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Sam Smith ranks NBA teams after season's first quarter

It’s some of the usual suspects – Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Miami – which sit atop the list of Sam Smith’s best teams in the NBA with the first quarter of the season in the books. But as the old saying goes, it’s a marathon and not a sprint.
"Even with the trade of James Harden, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder have maintained amazing firepower and good defense and are tied with the Bulls for second in the league in opponent field goal percentage," notes Sam Smith.
(Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

It's often said in the NBA the season is a marathon and not a sprint. So, like in a marathon, a successful conclusion is about pace and timing and building to an encouraging conclusion. So you don't measure yourself every moment. You want to finish strong, but some analysis along the way is generally required.

For the NBA, the initial measure is the first quarter of the season, which most teams are hitting now. The schedules have balanced some with home and road games, and most teams have played at least one game against the league's best. It's still generally too early to consider major trades, but most teams by now have had to time to analyze their roster and determine their needs. So here's a look at where the NBA is now with an emphasis in part on how they've played so far and which teams are the strongest going forward.

As an aside, one of the shorthand barometers of success is road wins, which are the most difficult, against home losses. The Knicks are tied for the lead with the Spurs in that category at plus-7, which suggests their early season success is not a fluke. The other leaders in that category with at least plus-3 are the Thunder, Heat, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Grizzlies and Warriors. Other plus teams are the Pacers, Hawks, Clippers, Jazz and Timberwolves. The Bulls are at zero with five road wins and five home losses. Another key marker for teams is scoring differential, which takes time into the season to get an accurate reading, which is about now. The Thunder lead at plus-9.5, which translates to about 60 wins. The top teams ever were the 1972 Lakers at 12.3 and the 1971 Bucks and 1996 Bulls at 12.2. That Lakers team won 69 games, the Bulls 72 and the Bucks 66.

  1. Oklahoma City: Even with the trade of James Harden, they've maintained amazing firepower and good defense and are tied with the Bulls for second in the league in opponent field goal percentage. This should be their year with a team that must hire witch doctors as hardly anyone gets hurt.
  2. San Antonio: Even though they passed on their big game against the Heat, they pick up contributing role players as good as any team and have Tim Duncan still playing at a high level. The NBA privately really roots for them despite what you hear as the league is collecting Popovich interviews for a time capsule to show how tough life really was in this era.
  3. Miami: They're obviously still taking that breath of relief, but there is a hole there. As in there's no one there in the middle. They got away with playing small in the Finals, though teams are taking advantage now. And just how healthy is Dwyane Wade? When the legs go 6-3 shooting guards don't look so good. And it's got to be tough playing for the game's most popular player. No, not Joel Anthony.
  4. Memphis: Often overlooked as they didn't have a healthy Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph in the last two playoffs. And when they did they wouldn't pass to one another, anyway. They've worked that out and combined with Mike Conley's development makes them a threat, though the bench isn't quite there. Too bad owner Mike Heisley just sold. It's like selling what turns out to be your lottery winning card before the drawing.
  5. New York: And, no, Amar'e Stoudemire isn't going to ruin it. They probably have the league's deepest team, a star in Carmelo Anthony, size and a willingness for now to compete defensively. And how bad will ESPN be now featuring highlights from Steve Novak.
  6. Clippers: There's a heck of a team there if they could develop and someone could teach Blake Griffin how to play inside. It doesn't look great with Chauncey Billups going out. But they have the stuff to provide playoff trouble, are top 10 in defense and could get Vinny Del Negro a coach of the year award if he isn't fired.
  7. Atlanta: They're like the NFL Falcons: They win a lot but you don't see why you wouldn't beat them. They've been one of the early surprises, which basically means I was wrong on them. They're small, but defend well enough. And with this season about getting off salaries for free agency makes it more impressive. Of course, only about 120 people know given only Sacramento has lower attendance.
  8. Lakers: They will get better, or at least should. Steve Nash isn't saving them. They're biggest issue seems to be half court defense and they are waiting for the return of the poorest defender ever to win an MVP. But they have the talent to play a half court playoff game. Now they've just got to persuade the coach before Kobe chews off his fingers trying to keep from just killing everyone.
  9. Denver: You really can't win with your best player being a B-level player. But they have a lot of them. They've had the toughest road schedule to start, have hung in and if they can get Wilson Chandler back should at least win a lot of regular season games. Can you believe I think Wilson Chandler is important?
  10. Golden State: Another of those surprise teams that have been a surprise to me. They focused their team around adding Andrew Bogut. So he's barely played with injuries again and they've had their best start in 20 years and do play some defense for a change.
  11. Dallas: They'll get Dirk Nowitzki back reasonably soon. Perhaps not enough to win 50 games, but with O.J. Mayo's scoring they'll be like Atlanta, an inviting place for free agents given the relative competitiveness. And Mark Cuban doesn't even seem so obnoxious anymore.
  12. Bulls: Some of this depends on the return of Derrick Rose, and, of course, their starters holding out all season. But their defense has come on strong, the bench has shows signs of developing and coach Thibodeau has petitioned worldwide timekeepers to extend the day to 28 hours.
  13. Indiana: They'll get Danny Granger back at some point to restart a stagnant offense. Of course, Danny would have to change and pass occasionally. But they're best in opponent shooting and rebounding and that can carry you.
  14. Brooklyn: They've had some issues with Brook Lopez out, and given his injury history there's no certainty he was the right Lopez. They've got a lot of offense to carry them with a backcourt with great size. Now what happens when Dwight Howard says he wants to play there?
  15. Utah: You wonder if they'll try to make a move with Millsap or Jefferson given having two young bigs ready to develop. If they acquired a true point guard they could move up and they have a lot of cap room. Party hard, Salt Lake City.
  16. Boston: They do look like they've gotten old, particularly Paul Pierce, accounting for relatively poor defense. They have substantial depth. But they need to counter their size issues as they remain the league's poorest rebounding team, which you'd figure would keep Kevin Garnett quiet for a few minutes.
  17. Houston: They're really poor defensively, which is surprising having Omer Asik. But as great a scorer he is, James Harden leaves Asik plenty of work. The sense is this is a first season for a team under the cap that likes to make moves. They never let players they acquire to unpack.
  18. Minnesota: Even with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio out they've stayed competitive and have become a tough team to score on for the first time since Kevin Garnett left. That Rick Adelman, as Robert De Niro might say, "You, you, you're very good, you."
  19. Philadelphia: It's looking more and more like they won't get Andrew Bynum back, and he'd hardly be in shape if he does. They have two young players coming fast in Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday, though they don't seem to have anyone who can dunk.
  20. Milwaukee: Lots of uncertainty hanging over the team with both starting guards entering free agency. They added a lot of size, but mostly play small as the guys they added don't even appear you can teach height to them.
  21. Portland: Another team in transition with a new coach and a rookie running the team. If Meyers Leonard develops I wonder if they'd move LaMarcus Aldridge for future picks and players. It's not like they're going places with him. The local media calls him LaMarsha for eschewing contact with more jump shots. Who knew they were so tough in Portland? Must be all the rain.
  22. Detroit: A tough 0-8 start, but coach Lawrence Frank knows that's nothing as he once started 0-16. If they can develop their big rookie, Andre Drummond, they have enough scorers to give teams trouble.
  23. Orlando: As to respect the way they play tough and seem so much happier that Dwight Howard is gone. Little known is Howard supposedly also used to steal all the Disneyworld passes. They're a little like the overachieving 1999-2000 Orlando team pushed by Darrell Armstrong and playing Ben Wallace at small forward.
  24. Sacramento: There's too much talent there to be this bad. Though with worst in the league attendance it appears fans are buying their Seattle Kings tickets. DeMarcus Cousins has the talent to be the game's most dominant player, and the personal troubles to give Ron Artest a race for the claim of most unadjusted.
  25. Phoenix: A team that clearly looks like it's headed for some sort of adjustment with coaches and/or players. It's an oddly mixed roster of players who don't much fit, scorers who don't defend and defenders who don't score. But they say they enjoy the weather.
  26. Toronto: They're heading into panic mode and anxious to trade someone, anyone. They're leading the league in messing up games down the stretch. And winter isn't even here.
  27. New Orleans: They would have been a heck of an interesting team to watch if Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon were around. So are they watching?
  28. Charlotte: A team that's come from nowhere, which is where the team with the worst ever winning percentage from last season resides. They made enough good moves over the summer to at least compete and get everyone off Michael Jordan's back.
  29. Cleveland: You wonder about the strength of guys' bodies, like Kyrie Irving, who come into the NBA so young. See Anthony Davis as well. Anderson Varejao has been a vacuum rebounding, which is somewhat easier with all the missed shots.
  30. Washington: Difficult to believe John Wall, who had one of the worst three point shooting seasons in history last year, can change much. They're relying on a lot of young players, which is why they brought in Nene, who has to do much of his teaching from the trainers' room recuperating from something.

Was Dwight Howard right all along?

-- Maybe Dwight Howard did have it figured right all along. With all the talk of leaving Orlando, which remained his goal, Howard consistently rejected playing for the Lakers. He didn't want to have to be compared with the greatest centers in history, all Lakers: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and George Mikan. He didn't want to join an old team that would leave him in the same position as he was in Orlando, carrying role players. Though he likely didn't realize, the L.A. media market isn't rooting for Howard as they were in Orlando. And the team chose the coach after Phil Jackson that Howard had as tied for second with everyone else. OK, ahead of Stan Van Gundy. So then last week amidst the losing Howard called out Kobe Bryant for not passing the ball and not helping on defense to the point teammates had to intercede with Howard pointing fingers at Bryant, which doesn't happen on Lakers' teams. Kobe wasn't all that thrilled, but let it go for now. "I don't have a problem with saying anything to anybody, and it should be that way," Howard said. "We have to be able to talk to each other." No, this is not going well and Dwight doesn't seem to be loving it at three below .500, a half game behind the Magic. Does this sound like a player who'll be a free agent next summer and wants to remain with the Lakers? Not so much. You figure the Lakers will ride it out believing they'll be better in the halfcourt playoff game. Maybe trade Pau Gasol for some speed and athleticism. Though Pau is the one who fits better with D'Antoni's philosophy of spreading the court and the big man popping out for jumpers. But maybe you get some signals from Howard and what about trading him. It seems ridiculous, but as we know ridiculous happens in the NBA. Both Atlanta and Dallas appear to be creating cap room for a run at Howard, and Howard is from Atlanta. But what about Houston? GM Daryl Morey made a big stride forward obtaining James Harden. He's supposedly developed a twitch for not having made a trade in two weeks. And wouldn't he be a better fit for a run with Howard? The Rockets have salary cap space after this season, but not enough for Howard. And Morey, like most others, say you need that second star. So what about giving the Lakers Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons? That enables the Lakers to keep Gasol, who fits. And the Lakers get the pieces to continue. Lin, who was at his best under D'Antoni and can develop following Nash. Parsons increases the depth and rounds out the Lakers roster. Here's a guy Howard who was sort of the junior high school practical joker of the NBA, always with a smile. You don't see him smile much more. An unhappy Dwight doesn't tend to hang around after the season.

NBA news and notes

-- A fan sent me a YouTube clip of Tracy McGrady doing a Bill Laimbeer cheap shot elbow imitation on a Chinese opponent after the player wagged his finger in McGrady's face when scoring on him. How far they fall: Being trash talked in China. ... Assume they hold their breath in Golden State every time Stephen Curry walks. But that tender ankle seems to be holding now as Curry has scored at least 20 in nine of the last 10 as the surprising Warriors won eight of them with five on the road. ... All those major acquisitions the Suns made in the offseason, Luis Scola, Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley are now coming off the bench playing limited minutes for a team outplayed badly by Orlando at home Sunday and seemingly on the verge of collapse. Beasley has the season's worst plus/minus in the league for his time on the court. ... O.J. Mayo said he was interested in signing with the Suns or Mavs. He said he went to Dallas when the Suns said he'd play behind Beasley and Jared Dudley. ... The 76ers had to figure they'd have Andrew Bynum. But they sure could use Nikola Vucevic, who has been a physical presence for Orlando averaging almost 10 points and nine rebounds. ... Andray Blatche has been a good pickup for the Nets, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds the last four games with Brook Lopez out. Though the Nets lost them all. No, you can't take the Wizards out of the man. ... The Jazz TV station did a poll of teams fans hate most. The Lakers were tops as most hated team. But the Bulls were third. Hey, that was 14 years ago. ... The Hawks already have defeated all three Western Conference division leaders.

-- I don't want to pick on the Heat as we've done plenty of that and they are champions, which gets you a personality reset. But with those losses last week to the Wizards and the blowout loss to the Knicks, there was talk from Chris Bosh about how could the Heat have the same hunger and Dwyane Wade about saving the best for later in the season. Credit LeBron James for not going along, but not quite leading. That's what all those Michel Jordan fictional scenarios were about, Jeff Van Gundy saying he was a con man (never said it), LaBradford Smith outscoring him even though the Bulls won, Jordan shooting free throws with his eyes closed claiming opponents said he couldn't. Jordan would be fuming. The regular season does matter, and especially to champions. It's not to say the Heat won't repeat. They certainly can. But accepting defeat with an excuse to lesser teams doesn't get you there and doesn't keep you in the conversation with Jordan no matter how much you hear that you are. ... Maybe the Lakers need a defensive coach like Mike Brown. They've lost seven of 10 and in the last six games, including holding a decimated Hornets team to 87 points, the Lakers are giving up 107 per game with three times at least 113. So much for Howard as defensive player of the year. Since having him, it's the poorest defense the Lakers have played in years. ... You (OK, me) thought the Rashard Lewis pickup looked good for Miami, though he's fallen out of the regular rotation. ... Could be an uncomfortable Christmas dinner with Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins waiving his son, Cory, for Jeff Adrien.

-- Ben Gordon set a Bobcats record with eight threes against Portland and passed 10,000 points. There are 33 active players with at least 10,000 points led by Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. ... It's been a tough go for Jeremy Lin, shooting 38 percent and 26 percent on threes and often replaced by Toney Douglas for defense. Lin's scored double figures in four of the last 10 games. But in Houston who really notices. ... Play of the day Sunday had to be Russell Westbrook not only blocking a dunk attempt by Roy Hibbert in the Thunder win but throwing the 7-2 Hibbert to the ground with the follow through. ... Omer Asik is wearing a plastic shield on his nose after having it broken against the Jazz last week for the third time. Asik has averaging just 5.3 points and seven rebounds the last three games. ... How about these top six picks the last three years: Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams. Only Williams remains with the Timberwolves and he's basically fallen out of the rotation with the return of Kevin Love. The Timberwolves did get Ricky Rubio a pick before Flynn and had some good offseason signings like Andre Kirilenko and rookie Alexey Shved from Russia. The talk is Williams hopes to be traded but hasn't produced enough to bring close to being a No. 2 overall pick. ... With the Lakers 9-12, the Bulls record of 72 wins appears safe for another season.

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