10 Biggest Takeaways from 1st Quarter of the NBA Season

Ethan Sherwood Strauss@SherwoodStraussNBA Lead WriterDecember 13, 2012

10 Biggest Takeaways from 1st Quarter of the NBA Season

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    Everything is downsideup in the NBA so far. Golden State Warriors victories, Los Angeles Lakers defeats, a Brooklyn-Manhattan rivalry—it's all so topsy turvy around this time of year. We're approaching the juncture where real conclusions can be drawn, where you can't just dismiss everything with "small sample size!" 

    At roughly the quarter mark of the season, a team's tendencies should be taken seriously. It is difficult for a fluke to carry through one-fourth of all games, though certain exceptions apply. This is why we're carefully observing the trends, and interrogating them for meaning. What are we gleaning from so much meaning?

10. The Raptors: Dino Dropping

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    Remember when the Toronto Raptors were supposed to be good? There was plenty of optimism when they were in this summer's Steve Nash sweepstakes. Even when they missed out, optimism was aplenty when they snatched up Kyle Lowry. 

    Since then, Lowry missed some time with an ankle sprain and the Raps went in the tank. Toronto is 4-19—an especially bad outcome considering how it raises the chances that Oklahoma City will take a high first-round pick off their hands next summer. The Washington Wizards have been worse, at least? 

9. The Average Celtics

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    Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus wondered the following about Boston:

    If Dallas wins this game do we start talking about how average the Celtics have been this season?

    — Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) December 13, 2012

    Dallas actually lost in a double-overtime thriller, but yes Kevin, we can start talking about this. The Celtics are 12-9, with a point differential that roughly breaks even. It's a surprising outcome for this team, considering that the expectation was that they'd lag only behind the Miami Heat in a depleted Eastern Conference.

    Now, the New York Knicks are vying for the first seed, while Miami and Boston appear out of sorts. Rajon Rondo has picked up his game, which theoretically should have vaulted Boston to new heights. Instead, the defense fell far from its annual top-three status.

    Perhaps this has something to do with the addition of Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and Jason Terry—Kevin Garnett can't compensate for that many poor defensive decisions. 

8. Dwyane's Decline?

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    We covered this earlier, but Wednesday night's loss to the Warriors provided more fodder for this line of questioning. Dwyane Wade hit a bunch of tough shots in the two games prior to the GSW loss, so many were quick to declare him back on the right track.

    Not so fast. Though you could cite a first-half injury (David Lee accidentally knocked into Wade) as the cause, Dwyane was error-prone and sluggish in the minutes he played. Wade was especially brutal in the fourth quarter, when he and Stephen Curry were exchanging terrible turnovers.

    On the year, D-Wade is averaging fewer free-throw attempts per 36 minutes than ever before, and he's increasingly taking contested jumpers. If Wade isn't in decline, something else is probably amiss, be it injury or effort. 

7. Dallas Regret

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    Let's get this out of the way: Mark Cuban made a mistake back in 2011. None of this, "I still agree with not signing Tyson Chandler" talk that became so widespread in NBA circles. Even if Cuban had his reasons—even if those reasons were good—the end result has been disastrous. 

    There were worries that Tyson Chandler wouldn't sustain his great Mavericks play upon getting a new contract. Turns out, he's been even better. Chandler notched a career-high PER of 18.7 last season, and he's currently claiming a 22.6 mark.

    Tyson's been the fulcrum of New York's four-out strategy, allowing them to play defense and rebound while spreading the floor with three-point shooters (more on the Knicks later). 

6. Kevin Durant: Still Improving

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    This is an underplayed story, but Kevin Durant has evolved into an even more fantastic player. When the Thunder traded James Harden, they needed other guys to step out the creativity. Durant has responded, averaging a career-high 4.3 assists per night.

    He gets a lot of the dimes on drives and in transition—as if moving fast heightens his awareness. It's been a lovely development in the early going. 

    Also of note: Kevin Durant is still an incredible shooter-scorer. Durant is near on pace for the vaunted 50-40-90 averages. I say he gets there. 

5. Russell Westbrook, Point Guard

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    James Harden's departure (he's still alive, I mean that he's on another team) has also forced Russell Westbrook to take his creativity to new heights. Russ is still missing the occasional bad shot and driving his critics crazy. But if those noted critics would relax a bit, they'd notice that Russ is averaging 8.5 assists per game. 

    In short, Russell Westbrook is a point guard, even if he shoots a lot. He initiates Oklahoma City's offense and finds open teammates. I certainly quibble with some of his decisions, but it's important to remember that OKC has a top offense and that Russell Westbrook is 24 years old.

    He'll get there. He's getting there. 

4. San Antonio Won't Stop

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    What's their secret? Even though I can dryly say, "San Antonio's motion-weak offense allows them to flaunt superior continuity, night in and night out," I'm still confused by their longevity at some level. While they're still around and hovering at the top of the West, take a gander at the aforementioned offense. 

    Tony Parker often loops through the defense after handing the ball off to a wing. When he gets the rock back, cross screens have discombobulated the opposing D as he begins his work. From there, the Spurs move with eerie telepathy, finding open corner threes, swinging the ball to uncontested layups.

    They're the paragons of team basketball. Always and, apparently, forever. 

3. Miami's Bad Defense

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    The Heat used to be defined by their defense, or at least carried by it in times of trouble. Erik Spoelstra is a defense-minded coach; he was taught under defense-minded coaches like Stan Van Gundy and Pat Riley. This current Miami season must be killing him.

    LeBron's team (er, Spo's team) is 18th in defensive efficiency so far, and the culprits as I see it have been Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Wade often argues with referees and doesn't get back in transition as a result. He also has been sluggish on the rotation to shooters. Chris Bosh is playing lethargic pick-and-roll defense, often not even raising his arms when near the three-point line.

    Is it effort? Is it injury? Miami's been splendid on offense with the Ray Allen addition, but they must fix this problem to have a shot at repeating. 

2. The Warriors: We Belong?

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    Whoa, nobody saw this coming. Even if they did, they didn't see it coming with an out-for-the-season Brandon Rush, and an out-indefinitely Andrew Bogut. The Warriors are 15-7, having won five in a row on the road. 

    They've been doing it with shooting, ball movement and an improved defensive strategy. Instead of "showing" on pick-and-rolls via their sluggish frontcourt players, the Dubs are instead shading the opposition to certain spots of the floor. The strategy has paid off, with GSW approaching the upper half in defensive rankings for the first time in a long while.

    Could David Lee and Stephen Curry both make the All-Star team? Or am I getting ahead of myself? Check that, save the All-Star selection for Draymond Green: 

1. The New New York Knicks

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    This, nobody expected. Well, many astute observers did expect the Knicks to get better when Amar'e Stoudemire went down with an injury. The level to which they improved was truly staggering, though. New York throttled Miami twice and should be considered a legitimate title contender. 

    They're averaging the most threes in the league, and while they might not continue their 41 percent clip from distance, they shouldn't be far off from it, either. Carmelo Anthony has been a devastating force at power forward; with the increased space that comes from playing among three other three-point shooters, Melo is finding it easier to get open looks.

    The strangest development has been Jason Kidd's play. Kidd is shooting .528 on threes and notching a 20.76 PER. Did your brain just melt at learning that? Sorry.