Breaking Down the 10 Biggest Surprises from the NBA's Early Going

Brett David RobertsCorrespondent IDecember 19, 2012

Breaking Down the 10 Biggest Surprises from the NBA's Early Going

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    At the quarter mark of the season, we've seen some shockers so far.  Dwight Howard's new team is 12-14, and the supposedly-decimated Orlando Magic are 11-13.  

    The New York Knicks have finally emerged as the team people thought they should have been over the past few seasons.  Several other teams have outperformed expectations, as well.

    The season has been chock full of surprises.

    Without spoiling it further, let's take a look at the top-10 surprises so far in the 2012-13 campaign.

The Los Angeles Lakers Are Struggling

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    The L.A. Lakers' struggles early this season have been shocking and well-documented.  They've already ran through one head coach, firing Mike Brown just weeks into the season, and their replacement hasn't fared so well either.  

    Steve Nash has played 50 minutes all season, Pau Gasol is having his worst scoring season in his career and has been the subject of abundant trade chatter and Dwight Howard hasn't been featured enough offensively.

    About the only thing going right is Kobe Bryant, but Bryant has grown frustrated in recent times and is sick of the losing.  

    Going into this season, many felt the Lakers had the best collection of talent on paper.  And they still might.  But it takes more than four Hall of Famers to win a championship, and we've seen this equation fail before in L.A., when Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined forces with Shaq and Kobe.

    History seems doomed to repeat itself.  There's also no guarantee Howard sticks around beyond this season.  With so much uncertainty, the Lakers can only focus on trying to get better this year and hope the rest takes care of itself.

Memphis Is Doing It Big

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    The Grizzlies have gone 16-6 and have the third-best record in the Western Conference. Five of their six losses have come to conference foes.  

    The Grizzlies also suffered a three-game losing streak from Dec. 8-14 that featured losses to the Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets.

    Prior to this, the Grizzlies had gone 12-2 by the end of November and were situated atop the league. Perhaps it really shouldn't be a surprise, though.

    This Grizzlies team has had the talent in place for years now after their unsuccessful run in the 2011 Western Conference semis, where they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in seven. That season, they were without Rudy Gay.

    Last year, they were playing with Zach Randolph not at full health. With everyone fully healthy this season, this may be the year that the Grizz break through.

Golden State Has Been Golden

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    The Golden State Warriors are 17-8, and they haven't needed Andrew Bogut to do it.

    Last season, when the Warriors dealt Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh to the Bucks in exchange for Andrew Bogut, they thought they were obtaining a big man that could clog the paint with premier defense.

    But Bogut has played just 74 minutes all season and admitted he had microfracture surgery, meaning his recovery will be longer still.  

    So, take away Ellis, add nothing—and the result has still been victories.

    Stephen Curry has to be the prime nominee for the team's All-Star candidate, if they maintain this pace, which has them situated fifth in the Western Conference. If the playoffs began today, they would square off in a tough 4-5 match against the Spurs.

    Yes, it's just a quarter of the way through the season, but excitement is running high in Oracle Arena. This could be the best chance they've had since the 2007 upset of the No. 1 seeded Dallas Mavericks.

"This Is the Kemba Walker We Drafted!"

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    Kemba Walker has improved remarkably, and the Bobcats have been all the better for it. This season, Walker is scoring 0.958 points per play in isolation, which ranks him No. 26 in the league in isolation scoring. Last year, he was ranked No. 180 (ESPN Insider). 

    Walker is averaging 18.5 points per game this season and has posted a PER of nearly 20. Comparatively, last year, Walker shot just 36.6 percent from the floor and posted a PER of just under 15.

    Walker's usage rate is not really much higher (24.5 percent in 2012-13, 24.1 percent last season), but his efficiency has increased at such a rate that he has helped the Bobcats go 7-17. That's not really a great record, but last year they went 7-59. So take improvement as it comes.

Meet MVP Melo

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    The Knicks were expected to still be a good team without Amar'e Stoudemire. But no one quite expected this much success.

    Really, things all turned for the better last season when Jeremy Lin jump-started the team, and then they continued to play well when Carmelo Anthony returned. Lin is now gone, but Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd have played well together in the backcourt.

    And Anthony has matured as a player into a true MVP candidate.  Melo is posting 27-plus points per game and hitting his highest field-goal percentage since the 2007-08 season in Denver.

    The Knicks are 18-6 and have the best record in the Eastern Conference, and they hadn't lost a home game until a Dec. 17 loss to Lin's new team, the Houston Rockets.

    The Knicks were blown out the last time they faced the Rockets in Houston too, but have rolled against the East, going 12-2. Their two losses against teams in the East came in Chicago and Brooklyn.

    Can the Knicks build on this and get even better with STAT healthy and playing? Stoudemire is scheduled to return as early as Friday against the Bulls, according to the New York Daily News. It's unclear what exactly Stoudemire's role will be since Carmelo Anthony has been playing the 4-spot all season.

The Beard Exits OKC

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder did not advertise that James Harden was on the market. Then, without warning, Harden was dealt to the Houston Rockets (along with Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Daequan Cook) in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and future draft considerations.

    The Thunder had their Big Three broken up, as Harden wanted a super-max deal (which he received from Houston) and the Thunder were plunging into the luxury tax.

    Many felt this would deal the Thunder's title hopes a serious blow, but they are comfortably rolling along with a 20-4 record and the highest winning percentage in the league (.833).

    Harden has gone on to do big things in Houston, and he is ranked fifth in the league in points per game with a 25.1 per game average. The Rockets are a .500 team, far better than most expected.

    Would the Thunder have been better still with Harden? It's hard to say that Harden was a necessity, though he clearly has more talent than Kevin Martin. The fact is that sometimes a guy's talent is more than what is required for a given role on a team. That certainly proved to be the case for the Thunder.

D-Rose, the Return

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    A report surfaced that Derrick Rose was "weeks away from practicing." The report, which was courtesy of the Chicago Sun Times, did say that it didn't mean that the timetable on a February return date had necessarily been bumped up.  

    Nonetheless, the news is very encouraging for Bulls Nation. Everyone entertained the reasonable possibility that the Chicago Bulls would leave Rose on the shelf for the remainder of the 2012-13 season as a means of precaution with their one-time MVP.

    But Rose is a workaholic, and I detailed last week why Rose definitely puts the Bulls back in the discussion for Eastern Conference favorites. Bulls fans are excited, and NBA fans are in general, for the return of a player whose career path pre-injury could be said to be nothing less than Hall of Fame.

    Fingers are crossed that the recovery went perfectly and Rose returns to brilliance.

Anderson Varejao Is Very Good

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    Anderson Varejao has been a scrappy, hard-working and hard-nosed power forward his entire career. But this season he took it all to new heights.

    Varejao is leading the league in rebounding with 14.6 boards per contest, and he's snatching away an impressive 5.5 per game on the offensive end. In addition to the impressive job on the boards, he's also scoring 14.1 points per game while playing a career-high 36 minutes a night.

    Varejao has to be on course to win this year's Most Improved Player award, and at age 30, he could just be entering his prime. Varejao has been the subject of trade talk, and his value is very high at this point.

Damian's Dominance

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    Everyone knew there was at least one franchise player in the 2012 NBA draft with Anthony Davis of Kentucky being the consensus No. 1 pick. No one counted on there being a second.

    Enter: Damian Lillard.

    Lillard is being groomed by David Vanterpool to be their point guard of the future, and his learning curve has been fast. Lillard has averaged 18.8 points per game and 6.3 assists per game while hitting over two threes a night and playing 38 minutes per game.

    The Trail Blazers are 11-12 and could reasonably make a playoff push. It's satisfying for Blazers fans who expected the team to take a while to climb back to respectability after losing Greg Oden and Brandon Roy to devastating injuries.

Larry "Swat" Sanders and the Milwaukee Bucks

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    Larry Sanders of the Milwaukee Bucks leads the league in blocked shots with 3.09 blocks per game. He's doing it in just under 24 minutes of action per night.

    Again, in case you missed it: VCU product Larry Sanders is blocking more shots than Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee while playing essentially as many minutes as an oft-used backup.

    The Bucks are three games above .500 and sit just half a game behind the Bulls for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

    Sanders isn't the only Buck impressing. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are meshing well, and Ersan Ilyasova is starting to come around after a slow start. Fear the deer.