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41(ish) Game Checkup

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The Timberwolves have officially reached the halfway point of this season, and.....well, there's not much reason to rehash the team at this point. We all know how the pups are doing. That's the point of Canis Hoopus in the first place, right?

So with all teams in the NBA sitting at around 40 games played, I figured we'd take a look at all the teams in the NBA. Who's sinking? Who's flying high? How did those pre-season predictions pan out? Every NBA team has a story, and at this point in the season things are pretty well established.

And no, Kevlar no longer has to ride in the suitcase compartment. That's Blake Griffin's seat now.

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Boston Celtics

 

 

The pre-season prognostication on Boston was "great when healthy". This is a team of aging veterans (really, really aging veterans) and 4 of its 5 big men (Garnett, Shaq, Perkins and Jermaine O'Neal) had a history of rather severe leg injuries heading into the season.

A lot of that has borne out here in midseason. Perkins is still out from his ACL surgery last year. Garnett is out with knee trouble. Shaquille O'Neal missed some time early with nagging knee and ankle problems and Jermaine O'Neal is now a half-step away from surgery himself. Piled onto that, Rajon Rondo missed a couple weeks as well and Delonte West has missed the whole season to date.

Despite the loss of Tom Thibedau, the Celtics are still a fearsome defensive team: 1st in the league in opponent's points allowed, 5th in opponent's FG%, and 4th in point differential. They're 30th in rebounding, but 1st in rebounds allowed (crazy) and sit in the middle in the differential there, which is a big improvement from last season in that department. The addition of Shaq and the return of some of KG's springiness has helped quite a bit.

All in all, when healthy, I believe this is still the best team in the league. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are ageless wonders at this point, and Rajon Rondo is vastly underrated as an upper-echelon point guard. Shaq gives them much needed size. KG's reportedly ready to hit the floor again, and Perkins has begun practicing. Boston is talented and deep, and can't be intimidated by star power....Allen, Pierce and Garnett have just about seen it all.

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New Jersey N(y)ets

 

 

After all the hype surrounding new owner Nikhail Prokhorov, and the sweeping changes he made to the franchise both in the front office and on the court.....it turns out players still consider the Nets basically irrelevant as a destination, and nowhere is that more apparent than with Carmelo Anthony.

The Nets....much like the Wolves....have generated a lot more excitement but not any more wins. They only have 10 wins on the season to date, and the roster hasn't lived up to expectations (although it HAS lived up to predictions). Travis Outlaw and Anthony Morrow are still one-dimensional gunners, and Devin Harris still lacks any intangibles as a facilitator or leader. Maybe the one area I'd be willing to cut some slack on is with Brook Lopez. He's scoring far less efficiently and rebounding half as much as we're used to seeing, and I can't help but wonder how much of that is Avery Johnson not knowing what he's doing. Last time the Nets faced the Wolves, the little general had Lopez consistently camped out in the 18-20 foot range, refused to call any low post plays for him, and sometimes wouldn't feed him the ball at all. I think there's a major issue of mis-utilization happening here.

I also think Johnson is reason #1 why Carmelo won't commit to a trade and extension with New Jersey and why he doesn't want to be a part of the Nets in any fashion in general. Melo favors international style basketball....fast paces, open courts, freelance scoring opportunities. Which is everything Johnson tries not to have on his basketball team. If you think about run-and-gun, which coach comes to mind? Avery Johnson? Or Mike D'Antoni? Ya.

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New York Knicks

 

 

Speaking of D'Antoni, you have to give the guy some credit. He was got murdered in the PR department for the terrible play of the Knicks last season, and murdered again over the summer when the team's overly-elaborate, 2 year "get LeBron" plan blew up in embarrassing fashion. But D'Antoni got back to work with what he had, and the Knicks are relevant again.

Not great, mind you. But anything above "disaster" is an improvement for this club. Amare Stoudemire still doesn't rebound or defend like he should, but has absolutely carried this team on the offensive end, averaging 26 points per game on over 50% shooting, and moving the ball for nearly-3 assists a night as well. I've always been puzzled by the reputation he got as "Nash's product". He was good before Nash reached the Valley and he's good now.

Joining him is one of the league's most underrated free agent signings and performers, Raymond Felton, who's averaging career highs of 18 points and 9 assists per. They also have this year's draft steal, Landry Fields, who's shooting and rebounding at a tremendous rate and making Wilson Chandler easily expendable in a Carmelo trade does end up happening.

Maybe my one gripe about the Knicks is they still haven't figured out how good Danilo Gallinari can be. They continue to field his as a catch-and-shoot, Rashard Lewis type when he has a skillset more like a Hedo Turkoglu. He should have the ball in his hands a lot more because he can just flat out do a lot of good things with it.

In the end though, I do believe Carmelo will be a Knick. If you take all the little things he does and says and add them up, it's pretty much inevitable.

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Philadelphia 76ers

 

 

Doug Collins is a miracle worker. I really don't know what else to say. For all his reputation of being too talkative and high maintenance (and believe me, he is), he absolutely knows basketball.

The first step the the Sixers' mini-turnaround has simply been understanding what was wrong with the team in the first place: lack of size, lack of outside shooting. To that end, Collins inserted Jodie Meeks and Spencer Hawes into the starting lineup, and it's paid off. Both have done a great job of playing to their positions and balancing the floor out, and I think it was a gutsy call to roll with them rather than, say, Marresse Speights and Evan Turner. Collins has also gotten very good play out of Jrue Holiday, who's averaging 15 points and 6.6 assists.

Second, the Sixers have begun to play some really good defense. The team is 14th in points allowed and 10th in FG% allowed, both of which are major improvements from last season when they were 18th and 22nd respectively.

As for Turner, I still believe the biggest problem is he's simply caught in a bad situation. He's a player that needs the ball in his hands and shooters to kick to, and he has neither right now. Yes, his performances have been generally awful, but I think if he were on, say, the Wolves, he'd be a 12-5-5 player right now in a much more comfortable role.

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Toronto Raptors

 

 

The Raptors are this season's quintessential forgot team. We see and hear nothing about them or any of their players, and they make no noise in the standings.

Like last season, defense continues to be a major issue for Toronto. They are 25th in points allowed, 24th in differential, and dead last in FG% allowed. They struggle to rebound when they don't field Reggie Evans (who does nothing but rebound) and they critically lack 3 point shooting....25th in attempts, last in 3pt%.

That's not to say it's all bad. Andrea Bargnani is turning in a good season out of Bosh's shadow, averaging 22-6 on some solid shooting percentages. Jose Calderon has rediscovered his own shooting touch, and DeMarr DeRozan has steadily evolved into a worthwhile pro (although he's a major culprit of their 3pt woes and far from the "next Kobe" some thought he'd be)

Overall though, the Raptors are still off the radar and still unsure of their direction. Who's their cornerstone? What do they do with veterans like Leandro Barbosa and Linus Kleiza? Which of their young players do they keep? No one knows the answers to any of that right now, least of all the Raptors themselves.

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Chicago Bulls

 

 

I wasn't real sure about the Bulls heading into this season. I wasn't sure if Carlos Boozer would really make a big difference. I wasn't sure if Joakim Noah was worth $12 million a year. I wasn't sure if Derrick Rose could become more than a 'Devin Harris' and actually lead, not just play.

The simple answer to is all has been yes, yes, and yes. Boozer, after an embarrassing spat over an early-season injury, has provided the low post scoring the Bulls have badly lacked for so long, without being a defensive liability. Joakim Noah is the biggest reason Boozer isn't a defensive liability. And Rose has definitely elevated himself into the elite group of franchise players...more points, more rebounds, more assists, more free throws, and he's turned the "team game" corner. Last year the Bulls were one of the league's least efficient offenses. This year, they're respectable in efficiency: top 12 in FG%, assists, and AST/TO ratio. A lot of that has to do with Rose and how he's evolved his game to take advantage of the new roster he has around him.

The Bulls still aren't top shelf with the Celtics, Magic and Heat (yet), but they're definitely rising out of the middle ground that teams like the Hawks can't get out of.

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Cleveland Cavaliers

 

 

No one sympathizes with Cavalier fans than us, right? We know exactly what it's like to watch our team's all-everything jump ship and leave nothing in his wake.

I do feel some guilt just ripping into the Cavs, but I don't really know what else to say. This team is just amazingly bad right now. I honestly think they're worse than we were last year...maybe even worse than the Nets were too...and to top it off they have little-to-no light at the end of the tunnel. Their one hope for a big trade mid-season evaporated when Andersen Verajao went down for the year, and in the meantime they've been absolutely embarrassed by just about everyone. They're working on a 13 game losing streak, and have lost their last three (to the Lakers, Jazz and Nuggets) by and average of 35 points. They scored just 57 the entire game against LA.

I understand the PR motivation behind Dan Gilbert's attack on LeBron, but the cold reality is there's no way the Cavaliers win a ring before King James. Even assuming the Heat take a few years to top the old guard of the Celtics, Lakers and Spurs, the Cavaliers' own rebuilding is a monumental task on par with the Great Pyramids. They have few desirable assets, are staring at at least one weak draft class (maybe more, depending on how the new CBA handles age limits), won't get any real cap relief until 2012, and don't have a big market to pander with.

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Detroit Pistons

 

 

The Pistons might finally be getting some momentum behind parting ways with Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince and moving on with life. Hamilton is part of the proposed Nets/Nuggets deal, and although I don't think that Melo will green-light it in the end, I do think the Pistons will quickly move to find a new suitor for Hamilton.

In the meantime, Prince has been as steady as ever, and Rip's recent benching has finally opened the door for Ben Gordon to get the burn he deserves. Greg Monroe is developing nicely, averaging 6 points and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes a game, and Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye continue to improve. But maybe the most shocking development (at least to those who didn't see him play for the Knicks last year) has been the return of Tracy McGrady to something that kind of looks like his all star form. TMac is averaging 7-3-3 in 20 minutes this year (that's 12-5-5 per 36) and has put in some vintage performances: 17-7-7 against the Raptors, 21-4-8 against the Celtics, 11-9-11 against Utah, and 16-4-6 against Memphis. He's played so well that the Pistons have starting rolling with him and Gordon as starters, letting TMac be the point guard the way he often was in Houston.

I wouldn't be surprised if a contender tries to pick McGrady up at the deadline. He could be a big boost for the Spurs or Celtics, or perhaps the Mavs in lieu of Caron Butler's season-ending injury. Something to maybe keep an eye on.

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Indiana Pacers

 

 

Still not much going on in Indiana. I'm not sure why, but they seem locked into a stasis they can't get out of. Their players don't play to their potential or show major development, they can't get anything to fit together despite having the right mix on paper, and they show little interest in making changes.

I'm genuinely puzzled over what the deal is here, because I see talent and potential in the team, but every season just ends up being same-old-same-old with them. Even the addition of Darren Collison hasn't made a difference, despite him being much better than any point guard they had in recent memory (excluding TJ Ford, who still can't get out of the doghouse for some reason)

It's just a mess with the Pacers and the fact that no one can explain it or find a proximal cause doesn't bode well.

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Milwaukee Bucks

 

 

I sort of said at the start of the season that I thought the Bucks massively overachieved last year, that Brandon Jennings was overrated in terms of how much of the team's success he got credit for, and that ultimately they would regret the big spending spree they went on with role players like John Salmons, Drew Gooden, and Corey Maggette.

Well...

The Bucks are pretty much the new Bobcats.  Amazingly good on defense, amazing bad on offense. They rank third in points allowed and 10th in FG% allowed, but are dead last themselves in those two departments on the other end of the floor. They're also way, way behind last season's win pace. Yes, Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut have missed time, but that can only account for so much. Healthy Jennings isn't exactly helping the cause, shooting under 40% from the field and regressing in assists/game, and healthy Bogut's impact has always been mainly defensive anyway.

The problem here is that Salmons, Maggette and Gooden weren't signed for their defense. They were signed for their offense, yet the Bucks are worse on offense now than before. I think it's really a case of not understanding what really happened last year, combined with Scott Skiles' MO as a coach of disregarding the offense and burning out teams in the end.

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Atlanta Hawks

 

 

Much like the Pacers, the Hawks are same-old-same-old. They just happened to reach playoff status before flatlining.

Joe Johnson contract aside, what the Hawks are as a team is still pretty bland. Solid on offense, solid on defense. Undersized and unbalanced. Etc etc. New coach Larry Drew has retooled the system but it's not making much of a difference in the end. Mike Bibby is beyond the point of making a major impact running a team, Al Horford can't be a real force until he's moved to PF, Marvin Williams continues to underachieve and Jamal Crawford has regressed from his sixth man of the year performance last season (no doubt his contract situation is part of that)

Atlanta is pretty much destined for another playoff appearance where they get wiped out in the first or second round by the real contenders. They need a major shakeup, because this roster has gone as far as it'll ever go.

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Charlotte Bobcats

 

 

This nearly qualifies as two train wrecks, the way things have crashed and burned for the 'Cats. Out is Larry Brown and his "custom-build me a roster with all veterans who do nothing but defend" montra....which unfortunately leaves in his wake a roster that has little punch, a group of young talents who aren't ready because they never got a chance, and a salary cap maxed out and beyond for the foreseeable future.

Charlotte is borderline-desperate to unload Brown's favorites to get some flexibility back into the plan. I'd expect Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson to both be gone by the deadline, and perhaps Tyrus Thomas and Boris Diaw as well. Gerald Henderson and DJ Augustin are pretty solid as future pros, but obviously this team lacks any star power or cornerstone.

More than anything, the franchise made a major error not shelling out to retain Ray Felton, and I think they realize that now. He accounted for a major portion of their scoring ability....without him, their poor offense has gotten even poorer, to the point that even a stellar defense wasn't enough to cut it and the players lost hope.

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Miami Heat

 

 

They're really quite something, huh?

I'm not ready to crown the Heat the now-and-forever champs. I think this year, with their lack of force in the paint and not-so-good point guard play, they can be beat by the Celtics or Magic or reinvigorated Lakers in a 7 game series. The C's and Lakers in particular, if healthy and focused, "out-big" the Heat something fierce and that matters a lot more in the playoffs when the pace slows down and defenses tighten up.

For all the talk about Miami being "Wade's town" and "Wade's team", James is the real franchise player here, and we've seen that pretty starkly the last couple games that he's missed. Wade is lightning quick laterally and vertically, but he's average size and strength for his position and not a particularly elite defender. James is a human bulldozer with dominant size and skill for not only his position, but the SG and PG spots as well, and he's a genuinely elite-level defensive player to boot.

But maybe the most important player is Bosh, because he's the only above-average big man on the team and the only player who can legitimately go toe-to-toe with a Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol over a 7 game span. Without him, the Heat are sending Big Z and Joel Anthony at the Like of KG, Shaq, Pau, Odom, Bynum, Howard and Bass, and I don't think even LeBron + Wade can cover for that.

But like S-n-P has said, next year, with another draft pick and a good MLE signing or two, this team is as close to unbeatable as it gets in basketball. Wade and James are impossible to guard individually and all the role players either hit threes, defend, or both. Even as it stands right now, the other title contenders will have to dig deep to outlast Miami in a head-to-head matchup.

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Orlando Magic

 

 

I've seen some critic who say the Magic played it stupid making the sweeping changes they did so early in the season, but I really feel Orlando not only did what was necessary, but they were smart to do it when they did. They had a configuration of players that just wasn't going to work and that was pretty obvious when you read between the lines with them, so to speak. By making the adjustments the did when they did, they not only got the players they wanted before someone else did, but they gave themselves extra time to get the new players to mesh together. I give them a lot of credit for proactively fixing the issue, rather than waiting to pick up the pieces when it fell apart on its own.

Since the trades, the Magic have gone 10-2, including wins over the Spurs and Celtics, and have firmly re-entrenched themselves in the title picture. Jason Richardson has continued to be the top-notch shooter/scorer he was in Phoenix, Turkoglu has rediscovered his absurdly multi-dimensional game, and Arenas has shown signs of regaining his old form and being the go-to crunch-time scorer the Magic have lacked since McGrady left town.

I think matchups will play a huge part in how this team fares in the playoffs. I can see them topping the Heat, but don't see them topping the Celtics. But at any rate, they've done a fantastic job of retooling on the fly and getting a lot better in the process.

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Washington Wizards

 

 

I touched on this after we last played the Wizards, but this is really a team with a lot of parts that don't fit together. They're very unbalanced and have uncomplimentary skillsets for the most part, and lack any sort of discernible strategy on and off the court.

At the 3/4 positions, the Wizards have a stockpile of Andray Blatche, Josh Howard, Rashard Lewis, Al Thornton, Yi Jianlian, Trevor Booker, Cartier Martin and Kevin Seraphin. That's over half of the roster they're trying to fit into just 2 positions.

By contrast, at shooting guard and center combined, they have just Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Hilton Armstrong, which has forced Flip Saunders to play guys like Blatche, Yi, and Kirk Hinrich out of position. It screws up the rotations, muddies individual roles, and kills any sort of defensive communication and chemistry.

But maybe the biggest issue I see with this team is a collectively low basketball IQ. Other than Lewis and Hinrich, they just look like a bunch of guys playing streetball...lots to see one-on-one, but put it all together and it's pretty bad. Nick Young is absent-minded at a Flynn-ish level, McGee and Blatche are both very much works in progress....even Wall right now is little more than blinding quickness for kickout passes. It's not good basketball and I'm sure it's driving Saunders nuts.

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Golden State Warriors

 

 

The Warriors made maybe my two favorite moves of the offseason in acquiring David Lee and Dorell Wright. Both are certainly under the radar in comparison to "The Decision" and what have you, but the dividends here have been fantastic.

After an ugly early-season battle with an infection, Lee has steadily gotten back to form. He's averaging 15-10-3 for the season, and those numbers have improved month-by-month since the injury...16-10-3.6 in December, 17-10-4.4 so far in January. More importantly he's given the Warriors the sort of size and stability in the paint that Don Nelson abhors, but that competitive teams really need.

And Dorell Wright has been a real find. I was a big fan of his in Miami....in the games he got a chance to play in, he was good. He played a lot in 07-08 when the team gave him an early shot at starting next to Wade, and again last season coming off the bench. I never understood why Miami didn't give him consistent burn, and this season has really confirmed my hunch that he was being held back. Wright is averaging 16.6 points and 6 rebounds this year, and shooting 42% from three. He also plays the passing lanes and moves well off the ball...really makes the most of his athleticism to compliment Monta Ellis.

All in all, Wright has been the type of player I expect Wes Johnson to develop into the next couple of seasons. We'll see. But it sure is nice to see this franchise be competitive in a likable way again.

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Los Angeles Clippers

 

 

Don't let their record fool you...this Clippers team is very very good. They're 12-10 since the start of December, and among the teams they've beaten this season: Thunder, Hornets, Spurs, Nuggets, Bulls, Suns...

Heat.

Lakers.

Blake Griffin is off the charts at this point. Rookie of the Year and it's not close at all. He's averaging 22-13-3 in his first 3 months as a pro (27-14-4 in January), and has dropped some unreal performances in the process: 31-15-7 to beat Denver, 18-15-3 to beat the Lakers, 47-14-3 to beat the Pacers, 24-14-6 to beat the Heat. His combination of IQ, footwork, lateral quickness, athleticism and sheer power make him close to unguardable in the post, and he adds to it with a solid mid-range jumper and smart ball movement.

I said at the beginning of the season that Blake would challenge the 25-12-5 season Charles Barkley put up in 92-93. Now it's looking like even that was being pessimistic. Coach Pops called him "The Gladiator" after he put up 31-13-4 against San Antonio, and that nickname fits him perfectly. Repeat it whenever and wherever you can. Make it stick.

But don't overlook that Griffin has two really good players to help him shoulder the load. Eric Gordon has become a star, averaging 24 points and 4.6 assists, while shooting 46% and getting to the line a gaudy 7 times a night. And after missing the start of the season with injury, Baron Davis has returned not only to health, but to his all-star caliber form. He's averaged 16 points and 8 assists in January, and has been the real key to the Clippers' sudden surge. He's the guy that gets their individual talents to play as a team. It's a shame it takes so much to keep him healthy and motivated, because he could have been dominant in a Gary Payton manner with less weight and more of a motor.

They've got the classic inside-outside tandem to work with, a great point guard, and a group of young, complimentary role players to fill the gaps. This is a really, really good team right now, and if they stay healthy, they'll only get better.

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Los Angeles Lakers

 

 

A lot of unrest so far for the reigning champs.

Yes, their record is 30-12, which puts them second in the West and ties them with Miami for third overall in the league. They're offense and defense both rank top-10, and they have great depth at all positions this season.

But digging a little deeper raises some alarms. There has been a number of ugly losses to some not-so-good teams this year: Memphis, Houston, Indiana, Milwaukee...and they've gotten stomped on by the better ones like Miami, Chicago, and San Antonio. Kobe's struggling to take over games like he's used to, Gasol looks worn down from having to carry both his and Bynum's load early on when Bynum was hurt, and Ron Artest's game has fallen off a cliff.

Maybe most concerning though, is that the Lakers have had, by far, the easiest schedule in the league. Their opponents have an average winning percentage of just 0.44, and they're tied with a couple other teams for most home games played.

It's a bit of a puzzle, because on paper they still look like a championship team in a lot of ways. But watching them play and browsing over some of the more critical numbers, they're very vulnerable, in a way the Celtics, Heat, Magic, and Spurs aren't. They face an extremely difficult schedule the rest of the way, with multiple tilts against Boston, San Antonio, Utah, Oklahoma, Dallas, Portland, and Orlando. It'll be interesting to see if that shapes them up of if they fold under the onslaught.

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Phoenix Suns

 

 

I've half a mind to say the Suns will trade Steve Nash by the deadline. There's no noise about something like that happening and they'll take a major PR hit if they do, but keeping him and trying to scratch out a playoff berth is really just banging heads against walls. They don't have the talent or grit they'd need, and I feel that deep down they know it.

Trading Richardson was covertly throwing in the towel, if you ask me. Vince Carter can still put up some great games here and there, but he's not an improvement. Hedo didn't fit, and Gortat is a nice player....but he's not Amare Stoudemire, which is what the Suns would need.

On top of that, the Suns are playing historically bad defense. They're last in points allowed by a big margin, and their defensive rating is the sixth worse in NBA history. Gortat himself, after just three games with his new team, threw a fit in the media about it, saying "I can't explain it" and "It couldn't be worse" and "It's frustrating as hell".

Other than Gortat and Robin Lopez, this is a team of all finesse players. They lack toughness and intangibles. It's a shame, because all this was avoidable if their owner hadn't been such a cheapskate, but it is what it is now. Holding onto Nash and Grant Hill is fools gold, if they think this team can get anywhere significant anymore.

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Sacramento Kings

 

 

This is....a disaster zone. Just really ugly. The Kings are the second-worst team in the league by record, despite having played the second-easiest schedule so far. Their prized talents (Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins) have both performed fairly poorly so far this season. Their roster is majorly unbalanced with terrible play at the small forward and point guard spots, and they rank in the bottom 10 in both points scored and points allowed.

Chad Ford made a pretty telling comment a few weeks ago when he said the Kings are a team full of great individual talents, but no team players. I think that's a fair assessment. I think Evans and Cousins in particular are very good (or at least, will be very good) players taken in a vaccum, but I'm not sure I see either of them as guys who make their teammates better. They're both focused on themselves right now.

Of course, the ridiculous coaching doesn't help matters either. Paul Westphal has bizarre substitution patters, little strategy, and blatantly plays favorites with his roster. Remember our last win over the Kings? Beasley scored 42 and Evans fouled out by committing 4 charges? Apparently Westphal decided the loss was Cousins' fault, blaming him for poor defense in the 14 minutes he played and praising Evans for his aggressiveness. It's inexplicable, and endemic of the Kings' issues this year.

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Dallas Mavericks

 

 

After starting off the season so well, this team has just been decimated by injuries. They started the year 24-6, beating the likes of the Spurs, Thunder, Magic, Blazers, and sweeping the season series against the Heat.

Then Dirk went down with a knee injury, and the Mavs have sunk ever since. 2-9, including a current 6 game losing streak and losses to bad teams like Indiana, Milwaukee and Detroit. In that time, Caron Butler has been lost for the season, and Tyson Chandler has fallen ill.

Knowing Mark Cuban like we all do, there's sure to be some sort of deadline trade for this club. They've been linked to Gerald Wallace, Stephen Jackson, and Andre Iguodala. I'd personally be shocked if they didn't pick one of those players up.

In the meantime, Dirk is my choice for MVP this season. He's averaging 24 points and 7.4 rebounds on 54% shooting (40% from three), and the difference with versus without him has been night and day. The Mavs at +14.4 per 100 possessions with him on the floor versus -9.1 without him, and their overall record is 24-7 when he plays, 2-7 when he doesn't.

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Houston Rockets

 

 

It's sad to say, but I think we've seen the last of Yao Ming.

He basically said he'd retire if he couldn't get healthy, and well....out for the season again. It's really sad, because he's one of the best in the game when he plays and a genuinely great guy. But he's just carrying a lot of weight on a not-very athletic frame.

In his absence, the Rockets have really struggled, particularly on defense. They're in the bottom 10 in FG% allowed and bottom 5 in points allowed. Age has definitely caught up to Brad Miller, so Houston is back to Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes in the paint.

Compounding that, the team also has problems in the backcourt. Kevin Martin is a prolific scorer, but that's about it: he doesn't rebound, facilitate, or defend particularly well. That's made if almost impossible for the team to field him alongside the score-first mentality of Aaron Brooks, which has led to the more dimensional Kyle Lowry starting at point guard. But Lowry doesn't score particularly well himself. So on and so on.

The Rockets are less of a mess than they appear to be, but more of a mess than they should be. Adelman and Morey have their work cut out to get to the core of what's going on here and fixing it.

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Memphis Grizzlies

 

 

I still really feel that this is a team selling everything to achieve mediocrity. Yes, they have some good talent and yes their coach does the smart thing riding the starters. But they've spent basically all they have at this point on a core of Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. How far can that really get them?

I'm 99.9% sure they won't retain Zach Randolph, unless he takes a big pay cut. I don't know what they plan to do with OJ Mayo, but I don't like this strategy of bringing him off the bench or taking away his shots.

More than anything, I still don't see any talent development happening here. None of their young players are making major strides or adding new dimensions to their games. They're not a veteran team...they're not a team of players who have already developed their games. There's just so much more players like Gay, Mayo, Gasol, and Conley can do and there's just no momentum in that direction. And even if there were, I'm not sure it'd make the Grizzlies much more than a western conference Hawks: cannon fodder for the true contenders.

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New Orleans Hornets

 

 

The Bugs are an interesting team to say the least. They started out winning a lot. Then they started losing a lot. Now they're back to winning a lot again.

New Orleans did make a couple of nice changes to improve the team. They picked up a good shooter in Marco Belinelli to balance the floor out again, and have gotten Emeka Okafor to somewhat approximate what Tyson Chandler used to bring to the table in the pick-and-roll game. David West is still very solid and shooting a career high % from the field.

Still, it's hard to see the Hornets standing up to the big guns in the games that matter. And I have a suspicion that, as soon as Melo hits the court in a Knicks uni, the CP3 to MSG chatter will blow up the ticker again.

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San Antonio Spurs

 

 

More than any team in the league, the San Antonio Spurs embody the word "timeless". Every season, more and more critics write them off as "too old". Every year, the prove the critics wrong.

This season, however, they're proving the critics really really wrong. The Spurs are the best team in the league by all sorts of metrics....record, point differential, Hollinger's point system.....they're the best home team, the best road team,and have the most wins against their own conference.

The success of the Spurs this year is really a testament to Popovich's masterful coaching. Tim Duncan is genuinely an old man (although still incredibly efficient), and none of the other SAS big men can make up the difference there. So Pops changed the system around, emphasizing more offense and less defense and turning the keys over to the backcourt of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

If I counted right, this is the first time in over a decade the Spurs are not a top 10 team in points allowed. But they're also now a top 5 team in points scored. That's Pops understanding the strength of his team lies in the speed and scoring of Parker, Ginobili, and Richard Jefferson, and it speaks volumes to him and his team that they're able to completely reverse the system in a single summer and make it work so well.

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Denver Nuggets

 

 

They're on the verge of collapse and they know it. Melo's a goner and they've accepted that now and have finally turned their attention to trying to get as much as they can for him.

Again, I highly doubt Carmelo goes to anywhere but New York. The Nets have the best offer on the table by far, but if Melo won't agree to an extension, there's nothing they can do. The Knicks don't have a ton in terms of talent to exchange, and well....how much are draft picks really going to be worth with a lockout looming and a new CBA around the corner?

I don't know what they'll do with the rest of the roster when Melo's gone. Ty Lawson and Nene are pretty good stand-alone players, but Billups is over the hill and the rest really need an Anthony to be truly effective. I suppose it depends on what they can get for Carmelo, but there's little question that this club is headed for a short-term disaster at the least.

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Oklahoma City Thunder

 

 

After last season's breakout performance, the question was would the Thunder be able to sustain their success when everyone sees them coming this time? I think the answer to that has been a very definitive yes.

OKC sits atop the Northwest Division and is third best in the west behind just the Spurs and Lakers. Their defense isn't as tight as it was last season, but their offense has picked up significantly. Kevin Durant overcame some early cold shooting and is again leading the league in points per game, while still rebounding and getting to the foul line. And Russell Westbrook has taken another big leap to land squarely in the realm of stardom. His FG%, 3pt%, FT%, assists/game, and points/game are all up for the third straight season, and he continues to be a defensive menace in the passing lanes. He doesn't get the hype because he lives in Durant's shadow, but his game is right there with Deron Williams and Derrick Rose.

The rest of the cast is coming together nicely as well. The team seems to understand that Green isn't a great option at the starting 4, which is why they've been quietly maneuvering to clear enough cap to sign Serge Ibaka to a solid deal. Whether that means Green becomes a sixth man or is traded, I don't know. Ibaka has stepped his own game up, scoring, rebounding and blocking shots with tremendous efficiency. James Harden continues to puzzle with his ability to hit threes well but hit twos poorly, but his overall contributions are good and he's able to fill in a lot of the holes on a night-to-night basis. And at some point, we'll start seeing Cole Aldrich get his chance to lock up the starting center spot long term.

The Thunder are really a great model of success. They draft smart, trade smart, shop free agency smart, and balance getting talent with getting fit perfectly.

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Portland Trailblazers

 

 

The Blazers are in a tough spot, watching not only their season, but perhaps their foreseeable future collapse before their eyes.

Roy is screwed, and there's really no other way to say it. He's scheduled to have surgery on both knees soon, which takes him out for this season and maybe more. But the bottom line is he has no cartilage in his knees, and no amount of surgery will make that 100% better. He's always going to be hurt to a rather significant degree. Oden, likewise, doesn't appear as if he'll ever be truly healthy either, having now missed basically 3/4th of his NBA career with injury.

Still, Portland isn't as bad off as they might first appear. Wes Matthews is a more ideal fit next to Andre Miller in the backcourt, and LaMarcus Aldridge has really stepped his game up. LMA has topped 20ppg for the first time in his career, and is averaging a career high in rebounds as well. His January averages of 26-10-2 on 51% shooting are pretty prolific, and he appears determined to keep at this level. He's playing a lot more in the low post and is creating and taking a ton more contact than in past seasons.

The real overhead here, though, is that the Blazers know they need to move on. Blazer fans have quietly been assuring me that new GM Rich Cho, despite some appearances, isn't just sitting on things and hoping Roy and Oden miraculously return to full health. He's sifting through it all and making a plan for how this franchise gets back on track in a way that doesn't pin their hopes on what appears to be a losing battle.

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Utah Jazz

 

 

Y'know, they play so much like the Williams/Boozer era that it's easy to forget how young they are now. Al Jefferson and Deron Williams are both 26, and Paul Millsap is only 25. They've got a decent 23 year old in CJ Miles to take over for Raja Bell, and a promising 20 year old in Gordon Hayward that can be a lot like Andrei Kirilenko with some hard work and experience.

All this is to say that, even though this team has been knocking on the door for contendership for a number of years, in no way have they missed the window and are about to fade back out.

Jefferson is still struggling to adapt to Sloan's motion offense and being the #2 player, but he does anchor the middle for the Jazz, providing the closest thing they have to a respectable center. Al and Millsap have a lot of the same overlap problems that Al and Love had, but they're making it work pretty well all things considered. They'll go through some more rough spots as Utah tries to work Mehmet Okur back into the rotation. In the backcourt, Williams is just a flat out great point guard, and Bell has provided what they expected him to...shooting and defense.

I do think they need to get Okur back to 100% to make the frontcourt work before they can step up to another level. But they're still sitting on the fourth best record in the west and figure to keep getting better from here on out.