Welcome to a brand new (hopefully) weekly post at DCIAB called The Stretch Four. Longtime friend of the blog Nik Valdiserri has joined me to offer our NBA expertise in a variety of fun fashions every Friday. There are four regular segments to the post, all of which are contained in this first edition.
Regular features of the post will include a short column on a league trend or event, some of our power rankings, the best NBA video we watched this week, and the Friday Spotlight, a picks competition for Friday night games with a similar structure to DCIAPC.
We’ll have some kinks to work out, but we’re hopeful this can turn into a pretty fun way to start your Fridays. Enjoy our inaugural issue, and be sure to offer any advice if you have it since we’re just getting started.
THE EASTERN OFFENSIVE REVOLUTION
Two NBA seasons ago, in 2013 and 2014, the East firmly established itself as the king of defense among the two conferences. Though an even five teams from each conference finished in the top ten in defensive rating, the West outfits included powerhouses like the Spurs and Clippers– both of whom excelled on both sides of the court because of their superior talent and coaching.
Meanwhile, the East boasted imperfect and unbalanced squads hell-bent on stopping the opponent over all else– the Indiana Pacers (offensive rating 23rd), Chicago Bulls (28th), Washington Wizards (16th), and Charlotte Bobcats (24th).
While each of those teams finished in the playoffs on the strength of their defenses, fans couldn’t help but hope for something more. Talented offensive players like Paul George, Derrick Rose, John Wall, and Al Jefferson littered each squad, lending some credence to the idea that much more could be done on the other side of the court by each team’s coach.
Since then, Indiana lost defensive stalwarts Roy Hibbert and David West, Chicago fired Head Coach Tom Thibodeau to snatch up respected offensive mind Fred Hoiberg, and Washington and Charlotte revamped their offenses in the offseason to encourage three-point shooting and spacing.
Though Charlotte will probably fail to live up to its new strategy’s promise this year because of injuries, all three other teams have promise. The Bulls have the best shot at greatness of the three because of what their offense could do for Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.
The Wizards have a chance to break out with the combined efficiency of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Marcin Gortat in a wide-open, fast break focused system. And the Pacers will push for the playoffs behind the spacing provided by Paul George’s reluctant acceptance to play power forward.
All three teams aren’t perfect and they remain out of the league of teams like Golden State, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. Sacrifices will be made on the defensive end, particularly for the Pacers, but each team’s executives are betting that offensive improvement will be enough to overcome them.
Most importantly of all, for the first time in a long time, the East has a bevy of intriguing offenses instead of the grind-it-out style that’s been typical of the conference this entire millennium.
Finally, fans of the Eastern conference will no longer have to settle for 88-87 thrillers in mid-November.
VIDEO OF THE WEEK
This week, we originally found a NBA.com interview with Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers regarding how his team finished last season’s championship run, and how they’ll move forward. You can find that five-minute video here, if you’re interested, but NBA.com doesn’t let you embed videos so we decided to take Video of the Week in different direction.
Kawhi Leonard had perhaps the single most impressive performance of the young NBA season when he took on Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in OKC. Leonard scored 32 points while simultaneously holding Durant to 22 points on 6-for-19 shooting, a virtuoso performance that reminded fans of everything last year’s Defensive Player of the Year can do on the court.
Our VotW is a highlight package combining Kawhi’s offense and defense, along with the few baskets that Durant actually did make in his first NBA action in quite some time.
A weekly update on the teams we believe are at the top of the ranks in the NBA. Two things: First off, instead of giving you all 30 teams at once, we list a weekly top 10 and conclude each month with the full 30. Secondly, instead of a list from each of us, we average our rankings to compile one list.
1. Golden State Warriors (1-0)
T-2. Los Angeles Clippers (2-0)
T-2. Oklahoma City Thunder (1-0)
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (1-1)
5. Chicago Bulls (2-0)
6. San Antonio Spurs (0-1)
7. Miami Heat (1-0)
8. Washington Wizards (1-0)
9. Detroit Pistons (2-0)
T-10. Toronto Raptors (1-0)
T-10. Atlanta Hawks (1-1)
I know, I know. It’s early but nonetheless, I’m always up for a good debate on which teams top the league, especially to start the season. For starters, I don’t think it should be a shock to many that Golden State tops this list. They definitely didn’t get the memo on how they should play during ring ceremony night, and instead blew out the Pelicans and reassured NBA fans they are back for more.
As for the rest of the list, Matt and I agreed for the most part. I had the Thunder at #2 because of their impressive win over San Antonio on Thursday, and Matt understandably likes the Clippers at #2 after two impressive wins in a back-to-back to start the season. Then, both Matt and I agreed the Cavs are still atop the teams from the East, even after a loss to the Bulls on opening night. The dominant performance in Memphis will attest to that claim.
Moving further down the list, the Spurs were an easy selection at #6 even though they failed to win at OKC, Miami and Washington filled in the 7 and 8 spots and as Matt mentioned earlier, the Pistons are the surprise team of the young season. If the Pistons can keep playing like vintage Stan Van Gundy teams by hoisting threes at all positions and relentlessly setting off-ball screens they may very likely crack the five top seeds in the East.
Lastly, in having a hard time selecting the 10th team, we eventually agreed to pair the Raptors and Hawks. The Hawks, now 1-1, got back to their old ways of playing by ending the 1-game celebration of the Knicks last night. I’m certainly hoping we see more of the fast paced offense with Teague/Schroeder doing laps around defenders. As for the Raptors, they started off with a great win over the Pacers and are hopefully going to continue to successfully integrate the new additions.
Teams Trending Up: Did the Denver Nuggets actually beat the Rockets by 20 on the road to open the season? Yup. It appears head coach Mike Malone has already given rookie Emmanuel Mudiay the keys to the offense. The Minnesota Timberwolves had an emotional win against the Lakers in the season opener in honor of one of my favorite basketball individuals, Flip Saunders. Keep in mind, the Twolves have already won 1/16th of the games they did a year ago. Also, because the season is young and it forces us to exaggerate, I will go ahead and say Ricky Rubio is the new Steph Curry. The Portland Trailblazers can also join in on this conversation after CJ McCollum declared he’s winning the Most Improved POTY award in one game. (Don’t worry, I’m aware these teams have only won one game. I need to fill vacant space.)
Teams Trending Down: Like many teams had in their openers, it was just a poor shooting performance from the Houston Rockets but I feel obligated to add them to this list. It was pretty ugly, after all. The New Orleans Pelicans wish the season could start a couple of months from now because of all the injuries they face already. They have not been able to guard the first two opposing frontcourts and are going to need even more offensively from Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The Pels need to be careful and aware of what a bad start can do to their season. Lastly, the Indiana Pacers have found themselves at 0-2 with question marks regarding defense. As Matt also said, the Pacers are sacrificing defensive efficiency to improve the offense, but it hasn’t gelled thus far. On the bright side, the two losses have been against Memphis and Toronto in close games.
Here is this week’s Friday Spotlight slate. Picking will be essentially identical to DCIAPC picking, since that format has always worked well.
If you pick on a relatively consistent basis, we will keep track of your scores week to week and include your record in a separate compilation from our own. Frequent contributors will be lauded or ripped to pieces pending performance, so enter at your own risk (please do though, it’s fun). LEAVE YOUR PICKS FOR THESE THREE GAMES EITHER IN THE COMMENT SECTION BELOW OR ON FACEBOOK.
As it shall always be, game times are eastern and all occur Friday night. For the first week and likely every week, we’ll be picking the three best games of the night. That number could change over time, but three seems like a good number for now. Be sure to let us know if there’s any way we could improve this section.
1-0 Toronto Raptors at 1-0 Boston Celtics (-2.5), 7:35
Toronto’s unbalanced new team, weighted heavily away from the frontcourt, takes on the NBA’s own mild-mannered mastermind Brad Stevens in a clash of likely Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Matt: Give me the Celtics in this one. The best depth in the league vs one of the worst in that department, I like the Celtics to wear down the Raps and take advantage of their poor bench units. Celtics -2.5
Nik: I like the Celtics here too, actually. Head coach Brad Stevens is all about getting off to a strong start in each game. So? Well, this means the bench actually fills the starting lineup, and the starters fill the bench. Interesting concept, but I like it. Celtics -2.5
2-0 Chicago Bulls (-2.5) at 2-0 Detroit Pistons, 7:35
The dream of an 82-0 season ends for one of these two tonight, which is always a real heartbreaker. Stan van Gundy’s Pistons are sporting the look of his late-aughts Orlando Magic teams with Andre Drummond acting as the replacement for a young Dwight Howard. Meanwhile, Fred Hoiberg’s Bulls are hoping to keep their streak going after a close win over the Cavaliers and a blowout in Brooklyn.
Matt: The Pistons are the best early season story thus far, but I think their luck runs out tonight. The Bulls have enough frontcourt personnel to handle Andre Drummond reasonably well (better than the Hawks, at least), and they have more offensive firepower than Detroit. Bulls -2.5
Nik: SPACING. Cannot wait to watch the Ilyasova/Mirotic matchup. The wings carry the largest factor in this one and ‘so far’ KCP/Johnson have shown a presence that Detroit struggled with all of last year. Hard to believe the Pistons could start 3-0 for the first time since the 08/09 season. Pistons +2.5
1-0 Golden State Warriors (-1.5) at 0-1 Houston Rockets, 9:35, ESPN
The Rockets stumbled in their first game at home against the Nuggets, largely due to a poor performance from MVP runner-up James Harden. Harden will try to get back on track tonight, but he’ll have a tough task taking on Steph Curry’s Warriors.
Matt: The Rockets looked really disjointed against Denver, and while I’m not worried about their long-term prospects, I certainly don’t think this is the right game for them to figure it out. Warriors -1.5
Nik: One team started off shooting red hot, the other not so much. BUT, shooting woes are a common fallacy of opening night, so I expect a strong comeback game from the Rockets. Expect a shootout duel until the very end. Rockets +1.5