With the 2013-14 regular season reaching the conclusion of its first quarter, it’s time to look at some of the more surprising developments after the first 20-odd games. We haven’t yet reached Christmas and the lead-up to the 2014 All Star Game in New Orleans is still around two months away, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some developments that caught a lot of people off guard.
My, what an interesting start to the 2013-14 NBA season it has been.
You can’t convince me that nobody saw a few of these teams performing the way they have. Nobody could have seen the Brooklyn Nets or New York Knicks playing this bad, nor could they have seen the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns performing well above expectations prior to the beginning of the season.
Sure, you got the usual suspects playing well: the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. And some of the teams expected to be bottom-feeders, the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz, are playing about how many predicted. But there have been a number of surprises this year, both positive and negative, that have intrigued even the most seasoned of NBA observers.
The plot thickens even more when you realize what the summer of 2014 entails. With so many teams having unpredictable starts and facing unforeseen ends, it’s going to be a while before the pieces begin to fall in place. Who will earn one of the top picks, who is most likely to strike in what’s going to be one of the most intense free agency periods since 2010, and who will compete later on in the playoffs, are all unanaswerable questions after the season’s first quarter.
One can’t even predict what will occur in either conference. Yeah, you can guess Miami and Indiana will end up representing out East, but a contest between those two is still up in the air, as is every matchup that’s set to occur out West.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Either way, the start of the season hasn’t produced a lot of entertainment, with the exception of a pair of games between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors, but there’s still reason to be intrigued early on with the over/underwhelming performances of certain teams.
I’ll take a look at 15 of these surprises and how they’ve possibly reversed what a majority of analaysts may have predicted going into the season.
*** *** ***
1. Michael Beasley: A Star Is Born Again
Not four months ago were we predicting that Michael Beasley might have squandered his last chance to prove himself a competent rotation player in the NBA.
The Miami Heat, where he started his NBA career in 2008, were the only team to listen to Beasley’s plea for one more chance. He proposed the idea of working on a non-guaranteed contract and has since earned the trust of the Heat coaching staff through inspired and active play.
All the reasons why the Heat originally allowed Beasley to walk in 2010 have seemingly been erased. What makes his story so intriguing is that he was relatively the same player in the two years he spent with Minnesota and the season with Phoenix; he was inefficient, looked lost when he wasn’t the focus of the offense, and wasn’t exactly an astute defender.
But there’s something about this Heat team that has brought out the best in the gears that make this machine churn. Whether it’s the veteran influence surrounding him, or buying entirely into coach Erik Spoelstra‘s energy-driven system, Beasley has been one of the league’s most improved players.
On top of averaging 11.4 points off the bench on 55 percent overall shooting and 50 percent shooting from beyond the arc, Beasley also has the third-highest net rating (the disparity between offensive and defensive rating) on the Heat. His effective field-goal percentage of 58.4 percent ranks 24th in the league.
Beasley has rose through the ranks from a possible training camp cut to a key rotation player off-the-bench. He won’t end up as the 20-point, 10-rebound a night guy we were expecting when he was drafted out of Kansas State, but it is evident that there is a career worth reviving, one that has already yielded the Heat untapped resources they haven’t had off their bench before.
2. Paul George’s MVP Pace
If Paul George continues to play like he has over the seaosn’s first quarter, Kevin Durant may be satisfied with being the league’s second-best player.
Paul George has been that good this year. We were convinced that George would be a steal for the Indiana Pacers when they took him with the No. 9 pick in 2010 out of Fresno State. We were convinced he’d be a quality player. Some were even convinced he’d be a perennial All-Star.
But an MVP candidate in only his fourth year? The Pacers’ forward has been on a mission this year, possibly as a result of last year’s crushing end that featured a nine-point effort in a 19-point loss in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Not only is George attempting to prove he can lead the Pacers past the Heat, but he may also be proving that he’s worthy of also denying LeBron James a third consecutive MVP on top of a third consecutive NBA Finals victory.
Thus far, George is averaging 25.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game, while shooting 48 percent from the field and 43 percent, on nearly seven attempts per game, from beyond the arc.
He is cementing himself as one of the league’s top players on both sides of the ball. On the offensive end, George may already be considered in elite company when it comes to shooting the ball. He is a 51 percent shooter in catch-and-shoot situations, averaging over seven points a night, and a 39 percent pull-up shooter, where he’s generating another eight points, per the NBA’s new SportVU cameras. His effective field-goal percentage of 55.3 percent ranks fourth among the league’s top 25 players in points per game.
With the Pacers at 18-3 and currently boasting one of the greatest defenses in NBA history, Paul George may be a few head-to-head victories away from being an MVP around the time he turns 24.
3. The Brooklyn Nets
Where do I even begin? I’ll let you choose:
Do we start off with the Brooklyn Nets ranking 29th in defensive efficiency? Or the equally as bad No. 20 ranked offense in points per possession? No? Because we could also start off with 6-14 record or the fact that future Hallâ€”of-Famer Kevin Garnett is averaging fewer points per game than Alan Andersen, Shaun Livingston and Mason Plumlee.
The Nets were supposed to create a roster that was going to be in win-now mode after trading for several Boston Celtic veterans in Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, as well as signing Andrei Kirilenko. Not one of those players, or anybody else on the roster, has lived up to expectations when they were signed.
Pierce is shooting 37 percent from the field and 27 percent from beyond the arc; Terry has played in only 11 games; AK-47 has played in five; Deron Williams, who will be making $18.5 million this year, is averaging nine PPG and shooting 40 percent; Shaun Livingston may be the team’s third-best player.
These are all real things that are happening. None of it is fabricated. Those numbers are taken from legitimate and reputable websites and rest assured they are facts that have occurred as I tentatively write this.
There are bad teams and then there’s the Nets. As is usually the case with bad teams, they often feature a scrappy roster that can enthrall viewers with their effort and stubborness, and who can play every game to the last minute, or it’s a team that has a bunch of promising young players who just need a few years of playing together before they can compete.
The Nets don’t have that. It’s a roster of overpaid veterans nearing retirement, led by a rookie head coach that has now been underwhelming and crippling to both of New York’s franchises in the past two years.
They are devoid of any young talent outside of Brook Lopez and don’t have a draft pick until 2017. All of their money, over $100 million of it, is wrapped up on a roster with immovable contracts, meaning that they’re stuck with this roster until the Garnett and Pierce deals run out, which won’t be until the end of 2015.
And yet, they still may not be the worst team in the state of New York.
4. The New York Knicks
Lose Tyson Chandler for a few weeks and you see why he was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
Look at the New York Knicks on defense, or in general, and you’ll see what Chandler means to this team. They have the league’s third worst defense at the moment, per NBA.com, after ranking 5th and 16th, respectively, in 2012 and 2013. He’s only played in four games this year and it hasn’t taken much to show how much Tyson means to this team.
The team is a mess, basically. They’re just a bad team that doesn’t know how to play basketball the right way on either end of the court. I’m not just saying this because the 41-point home loss to Boston is in my memory, it’s because they’re an awful team this year and it shows in their 5-14 record.
Only the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz have worse records.
It’s the same story for New York since Carmelo Anthony arrived. He’s shooting the ball too much, nobody on offense is able to get into a rhythm, and far too many three-pointers â€” 25 attempts per game, which ranks third in the league â€” are being attempted and not being converted.
The team’s best shooter has been rookie Tim Hardaway, Jr., who is shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Anthony, Andrea Bargnani, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Metta World Peace are all taking at least two 3-pointers per game and none are shooting better than 34 percent from the perimeter. Smith, who was signed to an $18 million deal this summer, is shooting 35 percent from the field and 33 percent from three.
They might as well go to Rucker Park and play the same game because that’s the style they’re playing right now: pickup basketball. It’s a team of people that seemingly have no idea how to play together because they don’t know each other and it leads to a succession of shot-chucking until the game sort of just ends.
The big question remains: do the Knicks want to sign Carmelo Anthony to a max deal this offseason? Is he going to be good enough to beat the Miami Heat and their Big Three, assuming they all return, or a healthy Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, or Paul George and the Indiana Pacers?
If the answer is anything but yes, then why bother investing nearly $20 million per year into a player who will bring only marginal success? For the illusion of winning and the fun-while-it-lasts regular season victories?
5. The Boston Celtics: Third Best Team out East?
It really doesn’t matter who the third-best team in the Eastern Conference is this year [Ed. note: we disagree]. With the Chicago Bulls losing Derrick Rose for another season and both of New York’s franchises disappointing, it’s left the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers as the only teams with a shot to win the East.
Still, there are some Eastern teams out there with promising futures. Teams such as the Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons have proven that they could be quality competition in the next few years, as have the Charlotte Bobcats and Philadelphia 76ers.
The Boston Celtics, however, have been the most surprising of these teams by far. After completing the trade sending Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn, it was believed the Celtics were headed towards a season of tanking since their best acquistions in the deal were the likes of Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries.
But that hasn’t stopped rookie head coach Brad Stevens from leading the ambitious young Celtics to the Atlantic Division lead. It’s not much to boast about, since they’re 10-12, but a below-average record may be all the Celtics need to actually win that division and earn a No. 3 seed.
The craziest part? They’re doing all of this without Rajon Rondo, who is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last January.
Boston is led by Jeff Green, who has continued to impress with his shooting ability from seemingly everywhere on the court, Jordan Crawford and his newfound ability to pass (he’s actually leading the team in assists per game), and Avery Bradley‘s continued inspired defense. Bradley leads a defense that ranks ninth in the league in defensive efficiency.
It’s essentially the same players from last year’s roster have have been supporting the unexpected start. Wallace has played in all 22 games, but is averaging less than five points per game; Humphries is averaging only 15 minutes per contest, and MarShon Brooks has only been featured in seven games.
No, somehow it’s the rotations that include Vitor Faverani, Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey that have led Boston to the lead in their division, which I know we all saw coming.
6. The Decrepit Eastern Conference
The Western Conference has long held an edge over the Eastern Conference in terms of it’s overall composition. From top-to-bottom, especially within the top eight seeds, there is a clear disparity, with the West holding an edge when it comes to talent and even excitement.
At the time of this writing, the West’s No. 8 seed, the Phoenix Suns, would be a 3 seed in the East. The Atlanta Hawks, the East’s third-best team, record-wise, would not make the playoffs out West. Outside of the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, there’s not a chance a team out East could hold up against any playoff team out West in a seven-game series.
This is occurring partly because of the All-Stars that are being hoarded by so few teams. There are three All-Stars alone on Miami, but they’re at least playing well on arguably the league’s best team. Teams like the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, however â€” who loaded up on All-Stars and are now awful because of it â€” have kept many other teams from having an All-Star of their own.
Since so many former All-Stars are on the Nets and Knicks alone, that’s not allowing other franchises who could have signed just one of those players and would probably end up flourishing with role pieces around them. The Nets and Knicks are just wasting the talent and time of some of the league’s best players.
Plus, there are a lot of teams out East that are finally having their young talent come together and put out a legitimate product. The Wizards, led by John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Orlando Magic, led by Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic, and the Charlotte Bobcats, led by Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, are all evolving into solid teams that will need another year or two of polish before they can truly contend â€” even in the East.
It also doesn’t help that Derrick Rose still isn’t healthy.
Fans are just going to have to weather the storm this year. Come next year, however, there should be a far more respectable number of teams that can actually post a winning record in arguably one of the worst Eastern Conferences in NBA history.
Things are likely to change, say, if the Magic end up with Andrew Wiggins or the Bucks wind up with Jabari Parker.
The West will still own the East from top-to-bottom as it usually has over the past decade-and-a-half, but it won’t be as devastatingly apparent as it has been this year.
7. The Curious Case of Anthony Bennett
Since 2011, the Cleveland Cavaliers have had four lottery picks within the top five. Three of those picks turned into Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, while the fourth pick, who is also the second No. 1 pick for Cleveland since LeBron left, has yet to make a name for himself.
Anthony Bennett, selected ahead of Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams and Ben McLemore, possesses the league’s second-worst PER after 16 games.
Should I repeat myself? Alright, here it goes: the league’s No. 1 one draft pick in 2013 ranks 321 out of 322 players in PER. Only Marquis Teague, who was sent to the D-League, has a lower Player Efficiency Rating. Bennett is bordering on having a negative rating, and is only 14-and-a-half points away from the league average of 15.
Bennett’s true shooting percentage of 27 is tied for worst in the league. But since he is tied with Teague, who is not in the league at the moment, he actually has the worst true shooting percentage in the league.
He’s averaging 2.1 PPG on 23 percent shooting, and is only converting 19 percent of his three-pointers. He also found a way to shoot less than 40 percent from the foul line. He has yet to score more than nine points in a game and has recorded nearly three times as many turnovers as assists.
You can actually see all of his misses, with a few makes, here:
What stands out to you besides that he looks overweight and incapable of making shots from anywhere on the court? To me, it’s the shot-selection. 37 percent of his shots this season have come from beyond the arc, even though he’s one of the league’s worst shooters.
It could all be nerves or it could be he actually can’t play and the Cavs should have definitely taken Victor Oladipo, because there’s a problem when the team’s best rookie is the undrafted Matthew Dellavedova.
In case the Cavs want to look back at their other mistakes in the past three years, they also probably should have selected Harrison Barnes or Andre Drummond over Dion Waiters, and they definitely have taken Klay Thompson or Jonas Valanciunas over Tristan Thompson.
Then again, hindsight is 20/20.
8. The Cleveland Cavaliers Disproving LeBron’s Return
Since we’re on top of the Cleveland Cavaliers, we could also discuss â€” as a whole â€” how this team has been an absolute mess thus far.
This team entered the year with high hopes for the first time since the start of the 2009-10 season, their final year starting LeBron James. With a lineup of high draft picks, including All-Star Kyrie Irving, the return of Anderson Varejao from injury, and the addition of Andrew Bynum, the Cavs were predicted to be a team that could reside somewhere near the middle of the playof picture in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
Not just for this year, either. The Cavaliers, like many other teams, are going to want LeBron James next summer if he does in fact opt-out. Unlike many other teams, however, Cleveland had the advantage of having previously employed LeBron, as well as having his hometown of Akron nearby.
It was all going to fit in so perfectly, too, as Kyrie Irving would prove himself more capable than Dwyane Wade of being LeBron’s number-two guy. Then the season started, and we saw why exactly LeBron will not return to the mess he left behind. At 7-13, they’ve already been mired in a five-game losing streak and have lost eight of those 13 games by a double-digit margin, including a 95-84 home loss to the Miami Heat.
Cleveland’s also given up at least 124 points on three occasions. True, one of those games needed double-overtime, but there are still few excuses to give up 124 points to the league’s 12th-best offense at the moment and 126 points to the seventh-best.
They only rank 17th in defensive efficiency, but they make up for it with the league’s second-lowest offensive efficiency and the second-lowest true shooting percentage.
Their star player, Kyrie, is shooting below 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep. He did not shoot below 45 percent from the field or 39 percent from beyond the arc in his first two NBA seasons.
Oh, and they already had Dion Waiters, their lottery pick from last year, muddled in trade rumors and supposedly getting into locker-room arguments with Kyrie. Fun times in Cleveland!
9. Andre Drummond: The League’s Best Center At Age 20?
I find no stat more surprising from Andre Drummond than the fact that he is somehow only 20 years old [Ed. note: his FT percentage is pretty surprising, too]. The surprise stems from a combination of looking old and putting up the numbers of a veteran. Averaging 33 minutes per game in his second year, Drummond is putting up an impressive 13.5 points and 13 rebounds per game, the latter of which is enough for third in the league, including 5.2 offensive rebounds a game, which leads the league by nearly a full rebound.
Among the league’s top rebounders, Drummond is near the top when it comes to contested rebounding percentage. With nearly 45 percent of his rebounds being contested, Drummond ranks second among players who average at least ten boards in contested rebounding percentage. He only trails Anthony Davis â€” who averages three fewer rebounds.
Drummond also leads the league’s top rebounders in percentage of rebounds per chance, defined as “the number of rebounds a player recovers compared to the number of rebounding chances,” at 73 percent.
But rebounding is only one of Drummond’s strong suits, as he’s also an intimidating presence in the paint. Equipped with the body of a titan and the athleticism of a track star, Drummond is sending back 1.4 blocks per game and holding opponents to 48 percent shooting on over seven attempts at the rim per game.
It’s with his hands, though, where Drummond truly excels on defense. His 1.9 steals per game rank 12th in the league, which is tops among centers and power forwards. The Pistons rank 18th in the league in defensive efficiency, an improvement from last year’s 23rd ranking and their 25th ranking two years ago.
On offense, Drummond leads the league shooting 64 percent from the field, and he’s only two points away from averaging double what he was putting up last year. Unfortunately, he’s severely hindered by his free throw shooting, where his 38 percent conversion rate is the worst among all active rotation players.
Yes, that includes DeAndre Jordan. The worst free throw shooter in history would be Ben Wallace, who lowered the bar to a staggering 41 percent. In two years, however, Drummond is shooting 37 percent. Free throws aside, Drummond may arguably be considered one of the league’s top centers before the year is done.
10. A Second Team Crazy Enough To Take On Rudy Gay’s Contract
The idea of an NBA contract so foul that it cannot be transferred from team to team is officially a myth.
I have seen Gilbert Arenas and Rashard Lewis swap teams in astonishment and have seen the Nets openly take on the deals of Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in wonder. But never did I expect Rudy Gay’s five-year, $82 million deal to move not once, but on two separate occasions.
Last week, Rudy was traded to the Sacramento Kings, along with Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray, for the services of Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons â€” the latter of whom has already been waived.
It’s a clear salary dump for Toronto, who were able to get out of paying Gay the remaing amount of hs $18 million this year after trading for him in 2013 in the deal that sent Jose Calderon to Detroit and Ed Davis to Memphis. Despite having solid players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in the same starting lineup, Gay failed to lead the Raptors to the postseason.
They didn’t exactly appear destined this year, despite high hopes leading into the season. They currently stand at 7-12, but are only two games out of the top spot in the Atlantic Division. That’s not saying much, but it’s a postseason berth nonetheless.
Gay was averaging 19.4 points on 39 percent shooting before the Kings decided to help pull off one of the most questionable trades in recent memory. They now unite the shot-chucking forces of Rudy with DeMarcus Cousins, who may or may not be ready to begin sharing the ball with someone who was taking a career-high 19 shots per game this season before the trade.
The Kings weren’t going anywhere before this move, but they’ve really took themselves out of a playoff spot for good now. The West is too strong for a team as undisciplined and porous on defense like Sacramento to make the playoffs. Adding Gay will only prolong their mediocrity and instill close to $20 million per year with a single player, rather than that money being devoted to a pair of solid free agents that could surround Cousins. Maybe Rudy will opt-out of his player option this summer? Kings fans can only hope.
11. The Phoenix Suns: Playoff Bound?
Of all the surprising starts by teams in this unpredictable season’s first quarter, the rise of the Phoenix Suns may have been the most jarring.
The Suns, predicted by many to compete for the league’s worst record this season, currently stand at 11-9, good enough for second in the Pacific Division and the final playoff spot out West. They’ve given Portland half of their losses on the season and may end up playing the role of spoiler when playoff hopefuls, such as Minnesota or New Orleans, are fighting for a playoff spot.
On top of Eric Bledsoe playing as if he deserves a max deal, the Suns have also been receiving solid contributions from the unexpected places. Gerald Green, the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus, respectively), and P.J. Tucker, who has quietly been one of the league’s top shooters this season with a 50 percent mark from beyond the arc.
Miles Plumlee has also been a surprise. He’s nearly averaging a double-double (9.8 points and 8.5 rebounds a game) in his second season since being sent over from Indy in the trade Luis Scola headlined.
The Suns are boasting one of the league’s top offenses, one which ranks seventh in offensive efficiency this season. Their shooting ability and ability to score in transition has made them a dangerous team on the offensive end, ranking fifth in three-pointers made per game.
As a team, they’re shooting 41 percent on spot-up jumpers from beyond the arc. Channing Frye, Green, the Morris twins, and Bledsoe are all shooting better than 35 percent from three. Surprisingly, Goran Dragic, a career 35 percent three-point shooter, has been weighing the Suns down hitting only 31 percent of his threes.
The Suns are just another example of a team with seemingly no players that stand out, who are still playing well with great energy and excellent three-point shooting. With the type of inspired play they’ve been exhibiting, it’s going to lead to some eyes being drawn into seeing how it all works.
However, that’s also going to lead to attention being paid to Bledsoe, who will be a free agent this offseason. After missing out on Eric Gordon last offseason, the Suns may very well throw all their money at Bledsoe in hopes that he’ll become their floor leader for the next five years.
12. The Portland Trail Blazers Have the League’s Best Offense
Predicted to be a low playoff seed prior to the start of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers have propelled their way to the upper eschilon of the league with an 18-4 start.
It’s not like they’re just beating cupcakes, either. No, Portland’s already secured wins over San Antonio, Denver, Chicago, Indiana and Oklahoma City. Two of their four losses have come against the Phoenix Suns, who they have already played three times this season.
The Blazers have been supported by the most efficient offense in the league, one which is garnering 109.5 points per 100 possessions, a full point more than the second place Miami Heat. They’re doing so with a top five true shooting percentage, as well as a top five turnover ratio.
Mainly, however, they’ve been supported by some phenomenal three-point shooting, where they’re collectively shooting 41.5 percent from beyond the arc, second in the league behind the Golden State Warriors. Their 9.3 three-pointers per game is the third most in the league.
Among those contributing to the three-point bonanza include Damian Lillard (2.9 a game on 42 percent shooting), Wesley Matthews (2.6; 48 percent) and Nicolas Batum (2.2; 42 percent), as well as newcomers Mo Williams and Dorell Wright, both of whom average a couple three-pointers a game.
They’re getting a great deal of these looks off of their passing along the perimeter, as well as with the high-low game they play with LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland ranks seventh in the league in assists per game, and feature a top 10 assist ratio on shots made, leading to the 43 percent they’re shooting on spot-up three-pointers, per Synergy.
Speaking of pull-up jumpers, second-year guard Damian Lillard rivals Stephen Curry as the league’s best pull-up shooter. He’s shooting 38 percent overall on such shots and an equally impressive 37 percent from beyond the arc.
On top of the elite-level shooting of the Blazers, LaMarcus Aldridge is having a career-year as he enters his prime at 28 years old. In 22 games this year, Aldridge is averaging career-highs in PPG (23.2), RPG (10) and APG (2.7).
With so much improvement from so many key players and a bench they can rely on, Portland can challenge the rest of the West deep in the postseason. However, they’re going to need guys like Lillard, Matthews and Batum to continue hitting their threes, otherwise they’ll place all the pressure back on Aldridge.
Portland ranked in the bottom third in three-point percentage last year. Keep an eye on their perimeter shooting throughout the year, especially once the postseason rolls around and open looks beyond the arc disappear.
13.The Healthy Balance of the Los Angeles Lakers
What a shame it is that Kobe Bryant has returned to ruin the good things that have been happening in Los Angeles.
Only kidding. It’ll take a few more games before I begin to declare Kobe Bryant’s career on the decline. In my years of watching basketball, doubting Kobe Bryant has never paid off.
But I digress. While Kobe has been rehabbing from his torn Achilles’ tendon, the scrappy roster that is being led by the likes of Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson has been pushing the Lakers to .500 ball thanks in part to a balance that can be seen nowhere else.
Nick Young is the team’s leading scorer at only 14.4 points per game, but there are ten players on this team averaging at least eight points per game, and 12 averaging at least five. Robert Sacre is the only player that has played at least five games and is averaging less than five points.
With Mike D’Antoni preaching his brand of uptempo offense, which involves the little-known art of moving the ball, the Lakers can boast one of the league’s top teams when it comes to passing, ranking fourth in the league by dishing 24 assists a game.
All of the passing leads to more open looks from three, where the team has set up shop. They actually lead the league with nearly 11 made three-pointers per game and are doing so with the third-best shooting percentage from beyond the arc.
There’s an even and efficient balance between each member of the Lakers, who feature six rotation players averaging at least one three-pointer per game. Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson have stood out, shooting 47 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
There’s something about a team without a star that can bring out the best in each of those role players who are attempting to make everything come together. Like Boston, they’re using teamwork in the absence of an All-Star level player. Without an All-Star leading the way â€” at least early on â€” it allows the role players to buy completely into the coach’s system, which usually includes moving the ball and playing with an effort that exceeds that of the opponent.
We’ll see if the addition of Kobe mucks this up a bit.
14. The Charlotte Bobcats: One of the league’s best defenses?
Looks like we’re going to find a new franchise to use in the “At least we’re not the Charlotte Bobcats” pick-me-up after a loss.
The Bobcats are 10-11 this season and would be a No. 5 seed in the East if the season ended today.
With offseason pickup Al Jefferson contributing 15.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, numbers they weren’t getting from any big last year, you would assume the Bobcats have seen the sudden reversal in fortune on account of the boost on offense, right?
Well, it doesn’t help that Kemba Walker and Jeff Taylor are both shooting less than 40 percent â€” with Gerald Henderson not too far from doing the same â€” but it’s not the offense that’s helped to finally get Charlotte out of the basement out East.
They’re in the bottom three for offensive efficiency this season, but they’ve supported themselves by possessing the league’s third-stingiest defense. They’re right up there with the likes of other defensive stalwarts in the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, and Chicago Bulls. The 92 points per game they’re giving up is second in the league. If the Indiana Pacers weren’t playing at such a historic pace, Charlotte may legitimately have the league’s top defense.
Their defense is supported by their ability to disrupt offenses, especially in the pick-and-roll where they are forcing ball-handlers into shooting 36 percent and the roll man into 42 percent shooting. With athletes that can boast speed and athleticism, guys like Walker, Henderson and Taylor can cover the perimeter and stay in passing lanes to keep offenses from completing their intended plays.
It takes a comprehensive look into Charlotte’s defense to see how it all works. They’re eighth in the league in blocks per game, but are near the bottom of the league when it comes to steals. Plus, Al Jefferson is allowing 54 percent shooting on shots close to the rim, so it’s not as if Jefferson’s defense has turned things around, not that you suspected that in the first place.
Here’s a deeper look into Charlotte’s defensive improvement, which stems from forcing more mid-range jump shots and playing with more of an effort from the year prior.
But the most impressive stat by far? The fact that this same Charlotte team ranked dead-last in the league last year in defensive efficiency, giving up 108.9 points per 100 possessions. That number has dropped nearly a full 12 points so far this season, finally providing the Bobcats with an identity other than “worst team in history.”
15. Monta Ellis Finally Has It All
I couldn’t have been the only one that was skeptical of a lineup that was going to feature Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki.
As talented a player as Ellis is, his recent string of inefficiency leading up to this season led you to believe that he would only disrupt what was going to be one of the league’s best pick-and-roll tandems in Jose Calderon â€” who also joined the team this summer â€” and Nowitzki.
Instead, it’s Ellis who’s profiting the most off of playing in the pick-and-roll, ranking 11th in the league in points per possession when he’s the pick-and-roll ball handler, according to Synergy. He utilizes the pick-and-roll for 45 percent of his game, which is why it’s no surprise that Ellis is one of the league’s best, if not the best, driver in the NBA.
Ellis, who is averaging 21.5 PPG on 47 percent shooting, leads the league in total drives, with 228, and is also leading in points scored on those drives, when he shoots 49 percent. In an average game, Ellis is generating nearly 13 points off of his attacks, second in the league only to Ty Lawson.
He’s also been hitting the three-pointers he was missing at a deplorable clip in the two prior seasons. His 37 percent conversion rate from deep comes on the heels of shooting 31 percent in 2012 and 29 percent in 2013.
The frequency of Monta’s drives stem from being able to beat teams up in the pick-and-roll because of the threat of a Dirk Nowitzki spot-up. Ellis, being as fast as he is and ranking fourth in the league in total miles traveled, is able to feast on indecisive defenses that have to either commit to stopping his drive, or guarding Dirk from knocking down open jumpers.
Ellis and Nowitzki are combining to average 42 points per contest and have aided the Mavericks in their journey to return to the postseason following the team’s unwise free agency moves after their 2011 Title.
What do you think?
Follow John on Twitter at @JFriel1990.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.