The NBA breaks this weekend for its annual All-Star game, a game which TCC was fortunate enough to attend last year in Houston. The All-Star Game, while lacking in the intensity of some regular season games, does allow the best players to showcase their skills and, in some cases, network with their fellow players in a more cordial environment than the “heat of battle” of the regular season.
It also allows us pause for reflection of the first few months of the season and take stock of where we are, particularly looking ahead to the end of the season and the playoffs. Here are a few of my own observations and thoughts about what has gone on over the past few weeks:
The East is AWFUL: The Eastern Conference is truly playing up to the old “Leastern Conference” moniker. Four teams are over .500 at the moment: Miami, Atlanta, Toronto (!) and Indiana. The Bulls and Wizards are only a game under .500 as well. That means a team with a sub-.500 record will almost certainly get into the playoffs again, where they will likely get smashed by Indiana or Miami. Milwaukee haven’t even won a tenth game yet. They are over 30 games back but have only played 50. Now a lot of teams have both eyes firmly on the upcoming draft class, with Joel Embiid now becoming a likely contender for the 1st overall pick – if he chooses to declare for the draft, which isn’t a given. Teams like New York, however, were not tanking for the 1st overall pick. They just suck. Brooklyn have improved somewhat in recent weeks, but the fact remains that they feature a bunch of guys over 30 years old and have a head coach who has no coaching experience. Without Brook Lopez, it’s hard to see what will surely be Kevin Garnett’s last season ending in anything other than mediocrity. The fact that Washington, who were so desperate they gave John Wall a max contract, are tied for 5th in the conference says everything. Incidentally, keep an eye on Washington over the next couple of seasons. In this sort of conference, they could become a playoff team very easily.
Indiana signing Bynum instals them as favorites: I can’t believe that Miami have seen enough from Greg Oden to make them think he gives them what they need so they have the best chance to beat the Pacers in the playoffs. After he was unceremoniously dumped by the Cavaliers, I expected Andrew Bynum to be on his way to South Beach if for no other reason that to give the Heat a proper big man to battle Roy Hibbert, who tends to save his best performances against the relatively undersized Heat. Their last meeting in mid December saw Hibbert in foul trouble and finish with 6 points and 2 rebounds. With Hibbert out of the equation, the Heat will of course be contenders to beat Indiana in just about any given game, but they cannot expect him to be as ineffective for an entire series. I seriously doubt that Oden is the guy to stop him, as heartening as it is to see him back playing and playing relatively well. Unless Miami makes a move before the trade deadline, which I find hard to believe will happen, Indiana are strong favorites to win the East. They have only lost 2 games at home so far this season. Only OKC has a similar dominance in their own building. And, of course, Miami.
The Heat might be coasting, but they are still playing very well: The third year of an attempted three-peat is notoriously tough on players. The Heat were quite an old team last year, particularly guys like Shane Battier and Ray Allen. Dwyane Wade is not as old, but has serious issues with his knees that have limited him to 36 games out of a possible 49 so far this season. How will he fare once the season extends to the playoffs? LeBron has been more or less flat out, but that’s been true for a few seasons now. The issue of his potential burnout must surely concern the Heat management. He has, of course, shown no signs of this, but the possibility exists nonetheless. Despite taking things relatively easy, the Heat are still the second best team in the East by ten games. Unless something goes disastrously wrong, they should take the East’s 2 seed easily. Their foes of last season, Chicago, are clearly in the process of rebuilding in the hope that Derrick Rose comes back stronger next season after another year of knee trouble. That just leaves Indiana in their path towards a fourth consecutive finals appearance.
The Suns are playing out of their minds: There is no good reason for the Suns to be the sixth best team in the Western conference at the moment. They have four first round picks for the upcoming draft and everyone thought they were going to play out this season and try to rebuild next year. Instead, driven by the excellent Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe along with a cast of impressive role players, Jeff Hornacek’s team have been on a tear which saw them beat the heavily-fancied Indiana Pacers twice. Whether or not they decide to trade away some of those picks for experienced players in bad situations (Pau Gasol has been mooted, Kevin Love is another name that makes sense for both parties) or if they keep them and go for a really young team next season remains to be seen but the Suns are fun again and it happened much quicker than anyone expected.
Kevin Durant is a really good basketball player: Paging Captain Obvious. Captain Obvious to the lobby. Look, KD has just claimed his 31st 30 point game of the season against the Knicks. It was also his 7th 40 point game of the season. He’s the top scorer in the NBA and he’s also the NBA’s best scorer. It’s not even close. Nothing he does looks forced. Everything looks like a good shot. Durant is probably the leading candidate for MVP and with his OKC Thunder sitting with the league’s best record without the now-long-departed James Harden and the currently injured Russell Westbrook, he is a deserving candidate. Other guys have of course stepped up in Westbrook’s absence, but this is mostly about Durant. He’s not the best player in the league, for my money, though. The way LeBron makes his entire team better eclipses Durant who is more of a lead-by-example guy. We shouldn’t get too bogged down in the LeBron vs Durant debate just yet, though. Let’s just enjoy having these two incredible players in the prime at the same time. As long as they remain in opposing conferences, we could be in for years of classic NBA finals.
Cleveland is a disaster: If you didn’t already read it, read this link. Luol Deng, traded to Cleveland in a salary dump, has reportedly told a confidante (might want to rethink who you talk to in future, Lu) that the Cavaliers have serious, almost endemic, problems with professionalism throughout the organization. In LeBron’s final season in Cleveland, the Cavs won 61 games. They have only just won 61 games since LeBron left. No names were named in the reports based on Deng’s comments, but it seems that Dion Waiters is a big problem. No criticism was leveled at Kyrie Irving, the current franchise player, but if anyone is likely to be the one making demands that could challenge Coach Mike Brown’s authority from within the playing squad, it could only be Irving. Reporters claim that when LeBron was in Cleveland, he was more or less allowed to do as he wished and it has been speculated that this institutional culture has persisted since LeBron’s departure. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that whatever LeBron decides to do this offseason, he is not going to re-sign for the Cavaliers. Dan Gilbert has a lot of work to do to sort out this mess. He should start by trading Anderson Varejao to a better team.
Andrew Wiggins is not going to be a stud in the NBA next season: Wiggins was much fancied as the number 1 overall a couple of months ago, but a series of indifferent performances at Kansas and the fact that his team-mate Joel Embiid has overtaken him as the predicted first overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft despite recent comments that he (Embiid) would consider playing at least another year in college to develop his game – Embiid has only played organised basketball for a couple of years – have dropped Wiggins’ chances of being an NBA stud next season to average. He might well be a one-and-done, but Wiggins has proven to anyone who has seen him this season that at least one more year of college would be really good for him. I already wrote about the issue of “one and done” players and the list of guys who did not work out at the professional level is extensive when compared to those that did. Wiggins is not ready for the NBA and a couple of months won’t change that. Jabari Parker and Julius Randle are probably ready and will probably enter the next draft – Randle almost definitely as no player worth his salt seems to want to stay at Kentucky for more than one season. Charles Barkley recently spoke on sports radio and said that the NBA should change its rules to force players to stay in school for at least two years, which makes a lot of sense. This sort of rule would protect talented players like Wiggins who lack the strength, both physical and mental, for the NBA challenge at such a young age.
The Lakers: Anyone see their 4 legal men beat Cleveland the other day? Unreal. Forty year old Steve Nash is working his way back after nerve issues ruled him out for the start of 2014. Thousand year old Chris Kaman was asleep on the bench like a student during finals. Ryan Kelly (remember that awkward but talented gunner for Duke last season?) has been one of LA’s best players in recent weeks. They needed to invoke a practically unknown NBA rule to allow Robert Sacre to finish the Cleveland game despite having 6 fouls. Kobe is due to come back from his “not as serious” knee injury soon, and lets face it, he probably will come back regardless of how good an idea it is. Pau Gasol is injured and has been linked with a trade to Phoenix, but his injury will keep him out until after the trade deadline, so Phoenix will have no idea how ready to play he is if/when they do trade for him. Things are a bit messy for the Lakers and the Clippers playing relatively well without Chris Paul doesn’t help. They’ve written off the majority of their salary cap for next season to re-sign Kobe, so while they do have the money to make a run at an opt-out-free-agent like LeBron or Carmelo Anthony, they lack anything like the resources to put a decent team around Kobe and his new apprentice. A couple of creative trades might be the only way out of this. Dr Buss must be rolling in his grave.