The basketball world will focus its attention on New York and Dallas tonight as the red-hot Pacers visit the slumping Knicks (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) and Dwight Howard's Rockets take on Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs (ESPN, 9:30 ET). Let's take a look at all four teams.
1. Pacers or Knicks: Whose start has been more eye-opening?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Knicks. Losing Tyson Chandler would obviously have an effect on the defensive end, where the Knicks have been discombobulated and disorganized, but they've also been unexpectedly abysmal offensively, scoring less than a point per possession. Plus, I always thought Indiana would have the best record in the East this season.
Zach Harper, A Wolf Among Wolves: As much as the Knicks completely falling apart has surprised me, it makes sense when you factor in the Tyson Chandler injury. The Pacers are more eye-opening because they may be proving they're not just the second-best team in the East but in the entire league. They are no longer a Heat nuisance but a threat to the title.
Michael Pina, Red94: Pacers. In 2012-13, the Pacers won 49 regular-season games before battling the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks and Miami Heat to an 11-8 playoff record. They were very good, but was it a case of Indiana maximizing its skill or a sign of better things to come? The answer is the latter, clearly, with Roy Hibbert and Paul George both looking like award-winning talents. This Pacers team is terrifying.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Can I get away with saying neither? Indiana came into the season as my undisputed No. 1 challenger to Miami's throne -- from either conference. So, yes, I have the temerity to say that I'm not terribly surprised by Indy's early form. And while you have to attribute a decent chunk of the Knicks' early woes to a Tyson Chandler injury that was out of their control, I did have New York pegged as a team headed for a season of tumult when ESPN The Magazine asked us for forecasts in October. The Knicks, even healthy, were not going to be as good this season as James Dolan believed.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Knicks. We knew the Pacers were a strong team, one of the top two or three in the East, and they are doing what they've done the past few years: defending and rebounding. While there was a widespread belief that the Knicks overachieved last season, it was hard to see they would struggle so quickly. Not just because you couldn't predict the injury to Chandler but they've had a favorable early schedule that was home heavy.
2. George or Melo: Whom would you rather build your team around?
Elhassan: George, but it's a lot closer than one might think. Anthony has caught a lot of flak in recent years for not being the type of player who can elevate his teammates, but if he were surrounded by the right personnel, he could be a devastating force. I choose George because his ability to impact the game in categories other than scoring gives a team a lot more flexibility in the type of supporting cast it can put around him.
Harper: In a vacuum in which both players are the same age and have the same contract, I'd still take Melo because I'm a big believer in building your team around an offensive focus (like the Mavs did with Dirk). However, basketball exists in TV sets, not a vacuum. I'll take George because of the two-way play and his youth.
Pina: George. He's a 23-year-old phenomenon, able to take over games with a pterodactyl wingspan on offense and defense. For those who hark back to Carmelo Anthony's sensational scoring ability, George is averaging 2.4 fewer points per game on 4.5 fewer shots. His PER and true shooting percentage are both higher, but George's real value comes when his team needs a stop -- something that will never be said about Anthony, who's also six years older.
Stein: Who's younger? More importantly: Who's by far the better two-way player? Crazy as this might have sounded in November 2012, who could vote against Paul George at this stage?
Windhorst: George. It's not a completely fair question since George is 23 and Melo is 29. You're talking to one of George's bigger supporters in the media here, and the reason I've been impressed with him is his ability to play both ends. He's also focused on being a team-first guy, sometimes to a fault where he needs to take on a more commanding role. Melo is a truly amazing scorer, but no one will ever accuse him of being a team-first guy or a dedicated defender.
3. Rockets or Mavs: Which team are you more impressed with?
Elhassan: Mavs, by a country mile. Houston will have a tough time impressing anyone because any success will be chalked up to "that's what they're supposed to do." The expectation level for Dallas was a lot lower, especially considering its largely unsuccessful offseason pursuit of a variety of big name free agents.
Harper: The Mavericks are starting a backcourt of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon. They're in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency. Unless the Rockets turn Omer Asik into Rick Barry at the free throw line this week, I don't know how I can pick against the Mavericks here.
Pina: Rockets. Despite all the negative attention surrounding James Harden's defense, Dwight Howard's stalled development and Omer Asik's unhappiness, there's still a ton to like about this Rockets team. They have a top-five offense with greatly improved play from Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin that has made them almost impossible to defend -- and a defense that sits just outside the top 10. Great stuff from a team trying to incorporate so many new pieces.
Stein: The Rockets' expectations are so high that they would have to have an Indy-esque record at this stage to really be impressing people. Dallas, meanwhile, is best described as entertaining more than flat-out impressive. The Mavs have to score a lot to win because of their defensive deficiencies. But the offense, so far, is delivering.
Windhorst: The Rockets are the better team, but I expected that. I've been more impressed with the Mavs. I wasn't crazy about their offseason because Monta Ellis has not been a winning player and they made a major commitment to him. But he's played very well and at a more efficient level than we've become used to. They've also gotten good play from an in-shape DeJuan Blair, who has been a good pickup as well. Their older players continue to contribute at higher-than-expected levels. They have some injuries on their bench, and if they can get healthy, they could end up being formidable over the long haul.
4. Harden or Ellis: Who's having a better season so far?
Elhassan: Ellis. He's scoring at his highest efficiency level since coming off the bench for the We Believe Warriors and getting to the line at a career-high rate. This newfound devotion to being a more efficient scorer has been refreshing, especially as many folks (like me) had written him off. Meanwhile, Harden suffers from the same Expectation Demon that beguiles his Rockets: This is what he's supposed to do.
Harper: Is it weird that I want to pick Monta Ellis? Harden's true shooting percentage isn't that much higher than Monta's, Ellis has a higher assist rate and a lower turnover rate, and they have about the same usage. Neither player is all that useful on defense either. Harden is certainly the better player, but Ellis is exceeding expectations while Harden isn't.
Pina: Harden. Both players have similar numbers, including their usage, turnover and assist rates. Harden's defense has long been a point of contention, but compared to Ellis it washes out. He's also getting to the free throw line more often, shooting way more 3s and has a PER nearly four points higher.
Stein: What's with all these absolute questions that allow for no nuance? Why are you guys doing this to us? Harden has been playing hurt since opening night, which probably isn't going to soften the criticism he's been taking for his D but won't be ignored here. Ellis has been pretty much everything Dallas could have hoped for -- so far -- so give him the nod for now. Tricky one, though, because of Harden's injury.
Windhorst: Ellis. Harden is playing well offensively, which is what we expected, and he's even gotten his shooting percentage up a bit after it took a plunge because of volume last season. Defensively, he's still often a disaster. Meanwhile, Ellis is exceeding my expectations with his measured aggressiveness on offense and what appears to be a better focus on team defense. He has always bristled at being labeled a poor defender, but he has been better this season.
5. Asik or Shumpert: Who gets traded first?
Elhassan: Shumpert, for two reasons. First, the asking price for Asik is rightfully higher, meaning a team looking to acquire him will have to pony up a considerably larger trade package. Second, the Knicks are struggling and have been known to pull the quick trigger on deals out of desperation.
Harper: To get the type of return James Dolan expects to get for Shumpert, they need a first-round pick to give along with Iman. Ted Stepien isn't walking through that door. Asik is easier to trade and much more of a problem to the Rockets with what they're trying to accomplish. He'll probably be dealt before Shumpert.
Pina: Shumpert is the pick because the Knicks are 3-7 and look desperate. New York "needs" short-term rim protection to fill Tyson Chandler's temporary void, and finding it through its best young asset feels like a foregone conclusion. Over in Houston, solid recent play from Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas will allow Daryl Morey time to sift through his various trade offers for Asik.
Stein: Shumpert. But only because he's easier to trade than Asik and because, as I understand it, all sides now realize that he's going to be dealt sooner rather than later. They'll both be moved before the Feb. 20 trade deadline -- and Asik is the trade story in the NBA until he gets moved -- but Shumpert's contract is easier to shop.
Windhorst: Shumpert. The Knicks seem a little more desperate for a talent injection, and because of his salary, there's a wider array of players he can be moved for. The Rockets will eventually move Asik, but they seem interested in letting the market develop -- also known as waiting for a team to get Knicks-level desperate -- so they can make a trade that's not under duress. Rockets GM Daryl Morey's No. 1 priority is finding a winning deal for Asik, and I suspect he'll take his time before settling.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst cover the NBA for ESPN.com. Amin Elhassan writes for ESPN Insider. Zach Harper and Michael Pina contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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