NBA Leaderboard, Part XVIIIThree Eastern Conference teams have now clinched playoff berths, as Orlando joined Boston and Detroit, but no one has clinched anything in the wild West. Houston's 22 game winning streak briefly moved the Rockets into first place in the West but their loss to Boston on Tuesday dropped them into a tie with the Lakers, though technically the Rockets are still on top due to owning the head to head tiebreaker over L.A. after beating them on Sunday.
Best Five Records
1) Boston Celtics, 54-13--clinched playoff berth
2) Detroit Pistons, 49-18--clinched playoff berth
3-4) Houston Rockets, L.A. Lakers, 46-21
5) New Orleans Hornets, 45-21
Boston's rout of Houston on Tuesday showed us something about both teams. The Celtics are doing better than I expected this season and the reason for their consistently high performance level is that they are an outstanding defensive team; that, more than the offensive firepower of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen trio, is what has separated them from every other team in the NBA so far. It is unusual for a team to become so good defensively so quickly but Garnett and Coach Doc Rivers deserve a lot of credit, as do the other players on the team for buying into the system. As for Houston, TNT's Doug Collins put it best: the Rockets did not lose to the Celtics due to lack of effort, it was simply too difficult for them to score inside against a much bigger team. Dikembe Mutombo can only turn back the clock for about 15-20 minutes a night and when he is not on the court the Rockets are a small team, particularly with Carl Landry being out of action. Combine that with a down night by a tired Tracy McGrady and some poor three point shooting and the Rockets had no chance. The streak had to end some time but I don't buy into something else that Collins said, namely that the Rockets run the risk of losing confidence now that they have a few tough road games ahead of them. Like Boston, Houston plays hard and plays good defense game in and game out, so the Rockets are in good shape heading into the playoffs--or at least as good as they can be without Yao Ming.
Some people laughed when I said that the acquisition of Shaquille O'Neal makes Phoenix a dangerous team. The Suns went through a brief adjustment period and now they have won five straight games, tied with Orlando for the longest active winning streak in the NBA after Houston's loss. The Suns own the sixth best record in the NBA, a half game behind the Hornets and one game behind the Rockets and Lakers. People who don't know what they are talking about can chuckle all they want but I doubt that any Western Conference coaches are very amused about the prospect of facing the Suns in a seven game series.
Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
1) LeBron James, CLE 30.9 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.2 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.4 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.5 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.6 ppg
6) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 24.3 ppg
7) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 23.6 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.3 ppg
9) Richard Jefferson, NJN 23.0 ppg
10) Chris Bosh, MIA 22.6 ppg
13) Yao Ming, HOU 22.0 ppg
25) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.0 ppg
30) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.6 ppg
37) Kevin Garnett, BOS 18.7 ppg
41) Ray Allen, BOS 18.3 ppg
After some movement early in the season this leaderboard has stabilized and there do not figure to be too many changes until Dwyane Wade and Yao Ming drop off due to not meeting the minimum requirements for points scored/games played. If there were an award for scoring the most points that had the least effect on winning during a season then Wade and Kevin Durant would be the runaway winners. Wade presided over perhaps the most epic losing streak ever experienced by a former Finals MVP during his prime, while Durant struggles to score more points than the margin his Sonics lose by each game. TNT's Charles Barkley made a couple excellent points on Tuesday: the Sonics showed no pride in letting the Nuggets drop 168 points on them and when Denver kept jacking up three pointers late in the game someone should have delivered a hard foul.
By the way, has Bill Simmons written any columns lately about how Durant is the next great thing and that Portland should have taken him instead of Greg Oden? Portland's management seems to be doing a fine job running the team despite not having Simmons on the payroll. Contrary to the wild, uninformed praise that Simmons and several others delivered prior to the season, Durant is exactly what I said he was when I analyzed his game last summer: a talented but very raw player who needs to gain strength and work on his shot selection, dribbling, passing, rebounding and defense if he wants to even be an All-Star, never mind becoming the sensation that so many people prematurely called him. I don't discount the possibility that he can become great--though I am frankly a bit skeptical--but he absolutely has a lot of work that he needs to do. Durant's best skill right now is free throw shooting but he is not strong enough or skilled enough to draw enough fouls for that to really matter too much. As I wrote last summer, "...'everyone' seems convinced that he is going to be a 'superstar' even though there are some conspicuous red flags about his body and his overall game. Those red flags don't mean that he won't become a very good player, even a superstar in time--but just like we should not read too much into Durant's summer league play we should also not read too little into it, either...Yes, Durant is long and athletic and can get his shot off over most defenders but if he continues to shoot poorly and cannot post up, rebound or pass then I don't think that teams will be greatly concerned about him shooting a lot of faceup jumpers."
Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.4 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 13.7 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.1 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.3 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.6 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.4 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.0 rpg
8) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.6 rpg
9) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.3 rpg
10) Zach Randolph, NYK 10.3 rpg
13) Al Horford, ATL 9.7 rpg
22) Ben Wallace, CLE/CHI 8.7 rpg
24) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.6 rpg
30) LeBron James, CLE 8.1 rpg
33) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 7.7 rpg
Yao Ming just dropped off of this leaderboard after ranking eighth last week, enabling us to discover that Zach Randolph and the Knicks apparently are still in the NBA as "Z-Bo" moved into the 10th spot. Al Horford continues to put up nearly a double double a night for a team that is in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt and he is increasingly looking like an appealing alternative to Durant for Rookie of the Year honors. Horford only scores about half as much as Durant does but he shoots much better from the field and has a greater impact on a better team.
February was Dwight Howard's worst month of the season in terms of rebounding but he has gotten back on track in March and, not surprisingly, his Magic have won eight of their nine games this month. Didn't Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy mention something about a connection between Howard's rebounding and shot blocking and the team's wins?
Top Ten Playmakers
1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.4 apg
2) Chris Paul, NOH 11.3 apg
3) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 10.3 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 10.2 apg
5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.5 apg
6) Baron Davis, GSW 8.0 apg
7) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 apg
8) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.2 apg
9) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.0 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.0 apg
As I correctly noted last week, Chris Paul had moved to within striking distance of wresting the crown from three-time defending champion Steve Nash--and this week Paul moved into a virtual tie with Nash even sooner than I had projected. Paul is averaging 13.6 apg in March, while Nash is averaging "only" 10.4 apg and has had fewer than 10 assists in three of his previous four games. This looks like it will be a photo finish but it could actually turn into a runaway victory for Paul.
Jamaal Tinsley had ranked sixth but he dropped off the list this week due to not meeting the minimum requirements.
Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com
posted by David Friedman @ 6:38 AM