The first week of the 2013-14 NBA season is in the books. Unpredictability was the name of the game. Our 5-on-5 crew reviews the action.
1. Which team looks like a surprise title contender so far?
Ramona Shelburne, ESPNLosAngeles.com: Man, couldn't you have asked me this question before Chris Paul and the Clippers dropped 137 points on Houston Monday night to remind everyone the Rockets still have some major holes defensively? Because I was going to say Houston before watching that game. Instead, we'll roll with the Pacers. They aren't exactly a surprise contender, but in an Eastern Conference with Miami, Chicago and Brooklyn, a lot of folks felt Indy might fall off some this year. If anything, they look better.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: While I can't actually foresee a Timberwolves title, they do look fantastic early on. You know how we say that players who won't actually win the MVP "should be part of the conversation"? Maybe that's the Wolves. They aren't a real contender yet, but they're part of the conversation. As for the rejuvenated Kevin Love, he might actually become a legit MVP candidate, and not just a conversation piece.
Tom Sunnergren, Hoop76: The Timberwolves. Despite a skin-of-their-teeth loss to the Cavs on Monday, Minnesota -- a trendy dark-horse pick a season ago -- has looked surprisingly stout in 2013-14, routing OKC at home, topping the Knicks in Gotham, and boasting the third-best scoring differential in basketball. What changed? Love. The forward is second in the NBA in win shares and wins produced, and his 29 PER ranks him fifth.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: Indiana. Not necessarily a "surprise" for most, but I'm still a skeptic; the Pacers' postseason success was predicated on otherworldly defense from Roy Hibbert, who struggles to stay on the court because of a foul rate worse than Larry Sanders' and who has mastered a skill (verticality) that may or may not be a real thing. But I'm bending with every masterful offensive performance by Paul George and every stonewalling by a defense that again leads the league.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: The 76ers! Just kidding. The Suns! Just kidding again. I don't know that I'd classify them as a surprise contender, because we all knew they'd be good, but the Warriors look fantastic. Just the speed they're playing with, the defense, the shooting -- matching up with that offensive juggernaut in a seven-game series looks moderately terrifying right now.
2. Which title contender is the most disappointing so far?
Shelburne: Chicago. I don't know why we all expected Derrick Rose to pick up right where he left off after missing all of last year with a knee injury. But I do know why we expected the Bulls to pick up where they left off last season, giving Miami all it could handle in the playoffs. Chicago is built on defense and that should translate from year to year, no matter who is out there. Rose has looked rusty, shooting just 15-for-52 in his first three games, but it is the Bulls' normally stout defense that has let them down.
Strauss: The Chicago Bulls look feeble offensively. There was a pervading assumption that Rose's return would automatically fix what ailed a team that barely scored more points than it gave up last season. So far, Rose has played badly and the Bulls have reminded us that they lost more than Rose's services last season. With Omer Asik in Houston and other former quality bench players gone, Chicago just might not have enough talent to overcome teams like Miami and Indiana.
Sunnergren: The Thunder. While the sample size is small, in three games the Thunder have squeaked by the rebuilding Jazz, been blown out by the Timberwolves, and needed a 36-point fourth period to top the Suns -- who, Week 1 pluck aside, are only nominally an NBA team at this point.
Verrier: Miami. No reason for concern, but it is indeed disappointing to see the malaise set in a bit and the resting of star players comes just four games into the season. When they're on, the Heat are one of the most entertaining shows in all of sports. But aside from guest spots from Michael Beasley or Greg Oden, their season may already be on autopilot.
Young: The Bulls have been unexpectedly sloppy, and their defense has been uncharacteristically inconsistent. The assumption was that with Derrick Rose back that they'd be able to elevate themselves back into the elite tier of the NBA. Rose's rust issues aren't shocking, but the rest of it kind of is. They're a Rose game-winner away from being 0-3, with a game at the Pacers next. Yikes.
3. Which playoff contender has started most like a lottery team?
Shelburne: Washington. I was all aboard the Wizards train in the preseason, but if they lose to Philly on Wednesday, I'll be fleeing like the lobbyists on K Street on Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend. The Wiz are giving up an astounding 108.3 points a game, second-worst in the NBA. And if Trevor Ariza is your leading rebounder, there might be some other issues you need to address.
Strauss: Denver looks horrendous. Some had the Nuggets winning nearly 50 games, and they come out starting J.J. Hickson, Anthony Randolph and JaVale McGee? Altitude advantage can't overcome everything. The air up there is thin, but not so thin that such a bad front line overwhelms quality visiting teams.
Sunnergren: The Wizards. With the addition of Marcin Gortat, the continued development of Bradley Beal, and the leap into superstardom many figured John Wall would make, the Wizards had the distinct look of a 45- to 50-win team this time last week. But after suffering double-digit losses to the Pistons and Heat and allowing the upstart Sixers a comeback win, they just look like the Wizards.
Verrier: Denver. Anthony Randolph is starting. Yep, it's that bad. Probably should've seen this coming when new coach Brian Shaw started talking about down-shifting the offense and installing noted goofball JaVale McGee as a focal point. But the Nuggets lost their head coach, general manager, best player and identity in one summer, and now they're left trying to fit Ferrari parts into a pickup. This will probably get worse before it gets better.
Young: It appeared that the Wizards were ready to finally make a push ahead this season, especially after acquiring Marcin Gortat. Instead, it's more of the same. Injuries, bad defense, bad chemistry and a lack of urgency -- the Wizards don't appear to be any different. They appear to just be ... the Wizards.
4. Which player has caught your eye the most, and why?
Shelburne: Chris Paul, Chris Paul, Chris Paul. When a 15-point, 11-assist, five-steal night is your worst effort of the season, you know you've got something special going. Since that Opening Night "dud" against the Lakers, CP3 has averaged an insane 30.3 points, 14 assists, 2.7 steals and shot 55 percent from the field as the Clips beat Golden State, Sacramento and Houston.
Strauss: Anthony Davis is ubiquitous out there, enveloping basketball plays like a giant soaring venus flytrap. He's attacking the rim with a guard's dribble, and shooting better than ever before. In short, he's quickly becoming a superstar.
Sunnergren: Chris Paul. It's not the fact of Paul playing really well that's shocking -- because, duh -- but the extent of his domination that's turning heads. Through four games, Paul's 26.5/13.3/3.8 line places him second in the NBA in scoring, first in assists, and, by margins that are more like chasms, atop the league's leaderboard in PER, win shares, and wins produced. He's simply been much better than everyone else.
Verrier: Anthony Davis. Imagine all the wild fantasies you had about Davis coming out of Kentucky. That's pretty much what we've seen from a more seasoned 'Brow, who has been the star of Small Sample Size Theater thus far: 23.7 PPG, 12.3 RPG, 4.0 BPG, 35.00 PER. Only the Pellies' new mascot is more terrifying.
Young: The easy answer is Michael Carter-Williams, and despite being easy, it's probably the correct one. But I'm going to say Kevin Love. He was injured for most of last season but after a week, he's reminded everyone that he's the best power forward in basketball (non-Tim Duncan division). He's top five in the league in scoring and picks up a double-double just by stepping on to the floor. Have that Kevin Love healthy for 82 games, and the Wolves could be dangerous.
5. What storyline stands out to you after Week 1?
Shelburne: This season begins and ends with the Miami Heat's quest to three-peat. There's a reason why it's so hard to make it back to the Finals four years in a row. People get tired. Relationships get strained. Drama gets old. All of that has affected the Heat in their first week and all of it will challenge them the rest of the season. It is the storyline of the season.
Strauss: The Indiana Pacers have a real shot at the title if Paul George keeps playing even near this level. It's as though the 2013 playoffs taught George how to get fouled. He went from shooting 3.5 free throws per game to 6.7 in the postseason. So far this year he's attempting 7.5 freebies per contest. This is a fantastic development for an offense that has struggled to score in the past.
Sunnergren: The Philadelphia 76ers, and what we talk about when we talk about tanking. This is the team that's launched a thousand arguments: Are the Sixers tanking? Given their hot start, should they be? Isn't it a shame that the perverse incentives of tanking complicate their unlikely/wildly entertaining start? The NBA really should do something about tanking -- right? Speaking of which, what is tanking and does it even, gasp, work? At the moment, there are more questions than answers.
Verrier: Sixers' hot start for pleasure; the gulf between the Clippers' offensive (No. 1) and defensive (No. 30) ratings for business. Reminder: Basketball is fun. And what's more enjoyable than Spencer Hawes finger-gunnin' and Magic Carter-Williams dishing the rag-tag Sixers past three playoff teams? But the Clips looking more like the Mike D'Antoni Suns than the Doc Rivers Celtics will have more of a lasting impact; defense, not offense, has been the issue the past two seasons.
Young: Anti-tanking. With all of the talk about the 2014 draft class and the teams positioning for players, there's been real competition and a reminder that the players on the floor aren't the ones trying to lose games. Things will look a lot different in February and March, but don't assume your team's players don't want to win.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Justin Verrier cover the NBA for ESPN.com. Ramona Shelburne covers the NBA for ESPN Los Angeles. Tom Sunnergren and Royce Young contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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