Shakin' Up The Game

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter

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