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|The Heat are the reigning champs, but other teams have been playing better ball so far this season.|
The season is young, but some teams have been way better than the rest. Tom Haberstroh made his case for the Warriors as the NBA's best team. What does our 5-on-5 crew think?
Kevin Arnovitz, TrueHoop: Pacers. In an era when small ball and proficiency from long range are the rage, the Pacers assembled a classical starting unit and are now pillaging the NBA. Length doesn't slump, and the Pacers are using that ranginess to maintain their spot at the top of the defensive rankings. Meanwhile, the offense is coming along. The schemes are good, and now that the starters have logged 1,300 minutes together, it's starting to click.
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes of Hell: Pacers. The only undefeated team in the NBA is the best defensive team in the league by a wide margin. Given how impressive Paul George has looked, it's not outlandish to think they will end up on the right side of a seven-game series with Miami this season.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Spurs. The season is barely two weeks old and the Spurs already seem to be on cruise control. They've won six in a row, the past three by an average of 23 points per game (that 31-point win at New York doesn't hurt). The cast has changed slightly, but so far these are the same old Spurs.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Warriors. I hesitate to pick them on a night they play the Thunder, who absolutely destroyed them last time they met, but here we are. Golden State's overall record isn't impressive, but its loss to the Clippers came on a back-to-back that was further complicated by a massive plane delay and the two-point loss to the Spurs was the game Steph Curry sat out. Through it all, Golden State is top-five in both defensive and offensive efficiency. The Pacers and Spurs both look fantastic, but both have had relatively easy schedules.
Tom Sunnergren, Hoop76: Pacers. The undefeated, untied Pacers of Indiana are fielding a defense of historic stinginess. The 84.5 points they're allowing are only 1.1 off the record-setting pace of the 1998-99 Hawks and the meager 39.2 field goal percentage they concede opponents, if it holds up, would be the lowest ever. Also: Paul George is a certified superstar and Lance Stephenson might not be too far behind him. These are halcyon days in central Indiana.
Arnovitz: Spurs. When we boil it down to its essence, the NBA game is all about open looks: (1) Do you know how to get them? (2) Are you inclined to surrender them? For the past three presidential administrations, the Spurs have mastered these two basic precepts, which makes the regular season a rote exercise for them. Take 55-60 wins, some smart rest for your horses and we'll see you at home in May.
Gordian: Spurs. They could easily be in the No. 1 slot. Year-in, year-out they are one of the league's most balanced teams (second in defensive efficiency, sixth in offensive efficiency this season). Despite fears that their Finals meltdown might derail the most consistent franchise in sports, they look poised to make another run at a title.
Pelton: Warriors. My man Tom Haberstroh made the case for the Warriors as the league's best team today. They easily could have beaten the Spurs had Stephen Curry been available for that game, and they've also got a double-digit road win over another top-five team.
Strauss: Spurs. They continue to play great defense, all without fouling. Right now they rank second in defensive efficiency while averaging the fewest fouls per possession. Maybe that's the secret to their longevity. The older Spurs players don't bother needlessly knocking into the opposition. They just stay focused on getting to the right spots and keeping their hands up. Overall, the team looks just as good as the one that nearly won the 2013 championship.
Sunnergren: Spurs. A defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory loss in the NBA Finals, two top assistants decamp to run teams of their own, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker get another year older -- and yet the Spurs roll along. Through nine games, San Antonio has a top-10 offense, the No. 2 defense, a six-game winning streak and the second-widest scoring margin in basketball. They're really good. Again.
Arnovitz: Heat. After the Pacers and Spurs, the ordering gets a little tricky, but there's something to be said for incumbency. The Heat are the reigning champs and have the league's top offense. Though they haven't defended all that much at the outset of the season, is there any reason to believe they won't when something meaningful is at stake?
Gordian: Heat. Honestly, right now it feels like there is a reasonable margin between the two best teams in the NBA and Miami. The Heat's offense is a force of nature, but so far their defense has been mediocre at best. However, the season is still young. They have earned the benefit of the doubt.
Pelton: Pacers. While you can't exactly blame the Pacers for their schedule -- Frank Vogel didn't decide to schedule some FCS opponents for nonconference play -- it rates as far and away the league's easiest so far, which has helped produce their 8-0 start. We won't know just how good Indiana is until the competition level ramps up.
Strauss: Pacers. Soft schedule aside, this defense looks absolutely terrifying. It's hard to see how another team could supplant Indiana as the best defense in basketball, what with how Paul George flies through every screen like a ghost and Roy Hibbert casts a shadow over the entire paint. It also helps that George is suddenly realizing his superstar potential on offense.
Sunnergren: Timberwolves. A renascent Kevin Love is averaging 27.1 points, 14.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists and leading basketball in every conceivable advanced metric, Kevin Martin (24.6 PPG) has slid into the role of sweet-shooting No. 2 as if it's an old T-shirt, and Ricky Rubio is the starch that keeps the thing hanging together. In the time it took you to read this sentence, the Timberwolves dropped a 22-1 run on someone.
Arnovitz: Timberwolves. The more I see, the more I like. The Wolves are a little bit like the Spurs in this respect -- there isn't anything they don't do reasonably well, and every cog in the starting unit serves a purpose. The offense flows. And though at first blush you might be concerned about the defense, Ricky Rubio and Corey Brewer are top front-line defenders while Nikola Pekovic is not an easy body to get around inside.
Gordian: Clippers. A week ago they might not have even been in my top five, but after solid wins over Houston, Minnesota and Oklahoma City, Lob City is starting to look like a contender. But their defense, currently second to last in efficiency, will need to improve greatly if they want to vault Miami, San Antonio or Indiana.
Pelton: Timberwolves. There are three teams in the league who rank in the top nine in both offensive and defensive rating. The first two are ranked atop my list. The third? The Timberwolves, who have shaken off concerns about their defense and are dominating opponents.
Strauss: Heat. Miami is dragging defensively, but we've seen this movie before. Nothing is functionally wrong with the team, save for the lack of defensive focus that dogged them at the beginning of last season. If you recall, last season ended pretty well for the Heat. The one concern is that LeBron James appears a little less explosive than he has in years past. So long as he keeps shooting this efficiently, that concern remains minor.
Sunnergren: Heat. The twice-defending champs can't play defense, look more than a little worn out from winning those titles, and have Michael Beasley on their team. But they play O with frightening efficiency -- their team true shooting percentage of 61.8 is higher than Kevin Love's -- and lead the league in one decisive category: players named LeBron James.
Arnovitz: Trail Blazers. A strong case can be made for the Warriors, Thunder and Clippers, but let's give it up for the guys from the Northwest. They've quietly assembled an offense that's a bear to defend. It has a knack for finding shots early, but has skills to thrive in the half court. The defense remains iffy, but has shown signs of progress during the past week. If the D can get to league average, the Blazers should be a quality bet to secure a playoff spot.
Gordian: Warriors. We've grown used to the idea of the Warriors as an offensive force, so it's little surprise they have the fifth-most efficient offense in the league. But with a healthy Andrew Bogut and the addition of Andre Iguodala, the run-and-gun Warriors now sport the third-most efficient defense in the NBA. Don't be surprised if the Western Conference finals feature Steph Curry & Co.
Pelton: Clippers. For all the concern about their defense -- my own included -- the Clippers have put enough points on the board to go 5-0 against other West contenders so far.
Strauss: Thunder. This is probably selling Oklahoma City short, given how impressive Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb have looked early on. Did the Thunder just draft a good center with the 12th pick? That's not supposed to happen. I'd rank them higher if Scott Brooks took the extra step and placed Adams in the starting lineup. It'd also help their cause if Derek Fisher was relegated to, well, retirement.
Sunnergren: Warriors. Andre Iguodala has been good for the Dubs. The offseason acquisition is shooting a career-high 58.1 percent and has the Warriors at No. 3 in the NBA in defensive rating, where they're allowing opponents nine fewer points per 100 possessions than they did a season ago. A Golden State team built on getting stops? Now I've seen everything.