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Once again, the Heat should be among the league-leaders in efficiency on both ends of the court.
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StatsCube: Early season questions for NBA's elite

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Dec 29 2011 11:33AM

The 2011-12 NBA season is underway, and we can already see that it's going to be an unusual year. The schedule is condensed and preparation time was minimal, so success will go beyond talent and chemistry.

Just four days in, few teams have looked worse than the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and perennial contender Boston Celtics. Not coincidentally, the Mavs and Celtics are two of the teams that we had big questions about as the season tipped off.

Four days later, those questions can't be answered. But we can look for some clues in the numbers that have been generated thus far. Here are six questions (in no particular order) regarding six of the best teams in the league, along with predictions on what the answers will be come April.

1. Will Kobe Bryant lead the league in usage rate again?

Last season, Kobe Bryant led the league with a usage rate (percentage of his team's possessions used while he was on the floor) of 33 percent, well ahead of second-ranked Derrick Rose. It was Bryant's highest usage rate since the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol four seasons ago.

For L.A. to be stronger from top to bottom (and bench strength will be critical this season), Bryant will likely need to take a step back offensively this season. That seemed to be Mike Brown's plan when he was hired, but through three games, Bryant again leads the league with a usage rate of 37 percent.

It's a tiny sample size and the Lakers have been without Andrew Bynum, who's serving a four-game suspension to start the season. Bynum's presence in the middle next to Gasol should provide more balance to the Lakers' offense. But it's hard to ignore how much Bryant has dominated the ball early on.

Prediction: Yes. But if he has a challenger, it could be Deron Williams in New Jersey.

2. Can the Heat finish in the top three on both ends?

In the last 20 years, only three teams have finished in the top three in both offensive and defensive efficiency: The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (who were both the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense), the 2000-01 San Antonio Spurs (No. 3 offense, No. 1 defense), and the 2009-10 Orlando Magic (No. 2 offense and No. 2 defense).

Last season, the Heat led the league in point differential with the third-best offense and fifth-best defense. And they could be even better on both ends this season with improved chemistry and depth.

The Heat looked absolutely dominant at times in their first two games. They led the Mavs by as many as 35 points and the Celtics by as many as 20. But they came back to earth each time and escaped with a win in Charlotte on Wednesday. So their numbers thus far (10th best offense, ninth best defense) don't look so dominant.

Once we're a few weeks into the season, the Heat should establish a permanent spot in the top five on both ends of the floor. And the only thing that may keep their numbers from being historically good is extended garbage time, like they had in Dallas on Sunday.

Prediction: Yes, unless they continue to struggle against zone defenses.

3. Will the Knicks be an above-average defensive team?

For each of the last 10 years, the New York Knicks have been a below-average defensive team, with an average ranking of 24th in the league. Last season, they ranked 21st defensively, but smartly added an anchor when the lockout ended, acquiring Tyson Chandler in a sign-and-trade deal with the Mavs.

Chandler will certainly improve the Knicks defensively. And there has been evidence of how he makes a difference in their first two games. But Chandler can't make the Knicks a good defensive team by himself, and in Oakland on Wednesday, he ran into foul trouble covering for his teammates.

The Knicks' offense was a much bigger problem in Wednesday's loss. But it's hard to believe they can play consistent defense with Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony leading them in minutes. This team will still win games with its offense.

Prediction: No. But it will be close.

4. Will the Mavs be a top-10 defensive team again?

On the other end of the Chandler transaction, the Mavs lost their defensive anchor. Chandler helped them improve from 12th in the league defensively in 2009-10 to seventh last season. Lamar Odom has been a plus-defender over the years for the Lakers, but he obviously doesn't have Chandler's length.

After two ugly losses, the Mavs rank 28th in defensive efficiency. It's much too early to panic, but there is one disturbing number regarding the Mavs. They currently rank 29th in rebounding percentage, an area where Chandler's departure obviously hurts. In '09-10, Dallas ranked 24th in rebounding percentage. Last season, his arrival propelled them to 11th on the glass.

Chandler ranked 10th in rebounding percentage last season among players who logged at least 750 minutes. His replacement, Brendan Haywood, ranked 32nd, while Odom ranked 49th. The Mavs also lost their best perimeter defender, DeShawn Stevenson, whom they replaced with Vince Carter.

Prediction: No. They'll be back in the 12-15 range.

5. Can the Magic make it five straight years in the top 10 on both ends?

What gets lost in all the Dwight Howard trade talk is that the Orlando Magic are a very good team, and probably the third best team in the Eastern Conference if they're playing well. They just don't have the assets or financial flexibility to add another star next to the second-best player in the league.

But even without another star, the Magic have ranked in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency in each of the last four seasons. That's a streak that only two other teams -- the Spurs from '98-99 through '02-03 and the Sonics from '92-93 to '97-98 - have pulled off in the last 20 years.

Through the first two games, the Magic rank 23rd defensively. But both of their opponents, Oklahoma City and Houston, had top-six offenses last year. And the Magic still have Howard protecting the paint. The offensive end of the floor, where the Magic regressed last season (falling from No. 2 to No. 10) will likely be a greater concern.

Prediction: Yes, if they keep Howard all season. The Magic will obviously be a top-five defensive team with Howard and maybe hold on to a top-10 ranking even if they trade him. And the offense should recover from a year in which the Magic went through huge mid-season changes.

6. Will the Celtics suffer a huge drop-off when they go to their bench?

The Celtics' starters (no matter who was playing center) were a dominant unit last season. But the team's numbers really fell off (especially offensively) when one or more of their four All-Stars went to the bench. Danny Ainge tried to retool that bench in the abbreviated offseason, but took a hit when it was determined that Jeff Green would need heart surgery.

Through three games, with Paul Pierce nursing a bruised heel, the Celtics have yet to have their real starting lineup intact. And with their revised starting lineup allowing 117 points per 100 possessions in 29 total minutes, the bench has been the least of their worries.

Brandon Bass is probably better than anybody than the Celtics had on their bench last season. But even with Bass providing the second-chance points that the Celtics have lacked over the years, there's not going to be much offense coming from that second unit.

Prediction: Yes.

Top-five predictions

Top five offensive teams, in alphabetical order (last season's rank): Denver (1), L.A. Clippers (23), Miami (3), New York (5), San Antonio (2)

Top five defensive teams, in alphabetical order (last season's rank): Chicago (1), Miami (5), Memphis (8), Milwaukee (4), Orlando (3)

* If Howard is traded, replace Orlando with Philadelphia (10)

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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