Give And Go: Examining highs, lows from the opening week of the NBA season
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.
This week: Looking back at the opening week of the 2013-14 season. (All stats and records are through Nov. 6.)
1. Which team had the best opening week?
Ben Golliver: The easy answer is the 5-0 Pacers, who are the only remaining unbeaten team, but I’ll go with the 4-1 Warriors. Neither team has played that tough of a schedule, but the Warriors get the edge because of their moving parts: They had to incorporate new pieces (Andre Iguodala, a healthy David Lee), deal with departures (Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry) and open without forward Harrison Barnes, who returned in Wednesday’s victory at Minnesota. I would have been forgiving of a slow start, given those circumstances, but the Warriors have four double-digit wins (including major blowouts over the Lakers and Sixers) and stand as the only team that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Warriors were beaten soundly by the Clippers in L.A. on a back-to-back, but that’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Everything else has been cause for Golden State giddiness: Klay Thompson, Iguodala and Stephen Curry all rank among the top six in the league in effective field goal percentage, there have been highlights galore, and the starting five is cruising along with an eye-popping net-rating of +26.8. How’s that for incorporating Iguodala?
It’s rare that a team enters a season as the most hyped in the league and then immediately delivers on all of the talk, but that’s exactly what we have here.
Rob Mahoney: Well, who am I to pass up the easy answer? Indiana has been both fascinating and fantastic, primarily in managing to improve on its already formidable defense. One would think there wouldn’t be much room to grow after having the league’s top-ranked D a season ago, but the Pacers are beating their chart-topping defensive mark by more than 10 points per 100 possessions. That margin is, in a word, bananas. It also won’t last in such exaggerated form, though it’s worth cherishing in the present as Indiana racked up victories against the Magic, Pelicans, Cavaliers, Pistons and Bulls.
Still, the Pacers are noticeably and legitimately better in coverage, in no small part due to their now-established reputation. Roy Hibbert gets a greater benefit of the doubt on “vertical extension” and potential defensive three-second violations than any other player in the league — a byproduct, no doubt, of a deep, commanding run through the postseason. Hibbert’s conditioning is clearly better and his rotations are cleaner for it, though the changes in the way he — and his strong, physical teammates — are officiated have made a noticeable difference.
There’s room for optimism regarding Indiana’s offense, too, despite the team’s scoring at a league-average rate. The floor balance isn’t quite right (Indiana ranks 20th in offensive rebounding rate) and turnovers are still a consistent problem, but Paul George’s improved capacity to create offense (and George Hill’s return to the lineup and to form) should lead to an upgrade in due time.
2. Which team had the worst opening week?
Golliver: New York is the favorite here. The loss of Tyson Chandler, the poor play of Andrea Bargnani, the million lineup questions, the poor shooting of Carmelo Anthony and the 1-3 record combined to make for a brutal seven days.
But let’s not overlook the 0-3 Nuggets. After enjoying four straight years of elite offense under George Karl, the Nuggets rank No. 28 in offensive efficiency, ahead of only the Cavaliers and Jazz. Brian Shaw and point guard Ty Lawson appear to be working through things philosophically, and the first-year coach has already juggled his starting lineups and varied his minutes distribution. It sounds harsh, but are they just making it up as they go along? What’s the alternative conclusion when JaVale McGee, J.J. Hickson and Anthony Randolph all start on opening night?
There was no question the Nuggets were going to fall off their lofty 57-win perch from last season after losing Iguodala, Karl and GM Masai Ujiri, but the early returns have been even worse than feared. The question last week seemed to be whether Denver could hang on to one of the West’s eight playoff spots. Is it too early to wonder whether its streak of 10 years with a winning record is in serious jeopardy?
Mahoney: We’re very much in agreement on the Knicks, who likely would have qualified for the worst week even if they had been playing well. Losing Chandler is that hefty a blow, particularly to a team that was already a few degrees removed from title contention and that now finds itself in no way guaranteed a postseason berth. Perhaps Anthony and Co. will make a subsisting run with their return to smaller lineups, though I’m not optimistic of that possibility given the minutes restrictions on Kenyon Martin and Amar’e Stoudemire and the disheartening start for Bargnani. It’s going to get rough pretty quick, Knicks fans. Best to hunker down for a while.
New York aside, it’s been a pretty tough week for Chicago, a team with championship aspirations, which has the fourth-worst efficiency differential in the league. The defense has been strangely mediocre and uncharacteristically susceptible to rotational breakdowns. We have every reason to expect that to change; coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t much abide defensive inconsistency, and this group of Bulls mainstays should tighten things up in short order.
Offensive efficiency, on the other hand, might not come quite so naturally. Derrick Rose’s reintegration has turned out to be more of an ordeal than anticipated, leaving Chicago a bit stifled. Things could turn around if the Bulls are able to create better mid- and long-range looks (they’re converting just 30.3 percent outside the paint), leverage their inside touches to draw more fouls or commit fewer turnovers (their turnover rate ranks 25th), but all of the above are considerable problems that shouldn’t be shrugged off.
3. Rookies aside, who has been the most promising new addition?
Golliver: How amazing is it that Sixers guard Michael Carter-Williams clearly provoked the “rookies aside” caveat in this question?
As impressive as Iguodala has been for the Warriors, the answer to this one can be found at the top: Dwight Howard. Yes, he had a pretty quiet night when the Clippers embarrassed his Rockets in Los Angeles on Monday, but the offseason’s biggest catch has looked really special at times, too.
His 17 points and 26 rebounds in the opener was a resounding performance, but his 29 points and 13 rebounds in Tuesday’s win at Portland was even more impressive. Last season’s issues with the Lakers — that Howard wasn’t involved in the offense, that he wasn’t moving freely because of his back, that he wasn’t totally engaged mentally — are starting to look like distant memories. Howard spun for lobs, controlled the glass, captained an effective defense, used his left hand to finish in traffic and kept the pressure on Portland’s smaller defenders. He did all of that on a night when James Harden had enough room to take 18 shots and score 33 points.
The biggest takeaway: There’s no better way for Houston to silence those who were concerned about Howard’s offensive role and fit than by posting the league’s No. 1-ranked offense. That’s exactly where Houston stands, a fact that should be frightening to the rest of the West’s championship hopefuls. What kind of devastation is awaiting once they’ve had time to jell?
Mahoney: Howard has been awfully good, though I’ll happily vouch for Iguodala on this subject. The defense was very much assumed; Iguodala and a healthy Andrew Bogut were likely to clean up many of the Warriors’ mistakes, and so far they have the Dubs defending at an incredibly high level. Yet Iguodala has been more or less essential on offense as well, taking turns as a scorer and facilitator in registering a mammoth impact.
To quantify: Golden State has scored 30 (!) more points per 100 possessions with Iguodala on the floor compared to when he sits. A bigger sample will pare down that outrageous, unsustainable differential to something more reasonable, but for the moment it hints at how necessary Iguodala might be for the Warriors this season. Golden State was marred by inconsistency last season, and while Iguodala can’t be counted on to pile up points regularly, he’s a sound and willing playmaker who excels in making things easier for his teammates. That extra dose of dynamism could be just what the Warriors needed to stabilize their three-point-gunning offense.
4. What’s your favorite “small sample-size” stat?
Golliver: The Clippers’ beautiful inverse (No. 2 in offensive efficiency, No. 29 in defensive efficiency) is a very strong candidate on the team level, but nothing tops the sheer comedy of Bargnani’s opening week. The summer months dragged on, and it seems like 100,000 or more words were written about how terrible and desperate the Knicks were for agreeing to take Bargnani after his pathetic 2012-13 season with the Raptors. What happens next? Bargnani’s early play blows away all of those predictions — but in the wrong direction! He was even more horrid than even the most ardent detractors feared.
His opening week on/off numbers really should be framed and sent to Springfield: According to NBA.com, the Knicks’ offensive efficiency falls from 99.3 when he’s off the court to 93.4 when he’s on the court and their defensive rating drops from 84.5 when he sits to a preposterous 116.2 when he plays. In simpler terms, Bargnani takes New York from an average offense to a bottom-five offense, while also dropping the Knicks from league-best to league-worst (by a freaking mile) levels on defense. You look at those numbers and wonder whether coach Mike Woodson would have been better served by simply playing 4-on-5 when it was Bargnani’s turn in the rotation.
Mahoney: Dallas’ Jae Crowder leads the league with an incomprehensible 91.1 true shooting percentage, more than double his mark from last season. I like Crowder, and it’s clear that he put in work on both his shot and his body over the summer. But if this percentage or standing somehow sticks, I’d have some serious questions about the apparently malleable laws of the universe.
5. What’s the most predictable thing that happened?
Golliver: Either Wizards coach Randy Wittman’s profane postgame meltdown about his team’s effort or Knicks fans deciding to boo Bargnani after just one quarter in his debut. Both of those could be seen coming from miles away. Should we find a way to merge these two expected developments? Assuming Wittman winds up being relieved of his duties, perhaps ESPN or TNT can hire him to be a studio analyst whose only job is to criticize Bargnani. Just make sure a producer has his finger primed and ready to strike the dump button at all times.
Mahoney: The explosion of the Clippers’ offense. What else could have happened when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin finally received some very necessary (and very much overdue) coaching and shooting support? Vinny Del Negro is out, Caron Butler was traded and Willie Green has been shuffled to the end of the bench. In their place, Doc Rivers, J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley have all made an immediate offensive impact, to say nothing of Paul’s unbelievable performance. More accurate shooting and more deliberate strategy have opened things up for an offense that ranked in the top five a season ago, cementing an ascent that was telegraphed with the Clippers’ offseason moves.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.