In a 10-minutes-young NBA season that’s had its fair share of surprises already, the Lakers qualify as a single entity offering both good and bad shock appeal.
Just one month in, the Lakers have given a season’s worth of grief and relief, alarm and comfort, gloom and boom. First there was a bombastic summer (Steve Nash and Dwight Howard!), then a sunny preseason forecast (Kobe Bryant likes the team!), followed by a storm warning (Lakers will employ … the Princeton offense?), then a seismic opening week when all hell broke loose (sound the alarms!).
And so, for a while there, the Lakers toggled between surprise extremes, the good and the bad, in their very own theater of the absurd.
Bad: They hired Mike Brown … two summers ago.
Good: They fired Brown after five games, rather than run the risk of Kobe’s head exploding by early January.
Bad: They never really gave a follow-up courtesy call to Phil Jackson who, we think, is no longer waiting by the phone.
Good: They hired Mike D’Antoni, who’s chummy with Kobe, Dwight and Nash and very soon plans to get to know the fourth-biggest presence in the building, Jack Nicholson.
Bad: They lost four of their first five games and actually sat in last place in the West, with Nash suffering a small leg fracture and Kobe a fractured facial expression.
Good: Now that they’re slowly rising in the standings and in confidence, you think they’ll ever reach rock bottom again?
Yes, everything appears to be on the up-and-up, so to speak, with the soaring Lakers right now as they welcome D’Antoni and a new offense and something they haven’t had since the season began: some peace and quiet.
Not all of the surprises were confined to the Staples Center; it only felt that way. All around the NBA, we’ve witnessed some strange and unexpected stuff. And much of it falls into these categories: Players choking on big contracts, teams buckling under great expectations, and finally, players and teams who were vastly underestimated suddenly showing some swag.
These surprises, the good and bad, are molding the 2012-13 season. It’s our duty to list them here:
Nuggets. After pushing the Lakers to the playoff edge, they were the trendy preseason pick in the West, but at the moment these Nuggets are fool’s gold. The Spurs wiped them out by 25 and the Nuggets are surprisingly weak on the road. Also, someone must explain how Denver can add lockdown specialist Andre Iguodala to a team with JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried and surrender more points than all but three teams. Somewhere, Carmelo Anthony is pouring one for his old crew.
Damian Lillard. In the final seconds of an easy win over the Bulls, he went for an uncontested dunk and was instantly confronted by Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah for showing them up. Lillard said he meant no diss for what qualifies as the only rookie “mistake” he’s made all season. Lillard was drafted No. 6 by the Blazers so he isn’t exactly a surprise, but his poise and maturity in big moments make him appear so much older. Solid player (averaging 19 points and six assists) and one cool customer.
Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Since both are playing the same position and also for cash – free agency beckons next summer – the easy assumption had them selfishly clashing by Thanksgiving. Instead, it’s been the opposite for a blurry backcourt that’s giving 38 points and 14 assists, and that’s why the Bucks are off to a quick start. The coupon-clipping Bucks can’t afford to sign both, so Milwaukee better appreciate them now, before they split.
Pacers. OK, Danny Granger’s out with injuries. That’s no excuse for the ragged play and disturbing losses that are piling up and burying this team. The issues are many, but let’s focus on two in particular. After getting the big contract last summer, Roy Hibbert is back to being slow and clumsy (how does a seven-footer who lives under the basket shoot only 37 percent?). And Paul George should be assuming Granger’s go-to role; instead he looks too timid for that, like the same guy Dwyane Wade spooked in the playoffs.
O.J. Mayo. All the shots that normally go to Dirk Nowitzki are being borrowed by Mayo, who’s averaging 21 points and seizing the situation until Dirk recovers. For the last few years Mayo was lost in the Memphis shuffle, now he’s reclaiming his career in Dallas. Still, let’s wait and see how he adjusts to co-star status, once Dirk returns and demands the ball back.
Wizards. As he sits on the bench, healing from injury, you think John Wall’s in a rush to get back to this mess? The Wizards need more than a healthy point guard and center (Nene is also out). The roster is a blend of veterans who have little left (Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor) and high draft picks who aren’t coming through yet (Jan Vesely, Bradley Beal). It’s a recipe for the disaster you now see.
Andrew Bynum. The only young center with a worse set of knees is Greg Oden and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll beat Bynum back to the floor. After summer knee surgery, his fourth in the NBA, Bynum suddenly developed bone bruises in both knees. This is the guy the Sixers want to build around?
2011 draft. Two years is ample time or a quick progress check on the 2011 class. The early prognosis: This draft looks forgettable. To be fair, big men usually take longer to develop, and most of the picks after Kyrie Irving were bigs who didn’t attend college very long if at all: Enes Kantor, Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas, Vesely and Bismack Biyombo. They were taken ahead of Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson, proof that teams too often get suckered by size.
Brandon Roy and Nic Batum. The Timberwolves made a big-money pitch for Batum during free agency but the Blazers matched the offer and kept him. Minnesota then gambled on Roy, whose promising career in Portland was cut short by shot knees. Well, the Wolves’ initial instinct was correct. Batum is having an All-Star-like season, averaging 20 points (twice his career average) and six rebounds. As for Roy, he needs more surgery, which would be his seventh procedure, and nobody saw that coming, right?
Carmelo Anthony. The surprise is how Melo is working on a quadruple double: points, defense, unselfishness, leadership.
Anthony Davis. Did anyone anticipate he’d be this smooth with the ball this quickly? What’s most impressive about Davis averaging 16 points is how he lacks the benefit of being set up for easy baskets by a solid point guard and therefore must create his own shots.
DeAndre Jordan. Last season, for the first time in his career if not his life, Jordan made a shot outside the paint. Now he’s averaging 10 points a game, four above his career average. Give some credit to Chris Paul for setting him up for lobs, but also to Jordan for not being a total offensive stiff anymore.
Raymond Felton and Jeremy Lin. Unwilling to pay the $15 million due in the final season of his new contract, the Knicks let Linsanity move to Houston and signed Felton on the cheap. It was a rare stroke of genius by the Knicks, who got a smart and motivated point guard to lead them while Lin has landed back to Earth with the Rockets.
Joe Johnson. The first red flag came when Johnson admitted he felt uncomfortable in Atlanta as the focal point and would rather be a sidekick. Is that the killer mindset you want from someone who makes Kobe money? And true enough, Johnson so far is playing like the shotgun rider that he is in Brooklyn, shooting 36 percent.
Grizzlies. The top team in the West, record-wise anyway, the Grizzlies finally have their pieces together. Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph shared the floor less than 40 games the past two seasons because of injuries; now they’re teaming with Marc Gasol to form what might be the best front line in basketball.
Ersan Ilyasova. Does a breakout year mean a player is finally on the right path? Well, things better change soon with Ilyasova or the Bucks, a small market team that can’t afford financial mistakes, will regret giving him big money. Last season he showed a tough streak around the basket while being nimble enough on the fast break, but now he is locked in a fog, shooting 31 percent and being looked off by Jennings and Ellis.
Rasheed Wallace. He took two years off and then spent most of training camp trying to catch his breath, but you wouldn’t know it from watching ‘Sheed in the low post and at the three-point line for the Knicks. It’s not often a 38-year-old qualifies as a discovery.
Lamar Odom. He tanked last season in Dallas and this season was supposed to do for the Clippers what he once did for the Lakers. Yet he showed up in poor shape, which invited nagging injuries and is now stuck at the bottom of the rotation. The Clippers expected more for their $8 million and figured Odom would confine his reality drama to a lousy cable TV show.
That about covers it. Between now and the All-Star break, expect a few additional ripples that will catch you off guard. But don’t look in the direction of the Lakers for any. In a city famous for making sequels, the Lakers are avoiding any repeat of their very own apocalypse.