NBA Leaderboard, Part VIThe L.A. Lakers look like they are on a mission, while each of the other top contenders is dealing with at least one injury to a key player. Dwyane Wade has maintained his hold on the scoring lead but LeBron James and/or Kobe Bryant still remain within striking distance.
Best Five Records
1) L.A. Lakers, 48-10
2) Cleveland Cavaliers, 44-12
3) Boston Celtics, 46-13
4) Orlando Magic, 42-15
5) San Antonio Spurs, 39-17
The L.A. Lakers have gained some separation from the pack in what once was a tight three way race for the best record in the league. The Cleveland Cavaliers just got Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West back from injuries but now face the prospect of having to finish out the season minus Ben Wallace, who broke his right leg in Thursday's 93-74 loss to Houston. So-called experts and fans alike tend to underestimate just how important Cleveland's three man rotation of bigs has been for the team's success; those bigs--along with LeBron James, of course--form the foundation for the team's ability to rebound and defend. Rookie J.J. Hickson can provide more scoring that Wallace did but the Cavs will miss Wallace's presence in the paint at the other end of the court. Without Wallace, the Cavs will likely lose a few games that they otherwise would have won, so his injury may very well cost them the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Boston Celtics are dealing with their own issues; Kevin Garnett tweaked his knee and has missed a few games and there is the lingering question of whether or not Boston will sign Stephon Marbury. If Marbury does join the team, it will be very interesting to see how his role is defined and how he and his teammates adjust to whatever that role turns out to be. If I'm Rajon Rondo or Eddie House and I have worked hard and sacrificed to win a championship then I am skeptical about a perennial loser/locker room cancer joining my team and getting playing time that I earned by proving myself in playoff competition. This may sound flippant, but if the Celtics really do sign Marbury, then he may be "worth" enough in the loss column to offset Ben Wallace's injury and thus enable the Cavs to get the top seed in the East after all! I am just baffled that any contending team would sign Marbury. I read one report that the Celtics are not really planning to play him but are just going to sign him to prevent him from being on another team's playoff roster. That sounds truly Machiavellian--and probably violates some NBA rule--but the next few days will be very interesting.
Signing Rafer Alston is a good stopgap measure for the Orlando Magic in light of Jameer Nelson's season-ending shoulder injury but Alston has only advanced past the first round once in his NBA career so I don't understand why some people seem to think that Orlando can challenge Boston or Cleveland in a seven game series (unless those teams get further depleted by injuries).
The San Antonio Spurs are the NBA's Rasputin; every year, they are declared DOA and yet when playoff time rolls around they either win a championship or prove to be a very tough out. Coach Gregg Popovich is just trying to keep his key players healthy for the postseason and I expect that by May the Spurs will be the biggest threat to the Lakers in the West (though the Utah Jazz, winners of six straight and nine of their last 10, certainly bear watching).
Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.8 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 28.3 ppg
3) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.6 ppg
4) Kevin Durant, OKC 26.3 ppg
5) Danny Granger, IND 25.0 ppg
6) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 24.9 ppg
7) Al Jefferson, MIN 23.1 ppg
8) Brandon Roy, POR 22.6 ppg
9) Chris Bosh, TOR 22.4 ppg
10) Devin Harris, NJN 22.3 ppg
11) Chris Paul, NOR 21.7 ppg
15) Dwight Howard, ORL 21.1 ppg
18) Tim Duncan, SAS 20.7 ppg
22) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.1 ppg
26) O.J. Mayo, MEM 19.2 ppg
32) Ray Allen, BOS 18.2 ppg
49) Kevin Garnett, BOS 16.3 ppg
Dwyane Wade has been on a tear recently, scoring a career-high 50 points two games ago and then dishing off a career-high 16 assists in his most recent game. On Thursday, though, he had a day off while his close pursuers LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were in action.
Bryant showcased the completeness of his skill set in 27 highly efficient minutes as the Lakers routed the Suns, 132-106. Bryant finished with 22 points (shooting 10-13 from the field), a game-high eight assists, four rebounds, three steals and just one turnover. In what Bryant described as a potential "trap game" (due to Steve Nash being sidelined by injury and Amare Stoudemire being out for the season), Bryant set the tone early, scoring 13 first quarter points on 6-6 field goal shooting and dishing off three assists as the Lakers took a 39-26 lead and never looked back. The most significant thing about Bryant's performance is not the raw numbers but rather the decision making process that he used; perhaps the most underrated aspect of his game is how well he reads situations and consistently makes the correct play. During last year's playoffs, Hubie Brown noted that when he watched game film of Bryant the 2008 MVP almost always made the correct read as the primary ballhandler. Bryant is also the "signal caller" for the Lakers defensively, a responsibility that normally is handled by a big man since a big can see the whole floor while a guard has action going on both in front of him and behind him.
Against the Suns, Bryant posted up when he enjoyed mismatch advantages, drained pullup jumpers in the flow of the offense, passed to open cutters for layups when he was trapped and was quick to identify when his teammates had mismatch advantages in the post. This game was a good example of why it is pointless to evaluate players purely by numbers: Bryant obviously could have scored 50 or 60 points but he barely played half of the game because the outcome was decided fairly early and the Lakers have a game in Denver on Friday night.
I don't believe in making snap judgments about players based on one game but I am curious to see if everyone who made such a big deal about Bryant having three assists and no rebounds in his 61 point game versus the Knicks (which Bryant's Lakers won, of course) will be similarly critical of LeBron James' Thursday night performance against Houston, when James had one rebound and no assists in a 93-74 Cleveland loss. James scored 21 points but shot just 7-21 from the field as the Rockets followed to perfection the formula that good defensive teams use against James: build a wall around the paint to cut off James' driving angles, sag off of him in all screen/roll situations and encourage him to shoot long jumpers. Although James is a powerful driver when he has open lanes, he has yet to learn how to use his size in postup situations and he is still an erratic jump shooter at best. In other words, if James cannot score in the paint in transition or drive to the hoop in the half court set then it is very difficult for him to be an efficient scorer; since defenders can sag off of him without paying the price, it is also difficult for him to be an effective playmaker in those situations. In playoff series versus Boston and San Antonio the past two years, James has had very low shooting percentages and very high turnover totals against sagging defenses. Versus Houston, James kept his turnovers at an acceptable level (three) but he was not able to create good shots for himself or his teammates.
If people are going to crown James as the MVP in November or December and take apart a record setting game by Bryant because he did not have enough assists to suit their tastes, then it is only fair that they apply those same standards when James plays poorly.
That said, let me make it perfectly clear that I am only critiquing the poor "analysis" methods used by other commentators but I am not falling into that trap in my own analysis: this game did not change my perspective about James at all; the lack of assists and rebounds was an anomaly--but his inability to consistently make shots outside of the paint remains his one glaring weakness. While James' numbers were anomalous, the reason that he played poorly was not--and the same formula that Houston used can be employed by other defensive-minded teams. Of course, most teams do not have the necessary personnel and/or the right mindset to contain James in this fashion and that is why it is correct to say that James' off the charts athleticism and his versatility have elevated him above every player in the NBA--except for Bryant, the one player in the league who has no skill set weaknesses.
In the February 9, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated, an anonymous NBA scout is quoted saying exactly what I said about Kevin Durant before he had even played one regular season NBA game, namely that it was foolish to shift him from forward to shooting guard. As the scout told SI, "For starters, he is finally at the right position. I don't know what P.J. Carlesimo was thinking playing him at shooting guard." In other words, if you want to understand what is happening in the NBA, you can either read what is posted here and be ahead of the curve or you can read SI to get the same analysis that was posted here more than a year ago--or you can go to some sites that shall remain nameless and get "analysis" that bears no relationship whatsoever to reality (and don't even get me started on the "stat gurus" who will blithely tell you that coaching does not matter and that a player's game remains the same regardless of the system he plays in or the teammates he has).
Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.2 rpg
2) David Lee, NYK 11.9 rpg
3) Troy Murphy, IND 11.7 rpg
4) Andris Biedrins, GSW 11.6 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.0 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.7 rpg
8) Yao Ming, HOU 9.6 rpg
9) Chris Bosh, TOR 9.5 rpg
10) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.4 rpg
14) Kevin Garnett, BOS 8.8 rpg
15) Shaquille O'Neal, PHX 8.8 rpg
19) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.3 rpg
26) Lamar Odom, LAL 7.7 rpg
27) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.6 rpg
29) LeBron James, CLE 7.2 rpg
47) Jason Kidd, DAL 6.2 rpg
Marcus Camby would rank second but dropped off of the list because he no longer meets the minimum requirements for total rebounds or games played. David Lee has emerged as a top notch player and potentially an All-Star in future seasons if the Knicks continue to improve. In the wake of Andrew Bynum's injury, Pau Gasol moved into the top ten and Lamar Odom strung together some great rebounding performances to vault up to 26th.
Top Ten Playmakers
1) Chris Paul, NOH 10.8 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 10.3 apg
3) Steve Nash, PHX 9.7 apg
4) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.5 apg
5) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.4 apg
6) Rajon Rondo, BOS 8.4 apg
7) Baron Davis, LAC 8.0 apg
7) Chris Duhon, NYK 8.0 apg
8) Baron Davis, GSW 7.9 apg
9) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.1 apg
10) LeBron James, CLE 7.0 apg
As usual, the playmaking Leaderboard remained essentially unchanged, but it will be interesting to see if Deron Williams can catch Chris Paul now that Williams seems to have regained his stride.
Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com
posted by David Friedman @ 7:39 AM