Over the next four days, I’ll be writing on what I call my Expectation Series — a four-part set of rankings for the following: most disappointing teams, most surprising teams, most disappointing players, and most surprising players.
Amid the plenitude of disappointment around the league, there have been, too, a variety of teams that have exceeded expectations and put together notable campaigns in 2009-2010. Here I’ll run down the five most significant positive surprises.
No. 5 — Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder have shown they can play competitively against any team in the West, and come playoff time, opponents are going to fear the accompanying lightning. While Kevin Durant was a very solid player last year, very few could have anticipated he would make this transition to elite status this season. In conjunction with the quality play of Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, and James Harden, Oklahoma City is a great team. It’s just that no one thought it would click so soon — chalk that up to coach Scott Brooks.
No. 4 — Houston Rockets
The news that Yao Ming would miss the entire season recovering from foot surgery was troubling around the entire league, but it was especially so for the Rockets and their fans. Then, Tracy McGrady displayed his trademark attitude problems, and basically all hope was lost. Nevertheless, the Rockets stood strong. Benefiting from strong performances from Trevor Ariza, Shane Battier, Carl Landry, and most-improved candidate Aaron Brooks, the Rockets managed to play over .500 for the first half of the season. The midseason trade that sent McGrady and Landry away was a setback for the team, and it won’t make the playoffs this year. However, they accomplished what they did in the absence of their star center.
No. 3 — Memphis Grizzlies
Talk about attitude problems. Everyone wrote off the Grizzlies in fear of a tempest of a locker-room catastrophe led by Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson. AI shows inklings of trouble at the beginning of the season, but management was smart enough to quickly get him what he wanted and shipped him out of town. Meanwhile, Zach Randolph put up all-star-caliber numbers and was a model citizen for the very young team. Playing alongside center Marc Gasol in the post, Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo on the wing, and Mike Conley at the point, Randolph has led the team to a very respectable season. While Memphis, like Houston, will not make the playoffs, they exceeded the horribly low cellar-dweller preseason expectations.
No. 2 — Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats don’t have much to work with on their roster, as Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace serve as the primary focal points of the offense. Still, they’re going to make the postseason this year. Wallace has been playing out of his mind, racking up over 12 boards a game, and he’s a candidate for defensive player of the year. Most importantly, though, the Bobcats have systematically dismantled opposition on their home floor, going 30-9 there. That’s the fourth-best home record in the Eastern Conference. Attribute it to the experience of coach Larry Brown and the willingness of the players to get this franchise somewhere it has never been in the short history of its existence.
No. 1 — Milwaukee Bucks
What a tragedy it was that Andrew Bogut had to brutally injure his arm last week, as he’ll be missing the rest of the season. And the Bucks will be missing him. Milwaukee, which surged behind rookie Brandon Jennings’s strong play for the first half of the season, and John Salmons’s for the second half, had Bogut as a constant producer since November. He really turned it on in the second half when Salmons the sparkplug showed up, and accordingly the Bucks’ second-half record has been rather absurd. They’ll be in the playoffs even without Bogut, but a first-round matchup against the Boston Celtics or Atlanta Hawks looks a lot less promising without the team’s menacing center.
Come back tomorrow for the season’s most disappointing individual players.