Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
> With 20 games left, which team stands out as better than you thought? How’d they get that way?
Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Phoenix, I’m guessing, is the obvious answer here. But I’ll go another way, assuming the Suns get their due from others. I honestly didn’t expect Dallas to be as good as it has been. Monta Ellis? DeJuan Blair? Vince Carter? Devin Harris? The Mavericks’ roster looked like a garage sale to me, and I figured Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion for pretty big drop-offs. But Dallas’ shooting keeps it dangerous, the Mavs take care of the ball and Rick Carlisle has done swell work coaching them up. Their schedule toughens up – they’re under water against good teams – but you wanted a snapshot, not a projection.
Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: The obvious answer is the Suns. Picked by the Vegas oddsmakers to win 21 games at the start of the season, rookie coach Jeff Hornacek has them at 36-27 and battling for a playoff spot in the very tough West with a diversified offense and an attitude that won’t quit. But I’ll also admit that the Rockets have outperformed my expectations. I thought they’d be a team to get home-court advantage in the first round, at best. But with a healthy Dwight Howard blending seamlessly with James Harden, and a supporting cast that loves playing together, they must be considered real contenders.
Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: The season-long answer is the Suns, but I’ll go with the more short-term feel-good story in Toronto. The Raptors have been outstanding since the Rudy Gay trade, and I’m not suggesting the trade is the cause of the upswing because I like Rudy. But it did unclog things on the floor and has allowed DeMar DeRozan to really emerge as a star-quality performer. They’ve bought into Dwane Casey‘s defense, they’re getting All-Star-worthy play from Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross just might be a stud after all.
Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Easy: the Suns. Several new arrivals paid off — GM Ryan McDonough, coach Jeff Hornacek, Eric Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green. Previous Suns improved — Markieff Morris, P.J. Tucker. Channing Frye returned. Goran Dragic played at an All-Star level. Phoenix defended at a high level for about the first half of the season. The surprising success has been the result of a collective effort.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The biggest surprise list starts with the Suns, but they’re such an obvious choice that I’ll note Dallas’ success. Given his past, I thought the Monta Ellis signing was destined to be a failure. But his more in-control pick-and-roll play has actually worked well with Dirk Nowitzki’s mid-range game. The Mavs’ defense hasn’t been very good (and that’s not a surprise), but their offense has been so efficient that they’re 11 games over .500, which is better than I thought they’d be.
Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Toronto Raptors, who still don’t get enough love for turning things around this year. They’ve been a completely different outfit since trading Rudy Gay, too often a victim of the they-really-are-better-since-he-left syndrome. But everyone, from All-Star swingman DeMar DeRozan and fireplug point guard Kyle Lowry and an underrated supporting cast to head coach Dwane Casey and especially general manager Masai Ujiri, deserve credit for believing in the collective strength and resilience of the group. It certainly helps to have a depressed Eastern Conference as your canvas. But the Raptors deserve credit for creating the season they have so far.
Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: Dallas. After everyone else either made splashy moves or decidedly un-splashy moves (perhaps with an eye toward the 2014 Draft), the Mavs mostly stood pat, other than bringing in Monta Ellis and, as Mark Cuban explained, zagging when everyone else was wigging. And with Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle, guess what that brings? Yeah, another trip to the playoffs, at least it would appear. Everyone overlooked them, but here they are with weeks left in the season still part of the playoff picture. If the Western Conference is a shark tank, the Mavs are the shark.
Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: I pick the Bulls. I thought they were already planning for next season when they traded Luol Deng to Cleveland following Derrick Rose‘s season-ending injury, but they’re fourth in the East with a chance to finish third. Yes, the Eastern Conference is weaker than the West, but still. Tom Thibodeau did a heck of a job not allowing his players to give up, Joakim Noah emerged as one of the toughest players in the league, a big man who can score and grab rebounds while dishing out assists like no other big man can do. Hats off.
Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: If I say another team than the Blazers, then I’ll be lying. Portland has made a tremendous run so far. They’re at 42-22, they have the second-best offense in the league, they have been winning tough games with big shots… In other words they have everything. I didn’t see that coming. Also, I think that the Raptors and the Bobcats have upset (don’t forget the March Madness is about to start) the predictions, but the biggest surprise comes from Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Co.