Believe it or not, the NBA's regular season is more than 25 percent complete. With so many interesting developments taking place since the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat tipped things off a month and a half ago, Basketball Prospectus' NBA analysts--Bradford Doolittle, Kevin Pelton and Sebastian Pruiti--got together for a roundtable to answer some of the most pressing questions.
At the quarter mark, which team is most likely to win the NBA championship?
BD: Miami Heat. I'm sticking with Miami. Despite the rough start, the schematic issues, the injuries, the lackluster supporting cast, I've seen signs of what I feared to be true--the combination of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is going to overwhelm the league based on pure talent.
KP: San Antonio Spurs. This is a really difficult question to answer right now, much more so than I anticipated. San Antonio not only has the league's best record but has room for growth as Tiago Splitter gets comfortable alongside Tim Duncan. At the very least, this pick no longer looks as crazy as it did when I took the Spurs to win the West before the season.
SP: I've still got to go with the Lakers. Right now their problem is Pau Gasol playing too many minutes. In the playoffs, with all of the off days, that won’t be an issue. When everyone, from their starting unit to their bench, is clicking, this team is really scary.
Which team has been the most pleasant surprise to you?
BD: Dallas Mavericks. The difference Tyson Chandler has made in Dallas has been startling. The Mavs are fourth in the league in Defensive Rating and I just didn't see that coming.
KP: Dallas Mavericks. I really thought that Dallas would be in the second tier of contenders, but thus far they've been only a notch below the top two teams in the Western Conference. Tyson Chandler and increased use of zone defense have turned the Mavericks into one of the league's top defenses and there's enough depth to keep it up.
SP: Indiana Pacers. They don’t do a lot on the offensive end, but they play to their strengths (cutting off of Hibbert & McRoberts) just enough to let their above-average defense lead them to wins.
Which team has been the biggest disappointment?
BD: Sacramento Kings. Sacramento has taken about five steps back this year. When you look at the way the young talent has coalesced in Indiana, that's what I thought would happen for the Kings.
KP: New Jersey Nets. No, they're not as bad as their record, but they've taken only a slight step forward from last season. Other than Anthony Morrow, their wings have been a disaster and Brook Lopez has struggled, as Sebastian broke down recently.
SP: Sacramento Kings. With Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, many thought that the Kings were going to make a push for the 8th seed. Cousins fouls too much and Evans is settling for too many jumpers. That has left the Kings at the bottom of the Western Conference.
What team, if any, do you think will miss the playoffs that would make it if the season ended today?
BD: Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets will ultimately trade Carmelo Anthony and then drop off the map. Just a guess, but that's what my gut tells me.
KP: Phoenix Suns. I think the Suns are about a 41-win team, which is the pace they're currently on. (While their point differential is -1.1 points per game, a difficult schedule essentially brings that back to even.) The problem is I don't think 41 wins will make the playoffs in the West. Someone is going to get hot and pass them for the eighth spot, whether it's Houston, Portland or someone who currently looks like a longshot.
SP: New York Knicks. I am still not sold on the Knicks. So far they have played just five teams with a winning record and are 2-3 against them. They have had the luxury of playing the likes of the Raptors three times, Golden State twice, Charlotte twice, and the Timberwolves another two times. I want to see them play against the big boys before I give them a playoff spot.
What team, if any, do you think will rise up and take that playoff spot?
BD: Philadelphia 76ers. It's not the Nuggets' spot, but I think the Sixers are going to nab that last spot in the East. The way their season has gone is exactly what I thought would happen.
KP: Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers have had brutal fortune in close games thus far, going 0-5 in games decided by five points or fewer (most recently last night's one-point loss to Boston). Their point differential is eighth in the East by a sizeable margin and they're playing well lately since Jodie Meeks established himself at shooting guard. Believe in Doug Collins!
SP: Toronto Raptors. Ever since the acquisition of Jerryd Bayless, they have been playing with plenty of passion. If Andrea Bargnani starts playing a little bit more consistently, I can see them sneaking into the playoffs.
Who's your MVP thus far?
BD: Deron Williams. He may actually win it, too.
KP: Chris Paul. Reasons 1, 1A and 1B that the New Orleans Hornets are in contention. In the year of the point guard, Paul is the league's best.
SP: Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavericks have been playing fantastic basketball, and a lot of it comes down to Nowitzki. Despite all of the crazy turnaround jumpers he takes, he is shooting 55.3 percent from the field and leading the Mavs to a top-four seed.
Which player has most underachieved?
BD: Brandon Roy. It's because of physical issues, but he's paid to be an elite player and just hasn't been able to play at that level, and it starting to sound like the Blazers are going to have to blow up that roster. It all looked so promising.
KP: J.J. Hickson. On a team desperate for reasons to be optimistic for the future, Hickson has gone from promising youngster to disappointment in a hurry. Was his finishing entirely a product of LeBron James? I don't think so, but his two-point percentage (45.8 percent) has dropped precipitously.
SP: Brook Lopez. With the addition of shooters and better teammates, everyone was expecting Lopez to take the step from very good center to an elite center. Instead, he is taking more shots from 16-23 feet, turning it over more, and rebounding less.
Who has taken the biggest step forward?
BD: Derrick Rose. It's tempting to say Roy Hibbert or Wilson Chandler, but I'll go with Rose. He's the biggest factor in almost every game he plays in.
KP: Russell Westbrook. Going from good to great might be the most difficult transition. That's what Westbrook has pulled off this season by substantially improving his efficiency this year. He belongs in the discussion for MVP thus far.
SP: Roy Hibbert. I mentioned him a little earlier, but Hibbert has been playing some fantastic basketball this year. He is much better offensively (both in the post and passing out of the high post), and his defense has taken a step up as well.
Blake Griffin seems like an obvious choice for Rookie of the Year, so instead the question is this: Over the next decade, would you rather have Griffin or John Wall?
BD: Wall. That's tough. I guess Wall. In today's NBA, you need a dynamic point guard and his ability to make plays for others could be Steve Nash-like, only he can defend as well.
KP: Wall. That's a tough call, but when you consider that Wall has been nearly as effective and he's 18 months younger than Griffin, I think his ceiling is slightly higher. He's ahead of my expectations, and I thought he was the clear No. 1 pick.
SP: Wall. Right now, in my opinion, having a point guard who can break down the defense in the lane is a little more valuable than a power forward who dunks on everyone. My logic is that a guy like Griffin has to rely on his teammates for touches, while a guy like Wall can make an impact on just about every single possession.
What NBA storyline isn't getting enough attention right now?
BD: Miami .. just kidding. San Antonio. The Spurs have not only played almost as well as in their championship seasons, but they are doing it with a different style of play, at least in terms of tempo.
KP: Of the top 10 players in the league by WARP, eight of them are younger than 27. This league is flourishing in terms of young talent and is as fun to watch as I can ever remember. That's worth keeping in mind.
SP: The Mavericks and their zone. Since zone has been allowed in the league, we haven’t seen a team use it as their primary defense (instead, coaches use the zone to switch things up from time to time). Dallas is using the zone and playing very good defense as a result. It will be interesting to see if it can continue.
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