Are any of these Eastern Conference surprise teams sustainable over 82 games?
It’s so early in the season and there’s so much that will reveal itself over the next five months. But there are some signs that there could be more quality on this side of the Mississippi this season than most thought.
The preseason talk centered on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics as the favorites. The Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards were getting nods in some circles as darkhorse contenders (with the Milwaukee Bucks close behind) and a young Philadelphia 76ers perhaps finally coming of age. And, allowing for injuries, those half-dozen teams have pretty much performed as scheduled and are in solid position in the conference race.
But other players have come onto the scene in the first three weeks that few anticipated -- and that’s considering that bottom-feeding teams like the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls are available throughout the season to pad win totals of their conference opponents.
The Detroit Pistons are, improbably, 10-3. The Orlando Magic are third in the conference, just behind Detroit, at 8-5. The New York Knicks, who didn’t win their seventh game last season until Nov. 22, are 7-5 going into tonight’s showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass). The Indiana Pacers (6-8) and Brooklyn Nets (5-8) are under .500, but have been much more competitive than many thought they would be at any point in the season.
The Magic has been transformed so far by much improved offense. After finishing 29th in the league in Offensive Rating last season, Orlando currently ranks eighth. Aaron Gordon is leading the league in 3-point percentage, making 55.3 percent of his shots behind the arc. That’s not sustainable, but even a significant regression would leave Gordon well above his previous career best (29.6 percent in 2015-16).
Philly’s rise from doormat to tough out was anticipated if the 76ers could keep their young stars on the floor. And so far, both Joel Embiid and rookie Ben Simmons have been healthy, even as Philly continues to keep Embiid on a pitch count (he has yet to play more than 32 minutes in a game this season). That the Sixers have been so competitive without top overall pick Markelle Fultz is even more encouraging.
But the Knicks came out of nowhere. There were no expectations in New York, after Phil Jackson was fired and Carmelo Anthony was traded just before the start of training camp. The only (unstated) goal was to be as bad as possible to get as high a pick as possible in the 2018 Draft.
Yet New York has not only hung in there behind Kristaps Porzingis, who’s put up historic numbers for the franchise in the first weeks of the season, but the Knicks have been entertaining most nights and competitive after a terrible first week of the regular season. Since starting out 0-3, they’re 7-2.
The Pistons, though, are the league’s biggest surprise, a game and a half behind Boston for first in the east after completing a five-game homestand sweep with Sunday’s win at Little Caesars Arena against the Miami Heat. And of all the East surprises, the Pistons look most poised to be able to keep it going all season.
When you have a season like we had, it puts it in perspective. Last year we heard it: you guys are the guys that make it happen and we didn’t make it happen."
They’ve posted quality back-to-back road wins over the LA Clippers and the defending-champion Golden State Warriors. Detroit has been strong at both ends, ranking sixth in Offensive Rating and 10th in Defensive Rating. Only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are also in the top 10 in both categories.
Both Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson have improved significantly from subpar seasons last year, with Drummond inhaling rebounds at an astronomical rate of 15.7 per game. Avery Bradley has performed as advertised since coming to Detroit from Boston in the summer, while Langston Galloway and Ish Smith have been sensational defensively off the bench. Against Miami Sunday, first-round pick Luke Kennard had his best game, scoring nine of his 14 points coming in the fourth to hold the Heat at bay.
Tobias Harris is fifth in the league in 3-point shooting (50.6 percent after making five 3-pointers Sunday) and is averaging a career-high 20.1 points per game -- more than former All-Stars Kevin Love, Paul Millsap and Al Horford. Harris is also 11th in the league in scoring among forwards, just behind Carmelo Anthony and Andrew Wiggins.
Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy’s motto to his team this year has been for each player to “get into his greatness.” Harris is finding his. He’s flashed before in Milwaukee and Orlando, but thinks Van Gundy has unlocked the door for him this season.
“You could tell through this offseason he took a lot of time figuring out where to get the guys to their best spots on the floor,” Harris said Sunday night. “He sat down with everybody and told them what he needed, especially after last year … He broke down a lot of things to me. Getting threes up and being able to shoot them in rhythm, he showed me that that would open up the floor for (Drummond) and for me. Defensively he talked about being in different positions, and on offense, being able to go off the bounce.”
Harris helped himself as well by undergoing Lasik surgery in New York in August.
“My cousin, Channing (Frye, the Cavs’ big man) had it, and I called him and asked him, and he said it was the best thing he’s ever done,” Harris said. “I sat down with the doctor. I told him what I was seeing on the court at times -- a little bit of blurriness. I guess I had stigmatisms in my eyes and he said this could be beneficial to you. We decided to get it done. I was nervous. I probably called him and the lady about 10 times the night before to make sure they were ready. And then they did it, and then he said ‘now you have to go and shoot lights out to make me look good.’ ”
Harris taped the operation, but he hasn’t been able to make himself watch it yet. “It was kind of a weird procedure,” he said.
But things are much clearer on the court so far this season, for him and his teammates.
“There’s definitely a huge difference,” he said. “The confidence we have from understanding what needs to be done to win is there. When we play defense, when we’re into teams, we see the impact that has. We have a lot of confidence, every day when we come into work. We’re in the weight room and playing 80s old school music to get Coach to relax. We’re playing Earth, Wind and Fire. The Gap Band. Michael Jackson. The coaches love it. We just want them to relax when they’re here.”
Drummond and Van Gundy had vision troubles last season as well: they didn’t see eye to eye. After giving Drummond a $128 million extension in the summer of 2016, the Pistons watched as Drummond’s free throw problems (bad enough to be parodied impersonator Brandon Armstrong) and avoirdupois kept him from providing an offensive presence, even as Drummond continued to dominate the glass, leading the league in rebounding two straight seasons. His name came up in trade rumors.
But Drummond came to camp in great shape, and he’s remade himself at the foul line as well. After shooting 38.6 percent from the foul line last season, he’s shooting 63.2 percent this year. That included two free throws with 1:28 left Friday against the Hawks that broke a 98-all tie and gave Detroit the lead for good.
With Harris parked in the corner or weakside, and teams now having to stay home on him, there’s all kinds of room for Drummond to roll to the rim in pick-and-roll sets. And Van Gundy is running offense through Drummond this season and he’s responded by averaging a career-best 3.2 assists so far this season.
“He knew he wasn’t at his best (last season). He took the summer to evaluate that,” Harris said of Drummond. “Coach has put him in some positions to be a factor on offense. And on the boards he’s playing to his strengths. Like I told him tonight, ‘your energy fuels us.’ And he got going in the third quarter (with five of his game-high 17 rebounds) and helped us win the game.”
We’ll all get a truer idea of whether Detroit can keep this up over the next few weeks. The Pistons play nine of their next 11 on the road -- including two games at Milwaukee, with singles at Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Boston, Washington, Philly and San Antonio. But Detroit looks poised to remain involved this year where it was disengaged far too often last season.
“When you have a season like we had, it puts it in perspective,” Harris said. “Last year we heard it: you guys are the guys that make it happen and we didn’t make it happen. I tell everybody in the locker room, keep doing what we’ve got to do and it will continue to grow.”
* * *
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.