The NBA season has only just begun, yet the league has only 2 undefeated teams, and 3 that haven’t yet won a game. To understand precisely why Pat Riley’s former Heat are 0-5 and how the Lakers have been able to put their squabbles aside and start 4-0 is worthy of timely contemplation. On the other hand, figuring out why Seattle haven’t lost and the Clippers haven’t won is less contentious – they’ve simply played each other.
The NBA Season is now a week old, and, as a result, national focus is starting to expand away from pair of shooting guards with very different reasons for media scrutiny. While Kobe smiles and his team wins – the Lakers being one of only 2 undefeated sides in the league – LeBron grimaces and his Cavs lose – one of just 3 teams yet to record a victory. This rather impressive parity across both conferences has been a quiet yet notable theme of the 2003/04 season so far, and as such it’s time the teams involved were acknowledged, at least before their unique records are spoilt.
Teams Beaten: Dallas, Phoenix, Golden St, Milwaukee
Likely Loss: In New Orleans on Friday, after playing the Spurs the night before
Was there any ever any doubt Phil Jackson would be successfully able to merge a couple of talented, professional veterans into a system which has made guys like Bill Wennington and Steve Kerr champions? Malone and Stock, ahh, Payton have not only been calming influences in what can at times be a soap-opera locker-room, they’ve been unstoppable on the court. In their first ever game in Gold, Payton ran the offense and put up 21, 7 and 9, while the Mailman put up 15, 10 and, no typo, 9 assists in just under half an hour’s work. Both men know when their team needs them to step up, and when to defer to their somewhat less selfless teammates. Since Kobe’s come back, pun intended, and taken his time finding the hole, pun intended, Payton and Malone have willingly deferred shots, if not touches, to keep the team happily motoring along. What isn’t so obvious is that the Lakers, for all their stunning offensive firepower (105 points a game, 6 players in double figures, 46% shooting) are also playing D. No team has shot more than 42% from the field against them so far, and in the 2 close games they’ve had LA has been able to lock down their opponents in the clutch to eke out the W. The swagger is back, and there’s only one thing that could derail their best laid plans, pun intended.
Teams Beaten: LA Clippers, LA Clippers
Likely Loss: Next Tuesday at the deep and feisty TWolves
The only thing less encouraging than beating the Clippers in back-to-back games is not beating the Clippers in back-to-back games. In Tokyo’s Saitama Super Arena last weekend, the Sonics toyed with the Clipps in game 1 before blowing them out in game 2, Rashard Lewis putting on what must have been quite a show with 50 big ones on the way to Player of the Week honours. Even without hobbled backcourt cornerstone Ray Allen, the Sonics offer a balanced attack and encouragingly consistent contributions from what are quickly becoming their no longer lesser known players. Yeah, it was only against the Clippers. Still, when you’ve got former 4th overall pick Antonio Daniels on the roster and can choose to keep him in cotton wool and still win going away, it’s a good sign. This year’s Sonics are young and aggressive, have good structure on the offensive end and, like their coach, quick hands on D. Plus, they won 6 of their 8 pre-season games, so confidence is high. It has been an easy start to the year, and with Portland up tonight and 6 games in the next 9 days, 4 of which are on the road, they’ll know soon enough whether this fast start is a flash in the pan or a star on the horizon.
Beaten By: Philly, Boston, Detroit, Dallas, San Antonio
Probable Win: Cleveland next Wednesday
When your coach has lost over 100 games the past 2 seasons yet still decides to sit this year out, it’s not a good sign. Admittedly, the Heat have been hit with injuries and an unfavourable schedule to start the season, but it says volumes about the state of a team when someone named Udonis Haslem is leading them in rebounding and blocked shots. An undrafted rookie out of, where else, the University of Miami, Haslem has been playing with a ruthlessness in the paint that should make Brian Grant blush. Nobody else on the court is even pretending to defend, and new coach Stan Van Gundy’s slow-down offense isn’t creating much happiness at the other end, either. Now that Lamar Odom is back to full fitness thanks in large part to his medically prescribed herbal treatment programme, things should begin to improve offensively, as Eddie Jones is far too one dimensional to carry this team to anything other than a close defeat. The Heat now enter a couple of much needed days off, and Caron Butler is on track for his planned return on Saturday, but before too long they’re back off on another Westen road trip, so things aren’t likely to get appreciably better anytime soon.
Beaten By: Seattle Supersonics, Seattle Supersonics
Probable Win: December
It’s not often you come back after a home-and-home series with jet-lag, but as it turned out, a couple of sleepless nights was the least of Mike Dunleavy Sr’s worries upon arrival back in LA from Japan. Not only did the Clippers get roundly thrashed by a conference opponent they actually had designs on finishing ahead of this season, Wang ZhiZhi got mighty annoyed that his teammates kept mistakenly asking him why all his family who turned up to watch were going for the other team. However, by far the worst news was that Elton Brand had broken his foot, despite playing on, in game 1. For mortals, this type of injury would keep them out until the new year, but Brand is a machine and will be back ahead of the projected 4-6 week layoff, by which time the Clippers may actually have won a game. His absence from the lineup will allow time for Dunleavy to force-feed the youth contingent of Kaman, Ely, and that other young big man they’ve got, plus scoring machine Corey Maggette will get a chance to prove he can be the team’s number 1 option, so it won’t be all bad. Almost all, though, as with 5 of their next 7 games on the road and no semblance of an NBA offense, the Clippers are going to be very weary again very soon.
Beaten By: Sacramento, Phoenix, Portland
Probable Win: Miami next Wednesday
There’s this 18 year old basketballer who’s leading his team in scoring and assists, maybe you’ve heard of him? La-Bron? James Le-something? Not sure how you say it, but he’s one to watch, so they say. Hmmm, yes. As simply spectacular as LBJ has been in his first week as a pro, putting up numbers and plays in excess of each other against 3 consecutive playoff defenses, he hasn’t yet been able to engineer his team a win. Carmelo has, 2 of them actually, and the kids play each other tonight in Cleveland in the first game of what has instantly become the league’s new era. It will be stunning, a matchup that has Bird vs Magic written all over it. However, the hype, even the fulfilled hype, that has surrounded LeBron so far has obscured the fact the Cavs are still a pretty weak team. Paul Silas has been playing his starters long minutes, as there isn’t any trustworthy depth on the roster, and still turnovers and silly fouls are killing them in the intense, 48-minute contests they now face every night. Still, Cleveland is shooting an impressive 46% from the field overall, and Ricky Davis and Darius Miles seem to have caught LeBron’s passing bug, and the kid is for real. The season’s only just begun, and it’s who wins the games at the end of the year not the beginning that counts.