No team should panic two weeks into the season—unless you’re the GM of the Phoenix Suns or Philadelphia 76ers; in which case, trade everyone and put the entire concession-stand staff in uniform, because your tanking strategy just isn’t working.
…but yeah, no need to panic.
Players on new teams are still getting used to new schemes. Some guys, like Derrick Rose, are trying to shake off the cobwebs after long injury layoffs; and most teams in general are trying to find their identity at both ends of the floor. But nevertheless, it’s still fun, however knee-jerk an exercise it may be, to take some of what we’ve seen early in the season, and to extrapolate those observations into trends—trends that may, or may not, hold true as the season goes on, but are good guesses based on the early evidence presented.
Here are some early season impressions:
Teams that might be a little better than we thought:
Everything the Phoenix Suns did in the off-season screamed, “We want to tank and we don’t care who knows it!” The Suns traded away Jared Dudley, Luis Scola, Jermaine O’Neal, and most recently, Marcin Gortat—four completely uninspiring, but solid veteran players, that can do just enough to keep you mildly competitive. The Suns laying the groundwork to unashamedly tank made a lot of sense. They now (potentially) have four first round picks in next year’s draft—and if you watched Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, and Julius Randle (ESPECIALLY Julius Randle) in action on Tuesday night, you’ll understand that acquiring first round picks is a pretty smart strategy.
But here’s the thing; seven games into the season, the Suns don’t look like a team that’s fully embraced the concept of Tankapalooza 2014. At the time of writing, they’re 5-2, and sitting atop of the Pacific Division—which would make sense if this was the Amar’e Stoudemeire/Steve Nash Suns, but not this bunch of raw youngsters. Eric Bledsoe, the team’s major off-season acquisition from the Clippers, looks like a guy who’s now ready to lead a team—finally emerging out of Chris Paul’s shadow. The uber-athletic freak from Birmingham, Alabama, is currently averaging 20 points, 7 assists, and over 4 rebounds per game, while shooting over 50 per cent from the floor—oh, and he’s doing crazy stuff like this, for good measure:
Remember, Eric Bledsoe is 6’1”!
As a team the Suns are one of the best defensive units in the league, currently holding teams to 99.5 points, per 100 possessions, which is good enough for 6th in the NBA. As well as Bledsoe, they’re also getting great contributions from Miles Plumlee, and Markieff Morris—the latter is averaging 17 points per game, and shooting 50 percent from 3-point range. Those averages won’t hold over the course of a season, and the Suns as a team will start to fade, as young teams often do (they haven’t hard a super hard schedule, thus far), but this may not be the 60-loss team that many were predicting at the start of the year. And while that might not be a good thing as far as the rebuilding process goes, it’s a lot of fun to watch a young, athletic team overachieve.
One of those first round picks that ended up in the hands of the aforementioned, Phoenix Suns, came from the Indiana Pacers—a team that’s most definitely not tanking. In-fact, before the season began the Pacers were predicted to be one of the teams that could not only challenge Miami in the Eastern Conference, but could go the whole nine yards and win it all. They find themselves in this section not because I’m surprised that they’re doing well—again, most people had them pegged as a top-three seed in the East—but because few people imagined that they’d start the season quite this well.
The Pacers are 8-0, and are the only undefeated team in the NBA. Granted, they’ve feasted on some bad teams during that stretch, but they’ve also comfortably taken care of business against some really solid teams, like the Nets, Grizzlies, and Bulls. The offense has been a struggle some nights (without being horrible), like it was last year, but once again the defense has been elite. The Pacers rank first in the NBA on defense, holding teams to 92.3 points per 100 possessions.
And really, when we talk about the Pacers being better than expected, one player comes to mind; Paul George. George has been an elite defensive force for the past couple seasons now, and although his offense had been steadily improving, this year he’s made a big leap at that end of the floor. George is averaging just under 25 points per game, to go along with 7 rebounds, and 3 assists—he’s also shooting over 40 per cent from 3. Right now there isn’t a player in the NBA whose nightly stat-line comes closer to resembling LeBron James’, than Paul George.
Last season, during the Pacers’ series with the Knicks, there was a debate (mostly carried out on Twitter) as to who was the better player between George and Carmelo Anthony. That argument should now be laid to rest. George’s name is now being brought up in the discussion with LeBron James’ and Kevin Durant’s, when discussing the elite forwards in the game. He might not quite be at the level of those two superstars yet, but the fact that he’s even in the conversation speaks volumes to how far he’s progressed as a player.
And the Indiana Pacers are progressing as a team because of it.
Teams that might be a little worse than we thought:
The glass half-full perspective on the Detroit Pistons is that their early season struggles (they’re 2-5, at the time of writing) are mostly down to having to integrate lots of new faces into their line-up—the likes of Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings—and, of course, getting used to a new coach, in Maurice Cheeks.
That’s all well and good, except that the Pistons were a strangely constructed team to being with, and a lot of the doubts that people had about them entering the season, are currently on show. The biggest issue is the lacking of floor spacing, with a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond. Contrary to how he views his own game, J-Smoove is not a good outside shooter, and for all their talents, neither Monroe nor Drummond (especially not Drummond) can spread the floor. Smith, as alluded to above, doesn’t seem to understand his limitations as a shooter, and despite having a career 3-point average of under 30 per cent, is currently attempting five 3-pointers a game—connecting on 27 per cent of them. Ugh.
Despite the somewhat expected offensive problems, the one area that most people believed this team would excel at is on the defensive end. But the Pistons have been woeful at that end, thus far—the team is currently 29th in defensive rating, conceding almost 110 points per 100 possessions. There’s a chance that the Pistons will turn it around at that end of the floor, but as of now, pre-season predictions that had the Pistons challenging for the fifth or sixth seed in the East, look as off as Josh Smith’s shooting.
New York Knicks
There were questions a-plenty surrounding the New York Knicks as they entered this season, and so far the team has not only failed to assuage the doubts, but have created more with their wholly uninspiring play at both ends of the floor. At the time of writing, the Knicks are 2-4—their only wins coming against Milwaukee and Charlotte—and they’re coming off an absolute shellacking at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
If fans doubted it before, they’re certainly now realizing that the Knicks’ most important player is Tyson Chandler, not Carmelo Anthony. And unfortunately for the Knicks, Chandler is out for over a month with a fracture to his right fibula. While New York will always struggle to defend without Chandler on the floor, especially with Andrea Bargnani at centre, last season the offense was good enough—elite, in-fact—that some of the worst damage could be mitigated. Not so, so far this season. The Knicks currently rank 25th in the league on offense, and while last season they were one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA, in makes and percentage, this year they’re struggling. As a team the Knicks are only shooting 32 per cent from 3-point range (22nd in the NBA) and are only making 7.8 3s per game (13th in the NBA). Last season they were first in 3-pointers made per game, and fourth in 3-point percentage.
Carmelo Anthony, the team’s offensive superstar, is struggling—only shooting 41 per cent from the floor, on over 20 shots a game. His numbers should improve, but there’s a chance that his pending free-agency is becoming, not only a distraction to himself, but to the team overall. Once Chandler returns to the side they should improve, but those who felt that the Knicks were in for a big fall-off, from last season’s 54 wins (ESPN, in the minority, predicted them to win 38 games), might be feeling pretty good about their prediction at this point in time.
They are who we thought they were:
Unlike the Phoenix Suns and the Philadelphia 76ers—two tank-ready teams that have surprised everyone with their peskiness—the Utah Jazz are doing exactly what they were set up to do in the off-season: Lose and lose big.
Although a contingent of fans—mainly in Salt Lake City—seemed adamant that their team would be competitive this season, the writing was on the wall early in the summer. The Jazz let their two best players, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, walk in the off-season, while taking on the expiring contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins (at this stage, professional basketball players in name only) for picks. The Jazz do have some young talented players, in Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Gordon Hayward (note: sorry Jazz fans, he’s NOT Paul George), but with no real point-guard currently on the roster (rookie Trey Burke is injured) this team is UGLY.
The Jazz are the worst offensive team in the league—only averaging 93 points per 100 possessions—and rank bottom in the NBA in turnovers per game, and assists per game; both related to the fact that Jamaal Tinsley and John Lucas III are splitting time at point-guard. And just to underscore how tank-tastic the Jazz are this season, the Toronto Raptors—complete with their Rudy Gay-centered, zero ball movement offense—beat Utah last week by 24 points.
On the bright side, Andrew Wiggins might want to start look at property in the Salt Lake City area.
San Antonio Spurs
I officially gave up betting against the San Antonio Spurs a long time ago. No matter how many times people write them off as old, and past their best, prior to the season starting; by the time April swings around they usually have 50-60 wins and are ready to make a run in the post-season.
And Judging by their start to this season—the Spurs are currently 7-1—things will be no different this year. The Spurs have won seven games by an average of 11 points, and the team currently ranks in the top-10 on both defense and offense. No single individual has really stood out for the Spurs thus far, but that’s probably a result of both the team’s by-committee system, and the fact that because many of their games have been blowouts, Gregg Popovich has had a chance to sit his starters for long stretches.
It remains to be seen whether San Antonio has what it takes to make a run at the title, similar to the one they went on last season, but this team remains a regular-season juggernaut, and nothing we’ve seen so far through eight games, should dissuade anyone of that fact.