Surprising starts change NBA landscape

Sean Stetson

The NBA basketball season opened up Oct. 31 with many teams trying to make a statement and dethrone the Los Angeles Lakers as league champions.

In the Eastern Conference, the Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics added depth by acquiring players in order to cement their statuses as the top three teams in the conference.

In the Western Conference, the Lakers made the biggest splash by adding Ron Artest and proving they are the team to beat in the conference. Of the teams chasing them, the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trailblazers, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks made big adjustments to try and usurp the Lakers.

All 30 NBA teams, to some extent, have to live up to expectations – some more than others. A team’s ability either to exceed or fail to meet expectations gives us the surprises and the disappointments of the young NBA season.

The biggest and longest-running disappointment in the NBA is the Los Angeles Clippers. This year is no different. After having only three winning seasons and four playoff berths in 25 years, the Clippers placed their hope in a refocused group of veterans and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, Blake Griffin. However, Griffin was hurt in the preseason and has yet to play an NBA game.

The Clippers still have the talent to be successful, but they simply are not producing wins on the court with a meager 4-7 record. It seems that they will always be overshadowed by the Lakers for supremacy in Los Angeles.

The Memphis Grizzlies were identified as one of the dark horses to reach the playoffs after bringing in Allen Iverson and Zach Randolph, while also developing their young talent. Just three weeks into the season all optimism seems to have been drained, and the Grizzlies are off to a terrible 2-8 start. Management couldn’t sign their best player, Rudy Gay, to an extension, and they banished Allen Iverson for the indefinite future after he complained about his role and playing time. It seems like, once again, the dysfunctional Grizzlies are headed to the cellar of the Western Conference.

Perhaps the most disappointing team in the league, the New Orleans Hornets, has begun the season with a 3-8 record. They have losses to the New York Knicks and the Toronto Raptors, and blowouts by the Spurs, Lakers, Suns and Hawks. This is the same team that just two years ago contended with the Lakers for the best record in the Western Conference. This is also the same team that has the best point guard in the league, Chris Paul. He has done his part, but no one else has stepped up consistently. With Paul out for two to four weeks and the recent firing of their coach, the Hornets will face adversity in the 2009-’10 season.

The Washington Wizards hold the mark as the Eastern Conference’s most disappointing team. The return of their star Gilbert Arenas, coupled with Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler was supposed to catapult the Wizards to a higher place in the Eastern Conference. However, a new coach, an injured Jamison and Arenas working the rust off has led to a 2-7 record, third worst in the conference. Their only wins include defeating the winless New Jersey Nets and the Dallas Mavericks during the first game of the season. The season is young and they may still right the ship. But riding a six game losing streak, they are a disappointment in the early season.

The biggest surprise of the early NBA season is the surging Phoenix Suns and their 9-2 record. Expectations were low for this team; they traded away Shaquille O’Neal to the Cavaliers, and they are aging. Many thought they would not make the playoffs, especially in the deep Western Conference. However, with a revitalized Steve Nash and the reimplementation of the “Run-and-Gun” offense, the Suns are once again exciting to watch. They look primed to make a run deep into the playoffs. Thus far, their most impressive wins include the previously undefeated Boston Celtics in Boston, and the Miami Heat in Miami.

The Atlanta Hawks have also turned some heads as they begin the season with a 9-2 record including impressive wins over the Celtics, Nuggets and Portland Trailblazers.

After their playoff series with the Celtics two years ago, they Hawks have steadily been a team on the rise. Over the summer they acquired well-known scorer Jamal Crawford to provide scoring and leadership off the bench, and their young talent is coming together nicely. The Hawks are a good team but have exceeded expectations, as they share the best record in the NBA during the early parts of the season.

Another impressive team on the rise is the Miami Heat. Over the summer they protected their financial flexibility in the hope that they can resign Dwyane Wade and lure another free-agent in the summer of 2010. The season was thought to be a decent one, finishing at around the fifth or sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. However they have started with a 7-2 record. Dwyane Wade is playing spectacularly, and the other players have stepped up, most noticeably Jermaine O’Neal, Quentin Richardson, Udonis Haslem and Michael Beasley. In early season play, Wade looks unstoppable, and this can only mean positive things for Heat fans.

The last surprise of the early NBA season are the Milwaukee Bucks. Expectations were extremely low as they traded Richard Jefferson for financial flexibility, and their best player was coming off of an injury.

However, they are off to a 5-3 record led by rookie Brandon Jennings, who recently scored 55 points in a game against the Golden State Warriors. They may not be the best team on the court, but their hustle, energy and willingness to outwork the other team has led to that great early season record. Things can only get better as their best player Michael Redd hopes to return from injury within the week, and the players continue to get better.

All records as of Monday, Nov. 16.