We are more than three weeks into the NBA season and I think it is safe to say we can begin to start to feel out the way the season could possibly shape up as we march throughout the year. Although you cannot prognosticate for injuries and the like, I think we can gauge where teams are currently sitting, how new or returning players look on the court and where teams need to improve as they move forward with their respective seasons. As with anyone who follows sports, there are a few headlines or surprises that stick out more than others, and in no particular order I will diagnose my take on this early NBA season and possibly what is at stake as we head toward the All-Star Break.
1. Kevin Love is showing why he is the player who does the most with limited natural ability
Although this headline acts facetiously, the play and muster Kevin Love brings to the floor every night is undeniable and he is once again showing why he was being considered a superstar in this league before injuries started to plague him over the last few years. After only playing in 18 games last season, Love has been dynamite on the court, showing flashes of brilliance in every facet of his game, whether it be consistently knocking down three pointers, pulling out an array of low post moves the like of Kevin McHale or being very disruptive on the glass getting rebounds, he is starting to remind everybody about the extravagance of his game and why he should be considered one of the best players in the league. At this point in the season, Love is averaging 27 points/game along with adding a measly 14 rebounds/game. Love is already being considered a part of the early season MVP conversation, and if he continues his phenomenal play while maintaining his health I don’t see how that doesn’t happen. Along with being a great player comes becoming a great teammate and leader, and Love has no problem accepting the role as team captain and puts his team on his shoulders every night out. Making the playoffs has eluded Love and the Timberwolves ever since he joined the organization and that is just another tool of motivation that Love will no doubt set out to accomplish this season.
2. The Golden State Warriors are living up to all the pre-season hype
What shouldn’t come as any surprise, the Golden State Warriors are proving to everyone why expectations for this young team are warranted, fielding a team that is comprised of very athletic wing players who know how to score the basketball at will. Most maturing teams such as this find it much easier to play at home than on the road and the Warriors are no exception. Having played four homes games this season and being victorious in each game, the Warriors look like a completely different team in front of their crazy, rowdy fans than any other team I have watched in quite some time. The timing, spacing and passing on the offensive side of the floor is almost flawless and that can be attributed to the fact that they possess six guys who can handle the ball with ease. Stephen Curry is phenomenal in the half court set, constantly keeping two sets of eyes on him at all times while possessing the skills to dribble in, around or out of any double team thrown his way. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact he is shooting the three ball at a historically fascinating pace, an attribute that is the key arsenal when it comes to both his game and the team’s game as well. With keen attention on Curry, you will notice all the off ball screens made for players such as Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes, with top of the screen flares from players such as David Lee or Andre Iguodala prepared to receive entry passes from a variety of spots on the floor. They are the most exciting, fun team to watch and as fans we will not be disappointed any time this time appears on our screens.
3. Are the Indiana Pacers really the team to beat this year in the NBA?
After starting the season with the best record in team history, the Indiana Pacers are off to an outstanding start, going about their business and taking care of any team that has stepped in their way to begin this early season. Building off of a great 2013 season, the 10-1 Pacers are beginning to lay claim as to why they, and not the Miami Heat, should be the favorites and the team you have to go through on your way to the NBA Championship. A team such as this recognizes what it takes to make that next leap, going from a pretender to a contender while only altering a few minor points but still recognizing how your team is constructed and what can be tweaked to take your team to the next upper echelon of great teams. In last year’s playoffs, the one thing that stood out was the under-development from players such as Lance Stephenson to the lacking of a strong punch consistently coming off the bench. Well those days are long gone, as the Pacers recognized their weaknesses and improved drastically in each of these areas over the course of one offseason. Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Lance Stephenson will be in the rotation off the bench come playoff time and those are three guys who have proven themselves in this league and should not give the Pacers any worries come time. The development of players like Roy Hibbert and Paul George are continually shown, with the latter being considered a part of the MVP conversation. This team goes as Paul George goes, and that is a problem I could easily handle in Indiana. George has taken his game to a new level each season, and has not shown any signs of regression in any part of his game. His offensive game is top notch, adding a variety of step back jumpers to go along with his low post game that has clearly been effective for him when he is guarded by smaller defenders. George is so smooth on the court making everything look so much easier than it already is for him. But, what I do question is how this team adjusts to the imminent return of Danny Granger, who no doubt will have to take a more limited role in the offense, something that could not play well for him. He has always been the go-to scorer, but with George inheriting that throne, where does that put Granger? Only time will tell how Granger adjusts to being thrust back into the lineup, but I think it is safe to assume the Pacers will have no trouble figuring it out.
4. Some teams have surprised early, while others have us scratching our collective heads
Unlike seasonal weather changes, there are always some teams who we know, or think, will be better than people give credit to and also some teams who will find a way to not be who we thought they were heading into the season. When I start to think about some teams who have surprised many with how they have started some teams such as the Portland Trail Blazers, the teams residing in the New York boroughs, and Dallas Mavericks all come to mind as early candidates for those who have either exceeded or failed to meet early season expectations thus far.
Starting with the former, in my divisional preview I pointed out how much talent the Trail Blazers had and all the potential that could possibly come about if things started off well for this team. Things have surely gone well so far. Off to a 10-2 start, the Trail Blazers combination of youth, size and capabilities of rotating multiple players who can stretch the floor have all been accommodating to the fast start for this team. They are scoring at a very high rate, and having traditionally been a great home team, they are maintaining their high level of play on the road as well, something that has lacked for the Trail Blazers the past few seasons. Although you could point to a schedule thus far filled with not so many great teams, I am very interested and intrigued at the notion of this team and to see if they have what it takes to sustain this level of play throughout the course of the year. From a team who has so far surpassed any early expectations, we now travel east to the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, where the Knicks and Nets are both left puzzled and wondering how to fix the mess each of their collective teams are currently in. Both are sitting with identical 3-8 records, and have continually found ways so far to lose close games down the stretch, something that is unacceptable for two teams with such higher goals. The Knicks have lost six straight games at MSG, a concept that is unfathomable to grasp, let alone when it is written down. A team that has thrived at home with Carmelo and company, this team has very limited weapons that are capable of being labeled as threats offensively and seemingly have found their way back into letting Carmelo try to operate the show while everyone else stands around waiting for something to happen. Granted they continue to lack any low post scoring and Raymond Felton being injured is not doing them any justice, but this team lacks options outside of Anthony and J.R. Smith and will continue to struggle to score the basketball in the foreseeable future if something isn’t changed. The Brooklyn Nets have been atrocious on the road in the early goings and that is something you wouldn’t come to expect from such a veteran driven ball club. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry joining with Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson surely seems like a match made in heaven on paper but has failed to produce any significant results thus far and I am beginning to question when these results will start to come to fruition. Defensively they are lost in transition and Brook Lopez has shown no signs of resembling a decent defender of the pick-and-roll, something teams will continue to pick on as often as they can while Lopez and his slow prodding feet try to catch up with what is going on in front of him. With the aging veterans’ minutes being watched because of the sole purpose of being fresh come the end of the season, this idea may need to be tweaked in the coming time if they want to be able to position themselves for a run at the postseason. The Dallas Mavericks have gotten off to a fast start, currently sitting at 8-4 and showing signs of promise and intrigue as we approach the quarter mark of the season. What many experts believed was a fringe playoff contender in a loaded Western Conference, the Mavericks have proven up to this point they have what it takes to score with the best of them, but where worries arise will reside on the other end of the floor, where the team lacks your traditional go-to defender or wizard defenseman who you can rely on each night to slow down the opposing team’s best player. By starting essentially two undersized point guards in Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, the Mavs lack the backcourt size to sustain any semblance of defensive efficiency around the perimeter, especially against the like of players who currently reside in their conference. Nowitzki has always been an average defender at best, better known for positioning his opposition to his liking and not matching them in one-on-one situations, but this team has scored at a very effective rate up to this point and shouldn’t have any trouble on that end of the floor. This time will have to become centralized to the play of Ellis specifically, who will dominate most of the ball handling abilities and be forced to find ways to create scoring chances for everyone on the floor. With Nowitzki aside, this team will be reliant on chances created off the dribble with a variety of back screens and such thrown in to find ways to get shooters like Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Calderon open looks, an act vital to the success of this team in the long term future.
5. The San Antonio Spurs
Adding a touch of irony to this last headline, the Spurs have always been the team who lacks the showmanship of a team like the Miami Heat, but are the generals who will continue to go about their business regardless of where their highlights end up in the pecking order of your nightly SportsCenter highlights. How can you find another way to describe the robotic, methodical and engineer-like ways this Spurs team goes about playing the game of basketball but to say they are stern and simple in their approach and have no trouble exploited their opposition’s weaknesses on a very boring, consistent basis. They are a team who knows how to play the right way and also possess the ability to throw a multitude of players and lineups at you, all at the will of head coach Gregg Popovich’s Einstein approach to putting all of his energy into the little things which matter most but are always the hardest to find and see. The intricacies of basketball are what separate the strong from the weak, the seeing from the blind and the powerful from the powerless, and Popovich has always been known for his massive preparation for each contest, like a chef whose goal is to craft the perfect meal every time he steps into his kitchen. Popovich’s kitchen resides on the hardwood floor, where he coaches a team who lack an eye catching weakness that could possibly haunt them at some point in the season. The construction of this team is dependent on each and every player knowing his role on the team, accepting said role and finding a way to expand and manufacture constructive minutes in any way possible. This team is filled with guys who aren’t selfish and understand what it takes to be winners in this league and Popovich will continue to preach team over individual every day he is allowed to stand on the sidelines and navigate this team as he sees fit. You have your typical veterans, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, who have always been a part of the team first attitude and have always found a way to instill this Popovichian philosophy throughout the other members who join the floor with them. Kawhi Leonard continues to improve upon his game with each passing day, and finding support from unlikely starters Boris Diaw and Danny Green have gone a long way in securing this team’s presence upon the top of the Western Conference once again. They say, “the more things change, the more things stay the same”, but with the Spurs, everything has been the same for quite some time and I expect no changes for this team. They will be a force to be reckoned with all year and currently are my favorites to win the NBA title this season.