After the first full week of NBA action, it’s still hard to tell who going to be worth watching and who’s going to fall off the map. But to provide some context going forward, here are just a few things we’ve learned so far.
1. The Blazers and Rockets are fun to watch again. Why? Well it’s mostly because of rookie sensation Damian Lillard and James Harden’s ridiculously impressive first week in Houston. Lillard has lit it up so far with 19.3 points, 8 assists and 3.8 rebounds through four games. At this pace, Lillard is a frontrunner in the Rookie of the Year race and singlehandedly makes Portland worth watching. Meanwhile, James Harden is having an even more prolific start with his new team. Everyone was impressed by Harden’s opening night when he dropped 37 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 1 block, but no one thought he’d follow that performance up with a career high 45 points to go with 7 assists in his second game. The Blazers held him to 24 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists (yes, Harden has been so good so far that people are calling a 24-6-5 statline “holding” him), but Harden looks like a truly dynamic shooting guard and deserves player of the week honors without a doubt. We’re still very early in the season and we might not get to say this for much longer, but at this point, James Harden is the frontrunner in the MVP race. But no, the Thunder made a great trade for their second/third-best player. Speaking of which…
2. A few teams are off to rocky starts and need to develop chemistry. Although the Oklahoma City Thunder are not at the top of this list, it’s undeniable that OKC has struggled without The Beard around. Kevin Martin has certainly done his part providing instant offense off the bench, but Russell Westbrook has struggled mightily in their two losses, shooting 11-for-39 in those two defeats. Serge Ibaka hasn’t been able to get in a rhythm offensively either, which leaves only Kevin Durant and Martin to pull the load offensively. This could explain losses to a San Antonio team without Manu Ginobili and a Hawks squad without Josh Smith, but the truth is, ever since Harden took off for Houston, OKC was doomed in a small way. Martin will play his role off the bench, but the chemistry and offensive stability Harden brought by handling the ball, running the offense and attacking the basket (especially when Westbrook and KD get too trigger-happy with their jumpers) is irreplaceable. Unless Scott Brooks finds a better offense in the fourth quarter other than have Westbrook dribble around for 18 seconds before launching a jumper or turning the ball over trying to feed Durant, this team will continue to struggle.
However, OKC’s struggles pale in comparison to some other teams that were predicted to be contenders this year. Boston is supposed to be Miami’s biggest competition in the East, but lost by 11 to Milwaukee at home and looked just as bad in a narrow victory over the lowly, John Wall-less Wizards. Doesn’t look like much of a contender to me right now. Then again, the Celtics are still trying to adjust to having Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jared Sullinger in the lineup regularly in addition to missing Avery Bradley. And I expressed early-season concerns about the Celtics last year too, but they turned things around and were one dominant LeBron James game away from another NBA Finals appearance.
Meanwhile, one Western Conference contender has started their season at 0-3: the Denver Nuggets. After two horrendously uninspired and offensively challenged performances to start the season, the Nuggets came to play in their third game. Unfortunately, that game was on the road against Miami and big nights from Ray Allen and Chris Bosh resulted in another disappointing loss for Denver. Ty Lawson has looked timid and isn’t popping open jumpers like he usually does, Andre Iguodala hadn’t looked offensively competent until the Miami game and George Karl isn’t giving JaVale McGee enough minutes for some confounding reason. The only bright spot so far has been Danilo Gallinari, who is proving how valuable he can be when he’s completely healthy. Denver will figure things out if Iggy and Lawson start scoring more, but how many minutes McGee gets could hold this team back unless Karl transfers Kosta Koufos to a bench role. Luckily for Denver, their next game is against the Pistons. If the Lakers could turn things around with all their chemistry issues against Detroit, so can Denver.
And speaking of the Lakers, Los Angeles should be just fine once they figure things out. Despite the fact they won their first game without Steve Nash, the Lakers should be better once he returns, especially if Mike Brown stops trying to make his questionable Princeton offense work. The Lakers have struggled on the defensive end and Nash hasn’t had an impact yet, but Kobe Bryant will always give you 20+ points and Dwight Howard looks like he’s getting back to Superman form after dropping 28 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks on the Pistons. Then again, the Lakers were 0-3 before and their only win of the season is against the Pistons. Not exactly inspiring. However, if Brown realizes his team needs to play more up-tempo with Steve Nash (and use the pick-and-roll for goodness sake) and the Lakers have more time to develop team chemistry, they will still be a contender when May comes around. However, not every team in the NBA is struggling right now, with a few teams trying to step things up this season…
3. Two teams to keep an eye on are the Knicks and Bucks. Right now, the Knicks are the best team in the East. Sure, the inspiration of playing for a city devastated by Hurricane Sandy probably played a big factor in New York’s opening 20-point victory over LeBron James and the Heat, but Carmelo Anthony and company backed it up with two dominant performances against a good Sixers team. The 46.8% 3-point shooting won’t continue forever, but for now it’s an elite force in the NBA. Melo is playing hard on both sides of the ball, Steve Novak is draining threes and J.R. Smith finally looks like he’s worn off the rust from playing in China, shooting 62 percent from 3-point range. But just as vital has been the leadership and intelligence Jason Kidd brings to the lineup. The Knicks may be old, but they’ve got experience and depth now. Here’s hoping Amare Stoudemire doesn’t screw that equation up once he returns (he probably will though).
In Milwaukee, Brandon Jennings is proving why he deserves a contract extension as one of the league’s better point guards by averaging 17 points and 13 assists through two games. He’s outshone leading scorer Monta Ellis so far this season and has been clutch for his team: not only did he hit a game-winning fadeaway 3-pointer to down Cleveland, but he also hit some key shots to help finish off Boston in the Bucks’ opener. And despite back-to-back disappointing performances from Ersan Ilyasova, guys like Mike Dunleavy and Larry Sanders have stepped up to contribute on offense. Whether these kind of role players will continue to contribute all season remains to be seen, but for now, the Bucks don’t look half-bad. However, two of the best teams in the league are still indisputable.
4. The Heat and Spurs are still elite. They may have gotten stomped in Madison Square Garden, but the Knicks certainly had a lot more inspiration going into the game. And after squashing a much better performance from Denver, there’s no doubt the Heat are still a dominant force in the NBA. LeBron James will continue to do it all, Dwyane Wade contributes across the board, Chris Bosh has shown he still has a knack for high-scoring nights and Ray Allen has been superb off the bench. Miami’s defense could use a little work, but it’s still early in the season. Plus, nothing helps a team’s defense quite like playing the offensively inept Phoenix Suns. In the West, San Antonio has raced out to a 4-0 record, the first in franchise history, with two of those victories coming without Manu Ginobili. People forget how close the Spurs were to sweeping the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last year, but as healthy and youthful as Tim Duncan looks right now, San Antonio should be in the front-running for their conference. So even though Ginobili’s availability has been up-and-down recently, the Spurs are still a tough game every night. But they’re not the only team who have missed a key player lately…
5. The Pacers, Mavericks and Sixers need their superstar back. The Pacers without Danny Granger have been inconsistent at best. Paul George has done well with more responsibility, but not well enough to replace Granger’s scoring. Veteran David West has stepped up on offense for Indiana, but Roy Hibbert’s uninspiring and all-around dismal play in the middle leaves a lot to be desired for somebody who’s 7’2″. In fact, George is leading the team with 10.5 rebounds per game, compared to Hibbert’s 7.8. Narrow victories over the Raptors and Kings don’t give a lot of hope, while a loss to the lowly Bobcats and a blowout loss against the Spurs are even worse. Here’s hoping Granger gets healthy fast, or Indiana will fall very short of the compelling force in the East they were last year.
In Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki is steadily making progress in trying to return to the floor, but it will still be awhile before he’s back in full swing. The Mavericks have actually done pretty well without Dirk at 3-1, as Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo have proved they’re not that hack backups they were last season for their old teams. Even Brandan Wright stepped up with Chris Kaman sitting out with a calf injury, and now that Kaman’s back and getting limited minutes, the Mavs are even stronger in the paint. However, as decent as this team is now, imagine what they could be with Dirk back on the floor. And although Andrew Bynum hasn’t played a game in a Sixers uniform yet, Philadelphia could definitely use him on the floor. Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young have been decent in the post, but Bynum’s presence could elevate the Sixers to a whole new level, especially since Jrue Holiday has been having a breakout season so far. But even without superstars on the floor, these teams can all contend better than the scrubs of the league, such as….
6. The Detroit Pistons might be the NBA’s worst team. At 0-3, with one of those losses coming to the 1-3 Phoenix Suns, Detroit looks awful in all facets. From Rodney Stuckey’s unprecedented/appalling/couldn’t-throw-a-penny-in-the-ocean 1-for-23 shooting to start the season to Greg Monroe’s entirely underwhelming performances, the Pistons could be the new Bobcats for the 2012-13 season. But don’t forget to mention the Sacramento Kings at 1-3 and the Washington Wizards who have yet to win a game. And of course,the Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Bobcats aren’t far behind with only one victory each. But on the uprise are the New Orleans Hornets and the Orlando Magic, who both have two victories so far despite the Hornets’ awful record last year and the Magic’s expected pitfall without Dwight Howard.