There is a scant week left in this hurried and rushed NBA season and the Playoffs will start one week from Saturday to help determine a champion — with or without asterisk.
It was going to be difficult to predict this season from the very beginning. Yeah, the favorites were going to be the ones we suspected — Thunder, Heat and Bulls — and the Playoffs were not going to look too much different.
Still this has been a season full of twists and turns. The effects of this season will last like any other. Momentum will be built. Championship windows will close. Coaches will be fired. The usual.
With the season just a week away from its conclusion, let’s take a look at some of the disappointments and surprises of this season:
Biggest Disappointment: Portland Trail Blazers
Portland had the world in front of them. Brandon Roy looked like he was regaining some form of health. His performance in Portland’s first-round Playoff loss had many believing Roy could get healthy and play limited minutes. Greg Oden seemed like he was on his way to finding the court too.
Throw on top Nate McMillan and his managing of the yearly M*A*S*H unit and LaMarcus Aldridge starting to come into his own, and this looked like a team with a bright future and the willingness to hang on to a spot in the middle of the Western Conference.
Bad things happen though. Especially when two of your key players have just one knee between them.
Oden was more or less lost for his career as another knee surgery forced Portland to waive him. Roy found that he could not play any longer and, in a tearful and emotional press conference, announced his retirement and was ceremoniously amnestied and wiped away from Portland’s books.
Still this was a team that had survived injuries to Roy and Oden in the past. Portland had a great coach in McMillan, an incredibly versatile roster with a ton of talent and LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the best power forwards in the league.
There was no preview for the turmoil that would sweep the Trail Blazers. There was discord in the locker room and eventually Nate McMillan was forced out. Portland faltered on the court too. The Trail Blazers sit at 28-34 and look on their way to having a sub-.500 record for the first time sine 2007 (the year they won the top pick and selected Greg Oden).
This is not a typical Portland effort. In the cramped Western Conference, the Trail Blzers certainly were considered a team that could compete for another Playoff bid and, if things broke right, maybe something more. Now, it just looks like the Blazers have to find a new path.
Biggest Surprise: San Antonio Spurs
There is a separate category for team that avoided its age in the cramped schedule, but nobody saw the Spurs giving one last breath … again. Rumors of San Antonio’s demise are greatly exaggerated again.
The Spurs’ top 3 players are 35 — Tim Duncan is 36 next week actually — 34 (Manu Ginobili) and 29 (Tony Parker). This is not the core unit that you would think would survive a 66-game monster of a schedule.
Yet, Gregg Popovich has worked his magic well once again. By managing his roster and inserting the surprising youngsters that San Antonio seems to pluck magically out of the ground — such as Danny Green this year — the Spurs are surprisingly sitting on top of the Western Conference. And Tony Parker and Tim Duncan look like they have just stepped out of the Fountain of Youth.
OK, maybe it is not quite like it was in the early 2000s. Parker leads the team in scoring with 18.6 points per game, adding 7.7 assists per game to his total. Tim Duncan is averaging 15.3 points per game. But it is the way they move and play in big moments — like Tuesday’s win over the Lakers — that has to have Spurs fans believing in another lockout-asterisked title.
The question of course is whether this regular season success will translate to the postseason. San Antonio gained the top seed in the West last year and it did not help the team at all. A scrappy, athletic Memphis team was able to beat San Antonio and score one of the biggest upsets of the Playoffs. The Spurs are once again playing at a faster pace and have to prove themselves all over again when it matters most.
Young Team Thriving Under Rushed Schedule: Indiana Pacers
Raise your hand if you had the Pacers sitting comfortable as the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a week to go in the season. Buehler… Buehler?
Indiana was a long shot of a team to begin with but everyone recognized the promise that lay within them. After breaking a long playoff drought last year, Indiana added David West and a whole bunch of maturity. Frank Vogel has become a favorite for Coach of the Year and Indiana is quietly a pretty dangerous team in the East, if not the traditional powers of Boston, Atlanta and Orlando who trail Indiana by 3.5 games with about five to go.
Danny Granger, Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert and David West have done a good job sharing the load while playing solid team defense — Indiana is 10th in the league in defensive rating. They seem to be able to attack and matchup with anybody and in the shortened season that has enabled them to succeed. The Playoffs will be a different matter.
Veteran Team Thriving Under Rushed Schedule: Boston Celtics
Long thought dead, the Celtics seemed to have been biding their time in another brilliant roster management move from Doc Rivers.
Much like the 2010 team, Boston has dealt with injuries to its star players and had to make sure the older legs are ready for the stretch run. But Rajon Rondo is growing in confidence and Rivers has been able to use a whole bunch of young players stepping up to perform in their stead.
Take Avery Bradley or Brandon Bass coming in to the team and filling roles when one of the Big Three is out. Then when Kevin Garnett came back from his injury issues, he started taking over like it was 2007 all over again. The move for Garnett to the center spot has been a big boost for the Celtics and they are the team nobody wants to play in the first or second round.
A team many thought might bet broken up at the trade deadline now believes a deep Playoff run might happen. Who would have thought that?
Young Team Undercut by Rushed Schedule: Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers raced out to a fast start this year going 20-9 entering the midpoint of the season. Philadelphia seemed to have a great combination to runaway with an Atlantic Division that seemed to disappoint more and more — the Knicks and Celtics were playing well below expectations.
Philadelphia had an extremely favorable early season schedule though. The 76ers played 18 of those first 29 games at the Wells Fargo Center and had only one road trip longer than two games — a five game season-opening jaunt out West.
Even though Philadelphia was playing extremely well and had the kind of defense and offensive balance to be a dangerous team in the regular season, asking this young team to battle into the Playoffs on the road during the latter half of the season. But Philadelphia has struggled coming down the stretch and is in danger of falling out of the Playoffs.
The 76ers are now 31-30, going 11-21 since that high earlier in the season. Ten of Philadelphia’s 14 final games are on the road, including the final five games of the season coming on the road (starting tonight in Cleveland).
Veteran Team Undercut by Rushed Schedule: Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks already had a championship hangover to get past and lots of older bodies to manage before the schedule came out. But Dallas’ title defense has been especially tough.
First, the Mavericks let defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler and game-changing point guard off the bench J.J. Barea walk in free agency. This instantly made Dallas a much older team. Then there were the early-season injury problems for Dirk Nowitzki and the general worry about not wearing down an older roster.
Then there was the whole Lamar Odom saga. Odom was clearly unhappy in Dallas and played like it. Dallas eventually sent him away.
It has left the Mavericks at 34-28 and in danger of missing the Playoffs all together. It has been an extremely disappointing season for the Mavericks. It has been part-championship hangover, part-preparing for 2012 free agency and part-schedule being too much.
What do you think? Who are you disappointments and surprises for the 2012 season?