The 2012/13 NBA regular season is three weeks old, and the two teams at the top of the heap are unexpected to say the least.
The team in first place in the Eastern Conference is not the defending champion Miami Heat but the 7-1 New York Knicks. And in the Western Conference, the most impressive team so far has not been the retooled Lakers or defending conference-champion Thunder but the 8-2 Memphis Grizzlies.
Each of these two teams has notched wins against impressive opponents. Both won convincingly over the Heat, while the Knicks have beaten the Spurs and the Grizzlies have beaten the Thunder.
Their early-season performances have fans and analysts talking about upsets in both conferences, although it remains to be seen how sustainable either team’s success is.
Long one of the most futile teams in the west, the Grizzlies have made some serious noise over the past two seasons, upsetting the top-seeded Spurs in the first round of the 2011 playoffs and losing a tough seven-game series to the Clippers last year.
In both cases, they had key players hurt. Rudy Gay missed several months of the 2011 season with a shoulder injury, and didn’t play in the postseason.
Zach Randolph suffered a knee injury last year and missed a large portion of the season. Although he did come back for in time for the playoffs, he was clearly playing hurt and wasn’t as impactful as he might have been if healthy.
This year Randolph and Gay are both healthy. They let guard O.J. Mayo go in free agency, and while Mayo is blossoming in Dallas, his replacement, Jerryd Bayless, is arguably a better fit for Lionel Hollins’ roster as a backup point guard.
When you factor in the lockdown perimeter defense of Tony Allen, the steady point-guard play of Mike Conley, and one of the most versatile two-way centers in the NBA in Marc Gasol, it’s easy to see why this team is looking so dangerous early on.
The Knicks’ off-season saw a much bigger roster shakeup, which makes their early excellence somewhat unexpected. After opting not to match Houston’s offer sheet for the immensely popular Jeremy Lin, they replaced the point guard with the aging Jason Kidd and inconsistent Raymond Felton.
They acquired equally past-their-prime big men Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas, and even convinced Rasheed Wallace to come out of retirement. Felton is having something of a resurgence, answering critics with a stellar performance as starting point guard. Kidd, who looked washed-up the past two seasons with the Mavericks, is playing much better than expected.
There was also the never-ending question of whether stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire could co-exist. That question is yet to be answered, as Stoudemire has sat out the entirety of the season and isn’t expected back for several weeks.
But Anthony, a notoriously one-dimensional scorer, is playing more efficient offense and more aggressive defense than he has in his career. It’s a Melo we have never seen before, and it’s tough to argue with the results thus far.
Two other surprises for the Knicks have come in the form of Ronnie Brewer and J.R. Smith. Brewer is filling in for the injured Iman Shumpert as New York’s starting shooting guard, and has proven to be a reliable scorer and defender in increased minutes.
Smith, inconsistent and ball-dominant throughout his career, has embraced his sixth-man role, shooting 48 percent from the field and 60 percent from three-point range while also averaging the most assists per game of his career.
Questions still remain for the Knicks, however. There is no concrete evidence that Stoudemire and Anthony are compatible, which may lead coach Mike Woodson to consider bringing Amar’e off the bench.
Given his salary and status within the franchise, this could prove to be a tough sell, even though his effectiveness has been limited in recent years due to a series of knee problems.
But for now the Grizzlies and Knicks appear to be the teams to beat. They’ve been consistent, addressed doubts about their rosters, beaten quality opponents, and proven themselves as legitimate contenders. Let’s see how they hold up.