THE PACERS ARE HUMAN AFTER ALL
It is never a bad thing to be the last remaining undefeated team in the NBA, and that is the exact position the Indiana Pacers found themselves in this month. Some might say that they had an easy stretch to begin the regular season, but they still amassed impressive wins over the Bulls, Pistons, and Grizzlies to get off to a 9-0 start. Their scoring defense is 1st in the league, the bench has improved, and Paul George is putting up MVP caliber numbers so far. But on Saturday night at the United Center, more than a week after they dispatched the Bulls in Indiana, it was Chicago’s turn at the dispatching.
Derrick Rose had one of his best performances so far upon his return to action (20 points, 6 made three-pointers, no turnovers) while George went 3 for 14. The Bulls beat the Pacers 110-94 before getting a four day layoff and getting an overtime win in the Garden over the Knicks. You worry sometimes about peaking too early when it comes to teams that get their first “L” last. The Utah Jazz went unbeaten for quite a while in the 2006-07 season and they did not even get home court advantage in the first round. The New Orleans Hornets were the last undefeated team in the 2010-11 season and they wound up barely making the playoffs as a 7 seed.
It is good to overachieve at any point in the regular season, especially when the Miami Heat seems to be easing their way into the early months of the season. But at 10-1, with ESPN and the overhype machine already interviewing the Pacers team and examining their every move in the month of November, Indiana might want to be careful and make sure that the magnifying glass on this really good team doesn’t suddenly start burning them alive.
If there is one fact or job that gets very easily overlooked by writers and fans alike when it comes to building great teams, it is that of the assistant coach. You are firmly buried in the bench sandwiched between other coaches, players who never play, or trainers. But you had to appreciate the work put in by the coaching staff of the Dallas Mavericks back in 2011 when they won the NBA Title. The Mavericks had a very good roster, but that was an older team that needed a lot of preparation and fine tuning to eventually win the championship the way they did. Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki deserve a lot of the credit for that, but there were two key assistants on that team that went unnoticed by some: Dwayne Casey and Terry Stotts.
Like Casey, who had coached the Timberwolves for two seasons, Stotts had also been a head coach on two different occasions before joining Dallas. His first stint was the unfortunate task of coaching the god awful Atlanta Hawks in ’03 and ’04, he then took a gig with the forgettable Milwaukee Bucks in ’06 and ’07. In those two stops, Stotts never had a winning record. That is why it did not seem like a surprise to many when the Portland Trail Blazers went 33-49 in Stotts’ first season as the head coach. Casey, meanwhile, has been having struggles of his own as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors. Moving to the big coach’s chair can be tough for plenty of smart coaches, but for Stotts, it looks like the third try might be the charm.
The Blazers, thanks to efficient three-point shooting and a terrific sophomore year from point guard Damian Lillard, have gotten off to a 10-2 start and an 8-game winning streak, their longest in six years. Their scoring offense and defense both sit in the top ten in the league. Their schedule has been even softer during that streak than the Pacers’ has been (Since 11/8, the Blazers have yet to play a team with a winning record). But remember that the only loss of the San Antonio Spurs, those old stallions off to a franchise-best start of their own, was a 115-105 defeat in Portland. I do not want to claim that Stotts will win the Coach of the Year award yet, but when it comes to redemption and making the most out of an opportunity, the Blazers head coach has done just that so far.
THE LEAST-ERN CONFERENCE
After talking about the recent head coaching success of Terry Stotts in Portland, let us discuss the team coached by his former assistant who won a ring in Dallas, Dwayne Casey’s Toronto Raptors. The Raptors have gotten off to another ho-hum 5-7 start to a season that has provided just a few highlights. But what if I told you that the Raptors at 5-7 stand alone right now at first place in the Atlantic Division? That is exactly the case as the Philadelphia 76ers are slowly coming back to earth with their depleted roster, the Nets and Knicks have looked like disasters in the opening weeks, and the Celtics are clearly rebuilding.
But that only tells one-third of the tale in what is looking like a terribly weak Eastern Conference. Sure, you have your Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers to possibly win it all for the conference, but it is not looking good if those Raptors at 5-7 have the fourth best record in the East. Outside of the Heat and Pacers, the only other two teams currently above .500 are the Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. There have been so many disappointments in the losing column for the East so far, it is difficult to point out just one. The Wizards and Bucks have had rotten stretches so far. Even good starts like the one that the Orlando Magic had have fallen apart as Orlando now has a 4-7 record. The overpriced Nets and Knicks both have only 3 wins so far this season. It says something when one of the most consistent teams in your conference at 6-6 is the Charlotte Friggin’ Bobcats!
There was a steady history in the 2000’s of the Western Conference having more depth and wins on their board than their rival conference could put together. And that lopsidedness has definitely returned to form this season, with nine winning teams right now in the West against the mere four on the other side. Writers always talk about the muddled middle in regular season standings, but so far this season, the only teams playing like mud are the ones in the Eastern Conference. It’s hard to be considered the middle of the conference when you’re at the bottom of the league standings overall.
NOT SO HOT IN CLEVELAND
And as my first selection of discussing those disappointing teams in the Eastern Conference, the easiest pick would be the Cleveland Cavaliers. When Mike Brown, who had enjoyed great seasons alongside LeBron James for Cleveland before, was hired back by Dan Gilbert to bring along All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, it seemed to make a lot of sense. The team needed more of a defensive focus than they had done under Byron Scott, and Brown has proven that he can toughen up young guys in the regular season. Signing Andrew Bynum seemed like a steal of sorts while they were bringing in another #1 pick in Anthony Bennett. Kenny Smith even said that the Cavs would win 50 games.
Now, that seems ages ago if you watch the Cavs now. Since the season started, the team has lied somewhere between mediocre and flat out bad. The Cavs are a pathetic 27th place in scoring offense and the defense that Brown is so prided on teaching is merely 17th. In their four wins, three of them were by 4 points or less and the most recent two were in overtime against the Sixers and the Wizards. Then came the closely guarded rumors that there was a closed-door meeting among the players to address the problems, and fisticuffs may have broken out. Given that Irving is sporting a mysterious black eye, many have already come up with the theory that someone clocked the All-Star the same way Vince McMahon got it from Bret Hart 15 years ago at the Survivor Series.
But the meeting did not do much to encourage wins to go along with the bubbling tensions. They have still only won one game in the last two weeks, with games against the Spurs and Heat coming up in the next week. Andrew Bynum has been chronically missing playing time already to go along with what seems to be a broken career, Dion Waiters has yet to break out after being picked 4th in the NBA Draft two years ago, and Bennett has been a complete no-show so far, only making 5 shots TOTAL through the first 12 games. And LeBron is going to leave the royalty of Miami for this?! Get real, guys.
PLAN B IS WORKING OUT JUST FINE FOR THE MAVERICKS
Remember the talk of possible despair for Mark Cuban and his Dallas Mavericks after missing out on Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Dwight Howard in the past two offseasons? Well, we can shake that off for now. While the team tried a similar tactic last season and just got back to a 41-41 record before missing the playoffs, Cuban decided to fall back with a back-up plan once more and assembled a team around Dirk Nowitzki with the best available pieces after all the All-Stars shunted him for other teams. He signed a brand new backcourt by bringing in Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon to go along with rookies Shane Larkin and Gal Mekel.
While retaining old hats Vince Carter and Shawn Marion looks like Cuban is just biding time before their contracts are up, the two legendary leapers have pulled their own weight in Dallas as solid role players. DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert, two other signings in the offseason, have been great garbage men down low, while Jae Crowder has gotten better in his second year with the team. Winning the NBA Finals will always be Rick Carlisle’s crowning achievement, but I think his most incredible feat might be what he has done this season: He has turned Monta Ellis into a very efficient guard! Known for not seeing a shot he didn’t like and sabotaging coached offense for the sake of getting his stats, Ellis has gotten a reserved amount of freedom from Carlisle to unleash a flurry of scoring on teams without all the dunderheaded mistakes.
Calderon has been a fantasy favorite for years because of his shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, and now that he is finally on a good team, his pairing with Ellis in the backcourt has worked perfectly. The Mavericks are firmly in the hunt in the West at 8-4 while scoring 103.7 PPG (3rd in the league) while being a top team in three-pointers made and one of the top teams in the league in steals. The older Dirk is finally getting going, too, scoring 35 points in a good home win over Dwight Howard’s Houston Rockets. You had to think that when Dwight was leaving the court after losing to this new Dallas team, did the big man make a mistake in going to the wrong Texas team?
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR WATCH
1- Michael Carter-Williams – The bloom has slowly gone off the rose already for Philly thanks to a minor injury that kept their new star point guard out for a couple of games. But even with some slight bad performances, M.C.W. is definitely at the top spot for this year’s award right now. He leads all rookies in scoring, assists, steals, and made free throws. In fact, even with his recent struggles, he is still in the top ten in the league in assists and top five in steals. He is also averaging over 5 rebounds per game. The only other rookies in the top six in rebounding outside of Carter-Williams are all centers. That’s impressive.
2- Victor Oladipo – You track the numbers for Michael Carter-Williams, and the Magic’s #2 pick out of Indiana is not far behind. His numbers have almost been just as steady, albeit not as the face of his franchise right now. Oladipo is the only other rookie with a double-digit scoring average along with excellent three-point shooting, nearly 2 steals per game, and one of his team’s leaders in assists. And if you caught his recent 360 dunk, dude’s got mad hops, too
3- Ben McLemore – The Mac Attack has finally shown up in Sacramento, although when he was drafted there, there were plenty of skeptics. He is known to be a mercurial player, lighting up one night when he was at Kansas then disappearing the next. He was very quiet in his interviews and his summer league had a lot of bad outings to go with his incredible knack for scoring in a hurry. But that hasn’t stopped McLemore from going off at times, and he really showed it against the Golden State Warriors early on, going for 19 points and 4 rebounds. He matched that total this week at home in a home win over the Phoenix Suns. Certainly, there have been quiet nights in between, but he is the kind of guard that could explode for 40 if you don’t keep tabs on him. Sacramento is glad to have him.
4 and 5 – Kelly Olynyk and Vitor Faverani– The Boston Celtics might be edging closer and closer to their predicted fate as one of the worst teams in the league, but it won’t be because of their rookie frontcourt. Olynyk, a Canadian face-up big out of Gonzaga, has been a pleasant surprise since he checked in at summer league, showing elegance with 7 PPG, nearly 2 APG, and excellent free throw form. He is fifth among rookies in scoring. Faverani is a great counterpart to Olynyk because while he lacks the same skill in scoring, he makes up for it with brute force. He is like a cross between Nikola Pekovic and another native Brazilian of his, Anderson Varejao: A tough foreign rebounder who doesn’t mind putting his nose to the grindstone. And his name is Vitor in Boston, so that alone makes him likeable. Olynyk and Faverani are first and second, respectively, among rookies so far in rebounding. The only player on the Celtics team with a better rebounding average than both Olynyk and Faverani is second-year man Jared Sullinger. Not a lot has gone right so far for Brad Stevens, but this is a man that dragged Matt Howard to two national championship games in college. I think he is bringing his two new Boston big men along quite nicely.