|A Zen koan for you all: What is the midway point of the NBA season?
For the Celtics it was Wednesday when they notched their 41st game ahead of everybody else in the league. For the Hornets it won’t come until Jan. 26th, which tells you a little something about the arduous schedule the Celtics have endured thus far. For most people, it’s the All-Star break, which is most definitely not the midway point, but is a fine time to try to wrangle an invite to the Player’s Association Party and to try to meet Kanye.
For us, it is now. Just because. At any rate, the League is picking up steam as teams try to sort out if they’re buyers or sellers before the Feb. 19 trade deadline (hint: most teams would love to sell) and the voting for the All-Star game concludes Jan. 19.
So far we have had three dominant storylines to this NBA season.
1. 2010 Free Agency
2. The dominance of the Celtics, Cavs and Lakers
3. The return to earth of the Celtics, Cavs and Lakers
As regards the first, just remember that everything that happens in the NBA from now until the close of 2010 business is predicated on the frenzied free agent shopping spree that will ensue, but the second and third items are what we’re focusing on here.
Five Key Questions for the East
1. Are we about to enter the age of LeBron (for real this time?)
Maybe it came too soon for the Chosen One, and really when you enter the NBA with a nickname like that you had best be better off the bat than Andrea Bargnani. But for all the marketing hype (We Are All Witnesses, etc.), and the quicker than expected trip to the NBA Finals in 2007, LeBron James has been very much a work in progress.
Well, the work is almost done, and it’s frightening. James is, for the lack of a better phrase, sick. Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson nearly caused a Beantown riot when they proposed that LeBron was already better than Larry, but we’re talking about a guy who just turned 24 who is averaging 28 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists and who is bigger than Ron Artest and faster than most point guards.
And, he finally has a suitable team around him. Here’s the other thing. The Cavs are sitting on a $13 million lottery ticket and its name is Wally Szczerbiak’s expiring contract. Do they cash it in, along with some other things, for a Shawn Marion? Or maybe Andrei Kirilenko?
2. Is Orlando for real?
The Magic currently sit in second place in the East, and have the fourth-best point differential in the league. They have the best young center in the world and a point guard having a career year in Jameer Nelson. They have a responsible defense-first coach who has been around the block a few times and a pair of huge forwards who can play inside and out.
And yet, nobody takes them seriously. Perhaps they should. Since dropping their first two games of the season, the Magic have not lost back-to-back games all season. They beat San Antonio and the Lakers in succession at the end of December and own road wins over the Blazers, Jazz and Spurs.
The Magic, though, are painfully thin, especially in the back court. When Nelson got hurt, Stan Van Gundy had to play veteran Anthony Johnson major minutes with no legit backup. If Mikael Pietrus can come back that would help.
Everyone has been zeroing in on a Celtics-Cavs Conference Finals, but before they get there both teams will have huge tests in the semifinals with either the Magic or the Hawks-Pistons winners. After years of drab playoff matchups the East could be more interesting than the West once we get past the first round.
The Celtics go to Orlando on Wednesday. That will be very, very interesting.
3. Can Detroit keep pace?
When the Pistons unloaded Chauncey Billups, many saw it as a straight salary dump. Allen Iverson’s contract expires after this year, as does Rasheed Wallace’s, and this was Joe Dumars’ exit strategy from the Chauncey-Rip-Tayshaun-Sheed crew that had grown stale. And hey, why not keep some fans in the seats with one of the most exciting players in the league?
On Dec. 21, the Pistons sat at 14-11. A.I. had already skipped out on practice (insert your own joke there) after Thanksgiving in what looked like a test of wills and the Pistons were deader than G.M.
Funny what a seven-game winning streak can do. Michael Curry moved Iverson off the ball, gave Rodney Stuckey the keys and suddenly the Pistons are back in it. Having Antonio McDyess back helps, but this is still basically the same team and they’re coming off losses to Charlotte and Indiana.
4. Will Shawn Marion get traded? Will Andre Miller?
OK, so you’re the Miami Heat and you’ve got a winning record after last year’s disaster. If not for LeBron, Dwyane Wade would be the leading contender for MVP, but you’re probably not a real threat to win it all. You’ve got Shawn Marion on your team and he makes $17 million this year and zero the next. In a normal year it’s a no-brainer. You trade Marion and if you do it right you bring back a huge package and get ready for 2009.
But this isn’t a normal year. The economy is in the tank and while there might be a few more teams with championship dreams than there were before Christmas, there aren’t that many. Look at it this way: the team that used to play in Seattle almost traded valuable backup point guard Earl Watson, who might be a better fit for the Celtics than Stephon Marbury, for the right to cut Jerry Stackhouse.
The Sixers are sort of in the same boat with Andre Miller. The Elton Brand experiment simply hasn’t worked this year, which isn’t the same as saying that it can’t work. Regardless the Sixers are going to have to do some retooling after this year and they have Lou Williams waiting in the wings. But is there a market for Miller?
5. Watch out for the Bucks?
Yup. The Milwaukee Bucks. As predicted the Bucks play defense under Scott Skiles. That was a given, but what nobody expected was that Luc Richard Mbah a Moute would be a beast as a rookie and Charlie Villanueva would finally start playing up to his potential as Sixth Man.
Now if they would just set Ramon Sessions free they might sneak up as high as sixth in the East.
Five Questions for the West
1. Will the Lakers get bored?
It’s kind of funny. After the Lakers beat the Celtics in the Biggest Regular Season Game Ever! they proceeded to give up 100 points in eight of their next nine games. They also won seven of them, but as the Celtics can tell you, those kind of wins can be like junk food. They fill you up and make you feel good but then the sugar crash kicks in.
The Lakers still seem to have this kind of childish impulse for self-destruction and until proven otherwise remain somewhat suspect.
2. Will Phoenix or Dallas miss the playoffs?
Somebody has to and those are the two likeliest candidates. The Suns are still in the throes of an identity crisis (are we running again?) while the Mavs seem to have picked up the drama gene from their football neighbors.
The smart money has Dallas getting in, unless the Mavs do something stupid, like trade Josh Howard. Speaking of stupid trades, I won’t defend trading Devin Harris for Jason Kidd because Harris is so much younger, but this deal hasn’t been the one-sided steal everyone likes to make it out to be.
Harris scores a lot of points because the Nets basically put the ball in his hands and ask him to make plays. That wasn’t going to happen in Dallas. Ever. Harris is a great talent, but he’s not Chris Paul.
Speaking of Chris Paul…
3. Can a team win the NBA championship when its best player is a normal-sized point guard?
It has happened exactly one time, when Isiah Thomas led the Pistons to two titles in 1989 and 1990. That’s the company Paul is looking to join (note that’s the basketball playing Isiah, not the franchise-killing, let’s-sign-Jerome James Isiah).
According to 82games.com, the Hornets are 26 points better with Paul on the floor than they are without him. To put that into perspective, that’s six points better than LeBron and 22 points better than Chauncey Billups.
The Hornets have a great young frontline in Tyson Chandler and David West and they have James Posey, who was brought in specifically to play against teams like L.A. and San Antonio in the playoffs.
If those two teams are the favorites, then the Hornets are the leaders in the “sleeper” category. A sleeper, as defined in Western Conference terms, is a team that will probably win 50 games or so, have at least one player who is a legitimate superstar and could make the Finals or lose in the first round. A sleeper team in the East is one that might win 40 and make the playoffs.
4. Will everyone hate Portland?
It’s a little surprising to see the Blazers imploding over the Darius Miles issue. As we remember from Miles’ time here in Boston, if the one-time phenom played 10 games this year for an NBA team, he would do major damage to Portland’s salary cap. The Celtics cut him, the Grizzlies gave him a try and then cut him after two games and it looked like Portland might escape.
Turns out he didn’t have to play 10 regular-season games, just 10 games with an NBA ball and logo. Thus his preseason games counted and suddenly Portland was up a creek.
The Blazers looked slightly uh, priggish, before all this went down, basically putting out word that Miles couldn’t play anymore. OK, it’s a man’s league and you would expect them to protect their investment. But when it came out that Miles only needed two more games to make the cap implications kick in, the Blazers had a meltdown.
President Steve Miller sent out an email to all the teams in the league, warning them not to sign Miles just to mess with Portland. On the stupidity scale this one ranks somewhere between The Roots becoming the house band for Jimmy Fallon and Bernie Madoff telling his sons he was running a Ponzi scheme. Um, paper trail?
At any rate the Blazers apparently went so far as to try to claim Miles on waivers and not play him, which takes this from petty to annoying to wretched. Guys, you’ve got the most exciting roster in the league and the chance for some cap relief when Raef LaFrentz comes off the books. Give up the ghost already.
5. Who is the most interesting bad team in the West?
There are a lot of really bad teams in the West. There’s Memphis and Minnesota and the Clippers. There’s Golden State and Sacramento and Oklahoma City. On the really bad team scale the West is killing the East, 6-1, which is part of the reason the East’s record looks so much better against the West in head-to-head competition this year.
Most of those really bad teams are inherently uninteresting. Did you watch the Kings game? But there is one that is worth keeping an eye on and that’s the Thunder. (Note: I tried calling them the Not-the-Sonics or the team that doesn’t play in Seattle anymore and I just wound up confusing myself, so I’ll call them by their actual names. It’s still not right. It never will be right. And everyone involved should be ashamed that the Seattle SuperSonics don’t exist anymore.)
But anyway, the Thunder have about five things going for them. First, they finally moved Kevin Durant to the 3-spot where, wonder upon wonder, he’s quite good, and second, they have what may turn out to be the best young point guard in the recent draft in Russell Westbrook. They also just signed Nenad Kristic, who is a major upgrade over the stuff they had been running out there at the five spot.
Beyond that, OKC has five (count ‘em, five) first-round picks over the next two years including two for the same player, Kurt Thomas. GM Sam Presti took Thomas in for a first-round pick and then traded him for a first-round pick which has to go down somewhere in the GM Hall of Fame (located in the Cabin Creek, West Virginia, home of Jerry West).
The Thunder also have a bunch of veterans with contracts that will expire, or are about to expire including: Donyell Marshall, Chris Wilcox, Joe Smith and Desmond Mason. Even if they can’t move Watson they have tons of cap space next year and beyond.
Whatever happens at the trade deadline, it’s a good bet Presti will be involved somehow.
New and Improved Playoff Predictions
1. Los Angeles
2. San Antonio
4. New Orleans
I picked the Celtics and Spurs to start the season, and I’m going to stick with it, despite the beatdown the Cavs put on the C’s last week, mainly because I’m stubborn and also because I want to see Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in the NBA Finals.
Paul Flannery is a regular contributor for WEEI.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.