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Monday, December 2, 2013
Best and worst of NBA's first month

ESPN.com

Roy Hibbert
Roy Hibbert and Paul George have keyed the Indiana Pacers' 16-1 start to the season.

It has been a wild opening month to the 2013-14 season. Which teams and players can stake claim to the title of Best of the Month? Which are just glad to see the calendar flip to December? Our panel of experts discusses the best and worst from November in the NBA.


1. The Eastern Conference Team of November?


J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Indiana Pacers. And if they keep winning at this rate on this week's trip that includes stops in Portland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, we can go ahead and proclaim them the team of December as well. They've surprised even themselves by how well they've put it together so soon.

Andrew Han, Clipper Blog: Indiana Pacers. The toast of the East is also the toast of the league. The Pacers departed November brandishing a pristine 15-1 record -- now 16-1 after opening December with a win over the Clippers. Though detractors will point to their tepid schedule (.423 strength of schedule through Sunday, weakest in the NBA), Indiana has done exactly what one would expect with such meager offerings: a monster scoring margin (plus-11.06) and a defensive efficiency of 89.0, four points better than the next-best defense.

Ramona Shelburne, ESPNLosAngeles.com: Indiana Pacers. Oh sure, I know it's a little obvious to pick the team with a 16-1 record, but come on, you gotta give it up to the Pacers. I'd heard all summer how Indiana was going to push it this season, knowing how close it came to a Finals appearance last season. It was obvious the Pacers were in addition mode this offseason, but who expected them to get off to this kind of start? And who thought Paul George could be this consistently sublime?

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: Indiana Pacers. The Pacers used November to announce their arrival as something beyond even mere "contenders." Not only did George and Lance Stephenson make significant offensive improvements, but their efforts, combined with Roy Hibbert's one-man zone in the paint, contributes to the best defense we've seen in years. This still-young team has the potential to be a dynasty if it catches a few breaks.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Indiana Pacers. Whoa, the pickings are slim, even if you try to get creative. The Pacers had a friendly schedule but absolutely took advantage, exploding out of the gates while dealing with injuries at the same time. I'm not sure I agree with all the award talk the players let themselves engage in, but they've always been an optimistic bunch. Their obsession with the Heat is a good thing for competition.


2. The Western Conference Team of November?


Adande: San Antonio Spurs. They get the nod over the Portland Trail Blazers specifically because the Spurs DON'T emphasize November games, yet they're winning them anyway. And we know this Spurs group can also get it done in the playoffs, which remains a major question mark for Portland.

Han: Portland Trail Blazers. Another beneficiary of an empty-calorie schedule, the Trail Blazers made the most of their cheat month, binging on teams that were out of sorts in the early going. Sustained by credible wins over nutritious teams such as San Antonio and the Golden State Warriors, the Blazers' voracious appetite might not last to June, but they can check off the first month of the season as a success.

Shelburne: San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are pretty much destined to have a "what are you still doing here?" quality to them for as long as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are doing their thing, which is strange for the defending Western Conference champs. But it has been a long time since anyone in San Antonio worried about attention or respect. I don't know why any of us are surprised anymore, but the Spurs have once again been the class of the West this month, essentially blowing out their opponents by an average of 10.3 points per game. San Antonio has the second-best defense in the league (giving up just 91.6 points per game) behind Indiana.

Strauss: Houston Rockets. San Antonio has played the best and Portland has been the biggest surprise, but Houston has been uniquely spectacular. GM Daryl Morey's vision come to life could change the way basketball is played. Houston's West-leading offense attempts the fewest midrange shots by far, while also pacing the NBA in 3s and free throws attempted. True, teams generally know that 3s and free throws are good, but the Rockets are so extreme in pursuit of their precepts that their success could dramatically influence basketball strategy league-wide.

Windhorst: Portland Trail Blazers. It has been such a month of underachievement that it's refreshing to examine what the Blazers have done. They are an enjoyable team to watch offensively as the ball really moves, and they've got a bunch of shooters, all of whom seem to be on extended hot streaks. They can't even believe how well they're doing.


3. The Most Disappointing Team of November?


Adande: We need to ship this award to New York, saw it in half, then give one part to the teams on both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge. All you need to know about the New York Knicks' and Brooklyn Nets' seasons so far: They've combined for as many victories as the Charlotte Bobcats.

Han: Brooklyn Nets. What does $102 million in payroll buy? Nothing but a spilled cup and a tissue for your sorrows. The Nets were the latest super team constructed with immediacy in mind, mortgaging the future to gain a sliver of a window in the here and now. But with injuries piling up and chemistry a growing issue, the bottom could be falling out even before a speculative bubble can burst.

Shelburne: There's no way I can choose just one team when one glance up and down the pathetic Eastern Conference standings is like watching a belly-flopping contest. There's a giant crater surrounding the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. The Cleveland Cavaliers seem on the verge of a mutiny. The Chicago Bulls are still reeling from Derrick Rose's latest injury. Out West, things are better, but everybody's dark-horse Finals picks -- the Clippers and Golden State -- are still kind of finding themselves, while the New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves can't seem to break through, past .500.

Strauss: Brooklyn Nets. The Nets are quite disappointing, but I'd throw cold soda water on the notion that it's mostly Jason Kidd's fault. It's hard to win games when Brook Lopez is injured and Deron Williams' absence added a degree of difficulty. I'm not sure it's the coach's fault that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce finally aged. Ultimately, Kidd could be the fall guy for a team that was long on famous names and short on healthy talent.

Windhorst: Brooklyn Nets. On this front, there's a lot to choose from, but it's hard to get away from just how far off the Nets are from expectations, even more so than the Knicks or Cavs. This team didn't just present itself as a contender. It was being depended on to be a glamour team and a cornerstone in the East. For many reasons, we want the Nets to be good and they've let us down, the widespread injuries notwithstanding.


4. The Most Outstanding Player of November?


Adande: LeBron James. (Cue Hubie Brown voice) I mean, come on. The guy is shooting just under 60 percent from the field, he's scoring 26 per game and, on top of that, he's at six assists and six rebounds as well. Even without any major additions, his team is winning at an even higher percentage than it did last season.

Han: George. If he can sustain his November performance, he might have to start going by "LePaul George." Already an elite defender, George's offseason development has translated into 50 percent from midrange and 40.7 percent from 3 (66.7 percent from corner 3!). Can a player win most improved in consecutive seasons? Because that is how much the young Pacer has grown.

Shelburne: George. I think we all knew George was something special last spring, when he led Indiana's spirited playoff run. But there were questions about whether he could be that consistently good over the course of a full season. George had his sights on proving an even larger point. It wasn't just consistency he was after this season. It was the next level. From the looks of things this first month, he's found both.

Strauss: James badly missed a layup, and it became a mini news story. The botched layup probably generated more buzz than the game winner LeBron hit that same night against the Orlando Magic. That's how great this guy is. Anything other than impeccable play serves a shocking reminder that this is a human being and not a basketball robot. He's more brutally efficient than ever. He's again cruelly giving no ground to the other superstars.

Windhorst: James, who just had the best all-around November of his career. He has been the player of the month in November about six times, so that is the standard we're talking about. I wanted to say Wes Matthews for this answer because he has a true shooting percentage in the 70s and is as hot as we've ever seen anyone. I wanted to say Parker or George, but when you consider the word "outstanding," the four-time MVP continuing to outdo himself doesn't really leave you options.


5. The Feel-Good Story of November?


Adande: The Utah Jazz and their league-worst record. It's not that it feels good to revel in their misery. It's just anything that can increase the odds of them landing Jabari Parker -- the one potential star player who would be MORE likely to stay with the team in Salt Lake City because of his Mormon faith -- feels like it could be the happiest ending since the Cavaliers landed the hometown kid LeBr … oops, bad example.

Han: The meek shall inherit the earth. If all the Philadelphia 76ers did was defeat the Heat on their opening night, that would have been enough, but respectable outings by the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics put the basketball world on its head, as we reveled in tanking gone wrong. "Regression to the mean" may dominate the rest of the season, but we'll always have November.

Shelburne: I like watching young players blossom on the big stage. Several have done so thus far: Anthony Davis, Eric Bledsoe, George, Chandler Parsons, Arron Afflalo, and Michael Carter-Williams have all impressed by elevating their games and exceeding all expectations. But for me, the feel-good story has to be Portland. Most thought the Blazers would be a fringe playoff team this season. Instead, they've looked like one of the deepest teams in the league, with two blossoming young stars in Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Strauss: Speaking of LeBron, how much did he contribute to Michael Beasley's shocking turn as "good NBA player"? Beasley's scoring well, but that's not what's most impressive. It's the way Beasley is defending as if his job were on the line (and it is). Suddenly, and unexpectedly, we get to see what the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft looks like with max effort. It's great to see someone finally fulfill his potential. Better late than never.

Windhorst: Overcoming the tanking. I know players and coaches hate this word, but tanking doesn't take place in between the four lines; of course those guys are trying to win. Tanking happens with front-office decisions and on the inactive list. There was a handful of teams that were constructed to lose, period. And right out of the movie "Major League," a few of them have overcome it early. It is often fun to watch the Suns and Sixers play, even if, over the long haul, they will probably find the bottom. The Celtics had one of the games of the season when they won in Miami. All feel-good stuff.