NBA Leaderboard, Part VIIThis season, the Lakers went 2-0 versus the Celtics, 2-0 versus the Cavaliers and 2-1 versus the Spurs but they still may not attain their preseason goal of clinching homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers--a deeper and more talented team than is generally acknowledged--have used their three pronged formula of defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James to overcome injuries to several key rotation players and move past the Lakers in the standings.
Best Five Records
1) Cleveland Cavaliers, 54-13
2) L.A. Lakers, 53-14
3) Boston Celtics, 51-18
4) Orlando Magic, 50-18
5) San Antonio Spurs, 45-22
In the wake of losing to the Celtics in the Finals last year, the Lakers vowed to be on a mission this season to earn homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. They pledged to be grittier on the boards, to work harder on defense and to maintain focus for 48 minutes regardless of the score or who they are playing. The Lakers had some sporadic lapses in some of those areas during this season but still managed to stay ahead of the rest of the pack--until Tuesday night, when the 76ers beat the Lakers in the Staples Center thanks to a last second three pointer by Andre Iguodala. That loss showcased the Lakers at their worst: they blew a 14 point lead at home against an inferior team, demonstrating a lack of focus not only by giving up 32 fourth quarter points but by failing to utilize their foul to give on the last possession and thus succumbing to one of the few ways to lose a game when leading by two points in the waning seconds: giving up a rhythm three point jumper.
I don't believe in putting too much stock in one game but it has to be said that this game could be a turning point in NBA history. If the MVP race between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is close--and it certainly should be--then which team ends up with the best record could be the deciding factor. The Lakers' loss coupled with the Cavs' impressive home win versus Orlando vaulted the Cavs into the number one spot. The Cavs are 30-1 at home and play 10 of their final 15 games at the friendly confines of Quicken Loans Arena, so there is a good chance that the Lakers will not catch the Cavs. That means that if these teams meet in the Finals--which I expect to happen--then the Cavs will have the first two games at home, plus the last two games at home (if necessary). If this turns out to be the season in which LeBron James wins his first MVP and his first championship, the tipping point may have been when Iguodala's high arcing shot nestled the nets just as time expired.
I don't mean to sound melodramatic. The Cavs and Lakers each have 15 games remaining, so the issue of homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs is far from settled. Bryant and James each have the opportunity to author individual and collective performances good enough to sway the MVP voters and position their teams to make a championship run (and Dwyane Wade's "third party" MVP candidacy is sure to garner support as well if he is able to get back on the court and continue to perform at his post-All-Star Game level). Still, Bryant believes in Tex Winter's mantra that "everything turns on a trifle" and I can't help but think that a lot of things may have turned on that "trifling" play at the end of the Lakers-76ers game.
In addition to the race for the top seed that may very well determine this year's MVP and this year's NBA champion, there is also a great race for playoff positioning in the West. Four teams have 25 losses, with a 26 loss team and a 27 loss team just behind them. The Spurs only have 22 losses but with Manu Ginobili out it is possible that they could drop to third or even fourth place.
Things are a little bit more defined in the East. The Cavs enjoy a four game lead over Boston and a four and a half game lead over Orlando, meaning that they have all but clinched the top seed in the conference. Only Boston and Orlando are in contention for the next two spots. The Atlanta Hawks are three and a half games ahead of Miami and thus have the inside track for the fourth seed. Miami, Philadelphia and Detroit are only separated by three losses and will most likely fill the 5-7 spots. The Bulls are currently leading the musical chairs battle for the eighth and final spot but four teams are within three games of them in the loss column; the fading Pacers are four games back but seem to have run out of gas.
Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 29.9 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 28.7 ppg
3) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.8 ppg
4) Kevin Durant, OKC 25.9 ppg
5) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 25.5 ppg
6) Danny Granger, IND 24.9 ppg
7) Brandon Roy, POR 23.0 ppg
8) Chris Bosh, TOR 22.6 ppg
9) Devin Harris, NJN 22.6 ppg
10) Chris Paul, NOR 22.0 ppg
16) Dwight Howard, ORL 21.0 ppg
17) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.6 ppg
21) Tim Duncan, SAS 19.9 ppg
27) Pau Gasol, LAL 18.7 ppg
28) O.J. Mayo, MEM 18.7 ppg
31) Ray Allen, BOS 18.4 ppg
Dwyane Wade has forced his way into the MVP conversation with his scoring, passing and defensive exploits since the All-Star Game. Assuming that Wade's scoring average does not drop, LeBron James will need to average about 33 ppg in the last 15 games to pass him; Wade has obviously not clinched the crown just yet, but he is in pretty good shape unless he closes out the season with 10 or 15 point outings. Kobe Bryant has been averaging more than 31 ppg since Andrew Bynum got hurt but he only had 11 points in the Lakers' loss to the 76ers and it does not look like he is poised to score the 33-34 ppg he would need to score down the stretch to pass Wade, particularly since Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson has spoken openly of possibly resting Bryant and Pau Gasol in anticipation of a long playoff run.
Wade set a goal of playing in all 82 games this season after his injury riddled 2008 campaign but he will fall short of that mark as multiple nagging injuries forced him to sit out Miami's overtime loss in Boston on Wednesday. Does Miami's competitiveness in that game sans Wade prove that Wade has a better supporting cast than people think, that the Celtics really, really miss Kevin Garnett, that Stephon Marbury can bring any team down, all of the above, none of the above or some combination? I ask that multi-part rhetorical question somewhat tongue in cheek but I must say that the cupboard is not quite as bare in Miami as some people would have you believe. Jermaine O'Neal is a six-time All-Star who finished third in the 2004 MVP voting. He is obviously not an MVP caliber player now but he is only 30 years old and when he is healthy he is still a potent low post player at both ends of the court. Udonis Haslem started for a championship team in Miami just three years ago. Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and Daequan Cook are young, talented players. Jamario Moon is a good energy guy.
Wade does not have a championship caliber team like Bryant and James do--but the Heat don't have a championship caliber record, either. I fully expected the Heat to be a playoff team this year, though I did not think that they would have the fifth best record in the East. People make too much of the fact that the Heat only won 15 games last season--Wade missed 31 games but even without him there is no way that a team that was two years removed from a championship should have started out 1-8. Wade is healthy this year and the roster has been almost completely turned over, so it does not make much sense to act as if Wade has singlehandedly taken a team that truly was only capable of winning 15 games and turned it into a playoff team; the Heat clearly should have won more than 15 games last year, so it would be more accurate to say that they underachieved in 2008 than to say that they are overachieving now. Wade is having an MVP caliber season but the Heat are only a little better this season than what should have been reasonably expected of them. In my Eastern Conference Preview, I said of the Heat, "On paper, they will probably be the 'most improved' team this season because they figure to win at least 40 games." It will be funny if Wade wins the MVP not so much because of how well he has played but because all these media guys who vote on the award woefully underestimated what kind of record the Heat would have and therefore are convinced that he has worked some kind of miracle in south Florida. Again, I'm not disrespecting Wade in the least: he is having an MVP caliber season--but the other Heat players are not the Bad News Bears outfit that everyone acts like they are.
Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.0 rpg
2) David Lee, NYK 12.0 rpg
3) Troy Murphy, IND 11.9 rpg
4) Andris Biedrins, GSW 11.5 rpg
5) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg
6) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.3 rpg
7) Yao Ming, HOU 9.7 rpg
8) Chris Bosh, TOR 9.5 rpg
9) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.3 rpg
10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 9.1 rpg
12) Kevin Love, MIN 9.0 rpg
15) Shaquille O'Neal, PHX 8.6 rpg
19) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.3 rpg
21) Lamar Odom, LAL 8.0 rpg
26) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.5 rpg
27) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 rpg
44) Jason Kidd, DAL 6.2 rpg
Dwight Howard has all but wrapped up his second consecutive rebounding title. Other than Al Jefferson dropping off of the list due to not playing in enough games, this list has remained fairly stable. David Lee has turned into a real double-double machine. Most years there are seven to 10 players who average at least 10 rpg, so with only six 10 rpg players the rebounding race is not quite as competitive this year as it usually is.
Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo were traded for each other on Draft night, so they will naturally be compared throughout their careers. Mayo had a great start this season as a scorer but he has cooled off a lot since then, shooting less than .420 from the field in January, February and March. Love has had his ups and downs but he has been averaging a double double since January, including 14.6 ppg and 10.0 rpg in nine games in March.
Top Ten Playmakers
1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.0 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 10.5 apg
3) Steve Nash, PHX 9.7 apg
4) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.6 apg
5) Rajon Rondo, BOS 8.5 apg
6) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.4 apg
7) Baron Davis, LAC 8.1 apg
8) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.6 apg
9) Chris Duhon, NYK 7.6 apg
10) LeBron James, CLE 7.2 apg
Chris Paul is cruising to his second consecutive assists crown. Deron Williams has overcome his injuries to claim the second spot for the second time in three years. The rest of the top 10 has pretty much stayed the same for most of the season, with Duhon moving down a bit and Nash moving up as the Suns resumed their running ways.
Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com
posted by David Friedman @ 7:13 AM