While the 2010-11 NBA campaign tipped off on Tuesday, it truly began in earnest last night with 13 games featuring 26 of the league's 30 teams. That much action requires a notebook to take a look at some of the most interesting stories, so I'm turning to our usual Five Thoughts format to glance around the league.
1. Long-Awaited Debut
Blake Griffin's NBA debut was worth the wait. The 2009 No. 1 overall pick took the floor for his first regular-season game some 16 months after being selected by the Los Angeles Clippers. Playing on ESPN, Griffin wasted little time making his presence felt with a pair of highlight-reel dunks in the first quarter. Griffin's game was far more substantive than just the dunks. He flashed some range, hitting a 16-foot jumper, and crashed the glass relentlessly for nine offensive boards. Griffin even dazzled as a ballhandler, dishing out four assists and leading a fast break with impressive ease.
The downside came in the fourth quarter, when the Blazers switched to a 3-2 zone and the Clippers evidently forgot Griffin was back healthy. To the dismay of color analyst Hubie Brown, who was practically speaking in tongues as he raved about Griffin during the first half, the Clippers failed to get Griffin any touches in the painted area off entry passes, leaving him to chase down missed shots as his only form of offense. Eric Gordon (10-of-17 from the field) at least had some justification for calling his own number. By contrast, Chris Kaman kept taking early shots because Portland chose not to double him in the post. The strategy worked to perfection as Kaman missed 14 of his 18 attempts. A Kaman-first offense made sense down the stretch last season, when L.A. was short on scoring options. Now, Vinny Del Negro must get Kaman to accept a more suitable role that emphasizes the early favorite for Rookie of the Year.
2. Feel-Good Victory
The biggest win of the night belonged to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who kicked off the post-LeBron James era by doing something James and company were unable to do the last time he took the floor at Quicken Loans Arena--beat the Boston Celtics. The Cavaliers dominated the final quarter to come from behind. Their formula for victory was one that could lead to the kind of respectable season projected by SCHOENE. Cleveland played stout defense, taking away the three-point line (Boston hit just three of 12 attempts beyond the arc, including none by Ray Allen in five tries) and forcing 19 turnovers.
The Cavaliers were led in scoring by J.J. Hickson, last seen riding the bench much of the playoff loss to the Celtics. An improved Hickson parlayed his quickness advantage against Kevin Garnett into 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting. Cleveland's second-leading scorer was Daniel Gibson, who came off the bench for 16 points and eight assists while playing both backcourt positions in the absence of Mo Williams (held out as a precaution has not practiced recently after battling a groin injury and attending the funeral of his father-in-law). Gibson was one of the league's best players during the preseason thanks in large part to a substantial increase in his usage rate. It's possible that James' departure could allow Gibson to return to the significant offensive role he played as a rookie before devolving into a spot-up specialist the last couple of years.
3. No Love
One of the night's mysteries came when League Pass viewers (which should be almost anyone, since it's free on most cable systems this week) flipped to the ending of the Minnesota-Sacramento game and saw Kevin Love on the bench. There was apparently no injury; Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis simply decided to ride the hot hand of Anthony Tolliver, who contributed 14 points and seven rebounds off the bench. Tolliver played well and might have maximized Minnesota's chances to win on this particular night, but it seemed like we were past this point with Love. He's the Timberwolves' best player and didn't exactly struggle (he posted a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds in the 24 minutes he did play, including a pair of three-pointers). Love's frustration with coming off the bench was evident last season. Benching him down the stretch hardly seems like the right way to keep the franchise player happy.
4. Efficient Ellis
It only seems like Monta Ellis has been a volume scorer forever, since his game fits that mold and his True Shooting Percentage (.517) was so low a year ago. However, Ellis is just three years removed from posting a .580 TS% for the 2007-08 Golden State Warriors, and if you throw out 2008-09 (when he was hampered after ankle surgery), last season was the first time Ellis has really scored inefficiently. As a result, it should not come as a total surprise that Ellis put up the night's most dazzling scoring line--46 points, the most by any player so far this season, on 31 plays used.
The sustainability of Ellis' performance is a bit trickier. According to Hoopdata.com, he made all seven of his attempts inside of 10 feet. Ellis attempted just two three-pointers, so that leaves 15 shots from either midrange or just inside the arc. Ellis made such shots at a 37.3 percent clip last year; last night, he was 10-of-15, which obviously isn't going to continue. At the same time, Ellis rarely seemed to be forcing it against bigger Houston defenders. His shots came largely in one-on-one situations, but they weren't bad attempts, so … I'm not really sure what to conclude besides we can only take so much from one game.
5. The SCHOENE Special
No, this is not about the Warriors' opening victory. Instead, it's my way of describing one of the night's more unexpected outcomes--the Denver Nuggets thumping the Utah Jazz by 22 in a game that was over at halftime. The Nuggets showed off the potential that has our primary projection system saying they could be one of the West's top teams if they are able to keep the roster together. Getting significant contributions from Arron Afflalo (22 points) and Shelden Williams (16 rebounds in 28 minutes as the starter at power forward), Denver won the rematch of last year's first-round playoff series.
Meanwhile, some of the issues SCHOENE feared cropped up for Utah, which was fresh off an undefeated preseason run. Al Jefferson still needs more time to adjust to the Jazz's system. He got up just six shot attempts in 31 minutes, scoring six points.
"I've got to look to pass," Jefferson told reporters after the game. "I've got to get out of that habit that I had in Minnesota. I was a black hole when the ball came in, regardless if I try to score. Now, I've got guys that can make guys pay for double teaming me. In the third quarter I looked to pass a lot more. And also, I missed a lot of shots. I missed shots that I know I can make."
The 2010-11 Pro Basketball Prospectus is now available in paperback form on Amazon.com. For sample chapters and more information, see our book page.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.