The Second Half Dime
The 10 most intriguing storylines down the stretch.
6. Battle Los Angeles
What Steve Nash is doing to keep the Suns afloat and fighting for a playoff spot is remarkable, but David Stern is getting exactly what he wanted when he denied the Lakers Chris Paul, who then wound up playing in Staples anyways. The Lakers have fought to finally share the Pacific division lead with the Clips as Kobe, leading the league in points, seems to be declining in age rather than play. Meanwhile, I thought it might take a year or two for all the pieces in Lob City to click, but it seems that they are ready to stake their claim as an elite team in the conference already. CP3 is having an MVP-type year, while Blake Griffin continues to grow into one of the brightest young stars we have. Both teams are players at the trade deadline and things could change mightily within the next week, especially since both squads are suffering through tough stretches at the moment. Either way, they’ll remain neck-and-neck the rest of the season. As of right now, with Kobe determined as ever, Andrew Bynum emerging into the second best center in the League, and a defense that’s much better than Del Negro’s system, I have to give the edge to the Lakers. What a story this has become though – two star-studded teams fighting each other for a title as well as their star-studded home turf.
7. Rookie Sensations
Lots of good rookie play this season, but the Rookie of the Year award is a true two-man race at this point.
I figured Ricky Rubio a big bust, but the 21-year-old Spaniard has proven myself and tons of people wrong by establishing himself as one of the most exciting players in the League already. His unbelievable passing skills are worth going to a TWolves game alone, and it’s not just a show either. His 8.2 assists are good for fifth, tied with one Deron Williams, while he also possesses the size and speed to grow into possibly the best defensive point guard in the League. Rubio is third in the entire NBA in steals (2.23) and is facilitating the League’s eighth best offense. However, the biggest flaws in Rubio’s game are on the offensive side, and they are quite glaring. For all of his dazzling moves, Ricky cannot finish at the rim, and couple that with a horrible outside shot and you get a field goal mark of 35.5%. That is just putrid, and good for dead last in the NBA. In fact, he doesn’t qualify in the category because he’s not even on pace to make 300 field goals. Hopefully, this is something he can drastically improve as his career progresses.
Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, isn’t a perfect player by any means, but the holes in his game are much more subtle than Rubio’s. I always find myself forgetting that Kyrie only played eleven games at Duke last year, which is why the level he’s performing at in his rookie year is all the more impressive. For a 19-year-old, his game is quite polished. His shooting percentages – field-goal (48.3), three-point (41.2) and free-throws (85.9) – are all fantastic while his court vision is also a big strength. Irving doesn’t possess the sheer athleticism of Chris Paul or Derrick Rose, but his pure point guard skills overshadow this ‘flaw’, and he will only continue to get better with experience and a stronger supporting cast.
Rubio’s TWolves are more stacked than Kyrie’s Cavs and have a much better chance to make the Playoffs. If Ricky gets the perennially awful Wolves back to the postseason, he certainly deserves votes for that alone. But you can’t blame the Cavaliers’ roster on the rook, and he’s got Cleveland playing well enough to take home the ROY trophy anyway.
8. South Tennessee by Southwest
Just rolled in from Austin a few days ago, where the SXSW extravaganza will take place next week. The Longhorn State also hosts three teams duking it out for the Southwest division title in the Spurs, Mavs and Rockets. San Antonio and Dallas are great stories for different reasons, but I expected both to finish in the top two spots at season’s end, and still do. Although you could talk about the two veteran organizations ‘til no end—Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki, Gregg Popovich, Lamar Odom, effect of Tyson Chandler’s absence, effect of Tim Duncan’s game at this stage, are some but that come to mind—but both team’s continued success is no surprise.
Houston, though, is a big shocker, since their roster can’t scare anybody, yet they’ve overcome a horrific start to remain only six games behind San Antonio while tied with Minnesota for the eighth seed (the TWolves actually own the tiebreaker). Kyle Lowry is in line for MIP and Houston remains a team that could make a splash at the deadline. However, the Rockets are currently on a five-game skid and if they remain as is, I see them falling just short of the Playoffs despite a respectable run.
Truly though, the story of this division, and the team to really keep your eye on, is the Memphis Grizzlies. Without their star, Zach Randolph, they’re in striking distance of the Spurs and Mavericks, having won five in a row and 11 of their last 13 games to sit at 23-15. Marc Gasol has developed into an All-Star center, while Lionel Hollins has his young squad playing defense at an elite level, only allowing 91.9 points per game. I’ll tell you this, if ZBo returns with enough time to get his best game back before the postseason, the Grizzlies can take out anybody in the West.
9. Dwight-less Deadline Deals
Of course Dwight is the prize of the trade deadline, but other players are on the block as well. It’s hard to speculate on the deals that could take place by March 15th since I wouldn’t be shocked if this particular one passes with no significant moves. On the other hand, this could be one of the craziest deadlines we’ve seen in recent memory…it all depends on which organizations are willing to take certain risks. But here’s the key players, besides Howard, to definitely keep your eye on in the next week: Rajon Rondo, Pau Gasol, Monta Ellis, Michael Beasley, Steve Nash, Chris Kaman, Andrew Bynum, OJ Mayo, Ray Allen, Raymond Felton and Kevin Martin.
10. The Northwest Bubble
It’s only fitting that Selection Sunday is this weekend, since the NBA’s Northwest division seems like a NCAA conference with four teams sitting on the bubble behind a tourney-lock in Oklahoma City. Denver, Minnesota, Portland and Utah are all talented, well-coached squads with legitimate hopes for the postseason and the four are separated by a mere 2.5 games. The Nuggets currently hold the seventh seed and Portland, the worst of the remaining three record-wise, only trails the TWolves and Rockets by 1.5 games for eighth in the West so anything is possible. Before the season is over, the Northwest could host anywhere between one and five playoff teams, which is pretty damn great for the NBA. I see the Nuggets clinching a spot with their ridiculous offense and the Blazers, one of the most disappointing teams of the year, breaking through to the Playoffs with a strong finish. Portland is way better than their pitiful 19-20 record, and I expect Nate McMillan’s bunch to figure out what the hell is wrong before season’s end. I’m rooting for KLove, Ricky and the Wolves, though. How can ya not?