Well about one quarter into the new season and a few observations can be made. For one thing, it looks like those big deals bringing Steve Nash and Dwight Howard to the Lakers have been a little less than successful. There were two good reasons to be a little doubtful of the initial rush to claim new Laker superpower status. One, there’s the matter of age. The Lakers are getting old, and Nash, in particular, is nearing forty. Not only that, he’s been sidelined for almost a month. But even when he was healthy at the start of the season, the Lakers still looked less than overwhelming.
Another reason to doubt was the matter of chemistry and the lack of star reserves on the Lakers bench. Bryant works best with the ball and so does Nash. How are they going to resolve that problem? The Lakers can still be a formidable team if Nash and Pao Gasol get healthy, but it sure looks like the Lakers aren’t the shoo-in for the title a lot of “experts” thought they were before the season began. The Lakers failure to win one exhibition game should have told them as much.
And their two big stars, Bryant and Howard, have been mostly playing up to their superstar labels. Kobe is even shooting extremely well and has one of his highest fg. pcts ever. But Gasol has been playing sub-par and has been sidelined recently. None of the Laker reserves have stepped up to take up the slack. I expect the Lakers to be far tougher by the end of the season, but it sure looks like that easy stroll to the title has to be deferred. And Nash might be nearing the end of the road. With the Nash from four or five years ago, I might believe the Lakers could still win a title. Now I wouldn’t take any bets for them to win if even if Nash returns and stays healthy for the rest of the season. Just too many holes overall on the team.
Another earthshaking event was the deal that send James Harden to the Rockets. The Rockets already had a good sg in Kevin Martin, but Harden gives them scoring and playmaking. What makes it so interesting, of course, is that the Rockets acquired Jeremy Lin in the offseason. Lin is a very promising young pg. How would the Rockets manage with starting guards both who need the ball to be most effective? In hindsight, Lin would probably pair better with the now departed Kevin Martin who worked well off the ball.
The deal seems to have hurt Lin’s stats the most. Before the start of the season, I was predicting Lin would average 15-20 ppg and 8-10 assists. The fact is, if you don’t have the ball, you can’t score and you can’t pass to someone else to score. LIn is still playing reasonably well averaging 10 ppg and 6 apg. but has shot poorly in many games so far this year. Harden started off like a superstar with games of 37 and 45 points but has since cooled down. Nevertheless, he’s had a number of tremendous scoring games and remains a threat to score 30 every time he steps on the court.
When Lin and Harden are on the floor together, it seems Harden has the ball the majority of the time. Lin was often sent to the corner to watch Harden perform his magic. But Lin has not worked especially well off the ball as with the ball. The worth of Lin when Harden is not on the floor was amply demonstrated in a game last night when the Rockets played the Spurs, still one of the top four teams in the league. Harden couldn’t play due to an ankle sprain. Lin scored 38 points and almost led the Rockets to victory losing in o.t. It looked like Linsanity all over again as Lin drove the lane at will and hit 4-5 from three point land.
What does all this mean? It means that while Lin and Harden are on the court together, one or both player’s stats will suffer. While Harden is a very adept passer, he’s a scoring machine. Lin is not the scorer Harden is, but he can shoot much better than he’s done so far. But has being relegated to a supporting role hurt Lin’s overall game and his confidence? Time will tell.
But there’s no reason having to excellent scorer-passers on the floor at the same time should be a problem. When Earl Monroe was sent to the Knicks in the early seventies, many “experts” at that time thought the pairing of the Pearl with Knick great Walt Frazier would be a problem. Monroe’s one on one style was thought to be a possible disruption to the Knicks passing game as Monroe was one of the best one on one players in the league.
The experts were proved wrong as the Frazier-Monroe pairing proved to be very productive for the Knicks. They went to the finals two years in a row after Monroe joined the team and won the title in 1973. The duo played very well together for a number of years. Frazier was still the better player, but Monroe’s shooting and passing played key roles in the Knicks system.
So it can be with the Rockets and Harden and Lin. Harden will be the key man on the Rockets for the foreseeable future, but Lin will be very important as well. Both guards have the ability to penetrate and find other players. Harden remains the superior one on one player and scorer, but Lin has better vision. And while the experts were worried about Lin’s proclivity for t.os., he’s averaged less than three a game this season and only had two last night while handling the ball for the Rockets a great deal of the time.
When they’re on their game, Harden and Lin put tremendous pressure on any defense. Especially as it looks like Lin has found his shot again. The Rockets have other problems: they need an inside scoring threat, and they’re last in the league in defense. But they’ve got a core of good-excellent young players and might just be one star player away from being a contender. If everyone stays healthy, they could win 45 games this year.
How about some of the other teams in the league who were expecting improvement? Take the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors were all excited about the addition of 7’0 Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas and pg Kyle Lowry to the club this year. One of the biggest, or the biggest weakness on the team was the lack of good center play. JVal was expected to provide immediate improvement in the center position. He is one of the best young European center prospects to play in the NBA. Lowry, one of the better young pgs in the league, was acquired from Houston and was expected to give the Raptors the quickness and athleticism at the pg position they previously lacked with the slower Jose Calderon. Together with sg Demar Derozan another promising young player and high-scoring pf Andrea Bargnani it looked like the Raptors had the firepower to have a very good offense combined with a good defense. Derozan has played real good ball so far. With JVal, Lowry, a healthy Bargnani, and an improved Derozan, many Raptor fans thought their club could reach the dizzy heights of .500 or even sneak into the playoffs.
But it hasn’t worked out that way. The Raptors are currently at 4-18 and playing awful. There’s a number of reasons. First off, they’re still a young team and haven’t found chemistry yet. Another reasons is that why JVal is playing reasonably well as a rookie, he’s still very young and inexperienced. I expect him to be one of the top centers in the league in a few years, but right now he’s taking his lumps.
Another reason is the poor play so far of Andrea Bargnani. When he’s on his game, he looks like one of the top five pfs in the league. When he’s playing well, Bargani combines an ability to hit the three-ball, take his man to the basket, and score inside. Bargani was hurt much of last year, but in a few of the Raptors games I caught on League Pass, Bargnani looked like a superstar carrying the team on his back to several wins.
He hasn’t played like that this year. While he’s had a number of decent scoring games, he’s not looked like a superstar in any respect. He’s never been a good or even average rebounder for his height, and he’s only a fair defensive player. His worth was pretty much measured in his ability to score points. But he simply hasn’t scored points the way he has in the past, and he hasn’t improved his rebounding or defense. He’s not even shooting forty percent from the floor. And watching a few Raptors games, he’s taking a lot of bad shots. It’s one thing if good shots aren’t falling, but Bargnani has hoisted up quite a few low percentage shots incurring the wrath of many Raptors fans who would like to see him gone. What’s puzzling is that Bargnani has some good postup moves but prefers launching long shots with a hand in his face. Which is a prescription for a very poor fg pct.
And while Lowry provides the quickness at pg the Raptors lacked when Jose Calderon was the pg, he’s had a rocky start to the season. An injury caused him to miss a number of games, and he hasn’t shot the ball well. Both he and Bargnani have been hot and cold shooting but mostly cold. When Lowry is playing up to snuff, he can hit the three ball, penetrate the lane providing scoring opportunities, and play tougher defense than Calderon.
The Raptors lost a number of very close games at the start of the season but have been blown out the last three games. The team is close to the last in the league in defense and scoring eight less points than they’re giving up. That means they’re getting blown out quite a bit. On paper the team looks stronger than last year, but are playing worse. I’m sure many of the fans are wondering what is going on. They want Bargnani gone, they want Coach Casey gone, and the want the G.M. Brian Colangelo gone.
Are the Raptors problems fixable with just a few tweaks here and there, or are they truly an awful team waiting to be blown up and thoroughly revamped? My own feeling is that the Raptors are not as bad as their record. They’re not a playoff team or even a .500 team, but they can play much better than they’ve shown so far. I think the players are probably demoralized right now.
The Raptors are still a fairly young team with decent athleticism, height, and skills. They’re simply not playing as well as their talent should indicate . Like a lot of people, I thought they’d be playing better right now. Most Raptors fans put the blame on Bargnani for the teams problems, but while he’s playing poorly, one player can’t be responsible for the almost total collapse. Why is the team playing such poor defense after being one of the better defensive teams in the league last year? You might blame the inexperienced JVal who is being taught lessons by the league’s older centers, but Aaron Gray never resembled Bill Russell either. JVal will certainly turn out to be a better overall center than Gray.
Is it the teams overall lack of chemistry or inability to play well together? While Lowry is certainly a quicker player than Calderon (another object of scorn from Raptor fans), Calderon was an excellent assist guy and outside shooter. Was the team chemisty thoroughly disrupted by Lowry who is more of a shoot first point guard than Calderon? Nobody can blame Derozan who is finally living up to the expectations they had of him when he joined the club. He leads the club in scoring and is probably the most efficient player on the starting five. Ed Davis is looking good as well and is jostling for more playing time.
Or is it the coach and g.m. who are failing the club? Casey probably got the most out of the club as could be expected last year. Why the team is playing such poor defense right now is a mystery. Why did the front office acquire Landry Fields and pay him a lot of money? I think they thought he’d be a defensive stopper and complement the scorers. He’s hurt now and didn’t play especially well when he was healthy.
Here’s what I believe. I think the club, while going through a very rough patch right now, will get better as the season progresses. They won’t reach .500 much less the playoffs, but they should look better in a month or two. Bargani and Lowry have to start shooting the ball better, the team has to play better defense, and JVal has to improve as the season goes on.
But to reach the the dream of the playoffs or even .500 ball, the club will probably have to either pick up or develop another player. If they could pick up a solid sf, it would help their club considerably. With Bargnani and Lowry shooting poorly at the moment and JVal simply too inexperienced to expect much scoring from, Derozan has been the only reliable scoring threat. They have some promising reserves, but nobody has provided a regular spark as yet. Kleiza, Davis, and Amir Johnson have had their games, but their performances have been sporadic.
So while on paper Toronto looks like a club that give even the top teams problems on certain nights, lately they’ve been getting kicked around by even some of the other weak teams in the league. I don’t know what the club will look like one month from now, but even with the clamoring of their fans getting louder and louder, I wouldn’t make any changes until I see more evidence that the team simply can’t work with the current pieces in place. That means I’d keep Bargnani and see what things look like in a month or two. If the club continues to play poorly and it looks like the chemistry just isn’t there, then it might be time for some deals.
I’ll have some more observations about other NBA clubs with great expectations in future blogs. And I’ll very soon have a blog out about the best prospects in college.