LeBron vaults to No. 1 -- and he may stay for a while
Posted: Friday November 17, 2006 5:20PM; Updated: Friday December 15, 2006 2:56PM
We're enjoying the opening pangs of the '06-07 NBA go-around, an odd little introduction that has allowed for winning runs from Atlanta and Orlando, sputtering starts from last season's two NBA finalists and a rash of technical and turnover calls (though not, as you'd suspect, from the NBA's new ball, but from increased attention to palming violations). Topping that are the impressive performances from reformed ne'er-do-wells like Zach Randolph and Carlos Boozer, leading their teams to strong Novembers while All-Star stalwarts like Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady round their respective games into usual form.
And yet, we think a bit of something we can trust has established itself at the top of this week's list, and we wouldn't be surprised if the top ranking goes unchanged from now until next June.
Here's this week's list, with all stats and records through Thursday's games.
A big chunk of the credit behind Cleveland's 6-2 opening should flow toward improved play from the likes of Drew Gooden and a stout defense, but that shouldn't take away from LeBron's brilliance so far. The 21-year old wunderkind is averaging 28.6 points, 6.5 assists and 7.4 rebounds, and he's making more of an impact on the defensive end in his fourth season. The Cavs rank third in overall defensive efficiency, up from 14th last season.
It became obvious last season that Yao was the game's best center, and save for his last two iffy outings, he's been the NBA's best player this season. Not only has he dominated during the Rockets' 6-3 start, but he's also doing it with a supporting cast that is still finding its way. Though Yao is averaging 17.6 shots a game, Houston's inability to get the big man the ball down the stretch of its loss to San Antonio on Tuesday was a little unnerving. That said, the Rockets are playing terrific basketball despite the feeling-out stage, and Yao is averaging a monstrous 25.7 points (on 53 percent shooting), 9.8 boards and 1.78 blocks in 35 minutes a game.
Maybe the Milwaukee loss took away from the accomplishment, or perhaps Kobe Bryant's recent 81-point explosion made it seem like child's play. Or, more than likely, the fact that it came on a Saturday night deep in football season, following an afternoon of college football upsets, led to a collective yawn from the sporting fandom at large. In any case, Redd's 57-point performance against Utah was a sight to behold, and the league's leading scorer seems eminently capable of hanging onto his crown for the duration of the season.
Don't look now, but Nowitzki's averages (26 points, 9.3 rebounds, just 2.14 turnovers) are on par with his last two seasons, when he was as good an MVP candidate as anyone. It's early, of course, but he's also on pace to make more than half his shots from the field, 40 percent from behind the arc and 90 percent from the free throw line. Following through on those marks would put him in select NBA company that includes his good friend Steve Nash and Larry Bird.
On one hand, it's a bit improbable that Randolph is playing the way he is. He's never been able to keep it together for long -- a pout or poor defensive rotation have always seemed as likely as a 30-and-15 night -- so it's nice to see him contribute so much to Portland's strong first few weeks. That said, Randolph has oozed nothing but talent since high school and he worked his tail off to come back from microfracture knee surgery, so it's probably time to stop with the slack-jawed reactions and start to expect these sort of averages (27 points, 10.2 rebounds) from here on out.
Far and away the best player on the NBA's best team thus far, Boozer is piling up the numbers without needing the ball much. He looked pretty impressive working his way around the Clippers' Elton Brand on Tuesday. Boozer scored only 16 points, but he made 7-of-13 shots, pulled in 15 rebounds and dished seven assists. Like Yao, Boozer also plays 35 minutes a game, but he's still managed to average 21.1 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
It nearly goes without saying that the Timberwolves would have trouble winning one game out of 10 without KG in the lineup. Though his offensive exploits often seem the most spectacular, Garnett is keeping his team in games with his superior defensive impact. Even on a team with subpar defenders like Mark Blount, Mike James, Marko Jaric and Troy Hudson receiving extended minutes, Garnett and fellow defensive stalwart Trenton Hassell have led the Timberwolves to a top-10 showing in overall defensive efficiency.
His Hawks have come back to earth, dropping two in a row after winning four of five to start the season, but Johnson continues to shine. He's averaging 28.9 points on a team that is among the slowest in the NBA (Atlanta is averaging about 89 possessions per game). Johnson is getting to the line more (6.6 attempts a game), and his touch in the paint has been spot-on.
Pierce is keeping his chin up, which is a lovely thing when you get paid millions of dollars to play a game for a living, but we wouldn't begrudge him a rant or two if things continue to go this poorly for his Celtics. Boston has opened 2-6, but a break or three could have allowed for a reversal of that record, all while Pierce chugs right along. He's leading the team in points, rebounds, steals and minutes ... but seems to have fallen short in blocks, registering just one for the season. Pity. Let's pick it up, Paul.
Carter is having a career year thus far, but we're not seeing the usual contract-year clichés come to the fore. For one, his Nets started the season on a defensive tear, with Carter doing yeoman's work in the paint as coach Lawrence Frank went to a smaller lineup. Secondly, though Carter is shooting the ball a bit more often (especially with Richard Jefferson on the shelf), his shooting percentages are way up across the board. Still, the Nets need all the production they can get, even with Jefferson in the lineup, though Jason Kidd's resurgence is a welcome sight.