Roundtable: Early surprises, disappointments of season thus far
Suns' fast start exceeding expectations for team predicted to struggle by many
Inability of Gilbert Arenas, Flip Saunders to find common ground hurting Wizards
Michael Jordan may have found his calling as an unofficial coach for Bobcats
Four SI.com writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the NBA each week. (All stats and records are through Nov. 30.)
1. With one month of the season in the books, what has been the biggest surprise?
Ian Thomsen: Milwaukee 9-7 ... Washington 5-10 ... New Jersey 0-17 ... Phoenix 14-3 ... Houston 9-8 ... Sacramento 8-8 ...
As well as the Suns have played to lead the West at 14-3, the performance I cannot believe is Sacramento's. The Kings are 8-8 after unloading most of their older talent over the last couple of years, including a 7-4 record since leading scorer Kevin Martin was sidelined in early November. This team -- with Martin -- was supposed to be the worst in the West, but they're getting 18.8 points from rookie Tyreke Evans, 10.3 from rookie Omri Casspi and almost a double-double from second-year forward Jason Thompson. No coach has had a stronger opening month than Paul Westphal.
Jack McCallum: With a nod to Brandon Jennings and the Bucks, it has to be the Suns. Most pundits, myself included, damned them with faint praise such as, Well, they just might be a playoff team. Their 14-3 record demonstrates they're a lot more than that, particularly since they've already been on two road trips. Steve Nash is back playing at a best-PG-in-the-league level. Amar'e Stoudemire, on the offseason trading block, is getting his slam-bang work done within the confines of the run-and-gun offense. Grant Hill has remained healthy and productive. And coach Alvin Gentry is getting the max out of Jason Richardson and, more surprisingly, Channing Frye.
Chris Mannix: What are they calling the offensive philosophy in Phoenix these days? D'Antoni-ball? A Gentrified system? Whatever it is, it's working. I had Phoenix in a dogfight for the eighth spot before the season, but backed by the league's best offense, the Suns are off and running again. Spread the credit where you like -- Frye and Jared Dudley have been excellent while Nash continues to defy Father Time (and Mark Cuban) -- but Phoenix is looking at another 50-55 win season. Can they win in the playoffs? They haven't done enough of that in the past and there is little argument that this Suns team is less talented than its predecessors. But that's a discussion for another day.
Arash Markazi: The Suns have to be the biggest surprise. I can't imagine anyone, including the Suns, would have predicted Phoenix to have the best record in the NBA one month into the season. This is a team most predicted would be fighting for a playoff spot and now they're the first team to win 14 games, have a league-leading eight road wins and are unbeaten at home. The Suns also are as exciting to watch as they were a couple of years ago, when Mike D'Antoni was calling the shots with Nash. Alvin Gentry might be the coach now but he still has Nash, who is averaging 16.4 points and 12.4 assists. Nash has recorded 16 or more assists six times already after reaching that number only five times all of last season.
2. What ranks as the biggest disappointment so far?
Thomsen: I still think the Wizards are going to be strong, but it was asking too much to think the team would synchronize around a new system run by Gilbert Arenas after two years of injuries. They have a lot of talent despite their 5-10 start, but they're going to have to fight hard to make it work.
McCallum: It would be way too easy to say the winless Nets and a little too easy to say the Knicks, who have only three wins. So I'm going to say the whole situation in New Orleans: Byron Scott getting fired; Chris Paul getting hurt; a mediocre record (7-10) keeping away fans in a city where fans are desperately needed to keep the franchise afloat. I really wanted to see this team, which was exciting and on the rise two seasons ago, become a consistent contender in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps it will still happen under coach Jeff Bower, who put this team together. But for right now only the NFL's Saints are marching in New Orleans.
Mannix: We all drank the Washington Kool-Aid, didn't we? So much talent, so many weapons ... and absolutely no chemistry. Arenas seems to be the face of the Wizards' problems. His difficulties acclimating to Flip Saunders' system, coupled with his occasional finger-pointing (what is his deal with Caron Butler anyway?), have played a big role in Washington's sluggish start. This was a team that I expected to compete for the No. 3 seed in the conference. Right now, they look like they will be lucky to make the playoffs.
Markazi: The Wizards are the biggest disappointment. This was a team I thought could push for the No. 4 seed in the East if they were fully healthy, which is a monumental "if," as anyone who has followed this team the past couple of years can tell you. They've had to deal with injuries again this season, but even when everyone is available, it doesn't look like this team has all the pieces in place to be a winner. Perhaps I put too much stock in a Butler-Arenas-Antawn Jamison trio that hadn't been on the court together since 2007 and has looked two years older and slower this season. Arenas may become "Hibachi" once again, but as of now he and Saunders aren't on the same page. It's never a good sign when your star player begins to doubt himself and his teammates as Arenas has done this season.
3. Gerald Wallace torched the Cavs last Friday while getting some in-game tips from Michael Jordan, who was sitting courtside. Was this a smart use of all resources available or a troubling breach of protocol from the Bobcats' president?
Thomsen: Is Jordan reinforcing coach Larry Brown's instructions? It's a bad thing if the players view it as an invitation to stop listening to Brown and start listening to Jordan. But there's no sign of that happening here. I've seen Danny Ainge and other GMs yelling advice and encouragement from the sideline. Let's be realistic. This is Michael Jordan. He should be inspiring his players.
McCallum: The Bobcats should see more of their prez, not less. Offering courtside tips is exactly what Jordan should be doing. As long as MJ keeps his head about him -- remembering both that, on a night-to-night basis, Gerald Wallace will not play like Michael Jordan, and Brown is still the coach -- the 'Cats will benefit from his tutorials.
Mannix: Come on. Kevin McHale worked closely with Kevin Garnett when KG was in Minnesota, and Isiah Thomas spent hours in the gym with Stephon Marbury when he was a Knicks exec (OK, that one didn't work out so well). Jordan was one of the most intelligent men to play the game and any wisdom he has to impart to Charlotte players -- especially ones who play the swing positions -- should be welcomed by the coaching staff and eagerly absorbed. Besides, I think Brown (perhaps the best teaching coach in the game) is secure enough in his own skills and position to appreciate Jordan pitching in. In fact, I think Brown would welcome more input from Jordan, who continues to be viewed throughout the league as an absentee landlord in Charlotte.
Markazi: It would be one thing if Wallace were taking advice from an owner like Mark Cuban or a celebrity fan like Spike Lee, but he was learning from Jordan, who is not only the managing partner of the team but arguably the greatest basketball player ever. It's no secret Jordan has his flaws in running a front office, but maybe he's found his calling as a coach. With Jordan urging Wallace to post up LeBron James after James picked up his third foul in the first half, Wallace lit up the Cavaliers with a game-high 31 points and 14 rebounds. Two days before the Cavs game, Jordan criticized Wallace for his play and Wallace took it out on the Raptors, scoring 31 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in a 116-81 win, the team's most lopsided victory ever. Considering the way Wallace has responded to Jordan's coaching, if I were Brown, I would encourage Jordan to be in his ear every day.
4. Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler were each fined for posting on Twitter during games. Is the NBA right to ban this during games or should professional players be left to tweet at their own discretion? What guidelines would you set in place?
Thomsen: For less than three hours per 82 days each year they can live without Twitter. It's fashionable and newsworthy mainly because the players know they shouldn't be doing it during the games.
McCallum: Banning Twitter is like banning sixth-graders from chewing gum in school -- they're just going to do it in the restroom. Do I think that tweeting during games is stupid and unprofessional? Yes. But the generation below me -- all right, the two generations below me -- is going to do it anyway. Whether to allow tweeting should be a team decision.
Mannix: Don't you wish Red Auerbach had lived long enough to enter the Twitter age? I do. I don't have a problem with the NBA banning tweeting during games. It's no different than a corporate office discouraging employees from online shopping during work hours. The league wants the fans' focus to be on the games and they want the players' focus to be there as well. It's not too much to ask players to put their BlackBerries away for a couple of hours a day so they can concentrate on a job they are well compensated for.
Markazi: There is no reason for players to be tweeting during games. The last thing you need in the NBA is players on their phones tweeting comments and pictures while their coach is talking to them at the half or trying to yell at them to get in the game. Of course, in the case of Stoudemire and Chandler, neither was actually tweeting on the accounts themselves. Someone else or an automated service was tweeting for them, but that still doesn't make it right. Most of us suspect that many athletes on Twitter aren't actually writing all their tweets, but if they're going to attach their names to it, they have to abide by the NBA rules. The current rules are more than fair, prohibiting players from using cell phones and other communication devices 45 minutes before game time until after players have finished their responsibilities following games. It's no different than the mandates handed down by companies all over the world -- when you come to work, you're expected to concentrate on your work, and when you're done, you're free to do what you want.
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