The Bucks and Knicks are headed in two different directions right now.As we pass the quarter-way mark of the season and creep up on one-third (approximately 27 games – Miami’s already there), now’s as good a time as any to reflect back on the surprise teams and players of 2010-11.
New York Knicks: When pundits made their predictions over the summer, there was an obvious void in the East behind Boston, Miami, Orlando, and Chicago (distant #4). Behind them? Probably Milwaukee, probably Atlanta, maybe Charlotte, and a virtual guessing game from there. Well the Knicks are currently tied for the #5 spot in the conference with a 16-10 record, and they’re within 1 game of the Bulls and Magic in the standings.
Coming off a 29-53 season and a disappointing summer in terms of free agency (wanted LeBron plus one, got always-injured-and-no-defense Amar’e) and the draft (two second round picks: Andy Rautins and some guy named Landry Fields), plus they were forced to give up All-Star David Lee for a few talented but unfulfilled Golden State cast-offs, NY was vaguely being talked about as a .500 team and playoff squad at absolute best. Instead they’re winners of 13 of their last 15, touting Raymond Felton as the new Steve Nash-lite (a far superior model to Chris Duhon), and have won enough games to get Amar’e some MVP talk. Danilo Gallinari is lighting it up to the tune of 16 ppg and rookie Fields is looking like the steal of the draft.
My only warning is that NY has only beaten two winning clubs, and both were missing a major post-player at the time (Chicago without Boozer early in the year, Denver again without Andersen recently). Starting with their nail biter loss to Boston last night, the Knicks have a pretty tough stretch for the next four weeks, so we’ll find out soon if they really are as good as their unexpected record, or if it was a result of a simple early schedule. That being said…
Landry Fields: “With the 39th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks select Landry Fields from Stanford University.” Cue the booing (check out the fan reactions – start at 1:20) from the always classy New York fans. After taking Andy Rautins with the #38 pick (their only other selection), the fans on hand were expecting something better.
Instead, they got a player who never shot particularly well in college, wasn’t a passer, and who had averaged over 6.6 rpg only once in four years at Stanford. What it turns out they really got is one of only three legitimate Rookie of the Year candidates. His hustling, heady ways have made him a starter from day one. He’s doing a little of everything stats-wise (52% FG, 36% 3FG, 7.5 rpg, 1.0 steals) plus his defensive versatility has been a godsend next to Stoudemire and Gallinari. You might not notice him much considering he only takes 7.7 shots per game (sixth on the team), but then he does one of his spin-move/fadeaways, grabs three boards in a row, and forces a turnover, and bam, there he is. And if you watch him from that point on, you’ll start to realize he’s usually taking the proper angle, making the proper read, plus his effort never lets up.
San Antonio Spurs: Of course everyone expected them to be good. Like #4 in the West good. Well they’re leading the NBA with a 21-3 record, their best start ever, which is pretty crazy considering they’ve won 4 recent-ish championships and have never won less than 61% of their games in a season since Duncan showed up in 1997. Most people weren’t expecting anything like this because a) Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, McDyess, and Jefferson are only getting older, b) first-round draft pick James Anderson wasn’t exactly a top-10 selection, and c) Brazilian newby Tiago Splitter is only playing 11 minutes per game.
So how have they done it? For starters, their leader is Duncan, who is willing to sacrifice his own stats and involvement to get Ginobili, Parker, and Jefferson more touches and rhythm – all have responded well (20, 17, and 14 ppg, plus all three are sporting eFG%’s above their career averages which is saying something). DeJuan Blair hasn’t taken any quantum leaps as a sophomore, but he’s still grabbing an insanely high percentage of rebounds (19%), which significantly helps their defense and takes some wear and tear off Duncan (who’s only playing 29 minutes per – fresh for playoffs alert). Throw in 3-point bombing rookie Gary Neal (41% from deep), and the team has all the pieces to play virtually any style, which they’ve already shown they’re still capable of by initially placing near the top of the league in pace (first 10 or so games) and then quickly slowing down to one of the league’s slowest paces. Without question the most versatile team in the NBA.
Evan Turner and DeMarcus Cousins: These top-5 selection rookies were each expected to be franchise cornerstones (not necessarily #1’s, but very important building blocks) right from the start. Turner, the #2 pick in June, brought an all-around smooth game reminiscent of pre-injury Brandon Roy to the Sixers. So far he’s been shooting 41% (and only 17% from three), making few meaningful passes in transition or the half-court, and has already been demoted to the bench on a 10-15 squad. He just looks “off” and not in the flow of most games, which is weird considering he was the very definition of flow at Ohio State.
Cousins, the #5 pick, was an interior force of nature with a ready NBA game – great size, great hands, great rebounder, phenomenal inside scorer. The only things wrong were his completely screwed up attitude and questionable work ethic. Well guess what, he’s doing jack on a team that’s doing jack. Cousins is shooting a miserable 42% inside, his rebounding numbers aren’t exactly setting the world on fire, and he’s constantly in foul trouble (league-leading 4.1 fouls per game).
Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks were supposed to give the Bulls a run for their money in the Central, but apparently that wasn’t in the cards. At all. They’re 10-14 (way behind Chicago’s 16-8) and are absolutely anemic on offense, which is currently last in the league. I can’t even imagine where they’d be without the 5th best defense.
The problem is that no one on this team can shoot. Bogut is the only regular Buck player above the 50% league-average eFG%, and he’s at 51%. Jennings continues to prove he has no shot at all (39% FG), John Salmons has completely fallen off the table (37% FG, poor stats all around), Corey Maggette is at 40% (and only 21% from long), and Carlos Delfino is making only 42% of his attempts. Those are the team’s top 5 scorers. Scoring the league’s third-lowest amount of fastbreak ppg (10.2) and playing at only the 22nd fastest pace certainly isn’t helping anyone get easy buckets. What shouldn’t be a huge shock, Jennings has shown virtually no improvement in his game from his rookie campaign. Newcomer Chris Douglas-Roberts has thankfully been playing recently and doing so quite well.
Portland Trail Blazers: The case of the Blazers is quite sad and only getting sadder. Just two seasons ago they were the league’s youngest team and still finished with the West’s second-best record. Nic Batum was getting talked about as the next Scottie Pippen, Brandon Roy was putting up phenomenal numbers on a super-slow squad, Rudy Fernandez set the rookie record for 3-pointers, and Greg Oden put up extremely efficient stats while providing strong defense.
Now you got Oden missing the entire 82 for yet another season, Bradon Roy’s knee is made out of papier-mache and the other players don’t know how much to lean on him (and it looks like the front office knew about the knee before signing him at a max deal), Roy and Andre Miller continue to have difficulties playing together (which is only made worse by Roy suddenly not saying all the right things), Rudy obviously wants nothing to do with the Blazers or the NBA, Batum is mysteriously shooting nearly 10% worse from everywhere (FG, 3FG, FT), and supposed franchise PF LaMarcus Aldridge is putting up the exact same not-quite-there-yet numbers he has posted for the last three seasons (except he’s now shooting 45% instead of 49%).
They’re 12-14, and that’s after starting 4-1 and then 8-5. I don’t recommend watching them play, but if you do, everything will look off, no one will appear to be in rhythm for more than 4 minutes, for at least one entire quarter Aldridge will never get closer than 15 feet to the hoop on offense, and the defense will constantly oscillate between above-average (thanks Marcus Camby) and uninspired/lost.