Ranking the Los Angeles Lakers' Biggest Surprises in the Early Season

Andrew Tornetta@AndrewTornettaCorrespondent IIDecember 21, 2013

Ranking the Los Angeles Lakers' Biggest Surprises in the Early Season

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    There is never a dull moment for the Los Angeles Lakers.

    A year after a surprisingly disappointing season that began with championship expectations and resulted in a first-round exit, the Lakers are in the midst of another mildly surprising yearalthough for much different reasons.

    With a roster full of new faces, the Lakers entered this year with very little expectations but have already had many surprises—both good and bad.

    Whether it's the remarkable return of Kobe Bryant, his new injury, the emergence of the bench mob or even breakout seasons from some budding young players, the Lakers season has been full of memorable moments.

    The rankings were based on how surprising each performance has been based on preseason expectations.

    Yes, Jordan Hill has been extremely productive for the Lakers but anyone that has watched him play since he joined the team could have seen it coming if he could stay on the court.

    Therefore, he doesn't make the list because his early season performance was more expected than surprising.

    Read on to see who does make this list, and where Bryant's return and departure ranks.

Honorable Mentions

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    The Lakers are fun to watch

    Between the slowed down pace, the clear lack of team chemistry and the struggles to find a good offensive system, the Lakers were one of the least enjoyable teams to watch last season.

    Things have changed this year with the front office bringing in good locker rooms guys that fit head coach Mike D'Antoni's run and gun style—like Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry.

    Regardless of opponent, the Lakers have proven that they can make any game interesting thanks to a full on unpredictability factor. You simply never know what you are going to get night in and night out. 

    While it isn't as enjoyable as watching the Lakers roll down Figueroa street on a parade float, it's still a vast improvement from watching last year's team bicker their way through the regular season before getting bounced in the first round.

    The West is absolutely loaded

    While it's not a surprise to see that the Western Conference is competitive this year, it is rather shocking to see how many good teams there are. After winning on Friday night, the Lakers are 13-13 on the season and have the 10th best record in the conference. 

    The Minnesota Timberwolves (13-14) and New Orleans Pelicans (11-13) are right behind the Lakers, while the always-dangerous Memphis Grizzlies aren't far behind (10-15).There are legitimately 13 teams in the West fighting for eight playoff seeds—sickening compared to the total lack of playoff teams in the East, where there are only three teams above .500.

    Put the Lakers in the East and they would be sitting pretty with a top-four seed. In the West, they are going to be fighting for a final playoff spot with a half-dozen other teams. 

Inconsistencies of Pau Gasol

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    Pau Gasol was the main guy expected to step up and take control of the offense with Kobe Bryant injured. While he hasn't posted bad numbers, averaging 15 points and 9.4 rebounds, his production has been shockingly inconsistent.

    Another reason Gasol's play is so surprising is because he's in a contract year and this could be his last big, long-term payday. 

    There have been games where Gasol will play like he did Friday night—just missing out on a triple-double with 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists on 10-for-15 shooting. However, on other nights he will put up stats like he did against Toronto, where he shot just 3-for-11 with seven points.

    The strangest aspect of his game has been his field goal percentage. Last season, Gasol shot 46.6 percent from the field, the worst of his career and the first time since 2003 that he shot under 50 percent for a season.

    This season has been even worse for him—he averages only 44.8 percent shooting on the year. He has also shot 40 percent or less in a game nine times already while only shooting at least 50 percent in a game just 11 times.

    One would think that this is caused by Gasol trying to be more of a stretch player in Mike D'Antoni's system, but his biggest problems have been finishing around the paint.

    According to hoopdata.com, Gasol is shooting just 37.5 percent on shots from 3-9 feet from the basket, after shooting 46.4 percent on such shots last year.

    To his credit, Gasol has been playing much better as of recent, scoring over double-digits in each of his last five games while shooting above 50 percent in four of them.

    His recent play is why he isn't higher on this list.

Jodie Meeks Taking the Next Step

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    Jodie Meeks joined the Lakers to be a three-point specialist and contribute on the defensive end. Last year, he did neither.

    After leaving the Philadelphia 76ers, Meeks struggled mightily last season, scoring 7.9 points per game while shooting just 38.7 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three-point range.

    He has done a complete 180 this year, putting up career-bests in points, rebounds, steals, minutes, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. 

    Meeks has scored 12.5 points per game while shooting 46.7 from the field and a scorching 41.7 percent from three.

    He has also been much better at not settling for threes, being more aggressive in attacking the rim and finishing when he gets there.

    In 78 games last season, Meeks took 188 two-point shots, making just 44 percent of them. However, this year in 26 games, he has already taken 119 two-point shots and made 52 percent of them.

    In the absence of Kobe Bryant, Meeks has been one of the main guys to step up and has developed into a very solid all-around player.

Point Guard Injuries

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    Steve Nash is hobbling to retirement.

    I don't think anyone is surprised that Nash would be out with an injury three months into the season.

    However, nobody could have expected the injury bug to take out every single point guard on the roster.

    When recently acquired Kendall Marshall is the only healthy point left on your entire team, you know you've had some bad luck with injuries.

    Nash has been out over a month already with a back injury, Steve Blake is expected to be out for another three weeks after tearing a ligament in his right elbow on Nov. 26 and Jordan Farmar is still a week away from returning after tearing his hamstring on Dec. 1.

    Playing without a true point the Lakers have predictably been very sloppy with the ball, turning it over nearly 15 times per game. 

    The Lakers can only hope their point guards can make quick recoveries and stay healthy once they come back.

Nick Young and the Bench Mob

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    The player known as "Swaggy P" has been everything the Lakers would have hoped for and more. Young is making an early case for himself to win Sixth Man of the Year, averaging a team-high 15.3 points per game.

    Young's scoring is no surprise, but he has proven that he can do more than just score for the Lakers. Young has played solid on the defensive end and his player efficiency rating of 16.7 is the best of his career.

    He has also been the leader of a Lakers bench that has been one of the best in the league. Coming off a season where the bench scored just 25.8 points per game, the Lakers bench has scored a league-best 46 points per game this year.

    Everytime the "bench mob" comes into the game, the pace gets raised, the excitement jumps a level and you can expect a lot of points to be put up.

    After the bench the Lakers had last year where 20 point leads would turn into six point leads in the blink of an eye, it would have been hard to imagine the team actually getting more productive in some games with the bench on the court. 

    Even more surprising is just how deep the team has also proven to be, mixing and matching the starting lineup due to different injuries with the bench not missing a beat.

The Breakouts of Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson

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    If you were to pick one word to describe both Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson before the season, "bust" would have most likely been it.

    However, the two 2010 lottery picks have been extremely productive playing with fresh starts in Los Angeles this season. 

    Henry has shown more flashes but has yet to do it consistently, averaging 10 points per game in just 20 minutes. He has had scoring outbursts in some games where he would carry the load offensively, but then is quiet in others. Henry has scored at least 15 points 10 times this year, but has also scored less than five points 10 times too.

    Johnson, on the other hand, has been more consistently productive both offensively and defensively. He is averaging 8.2 points per game while scoring less than five points only five times this year, with just two games scoring more than 15.

    Both guys have also proven to be extremely effective at finishing at the rim, bringing their own taste of Lob City to Staples Center on many nights.

    Whether or not these two guys are having full-on breakout seasons or just merely flashes is yet to be seen, but there are very few people who would have expected such production from two guys who were fighting to stay in the NBA before the season.

The Return, Then Re-Injury of Kobe Bryant

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    The fact that Kobe Bryant defied expectations and made his triumphant return ahead of schedule on Dec. 8 against Toronto probably didn't surprise most Lakers fans.

    Over his career Bryant has been more machine than human, playing through injuries that would force nearly every player in the league to sit. Kobe predicted he would be back earlier than expected and defied all odds of an older player by doing exactly that. 

    However, when it was announced on Thursday that Bryant would be out six weeks with a broken bone in his left knee, that was the biggest shock of the season for the Lakers.

    Bryant had been working his way back into game shape, playing six games since returning from a torn left Achilles tendon, averaging 13.8 points, 6.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds a game.

    He was also coming off his best game of the season where he scored 21 points on 9-of-18 shooting with four assists and five rebounds in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies. 

    As evident from his twitter account, Bryant is clearly ready to take on this new challenge and come back strong, but the fact that the Lakers' iron man played just six games before going down with another injury has been the biggest surprise of the season.


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