Shakin' Up The Game

With the Celtics' win last season and the surprising turns of this one, call it the predictable NBA no more.

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The NBA is the most predictable of the three major North American sports. In each of the last five seasons, the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks, the Phoenix Suns, the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers have been top teams in the Western Conference. The Detroit Pistons have gone to the Eastern Conference finals six straight seasons.

Statistician Bill James wrote an essay for the Boston Globe last fall decrying the almost predetermined aspect of the NBA. The league is so predictable, you almost wonder why some gangsters bothered to pay disgraced referee Tim Donaghy to alter the margin of victory in certain contests. Just bet the house that Detroit will make the Conference Finals; it's a no-brainer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers and especially the Oklahoma City Thunder are all doing their best imitation of an expansion team. The worst team in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards, can blame injuries. The worst teams in the West are suffering from organization incompetence. Injuries heal; inept management or coaching can afflict a team for a long time (see Knicks, New York).

The two biggest surprise teams (outside of Ohio at least) are the Milwaukee Bucks and the New Jersey Nets. Every two years for at least a decade, the Bucks have churned through coaches with each new hire promising to improve the team's defense. Finally, someone has. Scott Skiles has the Bucks playing hard on D. They are allowing only 105.8 points per 100 possessions, 13th best in the league. Last season, they were dead last in that category.

The Nets have been a stellar defensive club for most of Coach Lawrence Frank's tenure, but this year their strength is on offense. Point guard Devin Harris is playing like the best point guard not named Chris Paul in the league, and they are getting solid contributions from rookie center Brook Lopez and improved play from second-year forward Yi Jianlian. The Nets' defense is near the bottom of the league right now, but with Frank at the helm, that figures to improve. At the start of the season, the Nets seemed doomed to a 50-loss season; now, it looks like they are playoff bound.

One reason that a team like New Jersey can see the playoffs in the offing is that two biggest underachievers, the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers, are in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors did everything right on paper, but it blew up in their faces. Last season, the Raptors were a very good offensive team when reserve point Jose Calderon played and a good defensive team lacked a solid presence in the middle.

Thus, when they traded starting point guard T.J. Ford for stellar center Jermaine O'Neal, it seemed that the Raptors were bound for the elite. Instead, they have played like a lottery team. Their 8-12 record looks like they are on the fringe of respectability, but their point differential of nearly minus 6 points per contest indicates that they are getting blown out of the building a lot. It looks like it will be a very cold winter up north.

Last season, the 76ers were an excellent defensive team (eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions), but their offense lacked two key elements, a post-up player and a long-range shooter. They solved the former need so spectacularly, by signing free agent all-star power forward Elton Brand, during the off-season, that people tended to overlook the other weakness.

Opponents seem to be keenly aware, however, and are forcing the 76ers to solve a myriad of zone defenses that exploit their major weakness, outside shooting. The Sixers are shooting better from three-point range than last season (.322 to .317), but that's still 26th in the NBA, well below the league average of .358. The Sixers finished so strong last season that with their young core of future stars like Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young, they looked like a lock for the elite. But those forecasts may have come a season or so too soon.

The Detroit Pistons are the most puzzling team so far this season. After six consecutive seasons of cool-handed professionalism, tight-as-a-drum teamwork and one conference finals appearance after another, it's jarring to see such a schizophrenic bunch wearing Pistons' colors. The Pistons have gone to Los Angeles and beat the Lakers soundly, and they beat the Spurs—ahem, the Spurs at full strength—in San Antonio by double digits.

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