Four emerging NBA storylines

It’s early in the NBA season, but these four things have jumped out at me during the first week of action.

1. The Lakers are dominating, but Lamar Odom isn’t thriving off the bench.
The Los Angeles Lakers are 4-0 and have won those four games by an average of 20.8 points. Granted, they’ve already played the Clippers twice, but the Nuggets gave them a test in Denver. The Lakers are doing it with defense, holding opponents to just 39.3% shooting and 85.0 points per game. (The Lakers are second in the league in both categories.) The team is off to a quick start despite so-so play from Andrew Bynum (8.3 points and 9.3 rebounds) and Lamar Odom (10.0 points and 6.5 rebounds), who isn’t exactly tearing it up off the bench. His numbers are boosted by a pretty nice 15-point, nine-rebound effort against the Clippers last night. Those are kind of numbers that Odom should be posting on a regular basis. The Lakers are getting nice play from Trevor Ariza, who has produced 9.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in just 20.5 minutes of play. If he continues his deft shooting from long range (71%), it won’t be long before he cracks the starting lineup. One of the underlying strategies heading into the season was to cut back on Kobe’s minutes, and thus far the plan has worked. He averaged 38.9 last season and is only playing 33.3 this season. His minutes are likely to rise as the Lakers play in more close games, but right now Phil Jackson has to be feeling pretty good about how his team has started.

2. The Bucks are finally playing some defense.
Last season, Milwaukee was last in the league in defensive field goal percentage (48.0%), but through five games, they’re holding opponents to 44.2% shooting, which is #14 in the league. New head coach Scott Skiles demands a lot from his players on that end of the court and so far the Bucks are responding with increased effort. The addition of Richard Jefferson certainly helps defensively, but he’s also getting it done on the other end of the court. RJ is averaging 18.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, even though he’s only shooting 41% from the field. Without Michael Redd in the lineup, Jefferson had a great 32-point, nine-assist effort in a 112-104 overtime win against the Wizards Wednesday night. The Bucks are also getting great play from a couple of unexpected sources. Second-year point guard Ramon Sessions turned a few heads last year when he averaged 12.9 points and 12.4 assists (including a franchise record 24 dimes against the Bulls) over the last eight games of the season. The Mo Williams trade that brought Luke Ridnour to team looked more like a salary dump than a personnel move, but maybe the Bucks decided they had their point guard of the future in Sessions, who is averaging 17.3 points and 8.3 assists on the year. Second round pick Luc Mbah a Moute has outplayed first round pick Joe Alexander thus far. Skiles likes Mbah a Moute’s great defense and toughness, which he learned playing in Ben Howland’s system at UCLA for three years. He’s playing 25.2 minutes and is averaging 8.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. The Bucks are 3-2, but have a rough eight-game stretch ahead of them that features the Celtics (twice), Suns, Cavs, Spurs, Nuggets and Jazz. If they can come through that gauntlet close to .500, we’ll know that the Bucks’ improvement is for real.

3. The Spurs were thisclose to starting 0-4.
If not for last night’s 55-point, 10-assist, seven-rebound effort by Tony Parker that helped the Spurs survive a double-overtime scare against the Timberwolves, San Antonio would be looking at an 0-4 start. They lost to the Suns at home by five and to the Blazers by one in Portland, but it was the 98-81 loss to the Mavs at home that was really surprising. The Spurs’ problem is two-fold. Collectively, they’re getting older and they miss Manu Ginobili. Parker (33.3 points, 7.3 assists) and Tim Duncan (27.0 points, 11.8 rebounds) are doing all they can to keep the Spurs in games, but they aren’t getting much help from their supporting cast, specifically Michael Finley (33% FG%) and Kurt Thomas (14% FG%). The Spurs are getting good play from fifth-year guard Roger Mason, who is averaging 15.8 points per game on 60.5% shooting. He’s been extremely hot from downtown, knocking down 64% of this three-point shots. Right now, it’s a three-man show and that’s it; no other Spur is averaging more than 7.5 points per game. The schedule gets a little easier over the next two weeks, with winnable games against the Heat, Knicks, Bucks, Kings and Clippers. San Antonio should be back above .500 before too long.

In my 2008 NBA Preview, I had the Hawks ranked #20 to start the season. After a 3-0 start, they should definitely be in the top half, maybe even in the top ten. I thought the loss of Josh Childress and the steady decline of Mike Bibby would outweigh whatever improvements this young team could make, but they have proven me wrong. The Hawks’ three wins are impressive. They beat Orlando by 14 points on the road, beat Philly at home by seven and then beat the Hornets in New Orleans by eight. Joe Johnson has led the team in scoring in all three games, and is averaging 28.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists on the year. Even more impressive, the Hawks have won despite poor shooting from Josh Smith (42%), Mike Bibby (34%) and Marvin Williams (39%). If Johnson is able to keep up this level of play, the Hawks shouldn’t have a problem making the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Long-term, I like the direction this franchise is headed, but they still need to find their point guard of the future. Mike Bibby is on the decline and Acie Law hasn’t done much in his young career to indicate that he’s the guy they should lean on. The Hawks will have plenty of cap space over the next couple of seasons, so they should be planning to find a point guard that can complement Johnson and forward/center Al Horford.

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Catching up with Josh Childress in Greece

Josh Childress raised a lot of eyebrows by signing a contract to play in Greece this season instead of staying with the Atlanta Hawks as a restricted free agent. He sits down with Mark Schwarz of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” to talk about his experience thus far in Greece.

He also showed Schwarz his condo (which the team paid for) and drove him around town…

Since European teams have no salary cap, they aren’t bound by the same restrictions as NBA teams. Owners are willing to lose money on their team in order to win, so they are willing to pony up big bucks for quality NBA players like Childress. Playing for Europe isn’t for everyone, but Childress is something of a trailblazer for pulling the trigger on the move.

However, it sounds like he’ll return to the NBA after this season if he gets a good offer, which is likely. Childress’ contract is structured so that he can leave Greece after this season.

The entire column is a good read.

2008 NBA Preview: #20 Atlanta Hawks

Offseason Movement: The Hawks screwed the pooch when they failed to sign Josh Childress to a long-term deal. They didn’t think he had any leverage since he was a restricted free agent, but he had the cojones to sign a deal with a Greek team instead of signing a one-year tender with the Hawks. Childress is the biggest talent to leave the NBA to play overseas in the prime of the career, and the Hawks will forever be known as the team that let him go. They replaced Childress with…wait for it…Maurice Evans.
Keep Your Eye On: Marvin Williams
Thus far, the former #2 overall pick has been decidedly average – he ranks 29th amongst all small forwards in PER. The good news is that he’s just 22 and entering the final year of his rookie contract. His qualifying offer next year ($7.3 milllion) is big enough that the Hawks could conceivably pass if he doesn’t show substantial improvement this season. The team usually went with Childress at small forward in crunch time, but now those minutes should belong to Williams, and he needs to make he most of them.
The Big Question: Which direction is this team headed?
The Hawks were a surprise playoff team last season and they took the NBA champs to seven games in the first round. But Mike Bibby is a year older (and a year slower) and they lost utility-man Josh Childress. I thought it was a mistake to trade for Bibby, and now he’s in the final year of his contract ($15.2 million), which means he might become a distraction as the season wears on. If they elect to let him play out his deal, the team will have a load of cap room next summer, so it looks like the Hawks could take a step back before taking another step forward.
Outlook: The long-term outlook is bright. The Hawks have Josh Smith (5 years) and Al Horford (4 years) locked up for the foreseeable future. Joe Johnson is under contract for two more years, but the Hawks have enough salary cap flexibility to make a splash in the next year or two for a star free agent. Until then, they’ll have to settle for the chance to fight for a playoff spot in the mediocre East.

Greek team prepared to make big offer to Kobe?

SportsByBrooks has a post about the Greek franchise Olympiacos (who recently poached Josh Childress from the Hawks) and how they want to sign Kobe to a big deal.

Guess what? It appears that Olympiacos is, in fact, serious, as reports are surfacing that the club is preparing an offer for Kobe Bryant. We’re talking 60 million Euro (about $83 million right now) over 3 years. THE HOOP has more details on the perks of the contract, and they are pretty damned nice:

In that contract there will be an incredible list of benefits, a villa in the Mediterranean Sea, pay all the taxes at the expense of the club, to pay the bills for the staff and for a private boat for Kobe Bryant. The article also says that they are planning to form Olympiakos into an NBA style club with a court that fits 15-20 thousand seats and a private jet for the team.

This is an interesting story, no doubt, but I don’t think Kobe is going anywhere. He wants to win a ring without Shaq and he’ll keep trying until he retires.

Besides, if the US Dollar EVER gains back its strength against the Euro, there is no way that these European clubs will be able to offer up enough scratch to get a star to make the jump.

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