Every season brings with it the unexpected. Trades can happen out of thin air, teams can come out of nowhere to achieve far beyond expectations and young players can turn that untapped potential into a season to remember. The 2012-13 NBA season has been outstanding thus far and as we pass the half way point in the season we take a look at the top ten surprises so far.
10. James Harden is a Houston Rocket
Now that we are halfway through the season, NBA fans have had time to adjust to the site of James Harden in a Houston Rockets jersey. It was, however, a huge shock when just prior to the season, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti decided that contract negotiations would go no further with their Sixth Man of the Year and traded the bearded one in a package to the Rockets that included Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and a first-round draft pick.
Harden has been exceptional since landing in Houston. The first time All-Star has averaged 26 points per game along with more than five assists and four rebounds. The Rockets had signaled their intention to land a superstar in the off-season and after efforts to land the likes of Dwight Howard were unsuccessful, general manager Darryl Morey got his man in Harden, who the team now revolves their offense around.
Meanwhile, the Thunder haven’t skipped a beat. Martin has slotted in to the sixth-man role seamlessly and the team sits second in the Western Conference. No doubt the move to trade Harden hit hard for close friends Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook but the team has rolled on and without having to commit max money to Harden, they are in a much better position financially going forward.
9. Damian Lillard and The Portland Trail Blazers in The Playoff Hunt
The Portland Trail Blazers came into the season in what was viewed as a rebuilding year. They started rookie point guard Damian Lillard from day one and with little to no bench depth to rely on, it appeared that it could be a long season in Rip City. Instead, the Blazers starting five have formed a formidable unit that has the Blazers competing with even the best teams in the deep Western Conference.
Lillard has averaged more than 18 points and six assists thus far in his rookie season. With maturity well beyond his years and a cold-blooded attitude in crunch time, he wasted no time showing why he shot up many teams’ draft boards prior to the 2012 draft. He, along with Nicolas Batum and All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge, has shouldered a massive workload on a Portland team that gets next to no production from their bench, yet the team sits above .500 (25-23) and is fighting for a playoff position.
The grind of an 82-game season often wears down even the best rookies, but Lillard has yet to show any signs of slowing down. As long as the Blazers starting five remains intact, they will continue to compete night in, night out and will almost certainly claim a lower seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
8. Mark Jackson’s coaching success with the Warriors
Many eyebrows were raised when the Golden State Warriors selected Mark Jackson as their head coach prior to the 2011-12 season. At the time, Jackson had no prior coaching experience and for years had been working as a broadcaster and analyst for ESPN/ABC.
Jackson, who has the second-most assists in NBA history, appears to be a natural in the coaching ranks and has the Warriors playing tremendous basketball through the first half of the season. Despite being without starting center Andrew Bogut, Jackson has the Warriors at 30-17, second in the Pacific and comfortably in the Western Conference playoff picture.
It’s not just the results, but the style of play that have many impressed with Jackson’s transition into coaching. The Warriors have improved defensively under Jackson’s tutelage yet have remained as one of the best offensive teams in the league. His unselfish influence has the team moving the ball freely and he is getting great production from a number of rookies and role players. It appears Mark Jackson is more than just a former player with a few catch phrases, he is proving to be a bonafide NBA head coach.
7. The Pacers’ Success Without Danny Granger
The Indiana Pacers came into the season knowing they would be without their leader Danny Granger at least until the All-Star break. The team recently signed big man Roy Hibbert to a long-term deal and with stability on their side, coach Frank Vogel has been able to mold his young team into a well-oiled defensive machine.
With the second-best defense in the league, the Pacers are causing headaches for the opposition on a nightly basis. With Hibbert anchoring the paint and long wing defenders like Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill causing havoc in the passing lanes, the team is limiting opponents to fewer than 90 points per contest. The Pacers currently have a 29-19 record, fighting for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Speaking of George, the 22-year-old swingman has had a breakout season and has been rewarded with his first All-Star berth. He has upped his numbers across the board in Granger’s absence. His scoring is more than 17 points per game and his long-range shooting is a major weapon for Indiana. He is also providing a huge boost for the team on the glass, where he pulls down 7.7 rebounds.
With Granger set to return to the lineup soon, the Pacers will bolster an already imposing lineup of young stars and hard-working role players. If healthy they are a true dark-horse candidate in the East.
6. The Return of Andrei Kirilenko
After high expectations, not much has gone right for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season. Franchise big man Kevin Love has again gone down with a long-term injury and the team already struggled without point guard Ricky Rubio, who is only just finding his feet again. One move that no one can question as a success is general manager David Kahn bringing Russian forward Andrei Kirilenko back to the NBA after one season in Europe.
The versatile Kirilenko was outstanding in the 2012 Olympics, where he and fellow Timberwolf Alexey Shved led their Russian team to a bronze medal. The Wolves signed Kirilenko to a multiyear contract to add a veteran presence to what they hoped would be a young playoff team.
Kirilenko has been a consistent performer for Minnesota and his per game averages of 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists are his best since the 2006-07 season. He has also proven to still be one of the best defenders in basketball. His versatile defensive capabilities allow him to guard superstar swingmen such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant while he can also move to power forward, where he adequately defends the post. Kirilenko has been a rare bright spot in an otherwise disastrous season thus far for Minnesota.
5. The Knicks Making the Jump to Legitimate Contender
The New York Knicks are always in the spotlight and this season has been no different. The difference this time around is that the team is making waves for all the right reasons and after not fielding a legitimate championship challenging team for more than a decade, the Knicks are back.
Carmelo Anthony has led from the front and would unanimously finish in the top five in MVP voting at this stage of the season. He has been outstanding, leading the Knicks to a 31-15 record, just one game behind the East-leading Miami Heat. Management has done a fantastic job surrounding Anthony with a supporting cast of championship-caliber role players. Former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler has anchored the team defensively, Jason Kidd is providing a steady veteran presence. And that’s not to mention J.R. Smith, who is having the best season of his career.
Despite big man Amare Stoudemire missing a significant chunk of the season due to injury, the team has been a dominant force in the league thus far. With Stoudemire’s recent return and his willingness to play his role without disturbing the team’s chemistry, the Knicks now look even stronger. With the team rolling in a thin Eastern Conference, the Knicks have become the clear-cut top challenger to Miami to reach the NBA Finals out East.
4. Jrue Holiday’s jump to All-Star status
All the attention in Philadelphia coming in to this season was on one man, and that man was not Jrue Holiday. Andrew Bynum was heralded as the 76ers’ new franchise player, but unfortunately for them, Bynum has yet to step on the court this season due to lingering knee injuries.
The one positive to come out of the situation is the play of Holiday, who was recently selected as a first time All-Star. The third-year point guard has stepped up in Bynum’s absence and is the clear leader of the team’s offense. His confidence and production have taken a huge leap from last season despite his minutes increasing by only five per game. Holiday is averaging more than 19 points per contest and his nine assists per game is good for fourth in league.
He has taken responsibility for the team and has embraced a leadership role despite being just 22. Holiday would be one of the favorites for this season’s most improved player award and if the team is able to get Bynum healthy the 76ers will have a formidable one-two punch at two of the most important positions in the league.
3. Kyrie Irving’s ascension to superstardom
There were big expectations for Kyrie Irving coming off his Rookie of the Year season in 2011-12. The 20-year-old Cleveland Cavaliers point guard breathed new life into a franchise that had struggled to recover from the loss of LebBron James.
Suddenly, Cleveland had found its new poster boy and Irving, even as a rookie, had embraced the opportunity. It was expected that with a full offseason and a year of experience behind him, Irving could make significant improvements to his game, but the levels he has reached this season have surpassed even the most optimistic of fans.
Irving has vaulted himself into the national spotlight, becoming one of the most entertaining and popular young players in the game. Despite the Cavaliers’ struggles this season, Irving has been sensational, averaging 24 points per game, good for sixth in league. He is the focal point of opposing defenses and yet cannot be stopped. He has had numerous games this season where he becomes completely unguardable for long stretches.
Irving scored 35 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, including 13 points in the last three minutes to lead the Cavaliers to victory. He was completely unstoppable and torched Russell Westbrook, who is considered one of the league’s best point-guard defenders.
His popularity is growing, his “Uncle Drew” Pepsi commercials went viral and became one of the most popular NBA player ads in recent memory. His street ball-like handles, high-volume scoring and quiet, confident approach has endeared him to fans around the world. Selection to this year’s All-Star game at just 20 years old is a testament to how truly special Irving has become in such a short time and just how good his career could be.
2. Tim Duncan defying Father Time
It was another quiet preseason for the San Antonio Spurs. The ever-present, four-time champions seem to nonchalantly turn up to every season ready to play and coast through the regular season. Of course, behind the scenes, the team is going through intense practices to become the well-oiled machine we are used to seeing, but nothing made this season seem like it would be any different.
That was until Tim Duncan stepped on court looking five years younger and performing at a level we have not seen in years. Duncan appears more mobile, faster and fitter, which is astounding considering not only the shape he has kept himself in for his entire career, but the fact he is now 36 years old.
The 15-year veteran has been exceptional and the Spurs now have a clear lead over the stacked Western Conference. Duncan is averaging 17.3 points and 9.7 rebounds, both of which are his highest since the 2009-10 season. What is even more impressive is his per game average of 2.7 blocks, a rate which he has not seen since 2003-04, when he was 29. He is achieving all of this in less than 30 minutes per game.
Duncan has looked phenomenal so far this season and despite sitting out a couple of games recently we know that down the stretch, coach Gregg Popovich will take care of his star players by offering plenty of rest and recuperation.
It is likely Popovich has had a big influence in Duncan’s longevity with his player management throughout the years, but it is a testament to the Big Fundamental himself and the work that this legendary big man puts in behind the scenes that we are still witnessing such greatness, even in the latter stages of his career.
1. The Clippers run L.A.
The Clippers are the best team in Los Angeles…
Yes, this has actually happened. The baby brother of L.A. has finally stepped out of the Lakers’ shadow and has become one the most entertaining, athletic and most importantly, successful teams this season.
Despite a wild offseason that landed the Lakers two-time MVP winner Steve Nash and former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, it is the Clippers that have emerged in L.A. as a real contender, while the Lakers will need a miraculous turnaround in their season to even reach the playoffs.
No one is surprised that the Clippers are a competitive team, with the likes of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin at the helm they were always going to be playoff-bound. However, despite a recent slide due to Paul missing some time, the Clippers have been dominant and look likely to claim home-court advantage in the loaded West.
Lob City is absolutely stacked with talent, with a franchise superstar in Paul, athletic finishers like Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as well as a deep cast of veteran playoff performers such as Grant Hill, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler and Lamar Odom. Coach Vinny Del Negro has the team confident and engaged in every game; they have become one of the most feared teams in the league.
The Clippers currently sit third in the Western Conference with a record of 34-16; meanwhile, the Lakers are struggling in 10th position, going just 22-26 through the first 48 games of the season.
The Lakers were supposed to have formed some super team to make a run at yet another NBA championship, instead they have faltered. There have been injuries, chemistry issues, coaching problems and every time they seem to have turned the corner, they come up with another disappointing loss.
Meanwhile, in the same building, the Clippers have become one of the best teams in the league and come playoff time many L.A. fans may be throwing the familiar purple-and-yellow in the drawer in favor of the red-and-blue.
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Tags: Aldridge Andrei Kirilenko Andrew Bynum Batum Carmelo Anthony Clippers Durant Finals Holiday Indiana James Harden Jrue Knicks Kyrie Irving La Clippers La Lakers Lakers Lillard Mark Jackson NBA New York Pacers Philadelphia Popovich Portland Rockets Spurs Surprises Thunder Tim Duncan Timberwolves Top Ten Trailblazers Warriors Westbrook