Early season surprisesEarly season surprises The NBA regular season is already more than one-quarter over, believe it or not. That means that there is plenty of Basketball yet to be played, of course. Teams with losing records still have plenty of time to right the ship and make a playoff run. Others that are off to strong starts could falter. Still, 20-plus games into the 82-game regular season, is enough time to spot some trends, some of which are surprising. Here are 10 things that have come as a surprise one quarter of the way through the 2009-10 season: 1. The struggles of the San Antonio Spurs. To be fair, the Spurs, at 11-9, are still two games above .500. Still, most thought San Antonio would challenge the Lakers for the best record in the Western Conference this season. The All-Star trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili was going to aided by the addition of yet another top scorer in Richard Jefferson. Instead, the Spurs have looked simply old at times, Jefferson hasn't had as big of an impact as expected, and the team has just been average. Unless things change drastically ? and they may well ? the Spurs will just be another team fighting for a sixth, seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the way Utah has dominated them. The Jazz never win in San Antonio and only win about half the time against the Spurs in Salt Lake City. So it would usually take three or four seasons for Utah to earn three victories against San Antonio. But here it is just one quarter of the way through the season, and the Jazz already have three wins over the Spurs, including their first at the AT&T Center. 2. The success of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The former Seattle SuperSonics finished dead last in the Northwest Division a year ago ? even behind the Minnesota Timberwolves. They went 23-59 for the season, winning 28 percent of their games. Led by young talent like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it's not surprising that the Thunder are better this season. But it is surprising that Oklahoma City, if the season ended today, would be a playoff team. It's not just that Scott Brooks' club is beating up on the bad teams, either. The Thunder have wins over Orlando, San Antonio, Miami and at Utah among their dozen victories. With the rise of Oklahoma City, suddenly the Northwest ? generally considered the worst of the three Western divisions the past several years ? may be the best. With Denver, Utah, Portland and Oklahoma City all above .500, only Minnesota brings the division down. 3. Deron Williams' lack of love from NBA fans. The Jazz have been on TNT three times this season and D-Will has been outstanding on each occasion, so he's done his best to gain some notoriety when given a national stage. He is certainly one of the top point guards in the NBA and should be an All-Star this season ? no question about it ? when the game is played in his hometown of Dallas. Yet, when the first All-Star voting tallies were released on Thursday, Williams was just 10th ? behind the likes of Tracy McGrady, who has yet to play this year, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Aaron Brooks. D-Will, playing for the small-market Jazz , simply won't get the votes by fans needed to come close to being an All-Star starter. So it will be up to the Western Conference coaches to do the right thing and honor Williams for his All-Star play the past couple of seasons by actually sending him to the game for the first time. 4. The lack of drama with the Lakers. Los Angeles' fast start is certainly not surprising ? especially considering how home-heavy the Lakers' schedule has been. But what has been surprising is the lack of controversy and turmoil that the Lakers have had. Already a team filled with big egos and celebrity influences, the defending champs added volatile Ron Artest and had forward Lamar Odom become a tabloid staple after a hasty marriage to reality TV star Khloe Kardashian during the offseason. Yet Artest has been model citizen and outstanding teammate by all accounts, and the Odom/Kardashian soap opera hasn't hurt the Lakers on the court at all. L.A. may yet implode, but it certainly hasn't so far. 5. Portland's woes. This was supposed to be the year the young, talented Trail Blazers became a serious title contender. Unfortunately for Rip City fans, it appears like the team may just be stuck in neutral ? thanks in part to the season-ending injury to center Greg Oden. Oden was the can't-miss No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft. After missing his entire first season due to knee surgery, he was solid but not spectacular last season. This year, he had shown even more improvement before his recent injury. In all, Oden has played in just 82 games ? which equals the fewest ever for a No. 1 overall pick through his first three seasons. The Spurs' David Robinson played just 82 games in his first three years after being drafted No. 1, too. But that was because he spent the first two years serving the country with his obligation to the Navy before playing all 82 games in the third year after being drafted. 6. Houston staying competitive without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. McGrady could be back soon, but it's a credit to Rick Adelman, his staff and the hard-working Rockets that they have a better record than the Spurs without either of their superstars having played a minute of Basketball. Players like former Laker Trevor Ariza, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, Luis Scola and rookie Chase Budinger have taken up the scoring slack, with veterans Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes adding toughness and heart. The Rockets have been a blue-collar team without a single star. It will be interesting to see if getting McGrady back will actually help or hurt them. McGrady is, obviously, an incredible player and scorer, but with things already going reasonably well, he could cause chemistry problems. 7. The Chicago Bulls taking a major step backward. Unquestionably, the best playoff series last season came in the first round, when the Bulls pushed the Boston Celtics to the edge. Incredibly, four of the seven games went into overtime. Game 6 was a triple-overtime thriller. The Bulls ended up losing the series, but won a lot of fans for their heart. With point guard Derrick Rose leading the way, it appeared that Vinny Del Negro's club was on its way to becoming a serious challenger in the East. Instead, the Bulls have fallen on hard times. Chicago is now 8-14 after losing Saturday against Boston, and Del Negro is on the hotseat. Again, there is still plenty of time for the Bulls to turn things around, but they'd better start soon. 8. The Shaquille O'Neal effect. The Phoenix Suns struggled last season with O'Neal around, missing the playoffs completely. But now, with O'Neal gone, the Suns are running and gunning again and have one of the best records in the Western Conference to show for it. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Cavaliers were four games better than any other team in the Eastern Conference a year ago during the regular season. Yet so far this year, Cleveland is just fourth-best in the East with Shaq around. Coincidence? It may be, but the fact of the matter is that the Suns got worse once Shaq arrived and are now better without him. And the Cavs ? at least so far ? have been less dominant with him than they were a year ago without him. 9. The Nets setting the record for futility. There have been a lot of bad NBA teams over the years, but the Nets can now hold their heads up proudly and state that they were the worst ever at the start of the season. Losing 18 consecutive games is an impressive feat. It sets the bar so low that New Jersey now has a record that may never be broken. The Nets have won a couple of games since then and are now 2-21. But there is still hope that they can get back on that losing track and break the all-time-worst record of the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who went 9-73. 10. The emergence of a pair of rookies. Brandon Jennings of the Milwaukee Bucks put up 55 points in just his 10th NBA game ? which had people nearly handing him the Rookie of the Year award right there. Jennings is still doing some incredible things ? averaging 21.2 points, 5.7 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game. But he has slowed up a bit lately, in part due to a sore knee. Meanwhile, another rookie point guard, Tyreke Evans of the Sacramento Kings, has been good enough to warrant his own Rookie of the Year talk. One advantage Evans has on Jennings is his size, at 6-foot-6. His numbers compare favorably to Jennings' too, as Evans is averaging 20.1 points, 5.1 assists and 5.0 rebounds. Regardless of who wins the award, the NBA has to be thrilled with the caliber of play already being shown by these two 20-year-olds. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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