Top 10 NBA Surprises in the 2009-2010 Season, So Far
The great thing about sports is the unpredictability. Every year, there are players and teams who disappoint, overachieve, underachieve, crumble and teams who grow and mature over time.
The biggest surprise to me was Gilbert Arenas' stupidity. It's not even worth putting him up there.
When thinking of this season's other surprises I think of Kevin Garnett's body finally breaking down after years of him being a model of durability. I think of Stephon Marbury signing to play in the Chinese basketball league today, a year after making 22 million for nothing. Blake Griffin injuring himself after throwing down a power dunk. Greg Oden and Michael Redd breaking down, AGAIN.
Things happen over the course of an 82-game season. As we approach mid-season, these are the top 10 surprises in the league. At the year's end, some may not be there, as problems might arise or might be corrected. That's the beauty of it, we won't know until the end. Lets see who gets it right and who screws it up.
Brandon Jennings' Success
Brandon Jennings has taken the league by storm. Opting to play overseas instead of going to college to satisfy David Sterns age limit was a huge gamble. The loss of exposure alone could have decimated his career.
He played in Italy and was a lower level role player. He wasn't even a star, which made me skeptical about whether or not his game was NBA ready.
However, that experience made him hungrier and more determined. So many athletes out of college come out with a sense of entitlement and arrogance. It's usually due to the fact they've had people kissing they're ass for years.
In his first pro game, Jennings almost had a triple double. In his 10th game, he had a double nickel (55 points), which is pretty unheard of.
As the season progressed, I think his body started to wear down. His shooting percentages have plummeted, and Tyreke Evans has taken his spot as rookie of the year. But with the 10th pick, Milwaukee did well, getting a point guard with a humble attitude from tasting the other end of the spectrum in Italy, where he wasn't in the spotlight.
That experience alone was a reality check that will always drive him to work hard and stay grounded. That is exactly the type of point guard you want to run your team.
San Antonio's Failure (thus far)
I started writing this at the beginning of the year. In my preseason predictions, I picked San Antonio to win the West over the heavily-favored Lakers, as well as the NBA title.
They started out slow, but I never could write them off because that has always been San Antonio's M.O. They seem to be in cruise control for most of the year, and then put the pedal to the metal around the race to the playoffs.
Also, they had to incorporate new pieces in. Richard Jefferson has been a great fit. Antonio McDyess has been a complete disaster. I thought he would be the first official low post player Tim Duncan played with since David Robinson.
However, DeJuan Blair has filled that spot in a stunning fashion. The team is finally starting to gel. At the end of the year, we might laugh at them being on this list.
Duncan has got his usual, boring, mediocre 20 and 10. Were so used to him doing that regularly that we don't expect any less. Looks like another 50-plus win season.
The Atlanta Hawks becoming a contender
After years and years of futility and being perennial doormats, the Atlanta Hawks are finally a force to be reckoned with consistantly.
In the 90s, they might have a good year or two, and then fall back to their old ways. The day they acquired Joe Johnson was the day the face and attitude of the franchise changed. They drafted the right players with Josh Smith, Al Horford and even Marvin Williams. All the pieces fit perfectly.
With a bona fide point guard in Mike Bibby, they finally have an experienced driver to control this train that's going to steamroll the East. All they need is some more playoff experience to really make a run at that trophy.
The thing that I've noticed this year is that the Hawks are finally taking THEMSELVES seriously. It's no longer an accomplishment to just make the playoffs or to have a winning season. They're ready to take that next step.
With the addition of Jamal Crawford, they have a bench player to add more firepower. He is having his best season as a pro, not only leading the league in fourth quarter minutes, but for the first time in his career, he's shooting a decent percentage. He's finally receiving the recognition he was denied for many years, since this is the first winning team he's played for in 10 years.
If their nucleus of young players continues to develop and grow, one day we'll mention the Hawks along with the Celtics and Lakers as possible favorites to win the title. Only time will tell.
Lets just hope nobody brings guns to the locker room. Okay, that was a cheap shot, but I couldn't resist.
Joakim Noah's Improvement
I watched Joakim Noah pass up the NBA draft a few years ago—where he would have been a top-three pick— and elected to stay in college another year. It won him a second national championship, but he slipped all the way to the ninth pick. His energy and size carried him through college. His terrible jumper was what I thought would hold him back.
His outspokenness got him in trouble, but it validated his passion for the game. His jumper hasn't improved much, but he improved his rebounding so dramatically that he has become a vital piece to Chicago and their push for improvement.
While I never think he'll be an all star, he is the prototypical role player who prides himself on dirty work, defense and rebounding. It's a role that few players embrace and perfect, and what every team wants and need.
Noah looks like he'll have a long and productive career. Not everyone can be Kobe. Some players just know how to maximize their strength and work with the talent they were given. Good job Joakim, now just cut that crap off your head.
Things are Getting Grizzly
The story of the summer was whether Allen Iverson would be able to lead the Memphis Grizzlies to improvement. The playoffs were really a stretch. Also pairing him with perennial locker room destroyer Zach Randolph could have been a disaster of monumental proportions. After Iverson refused to accept a lesser role, he left, and it actually helped Memphis.
Oddly, Memphis' chemistry seems to be great and improving with every game. Then again, that's the effect winning has.
Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo improve daily and seem to fit in well with their big men. Randolph is having the best season of his career, with almost a lock to receive his first All-Star nod, finally playing within the team concept on a winning team.
Marc Gasol continues to develop. When he came into the league, some scouts said he had the talent to be better than his brother, Pau. It sounded stupid at the time, but it doesn't seem to far fetched. Look at his body now compared to the Olympics in 2008. It shows he has the work ethic and dedication to improve. Also, Mike Conley doesn't seem like the bust I labeled him as this past season.
Lets not forget that last year's second pick, Hasheem Thabeet, really hasn't played too much of a role. If they could get him involved, they would have three good big men, a rarity in this league.
Lionel Hollins is getting them to play together. If he could get them to improve, they might be a playoff contender. Unfortunately, in the West, a team could win 45-50 games and not get in. Lets see what happens. The fact that I'm talking about them at all makes their season a success.
Oklahoma City's Development
The day the Sonics—now the Thunder—fired that idiot coach PJ Carlesimo, was the day where the rebuilding began.
With Kevin Durant starting at two guard his entire rookie season, Scott Brooks finally made the obvious change and put him at small forward. Ever since, Durant's game has skyrocketed. I put him alongside Brandon Roy as a future MVP ready to make that jump to being an elite superstar, along with Lebron, Melo, Wade and Kobe. Fact is he would be my second choice for MVP this season if OKC had a better record.
This is another team who put the right pieces in place. Jeff Green, Nick Collison and Durant on their frontline continue to grow, and their chemistry continues to improve. Russell Westbrook's athletic talent alone pushes the team to improve.
I think Tyson Chandler would have been an excellent fit had that trade had went through. Again, I doubt they'll make the playoffs since the West is stacked with 50-win teams, but they're moving rapidly in the right direction. Brooks is my coach of the year, getting the best out of these players. All they need is a good bench player and a veteran or two.
Even a Malik Rose-type player would be sufficient—a leader in the locker room and off the court, who could teach these young guns how to be professional. So far, so good.
This team is in total disarray. After a playoff appearance a few years ago, fans expected improvement and great things from this up and coming team with loads of young talent. However, no improvement has been made.
A few years ago, Andre Iguodala seemed primed for superstardom, an all star in the making. He reminds me of another player, Emeka Okafor, who had the talent, but not the desire to improve. Maybe he does, but I surely don't see it. No improvement has been made with this team, skill-wise nor chemistry-wise.
Also, after the acquisition of Elton Brand, the team has totally regressed. Brand never was the fastest guy on the court, and Philly was never a team who thrived in the post. The team is still struggling to find an identity or style of play, and they look terrible doing so.
Part of it is karma. Brand should have kept his ass with the Clippers where he fit, before he weaseled his way out. All their players from Thaddeus Young to Lou Williams, totally don't fit with Brand's style of play. Hardly anyone does. Now the most interesting thing in Philly is Allen Iverson coming back with his tail between his legs after they got rid of him.
Pretty damn sad.
Ty Lawson's Transition
Throughout his college career, I always was skeptical of Lawson's skills translating into an effective NBA game. I thought his lack of size, as well as his mediocre outside game, would ultimately hurt him on the pro level. Looking back at UNC's track record, I should have never had a doubt. So many players who I felt would either flop in the league or just be mediocre wound up being great professionals.
He was drafted by Denver, which is the perfect situation for him. He gets to play on a title contender with a future MVP in Melo, and a point guard known for his leadership and clutch performances in Chauncey Billups. He gets to practice against and learn from one of the best. Obviously, the experience has lifted his game to the next level.
His game has improved since his North Carolina days, He's a vital role player on a winning team. His shooting, decision making and overall game has skyrocketed. Once Billups leaves or retires, he'll have the skills, knowledge and experience to step in and lead an NBA team.
As long as he keeps working, he could get there. So many good point guards weren't drafted high, but developed over the years—from Rajon Rondo to Steve Nash. Lets see if he catapults himself into the elite class of point guards.
At last year's draft, I certainly was a non-believer as to how much game Danilo Gallinarid had. It was typical Mike D'antoni getting a player from Italy, where he is so revered and famous. A prototypical player to fit into his Euro-speedball offense: soft and with extreme defensive shortcomings.
I've seen it too many times where a foreign big man is drafted with the expectations of being the next Dirk Nowitzki. Those expectations are never fulfilled.
However, this year, his game is starting to support why the Knicks drafted him in the first place. His jumper is straight cash, he has unlimited range, and his ball handling skills and court vision remind me so much of Lamar Odom. If he improves his post game and rebounding, he has a bright future.
Also, pairing him with David Lee on the frontline for next year, would be a great look to entice one of those big-name free agents the Knicks so desperately covet.
The talent is there for this 21-year-old. Is the passion and desire to improve there? Will he embrace or disgrace the fan base, playing on the biggest stage in the world? So far, so good, but there's still a ways to go. At least he's moving in the right direction. Lets hope he stays on track.
Orlando's Subtraction By Addition
Last year's run to the Finals was a glimpse of things to come. Expectations are sky high. When Hedo Turkoglu bolted to Toronto, they replaced him with Vince Carter, a perennial All Star and bona fide scoring two guard, which was something they were missing last year.
However, all Vince has done is make a problem that the Magic had last year 10 times worse. What did I say throughout the playoffs last year. DWIGHT HOWARD NEEDS TO GET THE DAMN BALL. Its 10 times worse now.
When I think about it, when has Vince played with a real all star, or should I say a scoring all star? He's always had to be the focal point of the offense' As the years went on, we saw less of those hard drives and finishes that made him a household name and more ridiculous fadeaways.
Now, those shots are hurting his teammates. All of his teammates' shot attempts are down. Howard averages nine shot attempts. He averages more rebounds. Rashard Lewis' shots are down. Carter's hurting all of his teammates play, which is exactly what a real superstar doesn't do.
Not to mention that he's shooting 38 percent FG and 30 percent in threes. It certainly doesn't make a case for him shooting the ball more than anyone else. The other players who have been there for years. Vince better learn how to fit in better, or he'll be out of there.
They could have kept Courtney Lee, who just wanted to be one of the guys instead of "the guy." Sometimes less is more.