Several NBA franchises have enjoyed impressive starts to the 2012-13 campaign, surpassing the projections and expectations of preseason prognosticators.
The development of returning role players is often a key ingredient to a team's upward march. Contributions from the supporting cast fuel overachieving organizations.
Sometimes it's simply the stars. We underestimate their potential to take over games and will their club to victory.
The biggest variable is the newcomers, especially the rookies. Their ability to step in and excel can take a squad to new heights.
Which teams are completely exceeding expectations so far in 2012-13?
Points For/Against: 96.9/ 95.1
Larry Drew's Atlanta Hawks have lost their last two games, but they're still third in the East and ahead of where many forecasters believed they would be.
We knew the loss of Joe Johnson would be a financial plus, but the team has also handled his absence on the court superbly.
Nearly everyone in Atlanta's lineup is a gifted passer, and that includes the frontcourt duo of Al Horford and Josh Smith. The Hawks' 23.3 assists per game is an improvement over last season and second in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta is giving up a couple more points per game than it did in 2011-12, but it remains one of the top defensive units in the league and easily in the top 10.
By relying less on the outside shot and more on a resurgent Horford, the Hawks have become a tough team to fight on a possession-by-possession basis.
Points For/Against: 101.9/ 93.1
Even though most of us thought the Los Angeles Clippers would be good, we didn't envision this kind of supremacy.
Vinny Del Negro's bunch is 10 deep. But what exactly does that mean?
Well, for L.A. it means it has 10 players who see at least 18 minutes of game action per night. Everyone's sharing the ball. Everyone's crashing the boards. Everyone's running the floor.
Just when opponents think they've launched a successful comeback, the Clippers' combination of skill and explosiveness puts the game away.
The front line has noticeably improved from 2011-12, as returners like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are more efficient and skilled than ever before. Meanwhile, the bench underwent improvements of its own, and the new pieces like Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes have taken this squad to a new level.
Points For/Against: 97.3/ 99.2
The Portland Trail Blazers aren't a deep club, and many doubted whether the front line would be able to carry the franchise to a winning record.
Terry Stott's six-and-a-half man rotation has played its way into the upper half of the Western Conference.
Damian Lillard is having a fantastic rookie season, but don't forget about J.J. Hickson's work on the glass and the offensive improvement of Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.
The Blazers have lots of room to grow on the defensive side, as they're giving opponents too many easy opportunities close to the bucket. They're the only team on this list with a negative point differential.
Portland isn't much of a threat to reach the conference finals, but the fans are happy for now with the upswing to seventh in the West. LaMarcus Aldridge finds himself surrounded by a talented core that can compete with the league's best.
Points For/Against: 106.2/ 103.4
When the Houston Rockets traded for James Harden, the club went from being an awful team on paper to a mediocre team.
Through 34 games, Kevin McHale's crew is better than mediocre, as its on pace to earn a playoff berth that seemed so unlikely just a couple months ago.
With a blistering pace and effective rebounding, the Rockets have become the highest-scoring team in the NBA. Conversely, they aren't too competitive on defense, giving up 103.4 points per night (only the Bobcats are worse).
Harden's stardom is only part of the story. Chandler Parsons has stepped up as a sophomore in both the shooting and facilitating departments, Jeremy Lin has been improving at point guard, Patrick Patterson has thrived as a starter and Omer Asik has controlled the caroms.
Points For/ Against: 102.3/ 97.2
Entering the 2012-13 season, the New York Knicks' ceiling was the No. 4 slot in the East and a chance to compete for the Atlantic Division title.
They're surpassing both of those projections so far this season, as Mike Woodson is directing a disciplined, hot-shooting club.
Not only are they second in the conference, but they've already landed a couple of regular-season haymakers on the defending champion Miami Heat.
Carmelo Anthony has always drawn lots of attention from opposing defenses, but none of 'Melo's squads have been able to capitalize on the overplay like this team does. When teams don't quickly recover from double-teaming Anthony, it often results in a Tyson Chandler alley-oop or a J.R. Smith triple.
This veteran group moves the ball quickly and cleanly, as turnovers are scarce in Madison Square Garden these days. The biggest question is whether they can keep their mental edge heading to the postseason.
Points For/Against: 101.4/ 99.1
Stephen Curry and Co. have already outshined everyone's positive projections for the Golden State Warriors.
The Lakers, Nuggets and Jazz were all supposed to be superior to the Dubs, especially with Andrew Bogut's ankle sidelining him.
Golden State's half-dozen newcomers had different plans. Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, along with rookie trio Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green, provided the rebounding and playmaking boost necessary to beat playoff-caliber foes.
The Warriors are consistently out-rebounding their opponents, hauling in 45.6 boards per game. David Lee's efforts underneath open things up for Curry and Klay Thompson. Then, when defenses get spread too thin, cutters like Barnes feast off the open lanes.
Can they upend the Clippers or Spurs in a seven-game series? Not likely. For now, lets enjoy their hot start and wealth of young talent.
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