Playing Pretender or Contender with the NBA's Hottest Starting Teams
As we've seen plenty of times in years past the first few weeks of the season aren't necessarily an example of how every team in the NBA is going to play for the remainder of the season. In fact, last year we saw the Boston Celtics make it to the Eastern Conference Finals despite an atrocious 4-8 start.
That being said, the same is true for teams who over-perform at the beginning of the season. Last year's Philadelphia 76ers ran out to a 10-3 start and had the league's best offense and defense a full three weeks into the season before falling back to Earth, barely finishing above .500 and losing in the second round of the playoffs.
There are quite a few teams we can look at and pretty much write off right out of the gate. It's pretty easy to look at the Golden State Warriors, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Charlotte Bobcats and rule them out as title contenders.
At the same time, there are a few teams that are hovering around .500 that can't be ruled out until their best player's left leg falls off, which of course includes the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics.
With a quick look at some of the more modest starting teams it's a pretty easy sell, but some of the teams starting hotter might need a longer, harder look. So let's do just that, making the cutoff point at at least three games above .500 to be considered a "hot starting" team.
All stats are as of November 26th, 2012.
Los Angeles Clippers (8-5)
Before their most recent losing streak, it looked as if the Los Angeles Clippers had an argument to be considered the best team in the NBA. At the very least, they've got a reputation of taking down the league's best teams, which is obviously something a title contender would need to do.
The Clippers have registered four wins over the league's three best teams. They've taken down the Memphis Grizzlies once, the Miami Heat once and the San Antonio Spurs twice. They did play three of those four games at home, but it's an accomplishment nonetheless.
Of course, two of their losses came in strange fashion to the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, both of which were in the Staples Center.
Their most recent losing streak consists of losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks, three very good teams. Looking at that as a poor stretch of games seems a bit too critical, as they were relatively close games for the most part.
Plus, as long as they've got the league's best point guard running things, and Vinny Del Negro doesn't start screwing with the rotations, Los Angeles should be sitting pretty. At the very least they can still claim that they're the best team in Los Angeles.
Brooklyn Nets (8-4)
The Brooklyn Nets have gone on a hot streak, winning seven of their last nine games including victories over the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers. They've looked pretty good early on in the season, despite a shaky start that included an 11-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves after leading by 22 at one point.
Brooklyn looks to have a team that's going to have a few trials gelling together, and once they do they'll be able to call themselves a high-scoring offensive machine. But until that day comes there are quite a few questions to ask about them, mostly defensively.
For the most part they've got a decent perimeter defense with Gerald Wallace bulldogging around the outside with two pretty good defenders in Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. Once past those guys, however, the defense looks bleak.
Kris Humphries is a good rebounder, but it's hard to call him a sound defender, while Brook Lopez is to defense as Taco Bell is to Mexican food. What's worse, their best post defender can't play more than 20 minutes per game unless they want to get zero offensive production from the post.
Once the playoffs come and the game slows down, I just don't see how this Nets team could hope to compete with the likes of the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat.
Atlanta Hawks (8-4)
This Atlanta Hawks team is a bit of an early season surprise that was never really that surprising. Many people came out with the theory that losing Joe Johnson wouldn't hurt them as much as it seemed, and they would be able to make up for his absence with a wealth of wing shooters, which they have.
Unfortunately for them, Josh Smith has continued to jack up jump shots rather than attack the rim, and their most efficient scorer, Al Horford, is only getting 13 shots a game.
The problem for the Hawks is that they're sitting in the middle of the Eastern Conference looking up at a top-heavy conference, and once the playoffs start they're going to have a hard time continuing to play the same game.
Smith isn't going to be able to just shoot jumpers against LeBron James, and Al Horford won't be able to continually take advantage of Kevin Garnett. Once they meet up with one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, perimeter defenses are going to lock down and they're going to find themselves in a defensive struggle hoping to grind out 85 points.
Oklahoma City Thunder (10-4)
A big story at the beginning of the season surrounded the Oklahoma City Thunder, and in case you forgot what happened I'll drop a hint. Some bearded dude got traded.
Even without James Harden the Oklahoma City Thunder have found themselves near the top of the Western Conference and ready to make another title run. Sure, it took them until their 20th game in 2012 to rack up four losses, but that's what continuity in a hectic lockout-shortened schedule brings you.
This Thunder team has a distinct advantage when Kevin Martin is hitting his open shots, and when he's not they've got Serge Ibaka in the post, who has really stepped up for them this season. He's bumped his scoring up a full six points per game while Martin is averaging just one point fewer per game than Harden did for the Thunder last season.
The added scoring power, combined with Kevin Durant's sudden desire to attack the glass and play distributor at times, has given this team another dimension—and once they're completely in sync they could end up being the best team in the West.
New York Knicks (9-3)
Early in the season it's easy to be impressed with what the New York Knicks have done. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith are completely different players, both giving tons of effort defensively and thus leading by example.
On top of that, Jason Kidd's back hasn't fallen apart, Raymond Felton's waistline hasn't stretched and Rasheed Wallace hasn't been incarcerated. That's about as successful a first dozen games as this team could have.
They are efficient on offense, they play tough defense and they seem to genuinely get along. This is a pretty darn good team.
I can't believe I'm going to do this with so many questions left surrounding this team dealing with Amar'e Stoudemire, but Anthony has been too good, J.R. Smith looks like he has legitimately changed his attitude and Tyson Chandler is still the defensive anchor.
Given a hot streak of games, and they avoid a massive fiasco dealing with Stoudemire, this Knicks team could take down the Miami Heat and ultimately win the 2013 NBA Championship.
Miami Heat (10-3)
There's a lot of hubbub surrounding the Miami Heat concerning their defensive intensity. Some people thinking they're mailing the season in, content to get the wins to get them into the playoffs, at which point they'll be able to dominate.
Well, I can't really disagree with that sentiment, and there's no real reason to be concerned with their defense as a team. They eventually end up ratcheting up the intensity when the game starts to get down to the wire.
Just take a look at their most recent game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Should the Cavs ever really have been in this game? Probably not. However, Miami was able to hold Cleveland to 10 fewer points in the first half compared to the second. They were able to turn a five-point deficit with four minutes left in the game into a pretty easy two-point win.
Miami is giving up the second-most points in the league when it comes to the first half at nearly 52, but they cut that number way down to 48 in the second half.
Are these guys contenders? What do you think?
Memphis Grizzlies (9-2)
The Memphis Grizzlies have come out and proven themselves to be nearly unbeatable at home, their only loss coming to the Denver Nuggets when Danilo Gallinari had his hottest night of the season. There's no shame in that.
In case you're wondering, their only other loss came to the Los Angeles Clippers on opening night on the road.
Otherwise they've been able to register wins over the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and early-season surprises the Charlotte Bobcats, Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks.
In fact, the only win the Grizzlies have registered this season against a sub-.500 team was over the Houston Rockets, which is currently the league's most dangerous sub-.500 team.
Memphis has gelled together and have a Spurs-like chemistry about their team. They're definitely a team to look out for should they hit a hot streak in the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs (11-3)
The league's best team is yet again the San Antonio Spurs. I'll give you a millisecond to exchange surprised glances and clean up the hot tea that you surely just spit all over your computer screen.
There's no reason to continue to doubt this team. No matter how old their superstar players get, or how many injuries they have to deal with, there always seems to be somebody on their bench who will step up and help out.
San Antonio does everything a team needs to in order to win a championship. They hit their free throws and three pointers, they rebound, defend well enough, they've got the veteran leadership, they've got the best coach in the NBA and they've got more than one person capable of hitting a shot at the end of a game.
The Spurs have lost just three games this season, and all of those losses have come to the league's eight best teams, two to the Los Angeles Clippers and one to the New York Knicks. I've got to put a vote of confidence in the experience of these Spurs rather than the Clippers or Knicks at this point.
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