Hornets update. New Orleans comes to town on the heels of a fairly uncompetitive 110-95 home loss to the mighty Thunder on Friday, their second straight loss after starting the season a very respectable 3-2. Prize free agent signing Ryan Anderson is coming off the bench but still leading the team in scoring (16.0 ppg) and rebounding (8.8 rpg), while starting PG Greivis Vasquez is dropping nearly nine assists per game in addition to scoring another 12.3 ppg. They also have this Anthony Davis kid you may have heard of--more on him in a moment.
The major downside is the continued absence of shooting guard Eric Gordon, whom you may recall was once a damn good young shooting guard for the Clippers and the presumed centerpiece of last season's Chris Paul trade (remember that one?). But all that feels like an eternity ago. A troublesome knee (to put it charitably) limited Gordon to just nine games last season but it didn't stop him from snagging a $58 million max offer sheet from the Phoenix Suns. Gordon made it clear he didn't want the Hornets to match, but New Orleans matched anyway, gambling that Gordon would recover from the knee injury and reestablish himself as one of the league's top scoring guards.
It hasn't happened. Gordon missed training camp with continued knee pain amid speculation that he was still unhappy about the Hornets matching the Suns' max offer (life is unfair!), and as of two weeks ago he was still expected to need another 4-6 weeks of rehab before he could return to the NBA hardwood. More ominously, there were suggestions that season-ending microfracture surgery was still being considered as of two weeks ago, though Gordon himself shot that down and insisted doctors believed he could be back by mid to late December. Either way, this is serious stuff.
Tale of Two Rookies. Anthony Davis has only played four NBA games, but there's little doubt about how good he might eventually become. Though he's missed two games with a concussion, Davis has regularly flashed his potential as a dominant defender (2.6 blocks/game) and went off for 21 in his season debut against the Spurs and 23/11 against the Bobcats. Tonight's matchup should be an interesting one given the Bucks have the length to match Davis up front, though it's not to say Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh and Sam Dalembert come close to Davis' overall skillset. Sanders is probably the closest, both in terms of raw measurements and disruptiveness as a defender, but Davis' offensive upside puts him in another league. Remember, the kid is still just 19 and already putting up strong numbers against NBA bigs.
New Orleans' other rookie hasn't fared as well. Austin Rivers' pedigree and high-profile recruitment out of high school had many thinking he'd be an instant star when he hit the bigs until a disappointing year at Duke tempered expectations. He still earned the 10th selection in last year's draft, but he's had a rough go of it so far. Averaging under 7 points per game on sub-30% shooting, Rivers just hasn't been able to spark his own offense, leaving New Orleans with a dearth of scoring from their starting backcourt (Vasquez is shooting just 35%). The Hornets might hope Rivers can develop into a combo guard of the James Harden variety, but they're undergoing some serious growing pains in the process. Monty Williams has also spoken of turning Rivers into a point guard, but that strikes me as wishful thinking. Still, New Orleans is in no hurry to contend and will surely be happy surrounding their budding star in Davis with more draft picks for the near future, so there are worse things than Rivers getting on-the-job training in the short term.
Doing it with defense. Luc Mbah a Moute may still be a couple weeks from returning to practice, but the absence of their best defender hasn't stopped the Bucks from winning games with their defense early on. Contrary to what you might be reading in the good ol' print media, the Bucks' early improvement is not because they suddenly (!) started to push the tempo (reality: they did the same thing last year), are scoring much more effectively than in the past (reality: actually the opposite), or because the Jennings/Ellis tandem has been some kind of revelation (Jennings has been good, Monta still hasn't hit his stride). It's painfully early to be drawing any conclusions about how this will all shake out over a full season, but if we're going to deconstruct what we've seen so far, we might as well do it right.
So to recap: the Bucks' league-leading pace is exactly what we saw from them in the second half of last season, and they're actually scoring less in both raw and efficiency terms than last season. That's especially true if you consider the final 27 games of the 11/12 season, when they scored over 109 pts/100 possessions (which is rather fantastic) at a pace identical to their current fast rate. Through seven games they've managed just over 102 pts/100 offensively (18th), but the defense has been a radically different story. The Bucks lead the league in defensive rebound rate and sit second in overall defensive efficiency, which has made their middling offensive efficiency good enough on most nights to win. The new and improved Larry Sanders Experience has been a big part of the story, but in the past few games we're also seeing the defensive benefits of swapping Drew Gooden for Sam Dalembert as well as the steady, positional excellence of Ekpe Udoh. They've also continued to force turnovers, with the gambling of Ellis and Jennings actually paying off in many instances.
Forcing turnovers and rebounding the ball has meant more open court opportunities for Jennings and Ellis, which has indeed helped the Bucks average a league-leading 19.4 points per game in transition. That's probably why it seems like the Bucks' offense has been improved and/or more run-and-gunish, but we're not talking about a completely different approach from a year ago. If anything they look a bit more traditional in that their starting unit isn't the floor-spreading, off-ball-cutting machine that we saw with Drew Gooden in the high post and Ilyasova bombing away from outside.
For the Bucks to improve offensively, Ellis and in particular Ersan Ilyasova will need to revert closer to their historical scoring efficiencies, and the Bucks as a whole will need to cut down on their turnovers (which have spiked in the early part of the season). The problem is that we're also likely to see negative mean reversions from Sanders, Dunleavy and Ekpe Udoh, and as Steve described before the season, it's not clear that the Bucks have the perimeter shooting needed to sustain above-average efficiency numbers. Either way, an improved defense is giving them the margin of error needed to keep winning even when the offense isn't firing on all cylinders.