With the majority of the 2008-2009 NBA season in the books, the time has come again to offer first-half assessments. Although LeBron, Kobe, and the Celtics have yet again dominated the major headlines, this season has also had its fair share of surprises and disappointments that have for the most part flown under the radar.
Surprise: Kevin Durant: Lost in the absolutely pitiful inaugural season put together thus far by the new Oklahoma City franchise has been the stellar play of second year forward Kevin Durant. While averages of 25.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game are by themselves outstanding, what is most impressive about Durant’s numbers is the incredible ease with which he has attained them. Shooting 48% from the field and 43% from beyond the arc, he has already developed into a remarkably efficient scorer, and one can only imagine the type of numbers he may put up in the future. Right now it is all too easy to forget that Durant is only 21 years old, and provide him with a half-decent supporting cast in the future and his numbers may be downright scary.
Disappointment: Greg Oden: Although it is early to be judging a big man, especially one as prone to injury as Oden, it would be difficult to argue that his career has not been a disappointment thus far. While he has shown occasional flashes of the dominance expected of him-such as a 24 point, 15 rebound game in January-his season averages are actually nearer to the 2 point, 4 rebound performance he turned in last week in the much anticipated match-up against Kevin Durant. Not only has Oden failed to live up to the hype, but ironically there is even a big man on his own team far more deserving of the considerable media attention he receives on a regular basis in LaMarcus Aldridge. Although hope remains for the future, right now one would have a difficult time justifying the Blazers’ selection of Oden over Durant.
Surprise: Denver Nuggets: Despite adjusting to the biggest in-season trade of the year and the loss of Carmelo Anthony to a broken wrist for nearly a month, the Nuggets have been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2008-2009 season. Kudos to GM Mark Warkentien for having the foresight to see the perfect fit that hometown hero Chauncey Billups would be to the team. Already deep with potent scorers like Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Linas Kleiza, the absence of the high-volume shooting Allen Iverson has not caused the Nuggets to miss a beat on the offensive end, who have instead fully embraced Billups’s clutch-shooting and championship pedigree. Also instrumental to their success has been an improved attitude towards defense led by the efforts of Kenyon Martin, Dahntay Jones, and Nene, who has blown away all expectations by recovering from cancer to have a career year (14.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg).
Disappointment: Phoenix Suns: For the past several years the Phoenix Suns have served as a model franchise for other NBA front offices; Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Management may have been a bit arrogant in refusing to reward the main proponent of the team’s success-Mike D’Antoni-with a new contract, opting instead for the more inexperienced and defensive-minded Terry Porter. They also were probably foolish to think that they could alter the team’s identity from offensive juggernaut to defensive stoppers in one off-season, especially with matador defenders Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire in the starting lineup and without making any major personnel changes. Now, mid-way through the season, the Suns have suddenly found themselves to be old, a shadow of their former selves on the offensive end, and on the outside of the playoff picture altogether. Additionally, recent rumors that Shaq and Stoudemire are on the trading block suggest that they may be looking to jump ship and build for the future. Whether the Suns fold altogether or experience a miraculous turn around remains to be seen, but whatever happens it wont change the fact that they have been a major disappointment of 2009 thus far.
Disappointment: Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers: Known for decades as two of the most wretched and accursed franchises in NBA history, the perpetually cellar-dwelling Warriors and Clippers finally appeared to be on the upswing as recently as two or three years ago. After the Clippers advanced to within one game of the Western Conference Finals in 2006, owner Donald Sterling was praised for finally opening up his purse-strings and giving the team the chance to compete. Similarly, the eighth-seeded Warriors shocked the world by upsetting the top-seeded Mavs in 2007, and the sky appeared to be the limit for this up-tempo team heading into last season. Yet as quickly as they rose to success, they have fallen headlong into disaster. Swapping Baron Davis and Corey Maggette has not paid dividends for either team, which have posted a combined record of 29-75 so far this season. Today it is looking more and more like recent success was merely an aberration, and with each team tied up with large contracts and uninspired players don’t look for these teams to experience marked improvement anytime soon.
Surprise: New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets : While both of these teams are floundering below .500, they have nevertheless exceeded expectations for this season. The signing of Mike D’Antoni has already paid off for the Knicks, who despite shipping off their most talented players in salary dumps have still seen considerable improvement from last season. D’Antoni’s system has turned career backup Chris Duhon into a viable starting option at the point, nurtured the development of young talent like Wilson Chandler and Nate Robinson, and-perhaps most importantly-once again restored some excitement to the Garden. Similarly, the Nets were not expected to make much noise in the Eastern Conference this season, yet spurred by the remarkable improvement of explosive point guard Devin Harris, they have found themselves just one spot out of the playoffs. But the real surprise here has been the success these teams have had in being able to achieve moderate improvement while clearing cap space for the Lebron James sweepstakes in 2010. Although they may not be bringing home a title this season, it would not be far-fetched to imagine one in their near future if they successfully woo a top-notch free agents in the loaded class of 2010.