Kevin: We're a little more than a quarter of the way through the 2007-08 NBA season. Do you know where your NBA Finals pick from the East is? Well, Bradford, you and I both know full well the answer to that question: The Chicago Bulls are in the cellar in the Central Division. They have mananged a 6-3 record over their last nine games, albeit with only one win over a likely playoff team. So is there hope yet for our prediction?
Brad: There's always hope, but I think the pick is shaky. The problem isn't so much the Bulls, though. I don't know what it is with them, but this is really the same old story in Chicago. They'll win 45-47 games if no one gets hurt, though I think John Paxson really missed the boat by not addressing their lack of offense in the post. The real problem is the rest of the Eastern Conference. I expected the Bulls to emerge from a quagmire of four or five teams that were closely bunched around 46 to 52 wins or so, but the Magic and Pistons have separated themselves. While I don't expect them to maintain their current pace, I don't expect them to collapse either. So that's a lot of ground for the Bulls (and the Cavs, for that matter) to make up to get a decent seed. Oh yeah, the Celtics aren't doing badly, either. I know they haven't played the toughest schedule and I know they've been lucky with injuries and all but, geesh, 19-2 with a hefty point differential says a lot. I would pick the Celtics if I had it to do over. How about you--have Danny's boys won you over yet?
Kevin: Well, define "won me over." Are they going to be the top seed in the East? You'd have a hard time predicting anything else. Do I really think they have a 60-plus percent chance of winning the championship? No, not just yet. Like everyone else outside the Boston coaching staff, I'm worried about that 38.8 in the minutes per game column for Ray Allen. Would I pick them right now to win the East? Of course, especially if they keep playing lights-out defense like they have so far. That's certainly been a surprise. What else stands out to you as unexpected?
Brad: Here's the thing about Ray Allen--he's actually playing slightly less than he did on a per-game basis than he did in his last three seasons for Seattle. Of course, he didn't play those seasons on a pair of surgically-repaired ankles so, I agree, it's a concern. (I said that even before Allen missed Friday night's game with a sore ankle.) What's unfortunate for the Celtics is that if Tony Allen were playing at the top of his game, they could easily give Ray-Ray another five minutes or so on the bench every night. Tony-Tony just hasn't regained the explosiveness he had before his knee injury. If he comes around, it would really help out Doc Rivers in the second half of the season.
Now, when you're talking unexpected, staying with the Celtics, I think you have to look at how they've gelled defensively along with the strong play off their bench. All that talk about Danny Ainge as executive of the year might have been right on the money. It's not just the big three, the whole roster is playing well except for Tony Allen and, to a lesser extent, Brian Scalabrine. I mean, have you seen Glen "Big Baby" Davis lately? He's an NBA power forward who apparently doesn't have the ability to dunk the ball, but he keeps putting up huge numbers. Ah, but the Celtics still haven't played the best from the West except for early home games against the Lakers and Nuggets. Those are the games I'm really looking forward to. You're a Western Conference guy. Where do you think the Celtics would slot if they were out West?
Kevin: Not only have they avoided the best of the West, but they've played only one game against the East's other top teams so far (Detroit and Orlando) as well. That game against the Magic is responsible for one of Boston's two losses, though a two-point road loss is hardly embarrassing. I think right now the Celtics would belong in that group of contenders with Phoenix and Dallas just below the Spurs, who have done nothing so far to make us believe they won't repeat. Individually, what have you seen that has come as a surprise?
Brad: I'm going to consult my list of most-improved players to answer this. That yields Brandon Bass, Kendrick Perkins, Ronnie Brewer and Chris Kaman. Louis Williams has really come on for the Sixers and, going back to the Celtics, Eddie House has contributed far more than I thought he would. Perkins and Rajon Rondo are also much-improved but I'm not really too "surprised" by that, especially Rondo. A couple of guys having nice seasons in complementary roles are Keith Bogans and Hedo Turkoglu of the Magic. Before the season, I'd have argued for Trevor Ariza getting some of Turkoglu's minutes and Bogans not getting any minutes at all. On the flip side, Dirk Nowitzki has really dropped off from his great season last year. I don't see any reason why he shouldn't bounce back, but he hasn't played like an elite player. I also expected to see more improvement from Luol Deng this season. Who are your surprises?
Kevin: I don't think any list of surprises is complete without Toronto's Jamario Moon. Even die-hard NBA fanatics had no idea who this guy was entering the season. He has given the Raptors some really nice minutes, even though he's slowed down a little bit lately. Among veterans, I certainly didn't anticipate Mike Dunleavy having a breakout season. Still, to me, the most unexpected development has been Kaman becoming an All-Star center in Elton Brand's absence. When he played in the NBA Summer League after a miserable 2006-07 campaign, it seemed like a low point, but it really marked his commitment and that has translated into Kaman's game showing great maturation. Now you're surprised when he doesn't give the Clippers a double-double.
Alright, Brad, I'll give you the last word. Anything else you want to mention?
Brad: I am mystified as to how the Jazz lost six in a row before winning on Saturday. Their defense has been the main problem except in the two losses to Portland when the offense didn't get it done either. Andrei Kirilenko is as enigmatic as they come. Last year, you couldn't get the guy to shoot; Sunday night, you couldn't get him to stop: 6-for-19 from the floor. More importantly, Kirilenko needs to do a better job of staying on the man he's guarding once said player gets hot. I realize he's totally disruptive as a help defender, but the first order of business ought to be shutting your own man down. Last week, it was Kirilenko who was primarily responsible for Josh Howard's 47-point career night.
Kevin and Brad: Happy holidays to all!
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.