In most early season NBA forecasts, the Los Angeles Lakers were the overwhelming favorite to repeat as Western Conference Champions and for good reason: time was on their side. The Lakers principal rivals for the top spot, the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks had slipped into what seemed like an inexorable decline from being championship contenders to being mere playoff teams. The Denver Nuggets were wrestling with the likely loss of their best player, Carmelo Anthony, and the next generation of potential superpowers, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder had yet to consolidate their strengths. Picking the Lakers to win a title was cruising for an argument, but putting them in the Finals seemed like a pretty safe bet.
Seven weeks into the NBA season a lot has changed. Through action of Thursday December 16th, the Lakers were on pace for a top spot. Their 19-7 record and their point differential suggests that they are en route to a 62-20 regular season tally, a five game improvement over last season’s team which won its second straight NBA title. The surprise is that notions about the decline of the Spurs and the Mavericks have been greatly overestimated. Both teams made significant tactical shifts and small personnel changes that have yielded major improvement. The Spurs as of this writing are 22-3 (though Milwaukee Bucks fans might like to dispute win number 21) and on pace for 67 wins. The Mavericks are 20-5 and on pace for 59 wins. In other words the Lakers despite improving on a championship campaign rank as only the third best team in the West right now (yes, L.A. fans, your team is about to get center Andrew Bynum back which is huge at least until he gets hurt again, which given his injury history will occur sometime before the season is done, but the gain of his addition is going to be offset by a schedule which is about to get much tougher).
Since winning the title in 2007, the Spurs have been in gradual, steady decline from 58 wins in the title campaign to 50 last season, but this year’s uptick doesn’t read as a fluke. The big change at the AT&T Center has been pace. For years, the Spurs, typical of a stout defensive team, played at a slow pace. A typical Spurs win seemed like a 88-81 grinder. In ’07-’08, they ranked 28th of 30 teams in possessions per game, and they usually ranked in the bottom 10 of league—the polar opposite of their rival Phoenix Suns. This year they rank 10th; it’s as if they’ve gone from waltzes to techno in a heartbeat. The change in gears hasn’t affected the stellar play of their big three, pivotman Tim Duncan, swingman Manu Ginobilli and point guard Tony Parker, but it has boosted the games of key rotation players like guard George Hill, who is getting to the line a lot more and forward Richard Jefferson, who is stroking threes at a 45% clip.
The increase in tempo masks the fact the Spurs defense is still strong. The uptempo pace now means that the Spurs are allowing 96.8 point per game, 11th in the league, but when gauged by points per 100 possessions, they are eighth and that standing usually improves as the season wears on. San Antonio practically wrote the book on contemporary NBA defense–choke off three point shots and deny anything in the paint, which leaves teams trying to win off of medium and long distance twos, the least rewarding shots in the game. If they were an NFL team, this defense would have a name comparable to the Tampa Two or the 46. It’s that effective and widespread. .
Fans of the Dallas Mavericks might point out that the discrepancy in records notwithstanding that the road to the Western Conference town might go through Big D rather than their rival, and they have one head-to-head win to fortify their claim. Dallas is winning due to a new wrinkle in their defense; they play zone and they play it a lot, by some estimates, nearly 40% of their defensive possessions. In the past teams used zones to compensate for a lack of height and while the Mavs do sometimes employ a zone when their small backcourt of 6’2” Jason Terry and 6’ Jose Barea is on the floor, they mostly play zone to capitalize on the length and athleticism of key players like center Tyson Chandler, forward Shawn Marion and guard DeShawn Stevenson. That trio has the speed, quickness and length clog the passing lanes, and they are nimble enough to thwart the standard zone beating technique: overload the strong side with marksmen and then rotate the ball to the weak side where a slasher can catch the pass in mid-stride and attack the rim before the defensive rotation adjusts. As a result, the Mavericks are eighth in the league in Defensive Efficiency, points allowed per 100 possessions, their best showing since ’06-’07. The further interesting point is how flexible the Dallas zone is. At times in Tuesday’s loss to the Bucks, Chandler followed Milwaukee center Andrew Bogut out of the paint to the elbow to prevent him from getting easy looks against a smaller defender from mid-distance. Over the last few seasons, the Mavericks have accumulated a lot of talented defensive players. Now they have found a novel way to maximize their skills.
The season is not even a third of the way done and lot could happen in the way of injuries or trades. Every NBA fan salivates at the thought of the upper echelons of the Eastern Conference playoffs when the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and Orlando Magic duke it out, but now it looks like the late games will be just as much fun. .