Barely a month into the NBA season, Mike Brown has been fired, Steve Nash is severely injured and Laker fans are clamoring for the franchise to trade enigmatic big man Pau Gasol. Yup, that's about right; Lakerland is known to be a strange place.
Meanwhile, 29 other teams are also playing pro basketball, many of which have generated surprises as well. The defending champion Miami Heat have the league's best offense, but an overwhelmingly average defense. Both Milwaukee and -- wait for it -- Charlotte are winning games, while the Knicks are actually playing both ends of the floor.
Just five weeks after David Stern announced that he plans to retire as commissioner in 2014 (giving him a record 30 years on the job), read below for the 10 biggest early-season surprises of the young NBA season.
No Defense In Miami
For the Heat to defend its title, defense has to a become a major priority once again. While trotting out the league's top offense is one thing, ranking 25th in total points allowed is entirely unacceptable. Whereas lighting-fast rotations and hounding on-ball defense were both staples in last season's title run, Miami (10-3) is just 12th in total field goal percentage defense. To put things in perspective, last year's team ranked fourth in both points allowed and field goal defense.
Mike D'Antoni, Really?
As surprising as the Mike Brown firing was, bringing in Mike D'Antoni was an even bigger shock. D'Antoni has built a career off transition offense that rewards fast play and quick shots. The Lakers, with one of the oldest rosters in the league, were built to run half-court offense that rewards <em>patience</em> and <em>precision</em>. Undoubtedly, LA <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/09/la-lakers-2012_n_2094356.html?utm_hp_ref=the-schultz-report">will not be running at the same clip</a> as D'Antoni's Suns and Knicks teams did, but the transition game will still be a factor. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol recently revealed his bout with knee tendinitis, and Dwight Howard remains far from 100 percent, especially without Steve Nash with which to run pick-and-roll. There is some good news, though. Kobe Bryant, all 34 years of him, is off to the best start of his brilliant career, with his shooting splits up significantly across the board. The Mamba is averaging 28 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor, 42 percent from distance and 87 percent from the line -- and his 40-point effort in Tuesday's loss to Indiana came as he dealt with <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/28/george-hill-lakers-pacers-game-winner-video_n_2202150.html">flu-like symptoms</a>. Moreover, the Lakers have increased their offensive efficiency under D'Antoni by about 5 percent with four extra fast-break points. Defensively, LA has struggled, however, with an increase of about 5 percent in field goals allowed, highlighted when the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/12/demarcus-cousins-suspended_n_2117441.html?utm_hp_ref=the-schultz-report">lowly Sacramento Kings</a> shot 54 percent against them in an embarrassing loss.
Melo's O And The Knicks' D
Knicks head coach Mike Woodson has been rewarded for re-inserting Carmelo Anthony into the four slot this season. Anthony has averaged a healthy 26 points per game on 43 percent shooting from distance, creating an almost unstoppable matchup against power forwards who try to guard him on the perimeter. He is also using his robust post-up game, which accounts for 22 percent of his shot attempts (per Synergy). New York, as a club, leads the NBA in 3-pointers made, thanks to a spread-out offensive attack and the vastly improved Raymond Felton, who has become one of the most efficient point guards around. As effective as Woodson's smallish lineup has been on offensive, it's been almost as good on the other end. The Knicks rank ninth in total points allowed and have the best point differential in the league. Oddly enough, Anthony has bought in as well, providing superb interior defense alongside Tyson Chandler, who continues to be an elite paint protector. They have dropped three of their last four, but at 9-4, the Knicks have impressive wins over Miami, Indiana, Philly (twice) and San Antonio.
Denver: Middling In The West
It's still way too early to write off a George Karl-coached team, but 8-7 Denver, a pre-season darling with its super-deep, non-superstar lineup, had been awful until a recent four-game winning streak. So the question is: Which Nuggets team is a better representation of what's to come? Denver's heartbeat is point guard Ty Lawson, who averaged over 16 points during the second half of last season. This year, however, the jet-quick Lawson has seen his offensive numbers plummet across the board, averaging a mere 13 points per game on 24 percent threes and 59 percent FTs. Meanwhile, small forward Danilo Gallinari, in his fourth season, was supposed to be a legitimate go-to scorer, yet has shot just 23 percent from three and a putrid 37 percent from the floor. Perhaps Denver will continue to rely on recently acquired Andre Iguodala, who has seemingly rediscovering his rhythm after a brutal three-game start. Karl has sampled Iggy -- who's been shooting 55 percent over the last four games -- at the point-forward slot to maximize his natural playmaking skills and help him get a better grasp on the Nuggets' complicated system. In the suddenly hyper-competitive Northwest Division, if the Nuggets fail to lock up a top-four seed in the playoffs, a first-round exit would <a href="http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news?slug=denverpost">once again seem imminent</a>.
The Charlotte Bobcats ... Are Winning?
Kemba Walker has come back a different player in his second season out of UConn. Despite a rough two-game stretch where he's gone 3-23 from the floor, the former lottery pick has averaged nearly 17 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists for a 7-6 Bobcats team off to its best start in its 12-year franchise history. Remember, Charlotte lost a record 59 of 66 games just one season ago, while ranking dead last in points per game, offensive rating and defensive rating. Newly minted head coach Mike Dunlap has officially changed the culture, exploiting what he calls 3-point and rim basketball for a starting unit that has four starters 23 or younger. One of those starters is fourth-year center Byron Mullens. Originally drafted by Oklahoma City, the 7-footer has emerged as a reliable face-up jump shooter out to three, while averaging 13 points and 8 rebounds. Meanwhile, rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, just 19 years old, hasn't put up the eye-popping numbers of fellow rookies Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, but has already become a relentless on-ball defender and terrific perimeter rebounder for the vastly improved Bobcats.
Where's The Flopping?!
I know, right? Reggie Evans has his own slide, but with good reason. Evans, one of the league's best and most physical bangers, was issued the league's first flopping penalty, a $5,000 fine after committing his second violation. The NBA instituted the new anti-flopping rule in the off-season to counter what basketball purists believe was hurting the game. After the fine was issued, an unhappy Evans tweeted: "Feel like the FEDS looking at the Boi. #iaintlyin!!!!!!!!!!!!" Metta World Peace, with whom Evans had the collision, <a href="http://newsok.com/nba-notebook-brooklyn-nets-reggie-evans-first-to-be-fined-under-nbas-new-flopping-rules/article/3731752">wasn't pleased either</a>, saying: "That's ridiculous. Are you kidding me? I'd rather Gerald Wallace get fined than Evans." Until a marquee star like <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUXE6bH3qTQ">LeBron</a> or Chris Bosh <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2h60uviwKC0">decides to flop again</a>, the new rule will continue to remain a non-issue -- but when it does, watch out.
Fear The Deer
The Bucks, like several other teams around the league, have found great success employing a lineup with two point guards to maximize creativity and help offset stagnant play. As a result, both Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis have thrived, leading a surprising Milwaukee team to an early 7-5 record (first in the Central Division) under head coach Scott Skiles. While certainly not a threat to the powers of the Eastern Conference due to the lack of an elite big, the Bucks could prove to be a dangerous out. In their recent 17-point comeback in Chicago, the team displayed tremendous grit for one so young.
Bradley Beal's Struggles
Beal, the third overall pick in last June's draft, was thought to be one of the most league-ready prospects available. The smooth-shooting 19-year-old is a natural scorer with a variety of offensive skills. And while scoring typically translates from the college game, it hasn't yet for Beal to this point. To be clear: He's not even close to <a href="http://espn.go.com/nba/player/stats/_/id/4239/evan-turner">Evan Turner status</a>, but that doesn't say much. Despite shooting a respectable 32.7 percent from distance, Beal has relied too heavily on his perimeter game -- not unusual for rookies -- without attacking the paint. Per Synergy Sports, just 15 percent of his shot attempts have come around the basket, where he's converting a woeful 21 percent. The Wizards are 0-12 and may very well slide to 0-16, if not still further. The return of the injured John Wall should help, but Beal needs to get his game going before his rookie year becomes a total disaster.
Hibbert In Hiding
When HuffPost <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/kevin-pritchard_n_1683341.html">spoke with Indiana GM Kevin Pritchard</a> about matching Portland's $58 million contract offer to restricted free agent Roy Hibbert last summer, Pritchard was a very happy man. Hibbert, still just 25 years old, had emerged as one of the league's best two-way centers: a consistent low-post threat, a good passer and a solid shot-blocker. This season, though, he has regressed. The Georgetown product has seen his shooting average drop to just 38 percent from 50 percent last year; his free throw percentage is down almost 17 points. It's hard to really grasp why Hibbert has struggled after coming off an All-Star season, given that his numbers have consistently improved since he was a rookie. Part of it involves more double-teams and an inability to establish deep post-up position -- but even that shouldn't mean such a drastic drop-off in production. Indiana took Miami to six games in the playoffs. Without Danny Granger for at least another 10 weeks, the Pacers (6-8, with two wins over winless Washington) will need Hibbert to regain his form in order to make another push in the East. Hey, at least he's got a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/22/roy-hibbert-indiana-pacer_n_2002240.html">good sense of humor</a>.
Russell Westbrook Still Doesn't Get It
It's not that Westbrook isn't an immense talent; he's among the NBA's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/20/top-10-nba-point-guards_n_2161110.html?utm_hp_ref=the-schultz-report#slide=1763996">elite point guards</a>. At times he is utterly unstoppable, and never bashful. His issue -- and consequently the Thunder's -- continues to be his reluctance to be a full-time distributor. It's a hard balance to strike, because OKC needs his aggressive play and scoring ability, but Westbrook also has the league's highest usage rate and is taking more shots than three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant (18.1 and 16.7 per game, respectively). The Thunder, even without James Harden, remain one of basketball's most talented teams, but getting past Miami requires a balanced offense that can generate quality looks in the half-court. Westbrook has yet to show he can consistently lead such an offense.
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