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.
On the other hand, Detroit has lost seven times by double digits already. The only consistent aspect of this season in Detroit is the team getting blown out on Sunday (gee, the same could be said of the Lions, it must really suck to be a Motor City sports fan on weekends). The Pistons used to be the poster boys for the NBA’s predictability; now they are emblematic of the league’s lack thereof.
Last year, however, that high level of certainty began to change, and this year the unpredictability has accelerated. Although last year’s finalists, the Lakers and the Boston Celtics, are among the top three teams, there is tumult throughout the standings. Let’s look closer.
Everyone knew that Boston and Los Angeles would be great this season, but the Cleveland Cavaliers are playing the best ball in the league. When judged by point differential, they’re the best team in the league. What’s particularly scary is how well the Cavs are playing while giving LeBron James a rest.
In the past, King James has averaged 40.8 minutes per game, and his team’s success depended on every second he could play; this season he is in action for only 34.8 minutes per game. Or put another way, the Cavaliers are resting their top player 15 percent more so far and are on pace to improve by at least 15 wins. Cleveland fans should stop fretting about James’ potential departure in 2010 and start dreaming of a title. No one outside of Ohio would have predicted that six weeks ago.
Everyone figured that the Eastern Conference would improve this season, but few figured it would be substantially better than the West. Although the rise of the Cavaliers is a factor, the biggest factor is the complete face plants taken by several Western Conference teams.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.