Compared to some of its professional-sports-league peers, the NBA can be a bit stingy in squeezing out unexpected developments.
And while we won’t commit to absolutes, it’s hard to imagine the next Most Valuable Player existing as someone other than Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Dwight Howard. The 2010 championship expectation pool isn’t very deep, either, with the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers checking in as the lead suspects.
The next Coach of the Year figures to be any sharp guy currently coaxing over-achievement — about two years before he gets canned for raising expectations in the first place.
But the 2009-2010 season is threatening to at least produce a few cracks in the mold.
In our desire to respect the unexpected, we’ll begin in Milwaukee, where Brandon Jennings has emerged after his ballyhooed and controversial year abroad to look very much like the second coming of Tiny Archibald. After his 55-point effort last Saturday evening, the slippery lefty was averaging 25.6 points per game, shooting about 50 percent from the field (57 from 3-point range).
It should be noted that while boosting the unexpectedly decent Bucks to their fifth win in seven games, Jennings’ outburst was generated against the Golden State Warriors; the defensive exchange rate suggests that scoring 55 in a game with the Warriors is only worth about 33 vs. almost anyone else. After watching a highlight clip that featured each of his 21 made field goals, I was absolutely appalled at how Golden State made no adjustment in (ahem) defending Jennings on a high ball screen.
For the Warriors and Coach Don Nelson, such disinterest in getting in the way when the opposition has the ball is not exactly unexpected.
Anyway, now that he has a head start on injured Los Angeles Clipper Blake Griffin in the Rookie of the Year derby, Jennings — the 10th overall selection in the 2009 NBA Draft — could be the lowest pick to achieve ROY status since Phoenix Sun Amare Stoudemire won as the ninth pick in 2002.
Speaking of Amare and the Suns, please raise your hand if you expected them to have the league’s best winning percentage (.818 at 9-2) through Sunday. I didn’t think so. And beyond the mildly surprising resurrection of crafty point guard Steve Nash and a road win against the Boston Celtics, the Suns really have received an unexpected boost from newcomer Channing Frye.
Frye, a card-carrying power forward who attended St. Mary’s High in Phoenix, was brought in from Portland, where he produced a tick over 4 points and 2 rebounds per game last season. Back in his hometown — and playing in Coach Alvin Gentry’s shoot-first system — Frye is working as a pick-and-pop center, giving the Suns more than 13 points and a still-modest 5 rebounds each night. The change? Well, Frye is averaging 30 minutes per game, a whopping increase of 18 minutes from his days as a Blazer.
But what’s really interesting is Frye’s shot of choice. For Phoenix, he’s burped up 60 three-point attempts in 10 games. Before becoming a Sun, Frye had shot 70 threes … a number that represents his combined total over four NBA seasons. Oh, yeah … he’s a lot more accurate, too, succeeding at a 43-percent clip that’s 10 percentage points higher than his career accuracy.
It’s not exactly stunning that the Chicago Bulls were five up and four down in their first nine games; even with Ben Gordon now working in Detroit, Derrick Rose and the Bulls were expected to challenge for a middle-of-the-pack seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, few observers expected center Joakim Noah to behave like the most improved big man in the NBA.
Through Sunday, the two-time national champ from Florida was leading the league with 12.2 rebounds per game (up from 7.6 last season). Noah also has boosted his scoring, providing a dozen points per game after putting in a meager 6.7 last year. It certainly doesn’t hurt to be playing eight more minutes per game. But with Brad Miller still around, Noah’s upgrade in minutes should be traced to dramatic improvement in play.
For the record, a lot of us also are thrilled that Noah no longer pounds his chest and shrieks whenever his team scores or secures a defensive rebound.
From Frye and Noah, let’s hop over to Gasol and Bynum. But it’s not who you may be expecting.
With the Lakers waiting for Pau Gasol’s hamstring to rally, the only Gasol on our early season radar is brother Marc, a second-year employee of the Memphis Grizzlies. Despite sharing post-area space with Zach Randolph, Marc is registered at 15 points and 11.4 rebounds (up from 11 and 7.4, respectively) in five additional minutes per game this season.
While Lakers center Andrew Bynum has turned back into a (for now) quasi-healthy beast on the block, he’s not the Bynum we’re interested in for our look at the unexpected. Our Bynum is Will, a Detroit Pistons reserve guard whose 12-point average includes 38 points in his last two games. The 6-foot Bynum also has contributed 18 assists and 17 rebounds in Detroit’s last three games.
Team surprises include the Atlanta Hawks, whose expected playoff candidacy did not include an 8-2 opening. The Hawks are thriving by being far more efficient on offense, with a points-per-100 possessions mark of 113.8, up four points from last season.
We also weren’t expecting the best from Indiana, where the Pacers check in at 4-3, or Sacramento, which is enjoying a 5-4 start for first-year coach Paul Westphal. The Kings have won all four of their games since prolific scorer Kevin Martin (averaging 30 in five games) was lost to injury.
After sliding over from point guard to Martin’s two-guard spot, rookie Tyreke Evans has averaged 24 points in those four games. His ability to score was expected; the Kings’ inability to see his limitations as a point guard was a bit of a surprise.
It should be noted that while most of our surprises can be placed in the pleasant column, the NBA is not without its disappointments.
For example, a season-ending injury for Philadelphia 76ers forward Elton Brand would not be unexpected. But a healthy Brand ranking fifth on the team in scoring — and often sitting late in the fourth quarter — was not something we were planning to see.
The New Orleans Hornets were among the league’s leading underachievers last season, but a 3-8 beginning was a bit beyond our reasoning; Coach Byron Scott was a goner at 3-6.
And the San Antonio Spurs were expected to challenge the Lakers for Western Conference supremacy with Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess on the payroll. A couple of ankle injuries and a stunning lack of defense (San Antonio is 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency) have the Spurs in a 4-4 predicament.
The Spurs could continue to struggle a bit and inspire watchdogs to list evidence of their demise. But they’ll eventually start to roll and inspire the same watchdogs to remind us never to count out the Spurs.
Like many developments in the NBA, it’s still expected.
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