Yes it’s me. I’m still posting, albeit it not as much as I used to. I told JT you can count me in for maybe one post per month, and of course the Playoff Diary. But this season is so damn intriguing I don’t know if I can wait a month between posts. So much to see, so much to write about.
I thought I’d start with the three teams I have watched the most so far this season, the Knicks, Heat and Lakers. The Knicks grabbed my attention from the get-go after dismantling the Heat in their season-opener. They fascinate me because of the personalities on that team, their huge potential, the fact Melo is still chasing his ring, and because it’s New York. The Heat by default are on my radar as reining champs, and watching LeBron these days is mandatory for any hoop lover. And the Lakers are about to become videogame-levels of fun with D’Antoni at the helm and that stellar line-up.
Here’s what I’ve made of it all so far.
The Knicks deserve to be the #1 cab off the rank thanks to their genuinely surprising 6-1 start. A start that included stunning wins over Miami (convincingly) and San Antonio away from home. Their lone blemish was at the hands of the Grizzlies who are the best team in the league at the moment, so no shame in that. The most significant thing about the Knicks start though is their formula for success. I don’t believe this is a fluke, nor do I believe the Knicks are likely to regress towards the mediocrity many had predicted of them this season.
They have great offensive balance with Melo (22.3ppg) leading their way, and JR (16.7ppg) having his career-best season coming off the bench (practically playing starter minutes though). Raymond Felton won that San Antonio game for them, and while consistency has always been an issue for him, you get the feeling there is a lot less pressure when you can share PG duties with Kidd. And just on Kidd, he has subtly transformed himself into a spot up shooter, and a bloody good one at that, hitting almost 60% from the field and 56% from long range. Chandler continues to anchor the defense, getting good support from Kurt Thomas who can still move his limbs, and did I mention Sheed? No one predicted this kind of output from Sheed, and while he provides great entertainment and nostalgia for a lot of NBA fans (myself included), the truth of the matter is Sheed is an X-factor that potentially catapults these guys into title-contending territory. I thought he’d be a bench warmer, someone to stretch the floor on certain plays for 6-8 minutes per game at most. Turns out the Knicks are getting 10-15 quality minutes of Sheed every night, who is actually shooting a better clip than he did for his entire stint with the Pistons. Truly remarkable and unexpected. I love that guy.
Add it all up and you have a team that can score in a variety of ways, defend inside and out, and they’re doing it all without Amare Stoudemire. His return will no doubt shake up some of this balance, but damn, if they get the pieces to work then watch out. I was talking to one my Knicks-supporting friends yesterday, and we agreed on one thing. Few teams in the league are better equipped to handle the Miami Heat. Melo is adequate against LeBron and makes him work extra hard on defense, Kidd and JR are great covers for Wade (flashbacks of Dallas-Miami in 2011), and the Chandler/Amare/Wallace combo is a headache for Miami’s frontline. It’s way to early to call it, but New York-Miami is a thing right now. It’s on the radar. The Heat were warned. We should all take notice.
On topic, how do you rate Miami’s start to the season? I’m finding it really hard to answer this question and get a gauge on these guys. On one hand, they’ve managed to take care of business on a few tough road games, notably in Denver, Houston and Atlanta, and they’ve survived pretty well without the services of Wade. But on the other hand they have lost to the three best teams they’ve played (Clippers, Grizzlies and Knicks), and their defense has been average at best (that is being kind – it’s been terrible). An 8-3 record sounds pretty good, and it is, but I really can’t help shake a few concerns I have for this Miami team.
First and foremost is Wade’s health. Sometimes you forget Dwyane Wade is 30 years old, and that he had offseason knee surgery, and that we might have seen the best of him. He’s never been a really durable player, never played a full 82-game season, and I’m just not sure he’s good enough a shooter (or post player) to make up for his fading quickness and explosiveness. His drop off last year from 2010-11 was noticeable, but covered up thanks to a championship. But from what I’ve seen of Wade thus far, the decline is continuing. Some people have said this is simply an acceptance of his role as second banana to LeBron and that it’s a necessary evolution for D-Wade. I say that’s a cover up for the fact this guy is ailing and is on the downside of his career. I may be jumping the gun a bit, but I’m fascinated to see how things play out for Wade this season. Twelve months ago (and indeed over the last seven years) the debate for who was the league’s second best shooting guard was a non-event – it was Wade in a landslide. Now? It’s no longer that clear cut. Amazing what happens in the course of a few months.
Sure, an 80% Dwayne Wade is better than most players and with LeBron playing out of his mind the Heat can survive… for now. But it has a massive flow on effect if Wade is not healthy. Ray Allen cannot sustain a lot of minutes as the season goes on (I don’t trust his knees), and LeBron will eventually wear down if he and Wade can’t play the tandem act that made them so damaging the last two seasons. This is especially true on the defensive end, because Battier seems to be defending 4’s a lot of the time (he kinda has to), and the rest of Miami’s guards are really average defenders at best.
I’m probably being a tad alarmist at this stage, focusing on the negatives over the positives, but people always do that for reigning champs. They’re still my pick to repeat, but I do think a lot of it depends on Wade’s health, and I think this is a bigger issue that people realise.
The Lakers seem to be generating headlines ever 12 hours at this stage of the season. They’re used to drama in Hollywood, but man, that is some rollercoaster that Lakers fans have been riding lately. Credit to the organisation and the players though, because despite the Brown firing and Phil Jackson “mourning” (as Magic put it), they seem to be putting the distractions behind them and are getting better as a team. I watched both the Spurs game and the Suns game yesterday. They were worlds apart, as evidenced by the 32 point differential. Some of that was due to their opponents no doubt, but most of it due to their embracement of the D’Antoni philosophy, which was evident as early as 7 seconds into the Phoenix game when Kobe quickly hoisted a long jumper.
It’s too early to get a read on their game under D’Antoni, but here’s my observations so far. Firstly, Dwight does not look comfortable yet. He’s putting up great numbers without benefiting from many plays being run for him, and as a result he’s sometimes looking a little too hesitant with the ball. He was made to look ordinary against the Suns on a few possessions where he lost the ball down low – plays you typically expect Dwight to rise up from and dunk the ball like a boss. Maybe it’s his back, or maybe he’s being too unselfish. I do think the pick’n’roll offense that D’Antoni is intending to run for Dwight will be a godsend for him. Some people are saying it’s not a natural fit for Dwight, that he won’t and can’t navigate defenses as well as Amare did playing with Nash in Phoenix. I don’t buy that, because they won’t be screening Dwight 15-20 feet from the basket like Amare was, and Nash can delay his releases until Dwight is closer to the hoop, at which point someone else will undoubtedly be wide open. It’s the constant movement and potential for a score that will keep Dwight interested and engaged in the offense, and that can’t be underestimated.
Gasol’s role in the offense will be fascinating. He drained five straight jumpers in the first quarter against Phoenix, and the most telling thing was how quickly he pulled those triggers. There’s normally always a hesitation with Pau, the jumper is not his go-to action. But against Phoenix it was automatic – his mind was set before he caught it. I love that, and I hope we get to see more of that Pau under D’Antoni.
It’s no secret Kobe has had the most efficient start of his career. People were quick to point to the system, but a lot of it is due to Kobe simply being healthy. He’s got a spring in his step, and just when you’d expect after 17 seasons, for the old man to settle for more jump shots and avoid contact at the rim, the opposite is happening. Kobe’s scoring inside more than he ever has, and he’s attacking the rim as hard as he ever has. But it’s the efficiency that is amazing: right now Kobe is shooting 53% from the field, which is 6% better than his next best season. It’s a decent enough sample size to think this behaviour will continue, perhaps dipping slightly under the higher-paced D’Antoni offense. But I still marvel at the fact that Kobe can lead the league in scoring at his age, with all this mileage, and not for one second look like he’s slowing down. It’s counterintuitive, really. I thought we’d start seeing the decline by now, like we have with Dwyane Wade, like you see in almost every other perimeter player who’s played the game. Right now, Kobe looks the best I’ve seen him since 2010. And we all know how that year worked out for him.