* * *
With more than a quarter of the schedule behind us, what’s the biggest surprise of the NBA season so far?
* * *
Steve Aschburner: If I were to go by teams we didn’t expect to be so disappointing, I’d nominate the Washington Wizards (whom I picked to win the Southeast, for some now-elusive reason) and the Dallas Mavericks, who should have more victories on Rick Carlisle’s coaching alone. If my choice were an overachieving team, then it’s the Memphis Grizzlies in a rout for how they win without Mike Conley and, heck, sometimes seemingly with mirrors. But I’m going to go with an individual as my biggest surprise so far: James Harden. I was one of the voters who felt that his 2015-16 season did not merit even All-NBA third team status because his style of play was all about him. Disliked even watching the Rockets because of it. But whatever deal he cut with new coach Mike D’Antoni, whatever sweet-nothings D’Antoni whispered in The Beard’s ears, sure has transformed him — and my viewing habits. Telling me a year ago that Harden would lead the NBA in assists would have been little different from telling me Andre Drummond would lead in free-throw percentage.
Fran Blinebury: I’ll go with a set of twin surprises in the Western Conference in the Rockets and Grizzlies. We knew that the arrival of Mike D’Antoni in Houston would send James Harden’s numbers skyward. But the Rockets have taken the up-tempo ball and run away with it, spreading the wealth and success harmoniously around. They have road wins at Golden State, San Antonio and OKC and one of the four best records (18-7) in the league. Meanwhile the Grizzlies have gotten virtually nothing from their free agent prize Chandler Parsons, now are playing without point guard and leader Mike Conley, but keep grinding out wins with defense and grit, a 3-point shooting Marc Gasol and an energized Zach Randolph coming off the bench.
Scott Howard-Cooper: I didn’t see David Fizdale as a Coach of the Year candidate coming, I didn’t see Joel Embiid needing about zero games to get his basketball legs back, and I didn’t see the Rockets high on the West leaderboard. But I really didn’t see the Mavericks churning just to stay out of last place in the West. That was never a championship team, obviously, but also was never a roster destined for .250 ball, injury considerations or not.
Shaun Powell: I’m stunned by the lack of progress by the Timberwolves. This team has solid young talent, a 2016 draft pick who was voted by GMs as the projected Rookie of the Year, and a proven winner of a coach who was an automatic choice to replace the late Flip Saunders (via Sam Mitchell). And yet, as of Dec. 13, they were tied for last in the NBA. Yes, the precautionary “it’s still early” tag still applies, but that expires in another month. What then?
John Schuhmann: By comparing where teams stand in this week’s Power Rankings vs. where they stood before the season started, I can say that the biggest surprise to me is the Memphis Grizzlies (7th vs. 19th). And given the injuries to Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons, that they’re 17-9 with the league’s No. 1 defense is even more a credit to Marc Gasol and David Fizdale. As a numbers guy, I have some doubts about a team that’s 17-9 with a negative point differential, but this (losing big and winning close games) is what the Grizzlies have been doing for years (a reason why I was down on them at the start of the season) and Saturday’s blowout of the Warriors wasn’t their first quality win.
Sekou Smith: The job David Fizdale has done guiding the Memphis Grizzlies into the thick of things in the Western Conference playoff chase, especially with all of the injury and off-court issues he’s had to deal with through the first quarter of the season. And I expected Fizdale to do a good job with the Grizzlies. But I didn’t have them on my short list of the top five teams in the conference this season. Fizdale’s Grizzlies have definitely been the most pleasant and biggest surprise to me. If we were picking a Coach of the (first quarter of the) Year, Fizdale should win comfortably.
Ian Thomsen: The biggest surprise so far is the absence of big surprises. The top three teams in the West are the Warriors, Spurs and Clippers, while Cleveland looks unbeatable in the East — and isn’t that what everyone imagined? The Rockets appear to have righted themselves, but the renewal of James Harden should not have been shocking to anyone who has followed Mike D’Antoni’s career. Likewise with the resurgent Knicks, who ought to be a few games over .500 after adding Derrick Rose and other experienced producers to the core of Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis.
“Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen,” declared the emperor in Return of the Jedi. Then, of course, came the ending that surprised him. Which is why I’m sticking with my pick of the Clippers reaching the NBA Finals. The more predictable this league appears to be, the less predictable it becomes.
Lang Whitaker: Underachieving. On the heels of last season, there are several teams that the basketball cognoscenti expected to see reach a new level this season, but teams like Portland (13-14), Atlanta (12-13), Minnesota (7-18) and even Boston (13-11) haven’t gotten off to the kind of starts many expected. Yes, there are injuries and other factors involved, with plenty of time for these teams to find their footing. But the clock is definitely ticking, louder each day.
MORE BLOGTABLE: Clear No. 2 in East, West? | More referees on the floor?