I spent the weeks leading up to the season calling out a few things that I thought would surprise people. I promised myself to wait 10 games to do any player evaluation at all (even at 10 games, sample sizes are small, but at five they're pretty crazy), but of course I cannot quite resist.
Surprising: The New York Knicks
Well...sort of. We've been predicting the Knicks would be very good, and of course in the East, "very good" means a lot (as opposed to the West, where it might get you a 6 seed). But no one forsaw this start. Raise your hand if you thought J.R. Smith would be shooting 64% from three while rebounding at the best rate of his career? How about Jason Kidd having an 84% True Shooting? Ironically, the two players getting the most credit, Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton, are pretty much playing the same kind of basketball they always have, and at about the same level*. This is a team that I expect will come down to earth quite a bit (to the predicted "good/very good" level), because so much of their success is from insane shooting that isn't sustainable. What would worry me a lot if I were a Knicks fan is that Melo really isn't as great as we thought he would be (i.e. he hasn't benefitted from the switch to more PF as much as the end of last season made us believe he would), and this will get worse when Amare returns.
*As a side note, I hear a lot of people talking about how "it's the system" that makes the point guard so good, pointing at Raymond Felton (again), because he's always so good there. It amazes me how far off the path of logic people will go to justify their views. The last time Felton was in New York, he played in an entirely different system under a different coach. The irony is that "it's the system" might actually be getting some evidence, since Felton hasn't actually been that good (he's below average in rebounding, shooting, and turnovers), but no one seems to be noticing that. Anyway, If Felton were actually playing well, I'd be more inclined to believe that "it's the fitness level".
Expected (by me, anyway. You?): Andrei Kirilenko
Ok, I've been on this topic too much, I will shut up soon. His turnovers are a bit high but that's probably because the Timberwolves are the walking dead right now, and he's being asked to do a ton on the ball. I expect him to also come down to earth a bit (67% true shooting is likely not sustainable), but that would make him "only" an all-star. I honestly have no idea why he had so many doubters. Sadly, he probably won't make it the all-star game. Voters use strictly the "yay points!" player evaluation system.
The Timberwolves, though, are in real trouble until they get Pek back, and even then in mild trouble without Love. I said the Wolves were still a good team without Love, but they aren't a good team without Love, Pek, and Budinger. After their great offseason, the management has made the John Bryant error twice now (once with Louis Amundson, again with Josh Howard). Neither of those guys should be employed by NBA franchises. All of these injuries would be a perfect excuse to give some young guys a shot, and instead they're giving the time to washed-up veterans who won't win any games. And I thought they hired Howard to play a few minutes and give Kirilenko a spell? What business does the guy have putting up 10 shots in 14 minutes? How is that a thing that doesn't get you benched and yelled at, seriously!?
Surprising: The Nets
And by "the Nets" I actually mean Brook Lopez. He's still not that great at rebounding, but has improved to only "slightly below average", but he's been blocking an enormous amount of shots (he can do that!? I didn't know he could do that. Why didn't he always do that!?) and he's been shooting really well. That last, I expect, will regress to the mean, but even if the Nets get average-level production from Lopez, that is a lot more than I expected out of him.
Further surprising to me is Deron Williams. I really thought he would bounce back this year. But his rebounds, assists, steals and turnovers are all at career-worst levels (barring his rookie season assist rate). Here's hoping it's the sample size -- he's on my fantasy team.
Surprising: Kobe and the Lakers
The Lakers have been surprising in two ways: first, Dwight Howard is a shadow of himself. The legs, the back, they are not there yet. Even so, that shadow is pretty effective. so when he is healthy, that'll be scary. A lot scarier than he was in Orlando surrounded by second-string talent. Nash's injury and Dwight's health are the easy explanation for the Laker's surprising slow start.
The other surprise is that Kobe Bryant has actually been playing like the MVP he and his fans think he is. I find it the heart of irony that last year, when he was generally awful, scoring 30 points on 30 shots most nights (while Bynum and Pau were begging for shots in the post), everyone was chanting "MVP", but this year, when he is destroying defenses with 64% true shooting while maintaining his usural rate of 5-6 dimes and rebounds per night, all everyone wants to talk about is how the Lakers are underperforming (when the reasons for it are obvious and not really anyone's fault). Kobe is pulling a Barry Bonds right now and no one is noticing; he's the only reason this banged-up Laker squad with a horrible bench has won 4 games, and that is not something I would have predicted.
Expected: Kevin Durant
I hear lots of "Durant's scoring is down, they really miss Harden." This only tells a part of the story. Durant's scoring is down, but so are his attempts -- he's averaging about 20 shots per 48, down from 24 or so last year. It's possible that the presence of Harden got Durant 4 more looks per 48 but I doubt that the impact was quite that big (especially since they obviously weren't on the floor together 100% of the time). Russell Westbrook is, as always, taking way too many shots*, but he did that last year too. I'm not really sure what the explanation for this is.
Lost in the shuffle seems to be the fact that Durant is having a stellar year anyway. His numbers are better in rebounding, assists, fouls, steals, blocks, and even shooting (a remarkable feat, given how good he already was). He's been simply amazing and all anyone can say is "his points are down":
*Among players with > 50 minutes, Westbrook leads the team in fga/48 by a wide margin, and is last in true shooting. Averaging 11.4 assists/48 does not make up for this.
Surprising: The Rookie class
So far the rookies of this year have impressed me a lot. Small samples again, I know, but for a draft that was supposedly very weak after the #1 pick, there have been quite a few surprisingly solid rookies. This might turn out to be a memorable draft. I'll have more on this in a few games when the sample size is a little bigger.
Surprising: The 76ers
I expected this team to be bad, even with Bynum. Without him, they've gone 5-4. Jason Richardson has been playing like the other guy who wore #23, Jrue and Ivey have been a solid PG rotation, and Thadeus Young is making up for the loss of Brand. Of course, Nick Young is every bit as bad as I predicted he'd be (worse, really). Unfortunately, it's likely Richardson will come down to earth, and this team is going to be in trouble, especially if they keep giving so many minutes to Young. This team reminds me a lot of Toronto -- the players that management thinks are the stars are really its worst players.
Surprising: The Bobcats
For the record, I still don't think this is a good team. But "not good" is obviously a huge upgrade over a .129 winning percentage. And Kidd-Gilchrist is actually giving me a reason to watch this team; he's basically the exact opposite of every other player Michael Jordan has acquired. Love the way he rebounds and hustles on defense. And win did Kemba Walker turn into such a defensive menace? He's got 20 steals so far. He had 60 all of last year.
Playing power forward, LeBron is putting up career-bests in rebounding, blocks and turnovers, while shooting his usual 60% true shooting and racking up a ridiculous 9 assists/48. This is so unsurprising to everbody that no one even mentions him in the MVP debate.
But, hey, pundits, playing the best player in the game, who's 6'9 or so and about 250, at power forward, is not "smallball". This is because LeBron James is not small. He is not a small guy who is strong enough to play power forward. He's a huge, strong guy who is quick enough to play small forward. The difference is significant.