6 Shocking Surprises of the NBA Season
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As usual, there have been a number of developments in the NBA that have caught us by surprise this season. Orlando, Houston and Atlanta have all outperformed expectations, while a number of players have excelled beyond what was anticipated coming into this season.
Last week, I covered some of the surprises in the "10 Biggest Surprises of the NBA's Early Going," and this week I'm going to continue to expand upon that by presenting six more surprises that have caught our attention as the NBA presses on into the new year.
The Orlando Magic Haven't Been Tragic
Aaron Afflalo is averaging a career high 16.5 ppg.
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Orlando was projected by Vegas oddsmakers to win 22 games this season. We're barely a quarter of the way through the season and already the 12-15 Magic are more than halfway there. With the loss of franchise center Dwight Howard, the Magic were pegged to be a rebuilding team.
They still are.
But they aren't a rebuilding team in full-on tank mode. At least they're not playing like one.
Holdover Glen Davis was playing nearly All-Star caliber basketball prior to his shoulder injury. The main chip in the Dwight Howard trade, Aaron Afflalo, has been every bit as good as the Magic hoped they would be when they made the move to obtain him.
Nikola Vucevic has expanded upon a good rookie season (check his per-36 numbers last year) and is quickly developing into a very good center. The Magic have taken down the surprisingly good Golden State Warriors, the L.A. Lakers (who hasn't?) and the Denver Nuggets.
While it's a bit early to start reserving playoff tickets, the Magic likely won't be one of the worst teams in the lottery this year, which can either be pleasing or disappointing to fans, depending on what they wanted the rebuilding effort to be.
Houston, We Have a Team
James Harden is fourth in the league in scoring.
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Last slideshow, I mentioned the surprising trade of James Harden, whose need for a max-contract made it impossible for the Oklahoma City Thunder to retain his services.
Harden's play has been brilliant, and his services will make it possible for the Rockets to bring in some more stars (I'll have more coming on this notion on Thursday; stay tuned).
Harden and the Rockets have been shockingly good and have blown out the best team in the Eastern Conference (by record) twice and handed the Knicks their first loss in MSG.
While Jeremy Lin's expectations were likely set a little too high due to last year's "Linsanity," Lin has played reasonably well, as have all of his teammates.
Omer Asik has shown he is a far better player than most anticipated when he was pegged as a pure defensive specialist (not that his baskets have been sky hooks and "Dream Shakes"). Patrick Patterson looks like a player who never spent time in the D-League. And Chandler Parsons is the best second-round pick since Manu Ginobili.
The Rockets have a legitimate chance of sneaking into the playoffs, and once they get there, anything can happen.
No Joe? No Problem!
What will become of Mr. Smith come February?
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When the Atlanta Hawks traded Joe Johnson in a cap-clearing, rebuilding type of move, most expected the Hawks to fall into disarray and plummet to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks are 16-9 and sit as the third best team in the East. That's better than they did with Joe Johnson, who has been sparklingly horrible in Brooklyn, by the way.
The Hawks are getting it done with an entirely new identity, a team without a true star of any sort, but plenty of talent. The real interesting matter will be to see what happens with free-agent-to-be Josh Smith, whose services are sure to be in demand as the trade deadline approaches in February.
As to the future direction of the Hawks, it's hard to say. They'll have cap room and should be able to add another top-shelf talent to mesh with their collection of above-average role players. For a team so many were counting out, the Hawks are on track to have home-court advantage in the playoffs.
The Mayo Is Loose
This is the O.J. Mayo we thought we'd see four seasons ago.
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O.J. Mayo impressed mightily as a rookie in 2008-09 as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies and continued to do so his sophomore season in the league, averaging roughly 18 points per game over his first two seasons in the Association.
Then, the Memphis Grizzlies decided to slash Mayo's playing time following the 2009-10 season, and his play fell off across the board.
"What happened to Mayo?" many wondered.
The answer, it turns out, was nothing. Mayo's skill set never depreciated, only his role. We know that because now as a member of the Mavericks, Mayo has regained his brilliance—plus some.
He's averaging a career high 19.3 points per game and shooting a career high both from the floor (47 percent) and from three-point land, where he is busting down a blistering 48.6 percent of his threes.
Mayo has kept the 12-16 Mavericks competitive without franchise forward Dirk Nowitzki, leaving many to speculate that Dallas could be a legitimate contender when Dirk returns and is at full health.
The True Jrue
Can Holiday enter the elite class of NBA point guards?
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Philadelphia was pegged to be a sleeper team coming into the 2012-13 NBA season due to the acquisition of Andrew Bynum (which cost them only Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, Mo Harkless and a 2013 NBA draft pick).
Bynum has yet to play a game this season, and there is no clear timetable on the return of the second-best center in the league.
But that hasn't stopped Jrue Holiday from performing at an All-Star level. Holiday has increased his scoring output by nearly five points per game this season (18.3 points per game thus far), while nearly doubling his assist production from last season as well (8.8 this season, compared to just 4.5 last year).
Holiday is an emerging NBA superstar.
Pau Gasol's Gross Decline
Can Pau pick it up with Nash back in action?
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Last slideshow focused on the disappointment of the L.A. Lakers, and not to cast a stone into Lake Redundancy, but Pau Gasol has been one of the main reasons the Lakers have been so disappointing.
Gasol has been the center of abundant trade rumors, and given his poor performances, that is only natural. The crux of the matter for the Lakers is whether Gasol's play can rebound with Steve Nash now back on the court.
Nash has a known ability to enhance the talents of those around him, and though Gasol has never been the type whose play was reliant upon a premier playmaker, it certainly can't hurt.
Gasol struggled with his shot in Nash's return, going just 4-of-11 from the floor. He also had five turnovers. But one game is a pretty small sample size to base any assessment off, so there's still a chance that Gasol's play could improve with Nash back on the court.