Give And Go: Taking stock of early-season trends across the NBA
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
The NBA season is nearly a month old, and it’s time to draw lines between what has yet come to pass and what ultimately will. The league’s lengthy 82-game slate is often littered with mirages, and though the 2012-13 season has already had its fair share of surprises, it can be tricky to suss out which of those early trends are really worth buying into. Yet today we endeavor to do just that, as we attempt to project the long-term reliability of some of the NBA’s early successes and struggles.
Buy or sell: Memphis’ strong start.
RM: Buy. I didn’t have very high hopes for the Grizzlies coming into this season, but the reinvention of their offense — based on largely internal improvements — gives them a much higher ceiling and an entirely new outlook. Memphis’ defense is scrappy and reliable, but the playmaking bumps displayed by Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless and Marc Gasol have made the meshing of disparate talents a fairly simple enterprise and have helped elevate a shaky bench into one of the league’s finest. Names like Wayne Ellington and Quincy Pondexter may not inspire much confidence on first glance, but those two have been vital performers for a Grizzlies team that’s clicking on all cylinders and showing no signs of slowing down. Count me among those completely buying into what the Grizz have been able to accomplish so far.
BG: Huge buy. How many thousands of words have we written preaching the importance of continuity when it comes to the Heat, Spurs and Thunder (especially pre-Harden deal, but even now that they’ve survived the first chapter of the transition)? The Grizzlies committed so much money to their core guys — Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley — that the price tags obscured the fact that the deals were given to above-average players (including a few elite guys) and that they would run almost perfectly concurrently. That’s one of the NBA’s toughest tricks: getting the most important contracts to line up so that a group can really gel together. They’ve won almost 60 percent of their games over the last two seasons even with Randolph missing some time due to injury, they beat the Spurs in a playoff series and they should have beaten the Clippers last year. They’re a top-seven team on both offense and defense and the personality of their coach, Lionel Hollins, is perfectly aligned with the personality of their key guys. Give me more Grizz. I’ll be very disappointed if these guys aren’t one of the West’s Final Four come May.
Buy or sell: The early struggles of the Denver Nuggets.
BG: I’m selling, if only because I’m conditioned to believe that George Karl will find a way to pull this group up from its 14th ranked offensive efficiency. The imbalanced home/road start — eight out of their 11 games played were on the road — will come back in their favor, and it would surprising if a team that’s finished in the top-five in offense the last three seasons can’t pick itself up from 44.2 percent shooting, 30.6 three-point shooting and 66.0 percent free-throw shooting. All three of those numbers are down a meaningful amount from last year. Ty Lawson, he of the new contract extension, looms large here. He’s shooting 37.3 percent from the field and 26.1 percent from deep, both way off his career numbers. He needs to be more effective, and he’s been solid enough over the last two seasons that he’s earned the right to some collective patience. With so much of the rotation returning, and so much talent in one place, this smells like an early funk and not a long-lasting stench. Three of their six losses are to top competition, too: they’ve lost to the Heat twice and at the Spurs — no shame in that. How many more excuses should I make for these guys? Stop me, Rob. Stop me.
RM: Stop you? I’m the one pouring the Kool-Aid. There are so many little aberrations in the Nuggets’ micro-level performance that will ultimately be remedied — both as a larger sample size regresses everything to the mean, and as a team that’s made some understated changes finds its way. Denver retained much of its core, but the initial impact of letting Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington go has disrupted more of the Nuggets’ offensive spacing than most anticipated. There’s nothing ultimately doomed about Denver’s spacing, but, for the moment, the lack of perimeter shooting (and of perimeter threats to attract defensive attention) has made it difficult for the Nuggets to freewheel their way to their usual offensive efficiency. That said, there’s just too much dynamism throughout the top of the roster and too many creative solutions buzzing about Karl’s head for this offense to be sub-elite in terms of points per possession.
Buy or sell: The Celtics’ regressed defense.
RM: This may be the toughest call of the bunch, forcing me to walk the line between buy and sell a bit. Ultimately, Boston will be fine (read: an excellent end-of-season defense) so long as they have Kevin Garnett anchoring the middle for significant minutes; he covers up too many vulnerabilities and prevents too many potential mistakes for the Celtics to be anything but superb on D whenever he’s on the floor. That said, I do get the sense that with Garnett’s powers dwindling a bit, we may see Boston stretched and tested in ways that they haven’t been for some time. Jared Sullinger, Chris Wilcox, Leandro Barbosa and Jason Terry all create strains on the Celtics’ otherwise sturdy system, and though none of those four players is totally unmanageable within a team defensive concept, together they may present enough problems for the Celtics to falter. That may only mean Boston tumbles a bit toward the bottom half of the top 10, but paired with the C’s offensive inconsistency, that kind of drop-off could prove fatal.
BG: Sell. Sell. Sell. Call me in May on all Celtics questions. Among the elite tier of contenders, Boston is near the top when it comes to most new rotation pieces. The top four guys in terms of minutes played for Doc Rivers — Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass — haven’t changed, but the next six guys are all new to consistent minutes, and that group includes a rookie (Jared Sullinger) and a guy who didn’t play last year (Jeff Green), and it doesn’t include everyone’s favorite tenacious undersized guard, Avery Bradley. That’s not the best formula for playing elite defense in November. The track record of four straight seasons with top-five defensive efficiency ratings overwhelms three weeks worth of below-average results. We know the core guys can lock down, especially Garnett as you mentioned, and we know Boston is always a hot spot for veteran additions when the calendar gets toward playoff push time and/or the trade deadline. If they’re not a top-10 defense by season’s end, at minimum, I’ll be shocked.
Buy or sell: Milwaukee’s early returns.
BG: Buy. I’ll give this one as a courtesy buy, mainly as a nod to Brandon Jennings’ play and the fact that his backcourt pairing with Monta Ellis has exceeded my expectations by a large amount to date. My hang-up is that I’m not sure where this is going. The Bucks are currently slightly better than average on offense and slightly better than average on defense. That’s not a formula to blow anyone way, but that has the makings of a lock playoff team and a solid contender to win a weakened Central Division if the trend continues. Yet they still feel like a team that needs to make a trade, either shipping out Ellis or balancing the roster by thinning out the froncourt just a bit. I mentioned this as a courtesy buy and it might be a sympathy buy, too. Bucks fans were held in limbo by Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut for years; it’s hard to dim their early season shine in what’s been one of the most care-free stretches of hoops in the franchise’s recent memory.
RM: I’m buying, and completely content in the fact that the Bucks will likely be a first-round out. Tanking may be all the rage for teams without a legit shot at the title, but for Milwaukee (and other teams in a similar position) it makes far more sense to come out on the top side of the playoff cut. The Bucks are an incomplete and imperfect team, but they somehow make it all work despite all of the skill and positional redundancies strewn throughout the roster. That’s impressive, and not something to forfeit for the sake of a pick at the tail end of the lottery. Winning at a respectable clip has a tangible impact on every stage of a team’s operation, from locker room morale all the way down to player development. It keeps teammates in line. It makes the scolding of head coach Scott Skiles a bit less grating. It gets the Bucks aimed in the direction that they’ll ultimately need to go, even if this isn’t the roster to get them to their final destination. There should be no expectation for this particular group of players to take Milwaukee to some new great heights, but the Bucks have developed into a fun, feasible extension of Jennings’ chutzpah; in a single-game format, they’re the kind of deep, giant-killing outfit no one thought them capable of being.
Buy or sell: The Sixers getting by without Bynum.
RM: Buy, with the knowledge that this could wind up as a completely regrettable decision. Philadelphia is one of the most inconsistent teams in the entire league, and has earned every bit of the public doubt regarding their performance. It may not be entirely wise to put too much stock in a team that’s both without Bynum (the star who was supposed to anchor the team’s offense going forward) and missing the tandem of Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand (a pair which had previously propped up the Sixers’ defense), but I’m liking what I’ve seen out of Philly’s D and an evolving Jrue Holiday. An assortment of any-given-night scorers gives the Sixers a chance to hang in games offensively in spite of their poor shot selection, and a complete lack of turnovers allows Philadelphia to hoist up shots in volume without giveaways putting their defense at a disadvantage via transition opportunities. The Sixers attempt a shot, get set in their defense and force opponents to earn every point. There may not be much glamour in that kind of approach, but it’s more viable than the Sixers’ rep would have you believe.
BG: Sell hard. It’s difficult to make it through a paragraph about the Bynum-less Sixers without the mind wandering straight to the gutter. Profuse apologies. Second-guessing trades after injury developments is one of life’s easiest occupations. There’s a big difference between saying “the Sixers were wrong to trade for Bynum” and “the Sixers are screwed, big picture, without him 100 percent healthy.” The first statement may or may not be correct, but it can’t be Philadelphia’s concern now, not with so much riding on Bynum’s health, which is in such an uncertain state. The Sixers’ 7-4 record entering Wednesday is inflated with wins over New Orleans, Cleveland and two over Toronto. We got a clear look at their postseason fate with back-to-back butt-kickings by the Knicks in early November. Outside of maybe Jrue Holiday, there’s not a single guy on this roster I trust to bring meaningful positive impact over the course of a seven-game series. They shocked the world last year by overachieving, but mainly by catching a lucky break with Derrick Rose’s injury. Coach Doug Collins has them playing the league’s sixth best defense at the moment, something that may or may not continue, but this whole thing relies on Bynum. They can make all the regular season noise they want, but the Sixers are one and done, quickly, without Bynum.