As “The Cowboy” Roger Morrissette introduced last Friday, the NBA season is officially alive and kicking with some intriguing storylines already coming into form. Sure, many of these plots are fairly primitive and unfocused in the early stages of such a long and winding road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but fans have to go by some sort of sampling at the onset, whether it be full of red herrings or ominous signs of things to come. I have my own take on the goings on in the league since we last left you at Place To Be Nation, so let’s kick things off…
THE MIAMI HEAT ARE IN SLOW COOK MODE
It is well known historically that the third and final regular season in a three-peat has been the most contentious for those teams fortunate enough to reach that level of greatness. The Chicago Bulls lost home court advantage in ’93 to the New York Knicks and were 8-7 at one point in ’98. The L.A. Lakers did not even win their division in 2002, the Sacramento Kings did. Long story short, the Heat were bound to meet speed bumps aplenty as they put on their second straight championship rings. The road loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was considered by many a trap game, but even the fair-weathered Heat fans had to be slightly wary after a road no-show against the Brooklyn Nets and basically giving away a home game this past Saturday to a terrible Boston Celtics team.
They bounced back from those losses with efficient home wins against mediocre squads like the nameless Milwaukee Bucks and the seemingly hapless Washington Wizards. But the reason the Heat lost to the Celtics was because of key missed free throws by Dwyane Wade, who truly looks as if the long physical toll on his body is beginning to wear him down. Chris Bosh has played well, but you still have to wonder if Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, who have both struggled, need to bring their games up to offset so many great point guards in the league right now (What Michael Carter-Williams did to Chalmers two weeks ago was almost criminal). One way or another, Eric Spoelstra is methodically sitting his stars down (Bosh and Wade have both taken games off already this season) in anticipation of the long haul, but with the Indiana Pacers on such a strong start, you have to wonder if this “laissez faire” attitude to the start of the season will come back to bite them.
THE TANKFEST HAS BEEN PUT ON HOLD…
That sound you just heard was splat from the egg on every NBA expert’s face (including my own) after spelling doom and despair for the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, and Phoenix Suns this season. I already mentioned last week how shocking the Sixers’ win over the Heat was, but what looked like an outright fluke not only inspired Philadelphia to a 3-0 start, but also made them one of the NBA’s top stories. Under a “shoot and go” offense run by Brett Brown, Carter-Williams, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, and a reborn Spencer Hawes the 76ers have stolen the hearts of many NBA fans, putting on some great games with the Heat, Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Houston Rockets, the last two going into overtime over the past week. As they enter a three-game road trip, there sit the Sixers at first place in the Atlantic Division with 5 wins in a season where people thought that 15 wins was considered a stretch.
Move on straight south on your map, and we have an Orlando Magic team that had the worst record in the NBA last year along with not much of an identity to speak of. They were predicted by most to finish last in a division that had the Charlotte Bobcats in it. Think about that insult. But through 9 games, they sit at 4-5 after winning three games in a row (two of which were against the star-studded Clippers and Nets). Victor Oladipo is a prime candidate for Rookie of the Year so far (11 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.6 SPG), veteran guard Arron Afflalo has really come alive his second year in Orlando, and Nikola Vucevic is fourth in the league in rebounding. I tend to think that the Magic will run out of tricks sooner than the Sixers because of lack of scoring depth, but at least the fighting spirit is there, and that is more than anyone else expected at the Amway Center this year.
And then there are the Phoenix Suns. In my team preview, I called them an embarrassment and a dumpster fire, which they kinda were last season if you looked at the record and the stats. But along with the return of shooting big man Channing Frye came the arrival of Eric Bledsoe, a former backup point guard for the Clippers. Bledsoe has become the de facto leader (21 points, 4 rebounds, and 7 assists per game) of a team that has gotten off to a stunning 5-3 start. Add to that the steady play of another new arrival, Gerald Green, along with tremendous improvement from Miles Plumlee and Markieff Morris, and you have yourself the most surprising success story in the league right now. They do not excel in any category right now except for fast break attempts, but the numbers are solid across the board, and with the Lakers and Kings wallowing in the Pacific Division, there is upward mobility there.
The true question is obviously whether or not any of these three teams can hang on to this early and unlikely momentum. We have already noticed the lopsided losses for the Sixers to go with the fact that all of their wins have been excruciatingly close. Can luck stay on your side for that long? Even the Bobcats are 4-4 (after head coach Steve Clifford needed an emergency heart operation), so the Magic have competition of their own when it comes to getting out of the basement of their own division. One way or another, it has been a fresh take to see teams with nothing to lose lay it all out there in the early going. Greg Phillips of the Hard Traveling Fanboys has reminded me often of what Daredevil once said in one of his famed comic book stories: “A man without hope is a man without fear.” These teams might not make it to the end, but they certainly have no fear, and there is nothing wrong with that.
… UNLESS YOU LIVE IN UTAH
The moment I name-drop the great Greg Phillips, I had to stick the knife in his back with this diatribe about one of his favorite NBA teams, the Utah Jazz. Every NBA season needs a futile team for late night talk shows to pattern jokes around, and this year’s team is the Jazz, who just notched their first win on Wednesday night against my New Orleans Pelicans (The less said about THAT team, the better). Before that win, in which they were down 16 in the second half, they were 0-8 and had lost their last six games by at least 10 points. The last time they were this bad, they were still the New Orleans Jazz playing to sparse crowds in the Superdome.
Gordon Hayward is steadily improving and leads the team in scoring, but the loss of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson in the paint was simply unrecoverable. Derrick Favors has great rebounding numbers but nothing more, Enes Kanter has been inconsistent, and rookie Trey Burke has been sidelined with a broken finger. They are 19th in defense and dead last in the NBA in offense. You could smell the mediocrity in the air going into the season, but what looked like a classy rebuilding has already gone to the downward spiral. The only excuse to keep Ty Corbin around as the head coach is to allow the tankfest to continue as they look towards what seems like a bright future in the 2014 NBA Draft. If you need a perennial loser this year, you’ve got your team right here.
FALSE STARTS IN THE BIG APPLE
As I type this, I am watching the New York Knicks lose for the fourth time in a row at home against the Houston Rockets, which has happened more often than it did last season. It was not until December 8th that the Knicks lost their fifth game of the season last year on their way to an Atlantic Division title. They have already lost their fifth game of this season before Thanksgiving, and there are certain to be more before Turkey Day. Carmelo Anthony has had the heavy burden of carrying the team on his own (scoring 45 points in a loss to Houston), Andrea Bargnani has been very off and on, Tyson Chandler is out with a broken leg, and J.R. Smith has been a no-show since coming back from a suspension and an injury. Not all is lost at 3-5 for Mike Woodson, but given that all Coach of the Year winners get fired within two years, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this bad outing.
As bad as it has been at the Garden for the Knicks, hopped up Brooklyn Nets fans do not have too much more to celebrate: Their team is 2-5. While the Knicks have been more than vulnerable at home, the Nets have been just putrid on the road, punctuated by a 107-86 defeat at the hands of an awful Kings team. They are not good on either side of the ball, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett both look like Rip Van Winkle away from Barclays, and Deron Williams is struggling in his role as a distributor to his new pieces. There is no chance for this thing to get blown up and Jason Kidd get let go this season, but with such a steep luxury tax and a revitalized fan base to please, the Nets have to feel some of the pressure to stay ahead of the Knicks in New York, even if it just means reaching .500.
Some other teams that have been real letdowns outside of Manhattan and Brooklyn include the 2-5 Detroit Pistons, the 2-6 Wizards, the 3-6 Cavaliers, who were averaging 88 PPG through one week, the Denver Nuggets at an obscure 3-4, and the Pelicans at 3-6 to go along with THE SCARIEST THING I HAVE EVER FUCKING SEEN as their mascot.
REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO…
GOOD – I have to give this award to two different duos in the NBA, one we all know about and the other not so much. The first couple would be Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. When the season began, we all fully expected Westbrook to ease up with his knee operation and let Durant carry the team in the early going, which he sort of did. But when Westbrook unexpectedly returned for a home game against the Suns, it shocked the basketball world and worried many about his mad dash to getting back on the court and risking another injury. Scotty Brooks ain’t complainin’, though, as the Thunder have fallen right back into beast mode with Westbrook back, winning four in a row before Wednesday night’s entertaining road loss to the Clippers.
For the other less-heralded duo, I have to go with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves. All you have to do is look at Love’s stat page to realize how good he has been for such a snake-bitten franchise. When Rubio came to the league in 2012, he dazzled early on with his flashy passing and apt court vision. But then Rubio tore his knee, and Love suffered a broken hand twice to quickly turn 2012-13 into a lost season for the Timberwolves and their G.M. David Kahn, who was fired in the offseason. With Rick Adelman still on as the head coach, though, Rubio and Love are finally getting full-time duty on the court together with the Wolves, and the results have been terrific so far. Rubio is third in assists along with leading the league in steals while Love only trails Dwight Howard in rebounding and only trails Durant in scoring! These two have triggered a 6-3 record in what is looking like a loaded Northwest Division (Don’t forget about the 6-2 Portland Trail Blazers).
BAD – There are a few out there, like Amare Stoudemire and the Knicks in general or a washed up Chauncey Billups with the Pistons. But I will give this one to Mike Brown and Andrew Bynum in Cleveland. Although they had contentious moments, Brown was the first coach to utilize Bynum as a true center and dominant inside force during his coaching stint with the Lakers. It provided Bynum his best season and enticed the Sixers enough to trade Andre Iguodala to get him. That obviously did not end well. So it was strange to see a slow, out-of-sorts Bynum lumber onto the court and get booed mercilessly in Philadelphia over the weekend as a Cleveland Cavalier, garnering 6 points and 5 rebounds. Bynum has already been quoted as saying that he is a shell of his old self. Brown is still trying to build the team around Kyrie Irving, but a return to form by Bynum would have been a great coup for the Cavs. Unfortunately, it looks like that is not going to happen.
AWKWARD – That would be Derrick Rose and the Bulls, who sit at 3-3 with Rose’s comeback yielding forgettable numbers and a lack of fire. Carlos Boozer is playing well, but Rose is still trying to figure out not only the balance of the team, but also getting back into the groove of alpha dog status for himself. He’s had spurts in the early going, but Rose is a couple of months away from full confidence. A dark horse would be Danny Granger, who is close to returning to play for the undefeated Pacers. But someone might need to ask Granger, whose contract expires this year, if Frank Vogel has room for him in the rotation right now. Paul George and Lance Stephenson are doing just fine in the starting lineup, wouldn’t you say?
PUTTING THE “O” IN “CALIFORNIA”
It was all the rage in La-La Land that Doc Rivers was coming from the defensively inclined environment of Boston to put a stop to Lob City and the free-wheeling ways of the Los Angeles Clippers. The answer to that prediction looks like a big old “LOL” right now. Rivers has not hidden the fact that he wants his team to run and score quickly, and why wouldn’t you when you have Chris Paul, two incredible athletes in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and a ton of shooters like J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley? So far, all systems go for Lob City, as the Clippers lead the league with 110 PPG and are second in three-point attempts per game (The Rockets are first). Paul has looked like an MVP candidate to go with some wild home wins against the Warriors, Rockets, Timberwolves, and Thunder.
But the Warriors out in Oakland are not afraid of injecting their own vibrant style and small ballin’ ways onto a national stage. With the freshly minted Splash Brothers (Steph Curry and Klay Thompson) draining three’s, Andre Iguodala as an over sized distributor, and David Lee’s efficient inside game, the Warriors have come out and played at a breakneck pace, too, averaging 107 PPG and leading the league in three-pointers made per game. Even the Kobe-less Lakers under Mike D’Antoni are still getting into the scoring act in Cali with a top ranked three-point offense and a very productive bench. For the sake of making my point, let’s pretend the low-scoring Kings don’t matter here. But you have to wonder how sustainable such a fun style can be when the big team come calling. The Warriors have 3 losses, one of which was an ugly 76-74 loss at San Antonio without Curry. The Clippers also have 3 losses and have only won one road game. Last Thursday’s road loss at Miami was a perfect example of the Clip Show not being ready for prime time yet. But when it comes to the late night hours when things can go crazy, let the scoring continue out West.
#1- Paul George– Somebody call Scott Bakula, because I smell a Quantum Leap! His team is the only unbeaten one in the league and he is the leading scorer, second in rebounding, second in assists, and first in steals. He is also averaging 2.6 made three’s per game. That is LeBron-esque. Who better to supplant the best small forward in the game in the MVP race right now than the next best small forward?
#2- Kevin Love– The go-to guy offensively and on defense for a Timberwolves team tasting success for the first time since Kevin Garnett was winning an MVP trophy in Minnesota back in 2004. Also averaging 5.1 assists to go with the gaudy scoring and rebounding stats. He is pretty much the most complete center in the league right now.
#3- LeBron James– He’ll probably be #1 by April, but even when he is just taking it easy, he still kills it on the box score. Third in the league in scoring, shooting 50 % from three, and rarely gets a rest in the process. You could see him click on the machine against the Bucks when he got 33 points in three quarters.
#4- Anthony Davis– Might be a homer pick, but just look at his numbers! His efficiency rate is record-setting based on sabermetrics, averaging 21 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals! Even LeBron never did double-digit averages in rebounding. Too bad the Pelicans are seemingly on the ropes right now. He will be playing in the All Star Game in New Orleans in February.
#5- Damian Lillard– It is crazy to call a second-year player “Old Reliable”, but that is what Lillard already feels like in Portland, a guy whom you can rely on to make open three’s, run a good offense, and toughen up in the fourth quarter when the game needs to be won. His scoring average is up there, he is a solid assist man, and he has improved his rebounding and defense. The Blazers are winning right now thanks to Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and there has been no sophomore slump for the Rookie of the Year out of Weber State. Lillard is here to stay.
GAMES TO WATCH
Friday – Mavericks at Heat– Not only are the Heat marked men this year no matter who they play, but the Mavericks have gotten off to a 5-3 thanks to their new backcourt of Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis. Also an NBA Finals rematch from 2011.
Saturday – Pacers at Bulls– The Heat had their phenomenal 27-game winning streak snapped at the United Center by the scrappy Bulls. How sweet would it be for Derrick Rose to put a stamp on his re-entrance into the league with a win over a divisional rival and to take Indiana out of the unbeaten ranks? Also a revenge game after Indiana beat Chicago last Friday on ESPN.
Saturday – Nets at Clippers– Brooklyn needs to shake off the road woes somehow, and playing the Clippers at Staples would be a great way to get it going. This will also be the first time in a long while that Doc Rivers will be coaching against his former Celtics All-Stars, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Monday – Sixers at Mavericks– The Sixers are 6th in the league in scoring. The Mavericks are 5th. Let the fun begin. The Mavericks are also unbeaten at home, so let’s see if Philly can end that.
Tuesday – Timberwolves at Wizards– Another potential shoot out. I think the Wizards know that they need to get going soon before things get drastic, and along with Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wiz have been one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league. Kevin Love and the Timberwolves excel in that category, too.
Wednesday – Grizzlies at Warriors– Very much a game of the oil and water variety right here. Golden State loves to move the ball up and find quick shots while the Grizzlies, despite being middle of the pack in defense, still like to slow you down. Memphis embarrassed the Warriors last week with a 14-point win in the Grindhouse.
Thursday – Clippers at Thunder– They just played on Wednesday, and you saw the sparks fly. These teams do not like each other at all. Let’s see if we get Ibaka vs. Blake, Round Three in OKC. Westbrook also thrives on great point guard competition, and it doesn’t get any better than CP3.