A Dime For Your Thoughts
…At midseason, some insights and meaningful matchups.
by Doobie Okon
A few observations as we’re halfway home:
At this point, only two stories coming out of the Eastern conference truly stick out to me and each have nothing to do with the Celtics, Cavaliers or Magic. Well, maybe Orlando just a tad. It’s no surprise where Boston or Cleveland stands right now, but the Magic’s recent subpar play has the Atlanta Hawks poised to snatch the Southeast title away.
Everyone and their mother predicted the three division winners to easily repeat this season. And after the acquisition of Vince Carter, many thought that Orlando had the firepower to even grab the top seed come playoff time. But Atlanta had something to say about that when they posted a sizzling 11-2 start to the season, and although they’ve played considerably worse since (16-12 following a November 20th victory over Houston), they’ve still managed to clip Orlando for the top spot in the division for the time being. This race should go to the end of the season as the Magic can’t seem to get any consistent performance outside of Howard’s staggering defense.
Moreover, Atlanta’s offense is supremely potent this season, especially with Jamal Crawford’s exceptional play off the bench. Crawford, who has never made the playoffs in a nine year career, is providing the Hawks with 17 points in 30 minutes a game and the team is relying on his touch come crunch time. See the Hawks-Suns game last Friday. Ridiculous stuff. Joe Johnson continues his gradual rise through the second tier of NBA stars (21.3 ppg to lead the team) and Josh Smith, Mike Bibby, Al Horford and Marvin Williams all play their respective roles to a tee. Atlanta just screams subtly dangerous squad.
And the second significant story coming out of the East–well, let me just pose a question: Do you know which team has the best home record (18-4) in the conference thus far? That’s right, your very own………Charlotte Bobcats. Larry Brown’s coaching legend is growing even more this season as he has his players at a respectable 21-19, currently good for the fifth seed. Look beyond your skepticism that’s rooted in the mediocrity of the Eastern conference, and you’ll recognize that Charlotte is the NBA’s best defensive team, giving up a league low 92.9 points a game.
What’s unique about the Bobcats though is that their offense ranks 28th and they’re rather horrible on the road (3-15). Basically, Charlotte’s great on ‘D’ and succeeds in front of their fans, but struggles away from Time Warner Cable Arena and can’t score worth a lick. Interesting. Well, defensive efficiency and a solid home record can definitely lift Charlotte to the franchise’s first Postseason appearance, and Stephen Jackson’s presence should keep improving Charlotte’s offense (set a franchise a record with 43 points against the Rockets last Tuesday), but they’re going to have to win some road games in the playoffs if they want to surprise anyone and steal a series. In any case, say what you want about Coach Brown, but he makes winners out of nothing.
Wanna Get Away?
‘Cause if you do, travel about the Southwest, where we have a ‘quintessential’ division race on our hands. Only 5.5 games separate the Mavs, Rockets, Spurs, Grizzlies and Hornets and that’s amazing considering three other divisions have a larger gap between their first and second place squads. Since the NBA realigned to six divisions in 2004, none have come close to the potential scenario of a five-team race that is brewing here.
The Texas trifecta are no surprise to lead the way, but both New Orleans and Memphis have overcome rough starts to their seasons to climb their way back into contention. New Orleans had high expectations in preseason so a 22-19 mark is disappointing, but they’re playing much better of late as Chris Paul continues to dominate the point guard position and David West’s numbers are steadily rising after a poor November. I said back then that the former Xavier Musketeer needed to contribute if the Hornets want to regain their 2008 form.
Meanwhile, the Memphis Grizzlies (I know, I can’t believe it either), are actually quite fun to watch. Zach Randolph is earning those $16,000,000 by putting up 21 and 12, shooting at a 50 percent clip, solely providing much needed veteran leadership to the young guns around him and also by playing the most minutes of his career since his only full season with Portland back in 2003-04. The Grizz certainly know how to score but their defense is standing in their way of a shot at the playoffs. Nonetheless, we’re halfway home and they’re right in the mix.
The Northwest division is also supplying some fireworks as the gap between Denver, Portland, Oklahoma City and Utah is only 3.5 games. And even though the Lakers sit on their ivory tower in the Pacific watching the rest of the league below, the Suns, Kings and Warriors are all capable of offensive explosions on any night. The West reigns, my friends.
Just my quick two cents about All-Star fan voting: CHANGE IT.
Look, I’m the biggest Allen Iverson fan on the map, but there is no way he should be on the All-Star team, let alone a starter. Allen’s made the team every year since 2000 and I understand that a popularity contest dominates fan voting, but it’s just not right. The point of any all-star contest is to highlight that specific season’s best and most deserving players, and although I’m psyched to see AI represent Philly at the All-Star weekend yet again, I would be a hypocrite if I said he ought to be there.
Meanwhile, Tracy McGrady is set to start for the West after playing a walloping 47 total minutes for the Rockets this season. ‘Nuff said. Nothing against AI or T-Mac whatsoever, but fan control over the all stars has become problematic. So I propose a set of rules that can determine if a player is eligible to be an All-Star: maybe the player has to have played in at least half the games of the season and also needs to fall in the top 20 of a significant statistic that relates to one’s position (i.e. top 20 in rebounding for a forward/center). It’s a rough blueprint, but something needs to be done about how we choose the most deserving All-Stars.
Moving onto the dunk contest–I, for one, am very disappointed in LeBron. C’mon King, what is that? How you gonna tease the nation for a year and gradually take back your ‘preliminary’ vow to participate in the dunk competition? I respect LBJ as a player and a person, but he needed to step up here.
James is an amazing physical specimen, so the injury/health concern is not an excuse. Truth? I think he’s scared of losing. I think he’s scared of his image getting tarnished, even just marginally so. It’s the same sort of situation as when LeBron had the video of him dunked on confiscated. He didn’t want to be seen in a bad light, and I can understand that because he strives to be the best every day. His work ethic speaks for itself. People consider him a king. So, for example, I can see why he’s too frustrated to shake anyone’s hand or talk to reporters after the final loss to Orlando in last season’s playoffs. But that annoyed me. And now, this annoys me. He should’ve participated. Nobody would have considered him any less of a player if he lost. The dunk contest is supposed to be fun and showcase the world’s most athletic individuals. Hell, he’d probably win with no preparation anyway. C’mon, ‘Bron.
Making the Homeland Proud
As a son of an Israeli, it’s quite special for me to watch and follow Omri Casspi’s short NBA career so far. I figured it’d be ages before an Israeli-born player would make it to the pros, especially since the three Israeli players who were drafted before Casspi never appeared in an NBA game. Doron Sheffer (Clippers, ’96), Lior Eliyahu (Magic, ’06) and Yotal Halperin (Sonics, ’06) were all second round picks who never saw their dreams materialize. And I’ll admit, I wondered if Casspi would meet the same quiet fate when his name was called last year in New York.
But Casspi is different–he’s made his presence known already. Drafted 23rd overall by Sacramento, the 21-year old rookie is averaging 13 points and five boards in 28 productive minutes per night. More importantly, he’s a significant piece to a young Kings squad who could be on the rise in the next couple of years with studs Kevin Martin and Tyreke Evans leading the way. In any regard, Casspi has certainly justified his presence in the NBA so far and continues to make his homeland proud with every game he’s a part of. Mazel tov, Omri, and keep it up.
LeBron-Kobe: Just Stop
Before Cleveland and L.A. met up on Thursday night, the latest updates for this year’s jersey sales came in, and Lakers, #24 holds the top spot with Cavs, #23 right behind. Surprise to anyone? Of course not. Does Kobe selling the most jerseys mean he’s the most popular player in the league? The best? Does LeBron need a ring before this debate actually becomes legitimate? Is LeBron better because there’s more to his game? All valid questions, and the only solution is to stop asking. Just stop.
This season, above all the rest, proves why there’s no answer to this ongoing debate. At least not now. If LeBron and Kobe had put it in the same number of years and were of similar age, then the question would be easier to analyze. The fact is Kobe’s heading into the twilight years of his prime, well James is merely entering his. And since their ‘primes’ will overlap for only a few more years, the debate is uneven. Both have finished in the top five MVP voting since 2006, right before Kobe v. LeBron became the ultimate $64,000 question. Now, the Lakers and Cavs hold the best records in their respective leagues with the two stars leading the way. Seems only right. Imagine if we got a LBJ-Kobe Finals? The media frenzy would be unprecedented as that series would certainly shed some light onto the question.
And indeed, championships are a key component to the debate, and Kobe’s 4-0 advantage over LBJ in that department would certainly sway many to Bryant’s side. While Kobe detractors would eagerly point out the effect Shaq and Gasol have had, James’ goose egg isn’t helping the argument. Of course, LeBron has yet to share his court with another star and the 2010 Cleveland version of Shaq is way past its own prime. But I do know that if LBJ never gets a ring for whatever reason, he’ll always fall at Kobe’s heels in my eyes.
LeBron’s in his seventh season and he just turned 25. Who knows how much longer he’ll play, who he’ll play with, who he’ll play for, how many rings he’ll attain. And aside from the lack of championships, James’ body of work to this point is unquestionable. This season, he’s posting just under 30 point a night, while setting career highs in assists (7.8), field goal percentage (51.0% – insanity), three-point percentage (35.9%) and free throw percentage (78.2%). His shooting continues to improve in all facets and the consistency of his 28-7-7 career averages is always so impressive. He does more on the court than Kobe can, from all five positions. He’s a triple threat at all times with the most deadly combination of size and speed. LeBron certainly is the ultimate basketball athlete.
But Kobe’s got the hardware. He’s a true winner. After Shaq departed and Bryant’s life fell apart that one fateful Colorado night in 2003, many figured that Kobe career and image were doomed. Six years later and not only is Kobe at the center of the best of the era debate, he’s also drawn countless comparisons to Michael Jordan. And doesn’t it seem like whenever you’re watching SportsCenter, Bryant is always hitting some buzzer beater or game-winning shot? The dude is clutch and I wouldn’t want anyone else holding the rock with the game on the line–including LeBron. Kobe might be 31, but his numbers suggest that his prime could last longer than people expect.
The point is: we’re going to have to wait until both of these magnificent careers are over to really try and decide who was better. Then, we’re free to compare numbers and rings and effects of their supporting casts and everything that goes into this unique argument. For now, Kobe’s got seven more seasons under his belt than James with much more Playoff glory. Can LeBron get over the hump? Will he supplant Kobe as soon as he does? All good questions for the future, so let’s leave it to the future.
Onto the Dime…
1) Lakers at Raptors: Sun, 1/24, 6:00 (ET)
Key Stats: 103.7, the number of points per game for the Raptors, the East’s highest scoring team. 12-1, L.A.’s record against the East this year.
Prediction: Lakers by double digits.
2) Cavs at Heat: Mon, 1/25, 7:30 (ET), National TV: NBA TV
Key Stats: 70, the combined points of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in their first meeting on November 12th in Miami, where Cleveland was victorious. Only a half game separated the two clubs at that point and now Miami is struggling to stay above .500. The two stars should put on a show again, but will it be enough for Wade to stop LBJ and his rolling Cavaliers in their tracks?
Prediction: Cavs are too strong. Cleveland by 4.
3) Hawks at Rockets: Mon, 1/25, 8:30 (ET)
Key Number: 6, as in Sixth Man of the Year candidates Jamal Crawford and Carl Landry go at it in Houston. Both are the second leading scorers on their team and have proven why it’s important that the NBA reward a bench player at all. We’ll see who makes the bigger impact for their team–it might help decide the award winner come April.
Prediction: Hawks take the road win while Crawford has a huge game. Bank on it- Atlanta by 9.
4) Bobcats at Nuggets: Mon, 1/25, 9:00 (ET)
Key Numbers: 9-1, Charlotte’s 2010 record through Thursday, tops in the NBA. Seven of those victories have come against winning teams. 4:13, the amount of time the Bobcats held Carmelo Anthony scoreless at the end of their first matchup on December 8th. Melo was frustrated so much that he picked up a technical in the final minute to help secure the win for the then 9-11 Bobcats, who have played considerably better since.
Prediction: Nuggs avoid the season sweep as they figure out the Bobcats ‘D’. Denver by 7.
5) Jazz at Blazers: Weds, 1/27, 10:00 (ET), National TV: NBA TV
Key Stats: 94.2, points Portland gives up a night, lowest in the West. 2-7, Utah’s divisional record. Although one of those wins came against the Blazers, Utah needs to vastly improve in divisional play since the Northwest is up for grabs.
Prediction: Jazz play an inspired game away from Salt Lake City and win by 7.
6) Celtics at Magic: Thurs, 1/28, 8:00 (ET), National TV: TNT
Key Stats: 9-15, Boston and Orlando’s combined record since their Christmas day matchup at Amway Arena. While both have played piss-poor ball in 2010, the difference is the C’s still hold a substantial lead on the rest of the Atlantic while the Magic are in danger of losing theirs to Atlanta. You can be sure that Howard and co. don’t want to lose both home games against Boston this season.
Prediction: At first I thought Celtics, but I just can’t see Orlando losing twice to Boston on their home floor. Magic by 2.
7) Mavs at Suns: Thurs, 1/28, 10:30 (ET), National TV: TNT
Key Names: Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. There’s just too many numbers. Kidd in his 15th season while Nash is playing in his 13th, yet it seems neither is ready to hand over the torch to Chris Paul and Deron Williams as the two best point guards in the league. Both old-timers are still in the top five in assists year in and year out. Kidd’s played for Phoenix once and Dallas twice, while Nash has played for Dallas once and Phoenix twice. And against his former Suns, Kidd averages 15.4 points a game, his third highest mark against any team, while Nash also gets up against his former Mavericks, with career averages of 16.4 points and 9.1 assists. Both are his highest versus a Western conference opponent. Pretty insane stuff.
Prediction: The Suns are only 11-15 since November and already out of the division race after such a scintillating start to their season. Dallas, meanwhile, continues to ride Dirk’s heroics as they have four teams chasing them in the Southwest. Dallas by 5.
8) Grizzlies at Spurs: Fri, 1/29, 8:30 (ET)
Key Number: 15, double-doubles for Zach Randolph in his last 17 games, where the Grizz have gone 12-5 including a victory over San Antonio last week. Memphis’ playoff hopes hinge on the broad shoulders of their rejuvenated power forward.
Prediction: Really tough game for the Grizzlies on the road. They’re only 2-3 against their division, but the W’s came against the Spurs and Mavs and you can tell Memphis is hungry. Grizzlies with a gigantic road victory.
9) Hawks at Magic: Sat, 1/30, 7:00 (ET), National TV: NBA TV
Key Number: 1/2. What else can you say? At least for now, a 1/2 game is all that separates the two for the top spot in Southeast. This game isn’t until Saturday and both squads play four more games before then, so the gap may grow in favor of one team, but its still a huge divisional game anyway you look at it.
Prediction: Orlando may have a 2-0 advantage over Atlanta in the season series, but the Hawks are playing much better of late while Orlando has struggled for almost a month. Atlanta is 6-2 in its last eight but one of those losses came against Orlando, and I think the Magic prevail again at home by 8.
10) Hornets at Grizzlies: Sat, 1/30, 8:00 (ET)
Key Stats: 1-8, how Memphis began their season. 3-8, how New Orleans began theirs. 15-6, their combined record in 2010. 1.5, games back are both teams behind the Jazz for the 8th seed. And finally, 113-111, the final score of the January 20th game between New Orleans and Memphis, where the Hornets’ furious fourth quarter comeback tied them tied up with the Grizzlies in the standings at 22-19. Both teams have drastically improved after wretched starts and now have serious Playoff aspirations as we head towards the stretch. When was the last time a Hornets-Grizzlies game was so meaningful?
Prediction: The Hornets beat Memphis for the second time in ten days. New Orleans is just a better team when they’re fully healthy even with Randolph playing out of his mind.