Two weeks into the NBA season, what we didn't expect is far more interesting than what we did.
The contenders are who we thought they were, starting with the Lakers (7-0), Celtics (6-1), Magic (4-1) and Heat (5-2). Same goes for the hopeless, and they know who they are: Timberwolves (1-6), Raptors (1-5), Wizards (1-4) and 76ers (2-5). But there are a lot more interesting things happening elsewhere around the NBA; just ask the fans in a few of those losing cities.
So here are six surprises -- three good and three bad -- from the first fortnight of this NBA season, which I like to call the last one before the lockout:
The Hornets' perfect start this season illustrates their growth spurt. Read More >>
|Facts & Rumors|
New Orleans Hornets (6-0): The first few weeks on the job presented colossal challenges to coach Monty Williams and GM Dell Demps, with superstar Chris Paul's representatives making it clear he wanted to be traded to a team with championship-caliber talent. Williams and Demps expertly defused the potential time bomb during the summer, but nothing makes your grumbling superstar happy like winning. It's early, but the Hornets aren't just winning -- they're beating quality opponents. With wins over Miami, San Antonio, Denver and Milwaukee (twice), the Hornets have created some substantial buzz in their NOLA nest, one of the NBA locales on life support as the league careens toward a collective-bargaining apocalypse.
First, the short-term view: The Hornets are clearly doing this with defense, which you knew would be a hallmark of a Williams-coached team given his time spent on Nate McMillan's bench in Portland. Last season, New Orleans allowed 107.3 points per 100 possessions (ninth-worst in the league) and was third-worst with a .483 opponent field-goal percentage (behind only the defense-less Knicks and Warriors.) Thus far this season, the Hornets are fourth in defensive efficiency with 96.2 points allowed per 100 possessions and fourth in opponent field-goal percentage at .420, trailing only Orlando, Miami and Dallas. They're third in defensive rebounding rate (77.01 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions) and 11th in block rate (5.2 per 100). Last season, they were 17th in defensive rebounding rate (73.8) and 31st in blocks (3.8). Only the center-less Knicks blocked fewer shots per 100 possessions.
A key reason for this is the resurgence of Emeka Okafor, who is tied for sixth among centers with 2.17 blocks per 100 possessions and has noticeably picked up his commitment to rebounding while, at the other end, shooting an absurd 72 percent from the field. Demps and Williams were right not to panic or waver from their belief that the Hornets would be a playoff contender as long as Paul stayed in a New Orleans uniform and in good health. So far, so good on both counts.
"Emeka's been a monster," Williams said on the phone Monday. "Having Chris at the point of your defense and Emeka on the back side is not a bad tandem. You put Trevor [Ariza] in that mix, [Marco] Belinelli is a better defender than people give him credit for, and Willie Green has been huge for us. He's guarding LeBron, Kevin Martin, and he's never been put in that position before. I temper all this with, it's still early. I'm not going to get crazy with a ton of assessment of our team. But it's a good start."
Atlanta Hawks (6-1): Given the competition they've played so far, fewer conclusions can be drawn from the Hawks' fast start than from the Hornets'. Atlanta has beaten Minnesota, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, Philadelphia and Memphis -- all teams they should beat -- while losing to Phoenix. But if you watch how the Hawks are playing offensively, there are major reasons to be encouraged. It turns out, the Hawks can be a consistent offensive threat if they, you know, run some sort of offense.
Improving the Hawks' epically bad ball movement and spacing, two hallmarks of the Mike Woodson regime, has been first-year coach Larry Drew's most important contribution thus far. The Hawks are second in the league in offensive efficiency (112.1 points per 100) and first in effective field-goal percentage (53.66), which weighs 2-pointers and 3-pointers. But the biggest difference has been Atlanta's ball movement, which used to be limited to the distance traveled from one hand to the other between Jamal Crawford's legs. The Hawks are fifth in assist percentage, assisting on 62.04 percent of their field goals; that trails noted ball-movers Boston, San Antonio, Charlotte (the Larry Brown effect) and Utah. The isolation play, which often seemed to be the only thing they ran, has been greatly reduced in frequency. Ultimately, the result should be that the Hawks finally will begin to develop some consistency in getting better shots later in the clock as opposed to having four guys stand around while Crawford and Joe Johnson launch off the dribble.
Another reason to be encouraged: Crawford, Maurice Evans and Marvin Williams have been battling injuries, and the Hawks have survived despite their notable lack of depth. But the schedule gets more difficult starting Monday night at Orlando followed by home games against Milwaukee and Utah and consecutive home dates against Dallas (Nov. 20) and Boston (Nov. 22) coming up. Plus, without a true center, there's little reason to believe the Hawks will stand any more of a chance against bigger teams like the Magic and Celtics come playoff time. Let's see where the Hawks are around the All-Star break, when they face seven straight road games including opponents like the Lakers, Suns, Blazers and Nuggets.
Denver Nuggets (4-2): The Nuggets have avoided what would've been their worst nightmare where Carmelo Anthony is concerned. The difficult start that could've caused Melo's trade demands to accelerate hasn't happened. They have quality wins over Utah and Dallas, and remain a potent offensive team despite not getting to the foul line nearly as often as they have in the past. The Nuggets are middle-of-the-pack with a 31 percent free-throw rate (free-throw attempts divided by field-goal attempts) after leading the league in that category last season at 37.6 percent. Denver officials have to be encouraged that the Nuggets are still scoring efficiently, with Chauncey Billups shooting 33 percent from the field and without Kenyon Martin or Chris Andersen -- both counted on to get garbage baskets and rebound -- suiting up for a single game. The next challenge for George Karl, who has held the Melo madness together so far, will be to balance playing time between Martin and Al Harrington once Martin returns.
Houston Rockets (1-5): There's definitely a problem in Houston, and it begins and ends with the defense. Rockets officials were under no delusions they had personnel capable of being a top-five defensive team, but the Rockets have been underwhelming defensively even given the low expectations. Houston is third-worst with 109 points allowed per 100 possessions, but middle of the pack with a .444 opponent field-goal percentage. Where's the problem? On the boards. The Rockets are the fifth-worst defensive rebounding team in the league; not surprisingly, they're also fifth-worst in terms of the opponents' offensive rebounding. Though it's only six games, that trend is expected to lead to more minutes for second-year power forward Jordan Hill, who should help. So should Kyle Lowry, one of the league's peskiest perimeter defenders, who has been out with a back injury. The Rockets also can begin to prove, with an easier schedule coming, that their slow start is something of an anomaly. In fairness, two of their losses have been on the road against the defending champion Lakers and the Spurs. But Houston's only win has come against the hopeless Timberwolves.
Los Angeles Clippers (1-6): OK, so Blake Griffin is really, really good. Scary good. And the Clippers still stink. Well, not entirely. It's hard to put your finger on exactly what ails the Clippers, since they're not godawful at anything. They're just not that good at anything, either. One thing stands out: Despite having Eric Gordon, L.A. is the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the league at 27.3 percent. (They trail only the Thunder, which is next on our list of bad surprises, so keep that in mind.) One sign that is either encouraging or not, depending on your perspective: The Clips have played better with Baron Davis out due to a knee injury and with Eric Bledsoe starting in his place. In the four games Bledsoe has started, the Clippers have been scoring more and turning the ball over less. No matter who the point guard is, they're still not good enough defensively to win games with inconsistent offense.
Oklahoma City Thunder (3-3): It's amazing what increased expectations can do. Last season, the Thunder started out 2-4, were 9-11 through 20 games, and were basically a .500 team until January and nobody noticed. Everything clicked after the All-Star break, the Thunder won 50 games and threatened the Lakers in the playoffs, and suddenly a 3-3 start is setting off alarms. What's been most striking about the slow start is the hallmark of coach Scott Brooks' culture -- defense -- has been well below par. Teams are shooting .481 from the field against OKC, fourth-worst in the league. It hasn't been all bad, but bad enough just often enough. Against Boston, the Thunder gave up a 58-point first half on 55-percent shooting. Then, they proceeded to hold the Celtics to a 15-point third quarter. Other than Kevin Durant, the Thunder have never been the most potent of offensive teams, but through six games their lack of ball movement and passing have been troubling. OKC is dead last in assist percentage, assisting on only 44 percent of their field goals. (The top-ranked Celtics have assisted on 70 percent.)
But some context reveals there's no reason for panic. (And trust me, there won't be with the ever-consistent Sam Presti and Brooks always keeping success and failure in perspective.) On the positive side, the Thunder were able to win at Portland and lost to Boston and at Utah. And against the Blazers and Celtics, two of the bigger teams in the league, they didn't get physically manhandled. (They didn't get outrebounded by either team.) The best thing about the Thunder, their coach and their superstar, Kevin Durant, is that they don't change when things get a little rocky. And it's way too early to call the Thunder's struggles anything close to that.