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NBA Midseason Report

Excuse me for being a hater, but NBA All-Star weekend 2009 was pretty poor.

The skills competition was a snooze — other than Mo Williams guaranteeing victory then not making it out of the first round.  Of note was Reggie Miller breaking the record for number of times in one telecast a color commentator used the word “nonchalant” and its derivatives.  He was irked by the passivity displayed by Williams and the rest of the field during the competition and apparently only had one way to communicate it.  Between Miller’s ad nauseam droppage of the word and the overall bore of the event, most viewers probably wanted nothing more than to “nonchalantly” pull out their hair by the end.

Dwight Howard then appeared to sabotage his own cause in the dunk contest by allowing Nate Robinson to soar over him on his final dunk.  The flush involved Superman taking Nate’s crotch to the back of the head, which evidently won over voters and gave the crown to the short slammer.

The All-Star game itself was scripted worse than an episode of “The Hills”.  There was the token Shaq-Kobe reunion and excessive coverage of their jovial pregame exchanges, followed by Kobe chucking up 10 shots in the first quarter for an early MVP bid, concluding with Shaq running point, busting crossovers and throwing a few down at the end of a 146-119 West blowout of the East.  The duo took co-MVP honors.  (Wait, you mean LC and Spencer both happened to be at “Les Deux” that night?)

So back to the real world (no pun intended) we go, and an ’09 NBA season that has been pretty nifty.

Eastern Conference Overview: The East is more or less set.  Boston (44-11) and Cleveland (40-11) will jockey for home court throughout the conference playoffs.  Don’t be surprised if an April 12 matchup becomes a de facto elimination game for the number one seed in the conference.  Orlando is locked into the third seed and will serve as an added incentive for the Celtics and Cavs to nail down the top spot.  The Magic (38-13) will not be a friendly second-round opponent for either team.

The fourth through seventh seeds will play out, in some order, with the Hawks (31-21), Heat (28-24), Pistons (27-24) and 76ers (27-24).  Only the fourth and fifth seeds will be able to dodge the power trio in the first round, so look for Detroit and Miami to make strong pushes on Atlanta in the second half.  The final playoff spot is up for grabs, as five teams (Milwaukee, New Jersey, Chicago, New York and Charlotte) are all within three and a half games of one another.

Western Conference Overview: It’s a nine-team race in the West, and considering the struggles the Suns (28-23) have endured (they just fired head coach Terry Porter), it’s possible they’ll be on the outside looking in for the first time since the 2003-04 season.  Still, it’s never wise to bet against Steve Nash and “The Big Cactus”.  Don’t count them out just yet.

The Lakers (42-10) will cruise to the top spot and the road to the Finals will again go through Staples Center.  The Spurs (35-16) have a solid grasp on the second seed, particularly given the run they typically go on after the All-Star break.  The Nuggets (36-17) are in position to be on the top half of the playoff bracket if they can hold off Portland (32-20) and Utah (30-23).  As for how the rest of the west will shake out, only time will tell as the Jazz, Blazers, Rockets, Hornets and Mavericks are all separated by just two and a half games. Expect seven of the eight Western playoff teams to reach the 50-win plateau.

Biggest Surprise: Denver Nuggets The script was fitting:  Chauncey Billups returning to his hometown team, the same team he played briefly for early in his career.  The question was would he be able to adjust to a new set of teammates and a new style of play.  After all, he had spent six full seasons as the floor general of an unchanging core group in a Detroit system predicated on defense.  To make such a fluid transition to Denver’s up and down style of play is a testament to Billups’ hardened veteran mentality.

After letting go of Marcus Camby in the offseason and making the Allen Iverson-for-Billups swap in the first week of the ’08 campaign, the Nuggets seemed due for a step back.  Instead Billups has taken the reigns and forged a fast relationship with Carmelo Anthony on the court.  As a result Denver is tied with San Antonio for the second-best record in the West at the break.  The Nuggets’ defense has been bolstered as well.  For the first time in three years Denver is giving up fewer than 100 points per game.  The Nugs are for real.

Most Significant Addition: Mo Williams/Cavs Lebron James may be a leading candidate for MVP this year, but the acquisition of Mo Williams is the reason why the Cavs are on pace for 64 wins.  And it’s because of Williams that Cleveland is threatening to steal home court from the Celtics in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  For the last few years James has craved and practically begged for a knockdown shooter on the outside.  After nearly single-handedly taking down Boston in the playoffs last year, Lebron was finally rewarded with the first legitimate wingman of his career.

Williams is a proactive point guard with an ability to create, but naturally that isn’t what he’s most needed for on a team with James.  It’s his shooting outbursts that have helped propel the Cavs to a real title contender and serious threat to the Celtics in the East.  At the break he was averaging 17.6 points per game on 47 percent shooting, including 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc.  He erupted for 43 points — a career high — in a Jan. 27 game against Sacramento before besting that with 44 in the last game before the break versus the Suns.

Most Significant Loss: Andrew Bynum/Lakers For the second consecutive year the Lakers lost Bynum to a knee injury just as he appeared to be on the brink of something special.  In the last five full games before he went down Bynum was averaging 26.2 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. Now he’ll have to wait and see if an MCL tear will sideline him for the remainder of the season.

Like last year, the impact of his loss won’t threaten the Lakers in their quest for another top seed in the West.  Nor should it greatly hinder their drive to return to the Finals.  The West has depth, but other than San Antonio (whose number the Lakers have had in recent past) there is no team standing in the path of LA.  It is when they get back to the Finals and meet Cleveland or Boston — two of the best defensive and most physical teams in the league — that they will be ruing the day Bynum went down.  Again.

MVP: Dwyane Wade Look, either Lebron or Kobe is going to win MVP.  They are the two best players in the league on two of the three best teams.  I take issue with the nature of the award, which should be given to the player who is most indispensable to his team.  While their squads wouldn’t be sitting where they are today, both the Cavs and Lakers would still be playoff teams this year without Lebron and Kobe.

There’s no way the same can be said of Miami without Dwyane Wade.  The evidence is already there.  With Wade alternating between being injured and playing hurt last year the Heat won 15 games.  FIFTEEN.  With a healthy Wade this season Miami is 28-24 and occupying the fifth position in the East.  The team’s second-leading scorer is a rookie and the bench is a virtual non-entity (all due respect to Daequan Cook and Chris Quinn).  Wade is averaging 28.3 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals per game, meaning he’s accounted for roughly half of Miami’s offensive output.  He takes over close games late more often than anyone else in the game.  Why?  Because he must or Miami will lose.  There is no player more valuable to his team than Wade is to the Heat. The man deserves some votes.

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