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Inside the NBA | Early season full of surprises, disappointments

Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 02:12

With nearly 20 games gone by, the NBA has put almost a quarter of its season in the books. Over the first month, we’ve learned that the Western Conference is as deep as ever but that the top two teams in the entire league may be in the East. We’ve learned that tanking isn’t quite as easy as expected. And we’ve learned that the Nets are an abomination of a basketball team.

But what else, and who else, has surprised and disappointed? Here’s a look at the most pleasant surprises and biggest disappointments of the NBA season so far. 

 

Paul George and the Pacers

Throughout last year’s playoffs, there was talk about whether Paul George could make the jump into the upper echelon of NBA superstars. This year George has made it clear that he could. He has put on a show this season: Through 17 games he is averaging 24.9 points per game, a massive jump from his average of 17.4 last season. 

He’s become incredibly efficient, shooting 48 percent from the field even while attempting more than six 3-pointers per game. His player efficiency rating (PER) has jumped to 24.72, higher than that of players like Steph Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and James Harden. 

George has elegantly handled the transition to the Pacers’ No. 1 scoring option, and his individual performance has mirrored the team’s success: The Pacers have torched the league en route to a 16-2 record and have become the top defense in the league. The team allows just 90.1 points per 100 possessions, almost seven points lower than last season.

Although the Heat are still the team to beat, the Pacers are putting it all together to perhaps snatch the No. 1 seed in the East. 

 

Anthony Davis

Before going down with a broken hand this weekend, the Pelicans’ big man had been taking the league by storm, battling with LeBron James for the PER lead and establishing himself as a true MVP candidate. Davis leads the league with 3.6 blocks per game and has anchored an otherwise porous New Orleans defense that averages 111.7 points per 100 possessions with him off the court, according to 82games.com.

The former University of Kentucky star is also averaging 18.8 points per game and 10.2 rebounds, showcasing the transformative talent he was expected to bring out of college. Davis is out indefinitely with a hand injury, but if he can come back soon enough, he may be a legitimate contender for the MVP and for the most improved player award.

 

 The Portland Trailblazers

The Pacers’ rise to the top of the East may have been a little more expected, but the Blazers’ run in the early going has come out of nowhere. Portland rode an 11-game winning streak to its current position at the top of the Western Conference with a 15-3 record. 

The Blazers have used a tremendous offense built around LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard to carve up a relatively forgiving slate of opponents. Aldridge averages 22.7 points per game, with Lillard just behind at 20.6, meaning both ends of the Blazers’ pick-and-roll attack pose a great threat to defenses. Additionally, the Blazers have been helped by an impressive early-season campaign from Wesley Matthews, whose 55 percent field goal rate helps space the floor.

The Trailblazers’ offseason bench improvements have also paid dividends, with Mo Williams and Thomas Robinson giving them just enough to stay competitive when Lillard and Aldridge take a breather. Although the defense is lacking, if the Blazers continue to score at this rate, they may be true contenders in the West.

 

The Nets

When GM Billy King put this team together last summer, the Nets were gearing up for a run at the title led by a pack of wily veterans. But thus far, the team looks anything but wily. Instead, the team looks washed up, stuck with a decaying and decrepit roster.

With Deron Williams (who’s injured), Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez, the Nets sport an offense that musters just 99.1 points per 100 possessions, a bottom-third mark. The offense is stagnant, and the players look lost in a way that King certainly didn’t expect coming into the season. Williams must make a tremendous impact if the Nets hope to turn the offense around.

But the Nets have truly fallen apart on the defensive end, where they rank second-to-last in the league in efficiency, ahead of only the tanking Jazz. With aging players and veterans on limited minutes, the Nets won’t have a chance of making serious noise in the East without much-improved defense.

 

J.R. Smith and the New York Knicks

Tyson Chandler is still out for New York, so there is somewhat of an excuse, but even so, the Knicks have been a disaster. An offense that ranked third in the league last year in offensive efficiency is now 23rd, due in large part to a 3-point shooting percentage that has plummeted from 38 to 32 percent. 

But the biggest culprit has been J.R. Smith, whose PER of 9.2 tells the story of a player wallowing in abject failure this year. He’s shooting under 30 percent from three and just 33 percent overall while continuing to jack nearly 13 shots per game. He’s demanding a starting role, simply providing all of the bad J.R. Smith baggage without any of the good. Clearly, the Knicks’ offseason acquisition of Andrea Bargnani has not paid off, and Iman Shumpert has not taken the leap they expected him to, but it’s Smith who symbolizes the rapidly deteriorating team that is the New York Knicks.

The Nets and Knicks face off Thursday night at Barclays Center. Get excited for a battle of the boroughs in which the two teams will be scrapping for last place in the East. 

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