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NBA PM: 5 Biggest Surprises of 2013-14 Season

A look at the five teams that were the biggest surprises of the 2013-14 season … The Indiana Pacers decide to rest all of their starters

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5 Biggest Surprises of 2013-14 Season

Only one week is remaining in the 2013-14 NBA regular season. With the campaign wrapping up, here’s a look at five teams that exceeded expectations and surprised everyone with their play throughout the course of the season. Later this week, we’ll take a look at the biggest disappointments of the season, but today we focus on the positive surprises:

Phoenix Suns

What We Thought Would Happen: Entering the season, the Suns were projected to be one of the worst teams in the NBA. Ryan McDonough took over as the team’s general manager and immediately started making moves to build for the future. Phoenix acquired young talent and stockpiled draft picks, but traded away veterans like Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Caron Butler. The Suns also brought in a first-time head coach in Jeff Hornacek, who admitted over the offseason that he wasn’t sure what to expect as he took over the team. Expectations were understandably low and some people even lumped the Suns with the Philadelphia 76ers as teams that were blatantly tanking.

What Actually Happened: However, the Suns shocked everyone this season. The team that was projected to win a handful of games and finish at the bottom of the standings is currently 46-31, which puts them in the eighth seed in the competitive Western Conference. Hornacek is the favorite to win this season’s Coach of the Year award and Goran Dragic is in the mix for the Most Improved Player award. Throughout the season, everyone kept waiting for the Suns to come back down to earth, but it never happened, even when the team lost Eric Bledsoe for a significant stretch. Even some diehard fans would have trouble recognizing some of Phoenix’s key contributors, including starters P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee, but Hornacek has this team playing extremely hard and thriving in his up-tempo system. McDonough has set this team up for the future (they’ll have three first-round picks in the 2014 NBA Draft) while remaining competitive in the present. Even the biggest Suns fan couldn’t have imagined the 2013-14 season going this well.

Portland Trail Blazers

What We Thought Would Happen: It seemed like the Blazers’ rebuild was going to take a few years before the team could return to playoffs. After all, the team was stripped of most of its veterans prior to last season and the Blazers won just 33 games in 2012-13, finishing the campaign on a 13-game losing streak. LaMarcus Aldridge, who didn’t want to wait several years for Portland to return to relevance, reportedly demanded a trade. This made national headlines and had the rumor mill churning. Blazers general manager Neil Olshey brought in a number of veteran role players last offseason such as Mo Williams, Robin Lopez and Dorell Wright, but it seemed like Portland’s ceiling was still fringe playoff team. The Blazers would likely be competing for one of the final playoff spots in the West, but whether they’d make it in such a competitive conference was up in the air.

What Actually Happened: The Blazers didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to have a few down years before returning to the postseason. Portland burst out of the gate this season, winning 31 of their first 40 games. At one point, they were the number one seed in the Western Conference. A big reason for the Blazers’ quick turnaround has been Damian Lillard, who followed up his impressive Rookie of the Year campaign with an All-Star sophomore season. Lillard gives Portland a second star and elevates the play of his teammates. He has also calmed down Aldridge, who is now talking about staying in Portland long-term. Olshey’s offseason moves paid off, as Lopez has given the team the tough, defensive-minded center they needed and Williams has thrived as the squad’s sixth man. Injuries and a tough stretch knocked Portland down to the fifth seed, but it’s still extremely impressive what this team has done. Terry Stotts has led the team to 50 wins and a relatively high seed in the playoffs, which nobody predicted entering the year.

Charlotte Bobcats

What We Thought Would Happen: The Bobcats won a combined 28 games over the last two seasons, and significant improvement wasn’t expected this year. After all, many of the same players returned and the team’s only key moves had been signing Al Jefferson and hiring head coach Steve Clifford. If anything, Jefferson was expected to provide marginal improvement, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing since it would hurt Charlotte’s odds of landing a top pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. The Bobcats were expected to be bad enough that they’d miss the playoffs but just good enough that they’d miss out on a top pick. They would be a middle-of-the-pack team, which is the worst place to be in the NBA because it’s very hard to make improvement once stuck there. In recent years, the Bobcats were awfully predictable: lose a lot of games, fire the head coach and make a questionable draft pick. Fans and analysts had no reason to believe this year would be any different.

What Actually Happened: Clifford was a miracle worker, Jefferson was the veteran star the team desperately needed and the duo changed the culture. Clifford focused on improving the team’s defense, which had ranked last in the league in nearly every statistical category last season, and now Charlotte has the sixth-best defense in the NBA (allowing just 101.4 points per 100 possessions). Clifford made sure that his players were much more prepared than in the past. He also simplified concepts and shifted the team’s priorities, with previously ignored things like transition defense now a main focus. Jefferson has been a monster, averaging 21.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and a block while shooting 50.5 percent from the field. His efficiency rating (22.6) ranks 12th in the NBA. He also emerged as the team’s veteran leader, which they hadn’t had in recent years. An argument can be made that Jefferson belongs in the discussion for All-NBA and MVP. Kemba Walker has also made huge strides and role players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts, Gerald Henderson and Chris Douglas-Roberts have been key contributors as well. The Bobcats are 39-38 and currently sit in the seventh seed in the East. They clinched a playoff spot for just the second time in franchise history and seem headed in the right direction.

Toronto Raptors

What We Thought Would Happen: The Raptors were 7-12 when they traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in a seven-player deal that brought Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes and Toronto. There was talk that the Raptors were going to tank, trading away other veterans such as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan while zeroing in on Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins or other top 2014 prospects. Masai Ujiri had just taken over as the team’s general manager last offseason and it was clear that he wanted to put his own fingerprints on the franchise. Toronto was at a crossroads and how they played was likely going to determine which direction the team moved next. While it was possible that the team could climb the standings and make a playoff push, in December the safer bet was that the Raptors would continue to struggle and trade away their other key contributors.

What Actually Happened: The team thrived after moving Gay and they are currently the third-best team in the East after the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers. Toronto is 45-32 and clinched a playoff spot for the first time since the 2007-08 season. Lowry and DeRozan stepped up in Gay’s absence, having career-years. Lowry has averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals while DeRozan has averaged 22.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.1 steals en route to his first All-Star appearance. Adding Vasquez, Patterson and Salmons significantly improved Toronto’s bench, giving them depth that they lacked earlier in the season as well as some more veterans in the locker room. The continued development of Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas has also helped, as has the incredibly efficient play of Amir Johnson. Once the Raptors started winning and it became clear that the team could end their postseason drought, Ujiri and the front office really had no choice but to keep the squad together. Now, Toronto enters the postseason with a legitimate chance to make some noise.

Chicago Bulls

What We Thought Would Happen: The Bulls aren’t like the other teams on this list since they entered the 2013-14 season expecting to be a contender. However, that changed when Derrick Rose went down with a torn meniscus and Luol Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for salary cap relief. Suddenly, the Bulls were missing two of their most important players and anything could’ve happened. They could have slid down the standings, and some people within the organization thought that would be actually be the best thing for the team since it would’ve allowed them to get a better pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Yes, they still had Joakim Noah and one of the best coaches in the league in Tom Thibodeau, but it would be hard for Chicago to remain one of the top teams in the East.

What Actually Happened: We shouldn’t have doubted Chicago. Thibodeau rallied his troops and kept the team playing at a high level, especially on the defensive end. Noah took his game to the next level. He has been dominant on defense, unstoppable down low and a surprisingly good facilitator now that the ball is in his hands more often. Since the All-Star break, Noah has averaged 13.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.5 steals. Taj Gibson has also been playing excellent basketball, emerging as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Despite losing Rose and Deng, the Bulls are 45-32, which puts them in the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Yes, the East’s struggles helped them remain one of the top teams in the conference, but the team still deserves credit for being able to overcome adversity and continue to win games.

Later this week, check back for a look at the five biggest disappointments of the 2013-14 season.

Pacers to Rest All Five Starters

Rather than trying to play through their recent slump and get on the right track heading into the postseason, the Indiana Pacers are taking a different approach. The team will try to get their starters some rest entering the playoffs, starting tonight against the Milwaukee Bucks when all five of their starters will be held out of the game.

George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert won’t play against the Bucks, with Donald Sloan, Evan Turner, Rasual Butler, Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi starting in their place.

“The starters are not going to play tonight, all five of them,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said. “We’re going to rest them and try to heal up some various bumps and bruises involved with all five guys. We’re not playing well as a basketball team right now and the starters aren’t playing well. Our bench is not playing well. We want to try to get the starters on track by getting their legs back under them and getting them healed up.”

The Pacers have lost eight of their last 11 games, and it seemed the team was starting to implode. Hibbert called his teammates selfish and was benched in the second half of a recent blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Hill and Stephenson had to separated after a confrontation on the bench during an embarrassing loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

Indiana’s decision to rest their starters is somewhat surprising considering they are still fighting for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, trailing the Miami HEAT by just a half game with a showdown against the HEAT on Friday. However, Vogel said that getting his key players rest was more important than continuing the fight for the top seed.

“Look, we spent all year with one goat, (but at) some point you’ve got to shift your focus when things aren’t going your way,” Vogel said. “You (can’t) pay attention to what everybody else is doing. Fixing your team (is) the only thing that’s on our minds right now. We’ll do this tonight. The plan for the starters was two days off (Monday and Tuesday), shooting and conditioning today. They’ll practice tomorrow and they’ll all play in Miami. We may rest some bench guys against Miami. The thought process behind all five guys is, if you sit one or two guys per game then nobody ever finds a rhythm. Finding a rhythm is just as important as getting our guys rest, (that’s) part of the solution. So they’ll rest this game and they’ll all play together and look to find the rhythm Friday night.”

“It’s a great decision, great decision for both our second unit as well as our starters to rest … [and] for our bench guys to get some rhythm as well,” George told Pacers.com. “It’s great for us moving forward. … We all went through a rough stretch of the season. I think it’s common for guys to be fatigued, a little tired at this point, but I think this is a great call from coach.”

“It’s really important,” West told Pacers.com. “Obviously we’ve been fairly healthy most of the year, which has been key for us. From that standpoint, I think for us it’s just about playing better basketball. We hadn’t put together solid enough games before this point to be the all out one-seed.”

“I haven’t been playing that well,” Hibbert told Pacers.com. “We’re trying to get right. So hopefully getting some rest will help us get back on track to finish the season strong and start off the playoffs right. … Getting our health right, resting our minds and our bodies is probably the best thing,. We had a lot of games last month so fatigue might have been a problem. We’re just going to get our mind’s ready for the playoffs. A couple days off will probably be good for us.”

The Pacers have four games remaining, facing the Bucks, HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic.

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Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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