Number One Stunner

During a typical professional basketball season, there are usually a couple of "unfamiliar" characteristics. Teams that would normally be powers go through the dreaded rebuilding phase. Squads thought to be also-rans have emerged as contenders, if not for conference titles, then at least for the ones in their own divisions. Some players rise to the level of stardom, while other known commodities see a valley in their production.

We're past the midpoint of the 2013-2014 campaign, and this campaign appears to be no different. But who are the standouts? Which entities have made a name for themselves, for the good and the bad?

A Whole Lot of Positivity

When it came to the Western Conference, the Trailblazers were the talk of the league around Thanksgiving. Highlighted by wins over San Antonio and at Golden State, Portland bolted their way to a 13-2 record in late November, and later, a 24-5 mark on the other side of Christmas Day. We knew last season that their first five was formidable. But now, the Blazers have found a growing bench to support LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and the other starters.

In an Atlantic Division where the Boston Celtics are nowhere to be found (and weren't expected to be), the stage was set for a Borough Battle. However, heading into February, the New York state of mind was far from ready to hold the torch for the division. Into the void stepped the Toronto Raptors. They've surged into the division lead, and, surprisingly, they've done it by subtraction. Since trading Rudy Gay and other pieces to Sacramento on December 9th, the Raptors are 19-10 and now lead the division by four games. I'm not sure if this can last the rest of the season, but winning basketball might just have returned to Canada.

However, my choice for the surprise team has "scorched" any memory of the stink they were swallowed in ten months ago. On April 17th, 2013, the Phoenix Suns wrapped up the second-worst season in franchise history (only "surpassed" by their inaugural season of 1968-1969). Coach Alvin Gentry had long been fired. Most reminders of their recent glory years were gone (Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, Grant Hill, etc). In other words, the bright shimmer had set, at least for the time being.

But one understated fact about this organization ... they don't stay down for long. In 45 previous seasons of basketball, there have only been two short stretches where they completed consecutive below-average seasons (three seasons from 1972-1975 and four seasons from 1984-1988). The last time they won less than 30 games in a campaign, they backed it up with 62 wins, a division crown, and a Conference Finals appearance (2004-2005).

So, when former Suns guard Jeff Hornacek became the new head coach, we should have seen this coming. The acquisition of Eric Bledsoe, the return of Leandro Barbosa, and the chemistry of the Morris twins has helped. But the key has been the continued emergence of point guard Goran Dragic (20.0 ppg, 6.1 apg), who might still find his way into the All-Star Game as a replacement. Oh yeah, and the team has already surpassed their win total (29) from all of last season (25).

A Little Bit of Negativity

On the disappointing side, I could have gone with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Living in their backyard, and working in a position where I can have fairly good access to their games, they haven't provided much hope of a playoff push. But I'll defer to fellow Sports Central columnist Ross Lancaster, who provided a darn accurate perspective on the Wolves' season.

For the Brooklyn, things started much more down than up. With injuries to Deron Williams and Brook Lopez (who's out for the rest of the season), the Nets struggled mightily as they went 10-21 in 2013. Since the calendar year has turned, though, this squad has played much better. An 11-4 record in 2014 is an indication that the disappointment might be short-lived.

My focus for the greatest letdown comes from across the East River. The New York Knicks had been building momentum. Even through the mess with former coach Mike D'Antoni, the Knicks had better winning percentages each of the last three seasons. But the defending Atlantic Division champs aren't clicking at all this season. There have been highlights. They had winning streaks of five and four in January. Carmelo Anthony had a 62-point game, the most ever scored by a Knick and at Madison Square Garden. However, an early nine-game losing streak has put them in a bind they haven't been able to escape.

Most Pleasant On-Court Surprises

There are only so many stories and variables that can occur for one of 30 teams, but when it comes to the players of the league, those variables multiply exponentially. It's difficult to pinpoint when an athlete's performance drops off due to age, injury, system, or something else. So, I'm going to refrain from pointing out any player most may be disappointed in this year. I will, though, try to highlight three players on the uptick.

Isaiah Thomas — This isn't a flashback to 1987. The Sacramento Kings point guard is settling in quite well in his third year in the NBA. Despite his team being tied for the worst record in the conference, Thomas is averaging 20.0 points and 6.2 assists per game.

Nikola Pekovic — Kevin Love is the face of the Timberwolves, followed closely behind by Ricky Rubio. But for those post-play purists, Pekovic has quietly become one of the most reliable centers in the league. Consistent improvement has turned him into an 18 (points) & 9 (boards) guy in his fourth NBA season.

Lance Stephenson — This has been a breakout campaign for the Pacers' swingman. He finally earned a starting role on last season's team. The improvement began and has only ballooned in his fourth year. His stats are up significantly in all top statistical categories. His leaps of more than 5 points (8.8 to 14.2), 3 rebounds (3.9 to 7.3), and 2 assists (2.9 to 5.3) per game has made him the most famous of the annual all-star snubs ... and most likely to get to New Orleans as an injury replacement.

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