The 10 Most Notable Surprises and Disappointments so Far in the NBA

Allen StrkContributor IIIDecember 21, 2012

The 10 Most Notable Surprises and Disappointments so Far in the NBA

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    The NBA has been pretty competitive so far this season. Not many teams have been dominant and everything has been mostly predictable. That being said, you'll always witness surprises and disappointments, especially early on.

    So far this season, we've seen a few teams that have stepped up and are in the upper echelon of the standings in their respective conferences. There have also been players that have made a bigger impact than expected, while other players have struggled for the most part this season.

    I'll break down the surprises and disappointments, along with bringing up the alternatives on how the surprises still have concerns and how the disappointments have hope. Here's 10 things that most people didn't see coming while making predictions in October.

New York Basketball Is Truly Back

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    It has been a long thirteen years, but the New York Knicks should finally break the ugly streak of not winning a playoff series. Many people including myself were skeptical about the Knicks bringing in older talent and how it would work with a team nowhere near title contention.

    That has changed in an instant with older players like Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace being rejuvenated. They have both played at a high level. Carmelo Anthony has played at an MVP level and is slowly shedding his reputation of being a selfish player.

    The biggest two reasons for the Knicks' success comes down to the main positions, which are center and point guard. Tyson Chandler may be considered overpaid, but he's single-handedly made the Knicks better than average and knows his limits. Raymond Felton has been a great signing and has really carried the scoring load when Anthony has struggled.

    With Chandler's rebounding and dominance in the pain and Felton's playmaking ability, the Knicks have really turned it up a notch and are the top seed in the East right now. They still don't have Amare Stoudemire or Iman Shumpert back yet and those are two dynamic players that could make the Knicks even more lethal.

     

    Cause For Concern

    The Knicks still have some issues that makes me skeptical if they can actually be championship contenders.

    I'm going to keep a close eye on how the older players on the Knicks continue to play when the season is in April and May. It will be interesting to see how much mileage they have considering the Knicks are the oldest team in the league.

    The other cause for concern is how Amare Stoudemire is going to fit. Stoudemire is a player that demands the ball and tends to phase out of the game if he isn't scoring. Mike Woodson needs to get him with the game plan and needs to make sure that he isn't a cancer to a team that has a really good nucleus right now. 

No Showtime in Los Angeles

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    The biggest disappointment in the NBA has to be the Los Angeles Lakers so far. At first when I was watching the Lakers' struggles, I felt that it was similar to the first year that Miami formed their dynamic trio. Instead the Lakers continued to under-perform and their flaws were exposed.

    Despite making several splashy moves in the offseason, the Lakers still failed to address their problem of outside shooting. They don't have a true three-point shooter that can benefit with playing for a player that commands double teams like Dwight Howard and a point guard like Steve Nash. The lack of good outside shooters has really made teams game-plan to block the paint. 

    The biggest issue with Los Angeles has to be Pau Gasol. Gasol hasn't been the same since 2010 and has really struggled to fit in with the Lakers' system. It still shocks me that he's still on the team because he's been constantly criticized about his production. I've always liked Gasol and feel that he needs a change of scenery.

    It also doesn't help when your major piece to a championship-caliber team hasn't played up to expectations. Dwight Howard has put up solid numbers, but he's had games where he becomes an afterthought or hurts the team with his lackluster free-throw shooting. For someone that has played on an elite level like Howard, he has been a disappointment so far.

     

    Reason For Hope 

    The Lakers are currently on a three-game winning streak and far too talented to continue to play this poorly. With Steve Nash starting to get healthy, you'll see the Lakers hit their full stride. The chemistry between D'Antoni and Nash was fantastic back when they were together in Phoenix.

    Nash is still a difference maker and he makes the offense far less predictable when he's in the lineup. With Nash back, I'm expecting the Lakers to start picking it up and getting back in the playoff picture. They need time to gel and you'll start to see that as the weeks go on.

    They just may need to trade for an outside shooter or two, which shouldn't be a problem. Mitch Kupchak has never shied away from making a move within the season and it shouldn't surprise anyone if he makes one again.

Damian Lillard Making a Bigger Impact Than Expected

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    When Damian Lillard was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers, some people were skeptical because he didn't play in a major conference and didn't have the "national popularity." Austin Rivers, Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes were bigger names and had analysts drooling over their potential.

    Instead Portland took Lillard, and he has out-performed all three of those players by leaps and bounds. 

    Lillard has been a game-changer and has given Portland an explosive point guard for the first time in quite some time. You may consider him their replacement for Brandon Roy since he's more of a playmaker than true point guard.

    Regardless of who you compare him with or what you say about his playing style, Lillard has shown the ability to be one of the most explosive point guards in the league. The best part about Lillard is his tendency to play his best against top competition. He's scored over 20 points in games against Los Angeles, San Antonio and Oklahoma City along with shooting 46 percent in those games.

    Its good that a rookie gets to play with an All-Star big man. Lillard has benefited from playing with LaMarcus Aldridge and they are starting to form a nice duo. With not many expectations placed on Portland, the vibe in Portland is just to see who is a keeper for the future. So far Lillard is more of a keeper, he's one of the main components to a rising franchise. 

     

    Cause For Concern

    The same rule applies to rookies about possibly burning out by the All-Star break and they go through phases of poor shooting. Lillard has gone through some poor shooting games, relying on his jump shot too often. He can shoot but he's far from being truly a consistent jump shooter.

    He has gone through the usual phases of turnovers that most rookie point guards go through. Lillard is too fast for his own good at times and can get sloppy when driving to the paint. As time goes on, he should learn how to play more relaxed and develop more ways to score.

Roy Hibbert Needs to Get More Aggressive

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    It was only last year that Roy Hibbert was an All-Star. Even though he was lucky to even make it, it's a big achievement to make an All-Star team. Hibbert was considered to be one of the next breakout stars and a major reason why the Indiana Pacers were going to continue to be a top seed in the East. 

    Instead Hibbert has floundered by averaging a notch below 10 points a game and only grabbing 8 rebounds a game. With Danny Granger hurt for a significant amount of time, Hibbert was expected to produce even more. He's always lacked aggressiveness and that was evident against the Miami Heat in the playoffs last year. 

    After numerous reports saying that Roy was going to work on being better defensively and more aggressive offensively, he's only shown improvement defensively. Hibbert is averaging 3 blocks a game and has been Indiana's anchor defensively, but they need him to be more efficient.

    Hibbert is averaging 10 shots per game, which is a positive sign, but he's not even shooting 40 percent. For a big man that is deplorable since Hibbert is usually taking most of his shots within the paint. It comes down to him using his fundamentals more and not throwing up shots.

    He's only attempting around two free throws a game, which is another problem. That stat needs to increase for him to fully develop into a top center.

     

    Reason For Hope

    Hibbert has always been talented and has shown flashes of dominating games, especially last year. Indiana coach Frank Vogel has spoken publicly about Hibbert's struggles and has taken extensive time to work on his offensive game.

    What it comes down to is using more fundamentals and being more aggressive.

    For a big man, he needs to get to the free-throw line more. When you are playing close to 30 minutes and relied upon to be a scorer at his height, only averaging two free throws a game is unacceptable. I'm sure he'll get more aggressive as the season goes on because Indiana is really making a top priority to get Hibbert to evolve into a true All-Star center.

The Golden State Warriors Are Healthy (Mostly) and Ready to Play

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    When you looked at the team on paper, you knew that Golden State Warriors could be a playoff contender. The team had loads of talent with Stephen Curry, David Lee, Andrew Bogut as players that have played at an all-star level. The issue was if the stars can stay healthy and if role players can step up.

    Other than Andrew Bogut being injured again, everything has gone to plan. Stephen Curry has fully recovered from the ankle problems and is averaging 20 points a game, while becoming more than just a scorer. His assists are up to six a game and has benefited from not playing with Monta Ellis anymore.

    The other major positive story has been the role players stepping up. Klay Thompson is having a breakout season and Carl Landry could be in the sixth man of the year discussions. Thompson quietly put together a solid rookie season, but is now getting more attention for a Warriors team that is 17-9. Landry has always been solid and fits well with the Warriors' offense.

    Mark Jackson is always someone that I high hopes for being a coach and has done a great job with the Warriors so far this season. David Lee has been consistent as usual and continues to evolve his offensive game.

    It has been a team effort all year for the Warriors and that could easily make them a dark horse in the West when playoff season comes.

     

    Cause For Concern

    Golden State looks equipped for a playoff run with the depth of talent on the roster. They have been built really well.

    But the lack of height is concerning. Andrew Bogut continues to be injury-prone and I'm not sure if he should be relied on anymore. 

    Bogut can be a difference maker with his height and his presence down in the paint, but I just don't see him ever being the same player again. That leaves Golden State undersized and eventually they'll run into problems. I'm not sure what to do with Bogut, but I'd start looking into possible long-term solutions at center so they won't be undersized in the future against top teams in the Western Conference. 

Boston Celtics' Slow Start Is Different from Past Years

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    It seems like every year that the Boston Celtics start the season slowly, but there was a feeling they wouldn't this year. They were coming off the devastating seven-game series loss to their arch-rival, the Miami Heat. With the offseason additions, they seemed equipped to go a full season winning on a consistent basis. 

    It hasn't made much of a difference and Boston is going through their usual slow start. The big three has been relied on as usual, which has to disappoint Boston fans. Jason Terry has been a decent pickup and has produced like he usually does, but where is everyone else? Courtney Lee has been solid defensively, but shooting 27 percent from the three-point line has to disappoint Boston fans.

    Boston is 13-12 right now, which has to be concerning because you would think they play with a chip on their shoulder. Instead it seems like they are going through just phases, which is the usual Boston Celtics regular season. With the East being better than ever, this could come back to haunt them. The East is getting much more talented and if Boston somehow manages not to get home court for at least one round, it will hurt.

    They have realized that Rajon Rondo has taken over the team, which is smart since he's the most capable. The supporting cast just hasn't played up to expectations and that has hurt the team in general. This could be another case of overreacting about Boston, but it's alarming that they haven't come out this season hot considering they were one game away from the NBA finals.

     

    Reason For Hope

    Avery Bradley should be back from a major injury by early January. When Boston went on their hot streak, Bradley was a major part of that. Bradley usually guards the best swingman on the other team because of his versatility on defense. They miss him and that should give Boston more depth.

    I'm sure Doc Rivers can't be happy with Boston right now and he'll shore things up. It wouldn't surprise me if you saw Boston trade for a center to add some height. Boston is a wise organization and they won't let a team that came so close to the NBA Finals just flounder to a low seed in the East. 

A Change of Scenery Did O.J Mayo Wonders

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    While watching the first round of the playoffs, it was frustrating to watch the Memphis Grizzles. They had too many players that were similar. O.J Mayo was stuck in a limbo and really needed a change of scenery. It was clear that the sixth man role wasn't going to work.

    The Dallas Mavericks decided to give him a chance and it has worked wonders.

    Mayo has always been a talented scorer that is so versatile with his athleticism and shooting. Now that he's starting and playing 35 minutes a game, Mayo has become more comfortable and has been productive. Mayo is averaging 20 points a game, shooting 48 percent from the field and 50 percent from three, which is remarkable for a player that shoots a lot.

    With Dirk Nowitzki returning in a few weeks, I'm interested to see how Mayo plays now that he's not the focal point for opposing teams' defenses. Dallas has stayed afloat without Dirk and Mayo is the biggest reason for that.

    Mayo has had some productive years, but after being lost in the shuffle last year, he could be a prime candidate to be the Most Improved Player. His scoring efficiency can't be disputed and he's making Mark Cuban look like a genius for taking a chance on him.

     

    Cause For Concern 

    I'm not really concerned for Mayo because he's always been a player that I know can be a star. He was just in a bad situation and needed a new team desperately. The addition of Nowitzki shouldn't be a problem for Mayo because that means less attention for defenses to key on him.

    If there was a concern for Mayo, it would be to keep staying consistent and taking smart shots. One issue he had in the past few seasons is his attitude and focus. If he can continue to stay focused, Dallas has a possible All-Star on hand. 

Deron Williams Isn't Playing Up to His Standards

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    Deron Williams is one of the most prolific point guards in the league. Regardless of this team's record, Williams put up huge numbers and never showed signs of quitting. With the recent additions to the new-look team, you would expect this to be one of his finest seasons yet.

    Instead the Brooklyn Nets have started out 13-12 and continue to struggle to gel. Other than coach Avery Johnson, this has to fall on Deron Williams. He's supposed to be the leader and he hasn't stepped up in pressure situations like he's used to. He's trying to get others involved but it seems very forced.

    The issue with the combination of Williams and All-Star guard Joe Johnson is they rely on having the ball far too much. That has led to an issue with the All-Star guards and they have't used their talents to play off each other. It has been too much one-on-one play between both guys instead of finding openings with one another.

    The stats are pretty alarming for Williams. He's shooting just 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from the three-point line.

    You would expect with the talent around him, Williams would have one of his most efficient seasons ever. Instead everything seems forced right now and it has hurt Williams' performance.

     

    Reason For Hope

    There is still no denying that Williams is a top-five point guard in the league. We are still talking about a point guard that at one point averaged a double-double for four straight seasons. He's the real deal and should play better as time goes on.

    Similar to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nets are too talented to continue to struggle. You could see Williams take more control of the offense and start to take more command. He's too good of a player to keep sharing with a player like Johnson, who's very good but not a franchise player like Williams.

Surprising Teams on Top of Respective Conferences

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    It may be early, but it has to be exciting to see teams that you wouldn't expect at the top of the standings currently at the top.

    In the East, you have the Atlanta Hawks that are sneaking up on a few people. After the loss of Joe Johnson, I felt that the Hawks would barely sneak into the playoffs. Josh Smith is still a top player and if Al Horford can stay healthy, he be an All-Star center.

    So far it has led to a hot start, with role players like Kyle Korver and Louis Williams feeding off both stars. Korver is a great fit for this team when opposing teams have to game-plan for Smith and Horford. Williams has always been an explosive player, but he seems to fit well with a fast-paced Hawks offense that can run with Smith and Jeff Teague. 

    In the West, you have the Los Angeles Clippers that are off to a 19-6 start. Everyone expected them to be around the middle of the playoff standings, but the fast start has caught people off guard. The signing of Jamal Crawford has really given them a more consistent bench scorer compared to Nick Young last year. 

    Crawford is too one-dimensional for my taste, but you have to give him his due for the way he's playing. The role players have played at a high level so far this season and if they can keep it up, they can be a force to be reckon with. You know what you'll get with Chris Paul and Griffin, but it's on players like Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes that can give that spark from the bench. 

Injuries Have Really Started to Pile Up in the NBA

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    This may be a common disappointment but it has really stood out. The injuries have increased this season and it's only December. The amount of stars that you see on top of league leaders have been missed. A few will be back within the next few weeks, while others still have a few months before they make their eventual return.

    Derrick Rose remains injured, even though he was expected to miss almost a year. Chicago has played well in his absence and if they can keep their record above .500 until he comes back, Chicago should be able to make a run in the playoffs. 

    Dirk Nowitzki is another superstar that has been missing even though his return should be coming shortly. It was an odd injury considering it happened around mid-October. Dallas has shown some promise without him, but after last night's performance against Miami it showed they need him if they want to stand a chance against the best teams on a nightly basis. 

    Danny Granger is another player that is going through a long-term injury and won't be back until the spring. Indiana has played decently in his absence, but it seems to me that they are benefiting from a weak Eastern conference more than actual talent. The team is still solid but they are very short-handed right now offensively without Granger.

    Steve Nash was mentioned before and has to be mentioned again. Even if he's on the downside of his career, Nash is still a difference maker. When he returns, it makes that Los Angeles offense more unpredictable and it should make the addition of Mike D'Antoni worth something.

    The last major injury has to be with John Wall. Washington was a team that I felt had some promise and could possibly challenge for a eighth seed. Instead they are 3-20 and are the worst team in the league. Wall's explosiveness and command makes Washington more of a threat to teams instead of the current slow, predictable team.  

    Of course there are more injuries like Amare Stoudemire and Andrew Bogut, even though they have become yearly injury-prone figures. The same can be said for Eric Gordon as well.

    When you look at the list, it makes you thankful if you are rooting for a team that hasn't dealt with any injuries.

Final Thoughts on the Season so Far

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    I'm sure that some of the surprises may stand out more than others along with the disappointments. When I made my preseason predictions, the Lakers were my pick to represent the Western Conference in the NBA finals. The New York Knicks were the fifth seed and I had them losing to the Miami Heat in the second round.

    Right now if I had to pick an MVP, it would have to be Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has really started playing at an elite level where he's doing more than just scoring. He's becoming an all-around leader with his defensive intensity and rebounding.

    When the NFL season is over, I'll write more about basketball. Right now with the NFL being at the most important time of the year and MMA having some major PPV's, it has been tough to write about NBA. I'm still always watching because I'm a huge fan but it takes time to muster up enough information.

    It's one thing to rely on stats, but you need to visually watch it to give an opinion. Stats can be misleading at times and you'll see that as time goes on this season.

     

    Allen Strk is a columnist on Bleacher Report. You can read more of my work atTJRSports.com covering the NFL, NBA, and MMA. You can follow me at @Allen_Strk on Twitter or e-mail questions/comments at AStrk19@gmail.com.