What's in store for early surprises?
Suns may see hot start cool a bit as hot three-point shooting cools
Kings have been able to win games while developing young roster
Kevin Durant has evolved into an effective defender for the Thunder
It was just a month ago that the Kings and Bucks were perceived by many, if not most, fans as the doormats of their respective conferences. As we flip the calendar to December, the Bucks are 9-7, the Kings 8-8.
Meanwhile, Chris Paul's Hornets stumbled out of the gate and have actually played better since Paul's injury. The Suns own the NBA's best record. And the 10th overall draft pick, Brandon Jennings, is the clear front-runner for Rookie of the Year.
It's time to check the expiration dates on this year's surprise packages and try to separate the legitimate trends from the quirky blips.
The Suns will fade ... a bit. With Pau Gasol returning to a Lakers roster that already whupped the Suns by 19 in their only meeting thus far, L.A. seems to have its title legs under it again. In addition, Phoenix's incredible production from three-point territory is also due for a dip. Steve Nash and Co. are on pace to obliterate both the NBA record for accuracy beyond the arc (42.8 percent, held by Dell Curry's 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets) and threes per game (9.71, held by the 2003-04 Suns). The law of averages, though, says the Suns aren't likely to keep converting 10.47 per game on 44.5 percent shooting.
But the Suns' 14-3 start isn't entirely smoke and mirrors. The emergence of a couple of floor-burned hustlers in Louis Amundson and Jared Dudley, along with sixth man Leandro Barbosa, have provided the Suns with a deeper bench than anticipated, a backup crew further bolstered by the return of center Robin Lopez from injury. That should only help a veteran lineup led by Nash playing at an MVP-level, Amar'e Stoudemire performing at a pre-microfracture surgery standard and Channing Frye fitting in comfortably as a big man with three-point range.
Still, with a defensive efficiency rating in the bottom third of the league and an inability to force turnovers (22nd) or prevent offensive rebounds (dead last) by their opponents, the Suns are likely to once again have problems with the grind of postseason competition. But as someone who picked Phoenix to again miss the playoffs, I've seen enough already to admit I was wrong.
I'm also not waiting for the NBA to announce its Western Conference Coach of the Month for November -- I'll take Sacramento's Paul Westphal. After losing top scorer Kevin Martin, Westphal still steered his team to eight victories in 13 games. That's nearly half of the Kings' win total for the entire 2008-09 season, when they went 17-65. Westphal isn't sacrificing player development to get those wins -- seven of the top 10 players in his rotation are age 23 and under -- nor is he ignoring structure. With 23-year-old power forward Jason Thompson and 21-year-old center Spencer Hawes manning the paint, the Kings' kiddie corps has excelled by pounding the ball inside. Sacramento ranks among the league's top seven teams in points in the paint, free throws and offensive rebounds. Not surprisingly, they are also fifth in points and sixth in offensive efficiency.
Nobody should expect the Kings to maintain their .500 pace into April, in part because they still struggle defensively (ranking 23rd in defensive efficiency and 30th in points allowed in the paint), and in part because opponents will learn not to underestimate them. And for that the Kings have Tyreke Evans to thank ...
The gap between Evans and fellow rookie Jennings is wider on charisma than on performance. With his whippet-thin frame flicking treys and gliding across the court with an ambidextrous dribble, Jennings is like a bead of mercury rolling on silk. By contrast, the muscular Evans has the panache and savoir faire of a John Deere uprooting tree stumps. Grace trumps grit at the box office, though, and that has made Jennings the early Rookie of the Year favorite.
A closer look at the numbers, however, illustrates how similar the two have been this season. Evans averages 4.7 assists and 3.2 turnovers compared with 5.7 and 3.3 for Jennings. And while Jennings is scoring three points more per game (21.8 versus Evans' 18.8), it is largely because he has attempted 66 more shots. No matter the numbers, it's no coincidence that the league's two best rookies are playing for the NBA's two most surprising overachievers.
Like the Kings, the Bucks are apt to fall back in the standings in the months ahead. Those who consigned Milwaukee to the dregs of the Eastern Conference at the start of the season appear likely to be mistaken. With Andrew Bogut at center and Jennings at the point, Milwaukee has quality at the game's two most important positions. The Bucks also play the sort of dogged, disciplined defense coach Scott Skiles demands, ranking seventh in the league in defensive efficiency. But only one of Milwaukee's nine wins has been against a plus-.500 opponent, a six-point victory at home over Denver. Bogut has already missed time with a leg injury and has a history of nagging back woes. Nobody knows how former team leader and sharpshooter Michael Redd will mesh with the suddenly blossoming Jennings in the backcourt. And Jennings isn't likely to maintain his amazing 50 percent accuracy (38-for-76) from three-point range.
So who among the pleasant surprises has the appearance of staying power? Head southwest and take your pick between the not-so-callow kids from Oklahoma City and the indefatigable M*A*S*H unit in Houston, a pair of franchises not coincidentally operated by two of the NBA's more creative general managers in Sam Presti and Daryl Morey.
The flashy stat in OKC may be Kevin Durant's 27.4 points, behind only Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among the league leaders, but the better story is that Durant is playing 80 percent of the minutes for a team ranked fourth in the league in defensive efficiency and fifth in points allowed. It's a limited sample -- Durant has been off the court a total of only 154 minutes this season -- but the Thunder allow just 99.1 points per 100 possessions when Durant plays compared with 115.4 points per 100 possessions when he doesn't. Throw in significant jumps, for the second straight year, in Durant's rebounding and assist rates, and even persistent critics, like yours truly, have to concede he's a budding MVP candidate.
More to the point, the Thunder's upgrade on defense (they were 23rd in points allowed last year) should forestall long losing streaks. Factor in a rough early gauntlet that has already included two games apiece against the Lakers and the Magic, and quality wins over Orlando, San Antonio and Utah, and Presti's rebuilding job, ably abetted by coach Scott Brooks, looks to be a year or two ahead of schedule.
Then there are the lovable Rockets, who improbably remain in the playoff hunt despite losing leading scorers Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady to injury and Ron Artest to free agency before the season started. When the team's best frontcourt player, power forward Luis Scola, was sidelined with an eye injury just 22 seconds into Sunday's game at Oklahoma City, coach Rick Adelman plugged in Carl Landry, who responded with 21 points and 10 rebounds in a 100-91 road win. That victory boosted the Rockets to 9-8 despite a schedule in which 15 of their first 17 opponents currently have a record of .500 or better.
That the Rockets have been able to persevere speaks to their ability to maximize their available talent. Landry is averaging 15.9 points in 25.6 minutes. Kyle Lowry is feeding five assists in 24.1 minutes. (And don't the Grizzlies wish they had a do-over on their decision to keep Mike Conley and cut bait on Lowry at the point.) At just 6-foot-6, "center" Chuck Hayes is, inch-for-inch, the best interior defender in the league. And 24-year-old Trevor Ariza is demonstrating that Houston's de facto swap of free agents -- Ariza for the Lakers' 30-year-old Artest -- wasn't so lopsided and will only look better over the life of their nearly identical five-year contracts.
The odd team out in the playoff race looks to be the Hornets. With the Spurs and Jazz back on track after early struggles, the Thunder and Rockets showing grit, the Suns ascendant, and the Mavs, Lakers, Nuggets and Blazers all rolling up double-digit victory totals, New Orleans is in trouble. Yes, the Hornets still have the nonpareil Chris Paul once he returns from injury, and an impressive pair of backcourt rookies in Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton. But the Hornets can't stop anybody -- they rank 28th in defensive efficiency -- a fatal flaw in the hyper-competitive Western Conference.
In the East the biggest disappointment is the Wizards' 5-10 pratfall.. Excuses can be made; Washington once again suffered through an early spate of injuries, most notably to power forward Antawn Jamison, and is going through the growing pains of sorting out roles on a deep roster under new coach Flip Saunders. But it's becoming increasingly apparent that the Wizards are the anti-Rockets, a team laden with high-priced performers who fancy themselves as leaders more than role players and either can't -- or won't -- make the necessary sacrifices for the good of the team.
Jumbled roles from shifting responsibilities because of the team's history of injuries is a factor in this toxic chemistry, and so is the fact that more than a half-dozen players in the rotation are potential free agents next season. Given that Saunders is a share-the-ball coach who has typically let the players sort things out for themselves in the locker room, the Wizards could be doomed by continued bickering. The talent is there, and the bottom half of the playoff seeds in the East are there for the taking even if the squad doesn't sort everything out. But the expected synergy of Gilbert Arenas, Jamison, Caron Butler and Mike Miller -- plus a second-unit with better-than-average firepower -- executing Saunders' time-tested offensive sets isn't panning out. More than anyone, the pressure is on Arenas -- who perhaps should be known as Agent Zeroes, since he's owed as much as $95,000,000 through 2014 -- to make things right.
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