April 07, 2009
This is supposed to be the yearly "time to look at the NBA" post that usually queues up sometime in October and steps to the front once the NFL and NCAA are done haggling with our entertainment dollar. But I'm kind of bored with that point, right now. You know what's up; you know what's going on. I don't need to tell you all that much. All the absolutes have been put into a row.
Because at some point, you run out of things to say. And you just have to throw your hands, and admit that you should have no idea how things are going to end up. Even if it's sort of your job to tell people how things are going to end up. Or, to tell people that you know how things are going to end up, before telling them where things will end up. 2009 is an odd place.
Look at the top of the heap. The Cavaliers are clearly the class of the NBA, but are they? They didn't win it last year. They didn't even come in second, last season (not that this matters, conferences being what they are, but play along!). They've lost twice to the team that came in second from last year, and have been beaten (demolished, in one instance) by a new group from Orlando twice in this season. The one win in that time was a close one.
Cleveland's potential foils? Just as many questions. Can a team lose its second-best player to a season-ending injury, then make a desperate but season-saving trade in February, and pull out a conference championship? Happened last year. Rafer Alston is no Pau Gasol, but he's no Anthony Johnson, either.
Can a team lose what is now its third-best player to another injury, and bring him back just in time to rush back to pre-injury prominence? Even more intriguing? Andrew Bynum is more or less healthy, and he's being asked to return against the Grizzlies on Sunday -- the team he's injured himself against two different times in two consecutive years -- so as not to develop a complex. Phil Jackson doesn't want Bynum to be afraid of bears. Brilliant.
Meanwhile, the champs are the champs are the champs. Unless they're not the champs. Unless they're a pretty solid if turnover-prone team that starts Glen Davis at big forward.
And what of the old non-champs, made the opposite of champs due to injury, perhaps finding a way to add Blake Griffin to the crew? Can you say, "Photoshop Champions?" Or is that a bit weird? And a little early? Yes, and yes.
The lower-rungs? The middle rungs? Let's not pretend this lot has an actual chance. They don't. But they do have a chance to make life a warm, fuzzy feeling throughout April and May. Portland, back in the playoffs? This could be a conference finalist. Hell, at some point, I'm ready to pronounce that it should be a conference finalist. Expectations in Portland? Not bad at all.
Denver plays defense, now, and boasts a more efficient offense. The Nuggets are thriving at a time that they once used to fold in. Save for 2004-05, when they took off around this time of year, only to meet Manu and the Spurs in the first round. And I've just depressed both Nuggets and Spurs fans, in one brief caveat. Apologies.
Chicago or Detroit against Boston in the first round? A potentially lovely thing. Miami and Atlanta? A second round series with either team against the Cavs? A Boston/Orlando in the second round? That's a second round series? This year, it is.
Meanwhile ... Houston. Nobody talks about Houston. Houston just wins. Ugly, lovely, doesn't matter. It wins. Utah? Everyone talks about Utah. Could the talk be worth it, this time around? Could Jerry Sloan and his showboatin' ways make June worthwhile?
And the guy nobody talks about? Chris Paul. He's the man who deserves a shot and a beer every time people bring up a three-pronged MVP race and mention Kobe Bryant as the second or third in line. This guy has been destroying teams, on a really lousy team, all season. He's made an All-Star out of David West. He's got this crapload on its way to 50 wins, and he has the skills to singlehandedly carry his team to ... who knows? It's a team game. Could be the first round, it could be mid-June. I mean that.
I also mean it when I say that -- despite the injuries, despite Mike Bibby -- this is as good a time as there has ever been to be a fan of this league.
Depending on what position you think Tim Duncan plays (for the purposes of this post, let's say "power forward"), there's a good chance we're watching three of the best players at their positions (LeBron, Paul, TD) work their trade at disparate times in their respective careers. There's no way of telling what Paul and LeBron will do from here on out, but if their current batch of contributions hold up and they continue to improve, these guys could be the gold standard.
And while Kobe ain't Mike, he's a good second place, and that makes for a good 3.5 out of 5. We haven't had that since Michael, Bird, and Magic. And we haven't had this brand of basketball working at this level ... well, ever.
The shooting -- and I know your local columnist who is breathlessly awaiting Brett Favre's latest return does not want to hear this -- is as good as it's ever been. The stats prove this. The stats are everywhere, now, too. So much to learn. The defense is just as good as it was at it's 82-79 peak from five years ago; but improvements in pace and refereeing have made the game a much, much better watch.
If I'm all over the place, you'll have to excuse me. I know I'm gushing. And consider that, for a second.
I'm not on TV. Your parents have never heard of me. If you have kids, more than likely, they have never heard of me. I want nothing more than to give a fair shake to every post-season award handed out, and yet I don't have a vote to my name in spite of over a decade of writing about this sport. I do nothing but watch parts of nearly every game, every night, while either re-watching games the next afternoon or early morning, or catching on what I missed thanks to the help of this wonderful silver box on top of my tiny, little TV.
I've been obsessing, all year. And I've been doing it, all year, for years. And I'm not burned out. I'm as excited as I've ever been, and I can't say that for a lot of other seasons.
I should be flinching every time I hear a sneaker squeak, but instead I'm breathlessly awaiting what happens tonight (10 games, 11 on Wednesday). And I'm ruing the fact that in two weeks I'm going to be missing the 14 teams that did not make it to the NBA afterlife. Even if they deserve to miss it. Even if they meant to miss it, by design.
So, the angry mug that should be sick of it all has a smile on his face and a song in his heart, just thinking about how fantastic the next ten weeks will be. And if that's the case, you have no excuse. Start whistlin'.