Thursday November 13th, 2008

Around the offices of Sports Illustrated, we try to resist what we call the premature trend story. A few of them present themselves every November of the NBA season, exposing us to the possibility of panic buying.

Right now, for example, could we be blamed if we decided to proclaim the Hawks, 6-1 after a buzzer-beating defeat to the Celtics on Wednesday, as the league's new elite team? Or, with the Celtics and Lakers a combined 15-1, we have to restrain ourselves from declaring FINALS REMATCH VIRTUAL CERTAINTY! (We're going to wait until at least mid-December before writing that one.)

Therefore, I'm going to take the opposite tack and sketch a few ongoing storylines that will not continue as the leaves continue to fall.

The struggles of Phoenix's Steve Nash and Philadelphia's Elton Brand. Their numbers are down from recent seasons and both seem discomfited trying to accommodate themselves to different situations, Nash with a new coach (Terry Porter) and a slower offense, and Brand, coming off Achilles surgery, with a new team. But you couldn't name more solid pros than these two guys. They will figure it out and find a way to get it done within the framework of their offensive systems.

The balanced scoring in Houston. Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest are all averaging around 15 points -- that sounds like a good thing, right? I don't buy it. Yao's game, provided he's healthy, is to score 20-plus points and get every defender within 10 feet of him in foul trouble, while McGrady, the cynosure of the offense, is not the distributor type who feels comfortable getting fewer than 20 himself. The averages of Yao and McGrady will start to rise as the Rockets begin to move the ball better, while Artest (30.8 percent shooting) figures to get cleaner looks as he settles in with his new teammates.

The Knicks have turned it around. All right, I'm impressed. Coach Mike D'Antoni has them running and they are 5-3 after scoring 132 points in Memphis on Wednesday. Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni could've called in the Stax Records horn section to defend and it wouldn't have made a difference. But it was, after all, the Griz, and the Knicks' other victims have included Miami, Washington and Charlotte, along with the Jazz, who lost in New York without point guard Deron Williams. The Knicks will be better, but with a tougher schedule looming ahead, let's not print the playoff tickets quite yet.

Washington will continue to try to hold its head above water until Gilbert Arenas returns, perhaps in a month or so. Although the 1-6 Wizards broke through Wednesday with a 95-87 home victory against Utah, there is clear evidence that this team is not good enough to challenge for the playoffs as presently constituted and that banking on Arenas' anatomy is not a good stratagem in any case.

General manager Ernie Grunfeld has never been afraid to deal, and he will have to do something soon. With Antonio Daniels slowed by a sore knee, point guard is the likely position to shore up, maybe with a reach-out to a quarterback riding the pine in Memphis (Kyle Lowry, Marko Jaric, Javaris Crittenton). And though rookie backup center JaVale McGee has been a revelation inside, the loss of Brendan Haywood, possibly for the season, dictates the acquisition of another big man. The return of Arenas alone will not get the Wizards into the playoffs.

A timid Texas Triangle. The Spurs and Mavericks entered Thursday's play a combined 4-10, and as noted before, the Rockets, though 5-3 after a nice win in Phoenix on Wednesday, haven't quite figured it out. Oh, how much easier it will be for the playoff-seekers in the Western Conference if a trip through Texas is no longer an ordeal. Well, don't count on it.

Injuries have decimated San Antonio and Dallas, especially the Spurs, who are without Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, forcing Tim Duncan to play longer-than-normal early-season minutes, exponentially increasing the amount of gray in coach Gregg Popovich's new beard. In Dallas, Josh Howard, not the city's favorite player but certainly its best all-around one, has missed two games, both losses, and Dirk Nowitzki is struggling to find his shot. Plus, remember that the Mavs are getting used to a new system under coach Rick Carlisle.

All this will change, particularly in San Antonio when Parker and Ginobili return and the burden is eased on Duncan. The Mavs, for their part, may still struggle to make the playoffs, but come the first of the year, there will still be some chainsaw left in Texas.

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