are headed to the playoffs -- perhaps a year ahead of schedule. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
The Point Forward has already revealed the most spectacular offensive performances, the best dunks and the biggest disappointments of the season. Here, we focus on teams and players who exceeded expectations in 2012-13 -- a list that easily could have included the Warriors, J.R. Smith, the Heat (for their 27-game winning streak), Damian Lillard and more.
Even in understanding what an incredible acquisition James Harden would turn out to be, at the start of the season these Rockets still looked to be at least a year away from making the playoffs. The rest of the roster just seemed too young and too unschooled in NBA-level team defense and a bit lacking in the means to manufacture efficient offense. Harden would produce alongside the best features of an attractive, growing roster, and in his second season in Houston -- with help from possible offseason additions -- the Rockets would likely return to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
That projected timetable has proved conservative to say the least. Coach Kevin McHale unleashed his playoff-bound team in the open court and allowed Harden and Jeremy Lin to power one of the NBA's top-scoring teams through their pick-and-roll prowess. From that approach comes a very evident freedom; there may be general rules to the way that the Rockets cut or rotate, but their offense is pliable and portable, contingent only on the fact that Harden is one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league and Lin an emerging talent.
What could not have been anticipated is how the rest of the Rockets' roster has come to epitomize the shot value ideal. It's all three-pointers and layups with this team (which averages a league-low 12.3 mid-range shots per game despite playing at the NBA's fastest pace), in no small part because of all the action Harden creates and the flood of quality looks that follow. This team just keeps pushing the same buttons until something works and does a fantastic job at attacking a defense at a point of vulnerability. Every defensive rotation an opponent makes is merely an opportunity to swing a pass to the three-point line or counter-drive to the basket as a means of stretching the defense further. All of which leads to some beautiful, fluid and highly efficient basketball.
The two all-timers' rebuttal against the accepted limitations of age has been a pleasure to watch. There are 33 years of NBA experience between them, and yet either Bryant or Duncan could score votes on five-player MVP ballots.
For Duncan, 36, it's been a purely physical renaissance. His approach remains steady, but his body is suddenly more amenable to the taxing demands of today's game -- especially on the defensive end. In the 34-year-old Bryant's case, there's been a mental shift to accompany his innovative knee treatment. He's not just making more shots or firing off jumpers with better lift, but playing a more intelligent offensive game.
On the opposite end of the NBA life cycle is the 19-year-old Drummond, a "project" who turned out to be more NBA-ready than most everyone imagined. Drummond came packaged in last year's draft with the allure of a traditional center -- a solid 6-foot-10 big man with long arms and no delusions of ball-handling or perimeter shooting. He didn't (and doesn't) have much of a post game and couldn't finish anything beyond a layup or dunk, but an incredible amount of athletic potential lurked in Drummond's game. Still, NBA types have been taught through years of trial and error to be wary of players like Drummond, whose work ethic and conditioning were also questioned. As a result, Drummond fell to the Pistons at No. 9.
Since then, Drummond has made a handful of general managers hang their heads in regret. Drummond hasn't played a ton of minutes because of coach Lawrence Frank's initial reservations and later because of a back injury, but he's been outstanding in 57 games. He may not create offense or be proficient enough to be a legitimate defensive force, but in Drummond one can already see raw tools and first-rate instincts manifesting in usable form.
Even as his game grows, Drummond has been a top-five rebounder on both ends -- the only player to do so outside of glass-cleaning specialist Reggie Evans. He also holds no reservations about what he is or what he should do. Drummond only attempts shots that he can make, which in this case means that he endeavors to dunk whenever possible. That's a charming attribute, but let's home in on something more substantive: Since 1972, Drummond is one of just two players (along with Shaquille O'Neal) to average more than 13 points and 13 rebounds per 36 minutes in his rookie season. This exemplary production is just the start of what Drummond might be able to accomplish as he develops.
is averaging 12.9 points and 11.9 rebounds for Orlando. (Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Magic GM Rob Hennigan is way ahead of the game. Orlando's trade return for Dwight Howard may have seemed meager at the time, but Nikola Vucevic has blossomed into the NBA's No. 2 rebounder (11.9 per game to go with 12.9 points), Maurice Harkless is already a useful player with plenty of room to grow and Arron Afflalo has used his new circumstances to expand his offensive game. Orlando still doesn't have a centerpiece player on a rookie-scale deal, but that's nonetheless a really solid haul and the Magic have three first-round picks from the trade and plenty of developmental opportunities to come.
Vucevic and Harkless will get better, as will versatile forward Tobias Harris, who was acquired at the trade deadline for impending free agent J.J. Redick. As much as Hennigan might have loved the idea of keeping Redick, his summer payday would have added a good chunk of salary to the books of a rebuilding team already lacking in cap space. Harris, 20, provides the potential for production and lineup flexibility on a much more affordable deal.
All told, these acquisitions suggest a stable, cogent process -- the hallmark of great management and the foundation of a quality NBA franchise.
For two seasons, Sanders had been a fun diversion -- a coil of athleticism and enthusiasm, the latter of which he seemed hardly capable of controlling. He vaulted to the rafters on every block attempt and fouled anyone who came within a five-foot radius. That combination made for delightful League Pass fare, but only a marginally productive player. For all of Sanders' theoretical value as an interior defender, he was far too wild and too eager to be much more than a minor contributor.
This season, however, Sanders has virtually cut his foul rate in half and opened up an entirely new world of possibility. Not only does that stark improvement -- from 7.4 fouls per 36 minutes last year to 4.3 this season -- remove the artificial cap on Sanders' minutes imposed by foul trouble, but it's also indicative of him playing a sounder, more vertical brand of defense. He's already an undergraduate-level performer in the Tyson Chandler school of completely vertical body extension, using that knack for upright D to become one of the most feared interior defenders. He halts dunk attempts, skies to swat floaters and makes ball-handlers think twice.
All that's left for Sanders -- who is averaging 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in 27.3 minutes after posting 3.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 12.4 minutes last season -- is to continue to refine his ever-charismatic game and control his emotions so that he's not derailed by technical fouls and ejections.
This hasn't exactly been a fairytale season for the Wizards, who still have plenty to figure out on offense. But against pretty much all odds, this team -- as one of the league's few holdouts to use two relatively conventional big men -- has become a top-10 defense. Washington is tied for seventh in points allowed per possession, up from 24th last season, a ranking that provides the basis for the thought that it could contend for a playoff spot next season.
(right) has blossomed into a solid rotation player in his second season. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Butler, the 30th pick in the 2011 draft, eked out 8.5 minutes in 42 games a rookie last season on a deep Bulls team. He was energetic but sometimes instinctively misguided, struggled with his shot and lacked the veteran know-how that made Chicago's bench units so potent and cohesive. He was also already 22, having entered the NBA after three years at Marquette, making it difficult to project just how much he might improve and how useful he might ultimately be.
A year later, we're far closer to answering those questions, because Butler has been a revelation in earning a regular rotation spot and showcasing a far richer offensive game than his first-year performance initially suggested. Butler won't soon be miscast as a primary shot creator and he's still not much of a scorer overall, but he's harnessed his energy to become a more effective cutter and a selectively decent mid-range shooter. And if he is holding his own offensively despite a lack of three-point range, it becomes difficult for coach Tom Thibodeau to take him off the floor; the 6-7 Butler is such an incredible defensive asset that he could earn playing time on that trait alone, and together with Luol Deng he executes a vice grip on the opponent's best wing players.
Though billed as Brookyn's third- or fourth-most-prominent star, Lopez has easily been the Nets' most consistent offensive player. Because of the Nets' basic offense and slow pace, they rely heavily on half-court scorers who can create their own shots. Deron Williams struggled with that for much of the season, Joe Johnson has been inconsistent and Gerald Wallace has been horrendous. But Lopez, who leads the Nets in per-game (19.4) and per-minute scoring while shooting 52.3 percent, has been a rock after missing nearly all of last season with a foot injury. His post game is awkward but undeniably productive -- to the point that he may be the most compelling reason that Brooklyn's uninspired sets are as effective as they are.
Danny Granger has led the Pacers in scoring and shot attempts in each of the last five seasons. He is the funnel through which the Pacers have often operated on offense, for better or worse, and in that way shielded Paul George during his formative years, eased the burden on George Hill and offered a perimeter counterpart to the post-centric work of David West and Roy Hibbert. All of which is to say that he's an important player to the Pacers, though through his essentially season-long absence you likely wouldn't know it.
After some initial offensive disorder, Indiana has settled in as one of the league's more effective two-way teams, complementing an NBA-best defense with a sturdy, balanced offense. The offensive strides are a tribute to George's rapid development as a wing creator. Poetic as it may be, this kind of trial by fire doesn't always end with such positive results; sometimes the burden of stepping into a larger role overwhelms a young player before he's ready. But that couldn't be further from the case with George, who is posting career highs in points, rebounds, assists and usage rate. He's doing more than ever before, and though that alone isn't enough to keep the Pacers from the occasional offensive collapse, it helps to sustain one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
All of that said, credit West and Hill, too, for the work they've done in keeping the Pacers as steady as possible. Underrated players, both, and the most crucial members of George's on-court support system.
Even though Vasquez started all 66 games for the Hornets last year in his second season, it was difficult to know just what to make of him. He was a shot-creating specialist who couldn't shoot all that well. He created good looks for teammates around the rim, but wasn't quick enough to get there himself consistently. At worst, he looked the part of a competent offensive curator, and yet it would be a shame to pigeonhole him so early in his career. The only way to know for sure was to see Vasquez in different contexts and with different kinds of players.
As it turns out, he makes for a pretty remarkable high-usage ball-handler, capable of buoying a weird collection of players to a league-average mark in scoring efficiency. It's still tough to say whether he's effective enough to eventually lead a top-five or top-10 offense with such a ball-dominant style. But for the moment he's using some clever moves off the dribble to handle the bulk of the ball-handling for a team short on supplementary creators. He's exactly what the Hornets need right now and has unexpectedly emerged as the No. 3 assist man in the league with 9.1 per game.