Friday Five: ESPN NBA doubleheader
The national spotlight will be on Denver and Sacramento on Friday night, as the surging Timberwolves (8 p.m. ET) take on the Nuggets and the Pistons take on the Kings (10:30 p.m.) on ESPN. Before the big games, we answer the big questions facing each team.
1. Fact or Fiction: Kevin Love is the early-season MVP.
Dan Feldman, PistonPowered: Fact. The only player to ever average as many points (27.1), rebounds (14.2) and assists (5.1) per game as Love is right now was Wilt Chamberlain. I don't expect it to last, but so far, Love has clearly been the NBA's most productive player.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: Fact, although I'm tempted to go with Anthony Davis here. Love is the most productive player on a per-minute basis in the early going, and the Wolves have played impressive defense with him on the floor. We're talking about an elite 3-point shooter who can also lead the league in boards. Absurd.
Steve McPherson, A Wolf Among Wolves: Fact. Second in scoring and rebounding and first in PER and win shares per 48 is impressive enough. Then consider his assist percentage of 25.8 percent more than doubles his career average and his turnover percentage and defensive rating are at career lows. He's doing everything we knew he could and then things of which we didn't know he was capable.
Ramona Shelburne, ESPN LA: Fact. It's either Love or Paul George, but Love gets the nod because Minnesota's hot start was far more unexpected than the Pacers', and for his obscenely high marks in all the advanced statistics categories. Love leads the NBA in PER (30.7), estimated wins added (3.1) and the estimated number of points a player adds to a team's season total above what a 'replacement player' (93.8).
David Walker, Roundball Mining Co.: Fact. He leads the league in PER, with a LeBron-like number, and the craziest thing is it looks pretty sustainable. The leap in efficiency and production from his last healthy season, in 2011-12, is not that far off. He's always been this good, but now he's on a team good enough for some to finally notice it.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Wolves will get a top-four seed.
Feldman: Fiction. The West is just too deep with the Spurs, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder, Rockets and maybe even Trail Blazers. The Timberwolves certainly look like a playoff team, but it's tough to predict a higher outcome than that, especially given the their injury histories.
Haberstroh: Fiction. If I can be guaranteed that they'll stay healthy all season, sure, I'll slot them in the top four spots out West. But a roster that employs Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin and Love makes me nervous about the Wolves' ability to hang in there for the long haul.
McPherson: Fiction. But given the struggles of the Rockets and the Grizzlies, I could see them vying for it, especially given their solid defensive work thus far. It's not flashy or intimidating, but it's landed them at fifth in the league in defensive rating on the strength of smart, integrated teamwork.
Shelburne: Fiction. And I'm saying that for Minnesota's own good. The Timberwolves don't need any added pressure at this point. Their anxious fans are busy holding their breath that nobody important suffers a major injury. So, no, let's not put that on the Wolves just yet. The West is so loaded, it's hard to tell which teams will break away from the pack this early anyway.
Walker: Fact. It is easy to overreact to such a small sample size, but the Wolves have the fifth-best net rating in the league. Their offense is running as efficiently as we all thought it would, and, surprisingly, they are sixth in defensive rating.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Nuggets will make the playoffs.
Feldman: Fiction. The Nuggets projected to be a middling team, and wins over the Hawks, Jazz and Lakers don't change that perception. In the stacked Western Conference, middling likely won't even sniff the playoffs. At 3-4, Denver is already four games out, and that's much more ground to make up than most realize.
Haberstroh: Fiction. This is a team that needs to look in the mirror and let the tank take over. Embrace it. Ownership may not have been on board with that at first, but Tuesday night's college hoops action may have changed their minds.
McPherson: Fiction. Some movies start from a fantastic script and then get mangled so badly by the studio during production that whatever was the pure, beautiful, original idea ends up so misunderstood and twisted that there's nothing left but a barely functional and unrecognizable Frankenstein. That's the Nuggets.
Shelburne: Fiction. Denver is clearly trying to transition from George Karl's up-tempo, fast-breaking offense into something that should hold up to the demands of playoff basketball a bit better. The problem is they still have a roster that fits Karl's style of play. Brian Shaw is going to be a good coach in this league, but he's really going to have to work some magic to make these pieces fit.
Walker: Fiction. It depends on when Denver gets Danilo Gallinari back, but I don't think it will be a high-lottery team that they seemed like to some after the first few games. That said, the playoffs look extremely unlikely in an ultra-competitive West.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Pistons will make the playoffs.
Feldman: Fact. They've had a tough schedule and are facing stiffer chemistry challenges than the average team. The Pistons have fit and coaching issues, but they also have enough talent to make the playoffs. Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith might not get the most from their talent in Detroit, but they're still good players and should only jell better with their new teammates.
Haberstroh: Fact. Unlike the Nuggets, the East is so watered down this season that they'll probably make it by default. After the Pacers and the Heat, it's a wide-open race for six playoff spots. As crazy as it sounds, only three East teams have a winning record, so there's not much catching up to do even though they're 2-5.
McPherson: Fact. This topsy-turvy world where Detroit's giant frontcourt struggles to defend will eventually right itself. In the morass of the East, the Pistons have enough raw talent to compete once the shockingly hot starts of the Sixers, Bobcats and others cool off, especially since New York and Brooklyn's troubles look like they're here to stay.
Shelburne: Fact. It took just 38 wins to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference last season. Yes, the Pistons have gotten off to a sluggish start, but they simply have too much talent between Andre Drummond, Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Brandon Jennings to keep losing at this rate. Plus, management invested money into this club, this year. Would be unlikely for ownership to change course.
Walker: Fact. Charlotte has a worse point differential than the Pistons, and it seems inevitable that the Sixers and Celtics are going to crash to earth at some point. That leaves two spots open in the playoffs, and the bottom of the East is bad enough that it's hardly a stretch to say the Pistons can grab one of them.
5. Fact or Fiction: Shaq's Kings will finish ahead of Kobe's Lakers.
Feldman: Fiction. The Lakers' marginal players have been more impressive than expected, giving Los Angeles an early lead over Sacramento. The Kings would need to build a cushion before Kobe Bryant returns, because the Lakers will have a clear advantage at that point.
Haberstroh: Fiction. This is a tough one. I'm not convinced that Pau Gasol is washed up, so as long as he's out there, the Lakers should be a 30-win team. Once I see more from the Kings' wings, I'll feel better about their chances. But until then, I'll take whatever's left of Gasol, Bryant and Steve Nash.
McPherson: Fiction. The Lakers have looked bad, but also weirdly deep down the bench. That won't win championships, but if Kobe can inject some fire into the lineup, they'll better the nonsensical Kings. To wit: Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas are averaging a combined 10.1 assists per game, but 24.1 assist opportunities per game. Nobody's getting it done in Sacramento.
Shelburne: Fiction. This is no dis to Shaquille O'Neal or the Kings. It's also not an apology for the Lakers, who have been hindered by a tough early-season schedule and Steve Nash's lingering health concerns. No, this is just a bet that Kobe comes back within the next month and gets the team going back down a path toward respectability.
Walker: The Kings look respectably bad for the first time in a while, which is great but doesn't change the fact that they're still a lottery team. The Lakers are, too, but the difference is that, at some point, they'll be getting Kobe back while the Kings are going to stay about where they are.