Nearly a month into the NBA season, the early results confirm that the power remains in the Western Conference and some less deserving teams in the East will make the playoffs.
Consider that in the Atlantic Division, only Boston (5-4) has a winning record among the seven teams. At least in the Central, half of the eight teams are above .500. Indiana and New Orleans are each off to solid starts.
Ten of the Western Conference’s 14 teams are playing winning basketball and another two are at .500. At 8-2 the Los Angeles Lakers are tied with Indiana for the league’s best record while Seattle is of to a surprising 6-2 start. The Sonics have gotten a huge contribution from unheralded Ronald Murray, who was an afterthought in the Gary Payton for Ray Allen trade last season. Murray is averaging better than 23 points per game.
East teams are marked by poor shooting, fairly sound defense and very low scoring. The West is more wide open on offense, has a greater number of star players and defenses that are not as bad as some observers suggest.
Early season surprises include Indiana, Houston and Seattle although Utah (5-5) is also playing better than expected. Coach Jerry Sloan has done a fine job dealing with the loss of both John Stockton and Karl Malone. The Jazz will always play hard and provide tough competition.
It’s still unlikely that Utah will make the playoffs with several young and emerging teams poised to move up in the standings. Memphis and Denver are also pleasant surprises at one game above .500 as the season begins. Both teams have young talent that can be expected to improve as the season progresses.
The biggest disappointment is Orlando (1-9), winning only the season opener in New York in overtime. Even with Tracy McGrady, the Magic have not shown an ability to finish games. Several times they have had late leads or been within a point or two with five minutes remaining, only to lose. Often it’s by margins that would suggest they were not in a competitive game.
Phoenix (3-6) is a disappointment following last season’s late run to make the playoffs. At 5-5, Minnesota might be considered a disappointment. However, considering the influx of several key players, it will take some time for things to mesh. If the Timberwolves are at or below .500 by the All Star break they would be considered a major disappointment.
Here’s a look at three games to be played over the weekend.
Rockets at Blazers (Fri): Portland has the talent to make the playoffs for a 22nd straight season and might be able to win an opening round series. Zach Randolph is a fine complement to Rasheed Wallace. Houston is also improved and playing well under new coach Jeff van Gundy. Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley form a powerful scoring duo. This is a bad scheduling spot for Houston, which embarks on a five game road trip after having played just once at home a couple of days earlier. Portland just hosted a weary Miami team and should be the fresher team. PORTLAND.
Nuggets at Mavs (Sat): Denver is a young and improving team with rookie Carmelo Anthony and Andre Miller breathing life into this long dormant franchise. Dallas has a formidable collection of offensive talent but its weakness continues to be defense. Especially in the late stages of games as recent losses in Memphis and Toronto demonstrate. Denver will be more than happy to play the Dallas up-tempo pace. This might be the most entertaining game of the night. OVER.
Hornets at Pistons (Sun): Baron Davis and David Wesley are providing the scoring punch for the Hornets while Detroit is being led by the duo of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. Despite the defensive reputations of coach Larry Brown of Detroit and Tim Floyd of New Orleans both teams are above the league average in points scored. Each club has been involved in more "over" contests than "unders." There should be value in betting for a high total, where the lines in games at Detroit have averaged below 180 thus. OVER.
Last week: 3-0