By: Isaac Gillen, KCOU Sports
Two weeks into the NBA season now and we’ve seen some things we expected (Derrick Rose being cautious with his legs; Pop sitting Duncan and Ginobili on a back-to-back on national TV) and some things we didn’t (BOOGIE! And the Sacramento Kings rattling off five wins in a row; new look Cavs not passing the ball). Here are the early contenders and pretenders from each conference.
Houston Rockets-Status: Contenders (for now)
The Rockets have wowed early in the season. Behind James Harden and Dwight Howard’s impressive starts, the Rockets are out to a blistering 6-1 pace.
It could be debated that replacing Chandler Parsons with Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry has improved the wing defense and opened up even more corner three’s for the Rockets.
It could also be debated that they’ve had a cupcake of a schedule thus far. Playing four of the league’s lottery favorites (Lakers, Sixers, Celtics, Jazz) and the new look Heat and San Antonio’s B-team on a back-to-back isn’t enough to know whether Houston is for real or not, but they have been so imposing on both ends of the floor.
Defense was the problem last year as James Harden has been clowned throughout the league as one of the lesser defensive minds in the NBA. He currently is second on the team in steals and third in blocks (1.6 and 1.3 respectively).
Basically, this team is doing what championship teams are supposed to do against bottom feeders, annihilate them. They played another serious Western Contender Saturday night, their first true test of the season as the Brothers Splash beat the Rockets as Steph Curry torched the Rockets for 31 and 10. So, are the Rockets focused early? Or were they just capitalizing on a forgiving schedule to start the season? Time will tell in Houston.
Sacramento Kings-Status: Pretenders (for now)
Other than maybe the Grizzlies, the Sacramento Kings have been the most pleasant surprise in the West. After dropping the season opener to the Warriors, they’ve won five straight. The Kings also defeated the team that was a consensus team to contend in the West in the Phoenix Suns in double-overtime on a Rudy Gay game-clinching jumper.
After a stellar performance in the FIBA World Cup, Gay and DeMarcus Cousins have returned to Sacramento with a rejuvenated look. Cousins has been overwhelming opponents thus far. Some NBA writers/analysts have been considering him an early MVP candidate and it’s hard to disagree with them. BOOGIE! has been absolutely dominant on offense and despite his foul trouble, he has been the Kings best defender as well. If the Kings continue their hot start, voters would be remiss not to reward DMC with his first all-star start. As good as Dwight Howard has looked this season, Cousins has put a shadow over him and a tight grip on the starting center spot on the West All-Star team.
Despite losing Isaiah Thomas, the Kings have replaced most of his production with Darren Collison. Collison stepped up after being predominantly a backup for the past few seasons. He’s averaging career highs in points, assists and steals to start the year.
The Kings are showing some real promise for the first time in a decade but will they be able to sustain it? They lost to the Thunder Sunday and they have games against the Mavericks, Grizzlies and Spurs this week. This will give us a good idea if the Kings are legit playoff contenders or just riding a hot start.
Honorable Mention Contenders: Warriors, Grizzlies
Honorable Mention Pretenders: Trailblazers, Suns
Toronto Raptors-Status: Contenders (for now)
DRIZZY! Raptors continued off of last year’s successful season under head coach Dwayne Casey and GM Masai Ujiri’s first seasons.
The Raptors might have two All-Stars on the team this year in Kyle Lowry (17.9 ppg, 5.6 apg, 4.4 rpg) and DeMar DeRozan (22.7 ppg, 4.9rpg, 2.3 spg). Improvement in Terrence Ross’s three-point shooting to start the year has given the Raps a solid outside shooter for Lowry and Derozan to find.
The Raptors have had an easy road to their 6-1 start. They’ve played two teams with winning records. They’ve beat up on the Sixers, Celtics, Magic, Hawks and (decimated by injury) Thunder.
Like the Rockets, they aren’t playing down to the competition and are competitive against the other contenders in the East. The Raptors don’t play a tough opponent away from T-Dot until they take on the LeBronaliers on Nov. 22. If this team continues trouncing the rest of its Eastern Conference opponents and capitalizes on a five-game home stand, they will be resting atop the East while the Bulls and Cavs get used to their new pieces.
Charlotte Hornets-Status: Pretenders (for now)
They’re back baby! The retro jerseys and color scheme haven’t looked this good since Larry Johnson and Steph Curry’s dad shared the court.
The Hornets will go as far as Al Jefferson (22.7 ppg 7.3 rpg) and Kemba Walker (15.2 ppg 5 apg) will carry them, although Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s new found shooting touch (68 percent) has also helped make up for Lance Stephenson’s lack of production.
The Hornets are 3-3, is good enough for sixth place in the East right now. Of their three wins, two have come in overtime. They did beat the Miami Heat, but are still winless on the road.
If they can continue executing Steve Clifford’s defensive schemes and Lance Stephenson and Noah Vonleh can pick up the offensive slack this team should be a lock for the playoffs in the weak East. If not, we may see a mid-season Michael Jordan panic trade.
Honorable Mention Contenders: Wizards, Heat
Honorable Mention Pretenders: Bulls, Bucks