The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, as expected, sit atop their respective conferences. Russell Westbrook and James Harden are dueling triple-double machines, and their excellence has propelled their teams forward, too. Nearly a third of the way through this NBA season and we have a bevy of basketball storylines, dogs, heroes and stars.
But let's step back a moment and measure the early third of the season, not by what has happened in a vacuum but by what has happened relative to expectations entering the season. Let's try to parse which teams have wildly overachieved and which have done the opposite.
This is a subjective exercise and, well, since this is my column I'll go with my own personal views. They were shaped by conversation with several former players, coaches and NBA executives to gauge their thoughts.
I've broken this into three categories: The overachievers, the underachievers, and those too tough or perplexing to call.
But some teams who could make one or two of those lists aren't present, including the Warriors, Thunder and several Eastern Conference teams huddled together in mediocrity. Some smart folks suggested I put the Warriors on both the underachiever and the overachiever list. On one side is the fact the Warriors are the best team in the NBA, and that alone warrants praise because super teams often struggle to meet huge expectations (2010-11 Heat) or gel together as a unit in the ultimate team sport (say, the 2012-13 Lakers).
The other side has an equally compelling argument: That the Warriors have lost three games by more than 20 points, have already lost as many home games as they did all of last year, are rebounding poorly and have regressed defensively, and traded a 24-1 team at this point last season for one that is now 22-4.
All valid points. But for me, at least, the Warriors are right where I expected them. They are the favorites to win the NBA championship, regressing some as they try to integrate Kevin Durant, but despite those hiccups capable of improving vastly as the season unwinds.
The other team I mentioned, the Thunder, are equally interesting because Durant's exit for the Bay meant Oklahoma City was suddenly a one-man show. And what a show it's been. Despite losing Monday to Portland (who does appear on a list below) the Thunder are 15-10. That's right in line with where I thought they'd be, in that Nos. 5-7 range in the West, and so they also won't appear below.
Without further ado, this year's three most underachieving and overachieving teams, and a trio too tough to peg down.
At 14-10, good for third-best in the East, the Knicks are the consummate overachievers. They have a star player, Carmelo Anthony, who now has a running feud with president of basketball operations Phil Jackson. Probably because Melo loves to hold the ball and Phil, clearly, would love it if Melo would consider sharing the rock and giving that whole ball movement thing a chance.
They have in Derrick Rose a point guard who was presumably past his prime when he signed with New York, and who came with the added baggage of missing long stretches of the preseason to attend a civil court case involving allegations of sexual abuse. Several new, big-name additions, as we noted above can be more of a cross to bear than a sign of coming salvation. And they have one of the worst defensive ratings in the NBA, and an offense that's fine but far from dynamic.
But Kristaps Porzingis is a joy to watch, Melo is still a superb talent, and Rose has been an interestingly good fit. The Knicks -- I'm shocked typing this -- are good. They're the third-best team in the East. And that's overachieving if ever it happened.
The Grizz gave Mike Conley the highest contract in NBA history. They brought in Chandler Parsons for a boatload. And both guys promptly got hurt. Most of us -- me, certainly -- thought their window had slammed shut. Nope. Despite getting crushed Monday night by the Cavs (a game in which they rested Marc Gasol), Memphis somehow managed to rattle off six straight wins before that. Over that stretch, Gasol returned to MVP-ish form. That win streak was capped with an utter beatdown of the Warriors, and on most nights you'd be hard pressed to look at Memphis' starting lineup and find a first-round draft pick. Or many names after that you'd even recognize. They have the league's best defense, a 17-9 record, and that same gritty toughness that's defined them for a decade. They belong among the best in the West, and here.
Houston said goodbye to Dwight Howard (addition by subtraction), brought in Mike D'Antoni after he failed miserably in the country's two biggest and most important markets, and turned wholly to James Harden to carve out a place in the West. Mission accomplished. Their offense is a rollicking points machine. They can finish big, close games. They have wins over the Spurs, Warriors and Thunder, and that makes them elite. And that's frankly a shocker.
In some ways Portland is a victim of its own success. There was the recurring brilliance of general manager Neil Olshey and the face of everyone he brought in despite the challenges of recruiting free agents to Portland; the coaching excellence of Terry Stotts, who was a worthy Coach of the Year candidate last season; and Damian Lillard's hellacious will to win and incredible talent. All of them created an expectation that nothing would change, and they'd be right in the mix this year. Instead, at 13-14, they're mediocre at best. Their defense has regressed from 20th last season to dead last this year, and they seem to have lost that edge that's defined them in the Lillard era. The season is early, but so far they're an utter disappointment.
Nate McMillan's Indy tenure has also been a rousing letdown, at least so far. A menacing defense -- third last year in defensive rating -- has fallen all the way to 19th in the league. The offense remains uninspiring. Paul George is nearly identical to the player he was last season, but the big jump that was supposed to return him to stardom hasn't materialized, and so it's gone with the Pacers. At 13-12, they're fine, but I expected more. I thought the days of the Pacers quietly being right there, ready to give LeBron a run for his money from time to time, had returned. Bad on me, bad on them.
This last one is a real bummer. At 7-18, the Timberwolves haven't emerged as the threat, or even the emerging threat, many of us expected. Karl Anthony-Towns is a beast, Andrew Wiggins is brimming with possible greatness, and a young core of exciting and promising players seemed ready to go to another level, or two, with the arrival of Tom Thibodeau as head coach and guru of basketball operations. But it's been more of the same. Their offense remains interesting and capable, but they have the second-worst defensive rating in the league. That alone, as a Thibs team with young talent presumably bursting to fall into line with his defensive-minded path to winning, is enough put them on this list. I thought they'd be the Thunder when the Thunder first started to rise with Durant, Westbrook and Harden. But they're just the same bad basketball team.
JURY IS STILL OUT
On the one hand, a few weeks ago the Lakers were a .500 team flirting with a top-8 spot in the Western Conference, which of course is playoff territory. I live in L.A. and, trust me, after the Byron Scott debacle, that's a borderline basketball miracle. On the other hand, their offense and defense still rank in the bottom third in the league, No. 2 overall pick Brandon Ingram is MIA, and after losing seven in a row, they are again bottom dwellers. It's hard to know what to make of head coach Luke Walton's early, if promising, tenure.
The Wizards are, well, awful. Yes, it's been clear for some time the John Wall-Bradley Beal marriage isn't going so well. This team doesn't exactly ooze the feeling that they just love being around each other. But with Scott Brooks in as the head coach (presumably a big upgrade? Right? Maybe?) 9-14 is as baffling to me as John Wall last week scoring 52 and his team still losing to the Magic. The Magic .
Atlanta, man, has run that Dwight Howard gamut pretty quickly. They started 9-2 (Hawks fans: "Oh God Yes Dwight Howard thank you!"). Then they lost seven in a row (Same Hawks fans: "Dwight Howard, you #@$@#!"). At 12-13, with one of the worst offenses in the NBA and one if its fiercest defenses, I frankly have no idea who this team is. They remain an enigma.