NBA's Top 10 Surprises from the Early Going in the Eastern Conference

Jennifer Khedaroo@jenteaaaContributor IIINovember 15, 2013

NBA's Top 10 Surprises from the Early Going in the Eastern Conference

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    It's early on in the 2013-14 NBA season, but there have been quite a few surprises already in the Eastern Conference. You know; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    Some teams are awful and the Indiana Pacers are absolutely winning.

    The Boston Celtics are finally getting comfortable with one another while Deron Williams is failing to familiarize himself with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett

    Next, there's the rookie phenomenon Michael Carter-Williams.

    And then there's Andrea Bargnani. Yeah that one. The one who makes you scratch your head and squint your eyes. Oh, and sometimes you'll boo him a lot.

    The Eastern Conference sure has its surprising hits and misses so far.

10. Larry Sanders and the 6-Week Thumb Injury

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    Among one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference are the Milwaukee Bucks. Currently, the Bucks are holding down the fourth place in the Central Division. Now, with an injury to Larry Sanders, it may be possible that things are going to further spiral downwards for the team. Oh, Larry. You should've not gotten into that club fight.

    That's right. Sanders will be out for about six weeks due to a right thumb injury he sustained at a club brawl.

    Now let's be serious. Sanders hasn't been a savior for the struggling Bucks at all this season. In three appearances for the season, the 6'11" center has averaged about 2.7 points per game, 3.7 rebounds per game and 2.0 blocks per game.  In 55 games for Milwaukee last season, Saunders averaged 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks.

    But, as we all know, the Bucks are a team in transition. And after signing a contract for four years and $48 million back in August, the Bucks were certainly looking at Sanders to become a team leader.

    Sanders looked forward to being a team leader as well. Posting on Instagram, Sanders wrote that words could not explain his gratitude for the Bucks organization and the faith they had in him as a leader and a worker. He also noted that he would not let Milwaukee down.

    Well, surprisingly, Sanders has let them down. And he did it just a few months after signing his new deal. Let's hope he gets back on track when he returns to the team around Christmas time.

9. Kyrie Irving Has Been Stepping Up

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    With the exception of the Indiana Pacers, the Bucks' "division rivals" are all disastrous early on this season. This includes LeBron James' former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although their season started off with a 2-2 record, the team is starting to slip away. In their following five games, they earned just one win.

    According to the 2013-14 Hollinger Team Statistics, Cleveland has a defensive efficiency of 101.9, which places them at 16th overall in the NBA. The defensive efficiency refers to the number of points that a team allows per 100 possessions. Although 101.9 isn't as good as the Indiana Pacers' 88.9, the Cavaliers have definitely limited oppositional scoring opportunity. In fact, the defensive efficiency has been decreased by five points, from 106.9 in the 2012-13 season.

    Offensive efficiency refers to the number of points a team scores every 100 possessions. This season, the Cavaliers have an offensive efficiency of 92.7. That places them almost dead last in the entire NBA.

    They need to create more scoring opportunities.

    Now, there is a lot going on with the Cavaliers.  But point guard Kyrie Irving’s improvements could be the opportunity that the team is looking for.

    The relationship between Mike Brown, Cleveland's new head coach, and Irving has been a little testy at times. But Brown, who is known around the league as a defensive specialist, has been able to help Irving lessen the amount of turnovers this season . So far in the season, Irving has played nine games and has averaged three turnovers. Although it's still early, his turnovers have decreased from 3.2 last season.

    Irving has also improved in the assists category, averaging 6.9 assists this season compared to 5.9 last year. His rebounds have also increased from 3.7 at the end of the 2012-13 season to 4.2 at the moment.

    We’ll just have to see if he can keep it up.

8. The Pistons' Lack of Defense

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    The Detroit Pistons have been suffering badly. And it’s not necessarily offensively. Offensively, they have put up great numbers overall, scoring as many as 113 points in a game. But defensively, it's a whole other story. The thing is, the Pistons claim to be a defensive team first and foremost. So it's a surprise that they are one of the worst teams defensively early on.

    You can technically blame the Pistons' defensive woes on the fact that they have been playing strong offensive teams such as the Indiana Pacers, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. After a 113-95 loss to the Golden State Warriors, head coach Maurice Cheeks decided it was time for some change.

    Forward Josh Smith, who was benched during the Warriors game, spoke to David Mayo of

    We have to get back to locking in and keying in on the defensive end. I think that we have too many mental lapses on defense.  We have to be able to focus on the game plan, what we're doing, what we need to do.  We just have to get back to playing physical.

    The defensive numbers may make you cringe.

    On average, 7.6 three-pointers were allowed out of 19.4 attempts, according to ESPN. Essentially, Detroit's defense has a 39 percent three-point field goal percentage, placing them 26th overall.

    And after the loss to the Golden State Warriors, the Pistons became dead last in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage at 49 percent.

    Maybe once Detroit leaves the West and starts playing more Eastern Conference teams, they will gain some defensive momentum.  


7. Derrick Rose, In and Out

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    During the first round of playoffs in 2012, Derrick Rose tore the ACL in his left knee while playing against the Philadelphia 76ers. He was out of the playoffs. He was also out for the entire 2012-13 NBA season, but has since worked himself back to fighting form.

    Rose even teamed up with Adidas and starred in his own miniseries documenting his progress called #TheReturn.

    He returned in the 2013-14 season and played six games. He is averaging 33.3 percent of field goals, which is down from previous years. Rose's three-point field goal percentage also decreased to 25 percent, while it was 31.2 percent in the 2011-12 season.

    In October, Rose told Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago that his vertical leap increased from 37 inches pre-injury, to 42 inches post-injury. It looked like maybe things were slowly starting to pick up for him.

    But that didn't last long.

    During the fourth quarter of Chicago's 96-81 victory over Cleveland, Rose exited the game. Rose told reporters that it was "just a minor sprain. Nothing serious. Hopefully I'll be better in a couple of days, but it's nothing big at all."

    Now, the 2011 MVP is listed as day to day with a sore hamstring. Three days later, he didn't attend practice. He may even miss Chicago's upcoming game against Toronto.

    Who knows how serious this injury could be. If it is serious, how could anyone help but wonder if D-Rose will ever get back to playing like the superstar he used to be?

6. Michael Carter-Williams

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    Michael Carter-Williams is going to miss some playing time after sustaining a left foot arch bruise, according to the official Twitter of the Philadelphia 76ers. But that doesn't mean that he won't remain the brightest spot on the Philadelphia 76ers.

    On Monday, in a 109-85 loss against the San Antonio Spurs, Carter-Williams only managed to score eight points in 33 minutes. But you know what? Overall, Carter-Williams is averaging 17.4 points, 7.6 assists, and 5.4 rebounds in eight games.

    "Every game I try to prove that I could've been the No. 1 pick," Carter-Williams told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports. "I have confidence in myself that I should've been."

    The 6'6" point guard means that he wants to prove that he is the best. And he did make a splash in the first week of the season when he was named the NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week. Carter-Williams is the second player in NBA history to be given the honor at the absolute beginning of his professional career. Who is in Carter-Williams’ company? Shaquille O'Neal. He was named Player of the Week at the start of his NBA career in 1992.

    Since starting off their season 3-0, the 76ers are now at 5-4. When Carter-Williams comes back, it will be exciting to watch the 22-year-old light up the court.

    His talent and youthful energy will no doubt give the 76ers a boost over some of their competitors. Ahem, New York Knicks, ahem. 

5. The Indiana Pacers Are 8-0

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    The Indiana Pacers are 8-0. Yes, they are the only undefeated team left in the league.

    Early on in the season, the Pacers are ranked 10th in rebounds per game with an average of 44.3, according to ESPN. Indiana is also ranked No. 14 overall in assists per game, at 22. They are 21st overall with 94.9 points per game.

    But the most impressive thing about this year's Pacers are the fact that they are ranked number one in points allowed. The Pacers only allow 84.5 on average from the opposition.

    Luis Scola, who joined the team in 2013 and has been averaging 7.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, spoke to Scott Agness of about the general feeling of the team:

    I think the most important thing is the way we are playing and the level of confidence we’re playing with. We’re playing like we belong to be the No. 1 seed in the East, at least for these eight games. We know we’re going to lose games, too, but we’re playing the right way and we have the right attitude, the right approach for the game.

    The Pacers' second top scorer, Lance Stephenson, also spoke to Agness about the team's early season success. "We have so many pieces. It's fun," Stephenson said. "Everybody's making shots, everybody's aware (of one another), everybody's great on defense and when we play together, we're great."

    Most of the Pacers' eight wins have been against Eastern Conference teams such as the Cavaliers, Bulls, Pistons, Magic, Raptors and the Nets. The Pacers won't see a Western Conference-heavy schedule until late November. Something says that they might lose a few games here and there, but they may just dominate the Western Conference like they have dominated the Eastern Conference.

    They certainly seem to be a team equipped with the tools and will power to be at the top of their game for a long time.


4. Paul George

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    It's hard to talk about the Pacers without talking about Paul George. George's Twitter bio has the line, "Don't tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon!" That should give an insight to what a fantastic season he has been having so far.

    Boy, has he grown as a player.

    Since beginning his career with the Pacers in 2010, George has only gotten better and better. His three-point field goal percentage has surged from 29.7 percent in the 2010-11 season, to 38.5 percent in the 2011-12 season to 40.4 percent in the 2013-14 season so far.

    His points per game have also expanded, in conjunction with more playing time. In his rookie season, George scored 7.8 points per game. He scored much more last season, at an average of 17.4 points. George then raised his scoring average from 17.4 to 19.2 points per game in this past postseason. This season, his average is 24.9 points.

    In September, the Pacers proved how much they valued him when they signed the swingman to a five-year max contract worth between $80 and $90 million. He could possibly earn even more if he is elected to one more All-NBA team, one more All-Star game or becomes the MVP during the 2013–14 season. Wow.

    As long as injuries don't slow him down, chances are, nothing else will. At least, he won’t slow down his points per game average by dropping back to 17.4 points per game any time soon. It's George's fourth season in the NBA and his time to blossom into a high-scoring player.

    Being a high-scoring player means earning your team more wins. Other teams around the league should be aware of that.

    After a 95-79 defeat over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, Memphis head coach Dave Joerger spoke to Scott Agness of "Paul George is playing at an all-world level," Joerger said. "They’re an elite team, there’s no question."

3. There's Hakuna Matata Between The Celtics' Players

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    One would expect that the loss of two superstars to a division competitor would bring down team morale. Heck, you would think that a 0-4 start would bring down team morale even lower. But not the Boston Celtics. They have stuck together and since their 0-4 start, they have gone 4-1.

    Veteran Jeff Green spoke about the team's chemistry with Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe.

    Our chemistry is getting better, just figuring it out. The first couple of games, we made a lot of mistakes that we could control. Our defense wasn't up to par. Our communication level was not there. Now, we’re trusting a little bit more, our team unity is a little bit better on defense, so it’s helping us out on the offensive end.

    Another person to credit for the team's unity this season is new head coach Brad Stevens, who walked into this season with no NBA experience. Stevens has been instrumental in bringing his players together through basketball. So much so that veterans such as Brandon Bass, who know they aren't a part of the Celtics' long term plans, still respect him.

    On the team's official Twitter, Brandon Bass was quoted as saying, "There's something special about that guy."

    It's nice to see that team chemistry, along with respecting a new coach, has led to Boston gaining some momentum. Think about it: If there is not one big superstar on the team, everyone is given a more equal chance with the ball. That means there is probably not going to be much hostility in the locker room because everyone just wants to do their job, and no one wants to argue about which player possesses the ball too much.

    Hakuna Matata. The Celtics will be okay.

2. Andrea Bargnani Is Helping the Knicks? What?

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    The Knicks are old. The Knicks are dealing with injuries. It's the same old, same old. So why is the team a surprise early on? Well, because they signed Andrea Bargnani, a head-scratcher no doubt. But maybe, just maybe, he might be working reasonably well for those Knickerbockers.

    When Bargnani was a Raptor, he was booed a lot. And that was in Toronto. By the second quarter and his fourth consecutive missed shot of the night, Bargnani was definitely hearing it at Madison Square Garden.

    But his teammates and head coach Mike Woodson stuck by the 7-foot Italian. "This is New York. It's the Garden. And it's the show," Tyson Chandler told Barbara Barker of NewsDay. "Once he gets past all of that he'll be fine. All of his teammates love him and we think he's going to be the key. He's going to be huge for us."

    Well, Barnangi hasn't been huge per se. But he has come along since his first days as a Knick.

    In a Knicks win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Bargnani scored 25 points along with eight rebounds and five blocks. A few days later, in a 95-91 win against the Atlanta Hawks, Bargnani scored 20 points and a season high 11 rebounds. He even had a pair of three-pointers and free throws in the remaining minutes of the game.

    Although his defense clearly needs a boat load of help, maybe Bargnani will be able to put up strong offensive numbers. And maybe he will be consistent. The Knicks definitely need that.

    Oh, and if Bargnani is not capturing your attention, there are always these reasons why you should watch the Knicks.

1. Deron Williams Seems TOTALLY Uncomfortable with His New Teammates

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    What happens when you load a whole bunch of talent onto one team? Do they win championships? Well, if so, it doesn't look that way for the Brooklyn Nets. There seems to be too many big fish in a small pond, and not everyone is getting the opportunities they deserve. Case in point, Deron Williams.

    Over his career, the point guard has averaged 17.7 points per game with 3.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists. Since the beginning of the 2013-14 season, his numbers have regressed for the most part.

    He is now only scoring an average of 11.1 points, and his rebounds have decreased to two per game. Meanwhile, his assists have increased from 7.4 on average to 9.

    An increase in assists means that Williams does not have much scoring opportunity. But that is what he does. He's not a defender-type. And it's clear that he hasn't gotten used to playing with the newest stars on the team, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. And the fact that he is coming back from an ankle injury has not helped.

    Right now, he's struggling. Big time.

    In a game against the Indiana Pacers, Williams scored 17 points with 10 assists. But he had late game nerves, or loss of focus, that ultimately cost the Nets the game. First, he unnecessarily fouled George Hill. Then, he caused a critical turnover when David West stripped him of the ball with just a little over a minute left in the game. The Pacers went on to win the game 96-91.

    As the team headed to their West coast trip, Williams told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York that he was starting to feel better. “I want to get back to playing basketball,” Williams said. “I haven't been able to do it and now I'm just getting to where I feel like I can attack. And I'm starting to feel like my old self again.”

    Of course, I don't think Williams is the only one who is feeling uncomfortable with the new lineup. The Nets need to become more familiar with each other and more team-oriented. That's the only way that they can close out games.

    They need to take a note from the Hakuna Matata vibe going on in the Celtics' locker room.