A quick glance at the standings shows 4 of the 5 Pacific Division teams with winning records, the straggler being two-time defending division champ Phoenix. In other words, 3 weeks into the season, all five teams look like playoff contenders.
A closer look however reveals that several of these teams are more likely pretenders. In a scheduling quirk, all 5 teams in the division have opened with home-heavy schedules. The Clippers have played 6 at home, 2 on the road. The Lakers and Warriors have each played 7 at home, 3 on the road. The Kings have played 5 home, 4 road. Surprise, surprise, each of those 4 squads with winning records have exactly the same number of wins as home games. In other words, they're really all playing .500 ball when you look at road wins versus home losses, the most reasonable measure of performance in a sport with such a distinct home court advantage.
By the same measure, the Southwest Division is the true cream of the NBA crop, with 4 teams having more road wins than home losses, led by San Antonio at 5-2 and the Hornets at 4-0 (wow!).
The first meeting of the year between the Lakers and the Clippers Tuesday night will nonetheless be an important early season test. For the second Tuesday in a row, the Clippers are playing a team with first place on the line - last week it was the Jazz for the best record in the NBA, this week it's the Lakers for the division lead. Let's hope this one goes a little better.
The Lakers 7-3 start is good news for their fans, but it is particularly unimpressive under the hood. Of their 7 wins, only 3 have come against playoff teams from last season, and those are against teams (Phoenix, Memphis and Chicago) that have started this season a collective 7-21. In other words, they have zero wins against teams that made the playoffs last season and have a winning record this season. Their `best' win so far is the roadie against 7-3 Golden State, which would hardly have been something to write home about in years past. Meanwhile, the Lakers have looked decidedly mediocre in double digit losses to the Sonics, Blazers and Pistons.
I must admit, however, that the Lakers have looked better than expected in their wins. Lamar Odom is averaging career highs in points, shooting percentage, three point percentage and even free throw percentage. Andrew Bynum and Luke Walton have each started every game and played significantly better than anyone hoped or dreamed they would. Walton is easily the bigger surprise. Bynum came into the season a cipher, having played 340 career MINUTES, but Walton is in his fourth year, and had played over 200 games for the Lakers. How often does a 4th year player more than double his career average minutes per game (up to almost 32), triple his scoring average (to 12.7), and had 11 points to his shooting percentage (54%)? Answer: Not very often.
Kobe is clearly not whole at this point, but the team is taking advantage of the incredibly soft opening schedule to minimize his lower contribution. In fact, if Kobe can get close to 100% by mid-December when the schedule gets real, if the Lakers have built up a cushion of wins by then, and if Bynum and Walton can keep up the pace, the Lakers should be able to coast into the playoffs, and maybe even win a series.
As for the first game of the `Hallway Series' Tuesday night, let's hope that the rivalry aspect is enough to get the Clippers focused from the opening tap. I don't think I can take another first quarter debacle, which has been the norm for the first 8 games. The matchups are pretty favorable to the Clippers - Mobley will probably draw Kobe, and Ross will help off of Smush. Cassell will then take Walton, which could be a problem given Luke's new-found offense. But on the other end, neither Smush nor Luke can handle Cat or Sam, so the Clippers will look to exploit one of those two early.
At the power forward, former teammates Brand and Odom will face off, and you have to like EB's chances in that matchup. Lamar will try to take Elton off the dribble, and it will not be an easy defensive assignment for him by any means. But Brand's strength should be more than Odom can handle on the block. Look for the Lakers to double.
The center position will provide a great sub-plot. Chris Kaman, with his $52M extension and true-center credentials, against 19 year old Bynum, whom Jim Gray and John Ireland would have us believe is the rightful heir to the dynastic succession of Laker centers from Mikan to Wilt to Kareem to Shaq. If Kaman thinks the LA media is down on him now, wait and see what happens if he gets out-played by a teenager from down the hall.
Another interesting sub-plot is Tim Thomas and Vladimir Radmanovic. Radmanovic will be wearing gold while Thomas will be in red, primarily because VladRad expected to get more playing time with the Lakers. The reality is that VladRad is playing 15.6 minutes (in part due to an injured hand, and of course the emergence of Walton) while Thomas is playing 27.1 minutes. It's a long season, and things will undoubtedly change, but right now everyone is happy with the results of the '6'10" shooter shuffle' except Vlad.
It's November, and I refuse to call any game a `must win.' But for first place in the division, for any hope of LA media coverage from now until January, for a piece of the city's pie... this game is big.