The Lakers fired Mike Brown, then hired Mike D’Antoni instead of Phil Jackson. The Thunder traded James Harden. The Grizzlies shocked (and beat) everybody. So did the Knicks. The Nets are playing defense. November was a wilder ride than anyone expected, with the Lakers and Thunder leading the way on that front. But now that it’s over, some trends are starting to stand out from the flukes.
Never, ever count out the Spurs
Two years ago, Tim Duncan was averaging 13 points and 8 rebounds. He looked like his career was nearing the end. This year, he’s averaging 18 points and nearly 10 rebounds. He’s improved in every statistical category from last year, and his Player Efficiency Rating is at a career high. Again, he’s 36. Pundits have been saying the Spurs are too old to contend for about five years now, but that’s ignoring the details. Their core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are all on the wrong side of 30, but the Spurs surrounded them with a group of young players and veteran specialists who know their roles better than any supporting cast in the league. Let the Lakers and Thunder make headlines. The Spurs are ahead of both of them.
Carmelo Anthony is a power forward
At small forward, Anthony is too slow to defend the fastest perimeter players. He’s too lazy to fight around screens. He settles for bad jump shots too often. At power forward, he’s a monster. He’s strong enough to guard anybody at that position – the trend of jump-shooting power forwards means not many power forwards actually have power games. He’s too fast for anybody who guards him. His shooting now stretches the floor for the Knicks, instead of just wasting possessions. The Knicks have been playing off Carmelo’s ability to function as a “stretch 4,” and that’s turned a mediocre offense into one of the best in the league.
The Nets have a good bench
This offseason, the Nets paid $72 million for their starting lineup and filled their bench with minimum-level players. So we all expected that the powerhouse starting lineup would need to make up for the mistakes of their bench. Instead, it’s been the other way around. Their starting lineup is actually getting outscored so far this year. They’re winning only because the bench is carrying them. Reggie Evans has been a jolt of energy off the bench. Jerry Stackhouse has returned to relevance after being an afterthought for four years. C.J. Watson, who led a great bench in Chicago last year, is doing the same with the Nets this year. And Andray Blatche looks rejuvenated by a change of scenery. It’s been the key to a superb start by the Nets.
The Grizzlies are a contender…
The Grizzlies started the season with a number of their bench players shooting unreasonably well. Now those guys have cooled off, and the Grizzlies are still beating teams. They have a top-five offense and defense. They’re still missing a superstar player to win games in the fourth quarter, but if teams can’t score on them or stop them, it doesn’t matter much.
… And the Celtics are not
When your biggest offseason acquisition is an undersized, 35-year-old shooting guard, you might be in trouble. Jason Terry hasn’t been creating his own shots often enough, and Rajon Rondo would rather take a chance at an assist than shoot an open layup. That means Paul Pierce is the only person left who can create his own shot, and at 35 himself, he’s struggling with it, shooting only 41 percent. Jeff Green has been a disaster – he’s a jack of all trades who isn’t good at anything. They’ve been a little better on offense this year, but their defense has been terrible. The Celtics didn’t look great in the regular season last year before they made it to game 7 of the semifinals. But it took injuries to Derrick Rose and Chris Bosh to get there. This year, the Eastern Conference is stronger, and the Celtics are older, slower and weaker.