With NBA All-Star weekend over, the real NBA season begins. Let's face it, the first half of the season is pretty irrelevant. Before the All-Star break, that's just the potatoes: a lot of "let's figure this thing out" going on.
After the All-Star break amazing things happens; the trade deadline, the NBA playoffs, the seeding to the NBA playoffs. Even the NBA Draft Lottery can be compelling. How many times have you heard the phrase, "Devon Harris and John Wall? The possibilities are endless."
Okay ... Maybe only I've said that.
Now, other writers say what they want: Lakers this, Cavaliers that, Orlando the other thing. It's not as clear cut as some sports writers think. Look at the standings in the West for example -- particularly the lock-jam at the #5 spot. It's a "Gladiator" situation with Oklahoma City playing the role of Russell Crowe, San Antonio as Joaquin Phoenix and the Suns playing the role as the poor guy attached to Ralf Moeller's arm in the first Gladiator event at that African province. Oklahoma City (or the "Zombie Sonics" as one sports columnist calls them) intrigues me the most in this group. They can potentially be as low as sixth seed or as high as third. They took a six game winning streak into the All Star break and have more momentum than San Antonio or Phoenix going into the second half. They don't need to make a drastic trade that ruins so many other playoff hopefuls, and what more do you need when you have Kevin Durant?
By the way, a memo to fans of the NBA: Kevin Durant has arrived. Please pick up your programs at the gate, sit back and enjoy the show. Is anyone else playing better than Durant? Show me someone else doing something like average 25+ points in 25 straight games -- 26 as of February 16th. Please. Otherwise, it's Durant's world right now. Kobe who? Seriously. Durant is far more entertaining, and he is a legitimate threat to the scoring title. As it stands right now, LeBron James is at 29.8. Durant is one-tenth of a point behind (29.8 for people with weak arithmetic). Why will Durant overtake LBJ? Simple. Durant is a scorer. LeBron is a do everything-er? Not only does LeBron score, he passes, rebounds and assists too. That's great if you're trying to achieve team goals, but not so much when you're going for individual achievements. Durant? He just scores. And scores. And then scores some more. Start getting used to this on a yearly basis because he's only 22.
Other things to get used to? How about old players on new teams? Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood? Welcome to Dallas where you're actually allowed to carry weapons. (Too soon?) Some of the more notable names being thrown around include Amar'e Stoudemire (pencil him in Cleveland's lineup) and Tyrus Thomas. One deal involving Thomas sends him to Minnesota which makes no sense to me since they already have Kevin Love and Al Jefferson at power forward. Here's another name that was thrown around a couple weeks ago: Monta Ellis. Word from the pot of gold in Boston had the Celtics trading Ray Allen's expiring contract plus some cash and some youngsters for Ellis. That would be a great move for Boston because it makes them a bigger threat in the East. There wouldn't be another tandem as athletic as an Ellis and point guard Rajon Rondo combo, and not one team could keep up: not Cleveland, not Orlando, not no one. If Cleveland can't get Stoudemire and Boston gets Ellis, I'd watch that second round Cleveland/Boston series a little closely because there will be a "Boston in 7" feel to it.
Something else you may want to watch in the East is the Dwight Howard vs. Shaquille O'Neal feud that's brewing. After the last Cleveland/Orlando game, Shaq commented on Dwight Howard's superpowers with his "Superman, my ass" comment. Is the 38-year-old Shaq in Howard's head? Maybe, but Howard should let his performance do the talking. In two games against Shaq, Howard is averaging 15 points and 9 rebounds compared to Shaq's 10 and 5. Round three will happen this weekend in Orlando, so we'll see just how much Shaq really is in Howard's head. No matter what happens between these two in the regular season, playoff time is completely different. Come March and April, who's going to have more of the advantage; the older veteran with the psychological edge or the youngster with the physical edge and the fresher legs? Howard only averaged 22/11 in the Eastern Finals last year against Zydrunas Ilgauskas. There's nothing to lead me to believe he can't be as effective against a guy who's just as old to go along with a lot more pudgy.
P.S. All of this is irrelevant anyway because if Vince Carter doesn't get his 'ess together, Orlando's not going far. Seriously, why did Orlando give up on Hedo Turkoglu? Why give away a guy who averaged 16 points, 5 assists and 5 boards a game, can run the point and be clutch down the stretch? The Magic were a threat last year because with the Nelson-Lee-Turkoglu-Lewis-Howard lineup, Howard could make his moves down low or kick it out to one of four jump shooters. Can the Magic really win with a guy like Vince Carter who is better at creating his own shot, but not the better distributor Turkoglu was?
I'm so fired up about talking about the Eastern Conference now that I'm just going to continue with the big question in the East: Can anyone beat Cleveland? Barring a Stoudemire trade ... yes. If Stoudemire goes to Cleveland, put the Larry O'Brien trophy in a box and just ship it to 1 Center Court, Cleveland, Ohio, 44115. There are two teams in particular that can give Cleveland a run:
Orlando: Obviously because of Howard. I don't think Shaq is in Howard's head as much as he thinks he is, and I don't think Cleveland can beat Orlando with the 1 vs. 5 LeBron James offense they used last year.
Boston: Listen to what I say: If the Celtics pull the trigger and get Monta Ellis, Boston will beat Cleveland in a second round match-up. The Cavs wouldn't be able to match up against a Rondo/Ellis backcourt (as aforementioned) with Pierce, KG and Kendrick Perkins down low. Ellis to Boston makes the green machine relevant again. Instead of going down in six, the Celtics could win in seven.
I can hear the murmurs coming from the A-town. Actually, it's more the sound of a short man yelling "What!?!" at me. With all do respect to Josh Howard and Joe Johnson whom I respect very much, I don't think the Hawks have the firepower. You'll be competitive, and you may just win a game or two. In the end, getting to the NBA Finals is next to impossible. I wouldn't be shocked, but I'm not exactly putting my life savings on it, either.
I am, however, putting my life savings on the Denver Nuggets in the West. Yes, Los Angeles is a short two hour drive north from where I lay my head, and the wrath of Laker Nation could fall on me at any second, but I stand by my statement. Why? The same bug plagues the Lakers like a Windows computer virus: the inability to defend certain elite point guards (e.g. Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Chauncey Billups). This year, opposing point guards score 20.7 points per game which is worse than last year (16.4). That stat doesn't say too much, but combine that with Billups's 22 ppg average against the Lakers as well as J.R. Smith's 23.5, and uh, it could be disappointing in April. Yes. LA got away with it last year, but there's one large difference: Ron Artest is not the dominant defender he once was. He's not guarding Chauncey Billups. He's not guarding J.R. Smith. He's not guarding Carmelo Anthony. Sure, he can try as hard as he likes, but he'll lose more times in those match-ups than he'll win. Why the Lakers let Ariza walk to get Artest will confuse me until the end of time.
Almost 1,400 words later, here's the question: 2010 NBA Finals. Who's playing?
Representing the East will be LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Getting there won't be easy. They'll probably need 14 games to get through Boston and Orlando, but in the end, LeBron won't let this team lose. With the summer of LeBron looming, does LBJ feel he needs to win it now because he's clearly playing like he does.
Representing the West: George Karl's rich, creamy Nuggets. Without Ariza, the Lakers are less athletic than they were last year, and the Nuggets have the guards (Billups-Smith-Lawson) to run the Lakers out of the playoffs. (REMINDER: The Nuggets snapped the Lakers eight-game home winning streak without Carmelo before the All-Star break, so what happens on February 28th when Denver goes to Los Angeles again with when they have all their players strip mining the purple and gold.)
The dream match-up of the 2003 NBA Draft will happen seven years later. Until then, enjoy the last 30 games of the season because there will be plenty to pay attention to -- unless you're a Nets fan.
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