Will Chris Paul sustain his superb play in December?
The NBA season has started strong, and even more excitement is on the way in December. No one can knock the entertainment value fans have gotten through the first full month of the 2013-14 campaign.
The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are once again scorching after their epic playoff battle, and nearly half the Western Conference has followed suit. Michael Carter-Williams and the Philadelphia 76ers were improbably fun, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors traded game-winners and Jason Kidd can't hold on to his soda.
So who's going to dominate or drop off in the month to come?
If you dismissed the Orlando Magic as irrelevant tankers before the season started, then you might not be aware that Arron Afflalo has been on fire to start the 2013-14 campaign.
After setting a career high with 16.5 points per game in his first year with the Magic, Afflalo is averaging 21.4 points through 16 games. His 4.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists are also personal bests.
But what's most impressive about his leap is how efficiently he has performed.
He is shooting 47.5 percent from the field, which is very good but not extraordinary for him. On the other hand, his 48.1 percentage on threes is otherworldly. Afflalo is a lifetime 38.9 percent shooter from beyond the arc, and he hit just 30 percent of his three-point attempts last season.
Of course, his current rate is not sustainable. Even if 2013-14 does wind up being his best season, his scoring will decline along with his shooting sooner rather than later, and his unlikely All-Star bid will end before the new year begins.
Anthony Davis is truly a superstar now. Once he plays another month on that level, we'll all have to consider what that distinction means.
He's showing no signs of letting up anytime soon, so assume the Brow keeps scoring 19.6 points, pulling in 10.6 boards and swatting 3.9 blocks per game.
Historically, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning have matched those statistical marks. Robinson was the youngest to do it at age 24; Davis is just 20.
Consider what that says about Davis' athleticism.
Each of the guys mentioned is either in the Hall of Fame or, in the case of Mourning, became a borderline candidate even with his kidney issues. They were each true centers, while the thin-framed Davis is basically a power forward masquerading as a center for the New Orleans Pelicans.
Yet no one can expect him to regress now, especially given his insane athleticism. If and when he keeps up this production, history says he could be the best big in the league.
Is it really saying much to predict Chris Paul will top 10 assists per game in December?
Well, think about the state of passing in the NBA today.
The increased focus on floor spacing and ball movement means that point guards initiate the offense more often, but they don't always make the pass that immediately leads to scoring. That's partially why no one other than Paul (except John Wall) has dished out more than nine dimes per game this season.
In fact, Paul hasn't even averaged double-digit assists since 2009-10, his second-to-last season as a New Orleans Hornet. Since then, the only players to do so were Steve Nash, Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo. In 2013-14, it's likely that none of those guys are healthy enough to reach that level.
A point guard averaging a double-double is a rarer feat than you might think, and it's a testament to Paul's elite status that he makes it look so easy.
Kevin Love is currently fourth in the league in scoring, but he's 3.9 points shy of Kevin Durant's 28 per game. That means he's closer to the 17th-best scorer right now than he is to the leader.
Yet there are a few factors that indicate Love is about to experience a significant uptick in scoring.
First off, there's his fellow Kevin, Kevin Martin, who is putting up 23.1 points per game alongside Love.
As opponents geared up to battle Love and Nikola Pekovic inside, Martin reminded everyone he can be a great perimeter weapon if he's not checked. Going forward, defenses will acknowledge that the Minnesota Timberwolves, despite their burly frontcourt, are playing at the second-fastest pace in the NBA. With more focus on Minny's guards and the transition game, Love will thrive more in the half court.
There's also the matter of Love's three-point shot. He's hitting only a third of his trey attempts so far, lower than his rate in 2009-10 or 2010-11. (We're discounting last season because his broken hand made his shooting numbers anomalous.)
As he gets more comfortable shooting from deep and opponents adapt to the newly potent Wolves, Love will become nearly unstoppable.
Many of the New York Knicks' woes stem from Tyson Chandler's fractured right fibula, but Mike Woodson is coaching poorly enough to be the first coach axed this season.
Even when Chandler was healthy, it was clear New York's defensive ineptitude was a systemic issue.
Sure, it's harder to defend without your elite rim protector, but that luxury was just helping to mask a perimeter defense that gets run in circles by the simplest screens. That's on Woodson, who can't get his players to stop switching and to commit to containing their men.
His rotational choices have also been maddening.
Woodson is weirdly devoted to guys like J.R. Smith and Amar'e Stoudemire even when they're floundering. When a rare lineup clicks in terms of its floor spacing and defensive effort, Woody has shown no qualms pulling an effective player in favor of Smith or STAT, who proceed to dominate the ball on one end and play boneheaded D on the other.
At 3-12 and with championship aspirations, the Knicks need to turn things around soon. That said, it's unlikely they will, even after Chandler returns, and that will cost Woodson his job.
Of course, the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers will keep gunning for the coveted Western Conference crown. Surprisingly, the Portland Trail Blazers will too.
Even though the Blazers bench is improved with the additions of Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright, Portland is still a very top-heavy team that will decline due to its lacking depth. That said, the starters still have energy and will keep crushing teams now.
Damian Lillard is just a hair shy of joining LaMarcus Aldridge as teammates both averaging 20 points per game, while Nicolas Batum is excelling in his Swiss Army-knife role and Wesley Matthews is shooting 55 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc. The best Blazers are being given every opportunity to succeed, so that helps the team perform better.
As long as Lillard, Batum and Aldridge are all playing 35-plus minutes per game, the Blazers will be too tired come March to stick with the Western juggernauts. In December, however, they'll still be able to keep pace.
This prediction is partly based in the East's mediocrity, but Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls have proven before that you can't expect them to die without Derrick Rose.
Yes, this year's Rose-less Bulls have less shot creators than last year's. No one expected Chicago to sorely miss Nate Robinson or Marco Belinelli in 2013-14, and it shouldn't come to that.
Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer can hold up as the rocks of the offense, while Jimmy Butler is improving as an off-ball weapon and Kirk Hinrich is a stable presence at point guard. If Mike Dunleavy or Tony Snell can turn into a reliable bench scorer, the Bulls won't be significantly worse off than last season.
Either way, the Bulls still boast the third-most efficient defense in basketball.
With Deng, Butler, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, Chicago can keep points off the board without Rose. The Bulls rode those guys to a fifth-place finish in defensive efficiency last season, so with Butler growing and Deng playing for a contract, that staunchness can be replicated.
The .500 Atlanta Hawks don't have third in the East locked up by any means, and no one is showing signs of breaking out. That seed is open for the taking, and the Bulls have shown that they have the means to take it—with their superstar or without him.
Regardless of Jason Kidd's coaching tricks, the Brooklyn Nets' poor record is no fluke.
Mikhail Prokhorov bought a roster with great pedigree, but it got banged up immediately. Joe Johnson is the only Nets starter to appear in every game. Deron Williams and Brook Lopez both missed time with sprained ankles, while Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have showed their age in limited minutes.
At this point, Pierce and Garnett are basically just jump-shooters, so it stands to reason they'll improve with their point guard at full strength. However, there's no guarantee when Williams will be 100 percent, and it remains to be seen how much he can do with slow, limited teammates. Williams might fix the offense, but he cannot salvage the terribly inefficient defense.
"Obviously we say it, but our actions have to speak louder than our words now," Pierce recently said during the Nets' plight.
Maybe Brooklyn will be able to grind out victories with its experience and savvy in the spring. Right now, the Nets don't have the health or the energy to win now.
The Denver Nuggets built their 10-6 start on a 6-2 home record, which is the norm for them. George Karl and Andre Iguodala may be gone, but the bulk of this team won 38 games at the Pepsi Center last season.
Unfortunately, Denver's schedule does it no favors this December. The Nuggets start things off against some Eastern Conference cream puffs, but they face them over the course of a six-game, nine-day road trip that includes two back-to-backs.
After that, they return home on Dec. 13 against the Utah Jazz, but their other December home opponents are the New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat, all of whom sport better point differentials than the Nuggets' plus-1.5.
With just 14 home games through two months, things will get easier for Denver after New Year's. In the meantime, the upcoming slate will not be forgiving.
The Indiana Pacers—not the Miami Heat or San Antonio Spurs—have the best record in the NBA at 15-1 and the best point differential at plus-11.4; neither is about to change.
Indy had the same issue as Portland last season, but the Pacers went out and even more drastically revamped their bench. C.J. Watson is a much more reliable backup point guard than D.J. Augustin, Luis Scola gives them some post scoring off the bench and Danny Granger hasn't even suited up yet.
That means the Pacers have the depth to support their punishing defensive approach, and it's working like gangbusters. The unit leads the league with 88.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, which is 5.1 points better than the Spurs in second. The Toronto Raptors sit as many points behind the Spurs in eighth.
No one can touch the Indy D right now, to the point that the Pacers' plus-12.4 point differential per 100 possessions leads the league even though their offense ranks just 16th in efficiency.
This exceptional play should be repeatable for Indy. The Pacers might lose more than one game in December, but they'll still emerge as the toast of the NBA.