If you had to pick the surprise good teams of the first two months of the season, Portland, New Orleans, and the Lakers are the three teams that are really outperforming expectations. Yes, the Celtics are probably the most outperforming so far, but I don’t anyone really expected any of other three teams to break .500, let alone be on paces to break 50 wins. How realistic is it that any of these three team can keep this pace? First off, here are their current records and point differentials:
-New Orleans Hornets, 22-11, .667, 1 game back in the Southwest, point differential of +4.2 per game
-Los Angeles Lakers, 20-11, .645%, 2.5 games back in the Pacific, point differential of +5.5 per game
-Portland Trailblazers, 20-13, .606, 0.5 games back in the Northwest, point differential of +0.5 per game
By the purest measure, aggregate point differential, the Lakers looks the most legitimate of the group. In fact, they have the third best point differential on the conference, barely behind Phoenix (+5.7) and the Spurs (+6.6). Of course, point differential is instructive but could be a function of luck, competition, or even fluke injuries. Let’s take a quick peak at each team and see:
-New Orleans Hornets: The Hornets’ turnaround isn’t too much of a mystery. There are three factors: First, Peja Stojakovic has been relatively healthy. He hasn’t been great (14.5 ppg, .418 FG%, 3.6 rpg, 1.8 apg) but that average production is significantly better than what they got from Rasual Butler, who had to man the position last year. Second, Tyson Chandler continues to improve:
2006-07: 9.5 ppg, .624 FG%, 12.4 rpg 1.5 ftpg, 17.1 PER
2007-08: 11.9 ppg, .614 FG%, 12.3 rpg, 2.4 ftpg, 18.6 PER
Chandler is essentially the same player but the extra free throw per game and an extra field goal per game have added a bit more value to his overall package.
The last, and most significant, factor in the Hornets’ improvement has to be Chris Paul going from star to the best point guard in the NBA. Check the marked improvement across the board:
2006-07: 36.8 mpg, 17.3 ppg, .437 FG%, .350 3FG%, .818 FT%, 1.8 spg, 2.5 topg, 4.3 rpg, 8.9 apg, 22.0 PER
2007-08 37.5 mpg, 21.4 ppg, .480 FG%, .383 3FG%, .887 FT%, 3.0 spg, 2.6 topg, 3.8 rpg, 10.4 apg, 28.7 PER
It’s hard to understate how great Paul is playing. He is has become ridiculously efficient as a shooter and passer without even creating more turnovers. What’s more, Paul is only 22 so you have to think that the improvement is real. I don’t know how much better he can get but if Paul stays healthy, he should at least stay at this level for the next few seasons. What’s more, Paul has single-handedly raised the team steals per game from 6.4 in 2006-07 to 7.9 in 2007-08. So Paul seems to be the force that is propping this team up to a 50-win level.
Can they keep up this pace? I think so. The one real questionable factor is Stojakovic. He has played in 27 of 33 games so far but he has had injuries the last few years and it’s an open question that he can stay healthy. Even if he does go down, the Butler/Morris Peterson platoon wouldn’t cause the Hornets to completely fall apart. On the down side, the Hornets have a great 13-5 road record that may not be sustainable and have played only 6 divisional games in a division that includes the Spurs, Mavs, and the Rockets (they have two games left with Dallas, three with San Antonio, and four with Houston). You do question whether any team can sustain such a road record. In the end, it safe to assume the Hornets can keep playing well, if not quite 50-win pace, perhaps in the 43-47 win range.
-Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers great play has been a surprise because everything seemed so close to falling apart last summer with Kobe Bryant’s trade demands. But things have gone on quite well so far. The improvement has been on both sides of the ball but is more notable on the offensive side, where they have raised their scoring from 103.3 ppg in 2006-07 to 106.5 ppg in 2007-08 (they have lowered opponent’s scoring from 103.4 in 2006-07 to 101.9 in 2007-08).
For those of you who fixate on the idea of team basketball over one-man scoring machines, you’ll be happy to know that Kobe’s numbers are down a lot from last year when the team was mediocre. Here’s how the point distribution has changed:
2006-07 Lakers 2007-08 Lakers
|K. Bryant||31.6||26.1||K. Bryant||27.1||24.3|
|L. Odom||15.9||16.1||L. Odom||14.1||13.8|
|L. Walton||11.4||14.7||L. Walton||7.5||11.7|
|S. Parker||11.1||11.6||D. Fisher||11.9||17.1|
|M. Evans||8.4||12.1||T. Ariza||6.3||16.8|
|K. Brown||8.4||13.7||K. Brown||4.4||11.3|
|A. Bynum||7.8||15.4||A. Bynum||12.3||21.5|
|B. Cook||6.9||14.8||C. Mihm||4.1||9.0|
|V. Radmanovic||6.6||11.0||V. Radmanovic||7.4||11.4|
|R. Turiaf||5.3||15.5||R. Turiaf||6.2||15.3|
|J. Farmar||4.4||10.7||J. Farmar||9.0||16.3|
|S. Vujacic||4.3||11.7||S. Vujacic||6.3||15.5|
In fact, both Kobe and Odom, the two leading scorers, aren’t scoring like they did. Instead, Jordan Farmar has improved and Andrew Bynum has exploded to All-Star level production. The other huge improvement has come by replacing Smush Parker with Derek Fisher. Fisher isn’t young but he’s been remarkably good this year, in fact at age 33 he’s having a career season. He’s shooting .478 FG%, by far the best in his career (his best previous season was .434 FG% back in 1997-98).
In order to sustain this level of success, the Lakers will need Bynum and Farmar to keep it (possible), as well as Fisher, which I think is highly unlikely given his age and well-established level of performance. Moreover, a fast start for the Lakers is pretty common. Phil Jackson got them off quickly in 2005-06 and even faster last season. The Lakers peaked at 26-13 last season before going 14-27 the rest of the way. As intriguing as Farmar and Bynum are, I don’t think the current level of success is sustainable. The shooting will taper off a bit, close to the 45-win season we saw from the solid Lakers in 2005-06.
In order to stave off some of the decline, the Lakers might be well-advised to see if they can pick up another vet for a playoff run. Jason Kidd would obviously be fun to have but Bynum has become untouchable at this point. The Lakers are in the position of picking up a big salary for Odom (who’s contract expires in 2008-09), as well as the expiring contract of Kwame Brown with, perhaps, Farmar or another young player thrown in to sweeten the deal. I actually think that a trade for Andrei Kirilenko would make this team much more dangerous and he’d fit the team quite well, provided Jerry Buss is willing to take on the two extra years his contract has over Odom.
-Portland Trailblazers: The Blazers are the hardest of the three teams to get a handle on. They are chock full of good young players who are getting better. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge are the obvious stars but James Jones, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, and Channing Frye are all playing quite well. Moreover, Nate McMillan is playing a tough and deliberate style that allows Roy and Aldridge to score and prevents some of the running squads from getting out there and out playing them. As a result of all this, they have are 15-1 after a 5-12 start. Does 15-1 presage a huge run or is it just an anomaly?
The Blazers are going to be very good over the next five years or so but I don’t think they can sustain this pace. Their 15-1 run is great but they haven’t had too many super tough games. Let’s take a look at the run:
12/3- Win at Memphis 106-105 (Grizz were 6-11 at the time)
12/6- Win against Miami 112-106 (Heat were 4-14)
12/9- Win against Milwaukee 117-113 (OT) (Bucks were 8-11)
12/11- Win at Utah 97-89 (Jazz were 13-9)
12/12- Win against Golden State 105-95 (Warriors were 12-10)
12/14- Win against Utah 99-91 (Jazz were 13-11)
12/15- Win at Denver 116-105 (Nuggets were 14-10)
12/17- Win against New Orleans 88-76 (Hornets were 15-10)
12/19- Win against Toronto 101-96 (Raptors were 15-12)
12/21- Win against Denver 99-96 (Nuggets were 15-11 but Marcus Camby didn’t play)
12/25- Win against Seattle 89-79 (Sonics were 8-20)
12/28- Win against Minnesota 109-98 (Wolves were 4-24)
12/30- Win against Philadelphia 97-72 (Sixers were 13-17)
12/31- Loss at Utah 101-111 (Jazz were 17-16)
1/2- Win at Minnesota 90-79 (Wolves were 4-27)
1/3- Win at Chicago 115-109 (OT) (Bulls were 12-19)
It’s not fair to ever disparage a 15-1 run but this was certainly a favorable field. No team in those 16 games was more than five games over .500 when they played the Blazers (the Hornets). The Blazers also emerged as a very good home team, going 11-0 at home in this stretch (they had only five road games but went a very good 4-1). What goes around, however, comes around. The Blazers will be headed East next week with a seven-game road trip. The Blazers are 5-10 on the road this year and they will need to go at least 4-3 to consolidate the gains of this past month. I don’t think that the Blazers are quite good enough to keep this going when the schedule has more road games and when they start playing the better teams in the NBA. The Blazers will be in the playoff race but they are going to do so as .500 team competing with the Warriors and Rockets for a lower seeded slot.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that the Blazers have a really bright future again. Obviously Greg Oden’s will help next year. In addition to Oden and all the young players, they are set to get tons of cap room in 2009-10 when Steve Francis and Raef LaFrentz come off the books, giving $30 million in cap room. With cap room and young players, the Blazers have a similar vibe to the Bulls. With that money and talent, they may be able to nab a star point guard, or fill in whichever position doesn’t quite develop.