The first month of the NBA season can be deceiving.
The last two undefeated teams were the Lakers and Hornets, yet both teams have struggled since season-opening 8-game winning streaks. It works the other way, too: the Bucks, 76ers, and Rockets started a combined 12-34, but have gone 30-21 since then. Milwaukee and Philly are battling it out for the final playoff spot in the East, while Houston is just a game-and-a-half back in the West. While these teams are certainly not championship contenders, they’ve shown that they’re not the same floundering teams that began the season. So what’s changed that’s allowed these once-struggling clubs to pick things up recently? Let’s find out.
While an 8-8 record in their last 16 games may not seem like much, it becomes a lot more impressive when you consider that: a) all eight losses were to teams with winning records, including five to division leaders, and b) it includes wins over Orlando, Dallas (twice), and at the Lakers (without Brandon Jennings).
There was a lot of talk at the start of the season about who would win the Central after LeBron’s departure. It came down to Milwaukee- 2nd last year with a 46-36 record, or the new-look Bulls, who finished 3rd last year with a 41-41 record but added several players including Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver. Chicago has played well, primarily because Derrick Rose has produced at an MVP-level while the team dealt with injuries to Boozer and then Joakim Noah. Milwaukee, on the other hand, began poorly, including double-digit losses to Minnesota and Detroit in the season’s first month. This wasn’t helped by the fact that starter Carlos Delfino went down with a neck injury and concussion symptoms in the season’s second week and is out indefinitely. Now the Bucks are playing better, and after a brutal start to 2011 (in the span of a week they play Dallas, Orlando, and Miami twice), their schedule gets a lot easier.
Key to Milwaukee’s improvement has been an improved defense, which allows them to stay in games since their offense is horrible (last in the league in points per game and offensive rating). After feeling his way back after that gruesome elbow injury last season, Andrew Bogut has again resumed the role of defensive anchor, leading the league with 2.8 blocks per game (nearly half a block more than his closest rival) while grabbing 12 rebounds per game. Bogut has also improved on the offensive end, posting just two single-digit scoring nights in his last 12 games versus five in his first 12.
Another reason for Milwaukee’s revival has been a decrease in shots for Corey Maggette. While Maggette has put up solid scoring numbers given his limited run off the bench, he’s taken A LOT of shots to do so. This has been by far his worse shooting season in his 12-year career, as his FG % (39%), True Shooting % (53%) and effective FG% (40%) are all huge career-lows. The Bucks traded for Maggette over the summer as a source of offense (especially free throws), but so far he has been out of place in Milwaukee, jacking up shots in the Bucks’ stalling offense. About the only thing he’s still been able to do effectively is get to the line (team-high 5.4 FT attempts per game) despite playing just 19 minutes per game (10th on the team). Recently, Maggette hasn’t been shooting quite as much, and Milwaukee’s offense is better for it.
It’s always going to be rough when a new coach inherits a struggling team- in this case, Doug Collins and the Sixers, winners of a mere 27 games last season. Philly stumbled out of the gate, due in no small fact to the play of 2010's number two overall draft pick Evan Turner. Turner, the consensus national player of the year at Ohio State last season, was supposed to help the Sixers right away, but he’s averaging just 7 PPG, 5 RPG, and 2 APG while shooting 41% from the field. Turner came off the bench the first six games before Collins switched him to starter. That didn’t work either, and after 12 largely forgettable games, Turner returned to the bench. Turner can’t be entirely to blame- after all he’s only a rookie, and couldn’t be counted on to carry the team right away- but his season so far has been a humbling experience, as it’s clear he can no longer take over games as he did last year in college.
Even though Turner hasn’t improved a ton recently, his team certainly has, especially when you consider that in their 10-7 run, four of those losses were twice each to the Lakers and Celtics (by a combined five points to their Atlantic Division foe). Everyone plays hard for Collins except, perhaps, for a 45-point drubbing at Chicago. But that’s explainable, as the Sixers were just coming off a four-games-in-five-nights stretch, winning three of those games. The Sixers might not have a bona fide star, but they have a bunch of young guys who can play, most notably developing point guard Jrue Holiday, who’s made strides in his second season. This has taken the pressure off Elton Brand, who struggled to carry the offensive load early in the season when Andre Iguodala was out with a nagging Achilles problem. That said, Brand has been enjoying his best season in Philadelphia after signing that huge five-year, $80 million contract in the summer of 2008. After missing 123 games due to injury the last three seasons and underperforming while healthy, Brand has been a pleasant surprise this season, averaging 15 PPG and 9 RPG on 50% shooting. At 31, Brand’s days of averaging a 20-10 are over, but he can still be an effective low post presence, as he has been during the Sixers’ resurgence. At the same time, he limits them offensively because much of the rest of the roster is built for the fast break. This may not be a huge problem now as Philly’s still looking for an identity, but as their young guys develop, Brand may find himself on the outs.
Even at 13-20, Philadelphia is right there with Milwaukee for the 8 seed in the East. The Sixers aren’t overly talented, but in a conference as bad as this one, playing hard every night might just be good enough to get into the playoffs.
Houston recovered from a 4-11 start thanks in large part to a forgiving December schedule in which they faced precisely four winning ballclubs. Houston struggled after losing starters Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks, but they’re 5-2 since Brooks returned to the lineup December 19, while Brooks’ absence allowed Kyle Lowry to gain more confidence in a starting role. Yao is again lost for the season, but by this point, the Rockets are used to playing without him, so they don’t need to make any major adjustments. Luis Scola has developed into one of the league’s best power forwards, and he and Kevin Martin have ensured that the Rockets can match teams basket-for-basket. It was clear during the Rockets’ start that they weren’t playing to their potential: 8 of their 12 losses were by eight points or fewer.
GM Daryl Morey isn’t usually one to make rash decisions, and he had the confidence that the Rockets were better than their record indicated. His faith has been rewarded with the team’s recent play, especially that of guard Kevin Martin, who has become the team’s top scorer in his first full season in Houston. He’s improved his season numbers in December, as he posted averages of 24 PPG and 47% FG% as the Rockets went 11-4 for the month. Houston isn’t doing anything remarkably different from the first 15 games; they’ve simply faced an easier schedule recently. They’ve proved they are not a bad team because they’ve been able to beat bad teams consistently, but they’ve still struggled against tougher competition, going just 3-11 against clubs with a winning record. Their schedule is a bit tougher to begin 2011, and they end January with a brutal four-game road trip: Dallas, San Antonio, the Lakers, and Utah. By that point, we’ll have a better read on whether the Rockets are truly a good team or if they just look good by beating bad ones.