Who will be the NBA's surprise team in 2010-11?

Who will be the NBA's surprise team in 2010-11?

Friday, Sept. 24, 2010
10:35 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

A historic summer for the NBA has passed and for the Bulls, while they didn't acquire quite the star power many expected andor hoped for, optimism runs high, both within the organization and throughout the team's fan base. With the offseason coming to an end, the time to fully delve into the upcoming NBA season is here. Instead of a traditional season preview, issues both throughout the league and in Chicago will be probed daily here on CSNChicago.com up until the squad officially convenes for training camp toward the end of September.

16. Who will be the league's surprise team and which team will be the most disappointing?

The Sacramento Kings aren't the Oklahoma City Thunder. Tyreke Evans isn't Kevin Durant. And while it's improbable the Kings make the drastic leap their fellow young-gun Thunder did last season, it shouldn't be completely unexpected that they are a much improved squad in the 2010-11.

There are some other choices to make some positive headway in comparison to their dismal 2009-10 campaigns--Washington, if Gilbert Arenas resembles his old self and meshes with top pick John Wall and the rest of the Wizards' young talent; New Orleans, with a healthy Chris Paul, new coaching staff, front office and some underrated offseason additions; Philadelphia, with veteran head coach Doug Collins, a new regime calling the shots and a versatile and youthful Sixers roster; New Jersey or whatever team ends up with Carmelo Anthony--but Sacramento is more of a sure bet.

Evans, the reigning Rookie of the Year, has a chance to eventually become a superstar in the league. His powerful 6-foot-6 frame, the versatility to play all three perimeter positions (although he's best with the ball in his hands), incredible scoring instincts and a lot of room for improvement all indicate stardom. Most impressive, however, is how he injected a semblance of hope to a team that had been floundering since their halcyon days last decade, when Chris Webber and company had them in contention on an annual basis.

It's far from a one-man gang in "Sac-Town," as Evans is only the centerpiece of the organization's youth movement. Power forwards Jason Thompson and Carl Landry (the latter was acquired last season in a deal that sent former Kings leading scorer to Houston) have complementary games, as Thompson is a more of a face-up, finesse player with size and length, while the undersized Landry possesses a physical mentality. Young wings Donte Greene and Omri Casspi are both long, athletic and active types. Greene has displayed flashes of potential with his shooting range and athleticism, but has lacked consistency, and Casspi, a native of Israel, was one of the better rookies in the first half of last season before struggling a bit down the stretch.

Paired with Evans in the backcourt is the solid and underrated Beno Udrih, who offers a safety net similar to what former Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich provided Derrick Rose early in his career. Oft-injured swingman Francisco Garcia provides long-range shooting, while free-agent acquisition Antoine Wright adds some experience and toughness on the defensive end.

One of the more overlooked offseason moves was Sacramento's swap with Philadelphia, in which the Kings swapped big man Spencer Hawes and former Bull Andres Nocioni for shot-blocking center Samuel Dalembert. Hawes simply wasn't panning out as expected and "Noce" appears to be in the twilight of his career, and Dalembert--whose contract expires after this season, giving Sacramento some flexibility going into next summer--fills a real need for his new team with his defense and rebounding.

But perhaps the biggest stride Sacramento took this offseason occurred back in June, when they selected Kentucky big man DeMarcus Cousins with the fifth overall pick and Marshall big man Hassan Whiteside in the second round. Both players were considered steals, but their pre-draft stock dropped for reasons that concerned some observers.

Cousins teamed up with the aforementioned Wall during their lone college season, but was hardly in his shadow. However, unfounded doubts about his character and work ethic plagued him, and his perceived adversarial stance toward the media didn't help. Regardless, Cousins' combination of size, strength, shooting touch, footwork, rebounding and passing ability--he's viewed as having Derrick Coleman-like qualities, in both a positive and negative sense--made his selection a no-brainer, something confirmed by a strong summer-league performance in Las Vegas, at which fellow youngsters Evans, Thompson and Landry were in attendance to provide encouragement and build camaraderie. It wouldn't be a shock to see the Alabama native contend for Rookie of the Year.

Whiteside, on the other hand, is considered much more of a project. Unlike Cousins, he didn't play in the spotlight in college (or even high school, for that matter) and although he put up gaudy stats during his freshman campaign, his maturity was questioned to the point that he went from being a potential late-lottery pick all the way to the second round. While he needs to add weight and adjust to the level of competition, his long-term potential as an athletic shot-blocking phenom with uncanny quickness and range on offense (he's been compared to a young Marcus Camby) is worth the gamble.

Sacramento's collection of young talent--the 29-year-old Dalembert is their oldest projected rotation player; Wright, Garcia and Udrih are the only other players who have played at least five seasons in the league--make it unlikely that they'll make the postseason in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. This is a team, however, that jumped out to a hot start last season--Bulls fans may remember their 35-point comeback win last December at the United Center--before being beset by injuries and the inconsistency of youth. But with a such a talented young core (hopefully any immaturity issues will be mitigated by being in sleepy Sacramento), Kings coach Paul Westphal's up-tempo approach and the example of the Durant-led Thunder as inspiration, the potential is there to be a spoiler--not just in the future, but right now.

In terms of disappointments, a handful of teams stick out as obvious candidates. In the wake of Amar'e Stoudemire's departure, Phoenix could struggle. Speaking of Stoudemire, the Knicks might not be as formidable as some think, even with players better suited for Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun style. Memphis, after a better-than-expected 2009-10 season, re-signed swingman Rudy Gay to a huge extension, but otherwise didn't make many significant offseason upgrades.

The Charlotte Bobcats, though, are a team on the verge of a true letdown. Following the franchise's first-ever postseason appearance, starting center Tyson Chandler was dealt to Dallas and starting point guard Raymond Felton signed with New York. Not exactly the recipe for success.

Forward Gerald Wallace, the face of the franchise, made his first All-Star appearance, but "Crash" isn't regarded as a true go-to guy. Stephen Jackson enjoyed a renaissance of sorts after being traded from Golden State early last season, but it's a well-known fact that Jackson doesn't necessarily deal with losing situations well. That pair, however, should be the least of Larry Brown's concerns.

Young backup point guard D.J. Augustin will have the first opportunity to replace Felton as the starter--unless rumors of New Jersey's Devin Harris being shipped to Charlotte as part of a proposed four-team deal for Carmelo Anthony, turn out to be substantiated; Augustin could be traded to the Nets in that scenario--while former Illinois prep star Shaun Livingston parlayed a solid comeback season in Washington into a free-agent deal in Charlotte. Erick Dampier, who came to Charlotte in return for Chandler, was recently waived by the Bobcats (Dampier is currently sifting between potential offers from Miami and Houston, among other teams), leaving Chicago native Nazr Mohammed as the likely starter at center, with free-agent acquisition Kwame Brown--in an ironic reunion with Bobcats owner and Bulls legend Michael Jordan, who selected Brown with the first overall pick for Washington back in 2001--as the primary backup. Boris Diaw--also rumored to be in the potential Anthony deal; the Frenchman would be shipped to Utah--has been somewhat underwhelming as Charlotte's starting power forward, where he shares time with former Bull Tyrus Thomas, the recipient of an extension this summer.

Even if Charlotte's starters are considered serviceable (the addition of Harris would certainly be an upgrade), the bench is full of question marks. Youngsters like Gerald Henderson, Derrick Brown and Chicago native Sherron Collins are basically unproven, while the likes of shooter Matt Carroll, forward Dominic McGuire, center DeSagana Diop and veteran Eduardo Najera don't strike fear into the hearts of the opposition.

Last year's Bobcats team was successful because of a focus on defense, sharing the ball and buying into Brown's coaching philosophy. But the NBA is a game where talent often prevails and Charlotte simply doesn't have enough of it. Not only will the Bobcats struggle to meet raised expectations, but it shouldn't surprise anyone if the mercurial Brown decides not to ride out the storm.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Wonky streaks, good fortune over Cavs on the line for Bulls

Wonky streaks, good fortune over Cavs on the line for Bulls

No matter the metric or the occasion, the only thing definitive about the Bulls over the last two seasons has been their mystifying dominance over the Cleveland Cavaliers in head-to-head matchups.

That, and their fascinating streak of consecutive wins while playing at home on TNT, a streak that could end at 19 games Thursday night when the two teams with varying objectives clash at the United Center.

The Cavaliers are searching to find themselves, along with a light switch that will perhaps alert them to a lost defense over the past several weeks that has been worst in the league since the All-Star break.

The Bulls are searching for consistency, but since it’s probably a little too late in the season for that, they’ll settle for a playoff spot with eight games left.

They’ll take two straight wins for the first time in a month, if they can get it.

They’ll extend a goofy streak, if that’s what things will come down to.

“The big thing is obviously you have to execute very well against this Cleveland team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You have to go out there with great urgency, great energy. I anticipate them coming in and playing with a ton of energy tomorrow. We’re going to have to match that. We’re going to have to come out and play physical basketball.”

Having a big break between games this late in the season is a rarity, as the Bulls have been off since Sunday evening, but it’s just another weird detail in this weird Bulls experience.

An experience that the mild-mannered Hoiberg has to experience from his couch some nights, such as watching the Miami Heat furiously steal a game in Detroit at the buzzer with a Hasaan Whiteside tip-in to extend a lead over his team to a game, followed by another win Wednesday to put more distance between the two teams.

“I did, actually,” said Hoiberg with a smirk when asked if he’s scoreboard watching and paying attention to the teams ahead of the Bulls in the playoff race.

After being prompted to give his raw emotions when Whiteside’s tip-in occurred, he slipped right back to Robo-Hoiberg—although one can imagine how animated he must’ve been while looking to catch a break from a previous contender for the eighth spot in the Pistons.

“It is what it is,” Hoiberg said. “You have to go out and worry about yourselves at this time of year. It was a great finish for Miami, obviously, the way that game ended. But there’s nothing you can do about that. You’ve got to worry about yourselves and hopefully go out and execute.”

Going 6-1 against the Cavaliers in his two seasons as Bulls coach is probably the biggest feather in his cap, including three wins in all three meetings this go round.

The rhyme or reason doesn’t seem explainable, but Nikola Mirotic seemed to give a few keys to the Bulls’ success over LeBron James’ Cavaliers: Sharing the ball, controlling the glass and getting back on defense.

“Against big teams, we play much better,” Mirotic said. “I don’t know why is the reason for that. We need to find a way to play against everybody like that. It’s on us. We just have to prove it.”

Usually, those tenets seem to work against most teams, not just the supremely talented champions who’ve just lost a grip on first place in the conference.

But their inconsistencies have left the Bulls here with a handful of games left before the April 12th finale.

A win over Cleveland could mean everything, or nothing at all, or something in between.

“Sure, we understand,” Mirotic said. “We’ve been in a very similar situation last year. We didn’t make the playoffs so this year we want to try to make that push. I think we have a good schedule for the last. Very important game tomorrow, huge one. I think we have played very well against Cleveland until now. We have a chance. We need to get out there and play with energy.”