Kevin Durant has done just fine in the months leading to the All-Star break. (Getty Images)
The NBA is actually well past its midpoint, that took place about three weeks ago, but the league still likes to plan its All-Star weekend for when the NFL is in its rearview mirror, which is why we’ll have the All-Star break with most teams some 50-plus games into their seasons. The All-Star weekend is hardly much of a break, as the league combines a weekend’s full of events alongside media days, charitable visits, an all manner of basic cable pomp and circumstance as a way to warm returning fans to a league that’s been hacking it out since October.
For those fans, and any others, I’ve compiled a list of 20 things I’ve either learned, or had re-affirmed in the season’s first 14 weeks:
Golden State is still everyone’s second-favorite team
The amount of worry both casual and hardcore NBA fans toss out when Golden State goes into a mini-swoon speaks to the idea that, beyond the hometown (we hope) club they cheer for regularly, the Warriors are most viewers’ second-favorite team to back. Casual fans worry about Stephen Curry’s ankles and the idea that the team can’t survive in the postseason without a great defense (which is silly, because they have a great defense). Ardent fans wonder if the rest of the league has learned to overplay on Steph, and if Klay Thompson has morphed into an overrated one-note shooter. Both camps want Mark Jackson’s crew to get it together, in a healthy way, by spring.
The 2013 NBA draft was terrible
We knew it before the draft, it was glaringly obvious as the names were being called off on draft night, and it’s become sickeningly apparent more than midway through 2013-14. Even if he plays average basketball for the rest of the year, Anthony Bennett will have the worst first season of any top pick in decades. Otto Porter barely plays and he’s terrible when he does. Victor Oladipo, supposedly NBA-ready, often looks overwhelmed. C.J. McCollum, Alex Len, and Nerlens Noel have been mostly injured. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Cody Zeller, and Ben McLemore have been mostly bad. Middling picks like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mason Plumlee, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Rookie of the Year runaway Michael Carter-Williams have turned out just fine, but that’s about it.
Gregg Popovich is a genius
Between the exhibition, regular, and postseason in 2012-13 the San Antonio Spurs played 111 games. This year, as expected, the team has fallen victim to several injuries to key players and starters, and as Coach Pop noted this week, few of them (save for Manu Ginobili’s hamstring pull) have been of the clear-cut, “he’ll definitely be out X amount of weeks”-variety. Popovich has no idea what sort of rotation he’ll have to cobble together from night to night, and yet here the Spurs are: On pace for 59 wins, safely ensconced in the second seed out West, looking forward to a home-happy schedule past the much-needed All-Star break.
The 2014 trade deadline could be a snoozer
Everything seems to make sense. The Warriors have trade exceptions, no bench, and would seem to want to pay the luxury tax for a championship contender. The 76ers, Celtics, and Magic have no real need for Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Jameer Nelson in their long term rebuilding plans. Phoenix has draft picks, cap space to ease things, and a massive and insurance-covered expiring deal in Emeka Okafor’s contract to deal as their playoff run sparks up. And yet, with general managers getting smarter and smarter and draft picks more and more coveted, you could see a league-wide stalemate as teams fail to negotiate a win-win. Or, you could see about 192 deals. It’s the NBA – nobody ever knows until that Thursday hits. Save for Woj, probably.
The Bulls could make a game of it even with you in the starting lineup
At 26-25 entering Thursday night’s home game against Brooklyn, the Bulls have somehow stayed in the playoff picture despite losing two former All-Stars for the season due to injury and trade, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich to various injuries along the way, all while working with the knowledge that, yes, this is yet another season that doesn’t really count. You can never count these Bulls out, though, which is why even in defeat they continue to make their city unyieldingly proud of them. Especially when they score 100 points and everyone in attendance gets a free cheeseburger.
Jeff Hornacek has helped make a contributor out of Miles Plumlee (Getty Images)
Jeff Hornacek was born to coach basketball
This isn’t to demean the clear hard work and long hours the rookie Phoenix Suns coach has put into preparing for his initial turn as a head man, but the coach’s kid and longtime NBA floor-spacer and penetrator has taken his knack for both the flair and fundamental-rich from his playing days onto the sidelines. Hornacek’s team was picked by many to rank least in the West, but instead the team is on pace for 49 wins, even with Eric Bledsoe out for 27 of the team’s 51 games. Hornacek’s offense is fluid, potent, and easy on the eyes.
Scheduling matters, as does patience
When the Brooklyn Nets raced out to a 10-21 record over the season’s first two months, most of us assumed we had all the answers. Jason Kidd was overwhelmed as a rookie coach, ready to blame anyone but himself for this terrible hubris he had in thinking he should be coaching a team whose payroll will top $190 million once luxury taxes hit. The team couldn’t defend, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and even Deron Williams were washed up, and the draft pick-less franchise was a lost cause. Kidd’s squad has won 14 of 19 since, though, while we all took the time to realize that, crap, the team’s furious schedule over the first 31 games of the season (as the NBA crammed games in before a lengthy London trip) was patently unfair to any squad, much less a creaky, veteran one.
Nobody wants to play for the Cavs
“My feelings go out to him and his family,” said Rose. “I wish him nothing but the best.”
“My feelings go out to him and his family?” Yikes. We’re not one to bang the drum about the very unlikely scenario that sees Kyrie Irving turning down millions this summer and play out the remainder of his rookie contract in order to leave Cleveland, but the combination of blown draft picks, poor signings, an owner who doesn’t know how to use the word “malcontent” properly, and an unappealing coach in Mike Brown hasn’t helped Cleveland’s viability.
Injuries are the worst
Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Eric Bledsoe, Nate Robinson, Brook Lopez, Danilo Gallinari, Al Horford, Kevin Martin, Manu Ginobili, and J.J. Redick. Lingering recovery pains with Rajon Rondo and Lou Williams. On-and-off trips to the shelf for Tony Parker, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bogut, Deron Williams, and Dwyane Wade. The idea that this year’s Eastern championship could be swayed by two players in Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden that we were robbed of watching at their absolute best. No fun, cats and kittens. No fun.
Centers still matter
The Grizzlies were one of the worst teams in the NBA without an injured Marc Gasol, and a world-beater defensively since he’s returned to the lineup. Chicago was adrift early on as Joakim Noah recovered from injury, and now his all-around play has a terrible offensive team working with a winning record. Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, quite literally, may be the NBA’s most important player. New York and Golden State pine for Tyson Chandler and Andrew Bogut when they sit with injury. DeMarcus Cousins has turned the corner offensively, in terms of efficiency, in a modern era that abhors his style of play. Al Jefferson has steadied the Charlotte Bobcats, and even fringe guys like Miles Plumlee, Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat have provided needed counters to what their teams do best.
Tanking doesn’t matter, people
Wring your hands all you want about Philadelphia losing by a combined 492 points on their last road trip – even if they fall to the worst record, they only have a 25 percent chance at the top pick. The team “ahead” of them and the teams two, three, and six spots “behind” them in this “race” for the worst record entered the year with the stated goal of making the playoffs. Meanwhile, if Philly, Orlando, Boston and Utah pull this off right, they’ll be fielding potent winners in a few years, and nobody will remember February of 2014. Stop the sanctimony.
You can still win with mid-range shots
Provided that it’s your all-world big man that is knocking down an ungodly amount of these mid-range shots, and you still surround him with lights-out three-point shooters and a top-five offensive rebounding center. The Portland Trail Blazers may be limping into the All-Star break in the midst of a 5-8 swoon, but the squad has been right around the top mark offensively all season, and in spite of that swoon the team is tied with the Clippers and Rockets for the third spot in the West – two teams that were expected to contend for the Finals. LaMarcus Aldridge’s touch, the plus-40 percent three-point stylings of Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard, and the emerging C.J. McCollum have made the team a tough bunch to cover. Toss in Robin Lopez on the glass, and you have an intriguing, entertaining outfit that actually wins a whole ton.
Two different Minnesota front offices have wasted years’ worth of brilliant play from Kevin Love
Read this sad, snarky little take, from Tom Powers at the Twin Cities Pioneer Press:
Meanwhile, the trade deadline is Feb. 20. What do you do with this team? I'd say ... nothing. There's no playoff berth at stake here. Might as well just wait until the offseason and see what develops. Maybe there will be another Shabazz Muhammad available in the draft, or another Luc Mbah a Moute accessible via the trade market.
As it is with Irving, we’re not telling you that Love is a lock to leave when his contract could expire in 2015, but with Ricky Rubio continuing to clang away, draft pick after draft pick failing to make a dent, Flip Saunders’ first year as ostensible general manager not looking all that hot, and Rick Adelman possibly walking away after the season? A lot would have to go right, between now and the summer of 2015.
“Win now” doesn’t always work in the West
In the summer and then late fall of 2013, the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings swung big trades for big scorers in the hopes of taking advantage of what could have been a crumbling lower part of the Western playoff bracket. The Pelicans swung what they hoped won’t be (but probably will be) two lottery picks to Philadelphia for All-Star Jrue Holiday, while the Kings tossed several unneeded (but more financially tolerable) players to Toronto for Rudy Gay. Even though the Lakers, Nuggets, and possibly Grizzlies will fall out of that bracket this season, the Kings have the West’s worst record, and New Orleans has the fourth-worst record out West. And what’s perhaps saddest is that New Orleans’ current winning percentage would win them a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as of Thursday.
Mascots can still genuinely scare people
Introducing your new mascot Pierre the Pelican! pic.twitter.com/CieVTs3sMt
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) October 31, 2013
Milwaukee and Detroit have no idea what they’re doing … spectacularly!
Both the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons set out to make the playoffs this season, splurging on nine veteran players between them via free agency, trade, or sign-and trade. For Detroit, it was a chance to get back to the postseason after four seasons in the wilderness. For Milwaukee, it was to sustain their stated goal of bringing in so-so players to field a so-so team that sneaks in the playoff bracket’s back door. Instead, the Bucks hold the NBA’s worst record. The Pistons have already fired their first-year head coach, and are a half-game out in a conference that may send the Charlotte Bobcats to the playoffs. It would be a huge shock if Detroit’s Joe Dumars and Milwaukee’s John Hammond (who preceded Dumars as Pistons GM) survive into 2014-15.
Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri is in a pickle. A delicious pickle.
The Toronto Raptors are an entertaining, tough, potent and most importantly successful basketball club in 2013-14, on pace for 45 wins and the third seed in the East. This is in stark contrast to what was expected of a team that dumped Andrea Bargnani for (mostly) draft picks over the offseason, dumped Rudy Gay for (mostly) expiring contracts early in this season, and added little prior to this campaign. Out of nowhere, though, the Raptors are contending. Still, does Ujiri want to ride this out and continue with the remnants of his predecessor’s disappointing era – building behind DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Jonas Valanciunas, and 2014 free agent Kyle Lowry? These aren’t his guys, and despite the winning, and as much as we respect the talents of the four players listed, there isn’t a franchise player on that list.
At least Philadelphia is fun to watch
It was evident early in the season, when the Brett Brown-led club won its first three games against the defending champion Miami Heat, the playoff-bound Washington Wizards, and the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls, and it’s holding up now. Even if the Sixers have lost 39 of 51 since then. Even if they recently dropped a back-to-back pair of road games by a combined 88 points. Even though rookie sensation Michael Carter-Williams missed 12 games, and even if the team is last in offense, pace-adjusted. It’s that league-topping pace, though, that keeps you tuning in, because long passes and ill-timed up fakes and mid-range jumpers have never looked so fun. Even if they rarely go in.
Kevin Durant is the MVP, and not because we’ve tired of LeBron James
LeBron James is so good that he has more than enough time, in the season’s final two months, to string together more and more games like the two he came through with against Phoenix and Golden State this week (36.5 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, 3.5 steals on average), and genuinely catch up to Durant’s brilliant year. It’s not voter fatigue that has vaulted Durant ahead of LeBron this year, though. It’s not even the tidy narrative about him doing great work with All-Star Russell Westbrook on the shelf. It’s his unyieldingly efficient and productive play, for the best team in the NBA’s toughest conference, that has kept him working as the NBA’s best player in 2013-14. And the best player in the league for a particular season should always win that year’s MVP award.
The NBA championship may come down to scoring on LeBron James
After a white-hot, nearly LeBron-like start, Paul George has cooled off recently. Over his last 10 games he’s hit less than a third of his shots, and his Player Efficiency Rating has dropped from an MVP-ish 25 or so to an All-Star-ish 20.8 heading into the All-Star break. He’ll now take part in the Dunk Contest, play in the All-Star Game, and then grind it out until the last week of May and first week of June, when an expected pairing with the Miami Heat awaits in the Eastern Conference Finals. For a guy that is still developing his go-to scorer’s game, can he pull it off when it counts the most in the crunch, against someone like LeBron? Someone that has been saving his legs all season?
Kevin Durant, in much the same vein, has gone all-out against the rest of the league in 2013-14. Unlike George, he has the luxury of not having to guard LeBron on the other end, and he’s proven to be able to go off on LBJ in the past. That’s no guarantee, though. Especially when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has the ability to out-coach Thunder head man Scott Brooks, as he did in the 2012 NBA Finals.
Both Indiana and OKC have the ability to down the defending champs – even at full health – in just a five or six game series. These are two championship-level teams that are that good. And while we don’t like looking at the next four months as a sort of inevitability, it is charming and exciting to note that whoever wants the 2013-14 NBA title will still have to go through the King. As it should be.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, y’all.
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