The good, and the so bad it’s ugly surprises of the NBA season

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We’re a week into the NBA season and some things are what we expected — the Lakers, Heat and Celtics are good; the Sixers are not; John Wall is dynamic; Kobe won’t talk about his injuries; and the Grizzles are making bad contract decisions.

But there are surprises, and not to go all Forest Gump but what fun life be without surprises? Good and bad. So here we are, the surprises.

The good surprises, like when your Xmas fund matures in Monopoly and you get $100.

The Portland Trail Blazers (4-1): We expected Portland to be good again — last season they were racked by injuries — but this fast start is more than we expected. The big key is they are beast on the boards. They are grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.7 percent of their missed shots (second best percentage in the league). Lamarcus Aldridge is scoring 18.8 points and grabbing 9.2 rebounds a game, anchoring the inside. They have beat who they were supposed to beat, but that’s a step up from last season.

The New Orleans Hornets (3-0): This just in — Chris Paul is good. Really, really good. Dominant good, and now he’s got David West back knocking down 56 percent of his shots. The Hornets have beaten the Spurs, Nuggets and Bucks — three quality teams. They are doing it with defense, allowing just 97.7 points per 100 possessions. Emeka Okafor is really defending. We might be able to add them to the list of teams, along with Portland, that is regaining its “team to watch” status.

The New Jersey Nets (2-1): Do you see that record? 2-1? With come from behind wins? This team is not that good — the throttling by Miami is an indication of how far away from really good they are — but last season this team doesn’t win those two games. They’ve taken big steps forward. Derrick Favors is averaging 10 and 10 and he is barely scratching the surface. There is hope here New Jersey, which should come to fruition right about when the team moves to Brooklyn.

The bad surprises, like that new timing belt your car needs suddenly.

The Charlotte Bobcats (0-3): Last season they made the playoffs on great defense and just enough offense. This season they are 29th in the league in defense, giving up 111.2 points per 100 possessions. And it’s because teams are shooting very well against them, which has to drive Michael Jordan and Larry Brown just crazy. Gerald Wallace is not playing up to his own standards. (But Tyrus Thomas is playing efficiently, so go figure.)

The Milwaukee Bucks (1-3): They were a force at the end of last season (until Andrew Bogut’s injury, anyway), they added depth and got Bogut back and… their offense has been terrible. They are not shooting well as a team and making up for it by not getting to the free throw line. Despite having Brandon Jennings on their team they are playing at one of the slowest paces in the NBA, not getting many easy baskets in transition (last season they were not fast but they were middle of the pack). John Salmons can’t throw a pea in the ocean right now, they miss his scoring from the wing dearly.

The Houston Rockets (0-3): The Rockets are the worst defensive team in the NBA so far. Which is a weird sentence to type, but that’s the truth — they are giving up 112.4 points per 100 possessions, dead last in the NBA. This is a team that has good defensive players and now Yao Ming back defending the paint, and it’s ugly. So is the offense, which struggles to find a flow — they want to run with guards Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin, but with Yao back they slow down and just look lost. It’s not pretty.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

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It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.

Report: Optimism remains for Kawhi Leonard returning this season

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly planned to return for last Thursday’s Spurs-Pelicans game – but didn’t.

A couple games later, and Leonard remains out. Will he actually play again this season?

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Leonard resumed working out in San Antonio on Feb. 27 and is feeling “much better,” according to the source. Eleven games remain in the regular season, but there remains optimism he will return this season, the source said.

Sources told ESPN that Leonard’s target date to return from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out for all but nine games this season has always been “mid-March.”

It’s March 21. We’re nearing the end of what anyone would consider mid-March.

A month ago, Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich said time was running out for Leonard to return and acclimate to the lineup. But Popovich has sounded more open lately to Leonard – whose own doctors must still clear him – returning whenever the forward is ready.

San Antonio (41-31, tied for fifth in the West) has probably done enough without Leonard to make the playoffs. The Spurs have a 3.0-game buffer over the Nuggets and 3.5-game buffer over the Clippers for playoff position.

But San Antonio would become far more dangerous in the playoffs – a threat to any team, including the Rockets and Warriors – if Leonard returns to full strength.

First, he must just get back on the court at all, and maybe that’ll happen sooner than later. The way this injury has gone, though, it’s hard to believe anything until we see it.