The early portion of the NBA season is always filled with surprises. Remember the start of the 2010 season, after 3+ months of wondering whether the Miami Heat might challenge the ’96 Bulls and their record 72 wins, we saw the Heat start 9-8? People wondered whether LeBron James and Dwyane Wade could ever figure out how to play together.
Six months later, they were playing in the NBA Finals.
So, with only a few teams having yet played 10 games this season, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at the various surprises from the early part of the season. I’ll even throw in whether I think they mean anything, although I’m very sure I’ll be wrong on at least three-quarters of them. Let’s get to it.
Boston Celtics: Defense
Ever since Kevin Garnett and Tom Thibodeau arrived in Boston in the summer of 2007, the Celtics have been known for their defense. It’s what they hang their hat on. HoopData.com places them first, second, fifth, second and second in defensive efficiency since 2008. This year, HoopData places them 21st.
The Celtics are still 5-3, so maybe it’s not that big a deal. And they did just overhaul a good chunk of their roster. But it’s weird that they’ve struggled to the extent that they have.
The problems, from a cursory glance at the data, appear to be twofold. One problem appears to be transition defense. 82games.com notes that 35% of opponent shot attempts have come within 10 seconds of the shot clock. Their effective field goal percentage on such attempts is 55.2 percent, well above the total mark of 49.4 percent.
The other problem is that Kevin Garnett has to leave the floor from time to time. 82games informs us that Boston’s defensive rating with Garnett on the floor is 96.5, which is mildly ridiculous. When KG leaves the floor, that number balloons to 118.6. For reference, the historically awful Charlotte Bobcats of last year had a defensive rating around 108. So…yeah.
Will the problem persist? I doubt it. Doc Rivers is too good a coach to allow this to continue for a full season. But as long as Kevin Garnett still can’t play all 48 minutes every night, that’s going to be an issue.
Charlotte Bobcats: 4 wins, 3 losses
The Bobcats are inexplicably over .500 and have won more than half as many games so far this year as they did all of last year. As much as I’d love to buy into the Bobcats this year, they’re still not very good. Their four wins have come against the Indiana Pacers, who are reeling without Danny Granger, the Dallas Mavericks, who are without Dirk Nowitzki and also ran Charlotte out of the gym a week before they lost, the Washington Wizards, without John wall and Nene, and the Minnesota Timberwolves, who are without Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love.
That said, Charlotte’s most utilized lineup — Kemba Walker, Jeffrey Taylor, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Byron Mullens and Brendan Haywood — has produced a sterling 110 points per 100 possessions on offense, while allowing just 89 points per 100 on defense. If those five players were their own team in the NBA, they’d rank first in defense by 4.5 points and third in offense, just a point behind the Miami Heat.
Miami Heat: Defense
I won’t presume that I can put things any better than Grantland’s Zach Lowe does, so I won’t try. Just read it. Bottom line, the Heat’s defense sucks right now, but their offense is so good it almost doesn’t matter.
Indiana Pacers: General Suckitude
On the one hand, they’re without Danny Granger. On the other, they’ve still got good players. And yet, they kind of suck.
The Pacers are still solid defensively, ranking in the top ten in points per possession. But they’re scoring just 92.1 points per 100, placing them 29th in the league, and the only reason they’re not last is because the Wizards have been even worse, somehow. For reference, the 2012 Bobcats scored 92.3 points per 100. So…yeah.
New York Knicks: Borderline Amazing
We all knew going in that the Knicks would be good. I had them in the top half of the Eastern playoffs before the year started, but there was no way to tell they’d be this good. Mike Woodson became moderately famous with the Atlanta Hawks for his isolation-heavy offense, and with Carmelo Anthony serving as the focal point in New York, everyone just assumed that things would be similar. And yet, we’ve seen crisp ball movement and wide open threes. That was the main reason why the Knicks were the only undefeated team in the league before getting beat by the Memphis Grizzlies last night.
Oh, and they had the best defensive rating in the league before last night, to go along with the top offensive rating. So there’s that. Probably — almost certainly — unsustainable, but still.
Memphis Grizzlies: World Beaters
In the span of a week, the Grizzlies dismantled the defending champs in an 18-point win, went on the road to beat the defending Western Conference champs by 10, then came back home to knock off the only remaining undefeated team in the league, also by 10. They’ve won seven in a row, with all of the wins coming by at least 8 points. That’s moderately ridiculous.
Now that the Grizzlies have a competent bench, the league could be in trouble. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are still around, Rudy Gay seems to have figured out how to play with them, at least to some extent, and now they have a bench. Yikes.
Los Angeles Lakers: Overt Insanity
Oh, Los Angeles. Obviously, no “surprises” column would be complete without the purple and gold.
You’ve doubtless heard of the various happenings regarding the Lakers. I won’t touch on the coaching situation beyond saying that Mike D’Antoni is an excellent coach and that it was absolutely ludicrous to fire Mike Brown after five games, but the team is fascinating too.
Kobe Bryant has been scoring like he’s 25 again. Dwight Howard has been great offensively and weirdly lacking defensively. The bench is mildly atrocious. And yet, because Steve Nash has been hurt, we still haven’t seen how good they can really be.
We know, based on recent history, that a Mike D’Antoni offense led by Steve Nash — assuming he’s at least somewhat healthy — is going to be elite. We also know that a defense anchored by a fully healthy Dwight Howard will rank at the top of the league. So, if the Lakers can get their act together in time for the playoffs — when the bench gets marginalized and you can play your starters heavier minutes — they’re going to be tough to beat. But for that, they need Dwight and Nash to be healthy, and that’s going to take time.
But until then, I’ll just be here, enjoying the show. Pass the popcorn.