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Friday, March 22, 2013
Who's up, who's down?

ESPN.com

James Harden
The play of James Harden and the Rockets has been a pleasant surprise so far this season.

Which players and teams have outperformed expectations this year? Which have stumbled following lofty preseason outlooks? Our panel looks back at the highs and lows of the 2012-13 season so far.


1. Which team has been the most pleasant surprise of the season?


J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Houston Rockets. Not only did they add three new starters (not just new to the team, new to the role as full-time starters), they were without without head coach Kevin McHale for a month while he cared for his gravely ill daughter. Yet it all clicked. James Harden stepped into the role of a max contract guy, the team embraced a score-at-all-costs mentality and it has been a winning season.

Matt Cianfrone, Roundball Mining Co.: Houston Rockets. Even after adding Harden right before the season started, the Rockets looked like a lottery team. Instead they are all but settled into the playoffs in a tough Western Conference, and are one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the league thanks to Harden playing at an incredibly high level.

Jeremy Gordon, Brooklyn's Finest: Houston Rockets, who play like a statistician's fantasy: plenty of transition offense, free throws, corner 3s and undervalued assets they've managed to wring the most from. They're plain likable, too, with Harden and Jeremy Lin the league's most affable bros-in-arms. The best seems likely to come.

Darius Soriano, Forum Blue And Gold: San Antonio Spurs. I'd love to say the Knicks or the Nuggets for their strong seasons, but I'm going with the Spurs. Every year they're expected to fall off and every year they seem to come back better than before. Their improvement on defense has been most impressive and goes to show how smart and adaptive they can be.

Jack Winter, Warriors World: Golden State Warriors. Despite recent troubles, that the Warriors could be nine games above .500 in March while sustaining major injuries to Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush is a big surprise. That doesn't mean Golden State will win a playoff series, but it's certainly an encouraging sign for the organization's normally foggy future.


2. Which team has been the biggest disappointment of the season?


Adande: Los Angeles Lakers. This has to be unanimous, right? The Lakers went from wondering where they'd fit their next banner in Staples Center to wondering if they'd make the playoffs. Yes, injuries have kept their intended starting lineup from playing more than a handful of games together. But that has been only one entry on a long list of failures, from coaching to chemistry.

Cianfrone: Los Angeles Lakers. Adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol was supposed to make the Lakers instant title contenders. Instead, thanks to injuries and chemistry issues, all it did was turn the Lakers into a L.A.-worthy soap opera. L.A. probably will make the playoffs but the lofty expectations will be far from met.

Gordon: Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers sort of take this one by default: They're clinging onto the eight seed when plenty of puffed-up pundits saw them occupying the Western Conference's pole position. The disappointment stings most when imagining the basketball nirvana they could've produced with a little health, chemistry, continuity and luck. Turns out those things matter!

Soriano: Los Angeles Lakers. Based simply off actual performance versus what was expected of them, it's hard to choose any team besides the Lakers. Injuries have played a major role in their woes, but for every pitfall dropped in front of them, they seemed to misstep their way into more trouble and have underachieved because of it.

Winter: Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe, Dwight & Co. is the easy answer, but it's the right one, too. Preseason forecasts of 70 wins were never realistic, but a team with so much top-level talent shouldn't find itself fighting for a playoff spot -- serious injury, coaching and bench issues notwithstanding.


3. Which player has been the most pleasant surprise of the season?


Adande: Tim Duncan, even if for no other reason than the 25.5 points and 15 rebounds he averaged last week. Did you think he could be so dynamic this late in the season this late in his career? And he's quietly having the best free throw shooting year of his life, hitting 80 percent, 11 percent above his career average.

Cianfrone: James Harden. We all knew Harden was talented but his play for the Rockets has been even better than expected. Switching teams so close to the start of the season is not as easy as Harden has made it look, carrying the Rockets to the playoffs with his elite scoring and passing abilities. I also considered Ty Lawson and Larry Sanders.

Gordon: LeBron James. I hope I'm not being cute by suggesting it's LeBron, who has produced enough gee-whiz moments during Miami's current win streak -- during the season as a whole, really -- to make you kneel in unquestioned deference to his generational abilities and wonder whether he's not being underpaid by a few dozen million dollars per year.

Soriano: LeBron James. After a calendar year that saw him win his first championship and Olympic gold while claiming the league and Finals MVPs, there were serious questions about how motivated LeBron would be this season. But he came back better and more focused than ever, setting the bar even higher for himself and his team and then clearing it.

Winter: Brook Lopez. That the new-look Nets are poised for home-court advantage in the first round doesn't shock, but that Lopez -- recipient of a much-maligned max contract extension last summer -- is the driving force behind their success definitely does. The league's fourth best PER and significantly improved defense? Lopez is a star, whether his reputation suggests it or not.

4. Which player has been the biggest disappointment of the season?


Adande: Andrew Bynum. He was given a chance to show he was a franchise player; instead he dealt the Philadelphia 76ers franchise a setback. Since his arrival they went from a playoff team to a lottery entrant largely because his knees have kept him off the court. It's possible his 76ers career could end before it technically even began.

Cianfrone: Dwight Howard. I know he has been hurt but Dwight was expected to come into L.A. and become the backbone for a Lakers defense that would allow them to win a title. Instead he has been nowhere close to the Dwight that we had come accustomed to. He looks better lately, but early-season Dwight was a huge disappointment.

Gordon: Andrew Bynum, who might've been unshackled and allowed to become the team centerpiece he has threatened to be since maturing during the Lakers' recent championship run. But while he has bummed us out by missing the entire year with injury, at least his haircuts have provided reliable entertainment.

Soriano: Andrew Bynum. No player fell as short of meeting expectations than Bynum. From the injuries to the numerous setbacks (and how they happened) to his shifting timelines for a return to ultimately having season-ending surgery, Bynum went from potential franchise centerpiece to the epitome of a free-agent gamble in a single season.

Winter: Eric Gordon. Just as disappointing as Gordon's incessant health concerns and general off-court disposition has been his play in limited floor time this season. It makes sense he'd struggle given the considerable time he has missed because of injury, but Gordon's league average PER and 51.9 true shooting percentage is still a cause for serious Pelicans concern.

5. What has been the most surprising moment of the season?


Adande: Jamal Crawford's between-the-legs alley-oop to Blake Griffin. It was so creative on the fly that it even caught Griffin, the oop recipient, off guard. That's why he's smiling at the end of the clip.

Cianfrone: The Miami Heat's 26-game winning streak. No one expects a team to win 26 games in a row, no matter how good they are. Instead the Heat have done just that and provided us with plenty of highlights, including the recent wins in Cleveland and Boston, where Miami fell down big and came back to win in tough circumstances.

Gordon: David Stern coming down on the San Antonio Spurs for resting their top players for a big matchup against the Miami Heat on national TV: It was an awkward collision between how the NBA wants to promote itself versus the realities of keeping a healthy basketball team, with a little commissioner-vs.-coach ego clash thrown in the mix.

Soriano: The Lakers' firing of Mike Brown. Whether or not you agreed with the move, it's still a bit shocking to see a head coach fired only five games into the regular season. It seems he either would have been given more time to turn it around or been let go during the offseason, rather than cut loose so quickly into the year.

Winter: The simultaneous winning streaks of Miami and Denver. The Heat are on an obviously historic run right now, but the Nuggets' stretch of 15 consecutive victories deserves major acclaim, too. That they're happening concurrently? Nothing short of amazing, and a coincidence we should remember for years to come.