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Don’t look now, but the Spurs are good

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With all the talk about the Celtics, the Lakers, the Hornets, and the Heat going on right now, it’s pretty easy not to notice that the 8-1 San Antonio Spurs have the league’s second-best record. The Spurs haven’t had a very tough schedule, of course, and didn’t have a signature win on their record until last weekend’s thrashing of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Still, the story of the Spurs’ early success isn’t just about the fact that they’ve been winning games — it’s how they’ve been winning them that’s really interesting. The Spurs have been winning by scoring buckets at a breakneck pace, and they’ve pushed the ball more while relying on the aging Tim Duncan less and less.

Traditionally, San Antonio basketball has been built around three pillars — defense, methodical play, and Tim Duncan. But this season, the Spurs have been running and gunning. The Spurs aren’t a bad defensive team — they’re currently 8th in the league in defensive efficiency, mostly thanks to Duncan — but defense hasn’t been their main strength so far. Instead, it’s been the offense that’s carried the team. The Spurs are 5th in the league in offensive efficiency and 3rd in points per game, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Richard Jefferson all off to blistering starts.

Even though none of those three players are getting any younger, the Spurs are still longer, more athletic, and more skilled on the perimeter than most teams are, and they’ve taken advantage of that by pushing the ball more than they ever have before. In 2007-08, the Spurs were 28th in pace factor. In 08-09, they were 27th. Last season, they were 20th. This year, the Spurs are currently playing at the sixth-fastest pace in the league — they play a full 2.6 possessions “faster” per game than the Suns (who rank 14th in pace factor) do, to give you some context.

Even though Duncan is still vital to the Spurs’ success, especially on defense, and the Spurs’ youth movement hasn’t really been blossoming (George Hill, Tiago Splitter, and DeJuan Blair are all off to slow starts), the Spurs’ early success has to be heartening for Spurs fans wondering what life will be like as Duncan gets closer and closer to the twilight years of his career. If the Spurs can keep playing the way they have, they’ll be a dangerous playoff team. If taking the load off Duncan in the regular season allows him to play like the Tim Duncan we’ve all come to know come playoff time, watch out.

Report: David Lee, Tyler Zeller in line to start for Celtics; Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko out of rotation

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 08: David Lee of Boston Celtics attacks during the friendlies of the NBA Global Games 2015 basketball match between Real Madrid and Boston Celtics at Barclaycard Center on October 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Brad Stevens has a big challenge this year – sorting the Celtics’ deep roster of similarly able players.

It seems that process is shaking out at power forward and center.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

it appears Boston’s first four bigs will be starters David Lee and Tyler Zeller, with Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk off the bench.

That leaves Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger, potentially on the outside looking in as far as the regular rotation is concerned.

Lee is the best passer of the bunch, which could partially explain why he’s starting. Boston’s most likely starting point guard, Marcus Smart, is still growing into the role of the lead ball-handler at the NBA level. Lee and presumptive starting shooting guard Avery Bradley can take some pressure off him.

Olynyk can space the floor for Isaiah Thomas-Johnson pick-and-rolls with the reserves and run pick-and-pops with Thomas himself.

I’m a little surprised Zeller is starting over Johnson, though. The Celtics just signed Johnson to a $12 million salary, and I thought they’d rely on his defense to set a tone early. Like Johnson, Zeller is a quality pick-and-roll finisher who can thrive with Thomas.

This is particularly bad news for Sullinger, who – barring a surprising contract extension – is entering a contract year. It seems those reports of offseason conditioning haven’t yet paid off. Jerebko’s deal also isn’t guaranteed beyond this season, but at least he has already gotten his mid-sized payday. Sullinger is still on his rookie-scale contract.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.