Best and worst of the opening month
5-on-5: Our experts discuss the early-season storylines in the Association
Has it been a month already? With the NBA season flying by, a number of teams and players already have made their mark on the league. Which have been the best so far, and which have been the biggest disappointments? Our 5-on-5 crew has all of the answers.
1. Best player of the first month of the season is
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Kevin Durant. Quietly, KD is showing off a complete game in Oklahoma City, helping the Thunder easily adjust to the loss of James Harden. He's scoring a bit less than he's used to, but he's averaging career highs in shooting percentage, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. That gives him a slight edge over super-efficient LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
Patrick Hayes, Piston Powered: Kevin Durant. Durant was already a top-three player heading into the season. Although his scoring is down just a bit, he's putting up career highs in field goal and 3-point percentage, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks. He has also been great defensively. He's the MVP so far.
Danny Nowell, Portland Roundball: LeBron James. Until the Clippers hit their recent skid, I would have said Chris Paul for orchestrating their leap to seeming completion. But he let up on the reins a little bit and all of a sudden Miami is near the top of the league standings and LeBron is playing the league's best two-way ball. Yawn.
J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: LeBron James. He was the best player in the league last year, and all he has done this season is improve his 3-point shooting and cut down on his turnovers. And just in case that wasn't enough, late in games he looks as though he has mastered the Matrix, bending defenses to his will and setting up teammates for open jumpers.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue And Gold: Kevin Durant. He's averaging 26 points and nine rebounds, has taken on a greater playmaking responsibility with James Harden in Houston and is doing it all while flirting with 50/40/90 percentages from the field, behind the arc and at the free throw line. Plus, he remains the most dangerous scorer in the league. Oh yeah, and he's only 24.
2. Best team of the first month of the season is
Gutierrez: Believe it or not, that's the Thunder, too. Offensively, they're right behind Miami in offensive efficiency, but far ahead of the Heat defensively. There's just not much difference between last season's Thunder and this season's Thunder. Of course, the Heat, Grizzlies and Spurs are only an almost undetectable smidgen behind.
Hayes: The Memphis Grizzlies. They have the league's best record and wins over the Heat, Thunder, Knicks and Lakers. The Grizzlies are a brutal, physical matchup in a playoff series for any team and if they stay healthy, a legit title contender.
Nowell: The Memphis Grizzlies blew away a difficult stretch of their schedule with an elite scoring margin. They're doubling down on their established team strengths and peppering in a little bit of outside shooting competency to pull off one of the most difficult things in the league: becoming a true contender without a splashy acquisition.
Poulard: San Antonio Spurs. You know, that obscure team that plays down in Texas whose best player ever seems to be rejuvenated despite being 36 years young? In addition, this team has the most wins in the NBA and is currently the proud owner of a five-game winning streak, all victories coming on their current Eastern trip. Yup, the always underrated Spurs.
Soriano: The Memphis Grizzlies. At 11-2, they sit atop the Western Conference, have the second-best point differential in the league, and in consecutive games beat the Thunder, Knicks and Heat. They're simply grinding teams down with their physical, ball-hawking defense and an ever-evolving offense.
3. Biggest surprise of the first month of the season is
Gutierrez: There aren't a bunch of shockers out there this season. The Hawks are up there. So are the Bobcats. O.J. Mayo has been better than expected, though he's coming back to earth. But it has to be the Grizzlies' dominance. Consecutive wins against the Heat, Thunder and Knicks might be the best three-game stretch any team has had so far.
Hayes: Charlotte Bobcats. I love everything Charlotte has done since last season. The Bobcats hired a coach who specializes in player development, have invested heavily in giving their young players minutes and, as a result of setting realistic (i.e. 'low') expectations, a 7-7 record qualifies as a huge surprise.
Nowell: Still going with the Knicks here. Some of the warts they disguised so well during their opening games are starting to manifest themselves and you never want to be relying on a geriatric point guard to make the offense click, but still -- the Knicks are outscoring a murderous slate of opponents and clicking in a way that shocks me.
Poulard: Stephen Curry started out the season by playing nervous basketball in the fourth quarters, which resulted in several miscues; but he has since rebounded to rank in the top five in total clutch scoring so far this season. Read that line again.
Soriano: The Bobcats being fun to watch deserves mention, but I'm going with Kobe Bryant. In his 17th season he's playing some of the best basketball of his career, posting career-high percentages in field goal, 3-point, and free throw shooting while putting up his third highest PER ever. After looking like a player in real decline last year and with nearly 1,400 games and over 51,000 career minutes (regular season and playoffs) on his odometer, no one could have predicted he'd still look this good.
4. Biggest disappointment of the first month of the season is
Gutierrez: Duh. The Lakers can't be judged in terms of championship potential until they're completely healthy. But you'd think a team anchored by Kobe and Dwight Howard could stumble its way to a winning record. But they've been inexplicably horrible at times. The Pacers and Andrew Bynum's knees are tied for a close second.
Hayes: Toronto Raptors. Injuries have been a significant factor, but the Raptors have also just had a rough time in close games. Eight of the team's 13 losses are by seven points or less, including back-to-back losses to Charlotte and Detroit in the final 30 seconds. Even with the injuries, Toronto should be better than 3-13.
Nowell: The Boston Celtics. Hovering around .500 and posting the worst defensive numbers of the KG era, the Celtics seem like they're trying to make it harder than ever on themselves to "flip the switch." And making a "veteran run" in the playoffs will be contingent on Paul Pierce's glass ankles not getting totally shattered by the next crossover he sees.
Poulard: Steve Nash was supposed to get the keys to the Ferrari but has instead been incapacitated and thus hasn't had the opportunity to truly figure things out and steer the Lakers in the right direction. His injury has kept him sidelined and, consequently, the Lakers are less interesting than initially projected. Well, just a little less interesting.
Soriano: The Lakers. Before the season started, if you were to tell me that through 15 games this team would be under .500, sitting at third in their division and would already be on their third head coach of the season, I'd have called you crazy. Plagued by inconsistency, this team has yet to live up to even the most modest of expectations.
5. Most important thing to know about the first month of the season is
Gutierrez: That the standings won't look like this in April. The Lakers, Pacers, Celtics and Mavericks will make significant moves up the standings once they're healthy and cohesive. Teams such as the Jazz, Warriors, Hawks and Bucks had better pile up wins while they can if they want to make the postseason.
Hayes: The East is more competitive at the top than it gets credit for. The Miami Heat remain the likely choice to represent the East in the Finals, but the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets have emerged as legitimate obstacles. It's not quite as wide open as the West, but it's getting close.
Nowell: Things are more open than just about anybody could have imagined. With surprises like the Lakers' coaching change and the James Harden trade destabilizing a few presumed powerhouses, the second tier in the Eastern and Western supremacy seems shockingly fluid.
Poulard: The Eastern Conference's bottom feeders are quite awful. Toronto, Cleveland and Washington have as many wins combined as the Phoenix Suns.
Soriano: That you (and by you, I mean Andrew Bynum) shouldn't go bowling when you have a pre-existing knee injury. Nothing good can come out of it.