NBA Early Season Surprises
Every year fans and media prognosticate about how the upcoming season is likely to unfold. Every year some of those predictions fall completely flat while at the same time other successes and failures come out of nowhere to knock us upside head. Here are five teams and five players with surprising starts to the 2011-12 NBA season.
Philadelphia 76ers: Most people agreed the Philadelphia 76ers would probably be a playoff team in 2012. With talented players like Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala teamed with Elton Brand, Thaddeus Young and Louis Williams it was understandable. Raise your hand if you thought they would be leading the Atlantic Division eight games into the season. Anyone? That isn’t a Philly fan? No? Philly is doing it with defense. Last year they scored 99.0 points a game and gave up 97.5, but this year they have upped their scoring to 101.6 (through Tuesday) and are only allowing 85.6. That points-allowed number is the best in the NBA and so is the corresponding +16.0 point differential. They lead the league in field-goal percentage allowed (39.2%) and are eighth in rebounding differential. And don’t expect the Sixers to go away either – as long as defense remains a focus they will continue to win games.
Portland Trail Blazers: Like Philly, Portland was considered a definite playoff team but very few gave them a chance to compete for the division title with the Oklahoma City Thunder or homecourt advantage in the first round. Why? With a new point guard and integrating four new players into the rotation – plus dealing with the Brandon Roy fallout – a learning curve was expected. Instead, Portland is 7-2. They are giving up 1.1 points per game less than last year and scoring 3.4 more. The biggest change? Last year Portland was tied for 27th in the league in rebounds per game; this year they are tenth.
Cleveland Cavaliers: This was earmarked as another rebuilding year for the Cavaliers. Rookies Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson were supposed to be learning the ropes from the veterans as the likes of Antawn Jamison slowly faded away in a season full of losses and growth, setting up another trip to the lottery and the chance for a new Cavs team to appear next fall. No one told the Cavs. They are 4-5, ninth in the Eastern Conference. The teams they have beaten – Detroit, Charlotte, New Jersey, Minnesota – aren’t exactly a murderer’s row, but they were expected to struggle for any wins at all and the Wolves aren’t that bad. They very well may fall off as the season progresses, but for right now their start and Irving’s play has them relevant for the first time since what’s-his-name left.
Golden State Warriors: The Warriors make this list, but for the wrong reasons. While their roster isn’t the most ideal, many expected the talent of players like Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis and David Lee to start pushing them towards a playoff spot, but nine games into the season they sit at 3-6, half a game out of last in the West. Here’s the kicker: while defense has been a problem for many years in Oakland, the responsibility for the poor start lays on the offense. Coach Mark Jackson’s focus on defense has Golden State giving up 8.5 points per game FEWER than a season ago, down to just 97.2. Unfortunately the scoring is down 11.2 a game to an anemic 92.2. This offense? Curry’s injury battles have something to do with that, but Coach Jackson needs to help his team find a better balance in focus. The Warriors are built to score points, so to simply demand defensive focus this is going to be the result.
Memphis Grizzlies: Despite a serious injury to Rudy Gay last year, the Grizzlies became everyone’s darlings by sneaking into the playoffs and then upsetting the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Zach Randolph signed an extension, they re-signed Marc Gasol, and big things were expected in 2012. Then the injury bug struck again. Darrell Arthur, Randolph’s backup, went out for the season and now Randolph is out for two months with a knee injury. Gay is back, but not posting near the numbers he had before the injury last year. The entire team seems just a little lost and unfocused, already falling behind in the West. It’s far from too late, but they need to recover quickly and find something that works.
Ryan Anderson, Orlando Magic: Who needs Rashard Lewis? After using the Amnesty clause on Gilbert Arenas, the Magic essentially wrote a $60 million check to see Lewis go away, so it’s a good thing Anderson is able to do all the things Lewis did at a fraction of the price. With a little more bulk than Lewis, Anderson is averaging 18.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and shooting 44% from the field and 40% from three. Those numbers are comparable with some of Lewis’ best seasons – and only cost the Magic $2.5 million in the last year of his rookie scale deal. Someone will be poised for a big payday this summer.
Spencer Hawes, Philadelphia 76ers: Hawes was a restricted free agent but didn’t get more than a sniff from any team, including the Sixers. So he signed the $4.1 million Qualifying Offer and returned to Philly. Not only is he reprising his role as the team’s starting center, but he’s been so good for them the team decided to trade Marreese Speights away for draft picks (no, Hawes wasn’t the only reason). He’s also putting up at or near career-highs in points (11.1), rebounds (9.1), assists (2.9), blocks (1.8), steals (0.7), and field-goal percentage (62%) in 27.9 minutes a game. Remember when Hawes was criticized for not being tough enough? This year’s version begs to differ, and like Anderson he will be a free agent next summer – only he will be unrestricted.
Kyle Lowry, Houston Rockets: 2010-11 was a breakout season for Lowry, one that resulted in the trade of previous future point guard Aaron Brooks to Phoenix for a player who would be Lowry’s backup, Goran Dragic. However, last year seems to have been just a tune-up. Name a category and the Villanova product is posting a career-high in it, even sitting at second in the league in assists with 9.7 a game. While all of that is impressive, those 6.9 rebounds a game is pretty nice too. Now, if he could just get his teammates on the same page to win some more games.
Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves: The other night Rubio posted 14 assists in one game. Why is this noteworthy? Magic Johnson and John Stockton never did this as rookies. Oh, and one other thing: Rubio didn’t start that game either. There was a lot of talk before the season about how Rubio was going to adapt to the NBA game, but it would seem like it hasn’t been nearly the ordeal some expected. His shooting – supposedly a negative – hasn’t been bad at all; he’s hitting 46% overall and 47% from three-point range (on 1.7 attempts a game). His numbers: 10.2 points, 7.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 29.0 minutes a game. Coach Rick Adelman is still starting Luke Ridnour at the point, but that won’t be justifiable much longer. Right now the Rookie of the Year race has two definite leaders: Irving and Rubio. The player with the better team at the end of the year may end up the winner.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: While the other four players listed here have had excellent starts, Westbrook isn’t here for good reasons. The rumblings of his discontent with his role are still bubbling up despite efforts made to squash them by Kevin Durant, Coach Scott Brooks and Westbrook himself. And while his play in previous seasons would lead one to believe a contract extension should be done by now for at or near max money, it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe this is why Westbrook seems to be the one thing holding the Thunder back just a little bit right now. His scoring, assists, steals, blocks and all shooting percentages are down from last season, and his turnovers are up. Total shot attempts are down, but three-point shot attempts are up and free throw attempts are way down. Without a doubt this is Durant’s team and even with a distracted Westbrook the Thunder will be difficult to beat, but if they have true championship aspirations Westbrook needs to get back to where he was last season. Even if he doesn’t put up the same numbers, he needs to regain his confidence in himself and his role to become a more efficient player.