5 NBA Contenders & Pretenders

All stats from games prior to Friday

Even when sample sizes are small and records give no indication of anything worthwhile, the first week or two of the NBA season can still show audiences which teams are contenders and which are merely pretending.

The contenders, the teams that built off of either their offseason success as a result of keen free agency moves or those that are thriving off of the development of certain players, are already giving notice that they are a squad worth recognizing.

It’s early, I understand. Injuries and variables can play a role and prove me wrong, just as one of the teams that I predicted to be one of the worst can now be considered as one of the tougher teams in the league to beat.

Also, in terms of contenders, it doesn’t exactly mean championship contention. It could simply mean playoff contention depending on where the team stood last year and how far they’ve progressed over the offseason and in the first week of the regular season.

Meanwhile, the pretenders are already making their presence felt. They carry much of the same problems and predicaments from the year prior when they failed to execute their primary goals, or they made some unwise moves over the offseason that haven’t exactly paid off yet.

There’s still plenty of time to change. We are only a week into the season after all. But for some of these pretenders, old habits seem to die hard and sometimes adding on an All-Star doesn’t cancel out the fact that you need a team to win titles.

We analyze these pretenders and contenders with an overzealous look into the first week of the 2013-14 season.

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Indiana Pacers
The only undefeated team left in the NBA after the first week of the 2013-14 season, the Indiana Pacers are living up to preseason claims that they were capable of dethroning the Miami Heat at the top spot in the East.

Indiana came a game away from their first NBA Finals berth in a decade, but ultimately faltered due to their bench, or lack thereof. With that in mind, the Pacers front office took to free agency and made the most out of it, acquiring power forward Luis Scola to replace Tyler Hansbrough and C.J. Watson to takeover for D.J. Augustin, two significant improvements that are proving wise with Scola coming off the bench to average seven points on 60 percent shooting and Watson taking over starting duties for the injured George Hill.

But Indiana has far more than a few solid pickups to credit for their hot start. They also picked up right where they left on priding themselves on defense. A year after leading the league in defensive efficiency, per Hollinger, allowing 96.6 points per 100 possessions, Indiana is once again No. 1, pacing the field with only 85.6 points per 100 possessions allowed.

The Pacers are allowing opponents to shoot 37 percent from the field and only 84 points per game, tops in the league by a considerable margin. In fact, no other team is allowing less than 93 points per game.

They’re not exactly holding cellar-dwellers to these low point totals, either. They allowed 87 points to an Orlando team that’s averaging 103 and 91 points to a Detroit team averaging 100. They have decimated the three divisional opponents (Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland) they have faced.

They’re also third in rebounding rate, the percentage of missed shots that a team rebounds, thanks to four players averaging at least six boards per. Roy Hibbert, naturally, leads the way at nine boards per, on top of being an early candidate for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Per SportVU, Hibbert is allowing opponents to shoot less than 30 percent on an average of 11 field goal attempts at the rim per game, and leads the league in blocks per at over five. Per 36 minutes, he’s sending back over six shots a contest.

At a rebounding standpoint, Hibbert is also excelling, ranking sixth in the league in contested rebounding percentage among players who average at least 25 minutes and have played at least three games this season. More than half of the rebounds he grabs come as contested.

He’s not alone on the defensive front, though, as Paul George, who is an early candidate for the league’s MVP, is allowing opponents to shoot a paltry 15 percent on nearly three field goal attempts per game at the rim.

George is just one of a few players on this Pacers team that has started off the season by exceeding expectations. He’s averaging 25.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, four assists and 1.8 steals per game, while shooting 48 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc, and has played a key role in Indiana’s impressive start.

Second-round pick Lance Stephenson, passed over by many teams on account of character issues, has also come out guns blazing with averages of 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists per. He’s actually the team’s second-highest scorer at the moment.

The Pacers have flexed their depth, their size, and their physicality in the early portion of the season. They’ll need it for the postseason if they wish to become the first team since 2010 not named the Miami Heat to represent the East in the Finals.

Golden State Warriors
At the moment, it’s not the Golden State Warriors offense that scares me. I mean, there’s plenty to be scared of when you have two of the league’s top shooters sharing the same backcourt and a swiss army knife of a small forward, but it’s not what’s scaring me most about this Warriors team that may just make its first NBA Finals in over three decades. It’s the defense they’re playing that we did not think they were capable of.

On top of having the league’s fourth best offensive efficiency, they’re second in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing only 90.6 points per 100 possessions.

Golden State has scored at least 98 points in their five contests that gave way to a 4-3 start. They allowed over 100 points on only one occasion, and that was to the team with the league’s top offensive efficiency at the moment in the Los Angeles Clippers. Outside of that game, the Warriors had not yielded more than 94 points before giving up 108 to Memphis this weekend.

The Warriors defensive success isn’t all Andrew Bogut, either. While he is allowing opponents to shoot only 43 percent at the rim, a lot of Golden State’s early success has revolved around their ability to defend the perimeter, where they are allowing opponents to shoot less than 30 percent from beyond the arc.

Per SynergySports, opponents are only shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc and spot-up attempts, nine percent off-screens, 30 percent in transition and 13 percent in isolation settings.

It’s a surprising turnaround from last year when the Warriors ranked 14th in the league in allowing 102.6 points per possessions. A lot of it has to do with having a healthy Bogut force opponents to shoot elsewhere, and it also has to do with having a versatile, athletic defender in Andre Iguodala. He’s the team leader in plus/minus at plus-17.2 and the starting lineup that has him playing small forward is allowing only 92 points per 100 possessions. That lineup is outscoring its opponents by a staggering 27 points.

And that’s not even the best lineup for the Warriors. The Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green-Andre Iguodala-David Lee lineup that has played 16 minutes together in three games is outscoring opponents by 62.6 points.

Early sample sizes are abound, but this Warriors team is legit; and I don’t need to get into how well Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have shot, unless you want to take a look at those numbers in this article.

Houston Rockets
A few days after yielding 137 points in 48 minutes to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets found a way to top themselves by losing to a Los Angeles Lakers team that was without Kobe Bryant and featured Pau Gasol shooting 1-for-10. At home.

Houston, the team that acquired Dwight Howard and has him paired up with two of the league’s top pick-and-roll players, lost to his former team at home. It’s the third loss in four games for the Rockets after winning their first three games, beating up on the likes of Charlotte, Dallas and Utah. It’s early, I get it. We’re only seven games in and the Rockets will improve once there is a stronger chemistry between Howard and his new teammates, and possibly if there’s a stronger effort being displayed on the defensive end of the floor by certain All-Stars.

The Rockets have struggled out the gate to defend spot-ups, allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from beyond the arc, off-screens, allowing 55 percent on three-pointers, and cuts, allowing opponents to shoot 64 percent. Outside of those facets of the game, Houston’s defense has been solid, even though Howard is allowing opponents to shoot 50 percent at the rim.

A lot of the defensive problems can be placed on effort. It’s been nonexistent, especially from the team’s leading scorer in James Harden, who can be seen sluggishly and nonchalantly fighting through screens to chase J.J Redick here:

Here’s another instance where he completely bites on a Damian Lillard fake and gives up an easy layup:

Seriously, what is Harden doing in that first .gif? Even Michael Beasley would be wondering where James’s head was at when Steve Blake just walked behind him without any sense to cover.

Plus, I’m still not buying Houston’s depth at this point. They have a great starting lineup, and it’ll improve once Chandler Parsons regains his three-point stroke, but there’s nobody that comes off the bench that can be looked at as being feared or could change the tides of a game.

You can find that from the contenders; Miami with Ray Allen, San Antonio with Manu Ginobili, Indiana with Luis Scola. But not with Houston, who is sending Omri Casspi and Jeremy Lin to play heavy rotational minutes off the pine.

Casspi has played well off the bench to start the year, but history doesn’t dictate that it’ll last as his shot as fallen off yearly. He hasn’t shot better than 33 percent from beyond the arc since 2011 and the 44 percent he’s currently shooting from distance probably won’t last.

Outside of Casspi and Beverley, the Rockets are also relying on Aaron Brooks and Francisco Garcia to bail out the starting lineup. There just aren’t many names on this Rockets roster outside of the starters that you can look at and claim as reliable entities that will definitely contribute on a consistent basis in a postseason setting.

Houston can’t rely on Harden and Howard for everything. James is already averaging nearly 40 minutes of playing time per game and Dwight can only play so many minutes before falling into foul trouble. Come postseason time, the Rockets’ success will come down to how much they can rely on their backcourt defense, as well as their bench.

With backcourts like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson or ones that contain Russell Westbrook, it’s going to be intriguing to see how this team fares come May.

New York Knicks
This is just outright disappointing. The New York Knicks came into this season with lowered expectations on account of their underwhelming offseason and the improvements of several now-elite teams in their conference. You would assume they wanted to come into the year with something to prove, right? Wrong.

The Knicks are 2-4, rank in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency, 23rd in assist ratio, 19th in effective field goal percentage and 21st in true shooting-percentage, per Hollinger.

Need another analytical source? Per Synergy, the Knicks are 24th in the league in points per possession. They’re shooting 27 percent on isolation opportunities (they’ve yet to make a single isolation three-pointer) and the pick-and-roll man is at an abysmal 31 percent. They also rank among the league’s worst teams in transition at 24th.

Should you be excited that J.R. Smith is coming back? He’s coming off a career season where he won Sixth Man of the Year, but struggled significantly in the postseason, shooting 33 percent, and is coming off offseason knee surgery.

But anything would help at this moment because the start to the Knicks 2013-14 season has been one to forget. With the exception of the first half of the first game against the Milwaukee Bucks, New York has played as poorly on both ends as one could imagine from a team that was considered a title favorite last year.

They fell in a close one to Chicago Bulls where Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony exchanged isolation bricks until the 2011 MVP converted one, succumbed to 34 points and 19 rebounds in a loss to Minnesota where they were down by 21 after the first quarter, and finally capped off the year with a home loss to a Charlotte Bobcats team playing without Al Jefferson and a blowout against San Antonio.

Does it get much worse? Well, yes, of course it gets worse. New York’s lone investor in the concept of defense in Tyson Chandler was reported to have a fractured right fibula that’s going to keep him out for at least a month.

The Knicks will now have to rely on 35-year-old Kenyon Martin to play minutes at the five. They don’t have a choice, unless they want to give that position to the team’s only other seven-footer in Andrea Bargnani or journeyman Cole Aldrich.

I won’t even consider Amar’e Stoudemire. He is broken and it should make you sad that the former master of the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash has been reduced to this. After two games and 22 minutes, Stoudemire had a PER of -5.2. I can’t make this up. (He’s since raised that number to 1.3.)

Chandler had been allowing opponents to shoot only 41 percent at the rim on over nine attempts per game and was also sending back nearly three shots a contest.

I can’t believe I’ve spoken this long about Knicks’ futility without bringing up Carmelo Anthony. The 2013 scoring champion is averaging over 23 points per game, but is doing so on over 22 shots per and on 37 percent shooting overall and 30 percent from beyond the arc.

The three-point shooting that New York so heavily relied on last year to make it to the Eastern Conference semifinals is also failing them. A year after making a league-leading 10.9 makes per on 38 percent shooting, they’re converting only seven attempts at a 30 percent conversion rate.

Don’t assume that’s stopped them from taking those shots, though, as they’re eighth in the league in three-point attempts. The fact that Metta World Peace has been this team’s best shooter is nothing less than comical.

Here’s one more stat to get the blood boiling: Andrea Bargnani is averaging two rebounds per game. This has been New York’s starting power forward for three games.

Los Angeles Clippers
I’m not going to get too in-depth on the Clippers and why I think they’re pretenders because it’s been the same story since Chris Paul arrived: I’m not buying Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as a frontcourt that can contribute to this team in moments when they’re needed.

This team is Chris Paul or bust, and it’s why they’re currently the league’s top team in offensive efficiency. Per SportVU, he leads the league in touches by an extravagant total, having 629 to second-place Kemba Walker‘s 466, and is the only player in the league averaging more than 100 touches per contest.

Naturally, he also leads the league in time of possession, holding onto the ball for nearly seven-and-a-half minutes per contest. Basically any stat that includes touches or passing, Chris Paul is leading in it because what other options do the Clippers have.

But here’s the most egregious stat: Chris Paul is generating 28 points through his assists. No other player is averaging more than 23. It’s a testament to just how outstanding of a player Chris Paul, the league-leader in assists that has yet to not have a double-double this season involving points and assists, really is.

The lineup that has played the most minutes without Chris Paul has been one that has featured Darren Collison at point, Willie Green at the two, Jamal Crawford at three, Byron Mullens at four and DeAndre Jordan at five. That lineup has played 10 minutes together and has an offensive rating of 75.2 points per 100 possessions.

And that’s just the problems on offense. On defense, the Clippers are one of the league’s worst teams, allowing a league-worst 107.8 points per 100 possessions. This is the sacrifice you make when adding J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to the team.

The Paul-Crawford-Dudley-Griffin-Jordan lineup has played 18 minutes together in five games and is allowing 141.6 points per 100 possessions. At what point does Doc Rivers pull the plug on allowing Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley and Blake Griffin to play defense at the same time?

The best defensive lineup that’s played at least 15 minutes together has surprisingly been the starting lineup, allowing only 97 points per 100 possessions.

The main problem I have with this team and its championship dreams, however, is their investment in their frontcourt towers in Griffin and Jordan. These are two players who do not want the ball at the end of games, cannot stretch the floor, and are still borderline useless when the paint is being packed.

They’re not trustworthy to have come postseason time. Unless Griffin or Jordan developed a consistent jumper that they could rely on, then I would consider the Clippers as arguably the toughest team to beat in the NBA.

But, alas, that hasn’t happened. Griffin is a 23 percent spot-up shooter, per Synergy, and DeAndre is still a sub-50 percent free throw shooter, seemingly meaning that, sadly, nothing has changed with two key components of this team.

What do you think?

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