- March 5, 2012 – Allen Moll
Now that this lockout shortened 2011-12 NBA season has officially reached the halfway point, what better time to determine the top remaining storylines for the 2nd hald of the season.
We have established that teams like the Heat, Bulls, Thunder and Mavericks are the odds on favorites to make a run at the Bill Russell trophy, but what other teams have pressing needs and which players may be on the move as we reach the March 15th trade deadline?
Many wonder what will be the final destinations for top tier free agents like Dwight Howard and Deron Williams, or could they wind up playing together in Brooklyn for 2012-13. Which fringe teams could surprise as contenders, how big is the impact of Linsanity, and are older teams like San Antonio and Boston past their prime, are all pressing questions to be answered as we finish off the ‘11-’12 campaign.
Check out our Top 10 NBA Storylines for the 2nd half of the season:
With Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the final year of their contracts, Paul Pierce beginning to show his age, along with the constant trade winds swirling around All Star PG Rajon Rondo, I think it’s finally safe to assume that this will be the final season that the Celtics’ fabled “Big 4″ will lace them up together on the same team. With the Celtics sitting at a mediocre 18-17 mark, battling it out for the 7th or 8th spot in the East, GM Danny Ainge will undoubtedly listen to any and all offers in an attempt to improve his roster going forward.
Now that the excitement of the arrival of Jeremy Lin and the onset of Linsanity has cooled a bit with the Miami Heat throttling the 2nd year star just prior to the break, it’s time to see just how well the returning Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire gel with Lin in the starting line-up. Throw in the at times unpredictable JR Smith and Baron Davis into the mix and Coach D’ Antoni may have his hands full with potentially too many stars all looking to get their hands on the rock.
It will be interesting to see just how Melo in particular will adjust to taking a few less shots for the sake of the team. Currently sitting in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, how willing the many stars are so inclined to play defense will ultimately decide if they can contend with Miami and Chicago in the Eastern Conference.
Similarly to the Boston Celtics, the San Antonio Spurs have had quite the run in the Western Conference over the past decade, winning 4 NBA Titles over the past 13 seasons. Undoubtedly, the mainstay of all four championship squads has been the play of 13 time All Star Tim Duncan, who upon retirement will go down as arguably the best power forward in NBA history.
But with the soon to be 36 year old Duncan clearly only a shell of his former self, Coach Popovich surely knows that the Spurs title hopes going forward lie firmly on the shoulders of leading scorer Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. While Parker has proven to be a lightning quick MVP caliber performer, the oft injured Ginobili is the X-factor going forward as he remains San Antonio’s most potent offensive weapon against opposing teams. He’s a guy that opposing defenses game-plan for and his complete and healthy return from his most recent ailment(right oblique strain) will be key as Manu has suited up for only 5 contests in the 2012 calendar year.
Now that the upstart Philadelphia 76ers have cooled a bit after their impressive 20-9 start to the season, many are beginning to wonder if Coach Collins’ group are for real or simply reaping the benefit of having young legs in a shortened season, as most players on the roster are under the age of 28? After losing 7 of their last 10 games in February, Philly has won 2 of 3 after the break to remain in 1st place in the Atlantic Division, 3 games ahead of Boston.
Despite admittedly mediocre stats, Andre Iguodala recieved his first All Star selection, former #2 overall pick Evan Turner showed off his immense skill set in the Rising Stars Game, while leading scorer and super sub Lou Williams is arguably the frontrunner for NBA 6th man of the year award. Upon watching the Sixers, the first thing one notices is the hustle, heart, and hard nosed defensive stylings inherited from their head coach, but in crunch time they have struggled to score with the game on the line and could be maxed out from a talent standpoint.
Many peg 3rd year, improving PG Jrue Holiday as a future star but he’s just not ready to be the go-to-guy. As a result, the Sixers may be one of the most active clubs at the trade deadline as they have been linked to deals involving Monta Ellis, Pau Gasol, Brandon Jennings, Chris Kaman, and even Dwight Howard.
With the arrival of Chris Paul to Los Angeles from the Hornets, many now wonder if the Clippers are a bigger draw than the Lakers. One thing’s for sure is that despite being one of the most fun teams to watch, the Clips are no longer the doormats of the Association, as they are a respectable 21-13 on the season, sitting percentage points ahead of the Lakers for 1st place in the Pacific Division.
Key to “Lob City’s” resurgence has been the play of Paul and 2nd year forward Blake Griffin, who are both worthy as league MVP candidates. Paul is once again among the league leaders in scoring, assists, 3 point shooting, and steals while Griffin ranks Top 10 in points, rebounds, and FGpercentage.
Also playing a vital role in pressing for their first Playoff spot since the ’05-’06 season is the impressive play of big man DeAndre Jordan, the newly acquired Kenyon Martin, and back-up PG Ramon Sessions, who may become expendable once All Star PG Chauncey Billups returns healthy. Is the Clipper Curse finally a thing of the past?
After making a deep run last season to the Eastern Conference Finals and finally adding a viable scoring option alongside league MVP Derrick Rose in Rip Hamilton at SG, many experts felt that the Bulls were the odds on favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Although the Miami Heat have gotten much of the early season publicity, Chicago is keeping their eyes on the prize, comfortably sitting atop the Eastern Conference with an impressive 30-8 record.
One definite area of concern has been the health of Rose, who has missed 10+ games due to what has been termed stiffness in his back. Health in general has to be a sore spot for Coach Thibodeau as Rose, in addition to Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng have all missed significant time during the first half of the season.
At full strength, Chicago remains as potent as any team in the Association, capable of giving elite teams like Miami, Oklahoma City, and Dallas a run for their money in the postseason. With that being said, the Bulls chances of winning the franchise’s 7th World Title, and first without Jordan and Pippen, is greatly diminished without the services of Derrick Rose.
Behind arguably one of the best trios in the Association consisting of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, the OKC Thunder have the Western Conference’s best record. Few teams have found a way to stop, let alone contain, 2 time scoring champion Durant and 2 time All Star Westbrook. Some would argue that the only way to beat OKC is to let them beat themselves……..through unforced turnovers.
While Durant is again Top 3 in scoring and Westbrook remains Top 5 in scoring, assists, and steals, both players also rank among league leaders in turnovers as well, averaging a combined 8 turnovers per game. To put this in perspective, the Philadelphia 76ers as a team average 10.2 per contest.
Even though the Thunder are as athletic as any squad in the Association, taking care of the basketball is a necessity once one gets to postseason play as defensive intensity gets amped up in search of the Bill Russell Trophy. Remember, just to get to the Finals, OKC will have to go through vaunted defensive oriented teams like San Antonio, Dallas, and the LA Lakers.
I truly feel bad for Kobe. His career-long struggle to match his childhood idol Michael Jordan with 6 NBA Titles has almost come to fruition, then his longtime Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson retires and longtime friend and teammate Lamar Odom is unceremonially traded to the rival Dallas Mavericks.
But now as he reaches his mid 30’s, Kobe has shown no signs of slowing down, currently leading the NBA in scoring, even though his Lakers are among the bottom third of the league in offensive production. At a time when the “Black Mamba’s” skills inevitably will begin to decline, more than ever the Lakers success will be determined by Bryant.
Much of the criticism has been focused on Pau Gasol and ageless point guard Derek Fisher. Gasol has already been traded once and the Lakers have been so desperate that they have been rumored to have some interest in signing Gilbert Arenas. While they don’t have many assets to be used as bait, don’t be surprised if GM Mitch Kupcheck somehow becomes a key player in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes.
After once again deferring to less talented teammates in the All Star Game and more recently in an inexcuseable loss to the Utah Jazz, MVP front-runner Lebron James, think it’s time we face the facts that Lebron doesn’t want to be the guy taking the final shot to win or lose the game.
Although he’s universially regarded as the most talented player in the Association, James continues to pass the rock with the game on the line. His 4th quarter shortcomings against Dallas in last year’s NBA Finals have been well documented and it clearly bothers him to constantly be asked questions about it. Yet James continues to play the villain in black, putting up monster stats, as he should become the first player since Jordan to average 27+ppg, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists.
Coach Spoelstra is in a difficult position since it makes little sense to take the ball out of the game’s best player’s hands with the game on the line but unfortunately the Heat’s chances of winning an NBA Title may depend on it……..
Undoubtedly, the top free agent this Summer will be current Orlando Magic big man Dwight Howard. Without giving a firm commitment to Orlando management that he will resign this Summer to remain with the Magic, GM Otis Thorpe may be put in the position of trading their franchise player before the trade deadline or risk losing him for nothing, a la Lebron James in Cleveland two seasons ago.
While Dwight claims to have no favorites as a final destination, the reported front-runners for “Superman” remain the New Jersey Nets, Dallas Mavericks, LA Lakers, and of course Orlando. The outgoing, and often entertaining big man undoubtedly wants to advance his career outside of basketball to the realms of television and movies, where LA and New Jersey are percieved favorites.
After tasting success a few seasons ago in reaching the NBA Finals, another factor in Howard’s final destination is having a chance to win. No doubt being paired alongside fellow free-agent-to-be Deron Williams on the Nets, as they finally make the move to Brooklyn for next season has to be enticing for Howard. But is New York big enough for both Howard and Jeremy Lin?
March 5, 2012 – Check out our Top 10 Storylines for the 2nd half of the NBA Season…….