Early Season Assessment: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

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Just three weeks into the NBA’s new season, it may be tempting to overreact, over-simplify and draw unfounded conclusions about the direction the league is heading. However, it’s important to recognize that the season still has a long road to run and anything can happen between now and April 15, 2015. That said, thanks to a fast and furious start we’re already beginning to get a sense of which teams are going to be playoff contenders and which are, well, not. Here are the good, the bad and the downright ugly moments of basketball’s opening weeks.

The Good

 

Photo: Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press


The Toronto Raptors’ team chemistry
Despite a recent prime time loss to the Chicago Bulls, the Toronto Raptors have picked up where they left off last season. The team was always going to have a jump on their Eastern Conference rivals who have had to integrate important new players into their rotations. The Raps, by contrast, have brought back largely the same team, and that continuity has helped them get off to an 8-2 start.

What’s more, the new players that the Raptors have brought in this season have slotted in seamlessly. Lou Williams has given the team instant offence off the bench and looks to be an early candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, while James Johnson—in his second stint with the team—has done a bit of everything at both ends of the floor.

Anthony Davis’ continued development
Coming out of college Anthony Davis looked like he had all the tools to be a star for years to come. One season on from his breakout year, however, The Brow looks like he could in fact soon be the best player in the league.

Davis has been a one-man wrecking crew at both ends of the floor for the New Orleans Pelicans. Over eight games, he’s averaging 24 points, 11 rebounds and a league-leading four blocks per game. His team is currently 5-3, right in the middle of the Western Conference playoff hunt. Although it’s still ridiculously early to talk about MVP candidates, if the Pelicans do make the post-season, Davis will surely be a contender for that award.

Houston’s defence
The Houston Rockets currently sport the best record in the NBA. Although they possess one the best offensive players in the game, James Harden, the biggest reason for their 9-1 record has been their suffocating defensive play. The Rockets currently have the best defence in the league—they’re giving up just 91.5 points per 100 possessions.

Last season the team was a bit of a joke at the defensive end of the floor, with Dwight Howard having to bail out James Harden and Chandler Parsons numerous times. However, this year the team has much better defensive balance with Trevor Ariza replacing Parsons at the 3-spot and Harden actually putting in some real effort at that end of the floor. It also helps that Howard looks like he’s getting somewhere close to the force that he was back in his Orlando Magic days.

The Bad

 

Photo: Greg Bartram/USA TODAY Sports


Cleveland’s defence
The Cleveland Cavaliers have pulled off four straight wins, proving to the alarmists that the sky isn’t actually falling down in northeast Ohio. It’s taken a few games, but their offence seems to have meshed—the team has looked un-guardable in recent games.

The defence, however, is in an entirely different state. The Cavaliers currently rank 26th in points allowed per possession and teams are scoring on them for fun. Cleveland is in desperate need of a solid rim protector. Opposing players have had far too easy a time driving past their perimeter players and getting deep into the lane. Right now the Cavaliers’ offence has been good enough to win them games, but going forward, the team cannot allow their defence to languish in its current state and still expect to beat out the league’s best teams.

Turnovers galore in Golden State
The Warriors have been one of the best teams in the league so far and look like a genuine title contender. That said, Steve Kerr’s team has to clean up one aspect of its game if they want to go deep in the playoffs: turnovers.

The Warriors currently have a turnover ratio—the percentage of a team’s possessions that end in a turnover—of 17.9 per cent. That number positions them dead last league-wide in terms of taking care of the ball. By contrast, only 10 per cent of the Raptors’ possessions end in a turnover. But not all is lost. The Warriors still rank top-10 in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, so if they can clear up their turnovers (mostly the result of plain old sloppiness), they’ll post one of the best records in the league this season.

Derrick Rose’s hazy health
The Chicago Bulls could challenge for a championship this season—the team is two-deep at every position, and the addition of Pau Gasol has given Thibodeau’s side an offensive dynamic that they’ve lacked in recent seasons.

The Bulls’ title chances, however, hang on the health of Derrick Rose—and judging by events thus far this season, that means they’re hanging on by a thread. Rose has appeared in good form out on the court so far. However, every time the former MVP goes down under contact, the entire Midwest holds its collective breath (and makes some hilarious memes, while they’re at it). Rose has missed games because of hamstring and ankle issues (thankfully nothing knee-related), but right now he seems to be held together with duct tape.

Rose recently told the media that he wouldn’t jeopardize his future health by pushing himself too hard in the present. That’s fair enough, but it may not bode well for the Bulls’ championship aspirations.

The Ugly

 

Photo: USATSI


Josh Smith being Josh Smith
Stan Van Gundy may well be wondering what he’s gotten himself into with the Detroit Pistons. The team is currently 3-7 and don’t look any closer to being playoff contenders than they were last season under the disastrous stewardship of Mo Cheeks. That said, getting Motor City back to the post-season is a long team project for Van Gundy. Josh Smith may not be part of that project for too much longer, however.

Smith, an uber-talented power forward back in his day, is looking an awful lot like the player that sunk his team on numerous nights last season. He’s currently averaging his lowest points per game total since his second season in the league and is shooting a dismal 36 per cent from the field, including 23 per cent from 3-point range. No player in the league wastes his God-given talent quite like J-Smoove.

That ‘basketball team’ in Philadelphia
Sam Hinkie and the 76ers front office are taking advantage of the NBA’s draft lottery system as it currently exists—it’s a system that incentivizes losing and the Sixers are becoming experts at that.

The 0-9 Sixers are dismal—ranking dead last in offensive efficiency and in the bottom-10 at the defensive end. Aside from Michael Carter-Williams and Nerlens Noel, the team is fielding a collection of players that, with all due respect, probably doesn’t belong in the NBA. Last Thursday the team lost to the Dallas Mavericks by 53 points. It’s hard to believe that they won’t lose by 50 again this season.

The big mess in Tinseltown
Things are ugly in Laker-land right now. The 16-time NBA champions are 1-9, fresh off a 136-115 beatdown at the hands of the Golden State Warriors (and it could’ve been a lot worse than that). The team can’t play a lick of defence, Kobe Bryant has resorted to taking a shot every time he catches the ball and coach Byron Scott is already grumbling about a lack of effort from his players.

Heading into the season most people expected the Lakers to be bad, but rookie Julius Randle promised to be an intriguing bright spot for the team. Randle, however, broke his leg in the team’s first game and, unless you’re a masochist, there is little reason to watch this season’s Lakers team.

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