Congratulations, NBA! After a tumultuous and prolonged lockout, fans have been graced with televised, professional basketball for one whole month. And it has been nothing short of entertaining to say the least.
Some teams have surprisingly gotten better since last season (Sixers and Clippers) while others are worse than talent would indicate (Knicks, Lakers and Celtics). Some teams are on the cusp of winning it all (Thunder, Heat and Bulls) while others have seemed out of it for what seems like eons now (Wizards, Kings and Raptors). If the playoffs started today, the Bulls and Thunder would be the top seeds in their respective conferences. Is that a sign of an NBA Finals match to come?
The season isn't over just yet.
Trades before the Mar. 15 deadline can turn tides. Injuries will be sure to plague. And, until the end of April, the strides, the collapses and the playoff pushes and spoilers will pervade like they always do.
With this compressed 66-game schedule and all, it's hard not to put every team under a microscope. And that's exactly what you will see below. After one month of the NBA season, let's take a look at how each NBA team has done thus far, how surprising each has been, and what, if anything, each can do to get better.
Atlanta Hawks (13-6): UNSURPRISING
Joe Johnson probably remains the most under-the-radar million-dollar-man in the league. In the seven games since Al Horford went down with a pectoral tear, he has picked up more slack, averaging 21 points per game, more than his season average of 18.5. Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson have done their job filling in for Horford, while Jeff Teague, averaging 13 points and 5.4 assists per game, looks like Atlanta's long-term point guard. The Hawks are where they are at because of their bread and butter: resiliency.
Boston Celtics (7-9): SURPRISING
Age has finally caught up to the Celtics, who have six guys on their roster over 30 years old (and three others quickly approaching it). If rumors of the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett breaking apart via trade have played any part in Boston's losing season so far, it's minimal at best. The problem with this team has mainly been on the offense side of the ball: while Boston is second in points per game allowed (88.3), it ranks just 25th in points per game scored (89.4). Also, each of the Big Three's points per game average is down from a year ago, which has meant that the best player outside of the trio, Rajon Rondo, has had to step up his game. He now averages 15 a game, up from almost 11 a year ago. Clearly, the Celtics need an injection of youthful energy, but the trigger is pulled before or after the trade deadline remains to be seen.
Charlotte Bobcats (3-16): UNSURPRISING
The Bobcats are a young team (average age: 26), with only talent to show for now. When exactly that talent will materialize into well-executed wins is up in the air. The Bobcats did make the playoffs in 2010, but were swept by the Orlando Magic in the first round. Since then, the team has started from scratch again. However, D.J. Augustin and Gerald Henderson have given the team some stability. And, with the right development and coaching, Kemba Walker and Bismack Biyombo along with the aforementioned guys can help the Bobcats be taken a little more seriously down the road.
Chicago Bulls (16-4): UNSURPRISING
You figure that after being the league's best team last season (62-20) and losing to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls would have something to say about that this season-and they have. Reigning MVP Derrick Rose's scoring is down, while his assists are up, and rightfully so. The Bulls have always fared better when the ball is shared, and Rose being more of a facilitator makes them even scarier. The always-versatile Rip Hamilton seems to be the final piece of the Bulls' puzzle to put them over the top. But what might put a damper on things is swingman Luol Deng's wrist injury. It's safe to say that Deng is the team's best defense player, and without him, the Bulls might not take the next step they have been hoping for. Nevertheless, the Bulls are still the league's number one defense (86.3 points per game allowed) and will continue to make up for Deng's absence by crashing the boards and playing team basketball.
Cleveland Cavaliers (7-10): SURPRISING
O.K., so maybe if LeBron actually decided to stay in Cleveland, then the team wouldn't be where it's at now. But even at 7-10, the Cavaliers have turned out well. Consider this: in four out of their 10 losses, the Cavaliers have gone toe-to-toe with the top teams in the league. They lost on Tuesday to the Heat by only seven, to the Lakers on Jan. 13 by only five, to the Jazz on Feb. 10 by only eight and to the Pacers in overtime on Dec. 30 by seven. If the playoffs started today, Cleveland would be tied for the eighth seed in the East. For a team that has been a laughingstock both pre- and post-LeBron, that seems very much like progress.
Dallas Mavericks (11-8): UNSURPRISING
The reigning NBA champs are in the same boat as the Celtics: they are an old team that plays good defense, but fails to score points. However, to Boston's credit, the Mavs have had an easier schedule thus far, beating teams they are supposed to, but losing to a class of elite and up-and-coming teams. Their 0-3 start, having lost to the Heat, the Nuggets and the Thunder, became a real cause for concern. Also, in their last three wins, the Mavs squeaked by, only winning by an average of about four points. Nevertheless, the Mavs are still talented enough to get over the hump. Nowitzki will be Nowitzki and his supporting cast will continue to manage the game around him. But the one guy who needs to play better if Dallas wants to do better is Lamar Odom. If he can play Sixth Man of the Year-style of basketball like he always has, then the Mavs stand a better chance at repeating.
Denver Nuggets (13-5): UNSURPRISING
The Carmelo Anthony trade might have been the best thing that has ever happened to the Nuggets. In addition to the Bulls, they are a good definition of team basketball: they are first in the league in assists per game at 24.5, all thanks to a multifaceted roster bolstered by smart, quick and efficient guards and the elevated play of Danilo Gallinari, who signed a four-year, $42 million extension on Wednesday. Knicks fans loved Gallo, but are now probably regretting he left, especially because he leads the team in scoring with 17.7 points per game. To make matters worse for other teams, five other guys are averaging double figures in scoring. Second in importance to the Anthony trade may have been re-signing Nene, who is averaging nine rebounds a game. Without him, the Nuggets would have lost size and paint production on both ends.
Detroit Pistons (4-15): UNSURPRISING
The Detroit Pistons of old, including the 2004 championship team, have been long gone. Chauncey Billups is with the electrifying Clippers now and Rasheed Wallace retired. But Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace still remain to provide veteran leadership, though they themselves aren't what they once were. The Pistons are dead last in the league in points per game (85.6). However, all is not lost for the future. Rodney Stuckey, Ben Gordon, Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe are the young nucleus Detroit will need to keep from rebuilding all over again sooner than later. Rumors have swirled of trading Prince, but his experience is too great an asset that would most certainly help the Pistons until he decides to retire.
Golden State Warriors (6-11): UNSURPRISING
The Warriors lack of defensive and paint presence has prevented them from ever becoming truly successful. For a long time, they have had the ability to score points and sporadically put on an offensive show. They can still do so now with Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and David Lee. But, defensively speaking, Kwame Brown and Andris Biedrins are unreliable big men for blocking and rebounding shots. Brown recently underwent surgery for the same injury Al Horford suffered, and is done for the year. It's unfortunate that the Warriors lost out in the sweepstakes to get either Tyson Chandler or DeAndre Jordan. Maybe then they would have a couple more wins under their belt as of today.
Houston Rockets (10-8): SURPRISING
Given the competition in the Western Conference and the inexperience of their roster, it's hard to imagine how the Rockets are even just two games over .500. However, you just never know with these guys. Remember the 22-game win streak during the '07-'08 season, despite Yao Ming's season-long absence? To their credit, the Rockets did win seven in a row before falling to the Bucks on Wednesday. And, like the Nuggets, they do have the depth to catch teams off-guard this year. Kyle Lowry, who is averaging 8.8 assists and two steals per game, may be the team's most influential player that results in another Rockets surprise run.
Indiana Pacers (12-5): UNSURPRISING
We really saw what the Pacers were capable of in the first round of last season's playoffs against the Bulls. Even though they lost the series 4-1, the Pacers lost the first three games of that series by an average of just five points. Darren Collison and Danny Granger really showed their offensive prowess, while Tyler Hansbrough injected the toughness the team once had during the Reggie Miller days. Collectively, Indiana has fed off of and maintained that toughness so far, which has translated into a breakout season. The team is second in the league in rebounding (45.1 per game) and tied for fifth in points per game allowed (90.5). Is it farfetched to believe that the Pacers are the fourth-best team in the East after Miami, Chicago and Orlando?
Los Angeles Clippers (9-6): SURPRISING
For a team that was relatively thrown together this offseason, the Clippers have sure made a name for themselves. Five signings, two draft picks and one blockbuster deal later, they are on the verge of completely stealing the city away from the Lakers. Chris Paul coming in has helped stabilize a team full of raw talent. With that said, that's mostly what the Clippers are at 9-6: raw talent. Griffin, whose talent is the rawest, can overpower anyone, but his shooting, post play and shot blocking all need to improve for him to be truly dominant. DeAndre Jordan is a menacing shot-blocker-a la Ben Wallace-but needs to work on the offensive side of things to be an even bigger force. Luckily, Paul's leadership, alongside that of Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams and Caron Butler, has and can help balance things out. So can all the role players like Randy Foye, Ryan Gomes and Reggie Evans. In sum, the Clippers are winning as of now with a heavy dosage of brawn. Once the brains start to kick into full effect, even the Heat might pose little threat.
Los Angeles Lakers (11-8): SURPRISING
One can't underestimate the loss of Phil Jackson, the Triangle offense and the loss of Lamar Odom. Kobe Bryant has quite literally carried the team on his back, leading the league in scoring at 30.2 points per game. And, while the big-man duo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are both averaging 16 points a game, they still don't seem to be comfortable doing so in a Mike Brown offense. Yet, despite Bryant, Gasol and Bynum's scoring production, the Lakers are still 21st in the league in scoring at 92.5 points per game. Ironic, isn't it? That's because for the first time in a while, they lack the bench necessary to take the pressure off of the starters from getting baskets. Lakers starters account for about 80 percent of the team's point production. So, the problem (at least for now) isn't that Kobe is getting older. It's that he's getting little help.
Memphis Grizzlies (10-7); UNSURPRISING
The Southwest division is stacked so far with the Grizzlies, Rockets, Mavericks and Spurs all with at least 10 wins. But none has more upside and ability to take the next step this year than Memphis does. If Zach Randolph didn't go down with a torn right MCL, Memphis might be up there with Oklahoma City in talk of getting to the NBA Finals, especially after the success it had in last year's playoffs. They lost valiantly in the Western Conference semifinals last year to the Thunder 4-3, but dished out all they had to the top-seeded Spurs the round before that, which really opened up the nation's eyes. Right now, Rudy Gay is healthy, averaging 18.4 points per game and Marc Gasol, who signed a four-year, $58 million extension in December, is still consistent on both ends of the floor. Patience, especially until Randolph returns, will be the key for Memphis' success the rest of the way.
Miami Heat (13-5): UNSURPRISING
The Heat might be the odds-on favorite to win it all, but just remember this: their starting point guard and center are still Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony respectively. Before the season, skeptics believed that either or both of those two needed to be relieved of their duties in order for Miami to finally be crowned champs. Well, nothing has changed, so don't be surprised if the Heat fall short again this year. There's no doubt that LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh have the ability to carry everyone to the Promised Land. But that journey might well be longer and the baggage heavier with arguably the two most crucial positions filled with players who are one-dimensional. Chalmers still lives and dies by the three-pointer and Joel Anthony is still an undersized shot-blocker.
Milwaukee Bucks (7-10): UNSURPRISING
So far, there has been no reason to Fear the Deer. Other than Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut, there is no one left to account for on any given night. Jennings has shined, averaging 20.2 points and 5.5 assists a game, but Bogut has played obscurely, averaging only 11.3 points and 8.3 rebounds a game. If the Bucks don't turn things around soon, Jennings (because he may feel tired carrying the offensive load), Bogut (because the Bucks feel he hasn't carried enough of the offensive load) or both might be gone pretty soon. The team needs the right supporting cast to be built around Jennings and Bogut so both can be the ideal point guard-center combo a team dreams of.
Minnesota Timberwolves (8-10): SURPRISING
Maybe not this year, but the Timberwolves could make the playoffs next year if what the team has now continues to develop. So consider this year an experimental year with rookie Ricky Rubio at the point, rookie Derrick Williams getting touches and Kevin Love, who signed a four-year, $60 million extension Wednesday, being the go-to guy. No matter what will happen during the remainder of the season, though, Minnesota fans finally have a team they can look forward to watching.
New Jersey Nets (6-13): UNSURPRISING
After four straight losing seasons, the Nets seem to be making no progress, albeit acquiring Deron Williams from the Jazz last February. But even he knows how bad the Nets are, and, as a result, he reportedly wants out, but will stay if Dwight Howard comes aboard. Brook Lopez went down with a foot injury, so the chances Howard comes over via trade are slim, especially since Lopez would have to be the centerpiece to such a deal on New Jersey's end. That means Williams could already have one foot out the door, just biding his time until he can move to contenders that he reportedly has interest in like the Mavericks, Lakers or Knicks. The Nets couldn't get Carmelo or LeBron. They won't be able to get Howard. And they can't hold on to Williams. It might be a while before the Nets become relevant again.
New Orleans Hornets (3-15): UNSURPRISING
Without Chris Paul, the Hornets have started fresh, and are going through some serious growing pains, which their record reflects. Nobody is expecting the Hornets to get it right on the first try. It's hard to win when scoring only 87.6 points per game, good for 28th in the league. The upside is that the Hornets, despite just three wins, are 9th in points per game allowed (92.4), and Eric Gordon, who is speculated to be the part of the team's foundation for years to come, is averaging 21 points per game.
New York Knicks (7-11): SURPRISING
Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler have not been the New York Big Three that fans have come to expect. As a matter of fact, the entire Knicks team hasn't been what fans have come to expect. Anthony has shouldered the burden of scoring, averaging a fifth-best 23.6 points per game, while Stoudemire, who is averaging 17.8, seems like a lame duck. Chandler's defensive numbers are actually up from last year's, but a little more point production out of him would mean all the difference in being above instead of below .500. It must be said, though: what will continue to haunt the Knicks is the lack of a point guard that can bring some order. Hopefully, Baron Davis can be that guy once he plays in a game. Also, if other guys like Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and Bill Walker can step up more and on a consistent basis, then the Knicks have a chance of erasing the stigma of being good, but not being good enough.
Oklahoma City Thunder (15-3): UNSURPRISING
The Thunder is heavily favored to come out of the West, one big reason being that it is second in the league in opponent field goal percentage. The bigger reason, however, may be that many of the same players have remained from last season, including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. Proven scorers (Durant and Westbrook), proven defense (Perkins, Ibaka and Thabo Sefalosha) and proven chemistry among the whole team-all signs that Oklahoma City has a great chance, if not, the best chance, at winning it all.
Orlando Magic (12-5): UNSURPRISING
Orlando isn't the same team that played in the 2009 NBA Finals against the Lakers, but it still to this day has been able to win thanks largely to the three-point shot and Dwight Howard. Think about it. Without Howard, Orlando would probably be below average like the Cavaliers have been without LeBron. In fact, Howard is most likely the only player in the league that sets his team's tone for both offense and defense. The Magic offense is 15th in the league, averaging 94.8 points per game, while allowing opponents to score a 7th-ranked 90.8 points per game. Howard himself averaging only 20 points a game is even more proof that not only has defense become more of Orlando's staple, but also team basketball. Howard asked for more team basketball in the past and he has it now. Think he still wants to leave?
Philadelphia 76ers (12-6): SURPRISING
The Sixers are the most surprising team in the league this season. No question. Here's some stats as to why: 4th in points per game (99.4), 4th in field goal percentage (47%), 7th in three-point field goal percentage (38%), 5th in rebounds (43.5), 4th in assists (22.2), 6th in steals (9.3), 3rd in points allowed (88.5) and 1st in own turnovers (11.7). No player averages more than 16 points per game, and seven players have averaged double figures on the season thus far, Lou Williams leading the way with 15.5 points per game. However, one can make the case that the Sixers have coasted so far. Their only quality wins came against Indiana on Jan. 9 and Atlanta on Friday. Things may start to go downhill during a seven-game stretch starting Monday with Orlando and followed by Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio and the Los Angeles Clippers. Once that's all said and done, we'll see what this young Philadelphia team is really made of.
Phoenix Suns (6-11): UNSURPRISING
The Suns are an average team even with Steve Nash running the point. In a case similar to the Magic, they would probably become a complete disaster without him. It's just a matter of time before the 37-year-old two-time MVP either decides to call it quits or goes to another team-either in 2012 via trade or in 2013 via free agency-for the short-term. (The Knicks?). Nash and Marcin Gortat are the only two on the roster to average double figures in points thus far. It's clear that Phoenix needs a player or two to get better, but there's nothing the team can do this year. Almost every player on the roster hasn't proven anything worth being a tradable asset. It may be looking at the glass half-empty, but look for Phoenix to regress or remain stagnant rather than improve in the near future.
Portland Trail Blazers (11-8): SURPRISING
The Blazers should actually be better than their record shows, having lost four very winnable games this month: 102-77 against Phoenix on Jan. 6, 107-105 in overtime against Houston on Jan. 14, 94-91 against Detroit on Saturday and 101-93 against Golden State on Wednesday. With that said, Portland signed Jamal Crawford, who has a history of clutch shots, in the offseason, which should give the team the edge it needs to have a better chance to close out games. LaMarcus Aldridge is having the best year of his career, averaging 22.5 points a game, nine boards and three assists. For the past three years, the Blazers have made the playoffs as other teams viewed them as a potential thorn to their side. However, the Blazers were eliminated in the first round all three times. This year might be different, though. It seems that if the team continues to play the way it has, a strong playoff push past round one will actually be in the works.
Sacramento Kings (6-13): UNSURPRISING
The Kings have been in rebuilding mode since their last playoff appearance in 2006, and this year, the results are still showing. Many pieces have been added and leading scorer Marcus Thornton (16.4 points per game) is expected to be sidelined one to two weeks with a deep bruise in his left thigh, according to reports. So if things couldn't get any worse, it has with Thornton going down. However, while the Kings will be able to come together and overcome the obstacle of having their leading scorer out, it won't be a huge win spike. The bright side for Sacramento is that they fight hard on the glass. The key then to win a little bit more is to capitalize afterwards on rebounds by converting second-chance opportunities after offensive boards and getting the ball out in transition after defensive boards.
San Antonio Spurs (12-7): UNSURPRISING
Even with 35-year-old Tim Duncan and 34-year-old Manu Ginobili, the Spurs still have the fuel to get things done. San Antonio is 3rd in points per game (99.5), 5th in field goal percentage (47%), 7th in three-point field goal percentage (38%) and 2nd in assists (23.2). Richard Jefferson has been the catalyst to say the least since he arrived in 2009, and the good ratio of veterans to young talent provides the Spurs with a balance that they always seem to find. There's nothing really that the Spurs have to do to improve during the regular season. But when, not if, they make the playoffs, they need the old guys like Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker, too, to play lights out.
Toronto Raptors (6-13): UNSURPRISING
The pieces just haven't fallen into place yet. That might be the biggest reason that the Raptors haven't made the postseason since 2008, back when Chris Bosh was still around, and he was the foundation everything was built around. Now, the centerpieces are Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani, who have stayed loyal to Toronto by being with the team their whole careers. What Toronto needs is motivation, consistency and chemistry more than anything else. If the playoffs started today, the Raptors would be two games out of the eighth seed in the East. So play with more ferocity, Raptors. It may sound foolish, but there are three more months left to make a surprise run.
Utah Jazz (10-6): SURPRISING
No Deron Williams? No problem. The next two best stars, Al Jefferson (18.3 points per game) and Paul Millsap (17.5 points per game) are making people forget that Williams was actually in Utah. Quality wins have come against the Nuggets, the Clippers, the Grizzlies and the Sixers. However, let's not forget about Williams's departure completely. Utah is still young and less stable. As a result, the team may be on the lower end of the totem pole of best teams in the Western Conference. Even coach Tyrone Corbin is still getting used to things after both Williams's and Jerry Sloan's departure. What may help Utah is an energetic veteran that has a winning pedigree and can get Utah back deep into the playoffs-Paul Pierce, anyone?
Washington Wizards (3-15): UNSURPRISING
No wizardry reference can describe just how nonexistent and awful the Wizards have been. JaVale McGee gets benched after the third quarter on Jan. 16 for alley-ooping to himself. Flip Saunders gets fired on Tuesday because he had no control over the team. It's almost hysterical to say that the Wizards need to retool again. They have done enough of that-at least on the player end. It's ownership, management and personnel that needs more of the overhaul.