Buying or Selling Most Surprising Early-Season NBA Trends

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 17, 2013

Buying or Selling Most Surprising Early-Season NBA Trends

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    Just a few weeks into the 2013-14 season, we haven't yet passed the point where every judgment on an NBA team or player is followed by "but it's still early."

    With so many teams and players still rounding into form, it's difficult to make any confident assessments about how the year will play out. Trying to find answers in such small samples can be maddening. But there are a handful of early developments that have been surprising enough to warrant the risk of increased scrutiny.

    Whether it's an unexpectedly rough shooting slump for Derrick Rose or the rapid ascent of a budding star like Eric Bledsoe, we'll take a look at the current state of the NBA's least anticipated storylines and then make a guess as to whether they'll hold up.

    Some verdicts should help brighten hopes. But if you're loyal to the Cleveland Cavaliers or Portland Trail Blazers, get ready for some bad news.

    It's time to buy or sell a few of the NBA's most surprising trends.

Warriors Dominating on Both Ends

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    The Golden State Warriors currently rank sixth in offensive efficiency and fourth in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com.

    As a result, Mark Jackson's club has posted the NBA's third-best net rating: a sterling mark of plus-10.2 points per 100 possessions.

    The team's early success has come despite a difficult schedule that has included road games against the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves, as well as a home tilt against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The fact that the Warriors have posted such impressive two-way numbers against a tough set of opponents is reason enough to believe their early-season success is sustainable.

    But what's even more encouraging is that there were signs the Warriors could play like this a season ago.

    Despite playing 50 games without defensive anchor Andrew Bogut last year, the Dubs still ranked 13th in defensive efficiency. Now that the big Aussie is fully healthy, he's completely controlling the restricted area. Plus, Andre Iguodala—one of the league's three or four best perimeter defenders—is deflecting passes and forcing opposing stars to work for their points.

    Toss in the improvement of Klay Thompson as a wing stopper, and it's no wonder Golden State is defending at such a high level.

    Offensively, the Warriors are sharing the ball and shooting the lights out as defenses scramble to cover the league's most dangerous collection of deep threats.

    Thanks to improved health, internal growth and a key offseason addition, the Warriors' gaudy numbers are here to stay.

     

    Verdict: Buy

Broken Brooklyn

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    There are a lot of reasons to believe the Brooklyn Nets' ugly start is more than an early-season hiccup.

    The injury bug has already bitten the team in a big way, as no fewer than four Nets starters sat out a 110-103 loss to the Clippers on Nov. 16. Brooklyn is one of the league's deepest teams, but we've learned that all of its firepower works a lot better in short spurts off the bench than it does in the starting lineup.

    Deron Williams didn't look like himself before an ankle sprain knocked him out of the lineup, and Kevin Garnett's decline has accelerated.

    Jason Kidd has been somewhere between disengaged and overmatched on the bench, and if the losing continues (Brooklyn is now just 3-6 on the season), it's possible that whispers about a head-coaching change could get louder.

    Despite all the various reasons to be concerned, the Nets are still a team with unparalleled veteran experience. Plus, they're playing in what looks like one of the weakest Eastern Conference fields in recent memory.

    Expect them to reverse their downward trajectory eventually, likely winding up in contention for the fourth or fifth playoff spot in the East.

    Reports of the Nets' demise have been greatly exaggerated.

     

    Verdict: Sell

Eric Bledsoe's Superstar Start

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    Per Basketball-Reference.com, there are two players averaging at least 20 points, six assists and four rebounds on 50 percent shooting this season: LeBron James and Eric Bledsoe.

    The jury is still out on Bledsoe's jumper, so it's tough to make the case that he'll be able to maintain his position in James' elite shooting company. But we've already seen more than enough evidence to indicate the Phoenix Suns' big offseason addition is likely to sustain his other numbers.

    Bledsoe is relentlessly aggressive, which should allow him to continue his high free-throw rate of 6.7 attempts per game. So even if his outside shot sputters, he'll remain a reliable scorer.

    From there, the combo guard's ability to produce big numbers is really just a question of opportunity. As long as he gets his minutes, he'll post solid assist and rebound totals. And with the Suns invested in finding out whether they should match what's almost certain to be a max offer on this summer's restricted free-agent market, they'll make sure he finishes the season among the league's leaders in minutes.

    Phoenix is going to come back to Earth after a better-than-expected 5-4 start, but Bledsoe's counting numbers probably won't suffer the same decline.

     

    Verdict: Buy

76ers' Respectability

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    The Philadelphia 76ers have already cooled off after a totally unexpected 3-0 start. Having lost six of their last eight games and stinging from a 135-98 dismantling at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans on Nov. 16, it's safe to say the Sixers aren't going to be playoff threats.

    But three of Philadelphia's five wins came against the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets this year, which indicates it's capable of playing well against some of the league's elite. The fact that the Sixers have stood up to some of the NBA's best is a sign they're going to be a half-decent team this year, right?

    Wrong.

    See, the Sixers have already given up the only real asset they had: the element of surprise.

    Now that opponents know they can't totally sleepwalk through contests against Philly, the Sixers are going to find it much more difficult to notch sneaky wins. Michael Carter-Williams will find himself the subject of much more physicality, and Evan Turner will become the focal point of defenses that won't want to be embarrassed like the Heat and Bulls were.

    Fun's over, Sixers.

     

    Verdict: Sell

Derrick Rose's Shooting Woes

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    Derrick Rose has yet to make more than half of his field-goal attempts in any game this year. He came closest in the Chicago Bulls' impressive victory over the previously undefeated Indiana Pacers on Nov. 16, but his 7-of-16 effort fell just short.

    On the year, the former MVP is hitting just 34.8 percent of his shots from the field.

    Strangely, though, Rose's three-point and free-throw percentages are both currently higher than they've been in any year of his career. It appears his stroke from the perimeter is actually better. That means the real culprit behind his shooting woes has been a surprising inability to finish near the basket.

    Overall, Rose has made just 38.6 percent of his shots in the restricted area, well below the conversion rate of 55.8 percent he posted in 2011-12, per NBA.com. And based on Rose's career-low free-throw rate of just 2.9 attempts per game, it's clear he's not only failing to finish when he gets to the hole, but is also seeking out contact in the lane far less frequently than he has in the past.

    It's understandable that Rose is a bit tentative to throw his body into harm's way after missing a season of action.

    As he continues to gain confidence in the stability of his knee, expect him to attack the basket more aggressively. Once that starts happening, Rose's field-goal percentage around the rim will spike, as will his free-throw rate. The former should lead to an overall rise in shooting efficiency, while the latter will bolster his scoring average.

    Rose will get his shooting numbers back where they need to be. It'll just take some time.

     

    Verdict: Sell

The Cavaliers' Putrid Offense

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    Through 11 games, the Cavaliers have posted the second-worst offensive rating in the NBA. At just 93.5 points per 100 possessions, the Cavs have managed to be more effective on offense than the 1-10 Utah Jazz, per NBA.com.

    That's not good.

    What's worse, there are rumblings of discord in the Cavs' locker room.

    Per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, there are questions in Cleveland about Kyrie Irving's ability to lead, Dion Waiters' commitment to the team and Mike Brown's overall grip on the situation. The last tidbit is particularly troubling, given Brown's history:

    Brown was fired just five games into last season with the Lakers, but was quick to agree that this is easily the most disjointed start to a season he has ever experienced.

    Wait, what?

    The Cavs are currently less organized than the train wreck of a Los Angeles Lakers team that may have set the unofficial NBA record for "most disappointing season" last year?

    I wasn't confident in the Cavs' chances to make the playoffs before the season started, and now it appears as though things are close to falling apart completely. The current state of affairs in Cleveland isn't exactly conducive to the kind of chemistry it'll take to pull the team's offense out of the cellar.

    The Cavs' scoring struggles are for real.

     

    Verdict: Buy

Rudy Gay's Nonstop Shot Parade

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    Fact one: Rudy Gay can't shoot.

    Fact two: Nobody shoots more than Rudy Gay.

    Among the puzzling incongruities of the young 2013-14 season, the fact that Gay, a 38.5 percent shooter, has taken a league-high 220 attempts from the field might be the biggest head-scratcher.

    But if you think about it for a second, it all starts to make sense.

    Gay has always been a chucker; he averaged 16.7 attempts per game last year, which was good enough to rank 11th in the NBA. What's happening this season is a result of the Toronto Raptors turning Gay loose in an attempt to eventually trade him.

    Think about it: General manager Masai Ujiri had no part in acquiring Gay, and he's far too forward-thinking to actually want a low-percentage, high-volume wing on his roster. So the Raps are letting Gay shoot to his heart's content in hopes that his cosmetic numbers will become attractive enough to warrant a trade offer from a hopeful suitor.

    Gay is averaging 20.6 points per game this year, a career high, so to some extent the plan is working.

    As long as the Raptors are trying to unload Gay and his massive contract, they'll let him keep gunning. The shots won't stop until Toronto manages to find a sucker trade partner.

     

    Verdict: Buy

Portland's Hot Start

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    Raise your hand if you picked the Portland Trail Blazers to win eight of their first 10 games of the season while posting the league's third-best offensive rating.

    Seeing no hands, we can move on to dissecting the stability of Portland's torrid start.

    It's no secret that the Blazers bolstered their bench over the summer. By adding Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Mo Williams and Robin Lopez, Portland immediately went from having a five-man skeleton crew to a legitimate eight-deep rotation.

    That depth has had plenty to do with the Blazers' surprising beginning, but just as much credit belongs to last year's holdovers. Now able to take the occasional break, Damian Lillard has had the legs to shoot over 40 percent from long range.

    LaMarcus Aldridge has been his typically excellent self, and Wesley Matthews seemingly hasn't missed a shot all year.

    But the Blazers have fattened up on a diet of cupcakes. Just four of their 10 opponents made the playoffs last year. With two games against the woeful Sacramento Kings and one each against the Raptors and Detroit Pistons, it's no wonder Portland has been scoring like crazy.

    Maybe the Blazers are improved enough to sneak into the playoffs in the tougher-than-ever West, but they're nowhere near as good as their current record.

     

    Verdict: Sell

Anthony Davis: Already?

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    Thanks to a promising rookie year and a whole lot of buzz over the summer, just about everyone was ready to see Anthony Davis take the next step in his development.

    But very few foresaw this kind of leap.

    Put simply, the Pelicans' second-year stud has been a borderline MVP candidate in the early going this year. With averages of 20.9 points, 11 rebounds, 3.6 blocks and 2.1 steals per game, the versatile forward has been a statistical revelation.

    It's no wonder he ranks behind only LeBron James in PER with a terrific mark of 29.7, per Basketball-Reference.com.

    Better still, he's been showing off the ability to defend multiple positions with devastating effectiveness. He gleefully switches out onto guards when defending the pick-and-roll, eager to show off his quickness and hands. And when he sags into the lane, his octopus arms allow him to disrupt passing lanes, deter penetration and harass ball-handlers.

    He's a full-on, two-way weapon of mass destruction. And at just 20 years old, he's only going to get better.

     

    Verdict: Buy