The Brooklyn Nets have come out of the gate with a 3-2 record to start the 2012-2013 season; good, but not great. Conclusions and projections about the rest of the Nets season will ultimately have to wait, given the incredibly small sample size of five games (especially considering the widely varying quality of opponent, i.e., Miami one game, Orlando the next two). The Nets' one bad loss of the season, at home against Minnesota, can be chalked up to that fluke blown game that almost every NBA team is victim of a couple of times a season, and it's far too early to project that kind of lack of focus down the stretch as a recurring trend.
That said, there are some things we can draw from this small set of data, some of which have been legitimate concerns since the roster was finalized this off-season. Firstly, Joe Johnson is problematically living up to his reputation as the "20 million dollar invisible man", best exhibited in his 3-13 shooting night against Orlando on Sunday. Where are you, Joe? Whether the blame thus far rests in Johnson's personal slump or a need to get fully acclimated, Deron Williams' inability to find Johnson in good spots on the floor, or Avery Johnson's failure to draw up sufficient plays for Johnson can be debated. What we do know is that this trend cannot continue if the Nets want to be the elite team they proclaimed to be all summer. Hopefully Joe's early struggles are a result of a simple shooting slump that all good shooters fall victim to once in a while (ditto for Mirza Teletovic), and not a sign of potential decline.
Similar concerns arise with the Nets' inconsistent effort over the first five games, particularly with star point guard Deron Williams. There have been times early this season where Williams looks like a top-3 PG again, and by the next quarter, reverts to the coasting malcontent he was in Newark. Perhaps having Gerald Wallace out of the lineup has also removed one of the Nets' on-court leaders (my personal theory), but this should not be so, especially when the team is paying $20 million a year for a guy who has "on-court leader" in his job description as a point guard. The only Nets giving any kind of consistent effort are Kris Humphries (to be expected), Brook Lopez (despite the defensive and occasional shooting struggles, he is trying), C.J. Watson, and most surprisingly, Jerry Stackhouse. After the team talked itself up as a contender all summer, they will need to start playing with the passion of a championship team if they want to even remotely resemble one.
The Nets aren't the only Eastern Conference team undergoing some early season adversity, however, and it's still far too early to make end-of-season standing predictions. Undergoing their usual early season rust period are the Nets' Atlantic Division cohorts, the Boston Celtics. The Celtics' problems are so predictable by now to the point of boredom; Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will be old, Rajon Rondo will be an enigma, and their bench help will be wildly inconsistent. No one knows what to make of Jeff Green, Avery Bradley will improve the team upon its return, and everyone expects them to hit full stride by playoff time. Yawn.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are the New York Knicks, who are surprisingly not exhibiting any of their usual problems so far. Carmelo Anthony is playing defense, JR Smith is contributing positively, and Raymond Felton is far exceeding expectations in the wake of Jeremy Lin's departure. Their fairly-mocked old age has also been a net positive, as Jason Kidd has proven to be as good of a leader on the court as he is a terrible one off of it. The troubles of small sample size can be called upon again, however; the Knicks thus far are shooting 44% from the three point line, an impossible number to keep up. Though Raymond Felton quickly became the most hated man in Blazers' history by the end of last season, not many remember that he was terrific to start 2011-2012. Carmelo Anthony has never shown the kind of focus required to play quality defense over a longer stretch of time, and Amar'e Stoudemire's eventual return will certainly throw a wrench into the Knicks' still unresolved chemistry issues. The Knicks are certainly firing on all cylinders right now and playing up to their absolute potential, a scary thought for fans of any other Eastern Conference team (scarier still, depending on how you feel about currently injured Iman Shumpert). The Knicks will eventually come back down to earth, however, and will likely encounter their usual sort of Knick problems.
Two other teams expected to be among the East's elite that have shown struggles out of the gate have done so because of injury problems; the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers. In an "everything evens out" kind of way, the Pacers and Sixers were two of last year's healthiest teams, and it's now their turn to battle through injury issues. The Pacers will be without Danny Granger until February, and have not shown to be able to handle his absence very well. Bigger expectations and burden of responsibility have fallen upon Roy Hibbert and Paul George (as well as greatly missed former Net Gerald Green), and they have not yet shown to be up to the task.
Similarly, the Sixers have just received news that Andrew Bynum will not be returning until at least January, certainly not good news for the team that traded its best player for this potential franchise player with the always present "when healthy" disclaimer. Though the Sixers have held up admirably well under the circumstances, compiling a 4-3 record, their offense has thus far appeared as inept as the worst stretches of last year. It's a credit to Doug Collins and the players' ability to comprehend and apply the team's defensive system to great effect so far, but it will be tough for the team to continue to tread water against tougher opponents in the months leading up to Bynum's return (and debut!)
As the projected top of the East fights through question marks, the middle class of the Eastern Conference appears stronger than ever, making it all the more imperative that the "top teams" in the East play up to expectations. Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Derrick Rose-less Chicago have all played admirably well given their lack of high expectations, so much so that expected improvers and possible playoff contenders in Detroit and Toronto have disappointed completely thus far. Again, small sample size is sample size, but the Pistons and Raptors, despite making unarguable improvements to their rosters (addition of Andre Drummond and internal improvement of Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe for the former, addition of Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunus for latter), just don't appear capable of keeping up with the rising tides of the East's middle class. A lot can happen between now and April, but this balanced competitiveness of the Eastern Conference makes it imperative that teams like the Nets do not lapse into week-long struggles or losing streaks, as it might be tough for them to climb their way back up.
The only team of which there are almost no question marks is the Miami Heat, so much so that they are barely worth discussing here. Despite some early season lapses in focus (the no-show in New York, and the early game cat-like toying of the Nets in Miami), the defending champions will undoubtedly be the team to beat in the East come playoff time, even if they do not finish with the best record in the regular season. The Heat may be playing with a larger amount of rust than most teams (easily attributed to post-championship lack of concern for the regular season, as well as new parts in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis), but it's no question they remain the measuring stick for the rest of the pretending contenders in the East.
The early parts of an NBA season always bring with it some pretty crazy projections and predictions, all of which would look silly by season's end if everyone didn't have the memory of a goldfish when it comes to remembering yesterday's pressing stories and overblown concerns. Perhaps that is for the better; after such a long off-season, everyone is so ready to get back into prediction making that we all jump the gun on certain concerns. Even teams themselves can fall victim to this overblown importance attached to early season games, as evidenced by the Lakers' swift firing of Mike Brown. That doesn't mean every concern is worthless and everything is "too early to tell", but that we should just be careful before pushing the panic button or raising championship banners in the Garden.