Ranking Biggest Early Surprises of the 2012-13 NBA Season

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterNovember 19, 2012

Ranking Biggest Early Surprises of the 2012-13 NBA Season

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    A quick jaunt through the first three weeks of the 2012-13 NBA season yields no shortage of signs that business is back to normal.

    LeBron James is playing like an MVP, Kobe Bryant is scoring like the second coming of old Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are shouldering an inordinately heavy load for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Metta World Peace is flailing at peoples' heads.

    But to focus on what is so usual about the league's business thus far is to ignore how topsy-turvy the world of pro basketball has been through mid-November.

    No, I'm not referring to the Milwaukee Bucks leading the Central Division, though that's certainly worth an honorable mention, as weak as the competition may be. Likewise, David Stern's retirement doesn't register on the Richter scale as he won't be stepping down for another year-and-a-half.

    All told, the absence of a season-shortening lockout has done little to stabilize the order of the NBA. If anything, a return to the status quo—at least as far as scheduling is concerned—has only made the league less predictable and more chaotic. 

    And, as a result, more fun to watch. For that, we give thanks, and look at the 10 most shocking developments thus far.

10. James Harden Rockets to the Top

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    Everybody and their mother knew that James Harden was an All-Star-caliber player.

    He made that quite clear last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, though his role as the NBA's leading sixth man didn't afford him the leeway to strut his stuff to the fullest.

    It stood to reason, then, that the bearded shooting guard would take his game to the next level after Thunder GM Sam Presti, in a stunning development, opted to ship him to the Houston Rockets just days before the start of the season.

    One could argue that Presti's decision didn't exactly come out of the blue, seeing as how he'd been reluctant to give in to Harden's Rod Tidwell tactics.

    That aside, did anyone really expect Harden to take off with the Rockets to the degree that he has so far? Through 10 games, Harden is the NBA's fourth-leading scorer at 24.2 points per game along with 4.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.4 steals.

    Granted, Harden's shooting percentages are all down from last year's and his overall numbers are inflated by his spectacular start—37 points, six rebounds, 12 assists and four steals against the Detroit Pistons followed by 45 points, seven rebounds and two assists against the Atlanta Hawks.

    Nevertheless, Harden has played well enough to this point to leave some questioning if the Thunder made the wrong call, essentially picking Serge Ibaka over Harden, and also whether or not Presti should have kept Harden and dumped Russell Westbrook.

    Which is somewhat insane, considering how good Westbrook is...but not completely insane, considering Harden might be that much better. 

9. Andrew Bynum Back in the Gutter

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    Rockets GM Daryl Morey should also be pleased that the star he wound up with wasn't Andrew Bynum. Houston had been in the mix for both of the NBA's top centers this summer, but ultimately decided to cash its chips at a later date.

    The Philadelphia 76ers, on the other hand, weren't so fortunate. They were thrilled to land Bynum for their part in the Dwight deal, and rightfully so. The mercurial big man was coming off a milestone season in which he earned his first All-Star selection (as a starter, no less) and kept his knees in working order.

    Unfortunately, those same knees have come to betray him once again.

    First, there was the return trip to Germany for the magical procedure that Kobe Bryant pioneered, and the subsequent rest period required. Then, there were the injections of lubricant into his troublesome joints, putting off Drew's Philly debut even further.

    Now, it appears as though Bynum won't join his new teammates on the court until January at the earliest because his knees are too fragile to stand even an innocent trip to the bowling alley.

    It's all too easy to lampoon Bynum in this case, given his reputation for behaving like a space cadet.

    However, doing so overlooks the real tragedy here—that a 25-year-old seven-footer with a deft touch around the basket can barely go about his life in a leisurely manner because of the damage already wrought upon his knees. 

8. No D in South Beach

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    For all the talk about LeBron James' MVP production and the Miami Heat's innovative offense, it was defense that propelled them to the NBA title this past June.

    A defense that has thus far gone wanting in 2012-13. The Heat currently rank in the bottom third of the league in just about every defensive category, including defensive efficiency (per Team Rankings).

    Given, some slippage was to be expected. After all, Miami starts Shane Battier at "power forward," with the slender Chris Bosh attempting to play the 5. But the degree to which the Heat have sacrificed their bread and butter in the name of small ball is rather alarming.

    It's one thing to get pounded in the paint and greased on the glass when you willingly play an undersized front line. It's another to allow the opposition to torch you from downtown and fail to force turnovers at anything more than a middling rate.

    The Heat have more than enough offensive firepower to survive the regular season and still emerge as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, they will have to get their act together on the other end if they intend to defend their title come playoff time. 

7. Anthony Davis Not Alone in ROY Race

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    Anthony Davis' rookie campaign has yielded its fair share of ups (two double-doubles, three 20-point games) and downs (a concussion, four losses in six games) thus far. On the whole, though, it has been a success.

    To date, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft leads all first-year players in rebounding (8.3) and blocks (2.2) and is second in scoring (16.0).

    But the kid ahead of him, Damian Lillard, is positioning himself for a run at Davis' preseason claim to the league's Rookie of the Year honors.

    The scoring point guard has been a revelation for the Portland Trail Blazers thus far, averaging 19 points (.447 from the field, .387 from three), 6.1 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals as a starter since Day 1.

    Along the way, the Weber State product has earned praise from some of the NBA's best and brightest starts, including Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers. 

    If Lillard continues to impress as he has in the early going, the coveted Eddie Gottlieb Trophy may be his—and not Davis'—to lose.

6. Limping T-Wolves' Hot Start

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    What do you call a team that has a winning record through its first nine games despite losing key players to injury at nearly every turn?

    How about "the Minnesota Timberwolves?"

    That description certainly applies to Rick Adelman's squad. The T-Wolves came into the start of the season without Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, and have since seen Nikola Pekovic, Chase Budinger, Brandon Roy and J.J. Barea join them on the trainer's table.

    Luckily, they have gotten All-Star-caliber production out of Andrei Kirilenko (14.1 points on 59.7 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.2 blocks) in his return from Russia.

    Admittedly, Minny's 5-4 record in the face of all this adversity stems in large part from an easy early-season slate. The T-Wolves' best win so far came on the road against the Brooklyn Nets, with losses to the Toronto Raptors, the short-handed Chicago Bulls, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Golden State Warriors on their resume.

    Nonetheless, if Adelman can keep his team's collective head above water until some of his core players return, he will be in the mix for Coach of the Year honors.

    And a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. 

5. Celtics' Struggles After Reloading

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    The Boston Celtics had the makings of the second-best team in the Eastern Conference after a strong offseason.

    Yes, they lost Ray Allen to the rival Miami Heat, but did well to replace a bad-ankled shooter with a bevy of quality guards (Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Leandro Barbosa) while adding some depth to their front line.

    Those additions, along with Rajon Rondo's own improvement, have lifted the C's from putridity to respectability on offense, while dropping them from elite to awful on defense.

    Which is all too troubling, considering that Boston has long prided itself on work done on that end of the floor. The Celts have collapsed from second to 24th in defensive efficiency (points per possession) and opponent field goal percentage, despite getting younger and deeper across the board.

    These numbers should improve to some extent once the new guys gel, and Avery Bradley returns from shoulder surgery. What's more, the C's have been notorious for their slow starts and probably won't look like the team everyone has expected to see until the postseason rolls around.

    Even so, questions about Boston's priorities remain.

    They've been blown out by the Milwaukee Bucks and the Detroit Pistons, and Doc Rivers' decision to leave Rondo in the latter content to chase Magic Johnson's double-digit assist streak reeks of dysfunction. 

4. Roy Hibbert's Disappearing Act

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    What the heck has happened to Roy Hibbert?

    With a fat, new contract in his back pocket, the big man was expected to take his game to the next level this season. The Indiana Pacers needed someone to pick up the slack in light of Danny Granger's prolonged absence, and who better than the 2012 All-Star? 

    Instead, Hibbert has regressed to an alarming extent. He's scoring (8.5 points) and rebounding (7.9 boards) less than he did last season, and can't seem to stay on the floor for more than 30 minutes a game.

    Worst of all, Hibbert—all 7'2" of him—is hitting an abysmal 40.7 percent of his shots from the field and 51.9 percent of his free throws.

    Could we be looking at the next Andris Biedrins?

    The Pacers certainly hope that's not the case, lest they see their window in the East slam shut.

3. Grizzlies' Rousing Reserves

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    There's plenty to like about this year's Memphis Grizzlies.

    They're top six in both offensive and defensive rating (per Basketball Reference); they sport arguably the NBA's best front court in Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay; and Mike Conley Jr. is finally coming into his own as one of the league's better floor generals. 

    What truly makes the 8-2 Grizzlies great, though, is their bench. Memphis' reserves were expected to take a significant step back after the team parted ways with O.J. Mayo and shipped Dante Cunningham to Minnesota. 

    Instead, this new crew has come out like gangbusters in support of a superb starting five. Wayne Ellington, Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter are all shooting lights-out from three-point range.

    That is, when they're not busy sharing the ball or getting after the opposition on defense.

    Down low, Marreese Speights continues to provide plenty of bang for his bulk, though his shooting percentages could use some work.

    The Grizzlies' second unit is bound to cool off at some point. In the meantime, the "Memphis Grind" figures to find itself in the championship conversation.

2. Knicks' Three-Point Barrage

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    Speaking of unexpectedly hot starts, the New York Knicks looked darn near unstoppable until the aforementioned Grizz mauled them on Friday.

    Despite the loss, the Knicks remain a team to be reckoned with until further notice.

    The defense has been fantastic, but that was to be expected from a group featuring Tyson Chandler, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and the coaching of Mike Woodson, under whom New York became a shutdown squad last season.

    So, too, would the basketball world have predicted that Carmelo Anthony would contend for a scoring title while shooting in the low-to-mid-40s from the field.

    Of greater note is New York's proficiency from beyond the arc. As it happens, Steve Novak (37.8 percent) is only the fourth-most accurate marksman among the Knicks' regulars, behind Ronnie Brewer (42.1 percent), Jason Kidd (52.0 percent) and JR Smith (60.0 percent). On the whole, the Knicks' 39.5-percent mark from three ranks as the fourth-best in the NBA after checking in among the bottom third of the league in 2011-12.

    Can the Knicks keep it up?

    That seems unlikely. But so long as they continue to share the ball and defend as furiously as they have been, the No. 2 seed in the East may not be a pipe dream, after all.

1. Battle of Los Angeles

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    The Lakers came in as something of a powder keg after trading for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard over the summer. As it happened, an ugly preseason and a lack of meaningful action landed Mike Brown squarely on the firing line after all of five games.

    As if that weren't insane enough, the Purple and Gold went about their coaching search in the most perplexing manner imaginable.

    The public cried out for a Phil Jackson trilogy, was led to believe the job was his, and then, at the stroke of midnight, found out that Mike D'Antoni won out.

    Now, it's entirely possible, though unlikely, that D'Antoni was the top choice of the Lakers' brass all along—that the meeting with the Zen Master was a courtesy meant to appease the fans, and that the anonymous "sources" involved were all attempting to spin the story to their advantage. 

    Whatever the case may be, the whole situation was insane, and has made the Clippers (yes, the Clippers) look like the picture of stability—even with Vinny Del Negro on the sidelines and Chris Paul approaching free agency.

    Despite those distractions, the Clipps own arguably the league's most impressive early-season resume.

    They're responsible for Memphis' only loss of the season and, on their current five-game streak, have handled the Miami Heat and blown out the San Antonio Spurs, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls.

    And guess who's leading the team in scoring? If you wagered that it's CP3 or Blake Griffin, try again. Jamal Crawford, an early favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award, paces the team at 19.7 points per game while shooting unbelievable percentages from the field. 

    What might be craziest of all, though, is that Kobe Bryant, at the tender age of 34, is enjoying arguably the finest season of his Hall-of-Fame career—a storyline that has gone largely unnoticed with the bevy of headlines flying out of the Staples Center these days.