Surprises, letdowns after NBA's first quarter

BY foxsports • December 14, 2009

While the latest chapter from The Tim Donaghy Code has NBA followers digging up old box scores and video, the league's actual competition derby is creeping past the quarter pole.

And what a season of surprises it already has been. The evidence is everywhere. For example, Allen Iverson complained about not starting on his new team (who knew?) and wound up back in Philly. Shaquille O'Neal has shocked the basketball world by missing almost a third of his team's games with an injury. Dwight Howard is fouling a lot. The Golden State Warriors stink at defense and Monta Ellis is threatening to lead the league in turnovers while attempting to play point guard. Rasheed Wallace had eight technical fouls in his first 18 games.

With such unexpected news littering David Stern's clumsily sterilized landscape, we're here to offer a few more situations or performances that have provoked surprise and/or disappointment. When that's accomplished, it's time to check in with a few opinions on which NBA employees have seized early leads for a few coveted individual awards.

We'll start with disappointment, which always seems to be a fan favorite.

In the team category, let's begin in the Eastern Conference, where the Washington Wizards currently sit at 7-12. It should be noted that the Wizards were without Antawn Jamison for many of those defeats, but that doesn't excuse their persistent threat to reach Secaucus. Why the expectation of triumph that generated our disappointment? Well, the return of Gilbert "Absolute Zero" Arenas was said (by some) to be a step in the plus direction, while gunner Mike Miller and combo guard Randy Foye had arrived from Minnesota to supply offense. Young big man Andray Blatche was getting better and certified NBA winner Flip Saunders was on board to create a presumed upgrade in tactics.

What we didn't expect was a four-point dip in the scoring average and field-goal percentage of historically above-average forward Caron Butler. Perhaps Butler would thrive with someone who could (or would) get him the ball at the right time and place, but that speculation won't keep Caron off of our individual disappointment list.

We're also a bit chapped by the Chicago Bulls at 7-13, but — without some inside mojo on offense — didn't exactly expect a boat load more than they've shown. We did expect a rise toward greatness from sophomore point guard Derrick Rose, who has provided a bit less than he did last season.

The New Jersey Nets? Not really. They were dumping salary and absorbed more than their share of early injuries. And the Philadelphia 76ers — featuring big ticket Elton Brand — do not make the cut because our expectations weren't anywhere near what you probably conjured.

Free-agent bonanza Hedo Turkoglu has been anything but (at 14 points per game) in Toronto, where the Raptors have dipped below our mediocre expectations.

The Western Conference disappointments include (as usual lately) the San Antonio Spurs, whose abundance of lower-leg issues seem to matter little to fans preparing themselves for a title run with Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair in tow. Here's an old NBA saw ... don't sleep on the Spurs, but stay disappointed until they start to heat up.

OK, we also can cast of vote of extended dismay at the New Orleans Hornets, who — even before Chris Paul was hurt — had played Byron Scott out of a job.

The disappointing-players list includes Los Angeles Laker Lamar Odom in a selection that has nothing to do with his romantic decisions. L.O., whose performance has been (and will be) crucial to the Lakers' championship trip, has slipped to 41-percent shooting from a commendable 49 percent last season.

Based on the anticipated bonus he was supposed to have been in Boston, we're not wild about first-year Celtic Wallace, who is squeezing off far more 3-point attempts than sanity would warrant, and converting on just 32 percent of those.

Also appearing on our early not-so-nice list we find New York Knicks point guard Chris Duhon, who — despite low expectations — has remained in the crosshairs by making just 32 percent of his field-goal tries in a system that generates dandy opportunities to score.

OK, that's enough bad karma for one quarter-pole review. So, with all of the negativity in our rearview mirror, let's take a look at which players, teams and coach qualify as welcome surprises.

The team category includes the Atlanta Hawks, who kept their nucleus together long enough to see it mature and added Jamal Crawford as a versatile weapon off the bench. Despite losing four of their last five games, we're still a bit appreciative of the Phoenix Suns, who have been attempting to get crustier on defense in order to help generate an applicable tempo. Good for you, Alvin Gentry. Please note that the Suns failed to score 100 points in three of their last five games; someone will pay and soon.

Few doubted the Suns' potential to succeed in the seven-seconds-or-less style with Shaq now working in Cleveland, but we didn't expect replacement Channing Frye to be such a rising sniper. We've listed Channing's numbers several times in this space recently; before this season, he'd taken few 3-pointers in his career ... now he's something of a pituitary second-coming of Reggie Miller. That qualifies Frye as an individual surprise.

The Milwaukee Bucks have sort of stunned many of us by not being awful after dumping a considerable pile of salary. One reason is rookie Brandon Jennings, whose early scoring explosion transformed him from allegedly petulant, American-club-ball product into point guard phenom. Before heating up Wednesday, Jennings had been a bit chilly from the field, but should be in the Rookie of the Year hunt for most of the season.

That goes double for Sacramento Kings guard Tyreke Evans, whose quick evolution was abetted by an injury to Kevin Martin that forced first-year coach Paul Westphal to move the one-and-done Memphis Tiger from the point (were they really serious?) to shooting guard. Evans' ability to score is far from surprising, but it has made him the quarter-pole winner (in my opinion) of the ROY nomination.

Yeah, we've gone from head shaking and pleasant surprises to premature award evaluation.

Let's get to the Most Valuable Player contest. The choice here is Bryant, with this anti-Kobe caveat: the regular-season MVP hasn't played on the eventual championship team since Tim Duncan in 2003. Chew on that and be glad, fans of LeBron James.

Our Defensive Player of the Year is Shane Battier because chasing superstar perimeter players off screens and staying with them off the dribble is lot more challenging than blocking shots from the weak side or diving into the passing lane.

The early Sixth Man of the Year is another Houston Rocket ... take a bow, Carl Landry. Carl also is a candidate for Most Improved Player, but we'll reserve that honor for someone else who happens to be a starter. If Landry were to be our MIP, the sixth-man title could go to New York Knick Al Harrington, who doesn't play defense with the same dedication as Landry and has statistics that are slightly enhanced by his team's pace.

The actual MIP thus far is Indiana Pacers swingman Dahntay Jones, although the reality of his numerical climb may have more to do with far more minutes in Indy than he received as a Denver Nugget. Qualifier notwithstanding, Jones has gone from 5.3 points last season to 15.3 in Indiana.

Our quarter-pole Coach of the Year is Oklahoma City Thunder sideline boss Scott Brooks. As the leader of the league's youngest core rotation, Brooks has overcome turnover-producing inexperience on offense and developed the NBA's fifth-most-efficient defense without the luxury of a certified baseline bruiser or shot-blocker.

Kids who play team defense? That also makes Brooks eligible for the surprise list.

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