<
>

Expecting the unexpected

At 34, Kobe is having one of the best seasons of his career. The Lakers are below .500. Surprise! Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The Lakers are below .500, Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks are tearing up the East and the Warriors have the playoffs in their sights. Who knew? Our panel breaks down the pleasant -- and not-so-pleasant -- surprises of the season so far.

1. Who's the most surprising player in the East?

Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Carmelo Anthony. Andray Blatche has a top-10 NBA PER right now. While that's soaking in, consider he's four spots behind … Brook Lopez, and playing in a city where almost retired players Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse make big contributions. In all of the East, however, Anthony's emergence as a rock-solid night-in, night-out leader has to be the biggest surprise after so many seasons of mediocrity.

Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: Larry Sanders. After two seasons of looking hopelessly raw in the sparse minutes he played for the Bucks, Sanders is starting to round into form. His on-court effectiveness shouldn't come as a surprise. There is a growing league-wide demand for new-age defensive big men -- players who combine mobility, versatility and length. Sanders couldn't have picked a better time to ascend.

D.J. Foster, Clipper Blog: Deron Williams. It's surprising how quickly Williams has become Baron Davis 2.0. Williams has the exact same PER this season as Davis' career number (17.8), alongside almost identical 3-point shooting percentages and attempts. The laziness defensively, the coach killing, the poor shot selection, the waste of potential … it's a path all too familiar.

Aaron McGuire, Gothic Ginobili: Jason Kidd. While Carmelo Anthony deserves credit for his added versatility, the real story of New York's season is in Kidd's hands. The man looked absolutely finished in 2012 -- career lows in virtually every metric, disengaged, and a waning impact on even his best days. He's reversed all of that -- at age 39! One of New York's finest, to date.

John Townsend, Truth About It: Jrue Holiday. After being handed a four-year extension in November, the 76ers guard has increased his averages from 13.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game last season to 18.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game this season. Holiday joins OKC's Russell Westbrook as the only players in 2012-13 to average at least 18 points and 8 assists.


2. Who's the most surprising player in the West?

Abbott: By the measure of the NBA draft, Austin Rivers is one of the league's finest young prospects. By the measure of a player's statistical contributions to his team known as Estimated Wins Added, he has been amazing in a different way … as the worst player in the league. Where that metric measures what a player adds, Rivers has subtracted -- costing the Hornets almost two wins they could have had simply by sitting him.

Chau: Kobe Bryant, though not in that he's playing well (actually, it is surprising how well he's playing). It's surprising how he's operating as the first, second and third option on a team that theoretically shouldn't have a problem scoring. Kobe has reached unreal heights this season individually, but it's shocking that he's had to in the first place.

Foster: Pau Gasol. Once a pretty mobile big man, Gasol now plays like a cardboard cutout of himself. He can't bend at the knees, he gets no lift off the ground and he can't move laterally. Gasol's rapid physical decline is simply killing a Lakers defense that can't afford to hide another player.

McGuire: David Lee. He's been defensively passable this season, buying in strong on Mark Jackson's conservative pick-and-roll coverage. But it's the offense that surprises -- he's been the utter mainstay of a contender-caliber Golden State team and he's held the ship upright all season. If Lee keeps it up, the man may become a two-time All-Star.

Townsend: Tim Duncan. Kobe, 34, is having the best offensive season of his career, but I'll go with the Big Fundamental, 36, who is posting some of his highest averages in years. Tim Duncan has already scored 20 or more points in 13 games this season -- he did so 11 times in 2011-12 -- and is fifth in the NBA in blocks (2.52). His PER: 25.55.


3. Who's the most surprising team in the East?

Abbott: Boston Celtics. The Celtics were a few minutes from the Finals last June. This January the playoffs are in question -- even though Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Jason Terry have all played plenty.

Chau: New York Knicks. Who could've expected the Knicks to be so good with their age and injuries? They've compensated for their shortcomings by orchestrating a fine offense and taking -- and making -- an unseemly amount of 3-pointers. Their defense has been rocky, but a full and healthy roster may soon be on its way and could be just what the doctor ordered.

Foster: Indiana Pacers. They haven't had top scorer Danny Granger all year, and 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert is shooting 40 percent because he can't make layups. But somehow, despite having the 29th-ranked offense, the Pacers are still 20-14 and sport the best defense in the league. It makes no sense at all.

McGuire: Washington Wizards. The East has been a conference of abject disappointment so far, but few teams have been as shockingly downtrodden as the Wizards. Few thought they'd rate out a historically bad offense, but the tale's in the tape. If the season ended today, Washington would be the 10th worst offense in the history of the NBA.

Townsend: New York Knicks. Mike Woodson, who set the record for most wins by a Knicks coach in his first 45 games, has the Knicks off to one of the best starts in franchise history. They're second place in the East, have the fifth-best efficiency differential in the NBA, and how 'bout that Carmelo?


4. Who's the most surprising team in the West?

Abbott: San Antonio Spurs. The Clippers, Warriors and Rockets are all much better than projected, while -- perhaps you've heard -- it's hard to find anybody who thought the Lakers would be this kind of mediocre. But to me the big surprise continues to be the Spurs, playing like the very best team in the league. It has to be at least five seasons since people started saying that team was too old to matter much longer.

Chau: Golden State Warriors. The Lakers are still in shambles and the Blazers are somehow winning, but the Warriors are playing with home-court advantage in sight. That's a huge step up from the cycle of low-end mediocrity the team has been caught in. This is a very good team that could be even better if Andrew Bogut weren't so definitely indefinite.

Foster: Golden State Warriors. With all due respect to the Lakers' massive failures, Golden State's rise in the standings on the heels of a pretty stingy defense -- without Andrew Bogut -- was pretty unexpected. Mark Jackson has his team up from 27th in defensive efficiency last season to 12th this season, an incredible leap considering he has largely the same personnel.

McGuire: Daryl Morey went through a rough offseason, and the mismatched way the Rockets collected assets inspired some laughs. Now? His turn to laugh. Houston doesn't simply look like a good young team, the Rockets could sneak home-court advantage! In the past three weeks, they've posted an offensive rating of 112 against an above-average defensive slate. Something's cooking.

Townsend: The Lakers. They've fallen below .500 for the first time since 2004-05, the last time they missed the postseason. Mike Brown was fired after a 1-4 start in favor of Mike D'Antoni, but this "old damn team" with four potential Hall of Famers on the roster can't always keep up the pace -- and their turnover ratio is in the bottom half.


5. What bold prediction do you see coming true this season?

Abbott: Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Andrew Bynum topped our "best newcomer" voting in the Summer Forecast. Those picks would get a D or an F about now … but things change.

Chau: Mike D'Antoni's job will be safe. He hasn't been the cure-all elixir the Lakers were hoping after the knee-jerk ousting of Mike Brown, but the team should be beyond hoping for instant remedies. The listless defense is a bigger issue. Obviously having the team's faith is important, but at some point, the onus has to be on the players.

Foster: The Houston Rockets will make the playoffs -- and win a series. Already on the brink of being dangerous with a developed style and a true star, the Rockets can launch into the Western Conference elite with one more big acquisition. Houston GM Daryl Morey certainly has the acumen and the assets to shock the league once more.

McGuire: At writing, Western teams have a combined 126-83 (60.2 percent) record over their Eastern counterparts. As the West gets healthy and the race for the playoffs (and the lottery) grows bloody, winning the easy inter-conference games becomes crucial. My bold prediction says that figure rises to 65 percent -- nearly two in three inter-conference games won by the West.

Townsend: John Wall is going to come back from injury and play better than ever. The Wizards will still be a lottery team, but Wall will give their worst-rated offense a major boost -- let's not forget he's the sixth-fastest player in NBA history to 2,000 points and 1,000 assists. Bold prediction: Wall will shoot better than 33 percent on 2-pointers beyond 10 feet.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Henry Abbott covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Danny Chau, D.J. Foster, Aaron McGuire and John Townsend contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
Follow the NBA on ESPN on Twitter | On Facebook | On Google+