Give And Go: Which teams can turn it around and who’s for real?
3. Portland (6-2), Minnesota (6-3) and Dallas (5-3) all missed the postseason last year and have hopped into the Western Conference’s top eight with strong starts. Which of these three teams has the best chance to sustain its success?
Mahoney: The Timberwolves, who have displayed more potential for playing two-way basketball than either the Mavericks or Trail Blazers. Those two high-scoring, poor-defending teams are both performing more or less as expected, if with slightly exaggerated records to show for it. They’ve been impressive, no doubt, but I suspect that their win totals will taper a bit to more accurately reflect their defensive weaknesses.
Minnesota isn’t especially stingy by any means, but it’s played a brand of defense that perfectly accentuates its up-tempo style. The Wolves have pursued the ball aggressively, especially in jumping passing lanes, without fouling. Both of those factors serve to reinforce Minnesota’s stylistic bent, as maximizing turnovers and minimizing stoppages in play allow for more consistent fast breaking. With that, the trap is set. The speed of the game naturally lulls opponents into transition autopilot, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Wolves make it all look so easy. Corey Brewer streaks out for uncontested buckets. Kevin Martin seems to convert every open look he finds. Ricky Rubio makes the right pass with startling frequency, and Kevin Love brings an uncommon skill set to contribute in every capacity possible.
What’s overlooked is the unique quality of that bunch, as well as the discipline that’s required to run as the Timberwolves do. Opponents often suffer lapses in judgment when they’re entranced by the rhythms of the break, which tends to serve Minnesota well in avoiding problematic mismatches. The Wolves are not a team without defensive weakness. Martin, in particular, is quite terrible on that end, and Brewer, Love and Nikola Pekovic are each exploitable, not to mention Minnesota’s more limited reserves. Yet consistent fast breaking leaves precious little time for opponents to consider every matchup on the board, and thus — oddly enough — helps the Wolves hide in plain sight.
Preventing open-court opportunities is one of the core tenets of traditional team defense, but according to Synergy Sports, Minnesota has been the league’s best team at contesting opponents in transition. The statistical difference between the Wolves establishing a set defense or scrambling back on the break has been marginal at best. If offensive rebounds and broken players are removed from the calculation, Minnesota’s half-court defense yields 0.89 points per play to the transition defense’s 0.9. In that, Minnesota is validated in its efforts to run as much as possible, knowing full well that it has the tools to disrupt opponents when they do the same.
Golliver: My great hope is that none of these three teams suffers a meaningful injury setback, as they all rank among the best early-season stories. Their collective presence takes the West’s playoff chase to a whole different level.
I agree that the smartest money for now is on the Timberwolves, who have three blowout victories and are two possessions away from being 8-1. Their schedule hasn’t been overly taxing, but they’ve beaten some good teams. More important, they’ve looked comfortable and loose doing it. The last two weeks have offered an extended glimpse at the game-changing potency of the Rubio/Love combination, and it’s been pretty glorious. The top 10 highlights from Rubio and the nightly video game stats from Love have formed the basis of a scary-good, nicely balanced starting five that is posting a +8 net rating. Outside of Martin’s outrageous 55.8 percent three-point shooting, which will regress, the Timberwolves appear fluke-free.
Portland just might be built to last, too, even with its continued issues protecting the paint. The climate around the Blazers’ locker room has changed after a 2012-13 season that ended with a deflating 13-game losing streak. The team’s offensive success (No. 3 in efficiency) has played a big role in keeping everyone happy. LaMarcus Aldridge noted this week that the points are flowing more easily than they have in years, and Damian Lillard has enjoyed a nice start, too.
Productive bench play has keyed Portland’s success, particularly guard Mo Williams (a key initiator of drive-and-kick basketball) and forward Joel Freeland (a dirty-work guy who has transformed his body and game after an atrocious rookie year). Portland’s scorching outside shooting will likely come back to earth, but its newfound confidence and depth definitely make it a team to watch. A soft schedule over the rest of November gives the Blazers an opportunity to stay at or near the top of the Northwest Division.
4. Denver (3-4) and Memphis (3-5) parted ways with their coaches after strong 2012-13 seasons, and both teams are currently outside the playoff picture in the West. Which of the two is more likely to regain its footing?
Golliver: The Grizzlies. One of the most shocking developments this season is that Memphis, which ranked No. 2 in defensive efficiency last season and returned seven of its top players by minutes played, is 26th in that category this season. A coaching change, from Lionel Hollins to David Joerger, was bound to cause some speed bumps, but there are way too many talented defensive players — Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Tony Allen, to start — for Memphis to be this porous. Three of Memphis’ five losses have come on the road to hot-starting teams (San Antonio, Dallas and Indiana), and playing the third-toughest schedule helps put the Grizzlies’ record into context.
As for the Nuggets, things could actually be worse, even though they’ve yet to notch a signature win (barely beating the Hawks and handling the bottom-feeding Jazz and Lakers don’t count). Everything coming out of the Mile High City has been troubling — Brian Shaw’s philosophical statements, Ty Lawson’s concerns with the offense, the Kenneth Faried trade rumors — and I don’t think Danilo Gallinari’s return, whenever it takes place, will be enough to fix the problems created by the organization’s dramatic change of direction.
Mahoney: Memphis, without caveat. The Grizzlies aren’t so safe a team as to be above concern at this point, as their defense has been riddled with uncharacteristic breakdowns. Denver is just a far bigger mess, lacking overall talent and the ability to maximize the abilities of its best players. Shaw has employed an offense that constricts Lawson and puts big men in uncomfortable positions, bringing last season’s juggernaut down to ho-hum scoring efficiency. The defense has been mediocre enough to help compensate (and earn a correspondingly middling record), though largely because the Nuggets have faced only two above-average offenses.
Things will spiral for Denver in a way I don’t fear for Memphis yet. That may be naive, but the Grizzlies deserve the benefit of the doubt as incumbent conference finalists with a more stable core.
5. Philadelphia (5-4) and Phoenix (5-3) remain above .500 more than two weeks into the season after being accused of tanking for stripped down their rosters. Which of these surprising turnarounds has been your favorite?
Mahoney: There’s no wrong answer here, but I’ll opt for the Sixers. The supposed worst team in the league has upset the Heat, Bulls and Rockets, due in no small part to the way that Michael Carter-Williams and Evan Turner, among others, have crushed any plausible expectation for their performance. Tempo, it seems, is its own providence. With free rein and an ultra-aggressive approach in transition, both guards have filled the box score at a jaw-dropping clip. Their success seems a fair bit flimsier than that of the tough-defending, Eric Bledsoe-fueled Suns, though the fleeting nature of it all makes it that much sweeter. Someday the dream must end, but for now I’m still dizzied by the unexpected charisma of one of the league’s most deliberate tankers.
Golliver: I’ll gladly go Suns. BestTickets.com’s NBA census has the Suns as the 11th-youngest team, with an average age of 25.4, but Phoenix’s regular rotation really has only four true “vets”: Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker, Channing Frye and Gerald Green. Of those four, Frye is the only one who is 30 or older. Somehow, despite that youth and the fact that this is Jeff Hornacek’s first head-coaching job, the Suns rank fifth in defensive efficiency after finishing 24th last season.
What’s more, Phoenix traded Gortat, last year’s starting center, just before the start of the season. Center Emeka Okafor, acquired for Gortat, has not suited up because of a neck injury, and ankle problems have limited 2013 lottery pick Alex Len. In other words, Hornacek has somehow turned a height-challenged and experience-challenged group into an elite defense (at least for now). That’s remarkable.
These guys are just fun to watch, too. The Suns pressure the ball, jump passing lanes, play more physically than you might think and are always looking to take off the other way when they force turnovers. Yes, there’s a really, really, really long way to go, but this group has a shot at becoming the first Suns team to post an above-average defensive efficiency rating since 2006-07.