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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Quick Takes on the First Week of the 2005-06 NBA Season

I have a message for the rejoicing Clippers fans, the disconsolate Knicks fans and anyone else who is overreacting to the start of the NBA season: "It's early." Nobody has clinched a playoff berth yet and nobody has been eliminated. Every year there are a few legitimate contenders who get off to slow starts due to injuries, scheduling quirks or overconfidence and every year there are a few legitimate pretenders who come roaring out of the gate only to sputter down the stretch.

Larry Brown's New York Knicks have stumbled out of the gate 0-5, which naturally has led to much hand wringing among fans and the media. Last time I checked the NBA season is 82 games; the Chicago Bulls started out 0-9 last year and rallied to not only make the playoffs but to have home court advantage in the first round. As noted in Friday's USA Today, the 76ers lost the first five games that Larry Brown coached in his initial season there and the Pacers started out 1-6 in Brown's first season in Indiana. The Knicks overhauled their roster in the offseason and the players are neither used to playing with each other nor playing "the right way" (as Brown's oft-repeated mantra goes). I still think that the Knicks will win more games than they did last year and sneak into the playoffs as an eighth seed. The Knicks are losing some close games down the stretch now, but their attention to detail and ability to perform in those situations will improve as Brown makes his imprint on the team's collective mentality.

Both of last year's Finalists are off to great starts--the Spurs have picked up right where they left off and the Detroit Pistons pushed their record to a league best 6-0 on Friday night with an 84-81 win over the Portland Trail Blazers, who had an early lead on the jet-lagged Pistons before completely falling apart down the stretch (I think that the Disney commercial in which the Seven Dwarfs are picked ahead of Julius Erving is based on Portland's personnel decisions over the past few years). I picked Detroit to finish fifth in the East, so I suppose I have some explaining to do. It is clear that the Detroit players are very focused on two goals--reclaiming the NBA championship and proving that they can be very successful without departed coach Larry Brown. Since the Pistons have all of the key players from last year's squad--and since those players are displaying great commitment to the aforementioned goals--Detroit has been able to shift into a gear, particularly in the fourth quarter, that other teams don't have. The way that Detroit is playing is very impressive--but their goal is not to win 50 games or a division title or one playoff series; this team has made two straight Finals appearances and anything less than a return to the Finals is a step backwards. That may sound like a harsh standard to set, but when Larry Brown arrived the Pistons had already been a solid playoff team under the coaching of Rick Carlisle. Brown's coaching--and the addition of Rasheed Wallace--put the team over the top.

The key question about Detroit--which will not be answered in the first month or two of the season--is how will this team perform when it faces adversity, such as an injury to a key player or the inevitable two or three game losing streak. Yes, point guard Chauncey Billups said "If it ain't rough, it ain't right" during last year's Finals (which became the title of one of the early 20 Second Timeout entries) but that was with Larry Brown calling the shots. Will Flip Saunders be able to maintain order during tough times? Saunders coached a Minnesota team that made it to the Western Conference Finals one year and failed to make the playoffs--with the same key players--the next season. I still question whether Saunders will be able to lead Detroit on a deep playoff run. If he succeeds I will be the first to give him and the Pistons credit, but a 6-0 start--while commendable--does not address the question of whether the Pistons will be able to overcome challenges the way that they did when Brown coached them during the previous two seasons.

Kobe Bryant, notwithstanding a poor shooting performance on Friday night in an 85-81 loss at Philadelphia, has been sensational and has willed the Lakers into the top eight in the West. There is talk that he is playing better than he did last season but, other than his elevated field goal percentage (due in no small part to a drastic reduction in his three point shot attempts), he is doing the same things that he did in 2004-05 before an ankle injury sidelined him--scoring, rebounding, defending and passing to the open man when he is double teamed. Don't forget that before he got hurt and Rudy Tomjanovich resigned the Lakers were securely among the top eight teams in the West. Phil Jackson has stated that he would like for Kobe to shoot .500 from the field this year; that will probably not happen because Kobe is relied upon to shoot so many shots under duress and with the shot clock running down, but I would not be surprised to see him shoot over .470 for the first time in his career.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM

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