Even with the bench stepping up in the absence of the All-Star-laden starting lineup, they’re never going to meet the lofty expectations they were bestowed with before the season began.

But, hey, at least they’re not the Knicks.

7. Andrew Bynum‘s career
If you had any hope for Andrew Bynum reviving his career with the Indiana Pacers, here are some encouraging words of wisdom from Bynum himself: In his introduction to the Pacers Friday morning, Bynum answered “not really” in response to someone asking if he’s been working out.

And people seriously wondered why Bynum wasn’t a hot commodity when he was traded by Cleveland and promptly released by Chicago. This isn’t the Andrew Bynum from 2008 to 2010 that helped the Lakers win two titles and was one of the league’s two best centers, arguably even the best at the high point of his career in 2012 when he averaged 18.7 points and 11.8 boards per.

But then he got hurt. Again. Since starting his career in 2005, Bynum has played 60 games or less in all but two years of his career, including a 2012-13 season he completely missed. That campaign may be forgettable to most, but there are a few Sixer fans who are probably a bit peeved they lost Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless and a first-round pick for one year of Bynum sitting on a bench.

Bynum may as well have been sitting on a bench this year, too. In 24 games with the Cavs this year, after giving a lucrative deal, of course, Bynum averaged 8.4 points on a paltry 42 percent clip, to go along with 5.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per contest. The 42 percent shooting is weighed down by the stunningly bad 0-for-11 he shot in his second-to-last game with Cleveland. He also had shooting performances of 3-for-14 and 2-for-10.

It took 24 games for the Cavs to admit they made a mistake signing Bynum over the summer. They also sent over a first-rounder and two second-rounders to Chicago, who sent back Luol Deng and “the option to swap first-round picks with Cleveland in 2015 if their selection is within 15-30.”

Bynum now finds himself with the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers, despite already having an All-Star center in Roy Hibbert and a serviceable back-up in Ian Mahinmi. It’ll be interesting to see if the Pacers even utilize Bynum, who made the Cavaliers a worse team on both offense and defense when he was on the floor.

Even more interesting will be if Bynum has a job at the start of the 2014-15 season. If he shows nothing worthwhile in his stint with Indiana, his career could be at its end.

8. The sideshow that is the Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been so grotesque this year that ESPN can no longer continue with their LeBron-to-Cleveland narrative, instead now sending him over to the Clippers.

This team has been gifted four lottery picks within the top five since LeBron James departed for Miami. With those picks, the Cavs selected Kyrie Irving (good pick); Dion Waiters (taken over Andre Drummond and Damian Lillard); Tristan Thompson (taken over Jonas Valanciunas and Klay Thompson); and, the latest travesty, Anthony Bennett (taken over Victor Oladipo, Nerlens Noel and anyone else capable of playing).

While there haven’t been many elite stars available for the picking over the past few years, there have been some significant misses, namely Dion Waiters, who has been at the center of many disheartening rumors, being taken over Andre Drummond, a man-beast that is unfortunately not playing with Kyrie Irving right now.

Speaking of Kyrie, he supposedly doesn’t want to be in Cleveland anymore, either. That’s really going to put a damper on the plans to woo LeBron back, if he wasn’t already convinced by the fact that Cleveland has beaten Miami once and hasn’t won more than 24 games since he left.

The Cavs find themselves at 16-33 and five-and-a-half games out of an eighth spot they will not get close to. They have a worse record than a Boston Celtics team that has been without Rajon Rondo most of the year and have been openly tanking.

They’re ranked 24th in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency. The only other teams within the bottom ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency are the 15-35 Philadelphia 76ers, 9-40 Milwaukee Bucks, and 16-32 Utah Jazz.

Good company.

9. The Warriors sans Steph
Overall, the Golden State Warriors have been disappointing. They’re 30-20 and are in possession of the sixth seed, but also only three games ahead of ninth. As expected, the starting lineup when healthy ranks among the league’s best. The preferred lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut is outscoring opponents by nearly 17 points. The spacing created by Curry and Thompson, combined with the midrange capabilities of Lee, has the team generating 112.8 points per 100 possessions, while Bogut plays a huge role in the team yielding only 96.3 points per 100 possessions.

There are two problems, however. One, this lineup has played only 33 games together. Two, the starting lineup can’t play all 48 minutes together. At some point, the bench has to play some sort of role, especially for teams that hope to be contenders in a dominant conference.

There are severe dropoffs featuring every member of the starting lineup, but none bigger than when Stephen Curry leaves the floor. While the Warriors are a plus-9.6 when on the floor, that number flips all the way to minus-10.6 when he’s off. Golden State is generating 89.7 points per 100 possession when Stephen Curry isn’t on the floor.

The numbers from the bench have been abysmal this season. Marreese Speights is a minus-12.2 on the floor, Kent Bazemore is a minus-22.9 and Harrison Barnes is a minus-2.3. There’s nobody capable of leading the team when Curry is off and they need either him or Iguodala on the floor at all times, in order to compete. The Warriors are a plus-13.7 when he’s on, compared to a minus-6.2 when off. He’s only played in 38 games this year, leading to that lack of continuity the Warriors need from their starters in order to survive.

The losses of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry are playing a heavy role. Coming off the bench last year, Jack was a consistent source of offense and provided an unexpected boost in the playoffs, averaging 17.2 points per game, while Landry averaged 10.8 points on 54 percent shooting.

Is there anybody that can come off the Warriors bench who could measure up to either of those two? They’ll have to hope for Jordan Crawford catching fire late and Harrison Barnes, who has a worse PER than he did his rookie season, to begin living up to preseason expectations.

10. The Pistons are pistoning
Can it be labeled disappointing when there weren’t many expectations to begin with?

I’m sure we all had some sort of delusions of gradeur with the Detroit Pistons when we saw the team they put together in the offseason. But as they did when they signed Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva a few years back, the signings of Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith came across as deals where the front office just wanted to bring some names in.

Any look at the numbers beforehand would have told you there’s no way a starting lineup that includes both Smith and Jennings would thrive on the offensive end. There’s absolutely no way two shot-chuckers that take bad shots, and don’t make them all that often, can inhabit the same starting lineup and find any sort of success.

Sure enough, the Pistons rank 20th in offensive efficiency, Josh Smith is shooting 23 percent on a career-high 3.5 three-point attempts per game, and Brandon Jennings is shooting under 40 percent for the fourth time in his five-year career.

These two are the foremost prime examples of inefficiency. Smith, in fact, is in danger of averaging more shots per game than points per game. If he has yet to realize at this point in his career that he’s not a shooter and should be posting up and taking it to the rim every possession, then he’s not going to change.

As for Jennings, things just haven’t been the same since he put up 55 points on Golden State in his rookie year. He’s been in a four-year slump since.

That’s not even the worst of it. The worst part is the Pistons are wasting the time of two promising young players in Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Monroe’s field goal attempts per game are down from 13.1 last year to 11.2 this year, while his PER has fallen for a third cosnecutive season and is actually worse than what he put up his rookie season.

Andre Drummond’s numbers across the board are up, but they’re being wasted on a 19-29 team that may not make the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.

What has most surprised you about this season? What has been the most disappointing?

Follow John on Twitter at @JFriel1990.

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