Consider Wednesday statement night in the NBA. During ESPN's double-header, two of the league's fastest-starting teams made the case for their legitimacy with impressive wins over last year's two conference champions. Just after the Memphis Grizzlies went into Oklahoma City to beat the Thunder, 107-97, the Los Angeles Clippers knocked off the defending champion Miami Heat 107-100 at home in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated.
With their wins, the Grizzlies (6-1) and Clippers (6-2) now sit second and third in the Western Conference, trailing only the 7-1 San Antonio Spurs. In terms of point differential, only the 5-0 New York Knicks (a ridiculous +15.6) top Memphis (+9.1) and L.A. (+7.9).
Both teams fell into the second tier of SCHOENE's final projections for the Western Conference--the Clippers sixth and the Grizzlies seventh, though separated by an average of 4.0 wins per simulation. Basically, the Clippers' problem wasn't their own projection but SCHOENE's favorable view of the rest of the conference. The Clippers' projected win total would have been good for second in the Western Conference.
SCHOENE was slightly more skeptical of Memphis, pegging the Grizzlies barely better than average on both ends of the floor and as a 45.2-win team. So while the Clippers' performance so far has been at the positive end of their realistic spectrum--they claimed a top-two seed in the West in better than one out of 10 simulations--Memphis is much further ahead of SCHOENE's projected pace. That's nothing new. Possibly because the Grizzlies are successful playing a bruising style that is so unique in the modern NBA, SCHOENE has underestimated them ever since projecting a premature playoff run in 2009-10.
While Memphis entered Wednesday's game ranked second in the NBA in Defensive Rating, the dominant storyline against the Thunder was the team's improvement at the offensive end. Facing an Oklahoma City defense that led the league in per-possession scoring before Wednesday, the Grizzlies piled up 107 points on 91 possessions.
Memphis turned the ball over just eight times, a season low but also a continuation of a season-long trend. The Grizzlies have cut their turnover rate from average to sixth in the league, a remarkable feat for a team built around turnover-prone post play. Simultaneously, Memphis has improved its assist rate from 53.2 percent of field goals (26th) to 61.4 percent (11th). Given that more passing tends to be associated with additional turnovers, this too is remarkable.
In part, the Grizzlies have benefited here from cutting slow-starting Tony Allen's minutes at shooting guard. The All-Defensive First Teamer, who has been prone to miscues historically, is playing just 22 minutes per game and has coughed the ball up but five times in 155 minutes. His replacements, Quincy Pondexter and Wayne Ellington, are not only more sure-handed (combined, they've committed three turnovers in 261 minutes) but have also teamed with new backup point guard Jerryd Bayless to improve Memphis' outside shooting.
Pondexter has worked hard to develop into a threat from the corners, and Ellington has finally translated the sharpshooting that made him the Most Outstanding Player of the 2009 NCAA tournament at the NBA level. After Pondexter made three triples on Wednesday, the two players have knocked down 21 of their 46 attempts beyond the arc. Last year, Memphis players who were primarily reserves combined for 54 threes all season. Already, Grizzlies reserves have 31 triples in 2012-13.
SCHOENE knew Bayless was going to help Memphis off the bench. Pondexter's improvement is more surprising, since his past performance did not suggest a major jump from beyond the arc. And Ellington's contributions are downright stunning. It wasn't even clear he would beat out Josh Selby for playing time, since Ellington has been a combined 5.1 wins worse than replacement in his NBA career. Besides shooting well, he's also shown newfound playmaking chops with the Grizzlies, handing out 11 assists--already one-third of last year's season total.
Besides the shooting, there's nothing particularly fluky about what Memphis is doing. Instead of representing the beginning of the end, last year's opening-round loss to the Clippers now looks like the product of Zach Randolph's injury and a tough matchup.
Speaking of the Clippers, they too have benefited from bench upgrades. Entering Wednesday's game, L.A.'s reserve corps had combined for 1.5 WARP despite playing without the injured Grant Hill and getting terrible performance from the possibly washed-up Lamar Odom. Last year, the Clippers' second unit rated two wins worse than replacement level.
The Clippers' backup backcourt can compete with most starting guard duos throughout the league. Eric Bledsoe has picked up where he left off during last season's playoffs, using his athleticism to disrupt the opposition on defense and create plays on offense. The only question for the Clippers is how they can find more time for Bledsoe, who is playing too well to be limited to backing up Chris Paul. Vinny Del Negro has reiterated his preference for the size and shooting ability of Willie Green, who is starting at shooting guard while Chauncey Billups rehabs and represents a more conventional option alongside Paul.
While Green is starting games at the two, Jamal Crawford is finishing them. The former Sixth Man Award winner has rallied from a forgettable season in Portland and ranks third among NBA reserves in WARP (1.3) behind Kevin Martin (1.7) and J.R. Smith (1.3). Apparently working on his shooting during the offseason was helpful for Crawford. In truth the larger key has been how well Crawford has fit with Paul and Bledsoe. Their presence has allowed him to spend more time spotting up and less time worrying about setting up teammates. Per Hoopdata.com, 61.7 percent of Crawford's shots have been assisted, far and away the most in the seven seasons the site tracks. Previously, his high-water mark was 44.3 percent in 2010-11 in Atlanta. No wonder then that Crawford is shooting threes at a career-high rate (42.2 percent). While his two-point shooting is a bit more fluky--Crawford won't keep making 81.3 percent of his attempts at the rim or 71.4 percent of his shots from 10-15 feet--he looks like a perfect fit for the Clippers, who have played their best basketball with him on the floor.
As much as the Clippers have exceeded expectations in the early going, they've also been helped by circumstances elsewhere in the Western Conference. With the Lakers starting slowly, the Thunder still figuring out their identity post-James Harden and the Denver Nuggets looking massively overrated by SCHOENE, the Clippers' chances to contend in the West have improved dramatically. There's a real chance, if still a small one, Wednesday represented a preview of the NBA Finals. Thatís the kind of statement the Clippers have made.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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