It’s a team sport, this basketball. If feels as if the entirety of my sportswriting career has been spent reminding people there are five to a side, and while certain basketball players have the ability to tip the win/loss scales in either direction, disproportionate blame or credit shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of just one lone player.
Updated: LeBron, Carmelo, Kobe, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade are all playing for teams with losing records.
— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) January 14, 2015
Those are three of the most coveted free agents in NBA history, the league’s reigning MVP and next big white whale on the free-agent market, and one of the greatest players of a generation of great players (also the league’s highest-paid player). All losing records. Currently, at least.
As the season hits it literal midpoint this week, it’s probably best to see where all of these cats are headed, with three months and 40-odd games left to get it right.
Narratives don’t come much easier than this.
LeBron’s Cavs will take on a pitiful Los Angeles Lakers club on Thursday night, in a nationally televised performance that will allow just about everyone present to give their take as to why the Cavs have started the season 19-20, and give the Cavaliers a chance to make a statement with a blowout win over an overmatched opponent. LeBron returned to action after a fortnight off to preside over a dumpster fire in a loss against the Suns on Tuesday. He looked as healthy as ever offensively but still seems lacking when it comes to warming to the role as the Cavs’ last-chance diner of a defender.
The Cavaliers are basically playing out what many assumed could be the worst-case scenario for this team, and because this squad is so talented that pear-shaped start has “only” bottomed out to the tune of a middling record. We knew the Cavaliers were going to have to become a dominant, all-world offensive team in order to stand apart from the pack, as the defensive personnel just wasn’t and isn’t in place to create a top-five unit on that end. We knew rookie coach David Blatt would have to throw his weight around as coach when it came to play-calling, and that Kevin Love would have to be utilized properly. And though LeBron’s new teammates are younger than his last crew, he would still have to turn in an MVP-level season.
LeBron’s personal turn hasn’t happened, Love is being criminally misused at best and underutilized at worst, Blatt’s schemes are obvious and too orthodox, and the offense (ninth overall) is soundly underachieving.
James has excuses for being tired; he’s not being a weenie and we need to understand just what he’s put his body through since October of 2003. With that in place, he’s had half a season, a two-week break, and it’s time to get going. He’s going to have to turn into a no-BS MVP-type on both ends if the Cavs want to walk into the playoffs (where they genuinely could match up favorably with all comers) with any sort of momentum.
Timelines don’t come much more transparent than this.
Carmelo and his Knicks are in London to show off the NBA product in front of a sold-out stadium and the sort of dweebs like us that will watch NBA TV at 3 in the afternoon on a Thursday. He’s going to suit up despite a lingering knee injury because “we don’t get these chances often,” which is admirable if you haven’t been completely taken over by the looming cynicism you should have regarding pro athletes and especially the New York Knicks.
He will also likely play through the NBA’s All-Star break, as he’s set to be voted in as a starter for the Eastern Conference squad. Oh, he’ll shut it down for a few games here and there, but by and large Anthony (who last played Dec. 31) will likely try to keep up appearances. The English can understand that.
The Knicks are blatantly tanking, waiving and dealing players for next to nothing in the hopes the team’s current “winning” percentage (.125, on pace for 10 wins all season) sustains. Reportedly, the team has asked Anthony to shut it down for the remainder of the season, but the front office is probably well aware of the truth: New York is going to lose plenty of games with Anthony on board, and his nagging but relatively minor (in comparison to a major ligament or cartilage tear) injury isn’t going to be exacerbated too much if he plays on and off until mid-February.
Anthony is going to be overpaid anyway in the final years of his contract, and the difference between him shutting it down in either January 2015 or February 2015 isn’t going to matter much in 2019. The 76ers and Celtics are similarly dumping players left and right in order to accrue further assets, but the Knicks probably also know they’re still going to finish with the league’s worst record, and that finishing with the worst or second-worst record still doesn’t guarantee anything once the lottery balls start pinging around.
That is to say, enjoy Carmelo while you can. You won’t be seeing him much after the All-Star break.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Lakers coach Byron Scott’s laughable assertion that his team was actually in the playoff hunt from Wednesday was quite possibly the NBA’s quote of the year. The Los Angeles front office designed this Lakers squad with the intention of whiffing on the 2014-15 season, as any 2015 Laker draft pick that falls out of the top five in the lottery will be sent to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for the 2012 rights to Steve Nash, a person who will end his Laker career by playing 65 of a possible 246 contests.
As we discussed in the wake of Byron’s feint, the Lakers would have to probably win 36 of their next 43 games to make the playoffs, or two-thirds of their games over the next half-season just to be among those in playoff contention. They’re not making it, and Kobe’s not making much of anything either.
In the six games since an embarrassing display in a loss to Sacramento motivated Scott to pull Kobe in and out of the lineup, Bryant has shot 35 percent. He’s missed 26 out of his last 31 shots from the field, and he’s shot 31.6 percent since Dec. 12. This is bad, guys.
Kobe Bryant missed the tail end of the 2012-13 season, that year’s playoff sweep, and all but six games in 2013-14. There is half a season to play, Kobe is already scheduled to work on Thursday night against LeBron and the Cavaliers before sitting out on Friday, and it’s understandable Bryant (and the Lakers, who basically signed him to play as the league’s highest-paid player to appease fans) would want to gut and get through this every-other-game schedule from here on out. Something has to give, though, at some point.
Kobe Bryant is single-handedly disproving the “just-being-able-to-get-of-20-shots-in-an-NBA-game-is-a-talent” theory. The Lakers have routinely played better with him off the court this season, which is probably reason enough why the team will keep him in the lineup quite a bit until their tank job completes.
Which is sad. An NBA legend is being reduced to a punch line amongst the NBA cognoscenti.
This is the odd one.
Weeks ago, with 2014 MVP Kevin Durant returning to play alongside a player in Russell Westbrook who was putting up MVP-level stats in 2014-15, it was assumed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s clowntime was over. That the team would have enough in place to claw back into the Western Conference playoff bracket, over an uneasy and disappointing Phoenix Suns squad, by winning two-thirds of its games with two-thirds of the season left to play.
Instead, with half of the season left to play, the Suns have circled the wagons, and OKC has split its past 12 games with Durant in and out of the lineup. The team’s offense is ranked 21st of 30 teams in what should be an embarrassment to both coaches and players alike, and the team’s front office even went as far as to deal for Dion Waiters’ infamous shot selection. The Thunder didn’t have to give up a current asset for the reserve swingman, but it’s still a dicey move for a rotation that sometimes struggles to divvy up shots for Durant, Westbrook and fellow reserve Reggie Jackson.
As with LeBron, however, Thursday comes with a chance for redemption.
The Thunder haven’t played since Jan. 9, a five-day respite that is basically unheard of in NBA scheduling. It’s perfect timing, a practice-heavy grant that came straight out of central casting, acclimating both Waiters and working a healthy Durant and Westbrook into a training camp of sorts. The team takes on the Houston Rockets on national TV on Thursday – former Thunder guard James Harden’s presence on the Rocket roster also comes straight out of central casting – with a chance to take the first step towards becoming a knockout outfit on both ends of the ball again.
At the Sun’s current pace, they will finish with 47 wins and earn the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket. To top that mark, OKC will have to go 30-15 to beat out the Suns – again, winning two-thirds of its games. That seemed easier a few weeks ago, with more games to work with, but it’s not out of the question. Not with Durant on board.
Yes, the West is stacked. And, yes, the Thunder have been bitten by the injury bug this season. For Durant to miss out on a playoff seed while in his prime and working with Westbrook and the similarly primed Serge Ibaka, though, would be an art crime. One that could lead to the end of coach Scott Brooks’ tenure in Oklahoma City, and possibly Durant’s time with the Thunder in 2016, when he becomes a free agent.
It’s a much more anonymous decline, but in a lot of ways Wade (and Chris Bosh’s) missteps in Miami have been as surprising as the thus-far failures in Cleveland, New York and Oklahoma City.
(The Lakers were not a surprise. By their own, intelligent, design. They need that pick.)
Miami was a gorgeous watch to begin the season. The team developed into a half-court monster early on, rarely running but elevating its offense into a Spurs-styled swish factory. The team won five of its first seven, and seemed to be rolling into the respectable (if, not championship-worthy) playoff team most assumed they’d turn into.
Things have fallen apart since then. The Heat are still on pace to make the playoffs, but they’ve lost 20 of 32 games and their offense has dipped to 19th in the NBA. Currently, the Heat figure to be one of three sub-.500 teams in the East’s embarrassing playoff bracket, and the group’s defense has become ruddy miserable – Miami ranks 26th of 30 NBA teams.
The shining light is Wade, however. He missed Wednesday’s loss to Golden State with a strained left hamstring, but he’s also played in 30 of the team’s 39 games, and improved upon a 2013-14 campaign that saw him miss 28 contests. Wade is obviously taking far more shots in LeBron James’ (and, for eight games, Chris Bosh’s) absence, and while his True Shooting Percentage has dipped a bit, he’s turning the ball over less, despite those increased attempts (and increased attention) and taking over games.
He’s not dragging his leg around the court, which has been the case for Kobe, Carmelo and, to a lesser degree, LeBron at times. Wade and Bosh’s contracts may have clogged the Heat’s cap picture, as the team committed to throwing as much money as it could at two players in their 30s last summer, but at least we’re not wondering if Dwyane Wade should sit out the rest of the season.
That’s good, right?
Get well soon, superstars.
- - - - - - -