Although the 2013-14 NBA regular season started just three and a half weeks ago, almost every team already has played one-eighth of its schedule.
So, it’s not too early to identify trends, triumphs and trouble spots around the league.
The most significant injury isn’t Kobe Bryant’s . . .
It’s Tyson Chandler’s.
Chandler fractured the fibula in his right leg during the New York Knicks’ fourth game, and his team has struggled ever since. In the games before his injury, the Knicks held opponents to 95.4 points per 100 possessions. In the games afterward, the Knicks have allowed 108.4 points per 100 possessions. Chandler, a former NBA Defensive Player of the Year, was expected to miss a total of four to six weeks. The Knicks need him back desperately.
The Brooklyn Nets’ start should concern their fans . . .
. . . but not for the reason most people think.
Too many analysts have blamed Brooklyn’s 3-8 start on rookie coach Jason Kidd and the age of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Those are problems, but Nets fans should be deeply concerned by the play of point guard Deron Williams. Even when healthy, Williams hasn’t resembled the player he was when he was a member of the Utah Jazz. Williams is supposed to be a first-, second- or third-team All-NBA point guard. If Williams doesn’t turn his game around, the Nets won’t come close to being a legitimate title contender.
The Western Conference rules
I think the two best teams in the NBA are the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, but on balance, the data indicates that the Western Conference is far better than the Eastern Conference.
Through Wednesday, Western Conference teams owned a 36-17 record against their Eastern Conference counterparts.
Steve Clifford and his coaches are working wonders in Charlotte
Clifford, the first-year head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats, was one of Stan Van Gundy’s assistant coaches with the Orlando Magic. When the Bobcats hired Clifford, he brought aboard former Magic colleagues Patrick Ewing, Bob Beyer and Mark Price to join Stephen Silas and Bob Weiss as assistant coaches.
Under Clifford and his coaches, the Bobcats have improved markedly on defense. Yes, it’s early, but Charlotte ranks seventh in defensive efficiency, limiting opponents to 99.5 points per 100 possessions. Last season, the Bobcats finished last in the league in that category, with opponents scoring 108.9 points per 100 possessions.
Players don’t buy into tanking
The Philadelphia 76ers and the Phoenix Suns gutted their own rosters in recent months to set themselves up to win an early pick in the star-studded 2014 NBA Draft and to create cap space.
The Sixers and Suns should be awful, but they’re the biggest surprises in the league so far. Philly has compiled a 5-8 record, while Phoenix has gone 5-6.
It goes to show that teams’ current players don’t buy into tanking.
I still think Philly and Phoenix will regress as the season continues. But it won’t be because of the players’ effort. It’ll be because those teams simply don’t have the talent or depth to compete over an 82-game season.
Paul George is a top-5 player
George, the Pacers’ top swingman, is averaging 24.4 points per game and has emerged as a go-to guy late in games. He’s also a top defender.
His development is a primary reason why the Pacers have a chance to supplant the Heat as Eastern Conference champs.
Here are my current rankings of the NBA’s five best all-around players: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Chris Paul and Kevin Love.
D12: on the outside looking in
You’ll notice that Dwight Howard isn’t in that top five.
I still regard Howard as the game’s best center (although I acknowledge that’s faint praise given the current state of the center position in the NBA).
I also disagree with the naysayers who say he’s a shell of the player he was before his back injury. Give him some more time to jell with his new Houston Rockets teammates before you make a final judgment and declare him as being on the decline.
That said, I do see some warning signs with Howard.
His low-post game never has been refined, but it reached its zenith in the early stages of the 2010-11 season, after he spent a small portion of the preceding summer training with Hakeem Olajuwon. It seemed as if Howard was on the verge of a long-lasting breakthrough with his offensive game, but he has regressed since then.
Can Olajuwon and Rockets coach Kevin McHale bring Howard back?
And can Howard coexist over the long-term with James Harden?
Harden easily is one of the top five offensive players in the league, and the ball gravitates to him late in games because of his skill and because of Howard’s awful free-throw shooting.
Howard is averaging 10.8 field-goal attempts per game, which is roughly the same average he had last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Can he accept that level of involvement on offense?
The Pacers are the league’s anti-tanking paragons
Indiana now is one of the NBA’s elite teams, but the Pacers never had to hit rock bottom to get there.
From the 2006-07 season through the 2010-11 season, the Pacers posted records of 35-47, 36-46, 36-46, 32-50 and 37-45.
Bad, but not atrocious.
They went 42-34 in 2011-12 and 49-32 last season.
How did Indy engineer that turnaround?
Through shrewd drafting, strong player development, a few smart trades and a commitment to playing energetic, tough defense.
In 2008, the Pacers acquired the draft rights to center Roy Hibbert shortly after the Toronto Raptors selected him 17th overall. Hibbert is 7-feet-2, but he wasn’t considered a future star; it took the Pacers several years to develop him into a reliable player.
In the 2010 NBA Draft, the Pacers used the 10th overall pick to select George out of Fresno State and the 40th overall pick to select small forward Lance Stephenson out of Cincinnati.
Before the 2011-12 season, Indy signed power forward David West to a free-agent contract. Indy also traded for point guard George Hill by sending the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard and two others to San Antonio.