The other day I spent a bunch of time writing a recap about being at the midpoint of the season with the emphasis being on the Eastern Conference (the West was to come later), but after closer examination, I didn’t enjoy what I had written and writing something you disapprove of is sort of like holding up a mirror to your face or your actions and not liking what you see (at least that’s the way it is for me sometimes). But if you’ll excuse my pissing and moaning, we can get on to the new and approved Eastern Conference midway point review which, sadly, isn’t as entertaining as the Western Conference. Also, I apologize in advance for the length; I swear on the NBA rulebook that the Western Conference version will be an exercise in concision.
We’ll start at where we left off last season: with LeBron James standing atop the NBA landscape with his thick headband obviously hiding an obviously receding hairline. LeBron took the 2012 year and molded into a year-long celebration of magnificence that began with him blazing through the shortened 2011-12 season, followed by an MVP award, an NBA title that many people thought he didn’t have the mental strength or commitment to earn, followed by a shiny gold medal at the London Olympics, a brief respite from the hyperactive camera lenses, mics and recorders that follow him around in hopes of simultaneously feeding our appetite for all things celebrity and enhancing that same appetite, to the 2012-13 season which is where we’re at today. And yes, the Heat is a team, an organization made of up of a lot of people who bust their asses to do great work every day, but as so many of us have realized, not everyone gets to be king, but LeBron James does. In any of our strongest pursuits, I’d say we strive for greatness and a chance to reach our potential. Well, if you value hard work, dedication (sorry, Floyd, but it fits), improvement, overcoming adversity (even if it’s self-made) and continually searching out ways to become better, then Bron’s your guy. Except for an anomalous fourth season (I’ll dive into this aberration at a later date), James has improved every season to the point where he’s shooting 55% from the field and 40% from three and leading his team to the best record in the east despite Miami not having an actual center.
Way up north of Miami where the weather’s cold and basketball fans are extremely serious about things like Madison Square Garden and Brooklyn and Jay-Z, the Knicks have found some kind of magic adhesive gel that’s united their team into something much greater than competent. The Knicks are the oldest team in the league and the presence of wise basketball sages like Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas combined with the all-inclusive embrace of Tyson Chandler (really though, when Tyson stretches his arms wide, the entire Knicks family, friends and fans can huddle up inside and commiserate or do what it is Knicks fans do) has maybe (as I write that word, I’m making face … my lips pursed together, my shoulders shrugged in complete uncertainty) had a positively profound impact on Carmelo Anthony. Melo’s a trending topic this season and while I think any talk about him as the Most Valuable Player in the league this year is completely out of line, I also recognize that he’s playing with a crispness and consistency (and a massively improved three-point shot; Olympic carryover? Sustainable?) which have been tough to come by in his career. Add in the JR Smith Effect (some kind of mad Evel Knievel of the hardwood) and you have regeneration at MSG. Regardless of where the Knicks fall on your list of favorite or least favorite teams, it’s fair to acknowledge and admit that a good basketball team in New York City is good for the league.
I haven’t seen the Pacers play much and maybe that’s because there are just other teams that I prefer. Or maybe it doesn’t matter why I have or haven’t watched the Pacers, but it just matters that you’ve seen the Pacers and their suffocating defense which, I suppose, probably tells me why I haven’t watched them much: they’re a defensive-minded squad and when you have a League Pass-worth of games, defensive stalwarts are rarely the first choice. The Pacers, despite missing one of their premier players in Danny Granger, have become a platform for the exploits of Paul George; a 6’8” wing who launches threes with grace and dunks with aggression, but most importantly for this team, uses his great physical gifts to impact the game defensively. George leads the league in defensive win shares and is fourth in defensive rating and most basketball fans can appreciate him without condition (as an aside, give it a couple years and a big contract until people are poking holes in his game with the tiniest needles until a bit of daylight shows through at which point we can all push our critical urges through because this is what we do). Then there’s Roy Hibbert who just signed a huge contract, but is painfully struggling to live up to expectations on the offensive side of the ball where he’s shooting .415—the worst FG% in league history for a man 7’2” or taller:
At least Hibbert hasn’t let his offensive struggles impact his defense though. He leads the league in defensive rating and is third in blocks/game. Sticking with the Central Division, the Bulls have warmed my heart this season with their commitment to executing Tom Thibodeau’s thoroughly disciplined approach. This is a team that was decimated by free agency over the summer and has been without Derrick Rose for the first half of the season and they still go out there every night and grind hard, all the way down to the pavement (or the bone) where most teams don’t want to engage them. Credit goes to Gar Forman or John Paxson or whoever’s calling the shots here because the roster’s made up of guys who buy in and in this league, that’s a soft skill that’s more easily assumed than it is actualized. The Bulls trot out guys like Kirk Hinrich, Rip Hamilton, Nate Robinson, Jimmy Butler, Marco Belinelli … in crunch time—and win. It’s such a scrappy crew made up of a bunch of guys who hit the floor without reservation. The only oddball of the bunch is Carlos Boozer (oddball relative to the rest of the roster) and he’s been playing great in 2013, averaging 22ppg, 11.5rpg and shooting 52% (compared to under 46% in November and December). But the guys Thibs heavily relies on are Luol Deng and Joakim Noah who’re both near the league leaders in minutes/game. Noah’s playing nearly six minutes more per game than at any other time in his career. I know six minutes is a drop in the bucket in most of our lives, but six NBA minutes where you’re banging against guys who are well over 250lbs of chiseled muscle and sharpened bone and you’re running and jumping on a wooden floor can be an eternity; look no further than D. Rose’s freak ACL tear last year. Speaking of Rose, I don’t know when he’s supposed to return or who he’ll be when he comes back, but his game change-ability alters the second, non-Miami, tier of the East.
There are a lot of cosmetic things I like about the new Brooklyn Nets: the floor color, design and lighting at the Barclay Center, the new black/white jerseys, an attractive roster on paper. Toss in an owner who’s willing to challenge Vladimir Putin and it sounds like something that could become an HBO series; or at least one of those mini-series’ like Generation Kill. Instead, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are playing below our (and Prokhorov’s) expectations. Deron’s developing a reputation as a coach killing malcontent, but this probably isn’t completely accurate, just an easy label. But at least they have Reggie Evans who does one single thing probably better than anyone else in the NBA does one single thing. With the exception of Dennis Rodman, we haven’t seen someone gobble up more possible rebounds than Evans is gobbling up this season:
There’s not much to be excited about in Atlanta or Milwaukee where GMs grab headlines as frequently as the players. If Atlanta doesn’t care about the Hawks, why should I? Well, that was a rude Q:A, but honestly, I’ve been tuning into Hawks games for years and unless it’s the playoffs, the seats in the lower bowl are consistently half empty. Perhaps the fans are as tired of this team as I am though. They grossly overpaid Joe Johnson and then sat on the same team for what seemed like an eternity until Danny Ferry finally showed up this summer like a refreshing scent on garbage day and somehow managed to rid this franchise of that wildly inaccurate contract. We’ll all just have to hope Ferry has more up his sleeve than a dirty arm. Up north in the frigidity of Lower Canada is the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks play in the Bradley Center which is really just a warehouse playing dress up as an NBA arena. It’s not a place for vibrancy or colors, but for serious and mindless endeavors like bulk shopping. I don’t say these things to put down Milwaukee or their basketball team, but because the Bradley Center is outdated and the team’s management is imitating its arena. They’re a queer bunch who float through the league’s purgatory without hope or fear. I mean, what is success defined as for the Milwaukee Bucks? They have a 22-18 record today and should make the playoffs where Brandon Jennings can get more much-needed experience, but since they weren’t able to extend him when they had the chance, what’re the odds this spindly ray of sunshine sticks around? There is Larry Sanders though and while he’ll never carry a team, he’s proving his ability to be a satisfactory anchor on defense where he leads the league in blocks at 3.2 and is third in defensive rating. *If the NBA ever decides to contract teams, these are two I’d recommend and it doesn’t have anything to do with the fans. It has to do with front offices and/or owners who’ve proven they’re either unwilling or unable to commit to improving.
I wouldn’t add Toronto to the list of contracted teams even though Bryan Colangelo has a résumé built on the shoulders of below average teams. The reason I give a thumbs up to Toronto is their borderline Euro-soccer enthusiastic fans. I’m reluctant to say any fan base “deserves” this or that, but Raps fans could use a lovable star who returns the love as well as he receives it. Similar to Milwaukee, the Raptors won the draft lottery, but have little-to-nothing to show for it. Andrea Bargnani’s banged up (again), but I have a feeling I’m in the minority in believing there’s still an NBA contributor lurking around inside Barganani. Sadly though, it may have to be rediscovered in another city, in another uniform and with a different set of supporters.
My relationship with these Celtics, the KG-Pierce Celtics, has never been as flat as my relationship with the Hawks or Bucks. Kevin Garnett’s arrival in Boston stirred up a profound, but vaguely natural hatred in me. I hated KG and Perkins and Pierce not because they won, but how they went about winning. Now that the end’s probably in sight, my hate for this Boston team has receded and I find myself (passively at best) disliking this team. (Someday I’ll write a post called The Great Thaw of Boston; but that day’s not today.) There are plenty of other people (like Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler) to spew my venom towards. And that’s what occurred a couple weeks back when the Celts and Knicks were in the middle of an old fashioned east coast dustup. KG was deep inside the psyche of Melo, poking, prodding, disrupting and annoying the hell out of him and I encouraged it from my couch. I laughed and cajoled and gave myself high fives. For a moment, Boston had rediscovered their attitude and used it to upset a superior Knicks team. A week later, it was the Bulls turn and instead of getting rattled, they remained calm, focused and victorious and the Celtics, for me at least, were back to their villainous ways. It’s not the same with Boston anymore because the mystique has gone with time and fading ability, but their win over NYK and the manner in which they went about it was a little reminder for the rest of the league and for all of us that this team can still be dangerous. But if you want to purchase the headstone, let me know and I’m happy to help write the epitaph.
As of today’s date, Philly’s the big loser in the Dwight trade from this summer—and that’s saying something given the Lakers struggles (actually, the Lakers are likely the bigger loser given the shit show brewing in LA). Not only has Andrew Bynum failed to play a game in a Sixers uniform, but the players they gave up have played fantastic: Nikola Vucevic has been brilliant in Orlando and Andre Iguodala has at least been decent in Denver. In addition to those two, Philly lost Jodie Meeks and Lou Williams, but brought in Dorell Wright and Nick Young. It’s a young, young team with their top-three players (not counting Bynum) being 24 or younger. Stylistically, Doug Collins has these guys playing to their athletic strengths as a defensive team, but they’re not even very good at that. Surprisingly, they take care of the ball well (except for Jrue Holiday at 4 TOs/game); they just don’t do much else very well. If grades were associated with this team, they’d get an incomplete. As disappointing as Bynum’s injury has been for the Sixers, Holiday’s confidence and improvement have hopefully been appreciated by the Philly faithful. At just 22 and already in his fourth season, he’s making leaps this year. Did you know he’s the only player in the league this season averaging 19 or more points and 9 or more assists per game? And just to provide a bit more context around this, the only players who’ve accomplished this in the past 12 years are Chris Paul, Gary Payton and Deron Williams. And Jrue’s only 22! I feel better now that I’ve discovered this.
The rest of the Eastern Conference starts to get muddled because intentions aren’t as clear. We have what should be a full-fledged youth movement in Detroit, but it’s difficult to move forward when Tayshaun Prince, Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva are still around. This isn’t any fault of their own, but these are throwbacks to the John Kuester era which was an undeniable disaster of almost mutinous proportions. If that same Pistons group would’ve been at sea and Kuester was their captain, my guess is he’d be fish food. That being said, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond appear to be a legitimate big man tandem; even if Monroe is possibly a bit on the timid side. In a league devoid of strong post players, what kind of advantage would Detroit have with a pair of near-seven footers who are young, talented and motivated? If I’m a Detroit fan, the biggest gripe I have is that my team hasn’t shifted full on into the youth movement. It’s actually gone the other direction with Drummond playing better in nine January games, but seeing less minutes than he did in December. Lawrence?
In the Southeast Division, Orlando and Charlotte are in similar situations where success is measured by player development and asset acquisition. Both teams have first-time head coaches in Jacque Vaughn and Mike Dunlap and both coaches have gotten their teams to play particularly hard. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Kemba Walker’s progression and the entire Magic team’s competitiveness. Where the Bobcats are a young team just trying to find a way, any way, the Magic are composed of youngsters and steady vets in Arron Afflalo, Jameer Nelson, Big Baby and JJ Redick who, on the surface at least, take their profession seriously every night. And if that’s not enough, Nikola Vucevic, who was tossed into the Dwight/Bynum trade, is proving to be a bloody savage on the glass where he’s averaging 11 rebounds/game and had a 29-rebound night against the Heat. On top of that, he’s shooting close to 52% from the field. He’s only 22 and I’d love to read an in-depth scouting report detailing his possible ceiling—which I’m guessing is lower than I hope it is.
And now we arrive at the Wizards and Cavs; a couple teams clearly playing for the future and developing today. In basketball terms, both of their seasons have been strained with injuries. John Wall’s missed over 30 games for the Wiz and Anderson Varejao developed a blood clot in his lung and is out for the season. Varejao’s injury in particular is painful for me to bear. Here he was in the midst of an absolute career year at age 30, averaging 14 and 14 with a career-high PER of 22.8 (previous high was 18.9) and like that it’s gone. John Wall will have other seasons and other chances, but for Varejao, the opportunities will only shrink. And Kyrie Irving. He’s not a traditional pass-first playmaking point guard and it’s refreshing his pro coach hasn’t tried to make him one. He looks for his shots in part because he’s a scorer and in part because the Cavs don’t have anyone else who can score that frequently; except for Varejao who’s all done, no one else scores with volume and efficiency. If Dion Waiters develops more consistency, it’ll be interesting to see what, if any, impact it has on Kyrie’s game.
This concludes the 2012-13 Eastern Conference mid-season review. Getting through the EC is a slog. The weather’s cold, the basketball is grittier, the collection of talent is less than in the west. Talent isn’t distributed nearly as well here where six of the 15 teams are in rebuild/development mode, four teams are stuck in NBA purgatory and the remaining four teams (Brooklyn, New York, Chicago and Indiana) are chasing Miami, but doing so with what almost amounts to futility.
*Note: All stats are as of games completed 1/22/13
Things have changed for the better