The Second Half Dime
The 10 most intriguing storylines down the stretch.
by Doobie Okon | @doobieSLAM
We’re a few games past the midway point, and because of the incredibly condensed season, the Playoffs are only eight weeks away. Buckle yourselves because it’s most definitely going to be a hell of a ride, even better than the fantastic, fast-paced first half of this NBA year of rejuvenation. Amidst all the craziness, here are the ten stories everyone’s has their eyes on for the rest of the regular season.
1. The Status Of D12
Why is Dwight Howard at the top here? Simple. With one swift trade before the hastily-approaching March 15th deadline, the entire complexion of the League could change. Sure, the Heat and Thunder might still be favorites to reach the NBA Finals, but with so many teams reportedly in the mix for the Orlando center, there are quite a myriad of potential outcomes. Other ‘big threes’ could form. Howard could spearhead a repeat effort in Dallas, team up with the Masked Mamba, make the Lakers the kings of Los Angeles again, turn a horrible team in New Jersey into instant Eastern contenders. At the heart of it, many of us hope Dwight fights this urge to run from the team and organization who drafted him out of high school and whom he has single-handedly built into yearly contenders and defensive stalwarts. Clock is ticking, Superman.
2. The King’s MVP
It’s been a while (approximately 610 days) since I’ve written anything about LeBron James without a facetiously negative, disappointed or unimpressed tone. Rarely do I even call him LeBron James without punning up his name for my own amusement. Hell, now that I think about it, even the penultimate sentence above was probably a subconscious jab at ‘Bron.
However, I’m going to take the following few moments to utterly laud the sheer, incomparable skills he possesses as a basketball player and as an athlete in general. Some of the highlights and stats he’s dropped this season are just mind-numbingly awesome. If you don’t already know, he’s on pace to smash the single-season record for PER (Player Efficiency Rating) set by Wilt in 1962-63 with a mark of 31.84. LeBron currently is rocking a PER of 33.12. That’s just incredible. Combine that with his sheer power and ability to explode at any given moment, offensively and defensively, and he really is the greatest player alive. ESPN is saying it’s a two-man race between ‘Bron and Kevin Durant, and while OKCKD might be my favorite player in the League, it’s not even close. LeBron does it on defense every night. The MVP is a lock.
HOWEVER, even with all this, the pundits are still up in arms about LeBron’s apparent fear of the last shot. And this is how it should be, since he brought that on himself with his promises of eight Miami championships (‘not seven’ was the last one he said, right?). And when you’re the greatest player in the game, you must be the greatest player in the final seconds as well, not just the first 47 minutes. That’s what separates James from Jordan and Kobe, at least right now. Check back when the postseason unravels.
3. An Atlantic Mess
Wow, the Atlantic division. If you think about it for a second, it’s really the only the division that’s completely out of whack. We knew which teams were going to win the Central and Southeast (Chicago and Miami) and which teams were going to finish behind them but move on to the postseason (Indiana, Orlando, Atlanta). Surely OKC would take the Northwest above four very good teams (although Minny’s a story in itself – see below). The Hollywood brothers would fight star power with star power until the bitter end while the Texas two-step would ring on as it always does between San Antonio and Dallas (again Memphis and Houston are stories in themselves– see below).
But if you told me before Christmas that nearly 40 games in, that a) the starless Sixers would have held a padded lead on the division the entire season with a number one ranked defense, b) the Nets, even with probably the second-best point guard in the NBA, would still be worse than the Raptors, c) the Celtics, who can’t decide between looking like a championship squad or a bunch of old, punchless vets half the time, would reportedly be shopping their star point guard and d) an Asian kid out of Harvard whom nobody knew existed in January would be the only thing keeping the loaded New York Knicks three games below .500 and hanging on to the eighth seed in the postseason.
Yup. That’s all happening. But there is plenty of time left, and the Knicks and Celtics are chipping away at Philly’s suddenly slim lead. Should be quite the finish. I honestly have no idea which of the three will end up clinching the Atlantic crown.
4. It’s Lin-ough Already
I’m not making this up, but I’ve had several friends of mine – Knicks fans – admit to me that they’re even annoyed by Linsanity at this point. Not Jeremy Lin the player, but the media craze. It’s just ridiculous. Lin is a very skilled player, this is clear. But is he the savior of New York City basketball and the best point guard since Oscar? No. Not at all. Lin’s been phenomenal so far and I’d be stupid to try and take that away from him, yet it’s only a matter of time before opposing teams adjust and his game and numbers come back to Earth, as they’ve somewhat already been doing the last few contests. However, because of the exposure of NYC, he’ll be a headline the rest of the season, whether warranted or not. The world is certainly watching and nobody can deny that. So the only question is: where does Linsanity go from here? Does he become a feel-good story that fizzles or does he have an actual effect on the Knicks’ championship hopes? Time will tell.
5. An NBA Championship Team From The State Of Oklahoma?
Really? Welp, it’s definitely possible here in 2012. Isn’t it wonderful—I live in a city where championships are rarer than then the most succulent of Ahi tuna steaks, yet within four years of gaining their first ever professional franchise, Oklahoma might very well have a title. Oklahoma. You’re kidding me, right? (I’m just including the four major sports here, so don’t come at me with your Oklahoma Outlaws and your Tulsa Shocks, please). Although I would probably give a clear advantage to Miami in a Finals matchup with OKC, there’s no reason to think the Thunder couldn’t win a seven-game series. It bears repeating that Oklahoma City’s four best players – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka – are 23, 23, 22, and 22, respectively. They may be young, but they gained the all-important experience in last year’s postseason, falling short to the champion Mavericks in a five-game, hard-fought Western Conference Finals.
This season, they’re currently atop the West. Durant, if not for the animal that is LeBron James, would be MVP with the smoothest offensive game maybe the NBA will ever see. Westbrook, for all the knocks on his game (some of them warranted), is still one of the top 10 athletes in the League. Scott Brooks’ group plays way above their age, and although they don’t sport a defense nearly as strong as the Heat, Bulls, Mavs and other contenders, it’s good enough to compliment their offense – all the way to a title.
But these are just regular season storylines, so I guess I’ll just predict that OKC will take the Northwest, and probably the whole conference, rather easily. That was tough. Indeed, the real question is just how good can the Thunder really be? The sky is the limit with this particular Oklahoma organization…and will be for a long, long time.