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NBA Midseason Points

With the 2007 NBA All-Star game on the horizon I thought it would be appropriate to look at the state of affairs in the league. This season has been rich with subplots: streaks (Suns and Mavs), beefs (Nuggets and Knicks), marquee player movement (Allen Iverson and Chris Webber), and one team inching ever so close to a new wing of the NBA Pantheon (hint: 16 championships, 18 losses…and counting). Because “parity” isn’t part of the NBA vocabulary, let’s take a look at some of the principal themes of the 2006-07 NBA season within a context of conferences.Western Conference

Simply put, the West is diesel, and Shaq has been back east for the last three years. The Mavs have won 42 of their last 47 games (a cool .894 clip) while the Suns won 32 of 34 at one point. Pantheon streaks? Absolutely. Both teams have championship-caliber lasting power, but Dallas is clearly a step above of Phoenix because of its defensive capabilities and depth. However, as the Suns have proven the last two years (2006 without Amare Stoudemire), they have the potential to run any team this era has to offer straight out of the playoffs. Steve Nash has been hampered of late and the Suns have fallen off the Mavs pace of 68 wins. Expect Phoenix to run off another 12-15 in a row soon after the All-Star break and make it an epic race for the West’s top seed.

If there weren’t two 65+ win teams in the West, the talk would be all about the balance of excellence throughout the top half of the conference. The Jazz have benefited from Carmelo Anthony’s 15-game suspension stemming from the “MSG Incident”, and have built a lead of seven games over the Nuggets. They’re going to need it, as the Nuggets will make a strong push with A.I. and Melo finally playing together over an extended period of time. I still like the Jazz to take the division with 50-52 wins, barely edging the Nugs, who will be relegated to the bottom half of what will be a fearsome playoff bracket.

Denver will be joined by Kobe’s Lakers on the latter half of the bracket. Bryant has been playing some of the best team basketball of his career (with the least capable supporting cast), remarkably transforming an inexperienced team into a group of young veterans. Both the Nuggets and Lakers will be assuming the identity of that team no one wants to face in the first round. And should the Clippers continue their resurgence, they will combine to form one hell of a first round speed bump for the likes of Phoenix and Dallas.

Amid all these legitimate dark horses in the West lies perhaps the most dangerous pair: Houston and San Antonio. Yao Ming has become what skeptics never believed he could be in this league: dominant. He was averaging 25.9/9.4 before he broke his leg two months ago, and the Rockets have actually been better since his injury. The Spurs, meanwhile, continue to hiccup through the ’07 campaign, but are without a doubt the Patriots of the NBA, and will obviously win their 57 games and become the toughest out in the West (mainly because the Mavs won’t beat them two years in a row).

Eastern Conference

You know things are bad when the most noteworthy storylines involve the weight problems of the defending champions, and the inability of the league’s most historic franchise to score more points than an opponent. For the Heat, it’s simply a case of having too many veterans (see: Antoine Walker and Gary Payton) having already achieved all they need to in their careers, opting for drive-thru instead of practice. The Celtics diagnosis is equally simple: without Paul Pierce the Celtics are a glorified college team.

That said, I still like Miami defending at least it’s Eastern Conference crown. See, that’s what’s glorious about the East. It’s entirely possible to tank half a season (as the Heat basically did last year as well), string some wins together at the end, and go to the Finals. It’s the age-old axiom: if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Here the Heat are, 51 games into the defense of their title, with 25 wins to show, two impact players (Walker and James Posey) having been reprimanded for munchy-syndrome, and sparse amounts of Shaq. Yet they currently sit just four games behind Washington for first place in the Southeast Division.

Who’s gonna tell me the Heat won’t win 46 games, snag the three seed, go into Detroit or Cleveland and take the East again? It’s just that easy when you’re a beast of the least.

On the opposite end of that spectrum sit the Celtics. Their losing/tanking is well-documented, as is the fact that come May 22nd, Danny Ainge will be putting his livelihood into a plastic bubble filled with ping pong balls. To me, it’s worth the trade off. I didn’t get to grow up watching Larry Bird. I thought I was going to grow up watching Reggie Lewis. I ultimately settled for Paul Pierce, as if that was settling.

He’s been everything a superstar could be: talented and cocky, loyal and endearing, not to mention clutch. But he’s never had a big man. And that’s just not fair. In my opinion, if you replaced Antoine Walker with Tim Duncan (as the Celtics had hoped for in their last tango with lottery fate), Paul Pierce would today possess at least one ring, maybe a couple. If you find yourself a doubter, take a look at his 2001-02 season. He played in all 82 games and another 16 in the postseason. In his first playoff run he etched his name into the Celtics record books, alongside the likes of Bird, McHale, Russell, and Cousy. And he did this all after surviving an attempt on his life just three weeks before the season began, in which he was stabbed multiple times.

Let’s face it, Paul Pierce deserves a big man. And with the way everything has gone the last few years, culminating with “the collapse”, I’m willing to take my chances with the lottery…again. If not for Celtic Pride, for Paul.

Now that Greg Oden guy just better freaking declare.

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