When the New Orleans Hornets host the Orlando Magic tonight at the New Orleans Arena, it is certain to be a rare event--one of them is guaranteed to lose. The Hornets and Magic, both 9-2, enter tonight's game as two of the NBA's hottest teams and two of the biggest surprises of the early season. The Magic is coming off of handing the Boston Celtics their first loss of the season yesterday in Orlando, while it is New Orleans, not Texas powers Dallas, Houston or San Antonio, that currently leads the Southwest Division.
Along with the Celtics, the Hornets and Magic have joined an exclusive club with their fast starts. They join just seven other teams since the 1979-80 campaign who have started the season with at least eight wins in their first 10 games following up on a sub-.500 year.
Two years ago, Basketball-Reference.com's Justin Kubatko and I collaborated on a column for SI.com that argued that the most recent of those teams, the 2005-06 Los Angeles Clippers, was likely to turn an 8-2 start into an unexpected playoff berth. Lo and behold, the Clippers went 47-35 and ended up, with the advantage of the quirks in the NBA's playoff seeding at the time, earning the franchise's first playoff series victory since moving to California.
In that column, Justin and I looked at teams coming off of a sub-.500 season that had started 7-3 or better, because the pool of 8-2 teams was so small. While the results for those teams were still impressive, focusing on the 8-2 or better teams makes an even stronger case that, while it is still early in the season, the Magic and the Hornets are for real. All seven comparable teams won at least 47 games, three won their division, five won their opening playoff series and two advanced all the way to their conference finals.
Year Team Prev First10 Record Div Playoffs
84-85 Denver 38-44 8-2 52-30 X Lost Conf Finals
84-85 Houston 29-53 8-2 48-34 Lost First Round
87-88 Chicago 40-42 8-2 50-32 Lost Conf Semis
97-98 Phoenix 40-42 8-2 56-26 Lost First Round
04-05 Phoenix 29-53 8-2 62-20 X Lost conf Finals
04-05 Seattle 37-45 9-1 52-30 X Lost Conf Semis
05-06 L.A. Clippers 37-45 8-2 47-35 Lost Conf Semis
Over a period of 16 years, just one team joined this group. Now, after three teams did so in the last three years, we have the largest group ever for a single season, three teams. That the Celtics have started so well after adding Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, however, is hardly a surprise. Just how well Boston has played in the early going--according to Basketball-Reference.com's data, the Celtics will likely join just two other teams over the last five years, including the 2004-05 Suns, in outscoring their opponents by at least 100 points over their first 10 games--has been impressive, but they were expected to contend in the Eastern Conference.
The same can't be said of Orlando and New Orleans. The Magic made a marquee addition over the summer as well, executing a sign-and-trade to bring Allen's former teammate Rashard Lewis to Orlando, but lost a pair of rotation players in Grant Hill and Darko Milicic. The Hornets had a quiet summer, adding only first-round pick Julian Wright and free agent Morris Peterson. Before the season, I picked each team to finish ninth in its respective conference.
Though the season seems young, we're now about an eighth of the way through the schedule, and the results of the fast starters indicate it's not too early to begin drawing conclusions about the Hornets and Magic. While the Texas teams don't need to sweat ceding the Southwest title East to New Orleans just yet, it would be a mistake to expect either team to slip dramatically over the remaining 70 games of the season.
In hindsight, expectations were probably too low for the Hornets. The team got off to a strong start last year, opening the season 8-3 before injuries decimated the lineup. From Nov. 22 to Jan. 8, New Orleans went 4-19; the rest of the year, the team was an impressive 35-24, a 49-win pace. Cherry-picking portions of the season like that can be dangerous, but the Hornets' injuries truly were remarkable. For a period of time in late December and early January, New Orleans was without all three of its leading scorers: Chris Paul, Peja Stojakovic and David West. Combined, the three missed 117 games, with Stojakovic playing in just 13 games all year. So far this year, they've missed one game between them.
In his third season, Paul looks like he might be making the leap to superstardom. He's averaging 19.5 points, 10.8 assists and 3.2 steals per game with shooting numbers that are off the charts--50.7% from the field, 40.9% from three and 90.5% from the free-throw line, good for a superb 59.3% True Shooting Percentage. Those kind of numbers have only been seen in the NBA in recent years from one other point guard, two-time MVP Steve Nash. So far, Paul has an unbelievable 30.2 PER, good for second in the NBA.
New Orleans has also benefited from replacing Desmond Mason, who left in free agency, with Peterson. Both players are capable defenders, but Peterson is much more effective on the offensive end. Mason is one of the worst shooters amongst the league's perimeter players, while Peterson is a career 37.3% three-point shooter. Peterson's True Shooting Percentage thus far this year (66.3%) is an enormous upgrade on the inadequate 49.3% TS% Mason posted a year ago.
Back East, Orlando is winning with an unorthodox style. When center Tony Battie was lost, likely for the season, to shoulder surgery, new head man Stan Van Gundy had little choice but to go small by moving Lewis to power forward. At 6'10", Lewis has enough size for most matchups, but his rebounding is subpar for a small forward, let alone a power forward (Lewis is grabbing just 6.8% of available rebounds thus far). Fortunately, the Magic has the perfect complement in Dwight Howard, fifth in the league in rebound rate.
Like Paul, Howard is looking to take the next step in making good on his limitless potential. Howard has developed enough of a post game to allow him to average a career-best 21.8 points per game, and he's done it while cutting his turnover rate dramatically. Add in his typically stellar board work and shot blocking, and Howard ranks 13th in the NBA in PER, tops amongst centers.
The upside of going small for the Magic is improved perimeter shooting. Going into Sunday's game, Orlando ranked sixth in the league in three-point percentage (38.8%) and third in the league in makes (97). Guess who leads the league in three-pointers? New Orleans, with 100. The Hornets are making threes at a 45.0% clip as a team, one aspect of their start that is surely a little fluky.
Both teams have also been extremely stingy on the defensive end in the early going. New Orleans, led by 7'1" center Tyson Chandler, is fourth in the NBA in Defensive Rating so far, while Orlando entered Sunday's win second in the league, allowing less than 100 points per 100 possessions (99.7).
Tonight's game won't be nationally televised, so fire up NBA League Pass, if you have it. The Hornets/Magic clash figures to be far more important than anyone figured just a few weeks ago.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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