We go to an awful lot of trouble at Basketball Prospectus to try and project how players are going to perform and which teams are going to succeed. It's an effort with a tremendous payoff in terms of learning about the league in general and the game of basketball in particular. However, there are always going to be instances when we are proven wrong. It's the nature of the business and we wouldn't have it any other way. If the NBA were so easy to figure out, what use would there be in actually watching the games? That is, after all, the best part of all this.
We've got six days and 43 games under our belts, so I'm going to clock in with my five biggest surprises from the week that was just completed. I'm going to do so with a heaping scoop of caveat, and that's this: Just because these things have caught me off guard doesn't mean I believe them to be real. It's way too soon and we just don't know. I go to the trouble of identifying these items today because I think it's a nice way to identify a few emerging storylines for you to follow as the season unfolds. These storylines may be crumpled up into a ball by their authors and tossed in the waste basket by the end of the week.
For instance, Kevin Pelton and I both noted in our preseason coverage that new Atlanta coach Larry Drew may have been playing with fire by changing an offensive system that left the Hawks with the league's third-best Offensive Rating in 2009-10. Well, in three games, Atlanta's Offensive Rating has increased from last season's 113.5 to 115.1 and the Hawks lead the league in Offensive Rating, 1.7 points per 100 possessions better than second-place Golden State. Does that mean Drew's new system is a rousing success? Too soon to tell. However, the three teams Atlanta has played--Memphis, Philadelphia, Washington--rank 7th, 17th and 23rd in Defensive Rating, respectively. It's not great, but it's not like they've been going against the '90-91 Nuggets, either. This is definitely a story to follow.
So I guess my example means I've already given you a surprise, but we'll look past that. Here are five more:
1. Wilson Chandler: NBAPET had Chandler projected for 5.1 Wins Produced this season. After three games, his WP82 (or Wins Produced prorated for a full season) is 20.5, good for second in the NBA behind LeBron James. (Yes, LeBron remains on his statistical pedestal, even with the lighter load he has to carry in Miami.) Chandler has come off the bench in the Knicks' first three games, but is still getting over 33 minutes per contest. His plan has been to come into the game willing to fire with impunity. Chandler's usage rate (29 percent) dwarfs the 20 percent he put up last season, but he's producing more than a point per possession despite the expansion. This is not an aberration of hot three-point shooting either. Chandler is 5-of-19 from behind the arc so far and is actually shooting a higher portion of threes than in the past, a combination which should be an efficiency sinkhole. Chandler isn't getting to the line more often and he's not shooting any better inside the arc. He's basically doing what he's done in the past, only doing it more often. Chandler has ramped his rebounding up considerably and is sharing the ball less. He's kind of doing what Al Harrington used to do off the bench for the Knicks. The result is a breakout season--so far--for the fourth-year swingman.
2. Mike Conley: Conley didn't get an extension from the Grizzlies, but surely would have if he had played like this in past seasons. Conley has upped his assists by 2.4 per 40 minutes and his steal rate is more than double his career average. He's been attacking the basket more, resulting in a much better two-point percentage and an increased foul-drawing rate. Conley has struggled from three-point land thus far and if he can bounce back towards his usual 39-40 percent accuracy mark, he will come very close to the point guard the Grizzlies need to round out their young core. It's early, but Conley looks like a new player.
3. New Orleans Hornets: The Hornets fared well in last week's NBAPET season projections, and with a 3-0 record and wins over the Bucks, Nuggets and Spurs, New Orleans is justifying that faith thus far. New Orleans leads in our early power ratings and also is first in DALE, a stat we developed last year to measure how fundamentally sound a team is. The Hornets are taking care of the ball, sealing off the defensive glass and knocking down their free throws, a combination which sounds a lot like last year's Mavericks, for whom DALE was developed. Marcus Thornton has thrived as an off-the-bench gunner and has teamed with Jerryd Bayless to give the Hornets one of the league's most dangerous second units in the early going. Chris Paul is healthy as well, which certainly is aiding the cause of first-year Hornets coach Monty Williams.
4. Houston Rockets: The Rockets are averaging more than 100 possessions per game, a breakneck pace that marks them as the fastest team in the league. Unfortunately, the Houston defense has suffered in the helter-skelter style. Yao Ming's return was supposed to help the Rockets recover some of their past point-prevention prowess, but he's pretty immobile right now as he works his way back into playing shape. Houston is last in the league with an unsightly 117.1 Defensive Rating. Teams that play this fast often feed off of turnovers, and that's been the most deficient area of Houston's defense thus far. The Rockets are next to last in the league in forcing miscues.
5. Derrick Favors: Prior to this season, I had only have seen Favors in snippets. At Georgia Tech, his numbers were underwhelming, as was his performance in the games I saw. Part of that, so I believed, could be chalked up to a strange offensive system and Tech's lack of talent in the backcourt. When I saw Favors in scouting videos, he was always dunking, but showed little else. So, really, I had nothing to go on with Favors other than shaky stats and unconvincing glimpses. I had no particular reason to be high on him, nor did I have any real cause to question the high opinion NBA teams seemed to have of the raw big man when the most recent draft approach. Then Favors embarked on a brutal preseason, during which two people went out of their way to tell me that they'd been following Favors since high school and were convinced he was going to be a wash out. Well, guess what? Favors has looked pretty damned good since the regular season started. When the Nets played the Pistons in their opener, I only caught snippets of the game, but every time I checked, Favors was doing something positive. On Sunday, I was able to watch a full Nets game for the first time since Favors was drafted and I have to say--I was really impressed. Favors snagged 10 offensive rebounds, 13 total, in 24 minutes. He's strong, long-limbed and gets off the ground in a hurry. He also seems to have good instincts around the rim and a motor to get the ball. I didn't see washout when I saw Favors. I saw a faint glimpse of a young Moses Malone. Favors is averaging over 18 rebounds per 40 minutes in his first three NBA games, while shooting 58 percent from the field.
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