Some Notes on a Dime
An early look ’round the League, plus games of the week.
by Doobie Okon
1. The Eastern Conference…..same old story.
Well actually, the story lines have changed, but the result is the same. The beasts of the East remain few, and the conference is so top-heavy that the majority of teams are stuck in a path where the Larry O’Brien trophy isn’t even on their radar. Boston, Orlando, Miami, Atlanta and Chicago seem to be the only organizations that are fit for a deep playoff run, but even then you have to question the Hawks’ and Bulls’ chances.
There’s a better chance of Kwame Brown winning MVP then the other squads taking home a championship. Actually, let’s list them: New York, New Jersey, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit, Washington, and Charlotte. Can anyone in their right mind actually envision any of these teams talking about Disney World in June? That’s a lot of teams listed, and it’s just to show how sad this whole thing has become. Somebody help this League.
2. Let’s start with the only real dramatic division in the Least: the Southeast. And thankfully, there is a ton of drama brewing. Powered by their top six horses, Atlanta is off to an impressive 6-1 start, although the six victories were over six bad teams. Still, it’s good to see the Hawks begin fast, which hopefully ensures that it won’t just be Miami-Orlando headlines all season long. Josh Smith and Al Horford are quite the understated front-court, and Smith is already on a mission for defensive player of the year, averaging near four blocks a contest so far.
Orlando and Miami are both defensive giants, ranked first and second in most categories on that side of the court, while staying very efficient on the offensive side as well. Miami took the first meeting, thoroughly demolishing Orlando 96-70 at home. The Heat, to nobody’s surprise, is looking to set major regular season records for wins, margins of victories, as well as many defensive lists. While Dwight Howard, already averaging 22.4 points, 11.4 boards and three blocks a game, is looking to win his first MVP with Orlando, DWade and LeBron are both sacrificing the numbers they’re used to, and although LBJ will have the more rounded stats by season’s end, the Heat belong to Flash. Oh ya, and side-note: they don’t need Chris Bosh.
And there are still story-lines abound beyond the three powerful Southeast squads. The best would be the top draft pick down in DC. John Wall is most definitely for real, and it’s a shame he’s on such a sad team to begin his career. Quick as hell, Wall is off to a start that only the great (and very similar) Oscar Robertson can match…and already posted a nine-steal game in his first NBA victory over Philadelphia. Wall vs. Griffin all year long for ROY.
3. The Atlantic Division: Ugh. No surprises here. Boston’s the third best defensive team behind the Floridians in the East, and Rajon Rondo is all over the floor. The young Celtic star has 103 assists in seven games so far, an unbelievable total. And he leads the savvy veterans who continue to play strong as a unit. Shaqtus is by no means any shade of his former self, but at twenty serviceable minutes a game, he only adds to the experienced and big-bodied team the C’s have. Most importantly, all of Boston’s stars rebound, play team ‘D’ and have already proven they can handle the Heat.
Meanwhile, the other four teams will fight for one (maybe two) other postseason spots. Amar’e's off to a pretty good start with New York, although his scary rate of turnovers isn’t helping anybody. His Knicks probably do have the best chance to make the playoffs out of the Boston-less Atlantic, and that’s not necessarily a good thing, considering that all four teams still need a great deal of help in future drafts.
4. Seems to be the same story in the Central, with the Bulls looking like the only legitimate squad in the early part of the season. Although the ‘depleted’ Cavs have put together three nice wins here in the first couple weeks, they’re still reeling from the summer and are going to have a tough time staying near .500 for the year. And some of you might not share the same sentiment, but ‘Go Cleveland’… I hope they kick Miami’s ass when LBJ returns to Ohio December 2nd.
Meanwhile, the Pacers, Bucks and Pistons are having serious issues putting the ball in the basket, with Milwaukee off to possibly the most disappointing start of any team in the East. Their defense is solid, but when you’re supposed to contend, and Carlos Delfino is your leading scorer over the first five games, something is wrong. The 40 million dollar man, Johnny Salmons, is off to an atrocious start for the Bucks, and nobody is playing much better. Salmons is coming off a knee injury, and Milwaukee did emerge in the second half of the season last year, so there’s still room to be hopeful if you believe in the Buck.
Chicago is off to a shaky start at 2-3, but it doesn’t change the fact that, to me, the Bulls are still the clear cut gravy of the Central this year. The good news is that two of the three losses were tough ones to the Thunder and Celtics, while Derrick Rose is consistently demonstrating that he’s ready to stamp his name as one of the best in the game. He can score when you need him to, but as his 9.8 assists (including a career-high 14 against New York) show, he’s always looking to make plays for his teammates.
Luol Deng and Joakim Noah are the kind of key role players a successful team needs, especially Noah who is proving that he’s just a Rodman-like banger inside. And trust me, when Carlos Boozer finally puts on a Bulls uni in a few weeks, Chicago will improve by leaps.
5. Definitely more intrigue over in the Wild. As always. Ya got your obvious top dog in L.A., and we need to pause for a second and recognize how impressive the Lakers really are. The Western Conference is extremely strong, and the Lakers are tooling with teams so far. Coming off back-to-back championships, Kobe and co. look hungry as ever and are stamping their purple shoes on these victories. I mean, wow…but more on Los Angeles in a bit. Meanwhile, we have eight teams outside the Pacific who have serious aspirations of winning their respective divisions. Like last year, the eight Western playoff squads will most likely be separated by a small margin and that can only mean a fun year is upon us.
6.Yes, the Lakers are running the Pacific, the West, and while we’re at it, the entire NBA. And they very well might be the only team out of the division to make the postseason as well. What else can you say about mighty L.A.-look at their offensive output over their first seven contests. 114.0 points a game…blowouts in every game except two, including a explosive 121-96 performance over the Blazers, led by a Pau Gasol triple-double. Pau is killin’ it so far…averaging a career-best in, well, everything. He’s getting much more involved in the offense, shooting the ball 18 times a game (his career-high for a full season – 14.9 in 05-06). And clearly, that’s only making L.A. that much better. Kobe is starting a little slower than usual, but that’s to be expected since he’s recovering from the knee injury and he’s only playing in 31 minutes a game due to the rest of his team castrating their opponents before the fourth quarter. Bryant is not leading the Lakers in any major offensive statistic so far, and that’s not a bad thing whatsoever.
Amazing, the Suns lose Amar’e, and are still an offensive juggernaut. Of course, that also means they’re still horrible on the defensive end, but they have pulled out nice wins over the Jazz and Hawks as well as playing the Lakers tough in a 114-106 loss. Still, they’re going to miss their big guy more and more as the season wears on. Golden State could fight it out with Phoenix for second and a possible eek into the playoffs, but their 4-2 start doesn’t guarantee them anything. While Monta Ellis is clearly an offensive gem, and they have loads of young talent, its still going to be tough for the Warriors to stay in the playoff mix until April.
And here’s two thoughts the Clips can rest their heads on despite the disappointing 1-6 record. They’ve played seven playoff-hopeful teams so far, and also Blake Griffin is already showing he’s a double-double machine (18.1 and 11.0) with the ability to score inside. Wall vs. Griffin, all year long.
7. Last season in the Northwest, Denver , Utah, Portland and Oklahoma City all won at least 50 games. That might not happen again in 2011, but judging from the early portion of the year these four teams are going to battle it out again all year long. You really could make a case for any of them to win the division.
Gotta respect the Nuggets and what they are doing so far. Could easily be 6-0, with two close losses to the Hornets and Mavs, who they beat three days later…in Dallas…by double digits. Amidst the constant ‘Melo drama, and a multitude of key injuries, Denver is showing something this season early on that they’ve lacked in recent years: they’re actually bearing down on the defensive side of the basketball. Much credit to George Karl for staying on top of his game through his tough year, emotionally and physically.
The Jazz, Blazers and Thunder all definitely have the pieces to make the run at a division title, but they’ve been marred by inconsistent play so far. Portland’s three losses are against the three best teams they’ve faced so far (Chicago, OKC and LAL), and they didn’t look particularly good in those games. And the Jazz and Thunder are both starting the week at 3-3, and you don’t really know what to make of each squad yet. Al Jefferson has started strong for the Jazz, but Paul Millsap has been stronger. They won’t miss Carlos Boozer too much if their two giants are this dominant all year long, and the Jazz will be in good shape but only if they get some semblance of bench production this year.
As for Oklahoma City, only time will tell. Sure, they proved last year that they have the best young talent in the league, surpassing everyone’s expectations. Now, they have to sustain it, and they are still young which could be a huge recipe for disaster. They warrant the most concern of the four strong Northwest squads…naturally…because of their youth and the gigantic expectations they placed on themselves as a result of last year’s success.
8. On my Opening Dime piece, I mentioned that I thought the Hornets would get off to a fast start this season. I didn’t expect 6-0, and I don’t think anyone has. The team, while loaded, has had major questions surrounding it, and many of those involved the team star, Chris Paul, and whether or not he even wanted to be in NOLA anymore. Well a six-game winning streak to begin the season will make anyone giddy, and if looks as if CP3 is happy and healthy. The Hornets are showing great defense, David West is playing very well and shooting at a 54.9% clip so far, and they are dominating opponents at the end of every game.
Originally, it seemed like the Southwest would go down to Dallas and San Antonio, with New Orleans and Houston fighting for third and possibly the last playoff spot. But now with the Hornets off to their start, it’s anyone’s game. The Spurs and Mavs have also played well to begin the season, and it’s too early to tell who between the two is better. But the real disappointment so far is Houston, who was probably very excited at the prospect of Yao Ming returning to a team that played beyond anyone’s expectations last year. They just got their first victory over the sad T-Wolves, and now Aaron Brooks is out for at least a month. Despite Yao playing decent in short minutes, Houston has dug itself an early hole.
9. Awards Watch: Only a couple weeks in so far…here’s my early predictions on the major trophies:
MVP: Dwight Howard
Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin
Most Improved Player: Jrue Holiday
Defensive Player: Josh Smith (Howard might deserve it, but if he wins MVP…this could go to Smith)
Sixth Man: Jamal Crawford
Coach: George Karl
Executive: Pat Riley, duh.
10. Your Dime for the Week:
1 ) Hawks at Magic: Mon, 11/8, 7:00 (ET)
2 ) Nuggets at Bulls: Mon, 11/8, 8:00 (ET)
3 ) Celtics at Mavericks: Mon, 11/8, 8:30 (ET)
4 ) Jazz at Heat: Tues, 11/9, 7:30 (ET), National TV: NBA TV
5 ) Jazz at Magic: Weds, 11/10, 7:30 (ET), National TV: ESPN
6 ) Warriors at Bulls: Thurs, 11/11, 8:00 (ET)
7 ) Celtics at Heat: Thurs, 11/11, 8:00 (ET), National TV: TNT
8 ) Lakers at Nuggets: Thurs, 11/11, 10:30 (ET), National TV: TNT
9 ) Blazers at Thunder: Fri, 11/12, 9:30 (ET), National TV: ESPN
10 ) Blazers at Hornets: Sat, 11/13, 8:00 (ET)