The NBA season is now 10 or so games old and we are starting to get a clear picture of where each of the 30 franchises will sit this season. There have been some truly outstanding individual performances as well as a few teams who have confounded pre season expectations. Let’s look at 3 surprising story lines that have emerged.
Charlotte’s Impressive Start
The Hornets finished 6th in The East last year and probably should have won a playoff series. Alas they allowed the Heat to roar back from 3-2 down and the wait goes on for MJ to enjoy any post season success as owner of the North Carolina franchise. Many, including myself, felt the Hornets would take a step back this year having lost Courtney Lee, Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson from the rotation. Lee was a solid 2 guard for Charlotte last season and with Lin and Jefferson out the door the bench was looking severely weaker.
However, the Hornets have confounded expectations in streaking out to an impressive 8-4 start putting them right at the top of the Eastern Conference. Serious credit has to go to head coach Steve Clifford who has his squad playing solid defence and relying on the scoring talents of point guard Kemba Walker.
Emerging big men Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller have flashed the potential to lighten the scoring burden from Walker and Frenchman Nicholas Batum provides solid wing play at both ends of the floor. Clifford is a coach who has always known the strengths and limitations of his rosters and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he has created yet another competitive team.
In the increasingly muddied waters of the race for the Eastern Conference’s 2nd seed, where at the moment it seems as if any team from 6 could occupy the spot behind the Cavs. Charlotte have quietly manoeuvred themselves into the conversation. It remains to be seen if they can stay the course.
Russel Westbrook and James Harden
It is not surprising that these two are having great seasons. Mike D’Antoni’s fast paced offensive system is tailor made for Harden to both score and facilitate. Similarly without Kevin Durant Russell Westbrook was always going to put up some gaudy numbers, much like he did at the end of the 2014-15 season when KD was sidelined with a foot injury.
But I don’t think anyone quite anticipated the tear out these two have been on since the very first bell. Harden is leading the league in assists with a frankly ridiculous 12.9 dimes per game as well as casually adding 28.7 points, these are numbers we haven’t seen since Magic Johnson in his prime.
In addition to this his shooting percentages are up across the board and he is more fun to watch as in D’Antoni’s pace and space system he relies far less heavily on getting to the free throw line. Harden is making basketball look effortless this season and as someone who hasn’t always been his biggest fan it has been a pleasure to watch.
He is still playing absolutely zero defence though.
Westbrook has perhaps put up even more ludicrous stats through the first part of the season. His 31.8 PPG, 9.5 RPG and 9.8 APG game put him on pace to average a triple double on the season, a feat not achieved since Oscar Robertson did it in the 61-62 season. Rus’ incredible start to the season begs two questions. Firstly what on earth is eating for breakfast and where can I get some. Secondly and more importantly can he possibly keep it up for 82 games and then the playoffs.
Westbrook’s game is not subtle, he is a whirling ball of energy, a one man fast break who simply overpowers opponents with physicality and obviously a great deal of skill. However, when you watch him banging under the rim grabbing rebounds, scrapping for every loose ball and driving relentlessly through contact to get to the rim, you start to wonder whether his body can possibly hold up for a full season. Westbrook’s injury record is outstanding and he does a great impression of the bionic man, but he has never had to do more for his team than he will have to this season.
There is also another aspect to Westbrook’s insane output this season. Is it actually good for the Thunder? This may seem like a ridiculous question to ask but remember at the end of the 2014-15 season, the other time Westbrook put up these kind of numbers, the Thunder slid out of the playoffs despite Russell’s heroics.
What Westbrook’s numbers indicate other than his own outstanding play is the lack of support he has from his teammates. Much as we like to laud the individual basketball is a team sport and without help from Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and the rest of the OKC squad this could turn into a fantastic individual season for Westbrook and a disappointing one for the Thunder.
However, at the moment both teams have winning records and Harden and Westbrook are putting forward great early cases for MVP consideration.
Lakers adapting well to the post Kobe era
I have been all over the young Timberwolves squad this season and do still believe they have an outside chance to sneak into the playoffs. However, the most surprising improvement out west has definitely come from the Lakers under former Warriors assistant Luke Walton.
The Kobe farewell tour last season distracted us all from the nice blend of youth and experience the Lakers were putting together. The young talent of Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Brandon Ingram have been joined by veterans such as Lou Williams, Luol Deng and Timofey Mosgov.
For me the jury is still out an last year’s first round pick D’Angelo Russell both as point guard and as a locker room guy but it is hard to deny that he has been ballin’ so far this year. In addition the bench unit, led by Williams and Clarkson has been particularly impressive and Nick Young or Swaggy P seems to have made the transition from reality tv personality to serviceable NBA shooting guard this year.
The Lakers success has to be attributed to first year head coach Luke Walton, a former Lakers star, who has this young squad playing a fast and fun style of basketball that suits their youthful exuberance. It is a far cry from the totalitarian regime of Byron Scott that seemed utterly ill suited to the personalities on the squad.
For now the Lakers are having fun and winning, including some fantastic victories over the Warriors and Rockets. A recent slide has suggested that they might not quite have enough to stay in playoff picture and defence is definitely an issue. What you can’t argue with is that they are a hell of a lot better and more watchable than anyone expected.