NBA Midseason Report
The NBA needed this. If the league was ever going to recover from the crippling blow it took as a result of the Tim Donaghy betting scandal last summer, it needed nothing short of an intriguing, unpredictable, and continually entertaining regular season in 2008. It has gotten that, and more. Right now its only nagging problem is the lack of depth in the East. Only five teams are over .500 (although the two best teams in the East are also the top two teams in the NBA). The West, by comparison, has ten teams over .500, with a staggering nine of those squads currently on pace to win 50 games. That means it’s entirely possible that a 50-win team could be left out of the playoffs in the West while a few 38 and 40-win teams could be playing postseason ball in the East. Yikes. But don’t think about tuning out the playoffs just yet. The seemingly polarized NBA is in reality completely the opposite. There is parity among title-contenders, which is to say not only are there more than a few teams that could win it all (nine, by my count), but for once there is no clear cut favorite. The combination of the Spurs again snoozing through a title-defense and a fistful of really good teams around them is the explanation. Overall, four things have stuck out to me that have contributed to the resuscitation of a league that was teetering on the edge of implosion a few months ago. Let’s examine them.
1) A Cinderella Story: the New Orleans Hornets What more can be said of the city of New Orleans and its sports teams? The Saints, historically a perennial football joke throughout the state of Louisiana, reentered the Superdome two years ago and rattled off the best season in franchise history, finishing a few plays short of the Super Bowl. And now the Hornets, after two years spent shuttling between Oklahoma City and venues in Louisiana, have returned home exclusively in 2008. They too are in the process of rewriting N’Awlins sports history. In addition to hosting All-Star festivities this weekend, the Hornets have the best mark in the West (36-15), are on pace to break the franchise record of 54 wins, and have a legitimate MVP candidate running the show. Just how good is Chris Paul? He has dished out 15+ assists in a game eight times this year. He has also dropped 40+ points on three occasions. He’s already the best point guard of the next generation. And though it may be too much to expect the Hornets to maintain the top spot in the West, this is a team that has shown it can win on the road (a conference-best 19-7). Plus, if the fans of New Orleans have anything to say about it, their Hornets will be hard to knock off at home come playoff time (if the fans decide to show up, that is). Cinderella is usually reserved for the college ranks, but the story of this team fits the script.
2) A Resurgence: the Boston Celtics The biggest knock on the Celtics going into this season had nothing to do with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. It was all about the guys around them. Where were those necessary 35-40 nightly points going to come from in order for the Celtics to win ballgames? How would the team respond when Ray inevitably went down for a period of time? Could the young guys handle the requisite mystique that went hand in hand with a basketball resurgence in Boston? All of those questions were slowly being answered all year through consistent play and gritty defense from role players like Rajon Rondo, Leon Powe, James Posey, Tony Allen and Eddie House. Then the imminent injury happened, except it wasn’t Ray that went down. It was KG. The cynics eagerly awaited the impending swoon, but it never came. The team only got stronger. First they beat Dallas on national television. Then on a Sunday afternoon game against the defending champion-Spurs, it all came together. They played with swagger, with purpose. Against a team full of bling, a team that Paul had never beaten in his own house, the Celtics played like they were the champs. They did it on Red Auerbach’s court without their best player. It took a guy like Glen Davis ferociously manning up Tim Duncan on a national stage to finally open some eyes. Suffice to say they’re opened now. The Celtics went 7-2 without the league’s MVP and proved to everyone who was skeptical that they are more than the “Boston Three Party”. A good deal more.
3) Big Trades: The Lakers and Suns Shaq is back in the West and Kobe has a front court. Enough said. Okay, I’ll say more. Shaq is a man who likes to undertake missions. He handled business in Miami, and his presence brought the city sustained joy and a ring. Now he’s in Phoenix, trying to be the final piece on a team that has already been on the brink of a championship the last three years. As a keen auxiliary to Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, Shaq should be able to provide the Suns with what they need: a big man with championship experience who can guard the paint on defense, haul in rebounds and outlet the ball to Nash and the runnin’ Suns. In his ripening age Shaq has recognized he’s best suited as a facilitator for the stars around him, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost an ounce of his incomparable competitive edge.
As for Kobe, well he should at last be sufficiently sold on the intent of the Lakers to win now. By adding Pau Gasol to a front court that already featured an established veteran in Lamar Odom and a rising big man in Andrew Bynum (who has been under the tutelage of one Kareem Abdul Jabbar for some time), Kobe has what he’s wanted since he ran Shaq out of town four years ago. That’s three guys at or around seven feet, each possessing distinct low post capabilities. However, the Lakers have serious health issues to cope with. Kobe has torn ligaments in his pinkie finger, which mean either surgery (and 6-8 weeks on the sideline) or playing through pain. If Kobe can fight through it and Bynum comes back healthy, the Lakers will be a bona fide contender. I still see them a year removed that status. Regardless, Suns-Lakers in round two this year would definitely be must-see television.
4) Contenders! As I wrote above, there are nine legitimate contenders this year, or about seven and half more than usual. In the East, the Celtics have the pieces and chemistry to win it all. The Pistons have a nucleus that has done it before. In the West, the Spurs remain the team to beat. The Lakers have been a thorn in the side of San Antonio, preventing them from reaching true-dynasty status. The Suns are the hungriest team in the West, and with a little diesel power they could be motoring towards a championship. The cohabitation (which is an understatement) of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony has the Nuggets straight chillin’ and waiting for their shot. The Mavericks might have wasted their opportunity two years ago, but after last year’s debacle, I wouldn’t count Dirk out just yet. The Hornets are onto something down in the Big Easy. And the Jazz, led by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, showed they were on their way to the next level by making a run to the Western Finals last year.
So there it is. The NBA is back. The NBA is fun again. The NBA cares.
(And David Stern didn’t even have to break out the mind control device.)