The good, and the so bad it’s ugly surprises of the NBA season

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We’re a week into the NBA season and some things are what we expected — the Lakers, Heat and Celtics are good; the Sixers are not; John Wall is dynamic; Kobe won’t talk about his injuries; and the Grizzles are making bad contract decisions.

But there are surprises, and not to go all Forest Gump but what fun life be without surprises? Good and bad. So here we are, the surprises.

The good surprises, like when your Xmas fund matures in Monopoly and you get $100.

The Portland Trail Blazers (4-1): We expected Portland to be good again — last season they were racked by injuries — but this fast start is more than we expected. The big key is they are beast on the boards. They are grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.7 percent of their missed shots (second best percentage in the league). Lamarcus Aldridge is scoring 18.8 points and grabbing 9.2 rebounds a game, anchoring the inside. They have beat who they were supposed to beat, but that’s a step up from last season.

The New Orleans Hornets (3-0): This just in — Chris Paul is good. Really, really good. Dominant good, and now he’s got David West back knocking down 56 percent of his shots. The Hornets have beaten the Spurs, Nuggets and Bucks — three quality teams. They are doing it with defense, allowing just 97.7 points per 100 possessions. Emeka Okafor is really defending. We might be able to add them to the list of teams, along with Portland, that is regaining its “team to watch” status.

The New Jersey Nets (2-1): Do you see that record? 2-1? With come from behind wins? This team is not that good — the throttling by Miami is an indication of how far away from really good they are — but last season this team doesn’t win those two games. They’ve taken big steps forward. Derrick Favors is averaging 10 and 10 and he is barely scratching the surface. There is hope here New Jersey, which should come to fruition right about when the team moves to Brooklyn.

The bad surprises, like that new timing belt your car needs suddenly.

The Charlotte Bobcats (0-3): Last season they made the playoffs on great defense and just enough offense. This season they are 29th in the league in defense, giving up 111.2 points per 100 possessions. And it’s because teams are shooting very well against them, which has to drive Michael Jordan and Larry Brown just crazy. Gerald Wallace is not playing up to his own standards. (But Tyrus Thomas is playing efficiently, so go figure.)

The Milwaukee Bucks (1-3): They were a force at the end of last season (until Andrew Bogut’s injury, anyway), they added depth and got Bogut back and… their offense has been terrible. They are not shooting well as a team and making up for it by not getting to the free throw line. Despite having Brandon Jennings on their team they are playing at one of the slowest paces in the NBA, not getting many easy baskets in transition (last season they were not fast but they were middle of the pack). John Salmons can’t throw a pea in the ocean right now, they miss his scoring from the wing dearly.

The Houston Rockets (0-3): The Rockets are the worst defensive team in the NBA so far. Which is a weird sentence to type, but that’s the truth — they are giving up 112.4 points per 100 possessions, dead last in the NBA. This is a team that has good defensive players and now Yao Ming back defending the paint, and it’s ugly. So is the offense, which struggles to find a flow — they want to run with guards Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin, but with Yao back they slow down and just look lost. It’s not pretty.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.

Under new anti-tampering rules, Adam Silver empowered to suspend execs, take away picks, void contracts

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LeBron James publicly courted Anthony Davis. Many free agents seemingly struck deals before free agency even began. Kawhi Leonard‘s uncle/advisor reportedly sought prohibited extra benefits from teams.

The NBA finally reached its breaking point on tampering and circumvention.

After late apprehension, the league will enact stricter enforcement.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I’m not surprised this passed unanimously. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wanted this to happen and wasn’t going to have owners vote unless he knew it’d pass. At that point, any protest-voting owners would just put themselves at odds with the commissioner. Not worth it.

We’ll see how long this crackdown lasts. I think that anonymous general manager represents many. If nobody is tampering, it’s fine not to tamper. But if some teams tamper, nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

This could slowly creep back toward the old status quo. But if there’s a clear violator early, Silver will have an opportunity to send a message. We’ll see whether he takes it.

This should be less about which communication is or isn’t allowed. It’s about fairness.

That’s why it’s important the NBA has rules it will enforce and only rules it will enforce. That hasn’t been the case. If it is now, this will be a success.

Knicks’ offseason a giant flop

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

In the midst of agreeing to sign Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock, the Knicks released a statement.

“While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through both the draft and targeted free agents,” Knicks president Steve Mills said.

This is as close as we’ll ever get to a team apologizing for its transactions in real time.

What an embarrassment.

Knicks owner James Dolan went on TV in March and strongly suggested top free agents would sign with the Knicks this summer. Everyone inferred Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Instead, Durant and Irving signed with the crosstown Nets without even meeting with the Knicks. The Knicks pathetically put out word they didn’t offer Durant the max due to his injury (as if they would’ve balked had he actually wanted to come) and cancelled a meeting with Kawhi Leonard, who was never coming.

All New York’s planning – stretching Joakim Noah, trading Kristaps Porzingis to clear salary, hyping itself – went to waste on mediocre free agents.

At least the Knicks remain flexible. It’s just tough to see how they turn that flexibility into winning.

Dolan said no incumbent players will become the centerpiece. New York is already acknowledging how disappointing the newly signed free agents look.

That leaves a lot of pressure on No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett, himself a disapointment.

Despite an 86% chance of not getting the No. 1 pick, Knicks fans treated Zion Williamson as a near-inevitability. He was viewed as the rightful reward for a miserable 17-65 season.

This was the wrong lottery to slip. There’s a huge drop in prospect quality from Williamson to Ja Morant to Barrett. Barrett profiles as a leading player, and maybe he’ll be good enough to fill that role on a good team. But this draft was always going to leave the third-picking team with unreliable options.

Randle (three years, $56.7 million with $4 million of $19.8 million guaranteed in year three) was the big addition in free agency. He’ll put up numbers. He’s also only 24 and has shown improvement throughout his career. Maybe he’ll develop defensively and better contribute to winning. Still, it’ll take major modifications to their games for Randle and Barrett to flourish together long-term.

Not that this team represents much of whatever the Knicks are building toward.

Portis ($15 million), Gibson ($9 million), Ellington ($8 million), Payton ($8 million) and Bullock ($4 million) look like stopgaps. After those starting salaries, each has a barely/unguaranteed second season. They all look like trade chips, though most must exceed expectations on the court to hold more than neutral value. Ellington looks like the best deal.

Really, the short contract I like most is Marcus Morris‘ (one year, $15 million). New York signed him after Bullock failed his physical and agreed to a smaller contract. I don’t know why the Knicks prioritized so many other players over Morris, who committed to the Spurs before Bullock’s spine injury gave New York more cap space.

The Knicks could really use a young player like Porzingis now. He’d provide plenty of optimism amid their listless present.

Still, New York can still come out ahead in the Porzingis trade. He was an injury-prone player on the verge of getting a max contract. The Knicks got a couple extra first-rounders.

But clearing Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s an Courtney Lee‘s burdensome contracts was a key part of the trade. That aspect has now gone for naught.

New York is heading toward another lost season. A weak free agent class follows. It’ll take a while for the Knicks to build back up.

This summer – which the Knicks began with the best lottery position, massive cap space and a premier market – was a huge missed opportunity. Even getting past the New York noise and the misplaced expectations this franchise incites, that burns.

Offseason grade: D