by Spencer Suk
Remember when everyone in Green Bay was panicking about the Packers’ 1-2 start? After suffering defeats at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions, quarterback Aaron Rodgers took to the mic and reminded everyone to “R-E-L-A-X.” Since Rodgers’ memo, the Packers have rattled off seven wins in eight tries and sit atop the NFC North.
Which brings me to the NBA… We are officially at that dangerous point in the season where the sample size of games is large enough that critics and fans think they know everything that the season has in store for them. Contenders and title favorites are declared, struggling high-profile teams are overanalyzed, and MVPs are crowned.
For example, take the Indiana Pacers. Last year, the team rushed out of the gates to a 19-3 start. Roy Hibbert looked like the Defensive Player of the Year, Paul George put his name at the forefront of the MVP discussion, and talking heads had the Pacers, and not the Heat, as the team to beat in the East. You know the rest. Hibbert started throwing up zeros all over the stat sheet, George started missing those contested fadeaways, and the Pacers were easily handled in six games by the Heat.
The reality of the situation is that a lot can change from November to June; that’s why the season is 82 games and not 20. The first month of the 2014-15 Season has brought us many surprises so far, but don’t believe everything you are seeing. Here are eight things that just can’t continue for an entire season:
1. James Harden is Leading the League in Defensive Win Shares
James Harden was the laughingstock of the league on the defensive end last year. Some guy was actually able to compile an 11 minute video of all of Harden’s lapses on D throughout the season. Even James has jokingly acknowledged his reputation as a porous defender.
However, the Rockets have transformed into a defensive juggernaut in the early going, ranking second in the NBA in points allowed per game. Yes, Trevor Ariza is a major upgrade from Chandler Parsons on this end of the floor, but the credit needs to be spread around to the entire team. An elite defense requires all five players on the floor to hold their own, and Harden has certainly done that this year. He looks much more attentive and is putting up unbelievable defensive numbers: 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. The blocks are especially impressive.
With that being said, it’s unrealistic to expect Harden to lead the league in defensive win shares for the entire season. Though much improved, Harden is not even a top three defender in the Rockets’ starting lineup with Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, and Patrick Beverley. Also, a guard hasn't led the league in defensive win shares since the three-point line was invented. I have my money on a big man like Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis, or Andrew Bogut (if he can stay healthy) leading the league by the time the seasons over. Regardless, our hats are off to Harden’s improved D.
2. The Milwaukee Bucks are 5th in the Eastern Conference
At 10-8, the Bucks make it seem like the rebuilding process isn’t going to take quite so long after all. Brandon Knight has been on a tear, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker look like a wing duo to be reckoned with in the future, and Jason Kidd seems to have everything under control. So maybe you’re thinking, “Hey… Wait a minute. The East looks pretty weak again this year and the Bucks have been rolling. Why is it so crazy that they’re in 5th right now?”
Well, according to the metrics, Milwaukee has had the weakest strength of schedule in the entire league. Although they dealt the Grizzlies their first loss of the season, seven of their ten wins have come against bottom-dwellers: they beat the Sixers, Pacers, Thunder (w/o Westbrook or Durant), Knicks, Pistons (x2), and Timberwolves. The Bucks are also one of only two teams that have a negative average margin of victory despite possessing a winning record. If this hasn’t changed your mind, the Bucks’ upcoming schedule definitely will.
It’s almost a certainty that Cleveland and Miami will pass the Bucks in the standings soon. And by the end of the season, I expect Brooklyn and Indiana to also finish with better records.
3. Tony Parker is Leading the League in Three-Point %
Tony Parker has never been known as a three-point shooter. He’s a career 32.2% shooter from deep and hasn’t attempted over 100 in a season since his 2004-05 campaign. Yet, Parker finds himself shooting a preposterous 66.7% from downtown and is on pace for 123 attempts.
A lot of this has to do with the schemes of the San Antonio Spurs. Every single one of Parker’s three-point makes has been assisted due to the Spurs’ impeccable ball movement. But Parker has clearly been working on his corner three, as 62.5% of his three-point attempts have come from there. Regardless, there is no way Parker is able to keep this up. I’d still be surprised if Parker can even maintain shooting above 40% from deep.
4. Rajon Rondo is the Worst Free Throw Shooter in the League
No, it’s not DeAndre Jordan. No, it’s not Andre Drummond. It’s also not Larry Sanders. The worst free throw shooter thus far in the season is Rajon Rondooooooooo!
Rondo has the worst free throw percentage out of any player who has taken at least 20 attempt, shooting a ghastly 30% from the line (9-30). It is worth noting that free throw percentage is the one statistic that seems to have no trend throughout a player's career; for example, Rondo had his best season from the free throw line in his rookie year. However, it’s hard to imagine anyone shooting 30% for an entire season, let alone a point guard. Rondo is a career 61.4% free throw shooter and has never shot below 56%. I expect Rondo to get back above 50%.
5. The Sixers Have the 1st AND 2nd Most Turnover Prone Players in the League
Currently, Tony Wroten and Michael Carter-Williams are first and second respectively in turnovers per game. Wroten is averaging 4.2 per game while MCW is right behind him with 4.1 per game. I can’t help but think that this is due to the fact that they keep getting hurt at different times (when one is hurt, the other will surely see his turnovers rise due to increased ball-handling duties). So far, the two have only played in eight games together with MCW missing the first seven contests and Wroten missing the last two.
However, the 0-17 Sixers turn the ball over more than any other team, coughing it up 18.3 times per game. And with such little NBA talent, it’s easy to see why. It also doesn’t help that Philly plays at the second fastest pace in the league...
On second thought, this could totally keep up the whole year. [Insert cheap joke about the Sixers]
6. Blake Griffin & the Clippers Love Back-to-Backs
Apparently, the Clippers don’t like taking any days off. They are 5-0 in the second game of their back-to-backs this season, winning by an average of 13.4 points. What makes this even more impressive is that four of the five games were on the road.
Undoubtedly, the Clipper who loves back-to-backs most is Blake Griffin. With rest, Griffin looks like a borderline All-Star from a statistical standpoint. With no rest, he becomes an MVP caliber player. He’s even hit four of his five three-pointers in the second half of back-to-backs.
Blake Griffin and the Clippers should slow down eventually. It’s uncommon for players to be able to play better with zero days rest, but what Blake and the Clips are doing is simply unsustainable.
7. Lance & Kemba’s Ice Cold Shooting
The Charlotte Hornets are off to a miserable 4-14 start, and the finger-pointing directed at Lance Stephenson is warranted. He’s destroying their spacing, chasing stats (mostly rebounds), and up to his usual antics. The player who he seems to have hurt most is his partner in the backcourt, Kemba Walker. The two have similar styles of play and both need the ball in their hands to be effective; when one has the ball, the other is usually standing around somewhere on the court ineffectively.
As a result, Stephenson is shooting 36.7% from the field while Walker isn’t far behind at 36.4%. But something is sure to change. Whether Steve Clifford decides to rotate the two guards in separate lineups or the Hornets’ management simply trades Stephenson, this can’t keep up. Not even Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith could post shooting numbers this bad last year. One way or another, expect Lance and Kemba’s field goal percentage to reach the high-30s at least.
8. The Bulls and Grizzlies are Scoring More than the Spurs
The Bulls and Grizzlies both look much stronger on offense this year. They’re scoring 101.1 and 100.4 points per game respectively, just ahead of the Spurs’ average of 100. The Bulls have benefitted from the acquisition of Pau Gasol and improved play of Jimmy Butler while Vince Carter, Courtney Lee, and Marc Gasol have boosted the Grizzlies.
However, the Spurs play at a faster pace than both teams and haven’t been hitting their threes. They’re shooting 36.4% from beyond the arc compared to last year’s league-best 39.7%. It’s possible the Spurs are finally showing signs of aging, but it's more likely that they just haven’t quite found their rhythm yet. The Spurs haven’t averaged less than 103 points per game in the last three years, and I expect them to get closer to that figure by the end of the year.