Monday, February 9, 2009

Who's hot now

You're reading this, so you were aware when, during various stretches early in the season, the Grizzlies, Bucks, and Timberwolves had mini-bursts of strong play. In each case, also, in addition to the usual contributors (Mayo, Gay, Bogut, Redd, Al Jefferson), we saw less heralded names step up to fill in the gap between losing by 5 points and winning by 3. For Memphis, Hakim Warrick started getting more minutes and Darko Milicic really started contributing at the defensive end. In Milwaukee, Luc Richard Mbah A Moute surprised as a rookie. And in Minnesota, Randy Foye took well to a full-time position as the shooting guard while Kevin Love inserted himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation with strong rebounding work and improving offensive skills.

As a sidenote: I second all of these sentiments about Al Jefferson and how disappointing it is that he's out for the season. Get well soon, Big Al.

So, 5/8 of the way into the season, who's hot now?

I'll spare you any Lakers-content here -- they are on top of the world right now but you can read about them in 500 different places. In a similar vein, I'll leave off praising the ever-brilliant Spurs since their victory on Sunday has reminded the national media that they are in fact still good (this is me patting myself on the back for predicting they would win the Southwest Division before the season started).

I'm still waiting for the Pacers to heat up as expected, but between unforgivable defense and recent injuries/re-injuries to Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy, Jr., I'm starting to wonder if that will happen at all. And I should have written more about the Bobcats before Gerald Wallace went down. They are still playing their best basketball all year, but without Wallace they don't have the talent to win any games. Still, they're worth paying attention to for the rest of the season.

So, beyond the obvious, what teams are worth commending for their recent strong play? I'm going with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Thunder are 5-5 in their last 10, but more impressively, they're 10-9 in their last 19. The obvious story is the steady improvement in Kevin Durant's numbers, as he really seems to have figured out where to find his scoring. In 2009 (a total of 18 games to date) he's averaging 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists, along with 1.1 steals and 3.3 turnovers. And the scoring is efficient -- he's shooting a scorching 54.9% eFG% and, because he's getting to the line 8.1 times per game, his true shooting percentage is a remarkable 61.9%. It's impossible to overstate just how great those numbers are -- he's grown in my mind from a poor man's Carmelo Anthony at the beginning of the year to a more efficient Carmelo Anthony with more upside.

Beyond Durant, though, there are huge reasons for optimism as the other two members of the young star core of the Thunder, Russel Westbrook and Jeff Green, have also been playing great. They both have been playing great all-around games, but if we say that Durant's superpower is scoring, then likewise we could say that Westbrook's superpower is rebounding and defending from the guard position, and Green's superpower is shooting the 3 (41% on the season, and he's playing against power forwards).

As for the 76ers, they've won three in a row without Elton Brand (out for the season) and look a lot like they did in the second half of last year, forcing lots of turnovers and getting out and running. I mentioned before the season that they still lacked a consistent outside shooter, and expressed some doubt about whether they'd be able to make up for that with running once Brand was aboard. But I had no idea that they would look so dramatically stuck with Brand, and I still feel like they'll figure out a way to get the pieces to fit when Brand comes back next year. But for now, it's worth enjoying their frantic style and all those points in the paint. Samuel Dalembert has come alive during the winning streak, gathering a total of 41 rebounds in relatively limited minutes over the three games. But mostly I'd like to draw attention to the outstanding defensive play of Andre Iguodala, who continues to be one of the better perimeter defenders in the league -- comparable to Tayshaun Prince or vintage Bruce Bowen but with better rebounding numbers. He doesn't seem to get that much credit for his D, though. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because he scores close to 20 points per game, or because the 76ers don't get much attention as a whole? One thing to keep an eye on: Like Thaddeus Young last year, Marreese Speights has emerged as an outstanding rookie big man for the Sixers, and with Brand down, it's possible he sees more minutes going forward.

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