Technically speaking, trying to figure out who or what will surprise the NBA in any given season defeats the purpose of having surprises. After all, what makes a surprise a surprise is that it comes out of nowhere, without anyone really expecting it.
And yes, I'm fully aware of just how often I've used the word "surprise" so far.
That's not to say that doing so is necessarily a futile endeavor. It doesn't take a crystal ball to predict which players and teams will exceed expectations, assuming they're currently registering blips on the basketball radar at all.
With that in mind, let's dabble in clairvoyance and see if we can pin down those who will make (some) headlines during the 2012-13 season.
The Atlanta Hawks may well be the poster boys for Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory this season. New GM Danny Ferry offloaded oft-maligned All-Star Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for a collection of spare parts back in July.
And might've actually improved his team in the process.
To be sure, Johnson is a terrific talent and a top-five player at his position whose production will be missed. But Johnson's presence was too often cause for stagnation in the Hawks offense, wherein he'd too often dribble out the clock and jack up isolation shots.
Such a strategy served to disconnect the rest of Atlanta's players from the action and degrade the general aesthetics of the product put forth. Now that Johnson is gone, there will be plenty of shots to spread around a roster replete with shooters like Lou Williams, Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow.
The key returnees—Josh Smith, Jeff Teague and Al Horford—should have excellent seasons as well. Smith is going into a contract year and is coming off one in which he played like a borderline All-Star. Teague too will be a free agent in 2013 (albeit a restricted one) and stepped up his game significantly last season. And Horford is due for a bounce-back campaign after missing 55 games with a torn pectoral.
Assuming Larry Drew can properly calibrate the pieces at his disposal, the Hawks figure to find themselves back in the playoffs at the very least.
Like the Hawks, the Chicago Bulls will open the 2012-13 season without their star player. Except, of course, the Bulls can expect theirs—Derrick Rose—to be back at some point along the way.
In the meantime, Chicago should be able to hold its own, even in the ever-deepening Eastern Conference. The Bulls frontcourt still sports plenty of size and toughness in the wake of Omer Asik's departure thanks to the return of Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.
Rip Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich are both likely to miss games on account of injury, but are just the sort of savvy veterans that Chicago needs to weather the storm.
And, at the age of 27, Luol Deng is due for a peak season of his own after garnering his first All-Star selection last season.
Let's not forget, either, that Tom Thibodeau will be back on the bench, orchestrating the whole operation. He proved last season that coaching can (and does) make a big difference in the NBA, when he led the Bulls to an 18-9 record in Rose's absence.
If Thibs can replicate those motivational feats this time around, the Bulls may yet snag a top-four seed in the East when all is said and done.
You could forgive the Bulls, though, if they ended up taking a mulligan on this season while Rose recovers from a torn ACL. Much as the Dallas Mavericks did last season, when they let Tyson Chandler walk and opted, instead, to save their pennies for this summer.
Things didn't quite work out as Mark Cuban and company had planned, what with Deron Williams choosing to re-up with the Brooklyn Nets and Dwight Howard's opt-in ending with him in a Lakers uniform. Not that all is necessarily lost (again) for the Mavs. GM Donnie Nelson made some smart moves to retool his roster this summer, including trading Ian Mahinmi to the Indiana Pacers for Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones.
Collison, in particular, will have a chance to shine as the all-but-guaranteed everyday starter at point guard for the first time in his career. The UCLA product was stuck behind Chris Paul in New Orleans to start his career, and later found his place on the Pacers' depth chart usurped by George Hill.
Now, he'll have the opportunity to strut his stuff while surrounded with talented scorers like Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, O.J. Mayo and Chris Kaman. As well he should. The speedy Collison has fared far better as a starter (13.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 37.1 percent from three) than he has coming off the bench (6.2 points, 1.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 29.4 percent from three).
Throw in the fact that this'll be a contract year for Collison, and it's no wonder the 2012-13 season is shaping up to be the biggest and best of his young career.
JaVale McGee's already locked up his money—four years and $44 million, to be exact—but is due for a breakout season nonetheless.
Once the laughingstock of the NBA, the goofy McGee appeared to carve out a productive niche for himself with the Denver Nuggets after last season's trade deadline. For all of his on-court antics, McGee will always be seven feet tall with ridiculously long arms.
To his credit, McGee is much more than just the NBA equivalent of Stretch Armstrong with an overbearing mom. He also happens to be a rangy rebounder who can block shots and hit 16- to 18-footers on occasion.
His raw numbers dropped in Denver once he was moved into a reserve role, but he still managed to up his efficiency from the floor by nearly eight percentage points.
McGee was particularly impressive in the playoffs, when he averaged 8.6 points and 9.6 rebounds and generally wrought havoc against a Los Angeles Lakers squad that sported arguably the top front line in the NBA.
With a full training camp under his belt and the security of a long-term deal in his back pocket, McGee should shine in a starting for a Nuggets team that brought in Andre Iguodala and sports a slew of other players (Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari) who are all gunning for big years themselves.
Much like McGee in Denver, Jordan Hill came to the Lakers by way of a trade just prior to the deadline and opened some eyes once Mike Brown decided to use him.
A line of 4.7 points and 4.4 rebounds in 11.7 minutes across seven games may not seem like much on paper, but it looks much more impressive on film, where Hill can be seen hustling, defending and throwing his weight around down low.
Hill's stat-defying stunts came through even more clearly in the playoffs, when he averaged 4.8 points and 6.3 rebounds while providing LA with some much-needed depth and energy up front against the Nuggets.
Hill could've taken more money elsewhere, but opted instead to re-sign with the Lakers on a two-year deal at a discount. His fealty figures to be rewarded with a spot in the starting lineup alongside Pau Gasol to start the season while Dwight Howard's back heals.
With big minutes on hand, Hill will finally have the opportunity to show why he was the eighth overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft.
Nobody's expecting the New Orleans Hornets to post a winning record in the Western Conference, much less crack an already-crowded playoff picture.
That being said, the Hornets should rank among the more intriguing and exciting teams to watch, one that will make the price of an NBA League Pass subscription that much more reasonable.
Between a healthy Eric Gordon, an improving Al-Farouq Aminu, the sweet shooting stroke of Ryan Anderson and the rookie duo of Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, New Orleans can boast a core that's tailor-made for running the floor and putting together enough eye-popping plays to fill a highlight reel.
And if the Hornets win a few games (say, 30-35) in the process, even better. The people of the Big Easy could certainly use good news of any sort.
On the whole, the Sacramento Kings are a mess. Jimmer Fredette already looks like a bust, Tyreke Evans is slowly becoming one—after being named the 2009-10 Rookie of the Year, no less—and the Maloofs can't seem to figure out whether the franchise is coming or going.
Not all is lost in California's capital, though. The Kings' front line is loaded with young talent and could rank among the best groups of bigs in the NBA. DeMarcus Cousins averaged better than 18 points and 11 rebounds last season and showed marked improvement once the Kings fired and replaced head coach Paul Westphal with Keith Smart.
If he continues his upward trend, Boogie may well wind up as the first player to represent the Kings at the All-Star Game since Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller were on the Western Conference squad in 2004.
Jason Thompson is hardly All-Star material, but is a solid rebounder and a rangy defender whose game is still growing at the not-so-tender age of 26.
The biggest wild card, though, is Thomas Robinson. The former Kansas standout is widely considered one of the more NBA-ready members of the 2012 rookie class. Robinson is a slightly undersized yet physical and athletic bruiser in the mold of Paul Millsap and Corliss Williamson with the body to bang on the boards and a skill set that works both inside and out.
The backcourt trio of Isaiah Thomas, Aaron Brooks and Marcus Thornton should make for some exciting basketball as well, but for those seeking hope in Sacramento this season, the forwards remain the best bet.
Speaking of size up front, the Washington Wizards suddenly have a rather beefy collection of big men now that Emeka Okafor has arrived in the Beltway. He'll be joined in the middle by the Brazilian behemoth Nene, along with the young and lanky Kevin Seraphin and the pleasantly productive Trevor Booker.
The fate of the Wizards' season, though, will depend on the backcourt duo of John Wall and rookie Bradley Beal. Wall's expected to take a significant leap forward now that knuckleheads like Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche have been purged from the roster. His numbers held steady last season, but figure to improve right along with the quality of his teammates.
Among them will be Beal. The third overall pick of the 2012 draft out of Florida will be counted on to stretch opposing defenses with his outside shooting and serve as Wall's running mate in transition.
If Wall and Beal can hold their end of the bargain, the Wizards may find themselves back in the playoff hunt sooner than anyone anticipated.
The Indiana Pacers have drawn criticism from some corners of NBA punditry for putting together a team full of good players that nonetheless lacks a singular superstar and, as such, is ill-equipped to make a deep playoff run any time soon.
That could all change, though, if Paul George enjoys the breakout season at which his considerable talent has long hinted.
The third-year swingman out of Fresno State upped his productivity during his sophomore campaign. He averaged 12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals and shot 38.5 percent from beyond the arc while establishing himself as a full-time starter at shooting guard.
Should the Pacers decide to shop Danny Granger during the season, George would likely slide over to his more natural position (small forward) and soak up some of the shots left behind by tge former All-Star.
And even if Granger stays, George's upward trajectory should carry him to next level, where he can assert himself as not only the Pacers' best and most talented player, but also as a legitimate star around which the franchise can focus its efforts now and into the future.