Real change comes from within
Pistons could reap $20 million in salary-cap space from Allen Iverson deal
Shift to zone strategies has improved the Lakers' defense this season
NBA scout analyzes the surprisingly effective Marc Gasol of the Grizzlies
Change is constant in the NBA. From new assistant coaches to mid-level exceptions to trades, no team is static for long. But for every title won on the back of an assistant like Celtics defensive guru Tom Thibodeau, there is a Jason Kidd-like trade that doesn't help a contender get out of the first round.
The most meaningful change often comes from within. The alterations that have the greatest impact are the ones that help change a team's strategic focus, and make it more efficient on one end of the court or both. That shift need not always flow from the bench.
With that in mind, here's a countdown of the five changes that have had the greatest impact -- for better or worse -- on this young season.
5. The Pistons have slipped from third in opponents' field-goal percentage last season to 25th.
How they've done it: By playing for cap space. Allen Iverson is many things, but he is not a point guard -- at least not in the Chauncey Billups sense of the term. In trading for A.I., Detroit didn't so much improve as deceive -- with the hope that Iverson's high-scoring exploits will keep the Pistons competitive enough for their fans while opening up a potential $20 million in salary-cap space next summer. But the deal robbed the Pistons of one of the game's better defensive points and replaced him with one of the biggest gamblers on D. If that isn't sobering enough, the trade also took Antonio McDyess out of their frontcourt for a month and forced Kwame Brown into the starting lineup. Think about that -- Kwame Brown, starting center for a six-time Eastern Conference finalist.
4. After winning 15 games all of last season, the Heat have already won eight.
How they've done it: Dwayne Wade. Dwyane Wade. Dwyane Wade. It's hard to overestimate the impact he's had on an organization that embarrassed itself last season with its naked reach for the No. 1 pick. An offense that ranked last in points-scored is now among the top 20. A defense that ranked among the six worst in opponents' shooting is now in the top half of the league. All this without a center, with two rookies playing significant minutes, and with the decaying corpse of what was Shawn Marion on the premises.
3. After starting the season 1-3, the Nuggets have won 10 of 13.
How they've done it: With a good trade and good health. Billups may not be a better player, pound-for-pound, than Iverson, but he is better for this team. "They're playing less freelance basketball and playing more in the halfcourt," a scout tells SI.com. That means an attack that is no longer the league's fastest (Denver ranks sixth), but it has placed a premium on execution.
"They're still a heavy pick-and-roll basketball team, and Billups is a very good pick-and-roll guard," added the scout. "He offers a combination of being able to shoot, the ability top get other guys involved, and the knowledge of where to attack teams in terms of what kind of pick-and-rolls to run."
It would be wrong, though, to not also credit the return to health of Nenê, who has not only filled the role vacated by Marcus Camby, but improved upon it, helping Denver advance from 14th to eighth in opponents' field-goal shooting.
2. The Cavaliers are third in the NBA in scoring after ranking 24th in 2007-08.
How they've done it: By taking the ball out of LeBron James' hands. With Mo Williams and Delonte West now capable of getting Cleveland into its offense and providing some themselves, James has found more freedom. Combined with coach Mike Brown's use of a smaller but better-shooting lineup than in the past, James has found higher-percentage opportunities against defenses that aren't swarming him.
"I didn't think we would be this efficient this quickly," Brown said recently. "When I took over ... with LeBron, I could say I need you to start the play, I need you to make the play and I need you to score it. Last year, we did some things that we thought would lay an [offensive] foundation for us. This year, we've built on it. It's been a collective thing by the players and the coaches."
1. The Lakers are eighth in points-allowed per game this season after finishing 18th last season. More impressive, they are allowing fewer than 96 per 100 possessions (roughly the number of possessions any team can expect in a game). That's 10 fewer points than last season.
How they've done it: By finally taking advantage of the league's loosening of the defensive rules. Long a proponent of old-school man-to-man defense, Phil Jackson, who was stung by the Celtics' throttling of his team in the Finals last June, has allowed his assistants to map out some zone-based strategies. Generally, the Lakers will pressure the ballhandler to one side of the court and then shift an extra defender to that side near the basket. That doesn't leave many openings to attack unless a team can swing the ball back to the weak side. And even in those cases, the Lakers' young legs have been adept at closing out most of the openings revealed.
Nate McMillan. Despite a struggling LaMarcus Aldridge, four rookies to incorporate, and a No. 1 pick to teach and learn to play, the Blazers coach has guided Portland to 11 wins in its last 14 games. It's nice to have talent, bit it's even better when you have a coach who knows how best to use it.
D.J. Augustin. The Bobcats' rookie point guard seems to be taking to the lessons he is undoubtedly hearing again and again from Larry Brown. Over his last seven games, the former Longhorn has averaged 18 points, 5 assists and shot almost 47 percent from the three. Raymond Felton, we hope you have your bags packed.
Spencer Hawes. The second-year center is averaging almost 13 points, 7 boards and two blocks a game in part-time duty. Why, exactly, is Mikki Moore starting ahead of him?
The Big Apple Circus. From Mike D'Antoni's lukewarm endorsement of the Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford trades to the media's support for the team taking the next two seasons off to the ongoing Stephon Marbury standoff to charges that Donnie Walsh cared more about flying home for Thanksgiving than dealing with his splintering team, the Knicks have demonstrated that no one does dysfunction better than a James Dolan-led team.
Mike Conley. When there are reports that you might be traded, in hope of reviving a career that has yet to hit its stride, to a team where you can be reunited with the big man you played with in college, well, it's safe to say that you haven't lived up to the billing of a fourth overall draft pick.
The Magic backcourt. After losing Keith Bogans to a broken thumb and Jameer Nelson to a strained groin, Orlando welcomed starting off-guard Mickael Pietrus to the brotherhood of the traveling suits, courtesy of a torn ligament in his right thumb.
The Grizzlies were widely lambasted for trading Pau Gasol last season to the Lakers in return for his brother, Marc, and other players. A month into the season, though, it appears that the Grizzlies may have found that their newest Gasol has as much potential as their old version, as SI.com discovered in asking a scout to break down Marc's game:
"He's as physical a big man as I've seen in years. He's not the most graceful athlete you'll see, but he uses every ounce and inch of his body. He bangs inside, fights for his post position, battles on the boards and works defensively. That's a huge reason why their defensive numbers have improved. They're playing a big and physical style, and when you get guys giving everything they've got at the defensive end, it rubs off on other guys. Offensively, he's not raw, but he's not a finished product by any means. Gasol has very good hands and can finish with either of them. Still, he has a ways to go to learn how to score on the block and command double teams."
They said it
"When you're a good player and trying to be better, trying to be one of the premiers in this league, trying to set your mark, you want the help around you. He has to make a decision on whether he wants to be here."
"Country first, then bird."
"I wouldn't trust him to walk my dog across the street."
"Because he refused the coach's request to play in the team's last game, we had no choice but to impose disciplinary action."
"I like getting booed. Boo me. Can't hurt my feelings. My feelings don't get hurt, because I don't have any feelings."
CNBC: The rumors alluded to by more than a few reporters that LeBron James would get a bonus from Nike by playing in New York or some other big market are false, writes Darren Rovell, who adds that James likely wouldn't sell more shoes even if he did play in New York.
Bulls.com: Brett Ballantini offers a glimpse of how the No. 1 draft pick is faring (quite nicely, thank you) and how some of the league's most celebrated current point guards view Derrick Rose.
Memphis Commercial Appeal: Darko Milicic may have found the secret to realizing his potential -- leaving the United States.
1. We mentioned it before the season and, despite their injuries, still believe that the Wizards blew an opportunity to rebuild themselves into a legit contender by not signing and trading Gilbert Arenas, or at least Antawn Jamison.
Even with a healthy Agent Zero, Washington's unwillingness to play defense capped their playoff potential at first-round sparring partner. Now coach Eddie Jordan is out, the team is in freefall and all Arenas' return could do is hurt the lottery pick that Arenas himself says the team could use. Is it next year yet?
2. For the most part, the Worldwide Leader is a good promoter of the sport, but it is veering dangerously close of late to trying to create news more than report on it while covering the free-agent class of 2010. After a frenzied week in which most of ESPN's talking heads (and other media) did everything but pack LeBron James' bags for New York, the network took aim at Amaré Stoudemire. It wasn't enough to ask the Suns big man about the changes on his current team, he had to be prodded into wondering why he isn't "the man" and how that desire might play a role in his free-agent wants in two years. We know bad news sells, but we're starting to think that ESPN is becoming the William Randolph Hearst of its day: They'll furnish the pictures ... and the war.
3. It's getting late early in Philadelphia. After the Sixers finally edged over .500, they dropped four straight. With little firepower from beyond the arc, they are going to have to get creative with points; i.e. get to the line, which they don't do all that often considering that they just bought the low-post complement this team supposedly needed. And no matter how few times Elton Brand doesn't go to the line, the $82 million he has in Philly money means that he'll get the blame a lot farther into the future than coach Mo Cheeks.