A Season of Surprises – The Good

The Knicks WallContributor IJanuary 10, 2010

Landry's Rockets have been this season's best surprise story, wearing down their opponents night-by-night.

What increasingly draws me in into ball games is the league’s dynamism. I’m not talking about LeBron’s vast array of skills or CP3’s absurd court vision, but more along the lines of the unpredictability and plethora of surprises I see from season to season. Alright, I know one of the Lakers, Cavs, Celtics, or Magic will probably win it all this year – and possibly for the next 3-4 years depending on the results of the impending free agency extravaganza – but there are other teams in this league. Even the small market franchises deserve some love. Surprises have been plentiful, both good and bad and it’s getting to the point where pre-season power-rankings hold absolutely no water. Lookie here at these two foot-in-mouth gems, courtesy “The Bleacher Report.”

20. Houston Rockets—If I put them any lower, people would kill me, but they deserve to be lower. They’re going no where without Yao and Ron, and I’m not sure, but I think Tracy McGrady is injured? If he isn’t, give it three days and he will be. They’re on a slippery slope going straight downhill.

30. Sacramento Kings—Ok really Sacramento? You choose another shooting guard instead of Ricky Rubio and say, “Oh Tyreke Evans IS a point guard.” As far as I’m concerned the Kings have two shooting guards and some near half decent players. Start over.

And you know what? I don’t blame him at all. Not a wit, an iota or any other unit of insignificance I can conjure up, because both of my feet are lodged in the vicinity of my esophagus. I was convinced that the Wizards would be competing for 4th in the East. “Look at their depth and star-power, combined with an intelligent and respected coach. They’re going places”, I marveled. Arenas’ gun fiasco distractions aside, that team was in a tailspin as soon as the season tipped off. “Bottom 8, no doubt. A bunch of no-talent hustlers that won’t score more than 80 a game.” My characterization of the Rockets (7th in the West), superbly executed I must say.

This whole “The East is achieving parity with the West” nonsense I keep hearing, well, I’m not buying it. A conference is not composed of 4 teams, and if it were it would make for a very boring league. The West’s bottom-half was just atrocious last year, so I want to congratulate all of the following teams: The Oklahoma City Thunder – a great young squad that’s quickly on the rise, Durant is looking like he’ll be a perennial MVP candidate in the future. It wasn’t really unexpected that they team would improve over last year, but they are playing far more maturely this year and have competed well against some elite teams. At this point, I expect the Thunder to make the playoffs. With much chagrin, the Memphis Grizzlies – who appear to (this far) be immune to Zach Randolph’s destructive abilities. On the contrary, he’s actually put up some monster performances over the past month. Him and Marc Gasol have combined for a lethal frontcourt, but imagine if they had drafted Tyreke Evans.

The LA Clippers, even without Blake Griffin, are nearly at .500, largely because of Chris Kaman’s great strides in becoming one of the West’s best centres. Baron Davis’ reckless play has stabilized somewhat and the team as a whole seems more mature. Can they make a push for the 8th spot when Griffin returns? The Sacramento Kings, too, have surprised, particularly because of Tyreke Evans and Omri Casspi.  The former is a star in the making, the latter one of the biggest surprises of last year’s draft. And while their record is the weakest of the teams I’ve included, they have performed better than it would indicate given the amount of close losses against some pretty elite teams. Well done, boys, I hope this honour touches you all deeply. But the most deserving, without a doubt, the Houston “no talent hustlers” Rockets.

I saw Aaron Brooks’ improvement coming, especially given his impressive performances after Houston traded Alston away, but Carl Landry? How did this freakishly efficient specimen come to be? He graduated from Purdue as a senior, is an undersized PF, and has been involved in several serious injuries, including a recent gunshot wound to the leg and several injuries of an oral nature. But that’s exactly what can happen when you combine a young, intelligent, and ambitious player with the perfect opportunity, that being an extremely depleted Houston roster that’s starving for an all-around presence. Most thought Luis Scola would assume the role of chief offensive forward, but Landry has more than admirably filled that role.

Where his teammate Trevor Ariza is shooting at a very poor level, Carl is top 10 in the league in both FG% and FT% and in the top-5 in true shooting percentage, despite not starting a single game this season. And as much as I love fantasy ball and number crunching, that would be doing a terrible disservice to him considering all the intangibles he brings to the team and the depth he offers them. Plus, how can you not cheer for a guy that torches the Clippers for a then career high of 27 points in his first game back after losing 5 teeth to Dirk’s elbow? Most Improved and 6th Man of the Year awards appear in his crosshairs, further proving that predicting these awards before the season is a fool’s errand. And it’s not only Landry, Brooks, and usual suspect Shane Battier, but an entire team effort. They’re grinding out games and forcing their opponents to play their gritty style of ball, which, to put it mildly, is tiring on the opposition. Given the choice between a team that plays consistent defense and gets crucial stops in the clutch and one with unlimited offensive weapons and no defensive awareness, I’d go with the former. Best of all for Houston is that with McGrady’s huge contract coming off the books at season’s end, they can add some serious offensive talent and young prospects to this already solid foundation.

But really, I should never have questioned Rick Adelman. Simply put, the man doesn’t know how to lose. In fact his last losing season came in the mid-90s with a Warriors team lead by Latrell Sprewell – tangentially, that was a season prior to Latrell’s… we’ll call it, “misunderstanding” with PJ Carlesimo. So you see, coach Adleman is also reasonable and understanding. He has instilled a winning culture in the team since he joined the Rockets and has produced results with ostensibly little talent. Adelman’s ability to create a system with which his players buy into, all the while maintaining a very disciplined and focused squad must be lauded. In the very least, he’s in the conversation for Coach of the Year, yet another Rocket defying critics and pre-season “expert” analysis. A refreshing change of scenery in Houston, no longer the league’s token “second round virgin” nor punching bag for the Utah Jazz, but an admirable underdog that are playing way above expectations.

Coming up in the next article – the bad – and there’s a lot to go through…