Monday, December 29, 2008

Possible New Year Turnaround Stories

Happy holidays, all.

The calendar is flipping into a new year, but the NBA season is just starting to heat up a little. Given that less than half the season has been played so far, it's easy to draw mistaken conclusions about what's going on in the league. I, for one, have no idea what will happen for the rest of the season -- it looks as though the best teams in the league right now are the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Lakers, but I imagine that Houston, San Antonio, Utah, and Orlando will have something to say about that eventually. In any case, I thought it would be fun to take a look at both the numbers and what I've seen from teams and try to project some of the "surprises" that we might see in the 2009 part of the 2008-2009 season (both good and bad).

By The Numbers: Almost The Entire Central Division
There are a ton of stories here right now. The Cavaliers are definitely one of the top teams in the league no matter how you want to measure it, but after them the rest of the teams have records that don't really indicate all that's going on beneath the surface.

The Pacers are 10-20 right now, but have played much better than what their record would indicate. They've lost more than their share of close games, and have played, in terms of winning percentage, the toughest schedule in the league so far. They do have the tendency to play to the level of their competition, following up wins against playoff teams with losses against cellar dwellers, but I think they'll get this figured out. The schedule doesn't get any easier in January, but if they're within shouting distance of .500 by the time February rolls around, they'll have a nice soft schedule that they can use to make a big playoff push. I can see them having a similar story to last year's Philadelphia 76ers team who surged into the playoffs and had some success against Detroit before bowing out. I can also see them finishing ahead of the Miami Heat in the standings. What's impressive about Indiana's strong play so far is that they're doing it all without one of their better players, Mike Dunleavy Jr. The injury to Dunleavy has forced coach Jim O'Brien into playing rookie Brandon Rush for big minutes, and Rush has definitely been the weak link in that rotation. If they can get Dunleavy back healthy for the second half of the season (a big IF, to be sure -- Dunleavy has been suffering from knee problems and has no scheduled return date, and has barely begun practicing), this might be a team to avoid in the playoffs. Danny Granger deserves a lot of credit for holding things together -- he's dramatically increased his usage this year (from 23.2% last year to 29.7% this year) without losing any efficiency, which is a pretty rare accomplishment.

While we're on the topic of teams that have refused to fall apart in the face of a tough schedule -- the Bulls have played the second hardest schedule of the year and are currently sitting on a 13-17 record. However, while I see the Pacers finishing the season strong, I can't really see the Bulls doing the same. That's completely a hunch, though.

The Pistons have been treading water, at best, since they traded Billups away, and despite their 17-11 record they really need to improve in order to have any relevance in the spring. Coach Michael Curry has tinkered a bit trying to find enough playing time for Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton, and Allen Iverson, and somehow the odd man out has been Amir Johnson (Curry decided to go small and start all three of the guards), who went from being a starter in November to barely playing by December. Johnson was forced back into the starting lineup in the Pistons' most recent game due to an injury to Hamilton, and the Pistons had a strong defensive and overall effort in beating a good Bucks team with Johnson playing 35 minutes. We can't draw conclusions from just one game, but hopefully experiences like this will help to convince Curry to keep Johnson in the rotation even when Hamilton comes back. He's the best rebounder on the team, and rebounding at both ends has been a major weakness for them so far this year.

Finally, the Bucks have really impressed this year, despite playing 20 of their first 33 games on the road against some very stiff competition, and despite playing half of their games without leading scorer Michael Redd. Rookie Luc Richard Mbah a Moute should be getting a lot more attention as one of the better rookies this year, and Scott Skiles deserves a lot of credit for getting a team without any notable defenders to play elite-level defense (their defensive efficiency is right around even with San Antonio and Houston so far), after finishing dead last in the league in defense last year. It's early, but it isn't unrealistic for Bucks fans to be shooting for a top-five seed in the playoffs and the chance to avoid Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando in the first round.

Conditional on Health: Jazz and Warriors
While my optimism regarding the Bucks and Pacers is based on analysis of the numbers to date, I'm also optimistic about the Jazz and Warriors for reasons that aren't necessarily based on the numbers.

The Jazz have played above-.500 ball this year despite both Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer missing a lot of games. Williams is back though he was slowed when he first came back and his defense has suffered, while Boozer is still out indefinitely. Paul Millsap did an amazing job stepping into the starting lineup and filling in for Boozer, playing efficiently on offense and much better than Boozer on defense. Now Millsap is out for a week or so with a strained PCL, and it really seems like the Jazz will never get everyone back at the same time. For the time being, the bench will suffer the most as Andrei Kirilenko moves into the starting lineup to fill the void at power forward. Despite the injury issues, I don't think there's a lot of doubt among analysts about the Jazz making the playoffs, but they make my "optimistic" list because if they can get healthy by the all-star break they can be one of the top 3 teams in the West, instead of just making the playoffs. Of note with the Jazz is that they are fouling a lot less than they did last year, which has really improved their defense since they aren't giving up easy points at the free throw line.

There really aren't any numbers to back up my optimism regarding the Warriors. Not only are they sitting on a 9-23 record, but there is apparently all sorts of turmoil throughout the organization. There is a power struggle among the coach, GM, and owner, the owner is going behind the back of the GM to sign older players to long-term contracts, the coach is trying to get a promising young rookie traded, and everyone from fans to front office people seem to be unhappy with the performance of big-time free agent signee Corey Maggette, among other things. Still, if you look closely, there are reasons for optimism. The Warriors are the youngest team in the league, and have had the most road-heavy schedule in the league (20 of their first 32 games have been on the road so far) including numerous back-to-back games and already two stretches of four games in five nights. So many road games so early would be difficult for any team, but it's particularly difficult for such a young team that needs, more than anything, time to practice together -- time they just haven't had. Furthermore, they've played the entire season without their best scorer, Monta Ellis. Ellis has been spotted at shootaround before games recently, and is hopefully close to a return to the rotation. By the time he gets back, the Warriors should be looking at a decent stretch of home games in front of the best and most supportive fans in the league. There are too many good teams in the West, and the Warriors are too far behind, for Golden State to have legitimate playoff hopes, but they are definitely better than their 9-23 record would indicate.

No comments:

Post a Comment