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Review: The good, bad and Denver

Dec 10, 2002 2:59 AM

Enough games have been played for an early-season analysis on preseason expectations. The biggest surprise might be the three-time defending Lakers stumbling so badly — first without Shaquille O’Neal, and then with him.

It’s interesting to examine early-season highs and lows with preseason expectations. But be careful about drawing too many conclusions. Many factors (injuries, player dissension) can dramatically change a team’s fortunes.

Last year, Milwaukee got off to a hot 9-1 start. When the playoffs rolled around, the Bucks were watching from home. Two years ago, the defending champion Lakers got off to a sluggish 15-9 start (8-15-1 against the spread). But when June rolled around, LA was a remarkable 23-1 SU and 19-4-1 ATS. Several talented young teams have gotten off to quick starts. Here’s a look at some of the early season pro basketball surprises.

Indiana: So who are these Pacers who got off to that 15-3 SU, 12-6 ATS start? The young talent up and down the lineup makes Indiana interesting to watch. Veteran team leader Reggie Miller played in only four of the first 16 games.

Jermaine "The Other" O’Neal is the anchor, leading the Pacers in scoring and rebounding (which he did last season, as well). Seven-foot center Brad Miller, in his first year with Indiana, has been a strong rebounding role player. Ron Artest, Ron Miller and Al Harrington have been allowed to focus on defense and scoring.

Dallas: The run-and-gun Mavericks are tall and scary. What’s scariest is that this team is playing some defense, something they haven’t done the last few years. Dallas got off to a sizzling 17-1 SU, 12-5-1 ATS start, outscoring teams by a 103-90 average. Compare this to a year ago when Dallas outscored foes by a 105-101 average. The offense is almost the same, but the defense has improved by leaps and bounds.

Who wouldn’t want a front line of Dirk Nowitzki, Raef LaFrentz, Shawn Bradley and Eduardo Najera? Even the backcourt has height in 6-foot-7 Michael Finley. Combined with Steve Nash and Nick Van Exel, Dallas has remarkable depth and height. A great OVER team the last two years, the Mavericks are playing much better defense and involved in many more UNDER totals.

Philadelphia: An NBA finalist two years ago, the Sixers took last season off because of injuries. They have since regrouped and retooled for another run. Guard Allen Iverson, MVP two years ago, is a super-talent, regardless of his selfish and sophomoric off-court behavior.

Coach Larry Brown always gets his players to play defense, and he’s received good rebounding from newcomers Todd McCullough and Keith Van Horn. Aaron McKie and Eric Snow have been good role players and they’ve been winning while getting nothing from man-child Derrick Coleman.

Sacramento: You can make an argument that the Kings should have been NBA champs last season, except for Robert Horry’s miraculous Game 4 three-pointer and some pitiful free throw shooting in Game 7 at home against the Lakers. This team is stocked with depth and talent in Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Bobby Jackson, Doug Christie, Mike Bibby and former Turkish star Hedo Turkoglu.

Despite numerous injuries (Bibby has yet to play) they are rolling along with strong defense and a deadly run-and-gun game. They were the only team to top 60 wins last season and again have a terrific homecourt edge. When Bibby gets back, watch out.

LA Clippers: This team has a lot of talent. Los Angeles has strong young rebounders in Elton Brand and Michael Olowokandi, great guard depth in dynamic Andre Miller, Keyon Dooling and Eric Piatkowski, and plenty of potential role players in Corey Maggette, rookie Melvin Ely and Zhi Zhi Wang.

But there’s been too much complaining about long-term contracts and not enough energy spent on the basketball court, particularly at the defensive end. Star forward Lamar Odom.

Portland: The Blazers have plenty of height and talent with Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Damon Stoudamire, Derek Anderson, Bonzi Wells and the return of center Arvydas Sabonis, one of the best passing big men of all time. But the Blazers stumbled out of the gate and, after a week of off-court problems, coach Maurice Cheeks said there is a problem.

Ruben Patterson was hit with an assault charge, while Stoudamire and Wallace were cited for marijuana possession. Portland’s win total the last three seasons: 59, 50 and 49. Going down.

The Lakers have played very poor defense on the road, allowing close to 100 ppg, with a losing ATS record at home and on the road. Los Angeles used Shaquille O’Neal’s absence as an excuse and that they’d turn it on when he returned. When Shaq did, the Lakers promptly went 4-4 SU/2-6 ATS with him. But as mentioned earlier, the Lakers didn’t look good to start the season two years ago and rolled down the stretch like gangbusters to defend their title with a sizzling 15-1 playoff run. So, stay tuned.