And now for the bad news
Yesterday I introduced my top 15 surprises of the 2008-09 season, but today it's time to go in the other direction. Just as several teams and players have impressed me by achieving beyond my expectations in the season's opening weeks, so too have the following players and teams disappointed me by performing at a level far below what I'd anticipated.
Ranked in order from the most to least disappointing, here are my biggest letdowns of the early season:
1. The Clippers, and pretty much anyone associated with them
Sure, I thought the Clippers might struggle, but I had no idea the stench would be this pervasive. L.A.'s second-best team has lost eight times in its own building, and it's not even Thanksgiving yet; most of the games weren't even close. So what, pray tell, will become of the Clippers when they go on the road?
I'm struggling to come up with a single positive. Baron Davis is firing up long J's indiscriminately and clashing with the coach, Tim Thomas has accomplished the shocking feat of taking his effort level down another gear, and Ricky Davis looks like he spent his offseason training to learn skills like "how to get slower" and "ways to take bad shots" -- he's shooting 29.9 percent and has the worst PER among small forwards.
Actually, a neat summation of how the Clips' year has gone is that after Elton Brand left, they used most of the cap space to sign one of the league's top rebounders in Marcus Camby and they currently rank 28th in rebound rate.
It's such a bad scene that Jason Williams decided even before the season started that taking a million dollars to play with them wasn't worth the trouble.
2. The $70 million gang
Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala and Emeka Okafor all got some serious cash as restricted free agents this summer. Each is a high-character guy with a good rep around the league, each is in his early 20s and each has done exactly squat to justify his new contract so far. The weird part is that their teams seem to be going out of their way to ignore them offensively.
The most glaring example is Okafor, who is attempting only 6.6 field goals per game and averaging a modest 9.0 points per contest. This isn't because Charlotte has any more weapons than it had a season ago; in fact it's tough to ascertain why, exactly, he's getting the rock so rarely. On the other hand, he's turning the ball over on 19.3 percent of the possessions he uses, an unacceptable rate for any big man -- let alone one earning such big ducats.
Deng has also found himself marginalized in a Chicago system that spreads the floor to allow rookie guard Derrick Rose to create. This has taken away a lot of the midpost and pull-up jumper moves that were Deng's bread and butter under Scott Skiles, and as a result he's struggling at 39.3 percent from the floor and averaging only 16.7 points per 40 minutes -- down from last season's 20.1. A recent groin strain hasn't helped matters.
Meanwhile, Iguodala has adjusted to life as the second banana while much of the offense flows through new free-agent pickup Elton Brand. He's shooting only 38.1 percent while his turnover ratio has shot up; more mysteriously, he's lost nearly a steal a game from last season. The high-flying wingman hasn't seen nearly as many chances around the rim, hurting both his percentages and his per-game totals.
In every case, it's time for them to step up with some adjustments to their new system. While their clubs probably could be doing more to help them get untracked, ultimately it falls on the player to justify this kind of compensation. Thus far, none of the three have done so.
3. J.R. Smith, Nuggets
Here I am, alone and freezing on the J.R. Smith bandwagon, sitting on the shoulder of a barren highway with two broken axles while I desperately call AAA. I had high hopes for Smith this year based on his stratospheric finish to the 2007-08 campaign, but he's going to need another torrid second half just to offset his horrific start.
Smith is shooting 37.9 percent from the floor, which is bad enough, but it's his wayward 3-point stroke that's the real worry. He's made only 29.2 percent from downtown after hitting 40.3 percent last season; and he's taking fewer shots, too. All told, he's lost a staggering 9.2 points per 40 minutes, and his 10.49 PER makes him barely passable as a rotation player. Presumably, he'll snap out of it at some point and start knocking down shots; in the meantime, I'll just be huddling by the roadside trying to rub some sticks together for a fire.
4. Lou Williams, Sixers
One of the underrated reasons the Sixers have been a mild disappointment thus far is that Williams has yet to provide the instant offense off the bench that he delivered so consistently a season ago. The combo guard is only 6-for-23 on 3-pointers and is shooting 35.6 percent overall; he's also seen his turnovers spike.
Part of the problem might be that he's simply trying to do too much. Williams' 29.0 usage rate is absolutely massive, especially for a player on a team with other quality offensive options, and in contrast his 12.2 assist ratio is barely half of last season's mark. It might help him to calm down a little, share the ball and focus on quality rather than quantity. It's tough for a 22-year-old to make that adjustment, but if he doesn't we might see a very different adjustment -- the Sixers cutting his minutes.
5. Andray Blatche, Wizards
Blatche looks just like the guy who was such a productive force off Washington's bench last season except 20 pounds heavier and about an hour slower. With Blatche not in playing shape, the quickness advantage he used to have on opposing big men has disappeared, and with it his best shot at being a productive NBA player. Blatche's turnovers have ballooned almost as much as his weight, and his 7.11 PER is less than half his mark from last season.
His timing couldn't have been worse, either. With starting center Brendan Haywood expected to miss most or all of the season, Blatche had a great opportunity to claim a starting role and help the Wizards' playoff push. Instead, the 22-year-old forward has taken a major step backward, and so has his team.
6. Kevin Garnett, Celtics
Garnett remains just as important to Boston as he was last season in terms of his locker-room leadership, intensity and defensive mettle. That said, his production has been rather un-KG-like thus far.
He's become almost solely a jump shooter, with just 30 free-throw attempts in 12 games, and at 48.6 percent he's been a not-terribly-accurate one by his lofty standards -- most notably when he threw up an air ball from six feet in the first quarter against Detroit on Thursday night.
Most players would be ecstatic to have Garnett's 18.74 PER, but it's nearly a seven-point drop from his standard of a season ago; in fact, he hasn't plumbed these depths since he was a 20-year-old second-year pro in 1996-97.
7. Mike Conley, Grizzlies
After injuries limited his rookie impact, the fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft was supposed to establish himself as the Memphis general for the next decade. Instead, he's established that maybe the Griz shouldn't be so quick to trade Javaris Crittenton or Kyle Lowry.
Conley's at 33.8 percent from the floor and has made only one 3-ponter in 15 tries, but more perplexing has been an inability to penetrate and dish effectively. Conley's ho-hum rate of 6.5 assists per 40 minutes makes one wonder what has become of the freakish athleticism that got him drafted so highly in the first place. For whatever reason, the burst of quickness that tormented opposing point guards in college seems much less menacing at this level, and with his lack of size or shooting ability there's little upon which he can fall back.
8. Ron Artest, Rockets
When Houston acquired Artest, the concern was about whether he'd keep his head on straight and be happy with a role as a third scorer. The possibility nobody considered was that he'd behave perfectly fine and just not play well, but to date that's exactly what's happened.
While Tracy McGrady's injuries hog the spotlight, T-Mac has actually been reasonably effective thus far; it's Artest who has struggled. He's shooting 34.3 percent from the floor, and doing it on fewer shots -- all told he's averaging 7.0 points less per 40 minutes than he did with the Kings last season. His free-throw attempts are down, too, and his PER is off nearly seven points from his 2007-08 mark.
About the lone positive is that most of the trouble has been on two-point shots -- Artest is hitting 36.8 percent on 3s, and his other numbers are fairly stable compared to last season. Since two-point percentage tends to be highly variable in the short term, there's a chance for recovery here.
9. New Orleans' defense
The Hornets ranked seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season, and given that they were a young, tenacious team that added defensive ace James Posey in the offseason, most expected that ranking to improve this campaign. Thus far it hasn't turned out that way -- not anywhere close, in fact. The most glaring example came when Sacramento's backups lit up the Hornets in an embarrassing home loss Wednesday, but New Orleans hasn't defended with its usual zeal all season.
New Orleans' slow pace -- only San Antonio has played slower this year -- has partly disguised this story, keeping its opponent per-game numbers reasonable. But New Orleans permits 45.8 percent shooting from the floor and 38.4 percent on 3-pointers. Overall, the Hornets rank 21st in defensive efficiency, and though that number may improve a bit after tonight's scrimmage against Oklahoma City, it's still a far cry from what was expected.
The baffling part is that this is the same cast of characters that defended so well last season -- the starting five is unchanged, and the only rotation switches are that Posey and Mike James have replaced Bonzi Wells and Jannero Pargo. Yet somehow, the unit has become much more vulnerable on D.
10. Chicago's frontcourt
Taken with lottery picks in consecutive drafts, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah should be the Bulls' frontcourt of the future. They still might be, but the present is another matter.
Thomas' problem is a simple one -- his shots don't go in. He's hitting 29.0 percent, and his 38.1 true shooting percentage isn't much better. He's also turning the ball over too often, a side consequence of being forced to drive to the basket because his jumper can't find the net. While he has defended and rebounded reasonably well, the upshot has been a 9.47 PER -- not exactly what you'd expect from the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft.
But at least Thomas is playing. Noah has been nailed to the bench, dropping behind 2007 second-rounder Aaron Gray in the rotation. And in his few opportunities he has fouled so often that he has rarely stayed on the floor for long. He's rebounding at a high rate and his PER isn't terrible, but he has made far too many defensive mistakes and is averaging a foul every 5.5 minutes. He averaged a foul every 8.9 minutes last season, so one hopes this is just an early-season fluke, but subjectively he has really looked out of it in the Bulls' games I've seen.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.