You had to know it would happen with 66 games in 120 days. Someone was going to fall off. Surprises are a double-edged sword; Somebody has to fall. Besides Miami – who despite the loss last night look like the runaway best team in the NBA – who else can you say has really been dominating? I’ll give you Chicago. But after that Portland has been blown out at home and on the road to two dysfunctional teams with superstars on the edge of town (Phoenix, Orlando). Denver is feasting on the weak but struggling against talent. Atlanta, who knows what’s going on with them?
With such relentless travel, you’d think it’s the old teams that will suffer. The vets. Taking extra time to stretch, to ice the knees, to warm up the back. But inexperienced teams can fall off as well. When we talked to the TNT guys (Shaq, Kenny, Charles) just before the season started, they actually believed the lockout might help older teams. They’ll be prepared for it, will know how to handle it. Just look at Washington. Is there any doubt the lockout hurt them?
While we may always be attempting to write off the old-timers, this year there are some more legitimate questions about a few teams that were supposed to compete for a championship. Here are five playoff contenders and on a scale of 1-10, and how worried they should be.
Scoring differential: +4.8
After losing their first two games of the season, the Lakers have won eight out of 10, and in a season with potentially dominant teams (Portland, Miami) looking fantastic one night and then laying an egg the next, L.A. has been numbingly consistent. Mike Brown has helped them to refocus on defense, and has a creaky old team top five in defensive efficiency (95.3).
They’re also No. 5 in John Hollinger’s Power Rankings, behind only who I think are the league’s three best teams (Chicago, Miami, Portland) and the Spencer Hawes-led Sixers.
But how long can Kobe keep dropping 40 pieces and putting up 30 shots? Bean is throwing up over 24 shots a game, his highest average since the 2005-06 season, the year Bryant shot so much he could’ve stopped terrorism by himself. For me, the problem isn’t so much that he’s shooting that often; I expect those numbers to slow as the season goes along. It’s that he almost HAS to shoot that much. Pau Gasol isn’t the same player anymore. He might not even be an All-Star this season. Andrew Bynum is averaging career high numbers (17.1 points and 13.9 rebounds a game), but before people start jumping to conclusions, we have to see him do it for a full season. The rest of the team? Metta World Peace is 2-for-25 from deep this year. Derek Fisher is shooting 34 percent. Their fourth-best offensive player is Matt Barnes (eight points a game) who probably hasn’t created a shot for himself in years.
The Lakers have leveled the ship. But this roster – and Mitch Kupchak’s job – feels incomplete.
Warning Level – 4
Scoring Differential: -0.5
The rebounding is still pathetic (Dirk’s boards have dropped all the way to 5.5). The defense is slowing coming around (up to No. 10), but not at the level it was last year. The Mavs have won five of their last six even as Lamar Odom continues to be outplayed by national security threat Ian Mahinmi.
The Mavs are barely averaging 93 points a game this season, and while the team has 10 guys who can all play, they’ve lost their athleticism. Vince Carter has virtually nothing left. Shawn Marion is decaying into a 25-minute a night guy. Brendan Haywood has been wildly inconsistent (which is to say he’s been Brendan Haywood), even with consistent minutes calling his name. We thought they’d be versatile before the season started. Instead, they just look limited.
Dallas will be all over the place during this wild regular season. They’ll sneak into the playoffs with a lower seed, and won’t advance past the second round.
Warning Level – 6