I realize the new NBA season is just a week old, but is it time to worry about the two Western Conference favorites?
The defending conference champion Thunder are 1-2 following Sunday’s 104-95 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks, who were playing without star forward Josh Smith because of a sprained right ankle. Of course the Thunder made the stunning trade on the eve of the season, sending James Harden to Houston (more on him in a minute). Kevin Martin, who has essentially taken over Harden’s sixth man role, has been good. He scored 28 points off the bench Sunday and is averaging 20.7 ppg on the season. Kevin Durant had 22 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists vs. Atlanta, which looks good on paper. He nearly had his first career-triple-double. However, Durant had six turnovers and shot 2-for-9 in the second half.
The three-time scoring champion is averaging 22.7 ppg, which is 12th in the league and would be Durant’s lowest since his rookie year. He leads the league in turnovers with 16 and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of just 1.25. Durant is rebounding like a beast, averaging 14.4 per game, but that’s clearly not going to keep up. The Harden trade seemed to cause a bit of a rift on the team. The Oklahoman reported on Sunday that “much like the first two nights of the 2012-13 season, there was a ton of barking among Thunder players. At the end of the first quarter, Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook had to be separated from exchanging words as they walked to the bench. Later, Kevin Durant chewed out Serge Ibaka for failing to grab a rebound.”
This team is obviously too talented to worry too much right now, but sometimes egos can derail even the best clubs. Durant remains the -130 favorite on Sportsbook.ag to win the scoring title again this season. OKC is the +225 favorite to win the West. The Thunder could well go 4-0 this week as they host Toronto, visit Chicago, host Detroit and then Cleveland. They will be solid favorites in all of those.
At 1-3 are the Los Angeles Lakers, with the hot rumor already being that Phil Jackson will replace Coach Mike Brown and right the ship at some point (not going to happen – the Zen Master burned too many bridges there). L.A., which was 0-8 in the exhibition season, looked like most expected Sunday when it destroyed the Pistons 108-79. The franchise avoided its first 0-4 start since 1957-58.
Kobe Bryant has been terrific, shooting at least 50 percent from the field in all four games (59.7 percent overall); Kobe shot only 43 percent from the floor last season. Dwight Howard has played like an MVP as well, averaging 23.3 points on 68.8 percent shooting along with 9.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Howard is +1000 on Sportsbook.ag to win this season’s MVP award, with Bryant at +400.
The Lakers won’t have Steve Nash perhaps for the entire month of November. The 38-year-old has a non-displaced fracture in his left leg. The Lakers said Saturday that Nash would miss at least one week and would be evaluated again at that time, with the L.A. Times reporting Nash could be sidelined for up to four weeks. The Lakers offense didn’t seem to fit Nash in the two games he played, with the former MVP averaging 4.5 points and 4.0 assists. Steve Blake has capably filled in for Nash but that weakens what is already a weak bench – the Pistons reserved outscored the Lakers’ 52-27. L.A. has a fairly easy week with just three games, starting Wednesday at Utah and then beginning a six-game homestand Friday vs. Golden State.
Finally, Sportsbook.ag really needs to add Harden to its NBA MVP and regular-season scoring leader props. The “Beard” leads the NBA in scoring at 35.3 ppg in pacing Houston to a 2-1 start. Harden’s 82 points in his first two games were the most scored by a player in his first two games with a team in NBA history. The previous mark was held by Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 79 points in his first two games with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959 (the first two games of his career). Harden got the maximum deal from Houston – five years, $80 million – that the Thunder couldn’t afford to give him because of the luxury tax.
I’m looking forward to Houston’s game Wednesday vs. Denver as new Nugget Andre Iguodala is one of best perimeter defenders in the NBA and will be glued to Harden all night. The Nuggets have been a huge disappointment so far at 0-3, but they should get well Tuesday night at home vs. winless Detroit. I almost feel sorry for Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey in that game if Iggy is unleashed on him. Stuckey is an absurd 1-for-23 from the field this season. Tayshaun Prince told the Detroit media that Stuckey has been taken out of his aggressiveness, in large part because he was moved from the point to shooting guard to make way for Brandon Knight to become more of a pure point guard this season.
The Pistons look like the NBA’s worst team and do have the worst point differential at -13.7. Detroit completes a tough six-game trip out west this week, going to Sacramento, Oklahoma City and Houston (which already won in Detroit in Harden’s sparkling 37-point, 12-assist debut) after Denver – a 0-7 starts looks likely.