With the Champions Classic tonight in Chicago getting so much attention, what’s the landscape looking like for the top picks in the 2014 draft? I think you’ve got the Pretenders and the Contenders—but not for the championship. For the top pick in the 2014 draft. How are things starting to shake out a couple of weeks into the season?
First, the Pretenders. These are the teams fully expected to be awful, but playing surprisingly tough and turning a lot of heads:
Phoenix: I think Jazz fans have been understandably observant of Phoenix’s win-loss record, as well as their offensive execution. Jeff Hornacek, former Jazz man and Jazz assistant coach, has turned a team with possibly the weakest roster in the league into one of the most surprising teams—and, at times, most exciting to watch. In his time backing up Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe showed extreme athleticism and defensive toughness, but no one could have envisioned he’d be shooting this well or leading a team so adeptly. Several have mentioned that, if he keeps this up, he’s well on his way to earning a max contract in the offseason. Even though four of their next six games are on the road, only one is against a good team—Brooklyn—so there’s a good chance for Phoenix to remain well over .500 for the next couple of weeks.
Philadelphia: Michael Carter-Williams had a pretty fantastic coming-out party on opening night, one steal away from a triple double, and not far off from a quadruple double. Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes both scored over 20 points in their home opener to shock Miami. Philly’s home-heavy schedule included 5 of the 7 games at home, and only one of their losses was close—a 125-127 loss to Cleveland in Cleveland the night after beating them handily at home. But such a favorable schedule—the Miami opener notwithstanding—has led to a surprisingly strong 4-4 record. They fell to San Antonio last night, and a brutal schedule continues: Houston Wednesday, at Atlanta Friday, at New Orleans Saturday, and then at Dallas on Monday. Two winnable games at home versus Toronto and Milwaukee follow, but no one would be surprised if the 76ers are a couple of games under .500 after the next couple of weeks. If Evan Turner keeps playing like the #2 pick he is (finally!), and Michael Carter-Williams keeps distributing and scoring at this pace, they could make it interesting, though.
Boston: After dropping their first four games of the season—three of them on the road—the Celtics are suddenly and surprisingly on a four-game winning streak, beating the Jazz before beating Orlando and Miami in Florida, and Orlando again at home. Their five starters are all averaging double-digit points per game for a balanced scoring attack, and they have two winnable games this week—home games against the Bobcats and Trailblazers—before heading out on a difficult three-game road trip, with stops in Minnesota, Houston, and San Antonio. I’d guess they end up at 6-7 after their next six games, but considering they beat Miami in Miami, they could pull out a surprising win.
A near-.500 record in the East has meant a playoff berth in recent history, far away from a top lottery pick. If Brad Stevens has Boston anywhere near that come February, Danny Ainge might have a different plan in the works leading up to the trade deadline.
Toronto: The weakest of the Pretenders, they’re currently at 3-5, with four of their losses coming against solid teams: Miami, Atlanta, Indiana, and Houston (their loss to Charlotte was a two-point loss, and their loss against Houston was in 2OT). Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan have been an effective one-two punch so far, with Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson shoring up the passing and scoring, respectively. They have a tough schedule coming up, with an away game at Memphis, before home games against Chicago and Portland. A game at Philadelphia follows, before a home game against Washington. It’s likely Toronto goes 2-3 in that stretch, to end up at 5-8 before a difficult group of games against Miami, Brooklyn, and Golden State. Toronto might move up to the Contenders category soon enough.
So who are the Contenders? The teams either blatantly tanking or just, you know, that bad, through the first two weeks of the season. Again, it’s early, but it’s still worth taking a quick look.
Utah: We’re all too familiar with Utah’s woes over the last couple of weeks and an 0-8 start. After decent effort in the first couple of games, the offense and defense has regressed and the team has suffered multiple double-digit losses. Last night’s game against Denver was possibly the only salve fans will have for a while: games against (an improving) New Orleans, San Antonio, Golden State, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Phoenix, Indiana, and Houston are all next on the docket. Hopefully the point differential will be less awful, because I don’t see too many wins among the upcoming games. New Orleans might be the best shot, but Anthony Davis has been fantastic lately.
Denver: We should have seen this coming—Denver being a Contender for the 2014 top pick—after Denver lost their coach and all his regular-season magic (George Karl) along with their best player (Andre Iguodala). Denver and Utah are usually neck and neck with home records, due to similar altitudes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they share a similar trajectory to the top of the 2014 draft. The less said about last night’s Jazz loss to Denver, the better.
Sacramento: Though DeMarcus Cousins has seemingly turned a corner (yeah, I know it’s early in the season) and hasn’t had any outbursts or attitude issues in games, he hasn’t had much support from anyone else.
Charlotte: They started off strong while Al Jefferson was nursing an ankle injury, but have come back down to earth in the last week.
Washington: They’re bordering contender/pretender, but a team with John Wall and Bradley Beal has some talent and can win some games.
Orlando: Victor Oladipo started off strong, but has since fallen off a bit, as rookies can do.
The Contenders may not change much throughout the season; the talent level on those teams just isn’t the same as the teams above them in the standings. But the Pretenders have been surprising, and it’ll be interesting to watch them throughout the season and see if they’re pretending to be Pretenders for the 2014 pick, or if their new coaches have instilled enough structure and a system to keep their teams from one of the top picks in the lottery.