NBA "Mid-Term" Report CardThe NBA season is actually well past the halfway point but, with teams gearing up for the stretch run after the expiration of the trade deadline, now is the perfect time to file a "mid-term" report card.
In the Western Conference, nine teams are battling for eight playoff spots, while Golden State, Minnesota, Memphis, Oklahoma City, the L.A. Clippers and Sacramento can already book their flights to Secaucus for the Draft Lottery. Here is a look at what we have seen--and what we should expect to see--from the top nine teams in the West:
1) L.A. Lakers (44-10): The Lakers own the best record in the NBA and have kept rolling along even after starting center Andrew Bynum suffered a knee injury that may end his season. Kobe Bryant leads the Lakers in scoring (27.4 ppg) and assists (5.0 apg) while averaging 5.5 rpg and is thus on track to post his seventh "25-5-5" season, which would tie him with Michael Jordan for second on the all-time list behind Oscar Robertson, who had nine "25-5-5" campaigns. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect about the Lakers' success last season and so far this season is how much Pau Gasol has benefited from playing alongside Bryant. In Memphis, Gasol was the primary offensive option and thus had to deal with double teams on a nightly basis but in L.A. he often gets to play one on one because defenses are geared to contain Bryant. Also, the Bryant-Gasol screen/roll action not only often frees up Gasol for open shots but it also creates scoring opportunities on the weakside for Lamar Odom diving to the hoop and/or three point shooters like Derek Fisher and Sasha Vujacic. The Lakers' schedule down the stretch contains more road games than home games but as long as they don't sustain another frontcourt injury they will cruise comfortably to the number one seed in the West. If Bynum makes it back then there might be a slight adjustment period as he regains his sea legs and Odom once again has to accept coming off of the bench; depending on Bynum's condition, perhaps Coach Phil Jackson will bring him off of the bench and keep Odom in the starting lineup.
2) Denver Nuggets (37-17): The Nuggets are the "mystery guest" in the Western Conference playoff race. For the past several years they have been a lower tier playoff team that got bounced out in the first round but this year they are on track to have home court advantage in the first round. Before the season they gave up Marcus Camby for essentially nothing but Nene and Kenyon Martin have been healthy and Chris Andersen has provided a boost off of the bench, so the combined production of those three players has more than offset Camby's absence. Early in the season, the Nuggets traded Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess; they got rid of McDyess, who re-signed with Detroit after the mandatory 30 day waiting period, but Billups has played very well and the other players have responded to his leadership. The Nuggets are actually only slightly ahead of last year's pace but because of various problems afflicting other Western contenders they currently hold the second seed. It will be very interesting to see what kind of playoff team the Nuggets turn out to be in 2009; if they enjoy home court advantage and do not have to face the Lakers or Spurs in the first round then there will be no excuses for not winning at least one playoff series.
3) San Antonio Spurs (35-17): The Spurs have weathered injuries to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and seem to be just pacing themselves until the playoffs; in a recent game against Denver, the Spurs trotted out their "B" team (i.e., no Tim Duncan, Ginobili or Parker) and still almost won the game. While the Nuggets are a "mystery guest"--an unproven entity in terms of postseason play--the Spurs are like a wily, veteran gunslinger who may be up in years but can still take out the young guns. If their Big Three players are healthy during the postseason then the Spurs will pose the most formidable challenge to the Lakers in the West. I expect to see the Lakers battling the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, unless that matchup is not possible in that round due to the playoff seedings.
4) Portland Trailblazers (33-20): Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge form a deadly one-two punch offensively, while Greg Oden has supplied a physical, defensive presence in the paint. The two main questions about this team are health (particularly concerning the injury prone Oden) and playoff inexperience. Despite their obvious talent, it is hard to picture the Blazers winning a playoff series this year against the Lakers or Spurs.
5) New Orleans Hornets (32-20): This has been a disappointing season so far for New Orleans and it seemed like the Hornets threw in the towel for this year's playoff run when they traded starting center Tyson Chandler--but that deal has been rescinded, so it will be interesting to see what their team chemistry is like moving forward. Chandler has been in and out of the lineup due to injuries and he has not been as productive at either end of the court as he was last year. The Hornets do not appear to have the necessary mental toughness, defensive intensity or depth to contend for the Western Conference championship this season.
6) Houston Rockets (33-21): Now that Tracy McGrady is out for the season due to his left knee injury, the Rockets are officially out of contention to win the West. As I noted last year, during McGrady's five years in Houston, the Rockets win roughly two thirds of their games when McGrady plays but their record prorates to less than 25 wins in 82 games without him. This season, the Rockets have gone 13-6 sans McGrady but that mark includes victories over the Clippers, the Warriors (twice), a depleted Utah team (twice), the Knicks, the Kings and the Nets. The Rockets are unlikely to have home court advantage in the first round and are thus very likely to once again lose in the first round--unless McGrady's absence drops them out of the playoff picture completely.
7) Dallas Mavericks (32-21): On paper, the Mavericks look like they should have a better record than they do. Dirk Nowitzki is having another great season, Jason Terry is averaging nearly 20 ppg off of the bench, Josh Howard has been solid and Jason Kidd is running the show at point guard. It is not at all out of the realm of possibility that the Mavericks will make a late run at one of the top four playoff seeds.
8) Utah Jazz (31-23): Two former All-Stars (Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko) plus an All-Star caliber point guard (Deron Williams) have missed substantial time due to injuries and those health problems are the main reason why the Jazz are struggling to stay in the hunt for a playoff berth. If they could get healthy and play Denver in the first round then perhaps the Jazz could advance even without home court advantage but if the Jazz face the Lakers or Spurs in the first round then they will be going home early.
9) Phoenix Suns (30-23): It is interesting to speculate what might have happened in the Valley of the Sun had Tim Duncan not hit that dagger three pointer in game one of last year's playoffs. After acquiring Shaquille O'Neal in the middle of last season, the Suns finally matched up well with the Spurs in the paint but the Suns never recovered from blowing that first playoff game--and that is a reflection of the lack of mental toughness/focus that has plagued this team for the past few years. The teams that have won championships faced adversity and overcame it, while the talented Suns have always had excuses for why they fell just short of reaching the mountain top. Prior to this season, the Suns brought in Coach Terry Porter to instill a defensive mindset but the players tuned him out and now he has been fired. Steve Nash has won two regular season MVPs but he is annually undressed in the playoffs by Tony Parker; Amare Stoudemire is a scoring wunderkind but he is indifferent at best defensively and on the glass. There has always been enough talent around Nash and Stoudemire to win but the real question in Phoenix is whether or not the players--individually and collectively--have a championship mindset and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to become champions; there simply is no excuse for the Suns to battle the Spurs to double overtime on the road in game one of last year's playoffs and then lose three of the next four games in the series. It would not surprise me at all to see the Suns rally around interim coach Alvin Gentry and move up in the standings but the Suns will not beat a strong minded team in the playoffs; Gentry is like the substitute teacher who lets the students do whatever they want, so the Suns are going to have a lot of fun running and gunning in the last 30 regular season games but when the time comes in the playoffs that they have to rebound and get key defensive stops they will once again fail--and make excuses.
The Eastern Conference teams can be divided into three categories: championship contenders (Cleveland, Boston), strong playoff teams (Orlando, Atlanta), mediocre teams in the middle and the Washington Wizards, who are in a class of their own because they lag at least eight games behind every other team in the East. Here is how the East shapes up:
1) Boston Celtics (44-11): It may not "look" or "feel" like the Celtics are as dominant as they were last season but they actually are one game ahead of their 2008 pace. One reason that the Celtics seem to be less dominant is that this year there are several other teams (Lakers, Cavs, Magic) that are also enjoying standout seasons, while last year the Celtics just ran away from the rest of the league--but the reality is that the Celtics are performing at least as well as they did in 2008. Yes, they could use another big--so could every other contending team--and they do miss James Posey on some nights but they are still a smart, physical, defensive minded team that will be extremely tough to eliminate in the playoffs. They own a 30-4 record versus the East and it seems like the only team that has a chance to take them out before the Finals is Cleveland.
2) Cleveland Cavaliers (41-11): The Cavs are annually underestimated by most observers, largely because they do not have "name" players other than LeBron James--but what the Cavs do have is a very deep roster and a strong commitment to rebounding and playing tough defense. I predicted that Cleveland would battle Boston for the best record in the East and that is turning out to be true. If the Cavs obtain home court advantage then they will almost certainly dethrone the Celtics but even if they don't I think that this year James will be able to lead Cleveland to at least one playoff win in Boston. The Cavs narrowly missed beating Detroit in 2006 and then in 2007 James authored an epic performance in game five and I expect that pattern to repeat itself in the Cleveland-Boston rivalry in 2008/2009.
3) Orlando Magic (39-14): If not for Jameer Nelson's injury then the Magic would certainly deserve to be in the championship contender conversation with the Lakers, Celtics, Cavs and Spurs but now they are a notch below those teams. Other than Dwight Howard, the Magic do not have much size up front and that means that it is critically important for them to be able to spread the court by making three point shots. Nelson is not only a very good shooter but he is also able to distribute the ball to the other perimeter shooters. The Magic are all but locked into the third seed at this point but they are almost certainly heading toward a second round exit at the hands of Boston or Cleveland.
4) Atlanta Hawks (32-22): I wondered whether the young Hawks would be satisfied with their playoff run last year or if they would come back even hungrier for more this year. The Hawks have been up and down but overall they have performed well and they are solidly holding down the fourth seed. The Hawks are not good enough to be considered a championship contender but because of their athleticism they are that proverbial team that no one wants to face; usually that cliche is bogus but in this case it actually is true.
5) Miami Heat (28-25): The Heat could finish anywhere from fifth to ninth (i.e., out of the playoffs) in the East but I don't understand why anyone is surprised that they are contending for a playoff berth; after the Boston-Cleveland-Orlando triad and the Hawks there are a lot of mediocre Eastern teams that are roughly similar in strength, so the Heat clearly have enough talent to be a playoff team--they have a solid nucleus with Dwyane Wade and former All-Star Shawn Marion (who was just traded to Toronto for Jermaine O'Neal) teaming with number one draft pick Michael Beasley plus Udonis Haslem (a starter for a championship team) and deadeye shooter Daequan Cook, the newly crowned Three Point Shootout champion. Frankly, considering who is on their roster it would be a bit of a disappointment if they don't make the playoffs; what Wade is doing is hardly comparable to, for instance, Kobe Bryant leading the Lakers to the playoffs in a much tougher Western Conference in 2006 and 2007 with Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Luke Walton regularly being starters. However, even with O'Neal, the Heat are still too small inside to beat any of the top four teams in the East in a playoff series.
6) Detroit Pistons (27-25): The Pistons made it to the Finals twice under Larry Brown and won one championship but Flip Saunders' Detroit teams lost in the Eastern Conference Finals for three straight years. After last year's loss to Boston, Joe Dumars replaced Saunders with Michael Curry. Curry has the right mindset but he is also a rookie coach who has to go through some growing pains. Meanwhile, the Pistons' core group has gotten older, while their main rivals in Boston and Cleveland have gotten markedly stronger in the past two years. In other words, no matter who coached the Pistons this year they were likely to have a worse record than 2008 and not make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals, which is exactly what I predicted in my Eastern Conference Preview--but I did not foresee this team falling off to the point that even making the playoffs is not a certainty. I assumed that Dumars would keep the roster intact for at least one season after bringing in Curry but shortly after the season began Dumars dealt Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess to Denver for Allen Iverson. Even though McDyess eventually re-signed with the Pistons, they were without the services of their leading rebounder for a month and thus they understandably got off to a slow start. When McDyess came back, the Pistons appeared to right the ship--winning eight of their next 11 games--but since January 10 they have gone 5-13. The Pistons have already used 11 starting lineups this season after only using nine all of last year--and one of last year's starting lineups went 46-17, while none of this year's starting lineups has appeared in more than 13 games. Dumars apparently wants Rodney Stuckey to be in the starting lineup come hell or high water, which means that either Iverson or Richard Hamilton has to come off of the bench; Hamilton drew the short straw in that regard and although he has played well lately the Pistons have blown a lot of fourth quarter leads as Stuckey continues to receive a lot of playing time whether or not he performs well. When the Pistons acquired Iverson, Dumars said that they would take advantage of Iverson's quickness and ability to create shots for himself and others but instead Iverson is often playing off of the ball where he is not as effective. Iverson became an MVP and future Hall of Famer playing a certain way, so why trade for him if you are not going to let him do what he does best? Rasheed Wallace seemed to be mailing in his performances in December and January--shooting less than .410 from the field--but he has picked up his game so far in February. The problem is that the Pistons cannot seem to hit on all cylinders at the same time, no pun intended: first McDyess is gone, then McDyess comes back but Sheed's game disappears; as soon as one problem is fixed, another one arises. One thing is certain: the media, the fans and the "stat gurus" will lay almost all of the blame for Detroit's problems on Iverson. The Pistons still have enough talent to win a playoff series against anyone in the East other than Boston or Cleveland but at this rate they may very well not even make it to the postseason.
7) Philadelphia 76ers (27-26): After the Sixers signed Elton Brand they had dreams of being a serious contender but their season went sideways from the start; Brand struggled to fit in and then suffered a season-ending injury. Meanwhile, the Sixers never seemed to figure out if they were a halfcourt team built around Brand or if they were a run and gun team like the one that looked so good near the end of last season. With Brand out and Coach Maurice Cheeks fired, the Sixers have gone back to playing uptempo basketball. They will likely repeat what they did last season: make the playoffs, put a brief scare into a higher seeded team and then get smothered when that team turns up the defensive intensity.
8) Milwaukee Bucks (27-30): The Bucks have stayed in the playoff hunt despite a season-ending injury suffered by former All-Star Micheal Redd. The big key for them is that new Coach Scott Skiles has engineered a vast improvement in their team defense. Obviously, they have no chance to beat any of the teams that they are likely to face in the first round but Skiles deserves consideration for Coach of the Year honors just by virtue of having this team even close to a .500 record.
There are currently six teams that are between 1.5 and 5.5 games behind Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference standings--call them the giant blob of mediocrity. It is possible that one or more teams from that blob could rise up and supplant Detroit, Philadelphia and/or Milwaukee by the end of the season because at least one and possibly as many as three Eastern Conference playoff teams will have a .500 or worse record. The Chicago Bulls currently are a half game ahead of the rest of the blob and they hope that the acquisition of veteran center Brad Miller will strengthen them in the paint. The New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks are treading water with opposite styles, with New Jersey playing a slower game and the Knicks using Coach Mike D'Antoni's seven seconds or less approach. Coach Larry Brown has helped the Charlotte Bobcats bounce back from a horrible start to becoming a legitimate contender for the last playoff berth. The Indiana Pacers have been giant killers (with victories over Boston, Cleveland and the Lakers) but they must beat the lesser teams more frequently in order to move up in the standings. Mathematically, the Toronto Raptors are still in the hunt but they don't look like a team that can leapfrog several other squads in the next couple months.
As for the Washington Wizards, all that can be said is "abandon hope all ye that enter here."
posted by David Friedman @ 5:52 PM