Monday, February 6, 2012
Debate: Six weeks later, better and best
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Leading a franchise out of the depths, Cavs rookie Kyrie Irving has Cleveland on the rise.
It's been six weeks since the game returned to us. Here's how our 5-on-5 crew sees some of the surprises on the court so far:
1. Who's the top rookie of the first six weeks?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com:Kyrie Irving. The Cavaliers are on the edge of the Eastern Conference playoffs after spending last season firmly entrenched in irrelevance. I love Irving's decision-making; it's far ahead of where it should be for a rookie.
Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: Kyrie Irving. On Saturday night, Irving clinched a Cavs victory over the Mavs with a last-second reverse layup in traffic. The moment encapsulated Irving's sure-footed start, showcasing both a high level of skill and his refined feel for the game. It's easy to imagine Irving leading a good team to meaningful wins in the not-too-distant future.
Andrew Lynch, Hardwood Paroxysm: Kyrie Irving. In a previous 5-on-5, I took Ricky Rubio over Irving. It appears I was wrong. Irving is a far better shooter through 21 games, and his turnovers are down -- especially on the pick-and-roll. He makes the Cavs worth watching, an achievement in itself.
Clint Peterson, Hardwood Paroxysm: I would love to be able to say it's the adorable Ricky Rubio, but I cannot ignore what Kyrie Irving has done for Cleveland thus far, being in the less-stacked Eastern Conference notwithstanding. Of the past four guards taken first overall in the NBA draft (Irving, John Wall, Derrick Rose and Allen Iverson), none shot more efficiently from the field or from the 3-point line than Irving in the rookie season, and normalized for minutes played, Irving is also the highest scorer.
David Thorpe, Scouts Inc.: As astounding as it is to watch Ricky Rubio play, Kyrie Irving has simply been better. The Cavs are at least competitive, if not playoff-relevant yet, and Irving is the biggest reason. The rookie of the year race is now led by two terrific young athletes playing well, which has not always been the case the past five years.
2. Who's the most improved player of the first six weeks?
Adande:Al Harrington is making half his shots, the best percentage of his 14-year career and a dramatic improvement over the 42 percent he shot last season. He is giving the Nuggets 15 points per game, up five from last season, and is a big reason they are, surprisingly, near the top of the Western Conference.
Heimer:Ryan Anderson. The Magic took a risk last week by declining to offer Anderson a contract extension, because if he keeps playing this well, someone will offer him eight figures this summer. Anderson, who ranks second on the team in scoring (16.4) and rebounds (6.8), has turned into one of the league's deadliest spot-up shooters and the stretchiest power forward this side of Kevin Love.
Lynch:James Harden. This was a tough decision between Harden and Ryan Anderson, but Harden's actual improvement in effective field goal percentage and assist percentage gives him the edge over Anderson's better increased scoring in increased playing time and slightly improved shooting. Harden is having a career year shooting and handling the ball; as good as he was last season, he's even better now.
Peterson: There's a plethora of options at this stage of the season, from the Detroit Pistons' Greg Monroe to the Philadelphia 76ers' Spencer Hawes, but it's hard to ignore what Paul George is cookin' up in Indy. Given that the Pacers started out the season ahead of their predicted pace and have stayed there, someone on the floor gets the credit for the consistent boost, and that man is King George.
Thorpe: There are a dozen guys who come to mind, but none surpasses what Nikola Pekovic has done so far. How's a player efficiency rating better than 20 grab ya, with 18 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes? Who would have predicted that from him a year ago (or even a month ago, when he was a walking DNP-CD)? Ricky Rubio has helped him find easy buckets; now his coach just has to stop playing Darko Milicic.
3. Who's the best team of the first six weeks?
Adande: If the Miami Heat set their sights on world domination, this wouldn't even be a question. They can be that good when they want to be. But while the beatdown they gave the 76ers should be the norm, they're also liable to barely beat a Luol Deng-less Bulls team or lose to Milwaukee on a regular basis. At least it gives us something to talk about during the regular season.
Heimer: The Chicago Bulls. The Heat and Thunder have been elite, but the Bulls' fast start has come with the highest degree of difficulty. They've stayed atop the Eastern Conference despite losing key guys for significant periods. When you can absorb Jimmy Butler and John Lucas into your rotation, you've created a successful system.
Lynch: The Oklahoma City Thunder. Picking the Thunder is a nod to both the numbers -- the best winning percentage -- and to continuity. The Thunder have seen the top of their rotation spared from injury, unlike their fellow elite, Miami and Chicago. Losing Eric Maynor was heartbreaking, but Oklahoma City's relative health has given it the edge so far.
Peterson: In this era of superteams, when the phrase "best team" is uttered, my mind immediately leaps to those that are among the top half of playoff teams sans a superstar. And while the Utah Jazz have exceeded expectations by this measure, George Karl has the Denver Nuggets a full head and shoulders above. It's both refreshing and relieving to see the team concept still alive and well in the NBA.
Thorpe: Miami and OKC represent the two strongest teams today, and Miami has played a more difficult schedule and two fewer games but has just one fewer win. At this stage, that's enough to earn my edge. LeBron James is playing at a historic level, Chris Bosh has proved he can be elite when needed, and they are younger and faster than they were last season.
4. Who's the biggest surprise team of the first six weeks?
Adande: If you had told me before the season that the Atlanta Hawks would be in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack, I wouldn't have been surprised. That's where they are, perpetually, like those grumpy old Muppets in the balcony. But if you had told me the Hawks would win nine of their first 12 games without Al Horford, I wouldn't have believed it.
Heimer: If you were told before the season that one team would have a plus-10 scoring differential 20 games into the season, how far down the list of candidates would you have had the 76ers? The Sixers' youth and depth allow them to compete every night -- they're one of only four teams without back-to-back losses. Thad Young, Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen and Nikola Vucevic make up the league's most surprising frontcourt.
Lynch: The Utah Jazz. They're not taking the league by storm or by surprise anymore, but Utah holds steady in the playoff race. Paul Millsap announced his presence to the league this season. And Utah keeps winning individual matchups and games no one thought it would. It's a lot of fun.
Peterson: The aforementioned Cavaliers and Pacers are both worthy selections, but the choice here is clear: the Utah Jazz. The vast majority of analysts had them well out of playoff range, and many had them in the bottom three to five of the entire league. Should they be able to take their show on the road, Ty Corbin definitely deserves "Jerry Sloan Coach of the Year Award" consideration. That's a thing, right?
Thorpe: My surprise team is the Clippers, but not for good reasons. I'm shocked at how poorly they have defended, as they are a bottom-five defensive team alongside Charlotte, Detroit, New Jersey and Sacramento. What? Those other teams comprise four of the worst six overall teams and have only one player among all of them who might make the All-Star team.
5. Who's the MVP of the first six weeks?
Adande:LeBron James. He's missed only one game, and simply showing up should count for something in a season in which guys are going down left and right. But LeBron isn't just playing, he's dominating, putting up better all-around numbers than in either of his previous MVP seasons.
Heimer:Chris Paul. Is anything more tired than the annual debate over what "most valuable" means? These Lob City Clippers have come together faster than most thought possible, posting quality wins in the past week over Denver, Utah and OKC. The intention Paul brings to every possession has turned the Clippers overnight into one of the league's most efficient offenses.
Lynch: LeBron James. He's going to the post more and shooting fewer 3s. He's having a career year on the glass. He plays excellent defense. Oh, and he's on pace to post the highest player efficiency rating in league history. If you're still calling him a choker, you're doing yourself the disservice of missing out on just how good James is.
Peterson: I'd love to be able to say Kobe Bryant with his seemingly superhuman effort to carry on despite a new coach, high mileage and a wrist held together by super glue, but seeing the Lakers' record coupled with his being on pace to break his own NBA usage rate record makes my lips pucker. It's Kevin Durant, especially in light of his handling of a volatile teammate (Russell Westbrook) in a veteran manner.
Thorpe: It's LeBron by a mile. And that's all I have to write about that.