One of the things I've been thinking about this week is health, and the difference being healthy makes for basketball teams. Consider the following:
Oklahoma City has played 23 games, and had the same starting lineup in every one of them. They have eight players who have appeared in all of their games; the starting lineup and their three best bench guys (Martin, Collison, and Maynor).
Memphis has played 23 games, and while Conley (1 game missed) and Tony Allen (3 games missed) haven't appeared in all of them, they have seven players who have, and have only missed backup Darrell Arthur for any significant amount of time.
San Antonio has played 25 games, and while this analysis is a bit off because they deliberately sat several of their best guys in one game, they have 11 players who have appeared in at least 20 of their games.
The Los Angeles Clippers have played 23 games and have eight players who have appeared in at least 22 of them, including their best five guys (Paul, Griffin, Jordan, Crawford, and Bledsoe) who have not missed a game. They have been without Chauncey Billups for most of the year, but have had a stable lineup throughout.
Those are the top four teams in the Western Conference. Compare them to the Wolves, who have had three players appear in all of their games, none of whom were expected to be starters if the entire roster were available (Ridnour, Shved, and Cunningham). What is truly remarkable is that 13 different players have started a game for the Wolves this year (none of whom are named Rubio).
Even Golden State, who have been missing Andrew Bogut for most of the year, have seven players who have not missed a game, and have been able to play a fairly consistent rotation with Festus Ezeli taking Bogut's place in the lineup (until missing last night's game).
And I think that matters. Teams can survive missing a player or two from their rotation, but there is benefit in being able to play a consistent rotation of guys.
Hot Team of the (Two) Week: The Los Angeles Clippers. Now clearly the best team occupying Staples Center, the Clippers have won nine games in a row. The schedule during this stretch has been light (and will continue to be; next four opponents are the Pistons, Hornets, Kings, and Suns), but they have taken advantage. They are terrific offensively, because they limit their turnovers and get a lot of layups (thank you Chris Paul). Defensively, they force a lot of turnovers and misses, though as a result they commit a lot of fouls. I'm not sure they are truly this good, and I'm not a believer in Vinnie Del Negro, but they haven't lost a game since November, and are currently battling it out with the other top teams in a very difficult conference.
Cold Team of the (Two) Week: The Charlotte Bobcats. After cresting at 7-5 almost a month ago, they have now lost a soul crushing 11 in a row. After a historic record of futility last season, this is more like it. They are the worst defensive team in the league, and they are the worst defensive rebounding team in the league, a combination that doesn't serve. They aren't much better offensively, where their terrible shooting is not offset by their ability to get to the line and limit turnovers. They aren't as putrid as they were last year, and their rookie lottery pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been something of a bright spot, showing a pretty good all-around game that includes decent rebounding and shot blocking to go along with a reasonable sense of what shots to take. It's something to build on, but things have been ugly in Charlotte, and might get worse before they get better, as they depart on a four game West Coast road trip next before coming home to play the Heat the day after Christmas.
Rookie Watch: there are 13 rookies who have played at least 400 minutes this season. The best rookie isn't on that list, as Anthony Davis has been truly excellent when he's been able to play. They problem is he's only played in nine games so far, and things like "stress reactions" that keep someone out for weeks at a time could be a red flag for his ability to stay healthy. In the meantime, the rest of the rookie class is having its ups and downs. Damian Lillard still looks like the best of the bunch so far, and has really been carrying a Blazer team that I thought would be much worse, but he struggles defensively. Andre Drummond continues to be the pleasant surprise of the draft thus far; excellent rebounding, efficient scoring (despite atrocious free throw shooting), and some shot blocking thrown in for good measure. Austin Rivers, despite his explosion against the Wolves the other night remains the worst rookie with this many minutes.
Ex-Wolves Watch: Wow. We talked a lot last season about how many minutes the Wolves were giving to terrible players, and how much that was costing them, but you can really see it now. Michael Beasley is looking worse then ever in Phoenix, where fellow ex-Wolf Wes Johnson can't even get in the rotation. Anthony Randolph isn't playing in Denver, Darko Milicic is finally out of the league. Those four players played 3500 minutes for the Wolves last season, and I'm not even including Martell Webster and Wayne Ellington, neither of whom are playing particularly well for their new teams but look like all-stars compared to the Phoenix duo.
Time for bullet points?
- Well, I really thought the Harden trade would hurt OKC at least some, but so far it has not. Kevin Martin is making shots, and the Thunder have the best offense in the league. They get to the line better then anyone, and they shoot the highest percentage on 3s in the NBA. 3s and free throws, it's my mantra.
- On the flip side, Indiana seems to have found it's footing after a rough start and have gone 8-4 in their last 12 behind the best defense in the league. They force a ton of misses and are one of the top defensive rebounding teams in the NBA.
- Kyrie Irving torched the Knicks for 41 yesterday, and the Cavs still lost despite the absence of Carmelo Anthony (sprained ankle). The Cavs better find a way to get some better players to build around or risk wasting Irving's years in the maroon and gold (or whatever colors they are wearing now).
- Despite their top three guards in minutes played being Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson, and Marco Belinelli, the Chicago Bulls are hanging in there at 13-9. They are still playing terrific defense, and credit must go to Tom Thibodeau for keeping it together.
- Chatter about who might get traded this year is beginning to warm up as we pass the December 15th date for trading newly signed free agents and as we pass the season's quarter pole. This will certainly become a big topic of conversation as teams assess where they are and what they need now and in the future. So far, the names that have been bandied about include our own Derrick Williams, Andrea Bargnani, Pau Gasol, along with a few other guys who seem likely to be on the move.