NBA Early Report Card: Magnificent Manu Ginobili, Orlando vs. Boston and More
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One month is now in the books for the 2010-11 NBA season, and if any of you made prop bets on which team earned the best record to date, you probably aren't reading this; pawning the computer to pay off said bet will do that. Time to examine what's happened so far...and what is coming.
San Antonio Spurs (15-2)
No one wants the playoffs to start right now more than Spurs fans. This team is the most lethal offensive group Gregg Popovich has ever coached. Every player seems to cut to open spots on the floor, every ballhandler seems to find the open man, and every shooter is knocking down their open threes.
The holdovers from last season's 50-32 group (DeJuan Blair, Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, George Hill, Matt Bonner, and Antonio McDyess) have performed at or above their level of last season, and the new additions (Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter, James Anderson) have played very effectively.
But we've seen this sort of thing before. The 2003-04 Lakers started their season 18-3 and finished 56-26. That team relied on a core of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton - except for Kobe, each player had logged a lot of NBA miles: at that time, O'Neal was a 32-year old 11-year vet, Malone was 40 and an 18-year vet, and the 35-year old Payton had logged 13 seasons.
Popovich has always excelled at keeping the minutes of his older stars down, but considering the age and wear on his core four, it seems exceedingly likely that the Spurs' play will taper off down the road.
Boston Celtics (13-4)
When I referenced the 2003-04 Lakers, it occurred to me that I could just as easily have referenced the 2009-10 Celtics who also jumped out to a great start, faltered down the stretch, but regrouped to the point of nearly winning an NBA championship.
The superficial similarities between the 2004 Lakers and 2010 Celtics are really striking, with one young star complimenting three older HOF-bound players. With a 13-4 start for the second straight season, the C's remain one of the best teams in basketball, as has been the case ever since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics play in a woeful division and, since they are probably not anxious to repeat the experience of ceding homecourt advantage to the three best teams in basketball for the 2011 playoffs, should finish with one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.
Dallas Mavericks (13-4)
One of only two teams to defeat the San Antonio Spurs so far, the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks don't look dramatically different from last season's 55-27 club.
One thing has changed: Tyson Chandler has replaced the aging Erick Dampier at center and has anchored a thus far dramatically improved defense. Dirk Nowitzki remains an absolute matchup nightmare and, together with Caron Butler, forms one of the most potent PF-SF tandems in memory.
The three-team race among the Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, and New Orleans Hornets should be the best division race in the NBA this season. (Well, the Central Division may prove similarly competitive, but for all the wrong reasons)
Orlando Magic (13-4)
The Magic were relegated to an afterthought when LeBron James painted a huge bullseye on American Airlines Arena, but Orlando has yet to relinquish its hold on the Southeast Division. And why would they?
The Miami Heat have the obvious burden of blending high-usage players into an effective system, while Orlando chugs along with most of their key players from their 2008 Finals run. Their most important piece, Dwight Howard, seems to be improving. Yikes.
As if it weren't bad enough that Superman grabs every rebound, blocks every shot, and throws every dunk straight through the hardwood, he's expanding his offensive repertoire (Granted, his offensive rating is slightly below his career average, but his usage is at an all-time high).
With a younger core than Boston's Fab Four and years of continuity ahead of Miami, Orlando is your best bet to finish with the East's #1 seed.
Utah Jazz (14-5)
Is there such a thing as too much stability? Utah has been consistently good but not great for the past few seasons, and if not for a five-game stretch of Harry Houdini-esque escapes against the LA Clippers, Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, and Charlotte, Utah would be 9-10 to this point.
Right now, it looks as though Utah is bound for another 50- to 54-win season and another second-round exit. Utah fans are understandably pleased with Jerry Sloan's body of work as coach, but should they be?
Put it another way, would fans and media in larger markets be so tolerant of title-less teams from title-caliber rosters? (Leave Andy Reid out of this)
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
Only one player in NBA history, Bill Walton, has won both the MVP award (1978) and the Sixth Man of the Year award (1986). It makes sense that a top player, capable of playing heavy minutes as a young player could be the best reserve in basketball later in his career if he retained enough ability.
But who wins the MVP after winning Sixth Man? After the age of 30? With Manu's mastery so far, this unlikely event appears possible.
Taking a summer off can do wonders for an older player. Manu's shooting percentages are all at career-high levels, and he's third in the NBA in Win Shares playing for the best team in basketball.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin is the Vince Carter of big men. Well, sure, there is vintage-era Amare Stoudemire, but Stoudemire is more like a huge small forward than a power forward with his skill set and quickness.
For all of his physical gifts, Stoudemire never has managed to grab double-digit rebounds throughout a season. (For that matter, Stoudemire only averaged 9.0 and 9.6 rebounds in his two best seasons).
Griffin is already a 20/10 guy, an honest-to-goodness big outperforming the rookie Stoudemire in virtually every category, and every game he plays is a highlight reel waiting to happen.
Darko Milicic, Minnesota Timberwolves
Why have the Los Angeles Lakers lost three in a row?
I promise I won't highlight a T-Wolf with every report, but how can I not talk about the resurgence (or I guess, surgence) of one of the NBA's most famous busts? (Must...not...make...Oliver Miller joke!)
In all honesty, Darko's play this season has not been significantly better (if at all) than his best seasons, but he is averaging a career-high in minutes per game, and he's blocking a league-leading 2.9 (!) shots per game.
Even though he may never live up to the hype, it's good to see that Darko has found a way to contribute.
Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets
Paul has bounced back from a battered 2010 to his previous stratospheric level (#1 in PER, #2 in assists, #1 in steals, #2 in Win Shares) and seems to fly under the radar nonetheless. Doesn't matter to me.
His individual brilliance along with the return to prominence of the New Orleans Hornets (12-5) have been, for me, one of the most interesting aspects of the 2010-11 season. The Hornets could have, in the summer of 2010, operated under the worst case scenario model and deal Paul, blow the thing up and start all over, but the Hornets acted wisely.
Despite Paul's recent injuries and rumored grumbling after the LeBron sweepstakes, Dell Demps and Monty Williams have guided the organization with a steady hand.
Should the Hornets retain the free-agent to be, it seems apparent to me that future free agents will jump at the chance to play with one of the best point guards ever and an organization that doesn't panic.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
If you haven't seen much of Curry, you might be shocked when you do. I know I was. As I am not an avid follower of the college game and Warriors games don't make national TV broadcasts too often, I only really saw him in a game for the first time last night.
He shoots with such unnatural calm and ease in games, it's as though he's shooting alone in an empty gym. All of his missed shots just barely miss the mark.
You've heard of 50/40/90, right? 50% field goal percentage, 40% three-point percentage, 90% free throw percentage? Curry is a lock to do this at least once during his career, and he may even become the first ever 50/50/90 player.
New York Knicks, Plus .500
As I write this, the Knicks are 10-9, good for seventh place in the East. The last time the Knicks were over .500 after 19 games was the 2001-02 season, when they were coached by Don Flamenco, uh, Jeff van Gundy (that Knicks team was also 10-9).
That 19th game in the 2001-02 season was van Gundy's last on the Knicks' sideline; he would later go on to coach the Houston Rockets and completely undermine his once well-regarded reputation with tales of NBA conspiracies, Greek point guard abuse, and tragic playoff performances.
But van Gundy remains one of the funniest people on TV, so all in all things haven't gone that bad for him. Seriously, van Gundy could carry a sitcom.
Orlando vs. Boston
Who ya got? This is my favorite arms race in the NBA. I mean, let's face it - no other Eastern teams are going to contend for the East #1 and unlike the Spurs/Mavericks/Hornets fight for the Southwest (the Lakers could leapfrog all three of them in conference standings), Magic-Celtics transcends divisions. Orlando plays in a tougher division, but Boston is older.
For the moment, I'm not prepared to pick either team to win Eastern Conference home-court advantage, but I will be watching with great interest.
The Los Angeles Lakers
They have lost three in a row? What the hell? It's hard to believe this was the same team that looked so sharp early on. Losing to Utah is certainly plausible, but Indiana? At home? In Memphis?
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