It’s All-Star Weekend in Orlando, the halfway point of the NBA season. It seems like not so long ago I was sitting in front of the TV set on Christmas afternoon watching the Celtics-Knicks from MSG and then enjoying Bulls-Lakers with some relatives from Chicago. Most voices I hear on the mainstream media bemoan this shortened, compressed schedule, but I’m all for it. There’s good games each night and a regular season that’s used strictly for seeding and to eliminate only the worst teams is cut back.
There are very few surprises in the NBA, so even though my Oklahoma City-Chicago pick for the NBA Finals is holding up nicely, that’s just evidence that the league can be so predictable even I can get in the ballpark of being right. Here’s a general overview of how the landscape looks as the stars come out in Orlando…
Miami (27-7): We looked at the Heat in-depth earlier this week, so we’ll briefly summarize here. The media perception of a Big Three with no real supporting cast is right on target. Miami needs Udonis Haslem or Joel Anthony to be more consistent rebounding if they’re going to win a championship. Give this team credit for an offense that can play both fast-paced and disciplined all at once, and for the ability to lock down defensively when they have to.
Chicago (27-8): The Bulls really lock it down on defense, they go to the boards and they know how to run an offense. What they need is a reliable second scorer behind Derrick Rose. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah are solid up front as rebounders and in supporting offensive roles, but it’s a lot to ask of Rose for him to carry the offense at big moments. If Boston decides to break up the band, Ray Allen would have maximum impact right here.
The five teams below are the leaders in the most interesting regular season in the East—for top four seeding position and homecourt advantage in the first round, and to establish themselves as a team who can at least make the two contenders sweat in the second round.
Indiana (21-12): Larry Bird has done a great job putting this team together, with Roy Hibbert being a legitimate force in the paint, the second-best center in the East behind Dwight Howard. There’s solid component pieces around him as the entire lineup scores in double-figures. The Pacers do everything well, from defense, to the halfcourt offense to rebounding. What they need—and no one should know this better than Bird—is an undisputed leader who will demand the ball and take over at key moments in big games.
Philadelphia (20-14): Another team TheSportsNotebook did a feature on this week. Their defense—ranked higher than the more heralded Chicago D—both in raw point totals and after the stat guys adjust for tempo—makes them a serious contender They need better play from Andre Iguodala to hold off the Knicks in the Atlantic Division.
New York (17-18): There are two more teams with better records, but none with better futures than the Jeremy Lin-led Knicks. With the frontcourt of Melo, Amare Stoudamire and Tyson Chandler, Lin is the last piece of the puzzle in the starting lineup. Furthermore, the new York defense is underrated, ranking 7th in the NBA once you adjust for their fast-paced tempo. Where they rank poorly is offensive efficiency, a direct reflection on the lack of a floor leader for most of the first half. Now that Lin is in the house, I see New York passing Philly and winning the division.
Orlando (22-13): A great job by head coach Stan Van Gundy, who’s kept the Magic with a solid record amidst all the talk about where Dwight Howard’s next job is. But either Howard’s going to get traded, the rumors will become too much, or the fact that Jameer Nelson is not playing well at the point standing to eventually sink Orlando. Someone besides Dwight and power forward Ryan Anderson needs to be consistent.
Atlanta (20-14): The Hawks have a nice inside-out combo with Josh Smith down low, Joe Johnson in the backcourt, and then you have Jeff Teague running the show. What they need to more of is rebound, or their recent struggles are going to become permanent.
The Playoff Border
Boston (15-17): As long as the Celtics don’t break up the Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen trio, they’ll make the playoffs. But is it wise to hold on to the core? Boston still plays very good defense, meaning they can reverse their recent slide and perhaps still grab that coveted #6 spot in the East, and avoiding Miami or Chicago. But the offense is poor, and the rebounding has become woeful. If I were Danny Ainge, it’s time to take 50 cents on the dollar for Garnett.
Cleveland (13-18): There’s hope again in Cleveland, with Kyrie Irving in town. He’s paired up with veteran power forward Antwan Jamison to give the Cavs a two-man game that’s at least made them competitive and could even steal a playoff berth if Boston throws in the towel.
Milwaukee (13-20): It’s an indictment of the Eastern Conference that a team that basically does nothing well, and whose best player in Brandon Jennings is making noises about what big market he wants to go, is actually in the playoff discussion. If Jennings stays focused, Drew Gooden comes back healthy down low and Ersan Ilyasova can keep chipping in double-digit nights, the Bucks could beat out the Cavs. Then it depends on Boston’s intentions.
Oklahoma City (27-7): Kevin Durant is making a spirited run at the MVP award, and the debate of Durant vs. LeBron will likely be a big story in the second half of the season. Don’t overlook that Russell Westbrook is having a huge year himself at the point, while James Harden is instant offense off the bench. Defensively, the Thunder get good work down low from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. What they need to do much better is play defense. Being 13th in defensive efficiency is good enough to win a lot of games with an offense like this, but it won’t win you a title.
San Antonio (24-10): The Spurs have made a run back into contention behind Tony Parker’s magnificent season at the point, and Tim Duncan continuing to be reliable in the post, and then Greg Popovich blends in a deep bench. San Antonio needs to upgrade their defense and rebounding substantially between now and the playoffs, but they have broken out of the pack and established themselves a clear contender again in the West.
The gap between contender and challenger in the West is a lot grayer than it was in the East. Here, the challengers are all realistic threats to move to the top tier, but just haven’t done so yet.
LA Clippers (20-11): I think the Clips will be a top-tier contender by May, as the Blake Griffin-Chris Paul combo is getting solid help from Mo Williams in the backcourt and Caron Butler at small forward. Don’t overlook the work of center DeAndre Jordan who joins Griffin in making the Clippers one of the best rebounding teams in the league. Like the contenders, defense has to be improved.
Dallas (21-13): Forget the Mavericks’ reputation as an offensive-oriented team. Dallas is doing it with defense, and Dirk Nowitzki has his average back to 20 ppg. What will hold the Mavs’ back is if they can’t re-establish the depth that was so vital to last year’s championship run and if they can’t improve their offensive efficiency. Both objectives are likely going to be intertwined.
LA Lakers (20-14): You might see its respect that leads me to say the Lakers are still on a par with the other teams listed here. You also might say it’s being outdated, given that Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are the only three legitimate players in the regular rotation, and Gasol is obviously unhappy over persistent trade rumors. But it’s also fear—I loathe this team to a level I usually reserve for the Dallas Cowboys and right behind the New York Yankees. I’m afraid if I write them off then Kobe, already averaging 28 ppg, will lead them back into the top tier. Maybe it’s not rational to think that what goes up on a sports website based out of Wisconsin will affect a basketball game in Los Angeles, but I can’t take any chances.
The Playoff Border
Again, the lines between tiers is not sharp in the competitive West. Any of the teams above could at least win a first-round series…so long as they make it in.
Houston (20-14): Kevin McHale’s doing a great job with this team, and with the Celtics being depressing, this is becoming the team I’m ready to fall back on as a fan for the second half. The backcourt is great with Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, while Luis Scola scores in the post. There’s no one great rebounder, but as a team the Rockets hit the boards well.
Memphis (19-15): If the Grizzlies get Zach Randolph healthy at the power forward spot, move them up a tier immediately. As they stand right now, the backcourt of Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo , and the frontcourt scoring of Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol are going to make this team a tough out in the West, as last year’s #1 seed, San Antonio, ruefully found out in the first round.
Portland (18-16): They’re fading and there’s been bad news in the headlines, as Greg Oden’s season-ending surgery probably also means the end of any flickering hopes for a career revival. As ESPN’s Michael Wilbon pointed out, from Bill Walton to Sam Bowie to Greg Oden, this franchise can’t get a break when it comes to big men. Of course as ESPN’s Bill Simmons also pointed out, the potential healthy problems with Bowie and Oden were there out of college and a lot of GMs would ‘ve chosen Michael Jordan ahead of Bowie or Durant ahead of Oden, even based on what we knew at the time. But I digress. Lamarcus Aldridge and Jamal Crawford make this team competitive each night, but survival is going to be tough the rest of the way.
Denver (18-17): Does anyone else think its wrong that center “Nene”, always known by only a first name, has now decided to go by Nene Hilario? The mystery is gone. It’s like if we knew Callen’s full first name on NCIS Los Angeles instead of just calling him “G”. Anyway, the Nuggets are like Portland in that they are sliding and an injury to Danilo Gallianari, the team’s best player, won’t help.
Minnesota (17-17): With Denver & Portland sliding, I like the T-Wolves to slide into the 8-spot in the west and end the city of Minneapolis’ depressing sports run of late (since the Vikings lost the 2009 NFC Championship Game and the Twins were swept out of the 2010 AL Division Series, the city’s teams have been in a funk). Kevin Love is an MVP candidate, with a 25/14 nightly average, Ricky Rubio is an exciting point guard, while Nikola Pekovic and Michael Beasley are good complementary pieces up front. Yes, I think this team not only makes the playoffs, but is a viable shot to pull an upset in round one.
The Life Isn’t Always Fair Group
Both of these teams would be contenders for the playoffs in the East…
Utah (15-17): Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap give them an inside presence each night, but they need backcourt help. Since point guard Devin Harris is from Wisconsin, I feel morally obligated to give him a shout-out, and he does do a nice job playmaking, but without some offensive punch the Jazz aren’t going to get over the top in the West.
Golden State (13-17): I really grew to like head coach Mark Jackson when he was working with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy on the ABC/ESPN broadcasts, and would like to see him succeed. He’s got the firepower, with Monta Ellis, David Lee and Stephen Curry, who combine for nearly 60 ppg on their own, but the Warriors’ need to be taught lessons in the art of defense..