With the second half of the NBA underway, teams all around the league will be jockeying for positioning in two categories: Playoff positioning & lottery positioning. Before we look down the road for that situation, as well as future player movement and the end of season awards and accolades, let’s take a look at some of the questions regarding the first half of the season.
WHO’S THE 1ST HALF MVP?
The first month of the season, Paul George threw his name into the MVP ring, and it’s slightly debatable that he was the MVP of November. However, since then, it looks like Kevin Durant has pulled away from the pack….so far. I still believe that LeBron James is the best player in the game but that gap is starting to close now. With Russell Westbrook injured for most of the season so far, Durant has singlehandedly kept OKC at the top of the Western conference with his efficiently explosive scoring (31.5 PPG; 51 FG%, 41 3P%, 88 FT%), while putting up the best all around season he’s ever had (7.8 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.5 SPG). He’s increased the value of Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, kept Serge Ibaka happy, given the team a swagger and attitude that used to be provided primarily by Westbrook. & has stayed out of Kendrick Perkins’ way so that he can be MVP of Shaqtin’ The Fool, removing JaVale McGee from the top spot. The scary part of Durant’s game right now? I still don’t believe he’s hit his ceiling just yet. He has the athleticism & the body type to still be a devastating one-on-one defender with his freakishly long arms. He gave us a glimpse of that by taking apart Carmelo Anthony on both ends of the floor during last week’s win versus the Knicks. As crazy as this sounds, I think he can score even better too once he fully masters his post game (one will be coming within the next two years).
With Westbrook set to come back on Thursday vs. Miami, he might go back to watching Russell dominate the ball again, & I know people might feel like that’s coming, but it won’t be enough to derail the train Durant’s been driving this season. With that said, LeBron is starting to turn it up in the last few weeks with his play & the whole “Mt. Rushmore” discussion that’s been leading sports conversations the past two weeks. Just know that this is the best “Who’s the best?” rivalry brewing in the league since Bird & Magic in the 80s. It’s been a long time that we’ve had the best player in his prime have another player in his prime nipping at his heels. I’ve mentioned this before, but no one in the NBA has won 3 MVP’s in a row since Bird in 1986. Not Michael, not Magic, not Duncan, not Shaq, not Nash, no one. Usually it’s because of voters fatigue when this happens, but for some reason, it’s really hard to win 3 MVP’ s in a row. If OKC maintains the best record in the West while Miami ends up with the 2nd seed in the East, there is no way LeBron will break this trend unless he starts doing some historical-type things in the next two months.
On a side note, even though it is a better cast, does anyone else feel like the Heat team is starting to have a 2009-2010 Cavalier feel to them or is it just me? LeBron has to do EVERYTHING for this team to win most nights, especially since Wade has been hurt for most of the season. I know we’re dealing with a new dynamic on this Heat team with this constructed Big 3 (depending on how you feel about Bosh), but should we actually even be calling this team The Big 3 anymore? With injuries the last two years, Wade has become a full fledged Robin to LeBron’s Batman, but now it seems like most nights he’s in the Bat Cave guiding/directing Batman of any trouble on the GPS monitors. He’s barely beating up the bad guys anymore. When Durant asked Wade to “Show Me, don’t Tweet me” earlier this fall, I didn’t think he meant to show him this. What’s worst, it looks like Chris Bosh, both health and production-wise is the second best player behind LeBron this season. Who saw that coming two years ago? Do I have to scrap the costume analogy & have Bosh rocking the Robin outfit now? What outfit does Wade wear now? Alfred’s? This is all so confusing.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BOROUGH?
Yes, what happened to the New York teams? Both the New York Knicks & The Brooklyn Nets are the most overrated teams in the NBA so far. The Nets are paying $80M+ in luxury taxes to dethrone the Heat, yet are under .500, currently 7th in the East; and are fighting to catch the Toronto Raptors (yes, I had to say the name in full) for first place in the Atlantic? A team that gave up on Rudy Gay to fulfill the lease they had in #TankCity and are now about to print playoff tickets. The only factor that they can hold on is that they have been fighting through the injury bug & haven’t had a full squad together this season, including training camp. At the same time, this is what happens to older teams, their bodies break down more frequently than before.
Two things that made it worse:
1) They sustained lingering and major injuries to their two best players the team was being built around: Brook Lopez and Deron Williams (I’m not even including Joe Johnson in that one. I don’t give a shit if he’s an “All Star” this season). Now their older players like Kevin Garnett & Paul Pierce, who were only supposed to play a supporting role (& were struggling to play that role as I’m sure it may have been the first time in their lives they’ve been in that position), are asked to do more heavy lifting. However, they’re too old to do the heavy lifting now & Joe Johnson who’s still in his prime is playing like the 3rd best player on the roster most nights, when he should be playing like a franchise player. He gets paid like one, he even gets the All Star nods like one, but why doesn’t he play like one?
2) Making Jason Kidd the coach of the Nets when they were hell bent on getting to the Finals this year was the wrong move. I didn’t like the move initially, but came around when the KG/Pierce/Terry trade went through and I figured they would stand behind Kidd in the locker room. However, that went out the window when those same guys were publicly questioning Kidd’s philosophies from earlier this season. So it goes back to what I originally thought: After all the money they spent on the roster, why didn’t they just go after George Karl or Lionel Hollins, experienced coaches that have been successful coaching veterans & teams close to a title already? Again they’re spending $80M+ in luxury taxes alone. Why not spend a little extra on a proven coach instead of a novice like Kidd? If the goal was to go all in, then they shouldn’t have hired Kidd. That is a lot of pressure to put on a first time coach with no coaching experience who just finished taking his uniform off as a player a month before that.
As far as the Knicks go……actually, let’s ask a more important question….
WILL CARMELO LEAVE THE KNICKS?
Oh boy, here we go again with the “Will Melo stay or go?” rumors, only this time, I actually don’t blame Melo for this. The team is poorly constructed, they have a lot of the same parts on the team; no one shares the ball; outside of Chandler, none of their big men play defense; & like Brooklyn, were looking to depend on guys like Metta World Peace & Kenyon Martin to do the defensive dirty work, but they’ve both been shipping out DNP-CDs like an unsigned artist. I blame the Knicks management for this season, and I do for this reason. I’ve said this before about Melo, he is who he is at this point. He’s a great scorer who doesn’t make his teammates better, and this is not changing after 10 years in the league. I still don’t believe you can win a title with Carmelo being your best player……..BUT if you really want to make him your franchise gem, here’s what needs to be done.
You have to have a PG that will keep Melo & everyone else happy with their amounts of touches, someone in the locker room who can assume vocal leadership on the team until Melo takes over that role, & bigs that will play physical defense & clean everything up on the boards. You can’t trade for Bigs like Andrea Bargnani who basically plays soft, you can’t continue to resign guys like JR Smith & pick up guys like old World Peace, & you can’t have PGs like Ray Felton who’s not gonna distribute the ball to make everyone else happy. Pablo Prigioni is more of a pass-first PG but he’s close to the end of his career & he just got into the league last season.
It’s no surprise that they were going to fall back from last year’s pace, but 12 games under .500 by the All Star game? I didn’t see that one coming. With that said, I feel like Melo should stay where he is. Not every star in the NBA is destined to win a title. History is littered with Hall of Famers who have no rings. Plus there’s only a few places where you can be a star in a major market and get paid the big bucks; the cap space frees up after next season; your wife gets to be a star in the same city where you live (she probably doesn’t get in the roster for the Think Like a Man movie living out in Denver); if you leave for the Lakers, the pressure will be waaay worse than it’ll be in New York. You may as well take the money, stay famous, and run.
Between the Knicks and the Nets, the New York basketball scene right now resembles the New York hip hop scene. Most of their biggest stars (while still good) have hit their prime and peaks during the last decade, there’s no new young stars coming into the horizon anytime soon, and their biggest competition from the South, the Midwest, the West Coast, and Toronto have all surpassed them. Where’s that Funkmaster Flex bomb drop when you need it?
CAN PORTLAND KEEP THIS UP?
To put it in simple terms: Yes! They failed consistently in trying to build a winner with the Jailblazer era, then fell on bad luck with Brandon Roy & Greg Oden’s health, but now they are at a good place. In LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lilliard, & Nicolas Batum, the Trailblazers have finally found a foundation that they can build the future on & have the right pieces so far around them to be around for a good while. The only issues with this team is how will they get points consistently in the paint when the game slows down & they are playing in a 7-game series against San Antonio for example. Aldridge is a top 3 Power Forward at worst in the game right now, but his strength is facing the basket & hitting fading turnaround jumpers. In the playoffs, you got to get baskets & create fouls in the paint. Aldridge does have solid moves in the post, so you have to hope he alters his game a little more at that point to mix it up a little bit more in the paint. He’s the only big on the roster that can get points down low. The other factor is Lilliard’s legs. Will they be fatigued after playing in all 5 events for Star weekend? After being selected as an all star, he should have automatically been removed from having to play in the Rising Stars Game. I’m not sure why it’s still mandatory for him to suit up All star Friday for, no fan will be insulted if he skips out. More importantly, the Blazers are going to need him for their playoff push, & seeing that this will be his first go-around in the playoffs in years, it’ll be a shame if he’s shot physically in April .
IS SAN ANTONIO THE NBA’S VERSION OF GROUNDHOG DAY?
Look at it this way: every year we expect them to fall off the cliff. In 2011, when they lost in Round 1 to Memphis, we poured the dirt over them. What did they do the next year? Made it to the conference Finals before losing in six to Oklahoma City, which included losing the last four games of the series. We looked at OKC’s roster, realized their age & that none of their core guys were in their prime yet, and then we poured dirt over the Spurs again. After some trades & injuries to the Thunder, the Spurs were still not expected to win the West. They met up on Memphis again in the Conference Finals and you legitimately wondered if they had enough to beat the Grizzlies front line. One week later, they swept up Memphis. Two weeks after that, they were within a Ray Allen three in Game 6 or winning the Finals & putting serious doubt on LeBron’s legacy & that of Miami’s Big 3. Now everyone’s talking about the Thunder again, the Clippers, Blazers, Rockets, Warriors, etc., & the Spurs have been depleted by injuries. OKC leads the West by 4 games. Well, after the dust settled on the first half of the season, guess who’s second? I’m not going to doubt them anymore. I believe the Thunder is the best team in the West, especially when Westbrook gets back, but still, I’m putting away the shovel.
IS INDIANA THE NBA’S VERSION OF THE SEATTLE SEAHAWKS?
When I look at this team, I can kinda see where the comparison might come from actually, especially pertaining to defence. However, I’ll take you back right now, they more remind me of the 1993 Knicks team.
Back in 1991, the Knicks got taken apart by the Bulls in the playoffs on the way to the Bulls first NBA title. In 1992, they took Jordan’s Bulls to 7 games before getting blown out during the last game. Chicago then went on to repeat as the champions. The next season, New York got the number one seed in the East, finishing 2nd overall in the NBA to the Phoenix Suns in Charles Barkley’s first year as a Sun (they had one of the all-time underrated brawls ever). They had the best defence in the league; a deep and stacked roster (picking up PG Doc Rivers in the off-season trade for PG Mark Jackson); Coach Pat Riley had given the team a tough swagger that Ewing, Oakley, and the rest of the team followed; they developed John Starks into a highly confident starter (that could have made the All Star Game that year) who wasn’t afraid of Jordan, Pippen or anyone else in the NBA.
In 2012, the Pacers got taken apart by the Heat in the playoffs on their way to their first NBA in the Big 3 Era. Last season, Indiana took Miami to 7 games before getting blown out during the last game. This season, the Pacers are doing everything short of selling their first born children to get the number one seed in the East, and are currently fighting Oklahoma City for the best record in the NBA. They have the best defence in the league; they have a deep and stacked roster (trading for PF Luis Scola in the off-season while recently picking up Andrew Bynum); Coach Frank Vogel has given the team a tough swagger that Roy Hibbert, Paul George, David West, and the rest of the team follows. They developed Lance Stephenson into a highly confident starter (that could have made the All Star game this season) that isn’t afraid of LeBron, Wade, or anyone else in the NBA.
With the Knicks, they took a 2-0 lead in the ’93 Eastern Conference Finals before losing the next 4 games to Chicago in a series that had classic moments (ie. Starks dunk on the Bulls, MJ’s 54, Charles Smith sequence). We’re only at the all star break so far, so we don’t know if history will continue to repeat itself. However, the one thing that history has taught us, is that as important as home court advantage is in the playoffs, if you are to be a championship team, you have to be able to win on the road. Home court is important because if a game goes to the limit, you want that last game to be on your floor, but it won’t mean anything if you can’t win on the road. Unfortunately for them, Miami has proven in the last few years that they can win playoff road games too, including at Conseco Fieldhouse. So for their sake, they better hope they can get to a seventh game, or as the Knicks learned back in 1993, the fight to get to the the #1 seed won’t mean anything.
MOST SURPRISING TEAM?
A few teams are in the mix for this one this season. I personally didn’t see Toronto being over .500 at this stage of the season. They are looking to leave #TankCity & we’ll get into that in the revised #TankCity Edition after the trade deadline. Portland gets consideration as well as currently being in a 3-way tie for 3rd place in the West, when the expectation was that they would be fighting for the 8th seed with the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Dallas Mavericks. A spot that Golden St. currently resides in, which is a little shocking to me at the moment too. I think we’d have to pick the Phoenix Suns hands down. Going into the pre-season, looking at the their roster, you were unsure how much D-League games they’d be able to win, much less NBA games. However, with the emergence of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, coupled with the improvement of players like Gerald Green & Miles Plumblee, this team has taken flight. However, the most important factor is that the team has completely bought into 1st year coach Jeff Hornacek’s philosophies. He has to be in the running for coach of the year at the very least, if not the sole frontrunner. This team was supposed to be building for the future. Instead, they have surpassed Golden State in the West, swept the Pacers, defeated Golden St twice, beat down the Clippers, Houston, & has stepped up in the playoff race. The 2nd half of the year will be a lot tougher (including April where 6 of their 8 opponents are playoff contenders), so it remains to be seen if they will come back down to earth. With that said, they will be a tough out for the last playoff seed, especially once Bledsoe comes back.
Cal Cee // South Shore Ave