ESPN and NBA.com have both released their weekly power rankings and if someone had been in a coma since 2003 or so, the number one team would’ve come as quite a shock (actually, it probably comes as quite a shock to anyone who has yet to really pay attention to the NBA this season too).
The Atlanta Hawks are ranked No. 1 in each poll. What’s the bigger shock though is that it’s not a misprint and they actually deserve the ranking at this point in the season.
Going into the season, it seemed like the Hawks only marginally improved on what they had last season. They upgraded slightly on the bench by replacing Flip Murray with Jamal Crawford and they signed Joe Smith to fill the veteran role off the bench (which they did not have last season or the season before that).
They’re about the same defensively as they were last season, which is to say, a rather underappreciated defensive team that’s a little small up front. Offensively, they’re about the same as last season, albeit a bit more efficient (at least statistically, they’re running the offense much better than they were last season).
All of the changes for the Hawks have been relatively minor, but for a team like this, a number of minor changes can mean the world.
It all starts though with the player who has usurped the mantle of best player on the team, Josh Smith. The minor change he made this season is only minor in the box score and is a major shift in the player’s mindset (and a sign a growth that seemed like a distant).
This season Smith decided to stop shooting threes. It seems what started this trend was last season, after every three point attempt, the Hawks fans would boo Smith regardless of the outcome of the shot. Over the first 11 games, Smith has yet to attempt a three pointer and this had something of a snowball effect on the rest of his game.
His defense is more fundamentally sound and not just based around getting blocks and steals, but actually staying in front of his man. And on offense, he’s limiting his turnovers and not making boneheaded plays. In essence, by taking the three point shot out of his repertoire, he’s just playing a smarter game and has been the key to the Hawks currently holding court as the best team in the league.
Josh Smith evolution into basketball maturity isn’t the only reason for the Hawks improvement. Al Horford has leapfrogged Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams has the third option in the Hawks starting lineup (Williams for the most part has absolutely disappeared on offense).
This is rather huge for the Hawks even if Horford’s improvement has been rather slight. It’s not so much his number that have his improved but he’s becoming more aggressive inside and giving the Hawks an interior presence on offense that they were missing the last two seasons.
Of course it would be hard to overlook the addition of Jamal Crawford. When they traded for him during the offseason, the move was treated as a big deal for about five second before being forgotten about because of moves that involved Rasheed Wallace, Ron Artest, Richard Jefferson, and Shaq.
But it’s easy to argue that Crawford has been just as big an addition as any of those admittedly bigger names. Crawford has always had the stigma of being a gunner who never helped his team win (a stigma for all intents and purposes proved to be true). He’d never been to the playoffs in his entire career, almost all of it as a starter.
But when you take him out of the starting line-up, limit his minutes, and embrace his gunner tendencies, all of sudden he becomes a major asset coming off the bench. He gives the second unit more scoring punch than they had with Flip Murray last season, meaning that the first unit doesn’t have to kill themselves when they take a breather (or in some cases last season, if they take a breather).
None of this really matters though if Joe Johnson didn’t remain the All Star caliber rock that he has been the last few seasons. Since joining the Hawks Joe Johnson has been consistently solid, playing at the same level regardless of how good the Hawks have been. All of these elements give a fair explanation why the Hawks have made a dramatic change from last season without changing much of anything.
While the Hawks maybe a surprising best team currently in the NBA, the Bucks have to be considered the most surprising. Looking at their roster now in a vacuum and without context of what they’ve done this season, they have one legitimate starter on their roster at the moment with Michael Redd hurt and that’s Andrew Bogut.
The rest of their rotation consists of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Luke Ridnour, Hakeem Warrick, Charlie Bell, Carlos Delfino, and Brandon Jennings. Looking at that group, there isn’t a traditional big man (outside of Bogut) or scoring swing player.
It helps that Brandon Jennings has broken out as a star and is carrying the team offensively right now (it’ll be curious to see if he can continue to build off of his record setting scoring output against the Warriors), but the real reason for the Bucks looking like a possible playoff contender is the embracing of Skiles defensive philosophy, right now ranking fifth overall in defensive rating.
The Nuggets have seemed to have turned the corner from being a team concentrating on tough guy posturing to a team that is actually tough.
Their utter beatdown of the Lakers last Friday was eye opening. And they did most of it by pushing around the Lakers and just locking them down defensively, holding the Lakers to a franchise low 23 points in the second half (including holding Kobe Bryant to zero points in that span). What remains to be seen though is if they can keep up this kind of intensity with any kind of consistency.
Early on this season they looked like a true title contender but their concentration has wavered since their opening few games. So an eye will be kept on them to see if they only get up for “big games” and then play down to lesser opponents, but as it stands now, they honestly look like they could make a serious run.
The Lakers on the other hand might have some major concerns lining up for them. They clearly miss Pau Gasol, not only for the elite level skills he provides but for the balance he provides to the roster. Without Gasol in the lineup the Lakers are forced to start Lamar Odom which really does a number on their bench.
Without Odom the bench is absolutely awful, relying on the likes of Sasha Vuajcic, Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton, and Shannon Brown to carry the offensive load (including Mbenga and Josh Powell, do any of those six break any of other “elite” teams’ rotations?).
Add that to the fact that the Lakers have been playing sloppy in general and that Kobe has decided to shoot, shoot, and shoot some more, the Lakers need Gasol back sooner rather than later (I haven’t been able to get a word on his time table, Jackson said something about Christmas, but I wasn’t sure he was joking or not).