NBA Sunday Shootaround: Assessing the Knicks, Grizzlies and Clippers

Nelson Chenault-US PRESSWIRE

The New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers are the clear top three teams in the NBA right now. We discuss whether they can keep it up.

Saturday morning, the top three teams in the NBA according to Basketball-Reference's Simple Ratings System were as follows:

Memphis Grizzlies: 14.27

New York Knicks: 13.16

Los Angeles Clippers: 11.02

First, the disclaimers: Three weeks into a six-month season isn't nearly enough time to make any kind of a meaningful assessment that the league has undergone a seismic sea change atop its pecking order. It's also worth noting that the following teams widely thought to be the four best are slotted immediately after:

Miami Heat: 7.52

Oklahoma City Thunder: 5.75

San Antonio Spurs: 5.17

Los Angeles Lakers: 3.37

While remaining resolute that this season will come down once again to LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the Finals, and waiting to see whatever it is the Lakers wind up becoming under Mike D'Antoni, the Knicks, Grizz and Clips haven't just been the three best teams so far this month, they've been the three best teams by a huge margin.

We saw it on Wednesday night when Memphis and the Clippers whacked OKC and Miami, respectively, and we saw it again on Thursday when the Knicks went to San Antonio and beat the Spurs. On Friday, in another impressive display of their strength, the Grizzlies shut down and short-circuited the Knicks, handing them their first loss of the season.

Even in that 10-point loss there were positive signs for New York. On the second night of a back-to-back, the Knicks didn't pack it in. When their offense was seemingly lost, Raymond Felton started driving to the basket and exposing the gaps in Memphis' defense. It wasn't enough to pull off the comeback, but it was solid evidence of a team that won't settle.

This isn't really that complicated. All three teams are playing strong defense and reaching an offensive level that was previously unimaginable. That is to say, perhaps their play is not sustainable.

Let's examine the pros and cons of each team:

MEMPHIS

Pros: A two-headed frontline monster in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph that presents a nightmare matchup every night, an emerging point guard in Mike Conley and a dose of creative scoring on the wing courtesy of Rudy Gay. The defense led by underrated coordinator Dave Joerger is a given, and that's before we mention Tony Allen.

Cons: Wayne Ellington, Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless are playing out of their collective minds and there's no real evidence that can continue. It should be noted that coach Lionel Hollins has done an excellent job of maximizing his personnel, but the overall depth is a concern.

Bottom Line: The Grizzlies are the proverbial team no one wants to play, but can they score enough when it counts, and can the patchwork bench offer enough support over the long haul? This could be the breakthrough season we all expected last season when injuries derailed their progress. They are very much for real and every bit a problem for the Spurs and Thunder, particularly.

KNICKS

Pros: A varied, multiple offense based around the fundamental teaching of Bobby Knight's delightful motion scheme, with Jason Kidd acting as the brain and Carmelo Anthony serving as the central nervous system. The role players are playing their roles perfectly and Tyson Chandler is on defense. Also, the unlikely resurrection of Rasheed Wallace and the inspired play of J.R. Smith has given their bench some much-needed punch.

Cons: The 39-year-old Kidd will have to hold up physically, Smith will come back to earth, Sheed's novelty act will wear off and there's the whole question of what to do once Amar'e Stoudemire returns.

Bottom line: The Eastern Conference is begging for someone -- anyone -- to challenge Miami. There's opportunity here that simply doesn't exist in the West. Until the Celtics get their act together defensively and the Pacers catch any kind of an offensive flow, the Knicks are the second-best team in the conference.

CLIPPERS

Pros: Chris Paul's genius, Jamal Crawford's crossover, DeAndre Jordan's improvement and Eric Bledsoe all damn day.

Cons: Blake Griffin's lack of development, Vinny Del Negro's rotations and unsustainable three-point shooting from Caron Butler and Willie Green.

Bottom Line: Believe in Chris Paul, which is really what this comes down to, and if Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups can come back healthy and productive, they can shore up that suspect perimeter shooting.

DeMar DeRozan and the learning curve

Courtney Lee, wise man of the Celtics locker room, was talking about DeMar DeRozan, the gifted but inconsistent young wing for the Raptors who recently signed an extension that made the league's opinion makers shake their collective heads. There's always one each year that does it, and this year it was DeRozan's. Why would the Raptors commit four years and somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million per to a player who hasn't fundamentally improved in his three years in the league?

"No matter if you're one through 15, if you're getting paid the minimum to the most, everybody's going to have an opinion," Lee said. "You just focus on doing what your team needs you to do and playing for your teammates. Then everybody else on the outside, they're always going to have their opinion, but the only people's opinion that matters is inside the organization and on the team. Leave it at that."

DeRozan's play hasn't quite justified the deal yet, but it's been good enough to make people rethink their snap judgments. He is, after all, just 23 years old and his talent has always been evident.

"I don't think people notice him -- not because they are in Toronto, but because of their record," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I think people are sleeping on him a lot. I think he adds stuff every year. Early on, he was basically a kamikaze driver -- that's what we labeled him as, early on. Now he gets to the line. He makes jump shots. He defends. He's a total basketball player."

Some would argue with that -- DeRozan's shooting percentages have flatlined since his rookie year -- but it does appear that the light is going on in his fourth season, which raises another interesting question about players and their development curve.

"Everyone's different," Rivers said. "(Kevin) Durant picked it up pretty quickly. The greats ones do, some of the guys that have a chance to be really good -- it just takes them time and patience. The mental toughness of that is hard. A lot of guys give in, give up and settle. A lot of guys keep driving. What I like about him, and I don't know him at all, but it just seems like from afar, he must put a lot of time in the summer on his game, because each year, he's gotten not just a little better, but a lot better in areas that you would have to work on. So I think that's impressive."

The real reason to watch Rajon Rondo

Late in the second quarter of their game against the Raptors on Saturday, Rajon Rondo was credited with his 10th assist after he passed to Jason Terry on the wing and Terry took two dribbles before launching a pull-up jumper. That extended Rondo's streak of games with at least 10 assists to 33, which leaves him third behind Magic Johnson and John Stockton.

Assists are the worst statistic in basketball because they are subjective and have become unconscionably cheap, yet that's the number that most people identify when they talk about Rondo. He leads the league in that category, just like he led it last season, but raw assists barely begin to explain the impact Rondo has on the Celtics.

Far more impressive has been his shooting percentage from the outside, where is making a rather astonishing 49 percent of his jumpers from 16-23 feet, per HoopData. Even more telling is that Rondo is taking 4.4 attempts a game from that distance, up from 2.9 the previous season. Shooting percentages from that distance are notoriously fluky, but Rondo's willingness to take the shot has opened up other avenues for his teammates, notably Kevin Garnett.

"Guards are starting to go over (high screens) now because he can shoot the ball," Rivers said. "If the bigs are going to show on Rondo we're getting something for Kevin. We're rolling Kevin now more than popping him. The more he makes that shot the more we can run."

Rondo has increased his scoring and his field goal shooting, which makes him an almost impossible cover. That, in turn, has helped lift the Celtics' offensive rating from the dregs to the top 10. The assists are nice and the streak has taken on a life of its own, but Rondo's real impact has been raising the rest of his game to a new comprehensive level.

"It's an offense in itself," Rivers said. "We've always said that about him. We have an offense and then he creates another offense"

An open letter to the Denver Nuggets

Dear Denver,

We've had some good times. The Andre Iguodala trade was inspired and that Ty Lawson extension was perfectly executed. Those uniforms remind me of Marquette in the 70s, which makes me think about Al McGuire and that's never a bad thing. I'll never get sick of watching Kenneth Faried crashing down the court or Jordan Hamilton going HAM.

I want to love you for building a team whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I want to believe in a place that has provided a safe haven for JaVale McGee's weirdness and Andre Miller's set shots.

But if I'm being honest with myself I'm finding it harder and harder to stay committed. Your offense is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book gone horribly wrong whenever it is confronted with a set defense in the halfcourt. I don't trust your ability to make free throws, and Gallo, what have you done with the old Gallo? That guy was awesome. Please bring him back.

What I'm trying to say Denver is it's not you, it's me. I'll probably come crawling back at some point but right now, I'm over it.

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