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Around the League: New Year's Edition

Two aging stars return from injury to try to bolster their struggling teams' fortunes. Steve Nash is essential to the Lakers' recovery, while Dirk Nowitzki is slowly working his way back to a team that has much deeper problems. And your other news around the league.

Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash recently returned from injuries.  Can they stay healthy and productive?
Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash recently returned from injuries. Can they stay healthy and productive?

Steve Nash returned to the Lakers lineup in the midst of a winning streak, but that streak included close wins against the Wizards and Bobcats; the Lakers were still struggling. They have won three of four since, including an overtime nail biter in Golden State, and a Christmas day victory over the Knicks. Nash has been central to the effort, if for no other reason then it limits the minutes of the likes of Chris Duhon. In truth, he's been fantastic, averaging 9.5 assists since his return and shooting 60% from the field. That'll do. And the Lakers need it, like they need all of their stars to be available and producing, because while the talent is impressive, it's also very thin, and pretty old, and as we've seen through the ups and downs of their season, this is a team on the knife's edge. The wrong injury, decline or age related fatigue, and things could go south in a hurry.

Dirk Nowitzki returns to a Mavericks team in some disarray, and has not yet found his stride four games into his return. The Mavs are essentially a collection of below average players, many of whom are struggling with the inevitable decline due to age (Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Elton Brand, and perhaps Dirk himself) or are merely disappointing (Darren Collison, Chris Kaman). The Mavericks aren't terrible, but in the terrifyingly competitive Western Conference, not terrible probably isn't enough. They are currently 12-19 and have lost 9 out of 10. They only avoid being my Cold Team of the Week because of their recent schedule. Their last six games, all losses, have been: Heat, Grizzlies, Spurs, Thunder, Nuggets, and Spurs again. Yikes. How's that for holiday cheer?

Avery Johnson was fired as coach of the Brooklyn Nets. Given the outsized expectations for this team, a 14-14 start was not met with patience by general manager Billy King or owner Mikhail Prokhorov. The problem for the Nets is that the whole is somewhat less then the sum of the parts. The thought was, after a remarkable spending spree this summer, that the Nets would be competitors; that they had all the boxes checked. A star leader at point guard, a scorer at the two, a defensive menace at the three, a rebounding four, and a post scoring center. Unfortunately, Deron Williams is only good, not great, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace are aging, Kris Humphries does nothing but rebound, and Brook Lopez is the only guy really exceeding expectations. Basically, there is a softness and selfishness here that the current personnel probably cannot overcome. Further exacerbating the problem is that they are committed to extravagant payrolls for at the least the next four seasons. P.J. Carlesimo is currently interim coach, and we'll see who they target to take over this group. Great logo and color scheme, though.

In happier news, let's take a quick look at the team on the other side of the signature Joe Johnson trade: the Atlanta Hawks. A team that gets little attention, but deserves kudos for their excellent start. They've had an easy schedule so far, but 19-9 is nothing to sneeze at. Danny Ferry took over as general manager, and quickly made several changes to a team that seemed stuck in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack. His primary goal was to enhance the team's cap flexibility going forward, which he did by moving Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. In the meantime, the Hawks are getting good play from the the three guys they have under team control next year: Al Horford, Lou Williams, and Jeff Teague (matching rights). Inexpensive rookie John Jenkins and RFA Ivan Johnson can also be kept cheaply and have both been useful. They will have ample space in the summer to upgrade the roster, and despite suffering from an utter lack of attention, things are looking bright in Atlanta.

Playoff Picture: The Eastern Conference playoff picture seems pretty clear; there are nine teams competing for the eight spots. Orlando, in the 10th spot, is 12-18. Right now, Brooklyn, Boston, and Philadelphia appear to be in an I-95 battle for the last two spots in the East. The Western Conference is far more muddled. Currently the teams in the 6th-11th spots are in a jumble, with Houston at 16-14 in 6th and Utah at 15-16 in 11th. Anything could happen with those six teams (Denver, Minnesota, Portland, and the Lakers) fighting for three spots.

New Feature Perhaps Never To Be Seen Again But You Never Know; Most Improved Player Watch: Larry Sanders. Or, Larry Freakin' Sanders if you prefer. The Milwaukee big man is emerging in a serious way in his third year in the league, perhaps providing evidence that there is reason not to give up on young players, especially bigs, too soon. After playing sparingly his first two years in league because his defensive chops could not overcome his offensive ineptitude, Sanders has exploded in his third year. He has maintained his defensive excellence, and leads the NBA in BLK%, while his rebounding percentage has risen dramatically, and most noticeably his shooting efficiency has gone climbed several notches in one go. His EFG coming into this season was .442, so far this season it has increased to .542. He has taken over as the starting center on a surprisingly successful Bucks squad, and if he keeps this up, could be looking at a DeAndre Jordan contract when he reaches restricted free agency in the summer of 2014.

Hot Team of the Week: Let's talk about the Toronto Raptors. After starting the season 4-19, the Raps have won seven of their last eight and are scratching toward respectability. This stretch has admittedly not been against the stiffest of competition; only Houston is above .500 among their recent victims. Still, they appear to have separated themselves from the truly terrible teams in the league, and they have some things going for them. One of those things is the absence of the execrable Andrea Bargnani, out with an elbow injury presumably sustained while trying to insert his foot in his mouth. Much of this recent run of success has been accomplished without the excellent Kyle Lowry, who has only recently returned from his own injury to bolster the back court, where veteran Jose Calderon has been doing excellent work. Unfortunately, rookie center Jonas Valanciunas recently broke a finger and will miss at least a month. That's too bad, because he was holding his own as a 20 year old rookie center.

The Raptors are a squad crying out for some roster balancing. They feature two starting quality point guards as well as two effective power forwards in Ed Davis and Amir Johnson. Those two, along with Valanciunas could form an excellent front court rotation going forward (Amir Johnson is the oldest of the trio at 25), but it's possible that Davis and Johnson are too similar to thrive. What they are in desperate need of is better wing play and perhaps a stretch big that isn't named Bargnani. Over stocked at the one and four positions and short of wing play? Sound familiar?

Cold Team of the Week: Not in Charlotte's class, certainly, but I wanted to discuss the Boston Celtics. Currently having lost seven of their last nine, including tonight's tilt in Sacramento, the Celtics are currently 14-16 and occupying the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference. Their problems are obvious and were predictable: they are old. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are both still playing good basketball, but are no longer playing All-NBA level basketball, and never will again. Without those two and Rajon Rondo forming an all-star level big three, this squad cannot compete at the upper reaches of the NBA. (Of course, I thought the same thing last season, then they went on a big run and made the East finals, giving the Heat a terrific series. I'd be surprised if the same thing happens again). This wouldn't be the end of the world, after all they got a title from this group and several exciting playoff runs. However, their decision to recommit to the same core (minus Ray Allen) may wind up costing them. They are on the hook for $70 million for 2013-14 and $52 million already for 2014-15. Kevin Garnett has made a lot of money playing basketball.

Bullet points?

  • Eric Gordon is another player who returned from injury. New Orleans is heavily invested in him, and need him to stay healthy. Good luck to him and them.
  • Royce White is still not with the Rockets, and has declined an assignment to the D-League.
  • The Clippers have become allergic to losing apparently, having won 17 in a row, including a monumental comeback in Utah on Friday, when they easily could have succumbed, then backing it up by winning the rematch tonight.
  • It was a bit sad to see how lost Michael Beasley looked in his return to Target Center Saturday night. Doesn't look like it's gonna work out for him in Phoenix either.
That's it for this week. Next week will include the return of the Rookie Watch, and whatever else I think of. What are you paying attention to around the league?