Welcome to the roundball roundup. This year we’ll be running a weekly column on basketball here on the blog, taking a look at each division in the NBA, as well as a few other assorted items. We delayed posting Week 3 for a few days to make it a Monday feature. Here goes.
What's going on in this division? It stinks. There's really no other, more eloquent way to put that. Division's bad. At least Toronto (6-7) have a string of nice results – not to mention first place – they can point to. In their last five, the Raptors have beaten Memphis on the road, lost to the Bulls while they still had Derrick Rose, took Portland to overtime in a loss and then constructed decent back-to-back wins over Philadelphia and Washington.
So is a play-offs with the Raptors a sustainable possibility? Sure, as much as it's sustainable that Toronto will continue to play a tick below average. Mostly it depends on the teams around them continuing to be no good, but they – by which I mean the New York City teams who were supposed to dominate this division – have been so not-good that it's hard to really figure them out. In the meanwhile, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay will score points, Kyle Lowry is a decent starting point guard and Amir Johnson/Jonas Valanciunas/Tyler Hansbrough is a passable frontcourt rotation. It's not a whole lot, but it's good enough to keep this team floating around .500. Which might be good enough, period.
Shoutout to: The New York Knickerbockers. Emphasis on "bockers" which by itself kind of sounds like a term for something disappointing, doesn't it? New York (3-9) have lost their last five, and it's not going to get any easier with Portland, the Clippers and a trip to always-inhospitable Denver for their next three.
At the risk of making this division's space a recurring feature on the Indiana Pacers, we'll say a few words about the Milwaukee Bucks:
It wasn't supposed to be this bad.
Milwaukee, believe it or not, could have been a dark horse for the play-offs before the year if you squinted just right. They boasted a solid veteran point guard, Luke Ridnour. They paid good money (three years, $24 million) to sign OJ Mayo to handle the bulk of the scoring duties. They brought on a capable veteran center, Zaza Pachulia, from Atlanta and another capable veteran to come off the bench, Caron Butler, from the Clippers. They returned Turkish forward Ersan Ilyasova, a solid player who didn't break out like many expected in 2012/13, but who played well for the most part. They drafted John Henson with the 14th pick in the draft thinking he could help right now. They had an elite frontcourt defender in Larry Sanders and another decent one in Ekpe Udoh.
None of it has come together like they'd hoped. Sanders has been hurt, Ridnour has missed time, Butler has been overstretched in a minutes-heavy role and Udoh and Ilyasova have also missed time and/or been ineffective. Only two players have started even 10 games – Butler (who shouldn't be starting ) and Mayo, who has scored his 15 points a game but shot just 41.5 per cent from the field. Henson, at least, has been a pretty effective rookie in his 25 minutes a game off the bench.
It's all added up to a 2-10 start for the Bucks, who look like they're in for a very, very long year.
Shoutout to: The Pacers (12-1), of course. There will be many words spent on Indiana this season, so for now let's just leave it at this: Three teams have scored over 9.0 points a game more than their opponents (no other teams are above 7.0). Those three are Miami and San Antonio, which should surprise no one, and the third is the Pacers. Who are very, very for real.
Hibbert: "If anything slips through the cracks, which barely happens, I just want to be there to protect the basket.” pic.twitter.com/j5HAhwnAiJ
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) November 24, 2013
On first glance, the Southeast Division standings so far look pretty much the same as last year. Miami well ahead of everyone else. Punchy Atlanta in second. Orlando and Washington and Charlotte trailing in some order, all well below .500.
Only, the Bobcats aren't below .500. They're exactly .500, at 7-7. That may seem pretty ho-hum to you, but this is Charlotte's 10th season since their 2003/04 inception, and they've only finished with more wins than losses once in that time.
The Bobcats (who will return to being the Hornets next season) have played their best since the return of Al Jefferson. The center has always been a statistical darling, and he's been the team's best player in a five-game stretch that saw them lose big to Miami, play Chicago and Phoenix competitively and beat doormats Milwaukee and Brooklyn (a doormat for now, at least, more on them later).
That's generally what you expect from an average-ish team. Beat the minnows, play the big boys tough. As with Toronto, their guards can score (Kemba Walker, Ramon Sessions and Gerald Henderson have combined for 41.1 PPG) and, when Jefferson is around at least, they can pair him with Josh McRoberts for a passable frontcourt. In this year's East, it might be enough for the play-offs.
Shoutout to: John Wall, who's looking like he's consolidating the gains he made last year. He hasn't taken a step up like some had hoped, but he's also fifth in the league in steals and second in the league in assists.
Minnesota and Portland are the interesting teams here, but let's not forget: Oklahoma City still have Kevin Durant. It's easy to take for granted, but Durant just keeps on plugging in top-five seasons and continues to do so this year almost quietly. At 9-3, the Thunder haven't separated from the pack the way that Indiana, San Antonio and Miami have, but Durant-Russell Westbrook-Serge Ibaka can rival most other squads' top-threes and rookie Steven Adams looks like a more-than-capable alternative at center compared to the statuesque Kendrick Perkins.
Their matchup with San Antonio on Wednesday will be one of the best of the young year.
Shoutout to: Utah. I'd wondered before the year who would emerge as the true Team of Tank and as supposed-cellar dwellers like Philadelphia and Boston raced out to merely poor starts, I was starting to think we'd lose out on seeing a historically bad team despite the heavy incentive of the 2014 draft to produce one this year. No worry, Utah are that team. They've been outscored by 2.0 PPG more than any other team. They are 1-14. The Jazz are fantastically terrible.
Here's a question I hadn't thought about much before the year: What if Kobe comes back as strong as ever, and the Lakers turn out to be pretty good?
After last year's disastrous Dwight Howard experiment and then the Fall of Bryant, coupled with Mike D'Antoni looking like the wrong fit in Los Angeles, it seemed like the Lakers wouldn't be much of a factor. But Bryant's coming back eventually and they're treading water pretty nicely in the meantime. The West is a tough conference, but at 7-7 LA are at least not falling too far out of the race.
With Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol combining for a very good frontcourt, if D'Antoni can find a way to place scorers like Jodie Meeks and Nick Young around Bryant complimentarily, LA could be a play-off team – and a dangerous one at that.
Shoutout to: Blake Griffin. In some circles Griffin was seen as a one-trick pony his first few years in the league. Otherwordly athletic, freak-of-nature jumper, but at the end of the day still a guy that just dunked a lot without much in the way of defence and less rebounding than you'd expect from someone with his talent. But he's actually sixth in rebounding this year and shooting the best he ever has. And he can still dunk pretty well, too.
Okay, so we know the Spurs are incredible, but who thought Dallas (9-5) would be sitting even with a team like Houston this early?
Monta Ellis is still one of the league's best pure scorers, and an upgrade for the team over a lesser scoring talent like OJ Mayo, but the key for Ellis is that, for the first time since 2007/08, he doesn't need to be the team's primary scorer.
Ellis has always been a player that takes "first option" to mean "only option" and so on many of the bad Warriors teams he anchored and more recently in Milwaukee, his shot selection was poor, to be highly generous. But he's shooting nearly 50 per cent from the field and, more importantly , 37.8 per cent from three right now, which would be the best mark by far of his career. All in all it's helped Monta refashion himself as the very valuable offensive player he looked like he'd enjoy a long career as at 22.
The big German Dirk Nowitzki, of course, is still one of the NBA's top players, and that doesn't hurt either.
Shoutout to: New Orleans, who, after starting 3-6, have won three in a row to move back to .500. They play in maybe the toughest division in the NBA, so it will be an uphill battle for the Pelicans all year, but then again they have Anthony Davis, who is emerging as maybe one of the five best players in basketball.
The All-NBA first team, right now:
Guard: Chris Paul, LAC; Guard: Mike Conley, MEM; Forward: LeBron James, MIA; Forward: Anthony Davis, NOP; Center: DeMarcus Cousins, SAC
The All-NBA second team, right now:
Guard: James Harden, HOU; Guard: Monta Ellis, DAL; Forward: Kevin Love, MIN; Forward: Paul George, IND; Center: Andre Drummond, DET
The All-NBA third team, right now:
Guard: Arron Afflalo, ORL; Guard: Stephen Curry, GSW; Foward: Blake Griffin, LAC; Forward: Dirk Nowitzki, DAL; Center: Roy Hibbert, IND
What....... what is that?
Seriously though, that's just about the reverse of what anyone would have reasonably expected before the year. The Atlantic Division is upside down. Brooklyn and New York are expensive, star-studded disasters so far. Boston and Philadelphia are bad, but not Andrew Wiggins-bad, and Toronto sits there on top by virtue of being least-bad.
So what happened to the very costly Mikhail Prokhorov experiment in Brooklyn? You might be tempted to point to injuries, but the truth is only Brook Lopez and Deron Williams have missed any time, and it's only been a couple of games each. The dark truth simply is that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett haven't been very good. Maybe it's an early-season rut, or maybe time really has caught up with the duo, which would make for a very, very bad short and long-term situation for the Nets.
The Miami Heat are the presumptive favourite to win their third straight NBA title, but here are the five teams that look like their most serious threat to achieving that so far.
1. Indiana Pacers
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
4. Los Angeles Clippers
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Around the world in 30 words (give or take a hundred):
Three teams in the Euroleague clinched qualification for the Top 16, the same three teams that have dominated the competition so far - Real Madrid, Olympiacos and Fenerbahce Istanbul. We'll take a brief look at each:
Real Madrid - This is very much Nikola Mirotic's ball club. With Derrick Rose out for the year after hurting his other knee (an incredibly sad development for a wonderful talent), Bulls fans have to be wondering how much Mirotic could help their own side.
Right now he's in Spain, though, and in six Euroleague contests he's averaged 14.17 PPG (a solid total for the competition) and shot 66 percent from three (10-for-15). With two solid veteran Spaniard guards, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez, Real might have the best top-three of any squad in Europe.
Fenerbahce - Bojan Bogdanovic hasn't found a way to get to the NBA, but he's been one of the two or three best players in Europe this year, scoring 20.17 PPG and shooting a hair over 70 per cent overall. The 24 year old Croatian could help more than a few sides in America.
He's surrounded by a decent Turkish forward, Emir Preldzic (10.83 PPG, third in rebounds) and Linas Kleiza is also on this team.
Olympiacos - Vassilis Spanoulis (14.83 PPG) and American Matthew Lojeski (14.17 PPG) have handled the scoring load for the Greek giants, with Lojeski shooting 59 per cent from three.
Georgios Printezis has held things down for them inside, pulling down a team-best 6.5 rebounds per game while chipping in a hair over 10 PPG with better than 50 per cent shooting inside.
Former Texas A&M star and one-time NBA lottery pick Acie Law is also on this team, which many American fans will be amused to learn.