Friday, January 6, 2012

NBA's Surprising Starts- The Good and the Bad

by John Huffstetler

Early in the NBA season, several teams stand out for good and bad reasons. Normally we could say after 8 games, well its a long season and write off these slow starts. This year with the 66-game schedule, 8 games is over 10% of the regular season. Certain teams have to start pressing the panic button. Sacramento had a full blown meltdown already, firing their head coach after just 7 games and they have far from the worst record in the league. Let's take a look at some of these surprising teams so far this year, starting with the bad.

The Bad

Dallas (4-5)- Roster turnover and general complacency following the title have the Mavs sitting one games below .500 through 9. The subtractions of Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, and Caron Butler, and the additions of Vince Carter, Delonte West and Lamar Odom have proven disastrous so far as the team struggles to find any continuity in the line-up rotations. The returning players from the championship roster haven't fared much better either. Reports from camp were that Dirk and co. were "fat and happy" in the off-season following their title run. Most alarmingly, Dallas is shooting just 41.2% from the field, good for a pitiful 26th in the league. Defensively, Dallas is certainly feeling the effects of the loss of Tyson Chandler, as they currently sit 22nd in fg% defense at 45.8%.

Time to panic?- Yes. This team appears significantly worse than last year. Vince Carter is dreadful at this point in his career (34.5% fg, 1.7 a/to) and this team plans to start him at the shooting guard spot. The veteran core continues to get older and health concerns are an issue (Kidd left last nights game against the Spurs). I expect this team to sneak into the playoffs with a low seed, but the second round would be an accomplishment.

New York (4-4)
- This has been an ugly start for the Knicks this season mainly because of injury issues, most notably Amare Stoudemire. In addition to his 2 missed games, Jared Jeffries (7 games), Baron Davis (all 8), Iman Shumpert (4), and Mike Bibby (2) are all players the Knicks expect to play significant minutes this season who have had injury setbacks. After jettisoning most of their roster for Carmelo Anthony, this is not a team that can afford to lose multiple players to injury at the same time. The addition of Tyson Chandler was supposed to help improve the defense, which ranked near the bottom of the league last year; however, the Knicks still rank 27th in the league in fg% defense. One guy, no matter how good a defender he is, can make up for the failings of others (Anthony and Stoudamire) playing atrocious defense. The countless number of easy transition layups they have allowed in the short season is staggering and things need to change.

Time to panic?- No. Let's see how everything works when they have a full squad. If Baron Davis can be a shell of his former self and provide leadership at the point position, the Knicks could be a mitigating factor in the playoffs. Comparing this roster to other probable playoff teams in the East (Mia, Chi, Atl, Ind, Bos, Orl, Philly), however, they play by far the worst defense and will need to outscore good defensive teams to win the conference. I doubt they win a playoff series unless they dramatically improve their defense. Most likely, they will be a low seed or out of the playoffs altogether.

Boston (4-4)-
Most pundits believe the Celtics are getting the "big three" together for one more playoff run. It is unclear if the shortened season will help or hurt their chances. On the one hand, less games would benefit their chance to be fresh come playoff time. On the other hand, the tendency of their stars to miss games during the regular season could be a major issue amidst the most competitive Eastern Conference in several years. So far this season, they've secured their 4 victories against bottom feeders (Detroit, New Jersey, and Washington x 2), while losing to all 4 of their legitimate opponents. Statistically, their offense has been efficient, ranking 4th in the league in fg %, while the defense has surprisingly struggled at 18th in the league. With an aging roster and a more competitive Eastern Conference, the Celtics have an uphill battle to regain their championship form.

Time to panic?- Not even close. Boston will find a way to be a major factor come playoff time. Although they will struggle with the more athletic teams in the east (Miami and Atlanta), they have the potential if they get the right match-ups to have the honor of losing to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. They are certainly a playoff team and will probably be between a 4 (someone has to win the Atlantic division) and 6 seed when the season ends.

The Good

Philly (5-2)- The most impressive element of Philly's season so far is that they started the year with a 5-game west coast road trip, managing to go 3-2 with tight losses to Portland and Utah. Last year, they snuck into the playoffs as a 7 seed with a late season charge under new coach Doug Collins. Their defensive ability triggered the late season charge and continues this year, ranking first in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 0.896 points per possession. The surprising element of their start has been their offense, which was not a strength last year. They currently rank 2nd in offensive efficiency at 1.056 points per possession. If they can continue to play offense and defense this efficiently, they will be a major force come playoff time.

Time to celebrate?- Yes. They are for real this year. I do expect the offensive efficiency to come back down, but their defense is spectacular. The always questionable health of Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala will be significant, but if they stay healthy, the Sixers could earn a 4 seed and win a round in the playoffs this year.

Indiana (6-2)- Like Philly, Indiana used a late-season surge to snag a low playoff seed last year because of their strong defensive play. Unlike Philly, Indiana had a busy off-season acquiring David West and George Hill. Their scoring balance on offense with 7 players averaging more than 10 ppg and their strong defensive efficiency (5th in the league) has triggered their early season success. The schedule has been easy so far with 6 games against probable non-playoff teams, but this team still appears to be poised for another playoff season.

Time to celebrate?
- Not yet. Let's see how Indy does when the competition gets more difficult. Over the next few weeks, they play at Philly, vs Atl, vs Bos, at LAL, vs Orl and at Chi. After that stretch, we will know if this team is a factor come playoff time. As it stands, Indy looks like a low playoff seed who will make a first-round exit.

Portland (6-2)- No team had a more traumatic off-season than the Blazers, most notably the heartbreaking early retirement of Brandon Roy. The depth and talent was obviously there, but no one knew how this team would replace their captain and emotional leader. They've performed admirably, starting the season 6-2, including an impressive road victory over Oklahoma City. An increased tempo and strong defensive efficiency have keyed their impressive start. With defensive stalwarts on the squad like Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, and Nicholas Batum, they will be among the league's best defensive squads all season. With arguably the best frontcourt in the Western Conference, the ability of their streaky guards (Felton, Crawford, and Matthews) to produce consistently through the playoffs remains the team's biggest question mark.

Time to celebrate?
- Yes. This team will be among the top 3 seeds in the Western Conference in the playoffs. Should they draw the right match-ups, there is a chance with their strong front court that they could sneak into the NBA finals. Most likely, they win a round or possibly two, with their guard play leading to their inevitable downfall.

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1 comment:

  1. I think Philly, Indiana, and Portland are all good. Portland could contend in the West, and Philly and Indiana could definitely win a game in the first round of the playoffs. As for the Knicks, I really think they are going to struggle all year. I just don't like the makeup of this team. Could definitely see them missing out on the playoffs, or just barely sneaking in and getting swept by the Heat or Bulls in round 1