Championships aren't won in November. But foundations are built.
Teams are coming off month-long training camps in which coaches have implemented strategies, players have established roles and fans have built expectations one way or the other. With less than a week of the season in the books, NBA teams and players have made their first impressions. Let's take a look:
- Utah Jazz. They look like the real deal in the West, winning three games over tough opponents by an average score of 104-80. Utah's front line, led by Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko, is unbelievably active. Matt Harpring has returned from injury to provide his usual toughness and scoring, and Jerry Sloan's club is running his patented offense crisply. And that is without injured point guard Carlos Arroyo. If Utah can stay healthy, it has the look of a team that can push Minnesota for a Northwest Division title.
- Phoenix Suns. The Suns look like a team that has stepped into a time warp back to the 1980s. They run, spread the floor, share the ball and seemingly have five players on the floor at all times who are threats to score. They averaged 110 points a game in three wins – two on the road – and with Steve Nash running the show, Mike D'Antoni doesn't feel the need to call many plays. They just go, and most teams can't keep up.
- Toronto Raptors. After all the talk of Vince Carter's trade demands, most people forgot that the Raptors actually have a chance to be pretty good, especially in the weak Atlantic Division. Toronto is 3-0 after Carter's game-winning three-pointer beat Portland on Sunday. The Raptors are getting terrific play from point guard Rafer Alston, who has 20 assists and just two turnovers, and the much-traveled Loren Woods, who is starting at the center position and leading the team in rebounding (8.3 per game).
- Dallas Mavericks. The 3-0 Mavs are doing it with – gulp – defense. Opponents are shooting just 40 percent, while Dallas has maintained its high-octane style in putting up 108 points per night. Devin Harris and Jason Terry have filled in nicely for the departed Nash in leading Don Nelson's team out of the gate quickly.
- New York Knicks. The Knicks were blown out at home on opening night by the Celtics and booed out of the building. The team hasn't defended or rebounded well through two games – both losses – and with a four-game road trip through Indiana, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas coming, it appears that Lenny Wilkens' squad is in for a rough start.
- Cleveland Cavaliers. Year 2 of the LeBron James Era has begun with a thud. The Cavaliers lost at home to an undermanned Indiana team on opening night and followed that up with two more losses. James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas have played well offensively, but the Cavs have deficiencies in defending and shooting the ball from the perimeter. If they're to get on track, they'll have to shore up their half-court defense and create turnovers that will lead to easy baskets because they're not a good shooting team.
- Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are facing high expectations after a 50-win campaign, but with a 0-3 start, they've now lost 11 straight games dating back to last season. Memphis is shooting just 38 percent, compared to its opponents' 46 percent, and it is getting outrebounded seven boards a game as well. Playing in the league's toughest division doesn't help matters, either. If the Grizzlies don't get things going quickly, they could dig themselves a big hole.
- Denver Nuggets. They're another team dealing with high expectations after a breakthrough season, and they're having a tough time finding the basket. Through three games, the Nuggets are shooting just 37.3 percent and scoring 84.7 points per game, and they've already lost their best shooter, Voshon Lenard, to a season-ending Achilles injury. Defenses will continue to pack it in and clog the lane until the Nuggets prove they can make perimeter shots.