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Bobcats, Grizzlies and Hawks among NBA's early surprises

One month into the 2012-13 NBA campaign, a few teams and players have emerged as better than advertised. Whether they keep it up is another story, of course, but Sam Smith highlights a few of the season’s early surprises.
"It's been both the familiar 'change of culture' with coach Mike Dunlap and some solid, if unspectacular, personnel additions in Ramon Sessions, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Brendan Haywood and the self improvement of Kemba Walker, who can shoot after all," writes Sam Smith of the Bobcats.
(Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

What do the Charlotte Bobcats, P.J. Tucker, O.J. Mayo, the Memphis Grizzlies, Kenneth Faried and the Atlanta Hawks have in common?

That's right, nothing really. Other than not a whole lot of us saw them coming.

"I like our team," said former Bull Kyle Korver of the 8-4 Atlanta Hawks, tied for third in the Eastern Conference with good wins over the Thunder, Clippers and Pacers. "We have a lot of flexibility; we can play a bunch of styles. Atlanta has been an isolation team for many years, so we're still learning to move without the ball. But we have a lot of speed, athletic mobile bigs who can guard and we've been solid on defense (first in fewest points allowed and second in opponent shooting)."

There wasn't that much expected of the Hawks in what looked like the start of clearing cap room with the trades of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. But they're one of the early surprises, which basically means teams or players who may have been good but media members didn't realize.

Here's an early look at some of the others:

Charlotte Bobcats: Though last year was shortened for the lockout, they set a record for fastest team to reach last year's win total. After compiling the worst percentage record in league history, they have the fifth best record in the East at 7-5, and without who was supposed to be their best player, Gerald Henderson. It's been both the familiar "change of culture" with coach Mike Dunlap and some solid, if unspectacular, personnel additions in Ramon Sessions, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Brendan Haywood and the self improvement of Kemba Walker, who can shoot after all.

James Harden: We knew he was good, but this good? He's fourth in the league in scoring, tied with LeBron James, and is showing for now he can be a team's go-to guy and leader. Perhaps not in the James/Durant class, but not many are. And he does give Houston a chance to make a serious move.

Memphis Grizzlies: We tend to forget Rudy Gay was out for the playoffs two years ago and Zach Randolph was recovering from knee surgery last season. They're back and actually playing well together for maybe the first time when a few years ago they literally wouldn't pass to one another. But with interior size and underrated guard Mike Conley they join the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Lakers with a chance to win the West.

Anderson Varejao/Kenneth Faried: Varejao leads the league in rebounding and Faried is fourth and the top two in the league in offensive rebounding at more than five per game. They're the definition of hard working role players who play relentlessly.

New York Knicks: Not that the rest of us fell for this Jeremy Lin stuff, but they did change their team and become the butt of jokes with their age. But with Carmelo Anthony playing power forward and a spread floor game with three of the top 15 three-point shooters in the league, they are playing like Mike D'Antoni would love and difficult to defend. At least as long as the shots continue to go down and for now staying with Miami on top of the conference.

O.J. Mayo: We'd long decided Minnesota won that draft day swap with Kevin Love as Mayo went to the bench in Memphis, averaging about 12 points and never shooting better than 38.4 percent on threes. Now in Dallas, which is stumbling along at .500 without Dirk Nowitzki, Mayo is eighth in the league in scoring and shooting more than 53 percent on threes even as he's among the leaders in attempts.

Chandler Parsons/P.J. Tucker: The second round picks. Parsons from last season has been star like, the last seven games averaging more than 20 points and in double figure rebounds four times with at least 24 points against the Heat, Lakers and Knicks. Though Tucker didn't do much in Sunday's Suns loss in Philadelphia, the former second round pick who'd been kicking around overseas the last five years has been a delight off the bench, a classic game changing energizer who's helped the Suns remain competitive in one of the good stories.

Damian Lillard: We're still not sure how to pronounce Weber State. Someone call Dick Motta. The rookie is 10th in the league in scoring at more than 20 per game. And it's not like Portland has so many other threats. The Trail Blazers picked him with the selection from the Gerald Wallace trade (ouch), and with the seemingly terrible ankles of Anthony Davis, Lillard has turned into the heavy favorite for rookie of the year.

Tim Duncan/Kobe Bryant: Duncan may now play longer than Kareem. He was supposed to be done a few years ago, but the Spurs keep winning as they still play their offense through him. He's down to maybe 30 minutes a game and still averaging a double/double. He's even sharing his wry sense of humor. Kobe's supposed to be too old, too. So he's leading the league in scoring. He'll tell you when he's too old! And don't bring it up again!

Atlanta’s Korver takes note of league’s improved three point shooting

-- So what's with all this amazing three point shooting? Yes, it's early, which it always is until it's late. Steve Kerr holds the all-time single season record at 52 percent. There are six players shooting better. The old formula was shoot 33 percent on threes, and that's equivalent to 50 percent on twos. There are more than 90 players shooting at least 33 percent on threes. One of the best all-time is Korver, who after a slow start adjusting in Atlanta has come on strong. He's averaging 11 points for the season and starting, averaging a seven-year high in minutes. In the last seven games, he's averaging 14 points and shooting 51 percent on threes with a walk off winner over Washington.

"It took me a while to adjust to the style," said Korver of the more open Atlanta play after Tom Thibodeau's structured sets. "But I'm feeling much more comfortable. And I'm getting to play a lot more, which is great and leads to more shots. It's been fun."

Korver said he's also noted the propensity toward better three point shooting. He says he sees more teams and players employing the shorter, corner three, sort of a plethora of Bruce Bowens. "There's a bigger emphasis on the corner threes," says Korver. "A lot of guys are shooting that with a good percentage. Teams also are playing smaller and faster and you see teams creating more three-point shots. You also had coaches who didn't want guys taking them, playing more inside out. But I feel coaches are being a little more loose with that philosophy, spacing the floor with smaller lineups, surrounding great players with shooters. Sounds good to me."

Korver laughed, and things are going well, he says. His wife is due with their first child in about a week, and he's adjusted well to Atlanta, living downtown and summery weather, still. The fan base isn't quite like Chicago or Salt Lake City, he acknowledges, but getting better and stronger, he says. Korver isn't doing his annual winter coat fundraiser (not much winter where he is now), one of the great events. But his foundation and associated Seer Outfitters does some of the most innovative charitable work of any NBA player. Korver is generally hands on involved, and recently his group has been finishing its Better Together Tour, designed to find organizations around the country trying to make the world a better place through long term change, economies and elements to change society and providing grants. It can be contacted at Bettertogethertour.com.

Korver says he hasn't talked much with the current Bulls players, but has tried to keep up with his former Bench Mob mates around the league. "I see the box scores," says Korver. "Omer (Asik) is doing what everyone on the Bulls thought he would if he got more time: Always in the right spot, such a good defender, a really smart player. I'm happy for him. It's great to see. It's good to see Ronnie (Brewer) starting again on a great team. It was a thing where we all just knew our roles, accepted them and really enjoyed playing together, good guys playing the game the right way, good dudes." And it's nice to see another one of them prospering, this time in Atlanta.

NBA news and notes

-- Rajon Rondo not only continues to bear down on that consecutive game double digit assist record with another 16 in Boston's overtime win Sunday, but averaging more than 13 a game has him chasing down marks not reached since John Stockton's prime two decades ago. ... Though the Raptors are next to last in the East at 3-11, don't count them out. The NBA made a rare admission of officials missing a foul on a potential winning last shot by Andrea Bargnani last week around the Raptors losing Sunday in double overtime and missing a last shot against the Pistons last week. When teams begin to get that close they eventually begin to turn it around. Or collapse, I suppose. ... Jeremy Lin doesn't appear to be that kind of kid, though the Knicks players and even coach Mike Woodson seemed to go overboard in pointing out how much better they were now without Lin before Houston crushed the Knicks last week. Woodson said Ray Felton was better at point, and Jason Kidd said: "We weren't really focused on Lin. We were more focused on the two guys that got going, Harden and Parsons. Those two guys were playing at a high level." Lin, though, handled himself professionally and praised the Knicks and his time in New York. ... There's plenty of joking (he was going there to dry his hair in the air blowers for hands) about Andrew Bynum aggravating his knee bowling. And now the 76ers saying it's worse than when they traded for him and speculation he may not even play this season and have surgery. It's always been the question hanging over Bynum as last season was the only one when he was healthy. But it was a reasonable risk for the 76ers as the relationship between Andre Iguodala and coach Doug Collins was at a low point and threatened to take down the team. The 76ers also wanted to move Evan Turner to Iguodala's spot, and Bynum was in his final season with the 76ers saving $17 million and being able to move into free agency this summer. It was a gamble, but seemingly worth it with the 76ers playing well for now, anyway.

-- It's gotten tougher for rookie Austin Rivers with Anthony Davis out again with ankle issues and Eric Gordon who knows where. Rivers was dropped from the starting lineup and is shooting 31 percent overall on the season. ... There were stories in Portland area media last week of LaMarcus Aldridge having an internal feud with Brandon Roy and an external one with Kevin Love, supposedly both involving professional jealousies. Aldridge suggested otherwise, but I say it's the rain. I think Zach Randolph agrees with me. ... With Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee coming on, the Nuggets lead the NBA in rebounding and differential. The Bulls are seventh. ... Utah is hanging on at .500 in the West, so it seems curious they keep playing free agent guards Mo Williams, Randy Foye and now Earl Watson while Alec Burks sits. The second year shooting guard came on strong late last season, but now rarely plays. There was a report he was available, which seems ludicrous, though I'd make a run at him if he is. ... It doesn't look like Brandon Roy is coming back again, which always was curious why Minnesota would give him two years. But they did make a steal with Andrei Kirilenko. ... The talk in Oklahoma City is they won't retain free agent Eric Maynor. ... It's not with big numbers, but Michigan State's Draymond Green is providing some toughness in the Warriors rotation and keeping Jeremy Tyler on the bench. ... Luis Scola got benched by the Suns and is sharing reserve time now with Jermaine O'Neal, of all guys. Who knew he still was around, and averaging about eight points in 18 minutes. Suns media says there are tensions around the team that will lead to coach Alvin Gentry's ouster if the team doesn't make a strong playoff showing. Tough to see with that roster. ... The Kings DeMarcus Cousins got ejected again for failing to control himself with officials, and you think of guys like Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest with that sort of stuff and wonder if there are more issues with Cousins than just immaturity. Meanwhile, a critical column in the Sacramento Bee demanded general manager Geoff Petrie be fired with six straight non-playoff seasons spread among four coaches.

-- He's definitely a Pargo. Little brother Jeremy, replacing injured Kyrie Irving the last three games with a win over the 76ers and last minute losses to Orlando and Miami, is averaging 19.7 points and shooting 47 percent with three assists per game. ... When the Magic beat the Pistons last week, Tayshaun Prince and Will Bynum said they didn't understand the substitution patterns of coach Lawrence Frank, though they later said they were mischaracterized. Meanwhile as the Pistons stumbled to 3-11, Kyle Singler has moved comfortably into the starting lineup, averaging 11.3 the last six games and pushing Rodney Stuckey probably to being available with only a partial guarantee for next season. ... The Washington Wizards are celebrating the 35th anniversary of their first season in Washington with the longshot hope of winning 35 games. The Wizards are 0-11. Flip Saunders was fired last season when the team started 2-15. ... Who's the next Mike Dunlap? The "Who's that" coach of the Bobcats was an assistant at Denver and then at Syracuse with his head coaching experience at Division II Metropolitan State. He's demanding, and with some nice roster tweaks the Bobcats compete. OK, apologize to Michael Jordan. But it does show there are guys out there who can coach if they get the chance, and not just at major colleges. A lot of NBA guys like Butler's Brad Stevens. ... The talk in Miami given various injuries, inconsistency and shooting 16 percent on threes, Dwyane Wade has fallen to third among the Big Three, though it doesn't appear he and LeBron James have taught Chris Bosh the secret handshake. ... Lakers. The league now just makes us mention them in everything we write.

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