Shocks and Surprises Abound in NBA's Crazy First Week
If you weren't already aware that the NBA is back in business, you sure should be now. The first week of the 2013-14 season woke up the basketball world—and then some.
Of the 46 games played between opening night on Tuesday and this past Sunday, 28 were decided by 10 points or fewer. For those of you keeping score at home, that means that more than 60 percent of Week 1's games could be considered close contests.
And you thought LeBron James' field-goal percentage was ridiculous...
The point is, parity reigned supreme from the opening tip, as it so often does. Every team is still working out its various kinks. Those welcoming new faces into the mix are just as susceptible to getting caught flat-footed by plucky upstarts as they are by veteran squads returning intact.
Alas, a three-game sample does not constitute a trend. You can pack plenty of fun and excitement into six days of basketball, but what you can't—or, rather, shouldn't—do is extrapolate from the embryonic season any concrete conclusions about how all things will inevitably play out over the next five-and-a-half months.
That being said, there's no harm in recapping the crazy in the NBA from Halloween week, so long as we don't get too carried away...
What do the Philadelphia 76ers, the Orlando Magic, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Phoenix Suns all have in common?
Sure, they're all "supposed" to be "tanking" their way to top picks in the (presumably) loaded 2014 NBA draft. But, for now, their association has nothing to do with being abjectly awful.
Because, if the playoffs started today, all four of those subpar squads would be in.
Granted, the Bobcats are one of seven Eastern Conference teams sitting at 1-2 after three games, and the Suns are surrounded by six other 2-1 teams out West.
Still, these teams weren't supposed to be even this close to respectability at any point...right?
The Sixers came into the campaign with three competent NBA players (Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes). The Magic knew they had some young talent on hand, but Jacque Vaughn's roster still more closely resembled a hodgepodge of trade bait than it did a true team. Charlotte wasn't supposed to be much better off than last year, with or without Al Jefferson. And Phoenix...I mean, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt?
Granted, not every projected bottom feeder exceeded expectations in Week 1. After all, the Boston Celtics and the Utah Jazz both have yet to win a game.
But even those teams have been pleasantly competitive, albeit in defeat. Tanking might still be a problem in the NBA, though, perhaps, it's not one that demands action as immediate and drastic as we once thought.
Then again, it's still way too early to start tossing around proclamations and prognostications.
Can't Fool the Youth
At some point, the vast majority of those teams we've thought would stink will inevitably come crashing back to Earth. Their youthful exuberance will be overrun by stoic experience, the growing pains will set in and all will be right in the standings.
For now, though, let's take a moment to appreciate what the next generation is already bringing to the table, particularly for those expected to be the chief residents of "Tankonia."
Eric Bledsoe didn't get the extension he wanted from the Suns. But rather than sulk about his impending foray into restricted free agency, Bledsoe went out and earned himself a pay raise next summer—and then some. He's still a bit too mistake-prone (5.7 turnovers per game), but it's tough to argue with a guy who's poured in 22 points, 6.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists so far.
Down in Orlando, Victor Oladipo is already wowing fans, teammates, coaches and executives alike with his jack-of-all-trades game (13.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals) and the hefty helping of athleticism that he's shown off thus far.
But no up-and-coming guard is off to a faster start than Michael Carter-Williams. The 11th pick in the 2013 draft out of Syracuse stole the show (literally and figuratively) in Philly's opener. He set an NBA rookie record for thefts in a debut (nine) and came shockingly close to logging a quadruple-double (22 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists) at the expense of the defending champion Miami Heat.
The Powers That (are Supposed To) Be
Speaking of which, those hot starts from supposedly bad teams were made all the more surprising by the caliber of competition against whom their early victories were achieved.
The Miami Heat looked great on opening night but saw stirring comebacks from daunting deficits fall just short against the Sixers and the Brooklyn Nets in their next two games.
Not that the Nets have looked any sturdier. So far, the most expensive roster in NBA history has bought Mikhail Prokhorov and company just that one win over the Heat, sandwiched between a disappointing defeat to the gutty Cleveland Cavaliers and a shellacking in Orlando.
The Chicago Bulls have looked anything but ready to dominate the Eastern Conference. They've dropped road games in Miami and Philly and eked out a coronary-inducing home win over the New York Knicks, with a hobbled Joakim Noah and a still-getting-his-groove-back Derrick Rose (14.3 points, 4.3 assists, .288 from the field, .267 from three, 1.76 PER).
Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies are off to a slow start in the West, though, admittedly, trying to nail down the wrinkles of a new offense under head coach Dave Joerger against two Texas teams (the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks) and the up-and-coming Detroit Pistons is no way for a recent Western Conference Finalist to pad its record.
To be sure, some of the league's "slow starts" could be explained away by early injuries, though such setbacks could just as easily double as red flags for the players and teams in question going forward. The first two nights in particular saw some of the NBA's most successful veterans trade seats on the bench for spots on the trainer's table.
Miami's shocking loss in the City of Brotherly Love was as much the product of letdown lethargy as it was of Dwyane Wade's absence. The superstar shooting guard got the night off to rest his sore knees, and though he was back in action shortly thereafter, the fact that the Heat already feel the need to pencil D-Wade in for DNPs might soon confirm ESPN analyst George Karl's suspicions about his durability and reliability.
Perhaps no player has been more reliable or a bigger beneficiary of scheduled time off over the years than Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental put together one of his best seasons to date in 2012-13, despite spending the entire campaign as a 36-year-old second fiddle in San Antonio.
So far, Duncan's already missed most of one game (against the Grizzlies) and the entirety of another (at the Los Angeles Lakers) due to a chest contusion. Timmy was back in action for Game 3 of the Spurs' season, though even a superb effort on his part (24 points, seven rebounds, one assist, one block in 31 minutes) couldn't keep the defending Western Conference champs from getting swallowed up at the Rose Garden by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Let's just hope that the "Year of the Comeback" doesn't collapse into a de facto extension of last season's spate of superstar injuries...
...and Early Returns
...because, other than the momentary blips on the radar from Timmy and Dwyane, the "Year of the Comeback" is off to a flying start.
Russell Westbrook made headlines not once, but twice during opening week. Originally, Westbrook was expected to miss four-to-six weeks after undergoing another procedure on the same knee that fell victim to an unfortunate bump from Patrick Beverley during the playoffs this past April.
Word came down that Westbrook might only miss two weeks, pegging his return for mid-November instead of December. Then, Russ shocked the world by returning in time to help the Oklahoma City Thunder fend off the expectation-defying Suns on Sunday, with 21 points, seven assists, four rebounds and a steal in 33 minutes.
As great as Westbrook looked at times in his first game back, he was still clearly battling some semblance of rust from an offseason spent rehabbing from injury.
The same could be said of Andrew Bynum, who forced his way into the Cleveland Cavaliers' first two games of the season before sitting out a trip to Indianapolis. Bynum's bad knees and year-and-a-half away from the game will make getting back to All-Star-caliber play that much more difficult for him, but if he can be a factor for the Cavs in the months to come, he'll have more than earned the money attached to his incentive-laden contract.
The Big, Bad T-Wolves
But rather than obsess over tantalizing flashes and incremental improvements from the walking wounded (i.e. Westbrook, Bynum, Derrick Rose, etc.), let's take a substantial moment or two to acknowledge the blistering pace that Kevin Love is currently setting for the equally exciting Minnesota Timberwolves.
At present, Love leads the league in scoring (29.7 points) and ranks second in rebounding (14.7 boards), behind only Dwight Howard (17.0 per game).
Keep in mind, nobody has won the scoring and rebounding titles in the same season since 1965-66, when Wilt Chamberlain logged 33.5 points and 24.6 rebounds a night for the Philadelphia 76ers.
And that was long before the three-point shot was even a twinkle in the NBA's eye. Unlike the Big Dipper, Love spends an inordinate amount of time on the perimeter, from where he's knocked down 38.1 percent of the 7.0 three-pointers per game he's hoisted entering Monday's game against the Cavs.
He's got some work to do on his free-throw shooting (79.5 percent so far) before we can so much as consider him a 50-40-90 candidate. But the fact that a player who won this year's "White Guy Award" could pace his peers in caroms collected and points scored, despite stationing himself so far from the hoop, is a testament to just how much we missed Love during his lost 2012-13 season—and how much better he is than pretty much every other power forward on Planet Earth right now.
Stick that dude on a team with Ricky Rubio (10.3 assists, 3.7 steals), Nikola Pekovic (12.3 points, 9.7 rebounds) and Kevin Martin (20.7 points, 58.3 percent from three), and it's no wonder the Minnesota Timberwolves are off to a 3-0 start—their best since 2001-02, when Kevin Garnett was still patrolling the parquet floor at the Target Center.
If this team plays anything close to competent defense this season, K-Love and company should nail down the playoff berth they've long been seeking with ease.
Lakers Hanging Tough
A strong season from Minnesota is bad news for the Los Angeles Lakers, who'd probably be among the first in line to snag Love from the T-Wolves were the All-Star power forward to demand a move away from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The news isn't so good for the Lakers in the immediate term, either. With Minny in the mix, the already crowded Western Conference playoff picture figures to cramp up that much more.
That doesn't mean, though, that L.A. is necessarily in the dumps. The Lakers escaped what was expected to be a brutal opening week with two wins (vs. the rival Los Angeles Clippers and the Atlanta Hawks), one close call against the (Tim Duncan-less) Spurs and, yes, a blasting at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
Still, you don't have to don the rosiest of rose-colored glasses to see some semblance of hope for this squad. The trip to the Bay was a clear trap for a letdown; it came the night after the Lakers had regained control of Staples Center from the Clips, with Steve Nash forced to take the game off.
On the positive side of things, strong starts from relative unknowns like Xavier Henry (14.3 points, 45.5 percent from three), Jordan Farmar (10 points, 4.5 assists) and Jordan Hill (6.3 points, 6.0 rebounds) have reminded folks that, for all his obvious flaws as a coach, Mike D'Antoni is still a master of turning scraps into stars.
Which just might make him the right guy for the job in L.A. after all—at least until Kobe Bryant comes back. If Kobe and Nash are able to heal up by season's end, and Pau Gasol can carry the effort on the interior as he has thus far (15.8 points, 11 rebounds), the Lakers may yet exceed expectations.
Even if that merely means sneaking into the playoffs as an eighth seed out West.
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