We're only three weeks into the young NBA season, yet we're already seeing teams morph away from how they looked earlier in the campaign. Let's take a look around the league, concentrating on key notes and quotes, the type of information that has the potential to make us some money in the weeks to come.
Detroit – Pistons starting forward Tayshaun Prince has had a fascinating career arc. He’s been on a championship team in 2004 and returned to the Finals again in 2005. Prince has helped his team reach the Eastern Conference Finals six times. He’s also played for six different head coaches in Detroit, including their current head honcho, Lawrence Frank. But with a 3-10 record to open the season including four consecutive non-competitive home losses, Prince has been vocal about his frustrations, just weeks after inking an extension to stay with Detroit for the next four years.
Prince: “We got to figure out a way to get in the paint a lot more. Right now, we’re confused on both ends and we’re settling for jump shots. I know myself in general, I’ve taken shots that really haven’t come in the flow. You’re kind of forced to take shots you really don’t want to take. They’re not rhythm shots. That’s when it becomes frustrating.”
After the John Kuester coaching disaster led to a near player revolt last year, the change to Frank was supposed to be an easy, automatic upgrade. Prince doesn’t seem to think so, at least when it comes to Detroit’s on court improvement (or lack thereof). “At some point, even though you’re in a struggling process of trying to learn, you want to see consistent signs, and you’re not seeing those signs right now.”
The hiring of Frank hasn’t resulted in any sort of attendance boost. When Detroit was competing for championships, they were selling out the 22,000+ seats at the Palace of Auburn Hills every night; a streak of 259 consecutive games. This year, the Pistons have averaged less than 12,000 fans per game, dead last in the NBA in attendance.
And, as Prince alluded, the team is struggling mightily learning Frank’s systems on both ends of the court. The head coach raised some eyebrows with this quote: “Not to be insensitive, everyone wants a baby, few want to go through the pregnancy. Guess what, this is going to be hard…. I’ve got the utmost respect for women, O.K. But my point is, there are going to be labor pains.”
Golden State – Watch out of the Warriors on their current East Coast swing. Golden State went on the road trip with high expectations, facing off against a quartet of bottom feeders: Charlotte, Detroit, Cleveland and New Jersey. Forward David Lee on the eve of the trip: “If we come back with a losing record from this road trip, it should be a huge disappointment. This is a road trip to places where we need to go take care of business and get three or possibly four victories. I don't see it any other way at this point."
But Mark Jackson’s squad started the trip with a complete no-show in Charlotte, blown off the court by the lowly Bobcats. They were outscored 66-46 before halftime, and never came close to making up the deficit in the final 24 minutes of play. Forward Dominic McGuire: “We took it for granted. We came out thinking this was an automatic win….I don't think it was anything they did. They were hitting shots but ... 38 points for the Bobcats in the first quarter? C'mon."
Coach Jackson: “We didn’t show up. As a coach, that’s on me. Somehow my guys didn’t come out ready to play. We jumped on them early and took our foot off the gas. We thought it was going to be easy. … This type of effort cannot be accepted.”
The Warriors certainly played hard against the Pistons on Sunday, coming away with an eight point road win as a 4.5 point underdog. Coach Jackson: “We defended, we didn’t make excuses, and we didn’t get frustrated. It was just a great performance overall….. I think the guys felt challenged, and first and foremost we are a defensive-minded team. We started to get stops and it affected our offense.” Let’s see if that defensive effort carries over to the remainder of their trip.
New York – The Knicks enter the week on a run of six straight Unders, only reaching 100 and allowing 100 once apiece during that nine day span. The Knicks haven’t been known for playing any defense at all since Patrick Ewing left for Seattle and Jeff Van Gundy abruptly resigned 19 games into the 2001-2002 season. And head coach Mike D’Antoni hasn’t been known for coaching a defense-first style at any point of his decade long NBA career. As Vince Lombardi might say, ‘What the hell is going on out there’?
New York won a game last week against the 76ers when they didn’t make a single basket for the final nine minutes of the fourth quarter. They missed their last nine shots from the floor and committed nine turnovers; managing only seven free throws down the stretch. But they held Philly to 37 percent shooting for the game and gave up only ten assists on the Sixers 32 made baskets.
Carmelo Anthony: “We're not worried about our offense. That will come. Right now, we're focused on our defense. That's where we need to be. We're committed to doing it.” ‘Melo, explaining how last year’s playoff sweep at the hands of the Celtics has left his team hungry for defensive improvement: “I think that's in the back of our minds. For me personally, I was on a personal vendetta. I get tired of hearing it.”
Anthony continued: “I think most importantly that once we got Tyson [Chandler] everybody was saying he was the key to the defensive changes. But it was going to start with myself and Amare to help him out. We can't rely on Tyson to do everything out there. As long as I'm out there putting the effort forth, as long as Amare is doing the same thing, going for the loose balls, rebounding, talking, communicating, we'll be a great defensive team. I can see us moving in that path."
Rookie point guard Iman Shumpert moved into the starting lineup just as the Knicks were transforming defensively. “When I came in here, people were telling me that I was going to have to change the attitude of this team. But when I stepped onto the floor, it was Amare and Melo who came at me, telling me, 'You're going to have to defend.' So it was clear to me that those guys made the change in their minds at the end of the last year. Obviously, during the lockout, they made a commitment to themselves that they were going to play defense and they were going to make sure everybody on this team played defense. So I just came in and did what I normally do. Somehow, it seems like it's starting to click right now."
76ers head coach Doug Collins certainly noticed New York’s defensive improvement. “I thought what [the Knicks] did tonight was, by far, the best defense I've seen played all season long. They're big and strong. Their guards got into us. I take my hat off to them. Very impressive."
Philadelphia – If the playoffs started today, the 76ers would be the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference, behind only Chicago. Doug Collins team was a pointspread juggernaut down the stretch last year, consistently undervalued by the betting markets. With a 10-2 ATS mark so far this year, at first glance, it sure looks that the markets are still undervaluing the Sixers on a nightly basis. But when we dig underneath the surface, we see that Philadelphia’s SU and ATS records may be more than a tad bit misleading.
First, we’ve got to look at Philly’s early season schedule. To say that it’s been a weak slate of foes is something of an understatement. The 76ers have beaten the Wizards twice, the Kings, Raptors, Pistons, Hornets, Warriors, Suns and Pacers for their nine wins. Of that grouping, only Indiana is a likely playoff team. So far, all we’ve seen Philly do is beat up on weaklings.
And when we take a closer look at the weaklings Philly has been beating, their schedule looks even weaker. They beat Golden State without their best offensive player, Monta Ellis. Against the Hornets, New Orleans was without their best defensive wing, Trevor Ariza. They beat Detroit without Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey in the lineup. The win over Indiana came when the Pacers were without Danny Granger and George Hill. Kings leading scorer Marcus Thornton was on the sidelines in street clothes in Philly’s win over Sacramento.
Basically, the entirely of Philly’s red hot 9-1 SU and ATS run in their last ten games came against bottom feeders with significant injury concerns. There’s no question that Philly is pretty good, but there are real questions about whether the Sixers current status as the second best team in the East will leave them with any pointspread value as their schedule toughens up in the weeks and months to follow.