SB Nation

Paul Flannery | November 10, 2013

Sunday Shootaround

Anthony Davis is already here

Raising eyebrows

Ask anyone around the league what has caught their eye in the first week of the season, and it's a safe bet the first words out of their mouth will be "Anthony Davis," followed by long sighs. The long-winged bird of prey has arrived, and we’re not talking about Pierre the Pelican.

Barely a half-dozen games into his second season, Davis is putting on a nightly show for the rebranded New Orleans Pelicans. It’s not just the gaudy stats, although 23 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.3 blocks tend to get your attention. Rather, it’s the way he plays: dominating stretches of the game with his soft touch, nimble athleticism and dontbringthatweakstuffinhere presence at the rim.

On Friday night against the Lakers, Davis reached back over his body to block a disbelieving Pau Gasol and then sprinted down the court and got fouled at the other basket. The whole play took a couple of seconds, but contained all of the jaw-dropping athleticism and court sense that makes fans giddy and opponents shake their heads.

In another sequence, Davis caught the ball above the free throw line, took one step to the dotted half circle and dunked from there. He eviscerated Gasol all night, swallowing up his shots and repeatedly beating him and the rest of the Lakers down the floor for dunks, en route to a career-high 32 points.

It's not like this is any great surprise. Davis entered the NBA fresh off a devastating season at Kentucky, where he controlled the college game from the opening tip. It was always going to happen. It was just a question of when.

As a rookie, Davis averaged a respectable 13.2 points and 8.5 rebounds while shooting over 50 percent from the field. It was a solid, if relatively unspectacular debut. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting to unanimous winner Damian Lillard despite posting a better PER, but no one really argued the decision too strenuously.

Perhaps that was because Davis' defensive impact didn't live up to his advanced billing. He blocked his share of shots, but New Orleans was a poor defensive team with him on the court. They weren't much better without him, which was an indictment of the whole roster.

Things are starting to change. With Jrue Holiday at the point, the Pelicans have someone to defend the ball, and with the addition of Tyreke Evans and a healthy Eric Gordon, they are more balanced offensively.

Early season small sample sizes abound, but New Orleans is ranked a respectable 11th in defensive rating and an equally-encouraging 11th on the offensive side, per Basketball Reference. Save for a dreadful 20-point loss to the Magic in their second game, they've also been competitive every night out and earned an impressive win in Memphis on Wednesday.

The Pelicans still have a long way to go. The depth is better, but still worrisome. Evans has been slow to adjust to his new role off the bench and Ryan Anderson's shooting and floor spacing are sorely missed. But, they are getting there, and thanks to Davis' emergence, they may be ahead of schedule.

Here are a few other pleasant developments from the first full week of the season:

PAUL GEORGE RISES AND THE PACERS TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS

When we last left the Pacers, they were on the wrong end of a rather incredible seven-game conference finals loss to the Miami Heat. It was incredible because no one really expected Indiana could keep up with Miami in a playoff series. Certainly few expected that George would be able to match LeBron James point-for-point and shot-for-shot like he did at times.

It was a massive leap forward for both the team and the player, and George was rewarded with a maximum contract extension in the offseason. Still, the prevailing wisdom was the Pacers would take a backseat to the Bulls once Derrick Rose returned to the court. They were good, obviously, but unless George took a massive leap into the superstar strata, they had probably reached their limit.

No one should be eager to put a cap on [George's] potential after what he's shown in his first few seasons

We might want to reconsider. George may not average 25-8-4 and shoot 40 percent from behind the arc for the entire season, but no one should be eager to put a cap on his potential after what he's shown in his first few seasons. The multi-talented hybrid forward has improved every year he's been in the league. The only stop left is legit star status.

The Pacers have followed his lead, winning their first six games while dispatching both the Pistons on the road and the Bulls at home. Both George and the Pacers have taken the essential lessons from their postseason baptism and applied them to the regular season. They have cracked the code on winning games. Double digit deficits in the second quarter disappear by the end of the third, and they are mastering the art of putting games away in crunch time.

The Pacers are also not in a mood to give ground back to Chicago. As George told NBA.com's Steve Aschburner:

"We want to step away from that shadow as the 'little brothers' of this division. Their success is the Michael Jordan era. This is a new age, this is a new team. It's ours till they take it."

GOLDEN STATE'S D

From Stephen Curry's otherworldly shooting to the untapped potential of Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, there is much to like about the Warriors this season. They play fast, bomb 3s and have a strong inside-out game with Curry and a slimmed-down David Lee. On pure aesthetic grounds, it's hard to top the Dubs for nightly entertainment.

That's all well and good. The Warriors have always been compulsively watchable, even as a guilty pleasure. What's different this season is their defensive chops.

It's really not that complicated, either. Andre Iguodala is one of the game's top perimeter defenders. Andrew Bogut is one of the league's premier rim protectors. Take those two talents and surround them with willing defenders and a sound scheme and the Warriors -- yes the Warriors -- have emerged as one of the top defensive squads in the league.

With so much depending on Bogut's health, it's futile to project where they might end up, but even without Curry on Friday, they battled the Spurs to the wire in a 76-74 defeat. It was a frustrating loss, made more so by some end-of-game miscues, but it was also encouraging. No way the Warriors hang in a game like that in the past. For now at least, the defense makes them a legit threat.

WELCOME BACK, KEVIN LOVE

The early season is full of obscure trivia, but none had as much resonance as the mark Kevin Love set when he averaged better than 26 points and 15 rebounds in his first five games. The only other player to do that in the last 15 years? Kevin Garnett, of course.

Long after his departure, KG still casts a very long shadow over the Timberwolves organization. Every mark, every number and every milestone has his name attached to it. Love and the Wolves thought they were ready to break out and write their own history last season, but injuries wrecked those plans. This year may be the one they get it right.

Love had another monster game on Friday with 32 points and 15 rebounds in a win over the Mavericks. He also had eight assists, which gives him 30 after six games. The numbers become a blur after a while, but no other power forward brings the array of skills that Love brings to the equation.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

And now, a word about the Knicks.

One of the things that was so remarkable about last year's 54-win season was the relative absence of drama. Sure, J.R. Smith did weird things at times, but he saved his most aberrant behavior for the postseason. Yes, there were injuries up and down the lineup, but whenever a Rasheed Wallace or Kurt Thomas went down, there was a Kenyon Martin waiting to gobble up minutes and boards.

Despite all that, the Knicks were an often joyous crew that delighted in launching 3s and propelling Carmelo Anthony to superstar status. Even dour coach Mike Woodson got a makeover as the stern, yet pliable strategist who didn't mind running out weird lineups and reveling in the nonconformity.

Or so it appeared. Once the postseason began, Woodson shied away from the small-ball strengths that defined his team and insisted on playing a more conventional style against the massive Indiana Pacers. It was the classic old-school move for a team that should have been firmly planted in the modern era.

Still, it would be wrong to blame everything on Woodson, especially since Smith's redemption story ended in a clang of missed jumpers and screaming headlines. It's also not as if the Knicks were a smoke and mirrors act. With Melo playing at his best and Tyson Chandler holding down the paint, they were a good, albeit flawed, team that went about as far as they could reasonably expect go.

Reason and expectations don't always line up in owner James Dolan's worldview

Reason and expectations don't always line up in owner James Dolan's worldview, however. He reportedly told his coaching staff he wanted a championship and he wanted it now. Nevermind that his team lacked depth or that the big offseason move was to bring in a 7-footer who doesn't rebound or play defense. This is Dolan's Knicks we're talking about.

It's unfortunate that Chandler broke his leg barely a week into the season, because there are few players who are more proud or more committed to their jobs than the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year. It was also unfortunate because the big man was mostly responsible for a defense that was just mediocre enough to keep them in games until the shots started falling.

With Chandler out of the lineup for 4-6 weeks, Woodson has turned to Andrea Bargnani to play, as he termed it, "serious minutes" at center. This has disaster written all over it. It's not as if the Knicks have the assets to go out and make a trade for a defensive big man either. The roster is top heavy and decidedly lacking in tradeable players outside of Iman Shumpert. They owe first-round picks in 2014 and 2016 and don't even have any second rounders to sweeten the pot.

Woodson and the Knicks have defied the doomsayers for a while now, and on his first night as a starter, Bargnani scored 25 points and even blocked five shots against the Bobcats. It took him 25 shots to get there, but hey, baby steps. This came on the heels of a closed door meeting convened by Melo after a home loss to the same Charlotte club, so credit them for making a statement.

The next month may define how this Knicks' season turns out. If it goes poorly, dysfunction and disarray may come with it.

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

MONDAY Grizzlies at Pacers

Grit and grind versus bump and bang. Let’s count the intriguing matchups: We have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol against Roy Hibbert, the presumptive challenger. There’s Zach Randolph and David West in a manly contest of players no one messes with, and if we’re lucky, maybe Tony Allen will check Paul George. First one to 72 points wins.

TUESDAY Wizards at Mavericks

It’s a light night for the Association, but we’re intrigued by what we’ve seen from the Mavs so far, particularly Monta Ellis, who is averaging 24 points a game and shooting about 50 percent. The perpetually maligned guard has found new life in Big D playing on a team that doesn’t require him to be the best player, but doesn’t actually mind if he plays like he is the main guy. Good on ‘ya Monta. Keep doing what you do.

WEDNESDAY Bucks at Magic

We like to spread the love around here, so we’ll sample one of the most obscure games on the stocked Wednesday night buffet. Rookie guard Victor Oladipo is worthy enough of our attention, as is 30 and 20 man Nikola Vučević. With those two, plus second-year forwards Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson, the Magic are creeping up the League Pass watchability rankings.

THURSDAY Thunder at Warriors

While his timing may not be all the way back, Russell Westbrook has not eased himself back into the Thunder lineup. He’s still the same old Russ, and that’s a good thing for an OKC team that was looking a little stale without him on the court. This is shaping up as an interesting little showdown between the upstart Dubs and the established Thunder, who are in danger of getting lapped in the hyper-competitive conference.

FRIDAY Timberwolves at Nuggets

Last year, the Nuggets did what many of us thought the Wolves would do. That is, rip off 57 wins and emerge from a pack of middle rans and become something of a serious threat in the West. The Nuggets faltered in large measure because of a season-ending injury to Danilo Gallinari, which just shows how precarious contenting status can be in this league. The Wolves never got started, of course, but the early returns are encouraging. If there’s a sleeper in the West, it might be in Minnesota.

SATURDAY Nets at Clippers

After Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce left the court for what would be the final time as Celtics, Doc Rivers lamented, "You just want it to always be perfect for them, and as a coach you want to protect that." Things have turned out pretty close to perfectly for all three men, but this reunion figures to be tinged with sadness and regret for what they left behind.

The ListNBA players in some made up category

Everyone loves lists, especially completely arbitrary lists like this one: This week: Top five victims of circumstances.

Paul Millsap: Slot the rugged throwback forward on a half-dozen teams, and he’d be the ultimate glue guy, Robert Horry without the heroic game-winners. Millsap has been solidly consistent since his first days in the league, routinely averaging 15-18 points and 8-10 rebounds with the Jazz, which earned him the occasional blog accolades and not much else. It’s not just the public that overlooks Millsap. Somehow, the Hawks got him for a two-year, $19 million deal this summer.

Thaddeus Young: Millsap’s Northeast doppelganger. The most shocking thing about Young is that he’s only 25 years old. The second most notable thing is that he completely reinvented himself from a wannabe floor-spacer into a mid-range maestro who does his work inside the arc and in transition. Put him on a good team and he’d be a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

Courtney Lee: The sixth-year guard is already on his fourth NBA team, and considering the Celtic' longrange rebuilding program, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him make it to a fifth at some point in the next year or two. Call Lee what you like: a tweener, a combo guard, a 3 and D wing, but his skillset looks a lot better on good teams than on poor ones. He's off to a nice start this season, which may make him an attractive trade candidate.

Wesley Matthews: Twenty-three-year-old undrafted rookies are not supposed to make much of an impact, but Matthews took over a starting job midway through his first season with the Jazz and parlayed that into a nice contract with the Blazers where he’s been one of the league’s most dependable players for the notoriously star-crossed franchise. If the Blazers can get back to the postseason, Matthews will get his due.

Corey Brewer: Unlike the rest of the players on the list, Brewer actually started his career as something of a building block as the seventh pick in the draft by the Wolves way back in 2007. It didn’t go well. But, a funny thing happened to him on the way to obscurity: after bouncing around from Dallas to Denver, he finally was put in the right position to take advantage of his skills. Now back for a second tour with Minnesota, Brewer is a key contributor on a dangerous squad and a role model for anyone whose career got off to a slow start.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Why first-round picks matter

First-round picks are the most valuable currency of the NBA realm. Everyone wants them and no one wants to give them up. Mark Deeks explores why they’ve gained in value.

Playing among the stars

Everyone loves to pick on Mario Chalmers, but the Miami guard actually likes living in the white-hot spotlight, as he told Holly MacKenzie.

A tale of two offenses

Coach Nick breaks down why the Pacers are having success and why the Pistons are not.

The Warriors' tricky future

Everything is rainbows and unicorns for the Warriors right now, but at some point in the not so distant future, they will have tough choices to make with Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes. Tom Ziller explores in The Hook.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"You know, I'm going to celebrate for a whole 12 minutes and then I'm going to start watching Orlando and trying to figure them out." -- Celtics coach Brad Stevens after earning his first professional victory.

Reaction: Stevens lost four games total in his first season coaching Butler, so it’s natural to wonder if his famously unflappable demeanor would start to crack after four straight losses to open his inaugural NBA run. So far, he seems to be taking everything in stride, which is the appropriate response.

"When we go to that small lineup, we have to make sure we're on the same page. If we're switching, switch. If it's just ball screens, then so be it. We have to talk better. We can't keep having these mental lapses." -- Rockets forward Chandler Parsons after a loss to the Lakers.

Reaction: This is a really disturbing trend for Houston. All eyes are on James Harden and Kevin McHale.

"I know our defense is going to come. You can see it in spurts. We're going to have a game where its 86-85 and we're going to have to defend. We are getting timely stops. We're going to get it." -- Clippers coach Doc Rivers.

Reaction: There’s a parallel with the Rockets to draw, but Rivers rightly points out that his offense is going to be his team's calling card. He gets it, but until his team grasps his defensive principles, we'll remain slightly skeptical about the Clips. Just not as skeptical as we are about Houston.

"Retirement was a thought, it was a serious thought. It still is. It's tough to enjoy the game because of how limited I am physically. I'm working through that. I'm a shell of myself on the court right now. I'm just struggling mentally." -- Andrew Bynum to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. Reaction: It’s easy to pick on Bynum -- people have been doing so since his Laker days -- but it’s a lot harder to live through the kind of injuries he’s faced in his his career.
"The courts can be obstacle courses because of the cameramen and team staff parked around its perimeter. It’s not safe. The league should address the issue more and I am hopeful they will in the near future. Until then teams need to do a better job enforcing the current standards. Player safety always has to be a huge priority." -- Hawks GM Danny Ferry after guard Jeff Teague sprained his ankle tripping over a baseline attendant. Reaction: Amen.

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

James Harden

The Rockets' perimeter defense was the talking point du jour on Friday after a stunning home loss to the Lakers. This clip of James Harden not paying attention as Steve Blake cut behind him was the defining image of that discussion.

Steve Blake

If not for the above Harden GIF, this one of Steve Blake's game-winner on Thursday would suffice because of the image of Jeremy Lin throwing his hands in the air after the Rockets' botched switch.

Anthony Davis

This is a two-footed jump from just inside the free-throw line. Scary.

Stephen Curry

Because we have a new rule: there must be a Warriors GIF in every post.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Mike Prada

About the Author

Paulflannery_sbhed

Paul Flannery writes about the NBA for SBNation.com and teaches journalism at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, hates to drive and is probably waiting for the Green Line.

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