DimeMag

From Dime 72: The Top 10 Surprises Of The NBA Season

Before the NBA All-Star break we unveiled the new cover of Dime Magazine, featuring Portland Trail Blazers phenom Damian Lillard. As we near the final 20 games of the regular season, we wanted to publish our reflections from before the All-Star break we wrote about in the new issue…

What surprised you this season in the first 41 or so games of the NBA schedule? That’s what I wrestled with as February approached and the All-Star Break was within sight. As published in Dime issue No. 72, this was my chance of telling the partial story of the 2012-13 season without knowing its ending. It’s a survey of the surprises, both of the macro and micro variety, that keep us flipping back to the games every night.

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10. A Tale of Two Rookies
Coming out of Weber State, Damian Lillard‘s road to last June’s NBA Draft was marked not by concerns about his pure-as-snow jump shot or a demeanor more unshakable than bedrock, but about the strength of his shoulders. How much weight and expectations could a rookie point guard carry?

Lillard has looked more veteran than rookie so far in Portland, averaging more minutes and points than any other first-year player while flashing big-shot cojones and a coolness that belies his standing in the league. Detroit’s Andre Drummond and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis have also enjoyed remarkable rookie seasons after recovering from a lack of playing time and injuries, respectively, but that time away created a lane for Lillard to the Rookie of the Year early. As he so often has in his flawed but fantastic first half, he’s certainly taken advantage of the opening.

At the polar opposite end of the spectrum from Lillard is New Orleans’ Austin Rivers. Part of the hype machine since he was an underclassman in high school, Rivers didn’t make a field goal in five of his first 16 games and has a PER of 5 that is easily the worst in the NBA for a player with his 24 minutes of playing time per game. The rookie transition can look easy thanks to Lillard, but Rivers is struggling in no longer being the best athlete on the floor. But what is truly surprising is that a shooter like him can no longer shoot.

9. The Warriors Arrived
In a move that suggests winning is contagious among Bay Area pro teams, Golden State is casting off years of underachievement this season and becoming a playoff contender. The Warriors are the only team to beat Oklahoma City, Miami and the Clippers so far this season, and have done it without Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush to boot. They’ve been able to because of the brilliance of David Lee and Stephen Curry, the respective 20-and-10 post and marksman whose leadership has never been apparent until now. Lee is an All-Star and Curry was deserving of inclusion in Houston for their growth from players beloved for their fantasy league statistics to guys now able to win big games. To name just a few key contributors to the W’s run, Jarrett Jack‘s role as point guard off the bench has been pitch-perfect, rookie Harrison Barnes has flashed incredible athleticism and Klay Thompson makes nearly 40 percent of his threes. Oh, and the biggest upset of all? The Warriors have finally found defense, ranking in the top half of the league.

8. Andrew Bynum
In the summer’s mega-trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers, Philadelphia got Andrew Bynum. Eight months later, they’ve still not seen him play. Put another way, the most memorable talk about Bynum’s time in Philly hasn’t involved blocks or scoring but his bowling and how it helped reinjure his knee (or, his cringe-inducing hair styles. Either way, neither helps coach Doug Collins). The earliest he’s been rumored to return is in a few weeks which leaves the 76ers in a seriously awful position: Bynum has franchise cornerstone-type skills when he’s healthy but is that potential worth the risk of bankrolling with a huge contract come July, when he’s a free agent?

7. The Nets’ Real Playmaker
When Deron Williams re-signed with the Nets and Joe Johnson arrived in Brooklyn by trade in July, they brought big reputations as go-to scorers with them to their new home, the Barclays Center. Neither has been the team’s best player this season, however. While Williams’ regression has been the more surprising story for the Nets and was one factor in the firing of coach Avery Johnson in December, the ascension of Brook Lopez as the NBA’s best center right now is no less eye-opening. He ranked No. 7 in points per minute among all players by late January, and his offensive and defensive production per 100 possessions are career-bests.

Meanwhile Williams is enduring the worst points-per-game production in seven years and the lowest assist percentage of his NBA tenure. Instead of being rooted to the post like a tree, Lopez can roll to the basket like never before off screens, a development that’s aided in such improvement. Far off Broadway in New York City, the star of Brooklyn’s show still is Williams, but Lopez is more deserving of the accolades.

6. Royce White’s Saga
It may not be one of the most relevant storylines this season in a strict, basketball-only way, but the nearly three-month dispute between the Houston Rockets and rookie forward Royce White has been shocking. Rookies generally have limited bargaining power against their employers, but White’s crusade over his mental health care and who gets to make the final decisions in his treatment rarely wavered in its absolutism — even going so far as to say he’d be fine with never playing again if it kept him healthy. A contract without specific conditions to manage his well-publicized anxiety issues was not in the interest of his safety, he said, and the Rockets eventually suspended him after he failed to arrive in the D-League. Seeing a player with little time in an NBA uniform stare down his employer — who holds the key to his career — won’t soon be forgotten.

5. The NBA In Seattle?
Maybe it’s stretching the truth a little to say it was surprising the Maloof family was looking to move the Sacramento Kings. After prospects in Anaheim and Virginia Beach cooled each of the last two seasons, though, Mayor Kevin Johnson worked a deal with NBA Commissioner David Stern last spring that appeared to signal that the Kings were ready to stay thanks to a proposed new arena. Procedural hurdles within Sacramento’s government aside, there seemed to be an intent to keep the team in Cowbell Kingdom — and then a Seattle ownership group stepped in with an agreement with the Maloofs to bring basketball back to the Emerald City by next season. Stern has reportedly wanted to bring a team to Seattle before he retires in 2014 but Washington has rarely been seen as a destination for the Kings, which adds to the surprise. (Also receiving votes: New Orleans changing its name from the Hornets to the Pelicans.)

4. James Harden On Fire
Exactly halfway through his first season in Houston, James Harden surpassed his career best for total points in a season — in 21 fewer games than it took him to reach the same point before. Yeah, it’s been that kind of year for Harden ever since being traded away from Oklahoma City on the eve of the first game amid contract disputes. That the Thunder are doing just fine without him doesn’t diminish the pure statistical excellence Harden has enjoyed since transforming from Sixth Man to Leading Man with the leash to create at his will.

His 37 points in his Houston debut, followed two days later by a 45-point night, may have been the high-water marks but he’s sustained his scoring to 26.0 per game — second-best in the NBA. The first-time All-Star once was whispered to not have the makeup to be a team’s No. 1 option, but the role has fit him like a glove ever since he arrived in his new home.

3. New York, New York
The Knicks have come back to reality ever since their league-best three-point shooting cooled off and their turnover-forcing defense found fewer opportunities, but their 18-5 start was arguably the biggest surprise of the early season. Think about it: How did a team relying on mercurial talent J.R. Smith, a roster so old it could be entered into the fossil record and missing two of its best players do that? Well it was shooting (Jason Kidd‘s shooting the first two months was insane), a buy-in of Mike Woodson‘s core tenet of defense and the superb play of Carmelo Anthony that did it. Anthony has led or been near the top of the per-game scoring race all season, hovering near 29.0, but his willingness to find Kidd, Smith or Steve Novak for big shots early in the season made the Knicks the last team in the East to lose and nearly untouchable at Madison Square Garden well into December. For a team whose only sustained characteristic the last decade has been ineptitude, the Knicks’ this season have been a giant surprise.

2. Kevin Durant’s Superlative Season
Everyone knew Kevin Durant would have an excellent season and be in the MVP race. Yet Durant’s transformation into a matchup-obliterating star has been more vicious and complete than imagined — and that is truly saying something. Durant is on pace to become only the sixth player in the 50-40-90 club reserved for the best shooters from the field, three-point arc and free-throw line over an entire season, joining Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki. With the exception of Bird, though, none of those players have played the defense Durant has this season, asked routinely by coach Scott Brooks to guard anyone from a power forward to a point guard. Outside of LeBron James, his biggest competitor for MVP, no one can deliver from as many places on the court as Oklahoma City’s star, whether by his zone-defeating range or his finishing skills at the rim and improved passing, as well.

At 28.6 points per game, Durant’s improvement was expected but not as this warp speed.

1. Lakers Fall, Clippers Rise
Basketball in Los Angeles is always relevant but never before has it been so intriguing for two, such opposite reasons. The Clippers’ title as most entertaining team a year ago now comes with the teeth of being a legitimate title contender. The Lakers are the latest big-budget L.A. flop since “John Carter” despite having three Hall of Famers on the roster. Neither development was easy to see coming, not with how well the Clippers have turned an odd offseason free-agency class of Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Lamar Odom into a punishing body blow that follows the initial punch sent by Blake and CP3. Or, that the Lakers would fire Mike Brown, hired Mike D’Antoni, have the talent of Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash and would still hold the Western Conference’s sixth-worst record halfway through.

Yes, the surprise is in the extremes with which each team has played this season, expressed perfectly in the fact that entering New Year’s Day the Clippers had won more games in a row (17) than the Lakers had total.

What do you think?

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