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Hollinger: The good, the bad, the ugly on a team level (ESPN.com)
Atlanta's defense keys success, Detroit's D disappoints
By John Hollinger
Two weeks into the season, not only is there a shocking level of parity but the standings seem almost upside down. Atlanta, projected by many of us experts to be the worst team in the East, is in first place in the Southeast Division and last year's Eastern Conference finalists, Miami and Detroit, are struggling.
It's the same story in the West, where conference finalists Dallas and Phoenix are 13th and 14th, respectively, and Northwest Division champ Denver isn't faring much better.
Whether it's a surprise or a disappointment, each team has a statistical story behind its success or lack of it. Much as I looked at the surprises and disappointments among individuals last week, now I'm going to examine surprises and disappointments at the team level -- not necessarily in terms of wins and losses but in terms of some of the other metrics I measure. Those, in turn, help inform us exactly why these teams are performing the way they are.
But just to keep things interesting, and because I always dug Sergio Leone films, let's use a spaghetti Western theme for today's piece:
Atlanta's defense. Much of the attention for the Hawks' 4-2 start has focused on the play of Joe Johnson. Although that's certainly a good place to start, the real transformation has been at the other end.
Atlanta has been playing about as well as it did a year ago offensively -- actually an impressive feat considering the loss of Al Harrington -- but it's the defense that's been the key. A year ago, the Hawks ranked 26th in defensive efficiency, but this year they rank 11th.
It's not hard to figure out the major difference -- the Hawks have an actual frontcourt rotation now. No, Shelden Williams and Lorenzen Wright aren't exactly setting the world on fire, but being able to turn to them instead of, say, John Edwards and Esteban Batista has made a world of difference for Atlanta. Throw in a year of experience for the kids, and Atlanta is providing enough resistance to allow Johnson and the rest of the offense to win games.
Miami's offense. Hey, aren't you the world champs?
Through six games, the Heat should consider themselves lucky to be 3-3 because their offensive attack has gone completely off the rails. The Heat rank 29th of 30 teams in offensive efficiency; they were No. 6 a year ago.
It's been a broad-based decline, as they're way below the league average in essentially every element of offense. The only thing they do well is draw fouls, and even that advantage is wasted by a 67.1 percent mark from the line.
Although Dwyane Wade has been a little off his game, his teammates have fallen off even more sharply. Amazingly, only three of his teammates have a player efficiency rating of more than 10; even more amazingly, none of them is named "Shaquille."
To add insult to injury, the Heat are fifth in 3-point frequency but 24th in accuracy -- thanks, Toine. Miami desperately needs Jason Williams to come back, but even that won't help unless its centers show up. Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning are making nearly six turnovers a game between them, and their combined scoring average of 18.5 pales beside last year's 27.8.
Sacramento's new personality. What happened to those lovable, high-scoring Kings? Don't they know teams in the West are supposed to play wide-open, 123-118 affairs?
Don't look now, but they're quietly morphing into an East Coast-style team. The Kings are the league's No. 1 defensive team at the moment, outpacing even Big Ben and the Bulls, and that's a huge jump from their No. 13 mark a year ago.
A lot of credit obviously goes to Ron Artest, but Brad Miller's injury also might be playing an unwitting role -- Miller was a major contributor at the offensive end, but his D has really slipped the past couple of years.
The stellar defense would have Sacramento-Las Vegas in position to be a big surprise if it could score any points. But despite a breakout year from Kevin Martin, the Kings rank just 27th in offensive efficiency -- way down from their No. 11 mark a year ago.
If you're looking for reasons, blame the loss of Miller, the insane shot selection of Artest and the de facto trade of Bonzi Wells for John Salmons.
And watch out for more 83-78 scores coming from Arco.
Utah's offense. Remember a year ago when the Jazz led the league in shot-clock violations and would just try to pound it inside all game? Seems like a bygone era, huh?
So far, the Jazz are the NBA's third-most efficient offense, a huge improvement from their No. 21 ranking of a year ago. Moreover, check out how they've done it -- their free-throw rate is actually below the league average for the first time since Columbus landed.
The reason? Utah's upgraded backcourt has been able to help out, so the Jazz don't have to run a big man through four screens and create a collision near the basket on every play. Deron Williams has made a nice second-year jump, Derek Fisher has been reasonably solid and Gordan Giricek has come back from the dead to shoot 65.2 percent (though he's out with an injury now).
Surprisingly, the Jazz have done this with almost no contribution from Andrei Kirilenko, who mostly has been a bystander in the offense (6.6 shots per game) and is on the shelf for a while, or from first-round pick Ronnie Brewer, who can't get on the court because the other guards are playing so well.
Dallas' defense. Avery Johnson won Coach of the Year in 2006 in part because he got the Mavs to play defense, ranking 11th in the league in defensive efficiency. Based on that criterion, don't count on a repeat for Johnson.
The Mavs are dead last in defensive efficiency this season -- a difficult accomplishment in a league that includes the Knicks and Sonics. That, in turn, explains most of what you need to know about Dallas' slow start. Yes, losing Josh Howard hurts, too, but the Mavs weren't guarding anybody even before he went out.
I should point out that some of this appears to be plain old bad luck. Dallas' opponents are shooting 80 percent from the line and 42.6 percent on 3-pointers, numbers that can't possibly hold up for a full season.
On the other hand, they're dead last in field goal defense at 50.1 percent, have allowed a high rate of free-throw attempts and are below average in forcing turnovers.
I'm at a loss as to why they've slumped so sharply, but one factor might be all their offseason moves -- in addition to needing time to incorporate all the new guys, the Mavs made themselves an older, slower team than they were a year ago while the rest of the league is trending faster and smaller.
Denver's pace. There's fast pace, and then there's what the Nuggets are doing. Good heavens, did they rehire Paul Westhead and not tell anybody?
We normally associate the Phoenix Suns with frenetic pace, but actually the Nuggets weren't too far behind them in pace factor a year ago. This year, they're blowing everyone away in terms of game speed. Denver's 104.3 pace factor is more than four possessions per game faster than that of any other team and, if it holds up, would be one of the highest in history relative to the league.
The weird part is that it doesn't seem to be helping any. Denver ranks only 22nd in offensive efficiency; a year ago, with largely the same personnel, it ranked 18th. (Although this is still better than Toronto and Charlotte, which rank third and fourth in pace but 23rd and 28th in offensive efficiency.)
Guards Andre Miller and Earl Boykins seem to be proponents of the "take the first shot" theory, letting others worry about whether it's the first good shot. Between them, they're taking 22.8 attempts per game and shooting 36.0 percent. The fact the Raptors and Bobcats are having similar problems is proof positive that emulating the Suns is much easier said than done.
Portland's offense. The Blazers were the worst offensive team in the league a year ago, and it wasn't even a close worst.
With much of the same crew intact this year, I wasn't expecting much of a change, especially with Darius Miles injured and rookie Brandon Roy in the lineup (scuffling along at 37.7 percent shooting).
But lo and behold, the Blazers are a healthy seventh in offensive efficiency, right between the Suns and Clippers. Several factors have come together to make this possible: Jarrett Jack has proved a quick study at the point, Martell Webster got his bearings as an NBA player and Travis Outlaw awakened from a multiyear coma after somebody told him it was a contract year.
But nobody has made more of an impact than Zach Randolph, who has totally dominated in the post (27.3 ppg, 91.0 percent FT) and even thrown a pass once in a while. He probably won't play quite so ridiculously well all year, so the other Blazers need to keep stepping up.
Actually, that's not as remote a possibility as you might think -- both Webster and Outlaw could play substantially more minutes than they've seen thus far, and once Joel Przybilla's 'nads heal (he got a knee straight to his manhood against Golden State last week and is still on the shelf), they should get more second shots.
Detroit's defense. Big Ben's absence certainly has been felt in Motown. The Pistons ranked third in defensive efficiency a year ago but are down to 18th this year.
Minus Big Ben, the Pistons have defended like any other run-of-the-mill team, permitting a league-average shooting percentage and fouling at an average rate -- something they hardly ever did with Wallace around. (In recent seasons, Detroit had a low rate of fouls.)
In this case, there's a complex set of adjustments the Pistons have to make in Big Ben's absence: The guards were used to funneling players toward him, and they almost never had to double the post or crash the defensive boards. That has all changed now, so it might take awhile for the other Pistons to get back to their nasty selves defensively.
Orlando's turnovers. If the Magic could just avoid throwing the ball to the other team, they'd have a heck of an offense right now.
The Magic rank third in the league in true shooting percentage at 56.9 percent and fourth in offensive rebound rate at 31.3 percent. So they get lots of points from their shots, and on the unusual occasions when they miss, they often get the rebound.
Normally, this is a formula for a great offense, but normally teams don't give the ball away on one possession in five. A whopping 21.4 percent of Orlando's possessions have ended in a miscue, compared with the league average of 16.9. Because of that, the Magic are losing nearly four possessions a game compared with their peers, which undoes all the advantage of their shot-making -- Orlando is 18th in offensive efficiency at 102.5, barely above the league average of 102.0, and it's all because of the turnovers.
The leading culprit has been Dwight Howard at 4.1 per game -- which rates eighth overall in the league despite his averaging only 15.3 points per game. But he has plenty of company: Jameer Nelson (3.8), Hedo Turkoglu (2.3) and Grant Hill (2.1) all have been happy to hand over the rock, and Darko Milicic and Keith Bogans also have made plenty of miscues in their limited minutes.
John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.