By: The Same Page Team
As part of our ongoing NBA coverage this year the Same Page welcomes you back to our Three for 3 feature. The concept is simple: We ask three of our contributors three questions about the NBA during the season and get three different answers. Since we’re heading into Christmas, we figured it was time to look back at the first quarter of the season and get some answers. Now, follow along with Grant, Reynolds and Dave Osubronie (bringing his talents from the basketball blog Game 6ix).
Which team has been the biggest surprise so far this season?
Grant: In our Western Conference preview, I stated “I think one of the weirder story lines from this season will belong to the Dallas Mavericks and I am definitely keeping my eyes peeled” and lo and behold, that has certainly been the case, though not in the way I envisioned.
I thought I was going to see Mark Cuban storming around and barking quotes to the media, an aging team with decreased skill looking overmatched and, God willing, a sullen Vince Carter sitting at the end of the bench.
Boy, was I wrong.
I’ll give credit to fellow Three for 3-er Guzman for calling OJ Mayo’s breakout in the same piece, as he’s been tremendous in picking up the scoring slack felt by Dirk Nowitzki’s absence, while also posting a career best assist to turnover rate. Darren Collison has been steady, as he always is when given regular minutes. And the rest of the team has been solid and professional with Chris Kaman and Elton Brand giving great front court minutes when healthy, Jae Crowder exceeding expectations and Shawn Marion being the glue holding everything together. And Vince Carter? It pains me to say it, but he’s playing his best basketball since he left New Jersey. He’s giving effort on the defensive end, talking to his teammates, passing the ball and providing a scoring punch off the bench, a must since the Mavs lost Jason Terry in the offseason. It’s annoying actually. This team looks well assembled, and the short term gambles in Brand, Kaman and Mayo are looking like genius moves by the Mavericks. They’re currently just under .500 but only a game and a half out of a playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference. If Dirk can take them up a level when he comes back, the Mavericks could be a sleeper to win a round or maybe even two come playoff time.
Osubronie: Despite being an above average NBA player, I was sure that Mark Jackson’s legacy was cemented in stone as an ESPN announcer with trademark sayings like “Hand down, Man Down” and “Grown man move”. When he decided to leave ABC to coach the Golden State Warriors in 2011, I was sure he was making a huge mistake. Did he really think Jeff van Gundy was going to articulate his thoughts to the players on his team too? After a horrid first season, my prediction seemed to have come to fruition. Although, now Jackson and the Warriors are proving me dead wrong. Now, with a healthy Stephen Curry (knock on wood), Jackson has turned the once laughable Warriors into a contender in the talent stacked Western Conference. Having just come home after winning 6 out of 7 games on the road – most notably against powerhouses like Miami, Brooklyn and Atlanta – the Warriors are easily the most surprising team in the NBA.
Reigning Western conference player of the week, David Lee aka Kevin Love 2.0 is averaging 22 and 12 while getting tons of help from role players like Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry & Andris Biedrins. Sophomore Klay Thompson has exceeded every expectation and rookie Harrison Barnes is doing everything possible (Dunk of the year candidate) to establish his presence is the NBA. The Warriors will, however, sink or swim on the play/health of Curry. He continues to quarterback their offense while being the elite shooter that is more a testament of his hard work than family linage.
The Lakers will eventually be healthy and the Clippers will continue to win games, but the Warriors are putting the Pacific Division and the rest of the NBA on notice that “Mama, there goes that man!” Damn, I miss Jackson in the booth.
Reynolds: Can I get a Spike Lee towel wave and shout? It’s gotta be the Knicks, right? As of this writing, the Knicks are 18-6. They are in first place in the Eastern Conference. Some perspective: since 2001-02, the Knicks, having finished no higher than sixth in the conference, have made the playoffs three times, never getting out of the first round (and only winning one game in those series). For a stretch there (2004-2010), the franchise had become something of a cosmic joke; the team centered in the biggest media market in North America, in the birthplace of modern basketball, playing in the most famous arena, was an embarrassment.
Now, well, just look at them go. Carmelo Anthony is playing career-best ball, Tyson Chandler continues to prove his worth, Raymond Felton is back from his near career suicide, even JR Smith (can’t put enough exclamation marks behind this one) is playing consistently well. And despite it being Christmas time, I didn’t even talk about a bench that features the Three Wise Men.
So yeah, it’s gotta be the Knicks?
What team has been the most disappointing so far this season?
Grant: I’ve made my feelings on Bryan Colangelo’s cap management pretty clear in the past. I did always wish the Raptors would either make a serious run or bottom out and acquire a potentially franchise changing draft pick. However, this season, with the team nearly capped out, and a popular preseason pick by pundits to challenge for the 8th spot in the East, is not the season I would have hoped for the latter to happen.
There have been bright spots. A contract seemingly right out of the Colangelo’s standard ‘overpay my own draft pick’ playbook was given to DeMar DeRozan shortly after my previous piece was posted. But DeRozan has looked exceptional so far this season, looking stronger off the ball and more aggressive when he has it. Rookie Jonas Valanciunas has also impressed in spurts, looking like he possesses the talent to become a star at the centre position, even though he is still very raw and struggles with fouls at times. His basketball IQ appears to be excellent however, with coach Dwane Casey praising his ability to learn quickly.
However, off-season acquisitions Kyle Lowry and Landry Fields have been largely disappointing, for different reasons. Fields has barely played due to injury, which is enflaming the sore spots of those who were critical of his addition in the first place. Lowry, after a brilliant debut showing flashes of the tenacity and skill that he was lauded for upon his arrival in Toronto, has been a mess of bad body language and injuries. Andrea Bargnani continues to fail as a primary scorer and is now dealing with a serious injury.
The Raptors record currently sits at an atrocious 7-19 [Ed. Note: Three game win streak!], on pace for roughly 20 wins or so, which would be the second worst season in franchise history. While there’s no telling if the team might improve as the season continues, something has got to give.
Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said recently, after a Raptors victory over Dallas: ”After tonight, I think it’s very, very clear that whatever problems the Raptors franchise have are completely unrelated to coaching,” Carlisle said. ”Dwane Casey is doing a great job with a roster that’s beat up. I just have so much respect for him.”
I tend to agree with the man they call the smartest coach in the NBA. The roster is the problem. And the roster is the responsibility of one Bryan Colangelo. So whatever happens next, wherever Jose Calderon winds up (his great play and expiring deal have made it a lock that he’ll be dealt by the deadline) and when and if this team finally starts improving, the glory or more likely, the blame, lies with the man known as BC.
Osubronie: Try to remember that the Indiana Pacers almost stunned the eventual champion Miami Heat last year in the playoffs. Yet, months later, the Pacers have been unable to continue the solid play and fluid offense that made them a contender. They have made a strong case for biggest disappointment in this first quarter of the season. While Boston gets older and Chicago continues to be mediocre without Rose, I was positive the Indiana Pacers would be a lock for the two-seed. The injury to Danny Granger along with Darren Collison’s departure to Dallas definitely put a hole in their offensive scheme, however there’s a bigger reason why the Pacers can’t seem to get things going: it’s the disappearance of Roy Hibbert.
After establishing himself as a young defensive threat with an improving offensive game last year, the Pacers signed Hibbert to a 4year/$58 million extension. This is a textbook case of what can happen to a role player that has a breakout season in a contract year. Certain players rise to the occasion and continuously try to prove that they deserve every cent of their deal (DeMar DeRozan is ongoing proof of this in Toronto). Others can’t take the pressure and constantly second guess their decisions on the court; here is where we find Roy Hibbert. Sure, he is still averaging decent numbers, but he is nowhere near the physically imposing All-star we saw last season. In a league, and more specifically a conference, that’s running low on “true centers”, with Dwight leaving for L.A. and Bynum spending more time in strip clubs than on the court, Hibbert should have staked his claim as the beast of the East.
If Paul George and David West can continue to lead the team in Granger’s absence and Hibbert can grow a pair, then the Pacers still have a chance at a gaining a stronghold of the Central Division. Now is the time to establish dominance over rival Chicago, because Derrick Rose’s return is coming a lot sooner than they think.
Reynolds: Obviously the Raptors are the biggest disappointment to me, but I get depressed thinking about them (I’m looking forward to them tanking to keep their Top 3 protected pick) so I’m going to take a different tact here. By the win/loss metric the Chicago Bulls aren’t disappointing; they are 14-10 and continue, with Coach Thibodeau’s guidance, to be a top line defensive powerhouse. From where I’m sitting, I only wish the Raptors could be so lucky. So why am I disappointed? Carrying over from last season, and seeing this current iteration, it is clear that the Bulls should just not be in this position. They are currently trotting out lineups that feature, heavily, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson (along with the ghosts of Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton). This was supposed to be the team of the future, the team that made run after run at the title. Instead, I’m disappointed because I’m thinking about what they should be doing with a healthy Derrick Rose.
Last season, Rose went down with an ACL tear. As a basketball fan, a fan of talented artists competing in athletic competition at the highest level, things like that are just crushingly disappointing to see. I think of last year when the T-Wolves were putting it together and Ricky Rubio got hurt, or when the upstart Miami Heat were making their title run in 2005 before an injury to Dwyane Wade derailed their dream (well, delayed it until 2006). Injuries are a part of sports and while leaps in medical science have allowed this and this, we’ll still have to watch a special talent like Derrick Rose go down, throwing the fate of his team into a netherworld of doubt. We’re talking about a young man’s livelihood here, and I feel like it’s OK to be disappointed when a team is sadly not all that it can be because of the cruel betrayals of the body.
Who is the quarter season MVP?
Grant: I’m going to throw a wrench in the works and say Kobe Bryant, mainly because Daniel told me we’ve written about the Lakers enough and I find them ever so interesting. With this and the Vince Carter thing I’m feeling pretty dirty.
Kobe Bryant only cares about one thing at this point: his own legacy. His hunger for championships, his brutal off-season training regimen and his seemingly super human ability to play through injury is inextricably linked to his desire to be considered the greatest player of all time, ahead of Michael Jordan.
The most visible reason this is unlikely to happen is that Michael Jordan won five MVP awards and six championships and Kobe Bryant has only won one MVP, despite his five rings. Michael Jordan was always indisputably the best player on his team; Kobe played second fiddle or at least partner in crime to Shaquille O’Neal for the first eight years of his career, including three of those championships, with O’Neal actually winning an MVP with Bryant on the roster, something that would have been unfathomable for anyone on a Jordan team.
There are other statistical reasons (all time points per game in both regular season and playoffs being the most telling) but the MVP’s is the big one. And while I certainly think Jordan>Kobe, I also think Kobe deserves more than his one career MVP award (for that season when he dragged a horrendous roster to the playoffs on his back).
This year’s Lakers certainly have more talent, but at this point they don’t appear to have much more chemistry. Despite this, Kobe has thrown himself completely into Mike D’Antoni’s system, and is posting his best statistical season in the past five. And while that could be attributed to the bump D’Antoni’s system gives to many players stats, Kobe is doing it without the benefit of playing with a real NBA point guard and doing it while attempting his second least shots per game (by a measly 0.6) than he has in any season since 2007, and nearly three shots less per game than he attempted last season. The Lakers are slowly improving and should benefit from the sheer talent added when Steve Nash returns and Pau Gasol figures things out (or gets traded).
That’s in the broad scope. In terms of this season, Kobe is deserving of the award at this point simply because he hasn’t exploded. He seems to be nurturing Dwight Howard instead of ridiculing or berating him (publicly), he’s embracing a team concept and he’s pushing guys like Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol because he knows he can and he knows what works with them. He’s leading, in other words. If the Lakers can get back to .500 before they add Nash and Gasol, and then right the ship moving forward, he’ll be the reason their season didn’t totally collapse and he’ll definitely merit consideration as this year’s MVP.
Osubronie: When a player has a season averaging 28/8/3 and leads his team to the NBA finals, it’s hard to think there is much room for improvement. On the other hand, when that player is Kevin Durant the possibilities are endless. 24 games into this 12’-13’ season Durant is now averaging career highs in rebounds, assists, steals, block and FG% and he’s lead his team to an NBA best record of 20-4. There is no doubt that he is the MVP of this season so far. Many worried how his team would deal with the loss of James Harden but it seems like he coping without the “beard” just fine.
We never forgot Kevin Durant walking down the tunnel after his Oklahoma City Thunder got embarrassed in Game 5 of last year’s finals and neither did he [Ed. Note: Dave is a big Miami Heat fan]. After another stellar season and grueling playoffs series against the Spurs, Lakers and defending champs Dallas, Durant simply had nothing left. He was outplayed by Lebron James in the finals and then had to play with him weeks later in the Olympics. Although he showed no ill will towards his rival during the summer, Durant has come into this season hell bent on winning the MVP & NBA titles that eluded him last year.
And for the record none of his recent dominance has anything to do with the DVD release of “Thunderstruck”, which hit stores Decemeber 4th.
Reynolds: I’m going to save everyone from reading another 400 words. The answer is LeBron James. While, as Dave just outlined, he may not get it because of the touching Durant narrative, let’s be clear: LeBron is still the best basketball player on planet Earth. I doubted him before, but now I say: never again.