Which team heading into Wednesday night's ESPN doubleheader has been the biggest surprise thus far? Our panel tackles the four teams -- the Clippers, Mavericks, Nuggets and Hawks -- preparing for the national spotlight.
1. Clips/Mavs/Nugs/Hawks: Which team has been the most surprising?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Hawks. On the surface, this seemed like nothing more than a transitional season. Prior to the season, Danny Ferry made it clear that future flexibility was priority No. 1 in Atlanta. This usually suggests a team is rebuilding, with no lofty aspirations as to win total or the postseason. But everyone the Hawks put on the floor can play NBA basketball, and that can win a team a bunch of games.
Bo Churney, Hawks Hoop: Hawks. They traded away their franchise guy and really didn't replace him with a single player, but pieced together a team that's living off of passing, 3-point shooting and a top-five defense. Not only that, but they've gotten to 9-5 with their best player, Josh Smith, being in the worst shooting slump of his career.
Kalen Deremo, Roundball Mining Co.: Hawks. Lou Williams, Kyle Korver and Devin Harris were nice pickups, but I thought losing Joe Johnson would capsize the Hawks. I've never been a huge fan of Danny Ferry as a general manager, but he's built a very cohesive team out of virtually nothing but expiring contracts down in Atlanta.
Andrew Han, ClipperBlog: Hawks. This past offseason, Danny Ferry took a stick of dynamite to a perennial No. 4 seed and wiped Atlanta's ledger clean. The result? Their win percentage is currently good for fourth in the East, pretty respectable for a team whose long-term commitments stop at Al Horford. But do they simply retool or finish off the demolition and rebuild?
Ian Levy, Two-Man Game: Clips. Everything they did this summer seemed like a sideways shuffle, but Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes have been incredible and Eric Bledsoe is on the edge of being a consistent volcanic force in the backcourt. The Clippers smelled like stagnation to me at the beginning of the season, but their ceiling has been lifted and they're firmly in the league's top tier.
2. Clips/Mavs/Nugs/Hawks: Which team had the best offseason pickup?
Arnovitz: Mavs. How good has O.J. Mayo looked the past five weeks? He's transformed into the kind of player Mayo-thusiasts in Los Angeles used to say he'd become -- a strong, dynamic scorer who made it look easy. Mayo won't continue to hit 3-pointers at this rate and he isn't looking to distribute, but at two years and $8.2 million, the Mavs can tolerate some imperfections if they can get this kind of production.
Churney: Clips. After watching Jamal Crawford in Portland last season, I didn't think he was going to do much, but he's leading the Clips in scoring and is doing it on some of the most efficient shooting of his career. With CP3 and Eric Bledsoe in tow, he's being used as a point guard less than ever, which is allowing him to do what he does best: Take open shots and create his own offense.
Deremo: Clips. A large part of signing a player is how long you lock them up for. While Andre Iguodala (Nuggets) and Mayo (Mavs) were solid pickups, neither has a deal in place that goes past next year. Meanwhile, the Clippers signed Crawford to a four-year deal at a very friendly price. Additionally, he could be the piece that gets them to the next level.
Han: Mavs. OJ Mayo: A 25-year-old, former top-3 pick for $4 million? Yes, please. Not only is that great value for a 20-point scorer, but Mayo seems rejuvenated in Big D, currently shooting career highs from the field and the 3-point line (52.7 percent from long range).
Levy: Hawks. They have been lifted by several new players, but none is more important to their long-term success than a healthy Al Horford. He and Josh Smith make for an incredibly disruptive defensive front court and Horford's offensive versatility is the cog that keeps all the other gears turning smoothly. Now if he could just talk to Smith about shot selection ...
3. Clips/Mavs/Nugs/Hawks: Which team has the biggest concerns?
Arnovitz: Nugs. They gracefully turned "l'affaire Carmelo" into a likable, interesting roster. It's far too early to conclude that this team can't contend, but what if ultimately that's the case? The Nuggets are carrying a few hefty contracts, leaving them little flexibility. And they're almost certain to be too competitive to land a top-five to top-10 pick.
Churney: Mavs. Even with Dirk slated to return at some point. After their hot start, Dallas has fallen off of a cliff, and I see no reason why that fall won't continue. The Mavs' sky-high 3-point percentage is finally coming back to normal and their schedule in December is unforgiving. Plus, they're starting Derek Fisher.
Deremo: Nugs. Yes, their schedule has been brutal, but they haven't played good basketball at all. Their defense has been atrocious and players simply haven't improved the way everyone thought they would.
Han: Nugs: After the Iguodala trade, it seemed like there were two preseason schools of thought: (A) Denver would break through to be one of the West's elite teams, or (B) the Nuggets would be a regular-season powerhouse. Eighteen games in, Denver sits at .500 after a roller coaster of streaks: three losses, four wins, three losses, four wins, three losses and one win. That's the kind of ride that's not so much exciting as it is nauseating.
Levy: Mavs. They're only a game under .500, but they're 4-6 over their past 10 and have Derek Fisher now starting at point guard. Even if they can steady the ship until Dirk Nowitzki returns, the prospects for a competitive postseason seem dim. Things get even scarier when you look at the current roster and try to envision the rapidly approaching post-Nowitzki era.
4. Clips/Mavs/Nugs/Hawks: Which team has the brightest future?
Arnovitz: Clips. As the incumbent team in the Chris Paul derby, the Clippers still have the most attractive future. Apart from Paul, they also have Blake Griffin (23), Eric Bledsoe (22) and DeAndre Jordan (24), each already a productive NBA player and still in development. Both the Hawks and the Mavericks have a ton of room under the cap next summer and going forward and could build bright futures with clever personnel decisions.
Churney: Clips. They have Griffin and Jordan signed to contracts, a young, budding star in Eric Bledsoe, and that Chris Paul guy, who's really good if you haven't noticed. They are going to finish top-four in the West this season and be legitimate title contenders, which should be enough to convince CP3 to stay on for a few more years. Things are looking great in Clipper-land.
Deremo: Clips. When you have one star locked down for years to come (Griffin) and a perennial MVP candidate likely to re-sign, your future will always remain bright. That said, this is still the Clippers we're talking about. The Nuggets and elite general manager Masai Ujiri remain a close second.
Han: Clips. After a couple of early stumbles, things are humming for the "other" Los Angeles team. Add Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe -- a young core that won't sniff unrestricted free agency anytime soon -- and there's no reason to think Chris Paul won't re-sign this offseason. Then the Clippers' future will be blinding.
Levy: Clips. The Mavericks are a mess and I don't see how the Hawks get much more out of what they have than they're getting now. The Nuggets have some young pieces but not one who can contain the still untapped potential of Blake Griffin and Eric Bledsoe.
5. Among these four teams, nothing comes close to _________________.
Arnovitz: What might occur in a scenario in which Eric Bledsoe and Jae Crowder each dashes simultaneously toward a loose ball in the open court.
Churney: Watching Al Horford play again. With Horford, Atlanta has amazing floor spacing and passing ability from both big-man spots, and he is obviously the reason for Atlanta's huge boost in defensive efficiency. With how well Atlanta did in his absence last season, we all -- me included -- sort of forgot that Horford is one of most important centers in today's NBA.
Deremo: Chris Paul. Even when Dirk gets back, he'll have nothing on Paul. The NBA is all about star power and the Clippers have it. Take Paul away from the Clippers, place him on any one of those other three teams and it instantly becomes a title contender. That's how thin the line is between being good and great in the NBA.
Han: A Chris Paul-Blake Griffin tag-team. The Clippers are the only team among the four with two top-15 players. And now Griffin is shooting 42 percent from midrange. A Clippers pick-and-pop that's as deadly as their pick-and-roll is something no team wants to come near.
Levy: Chris Paul. He is simply unbelievable. He can keep the Clippers in every game, against any opponent, under nearly any set of circumstances. His skills are transcendent, but the most special thing about him is his ability to transform intent into action; force of will into results.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Kevin Arnovitz covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Bo Churney, Kalen Deremo, Andrew Han and Ian Levy are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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