With the first week of the NBA's season in the books, no team has played more than four games and four of them have taken the court just twice. That makes it ridiculously early to start jumping to conclusions, but not too soon to spotlight some interesting storylines from the young campaign.
The Magic is Scary Deep
Early in Sunday's win by Orlando at Toronto, I got a text from a person whose opinion I respect suggesting the Magic might win 70 games this season. Since this individual is not prone to hyperbole, I took note. While the Raptors rallied to make a game of it after trailing by 20 in the first half, it was still an impressive victory for the Magic, which took the court without three starters--guard Vince Carter (sprained ankle) and forwards Rashard Lewis (NBA suspension) and MickaŽl Pietrus (flu-like symptoms).
In their absence, the depth that is Orlando's strength was on full display. J.J. Redick scored a career-high 27 points, knocking down five three-pointers, and added six rebounds and five assists in the best all-around game of his career. Ryan Anderson matched Redick with five threes while scoring 20 points and continuing his credible impersonation of Lewis during the latter's suspension. Throw in 30 points from Jameer Nelson and 20 from Dwight Howard and the short-handed Magic put up a 137.0 Offensive Rating to outlast a Toronto team that was nearly as hot from the field.
Orlando came into the day as the league's second-best offense (behind Philadelphia) and moved into the top spot (the same projected by SCHOENE in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10) with the effort. Again, that's despite playing all three games without Lewis and a game and a half without Carter. Though the Heat and the Celtics have better point differentials so far, the Magic may have been the league's most impressive team in the very early going.
The one thing that has yet to test Orlando is the schedule; Philadelphia is the only 2008-09 playoff team the Magic has yet faced, and Orlando won't get a real showdown until Cleveland visits Amway Arena on Veteran's Day. If the Magic can use the softer schedule to get off to a strong start without Lewis, however, it will offer a nice cushion heading into the rest of the season.
The loser here has been Brandon Bass, who may find himself the odd man out when Lewis returns in two weeks. Anderson will be hard to pull from the rotation given how well he has played. Taking full advantage of the same open looks that allowed Lewis to lead the league in three-pointers last season, Anderson has made 3.7 of them a game, better than Lewis' average last season (2.8 per game).
The Boston D is Impenetrable
Obviously, the highlight was the Celtics holding Charlotte to 59 points (and a 66.8 Offensive Rating) last Wednesday, but through four games Boston has yet to allow an opponent to score at a rate of more than 101 points per 100 possessions. Given that the opposition has included two of the league's brightest individual stars in LeBron James and Chris Paul, that's an impressive feat.
Starting fast is nothing new for the Celtics. They're still just halfway to their 8-0 start in 2007-08, and over the last three years combined Boston has gone 33-4 (.892) in October and November (a 73-win pace over a full season). Naturally, the fact that the team has been able to start the campaign healthy has been a factor. However, the credit might really belong to a coaching staff that has the Celtics completely prepared early in the season.
To that end, we might look back on Boston retaining Tom Thibodeau as one of the summer's biggest developments. If the Celtics lead the league in Defensive Rating for the second time in three years (sandwiched around a second-place finish in a season where Boston played several months without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year), will that be enough to get Thibodeau a chance to run his own team next season?
The League's Best Winless Team is ... the L.A. Clippers
Playing without the injured Blake Griffin, the Clippers have looked awfully good at times. Just one of their four losses has been by double-digits, and all have been competitive into the fourth quarter. Both Baron Davis and Chris Kaman look revitalized compared to their dismal 2008-09 campaigns, and the value of simply having legitimate NBA talent for depth instead of below-replacement contributors cannot be overstated. If the Clippers had Griffin, it's easy to see at least one and maybe two of the first four games being wins. Unfortunately, his absence will likely put the Clippers in a hole that will be difficult to overcome to make a run at a playoff berth. It doesn't help that the favorite for the 8th spot in the West coming in has played so well, that being ....
The League's Worst Undefeated Team is ... the Phoenix Suns
An argument could be made for the Heat, but while the Suns have played good basketball in starting 3-0, the opposition cannot be ignored. The Clippers are the best team Phoenix has yet faced, with Golden State and Minnesota rounding out the schedule. Combined, those teams are 1-8 (1-5 against opponents besides the Suns). Note that both teams see their schedule get more challenging on Tuesday, when they play each other in Miami.
On the plus side, Channing Frye has been a revelation as Phoenix's starting center, putting up 47 points in the last two games. Now, given that he's shooting 65.0 percent from three-point range and has 13 triples in three games, a severe drop-off is likely in the offing. However, even if Frye regresses all the way to last year's 33.3 percent shooting beyond the arc, it's the mere fact that he is trying threes that should make the difference. Last year, 12.3 percent of Frye's attempts were threes; so far, that number is 55.6 percent.
Consider this: Frye hit long twos (from about 18-22 feet) at a 41.6 percent rate last season. To be equally efficient while shooting threes, all Frye would have to do is shoot 27.7 percent. Surely, he'll do better than that, so every long two attempt that turns into a three attempt makes Frye a much more efficient shooter.
Finding Offense in Houston
Don't look now, but after dispatching of the Blazers 111-107 on Saturday in their home opener, the Rockets are 2-1 and boast an offense right at league average. In a season-opening loss at Portland, Houston looked like it might have trouble scoring all season long. Since then, things have gone much more smoothly, largely because of the emergence of Trevor Ariza. Ariza followed up 25 points last Wednesday at Golden State by scoring a career-high 33 against the Blazers. It was an impressive outing that featured Ariza mixing three-pointers and forays to the hoops with equal success.
Meanwhile, Aaron Brooks has been phenomenal at the point. While that has something to do with two matchups in three games against a Portland defense that struggles to contain quick guards, Brooks also put up a double-double (18 points, 12 assists) versus the Warriors. Because of their fleet of capable role players, all the Rockets need is for a couple of guys to step forward as scorers on a regular basis. That's what Ariza and Brooks have done so far, making a playoff berth look like a legitimate possibility.
Still, Much is Confusing
Take SCHOENE's beloved Memphis Grizzlies. They followed up a 20-point loss to Detroit at home in their opener with a win over Toronto and a solid effort in a loss in Denver. The offense has looked good at times after sputtering to 74 points in the game against the Pistons, but Memphis gave up 133 points (and 132.9 per 100 possessions) to the Nuggets. So are the Grizzlies terrible, decent, or somewhere in between? That answer, and many more, are still very much up in the air. So, for now, it's still too early to jump to most conclusions.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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