Every NBA season is filled with surprises.
Exhibit A: The Los Angeles Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the summer. At this moment, they are sitting below .500 and outside the West's playoff bracket.
Exhibit B: The Los Angeles Clippers added Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and a still-injured Grant Hill. They're sitting atop the Western Conference. The Clippers. In first place.
The Lakers' relative demise is shocking, but the Clippers' rise, to this degree is perhaps even more unexpected. Los Angeles' other team is one of several NBA clubs to shake off years, even decades, of malaise to storm up the standings this season.
Not all of these surprise squads are title contenders, to be sure. However, they're giving their respective fanbases hope for a brighter tomorrow after so many dreary yesterdays. From coast to coast, here are the franchises that deserve a toast for their turnarounds this season.
*All statistical information via basketball-reference.com and accurate as of 12:00 pm Eastern Time, Jan. 8, 2013*
2012-13 Win Percentage: 50.0%
Franchise Win Percentages
Last 10 Seasons: 38.0%
Last 5 Seasons: 28.4%
Last 10 Seasons: 1
Last 5 Seasons: 0
This is truly the franchise that Kevin Garnett built.
The Timberwolves have never made the playoffs without Kevin Garnett on the roster. Despite reaching eight postseasons, questionable trades and signings ultimately stymied the Garnett Era in Minnesota. Only once were the proper pieces placed alongside the Big Ticket. Unsurprisingly, that one moment was in the 2003-04 season when the T-Wolves advanced all the way to the Western Conference finals.
That playoff run 10 years ago was the last time the Wolves made the postseason. Kevin McHale's underwhelming tenure as GM ended and David Kahn took over. Still, the malaise lingered. From 2008 to 2011, Minnesota won less than 25 games every season. This was clearly the nadir of their misery.
Ousted GM Kevin McHale, nonetheless, had planted the seeds of a turnaround with his draft day trade of O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love.
The promising seed of Kevin Love was nonetheless buried for a few years by Kurt Rambis' curious (awful) rotations. Routinely, the lackluster Ryan Hollins usurped Love's minutes. For his part, David Kahn also didn't seem enamored with Love. It wasn't until Love's spectacular 31-point, 31-rebound game against the Knicks in 2010 that Minnesota realized it had a franchise player on its hands.
The club still finished that season with a miserable 17-65 record in the 2010-11 season. However, the 2011 offseason arrival of draftee Ricky Rubio offered more hope.
Most importantly, though, may have been the acquisition of the magnificent Rick Adelman as coach. In 2011-12, the Timberwolves posted an improved 26-40 record. That win percentage of .394 was their best since 2005-06.
This season, the Timberwolves are sitting at .500 for the first time in nearly a decade. The jettison of flotsam players like Michael Beasley and Darko "Manna From Heaven" Milicic in favor of Andrei Kirilenko, J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved has further spurred the Wolves in the right, winning direction.
As wonderful as their turnaround has been, the Timberwolves' breakthrough is precarious. Injuries to Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love have prevented Minnesota from fielding its full complement of players at full-strength all season. In the competitive Western Conference, having a record at .500 won't be enough to guarantee a playoff spot.
The good news, though, is that Minnesota is sitting at .500 despite all of the injury woes it's faced this season. If Rubio and/or Love come back healthy and well, the Wolves have a legitimate chance to garner their first postseason appearance since 2004.
But even if they miss out on the playoffs, the Timberwolves have turned the corner. Whether this season or next turns out to be their ultimate breakthrough, it feels fairly certain the breakthrough is going to take place. Has to feel good for Minnesota fans after a decade of sorrow, losing and misery.
2012-13 Win Percentage: 55.9%
Franchise Win Percentage
Last 10 Seasons: 42.9%
Last 5 Seasons: 32.1%
Last 10 Seasons: 4
Last 5 Seasons: 0
The Nets franchise has popularly been a laughing stock for years, but some of this comedic scorn has been ill-deserved.
The Nets were a well-run, successful franchise during their nine-year tenure in the ABA. They reached the second round of the playoffs seven times, the ABA Finals three times, and won the ABA title twice. Since joining the NBA in 1976, the Nets have made the second round six times, the NBA Finals twice and won zero titles.
So, what explains this discrepancy? The New York Knicks.
When the NBA and ABA merged, the four ABA teams (Spurs, Nuggets, Pacers, Nets) joining the NBA all had to pay a $3.2 million fee to the league. The Nets, however, were walloped with another $4.8 million for intruding upon the Knicks' market area.
The combined $8 million penalty nearly bankrupted the Nets and forced them to sell their prized player, Julius Erving, to the Philadelphia 76ers. The financial stress also forced their move from Long Island to New Jersey.
This set in motion a series of events where the Nets struggled to survive. Until Jason Kidd's arrival in the 2001-02 season, the Nets were sometimes competitive, but usually mediocre, winning just one playoff series during this 25-year span.
Kidd spurred New Jersey to their most success since Julius Erving's band of merry dunkers in the 1970s. However, when Kidd was traded midway through the 2007-08 season, New Jersey fell back into the muck. It petered out in 2009-10 with just 12 wins.
The trade for Deron Williams in February of 2011 took the league by surprise and finally gave the Nets a new franchise cornerstone to couple with their young center Brook Lopez. The cornerstone may have been laid, but more work was needed. Lopez's broken foot, and Deron's broken jumper, temporarily set the club back in 2011-12. The lockout shortened-season saw New Jersey stumble to a 22-44 record.
A much ballyhooed move to Brooklyn gave the Nets a new set of digs, a new set of threads, and a new-look roster.
The "new digs" is the luxurious Barclays Center. The new threads came in the form of black-and-white jerseys designed by Jay-Z. The new-look roster consists of hustle man Reggie Evans, the stupendously priced Joe Johnson, the return of Brook Lopez and the castaway Andray Blatche.
Despite the lofty expectations and fresh look, the Nets stumbled to a 14-14 record under Avery Johnson. No doubt, this record was the best the Nets had seen in years, but the expectations were lofty not average.
Avery Johnson was unceremoniously fired in late December and assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo took over as head coach. Since then, the Nets have scorched their way to a 5-1 record. Much like the Timberwolves with Rambis and Adelman, it appears having the talent is not enough. Installing the right coach to manipulate and use the talent available is just as important.
If the Boston Celtics continue struggling, it appears the Nets are at worst going to finish second in the Atlantic Division. If they keep up their recent play, they may even challenge the Knicks for first place in the division. In any event, the Nets are a lock for the postseason for the first time in six years.
2012-13 Win Percentage: 58.8%
Franchise Win Percentage
Last 10 Seasons: 56.7%
Last 5 Seasons: 55.5%
Last 10 Seasons: 5
Last 5 Seasons: 1
Houston may have the most opulent malaise in recent memory. Over the last 10 years, it's sported one of the best win percentages in the NBA. It has also sported four 50-win seasons. Stretching back further, the Rockets have had just three losing seasons since 1985.
Nevertheless, there was a malaise. These winning seasons were often not good enough to make the postseason in the Western Conference. Five times since 2000, Houston has won over half of its regular season games but failed to make the playoffs. This has been the case three years in a row now for Houston.
Added to this misery of winning, but not winning enough, were the injury-riddled years of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. All-NBA talent that was not on the floor all the time.
The Rockets' turnaround began with the smart and adept drafting of GM Daryl Morey. Making the best of Houston's middling draft positions, he's unearthed numerous gems. Patrick Patterson, Chase Budinger, Marcus Morris and most notably Chandler Parsons.
Even after losing a great coach like Rick Adelman, the Rockets did a fine job of replacing him with Kevin McHale. McHale may not have been much of a GM in Minnesota, but he's a stellar coach.
In the summer of 2012, the Rockets went out and signed Jeremy Lin to run point guard. They also managed to nab big man Omer Asik. Asik may not be an offensive force, but he's a devastating defensive and rebounding force.
However, the Rockets missed out on the Dwight Howard sweepstakes and still lacked a superstar cornerstone to turn things around completely.
In a stunning trade, Houston landed its superstar, acquiring James Harden from Oklahoma City. Harden proved to be the dynamic force necessary to move Houston from a scrappy squad of good-but-not-good-enough to... well... to good enough.
Nothing is ever guaranteed in the rough Western Conference, as Houston knows all too well. However, this seasons feels like the Rockets will finally get over the hump. Not only will they finish over .500, but they look poised to snag a playoff spot for the first time since 2009.
Revere the Beard, I say.
2012-13 Win Percentage: 67.6%
Franchise Win Percentage
Last 10 Seasons: 41.4%
Last 5 Seasons: 46.8%
Last 10 Seasons: 3
Last 5 Seasons: 2
Isiah Thomas was a one heck of a basketball player. He was also one awful general manager.
Enabled by the blank check provided by owner James Dolan, Thomas managed to plunder and ruin one of the NBA's proudest franchises.
Officially in charge of the Knicks' personnel decisions from Dec. 2003 through April 2008, Thomas's reign was one of never-ending grief. The Knicks didn't manage a single winning season between 2002 and 2010. Their one playoff appearance in this era was a 39-win squad in 2004. They were thoroughly spanked four games to zero by the New Jersey Nets.
Amazingly, Thomas' trades for stars like Stephon Marbury, Anfernee Hardaway, Steve Francis, Maurice Taylor and Jalen Rose did little to turn the franchise around. In fact, some people might say these trades made the team immeasurably worse. Their bloated contracts handcuffed the Knicks from acquiring any legitimate superstar while also keeping them just good enough to never have a real shot at winning the lottery.
Thomas' ouster in 2008 paved the way for change. New GM Donnie Walsh shed New York of its onerous contracts. Striking out on the LeBron James sweepstakes in the summer of 2010, the Knicks nonetheless landed Amar'e Stoudemire. Amare was a tour de force during the first half of 2010-11 season along with Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton and Wilson Chandler.
The acquisition of Carmelo Anthony in February of 2011 threw a temporary wrench into New York's renaissance. The cohesive flow of Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun offense was stymied by Anthony's sticky play. "Sticky" meaning the ball went his way but never came back around. The duo of Amar'e and Melo just didn't mesh. New York was again swept in its first postseason since 2004, this time by Boston.
Then in 2011-12, there came the crazed arrival of Jeremy Lin, the resignation of Mike D'Antoni, and a beatdown in the postseason courtesy of Miami. However, the wacky road of 2012 did mask some major developments.
D'Antoni's replacement, Mike Woodson, managed the Knicks to a torrid 18-6 finish to the season, and Tyson Chandler anchored one of the NBA's best defenses. Most importantly, Carmelo Anthony stopped being so sticky with the ball.
The Knicks started this season on an unbelievable hot streak hitting practically every three-point shot they took and reeling off eight wins in their first nine games. New addition Jason Kidd along with holdovers J.R. Smith and Steve Novak simply couldn't miss a shot from long-range. Carmelo Anthony continued to move the ball quickly, either by passing or making a fast offensive move to score.
Currently, the Knicks sit are daily shifting with the Miami Heat for first place in the Eastern Conference. They're a lock to make the postseason and appear to be the only legitimate challenger to Miami's grip on the conference right now.
However, Carmelo's been banged up a bit this season and starting point guard Felton is out for over month with a hand injury. With a team so old, health is the major concern and worry over whether they can maximize their potential.
In any event, the Knicks battling for first place is something not seen in these parts since Patrick Ewing was wearing pillow-sized knee pads.
2012-13 Win Percentage: 66.7%
Franchise Win Percentage
Last 10 Seasons: 43.8%
Last 5 Seasons: 39.4%
Last 10 Seasons: 1
Last 5 Seasons: 0
I could rehash why the Warriors have for all practical purposes been in a malaise for three decades. Thankfully, the good people at Grantland have recapped the sorry state of Golden State's franchise.
The most pathetic moment of the Warriors' more recent series of abominable moments was Don Nelson's apathetic coaching job in 2009-10. The man clearly didn't care about anything other than drawing out the string to surpass Lenny Wilkens as the NBA's all-time winningest coach. Nelson stuck around long enough to achieve that record but sullied any fiber of dignity left in the Warriors franchise to do it.
The team limped to a 26-56 record and bid Nelson a long overdue farewell. Nelson's ouster didn't solve all the team's problems, though.
Golden State began to reverse their fortunes by signing David Lee in 2010 and finally ridding themselves of the "Monta Ellis or Stephen Curry?" dilemma: Monta Ellis was traded for Andrew Bogut in March, 2012.
Coupled with the exile of Ellis was the shelving of Curry. His brittle ankles were finally given the proper time to heal at the end of last season following numerous sprains. This allowed him to come back at full strength this season. Furthermore, the sharp-shooting Klay Thompson made major improvements without Ellis around, too, and at a fraction of Monta's price tag.
When Andrew Bogut was declared out indefinitely at the beginning of the season, it appeared to be another entry in Golden State's long history of despair. However, a curious thing happened. The Warriors kept winning. And they kept winning big.
A team filled with unremarkable individual defenders has coalesced into an above-average defensive team. Veteran leaders, Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, have come in and given the Warriors a needed boost in bench production. David Lee and Steph Curry have submitted All-Star worthy campaigns thus far.
Mark Jackson is undeniably coaching this team up. And so far, it's up to second place in the Pacific Division and fighting Memphis for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
A shocking team that few saw improving to this degree, especially in the absence of Andrew Bogut. Just imagine how ferocious it'll be if and when the Australian center can get back healthy this season.
2012-13 Win Percentage: 77.1%
Franchise Win Percentage
Last 10 Seasons: 42.5%
Last 5 Seasons: 42.4%
Last 10 Seasons: 2
Last 5 Seasons: 1
As the Buffalo Braves, they had fairly good seasons. As the San Diego Clippers they had less success but were clearly trying to win ball games. As the Los Angeles Clippers, they've been the very definition of malaise.
And intentional malaise at that.
Owner Donald Sterling for years kept a product on the floor that was intended to turn a profit, not turn in wins. The team was stocked with decent veterans and cheap rookie contracts.
The Clipper ship somewhat changed course when Sterling stunned the world by re-signing Elton Brand to a huge contract in 2003. The Clippers then acquired Sam Cassell and shockingly made the playoffs in 2006. They even advanced to the second Round for the first time since 1976 as the Braves.
The good times didn't last long, though. That roster was disbanded, injuries leveled Brand, Baron Davis was signed, Baron Davis became overweight, and Donald Sterling harassed Davis. Everyone was embarrassed.
The Clipper ship bottomed out in 2009 when Los Angeles' pauper club racked up 19 wins.
Thanks to that putrid season, for the third time in franchise history the Clippers secured the No. 1 pick. In the 2009 draft their selection at No. 1 was standout power forward Blake Griffin. Griffin promptly upheld the Clipper Curse of bad knees by breaking his knee cap in a preseason game prior to the start of his rookie campaign.
Now, here's the crazy part: Griffin's career wasn't ruined. He returned to the court for the 2010-11 season and was spectacular. The next season (2011-12), the Clippers traded for Chris Paul—the league's best point guard. Paul powered the Clippers to a 40-26 record and victorious first-round series against Memphis in the playoffs.
This Clippers team is doing what no other one has done before: Improving upon a playoff appearance. The team upgraded the roster by signing Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and Willie Green. It now has a ceaseless supply of long-armed defenders to harass the opponents.
Through it all, Chris Paul is orchestrating this chaotic assemblage of destruction that has left the NBA in shambles. They won eight of their first nine games this year and now 19 of their last 21. Oklahoma City is still the team to beat in the West, since they're the defending conference champ. The Clippers, however, will surprise no one if they reach the NBA Finals.
Now, that's a surprise and an unbelievable breakthrough.