As the NBA wrapped up the month of December, we were given the opportunity to assemble our first truly meaningful progress report of the season. For all the talk of just how long the NBA season is, 30+ games is generally a large enough sample to determine what to expect from most teams. With about 40% of 2007-08’s regular season games in the books, let’s take a look around the NBA and assess the situation for each NBA team:
Boston Celtics (26-3) - I’d just like to point out that I was in fact correct in my assertion that the Celtics could not continue to win eight out of every nine games- since I made my bold statement they’ve won ten of eleven games. Yeah, it is important to keep some perspective and remember that they’ve only played a little more than a third of the season, but these guys are ridiculously good! They’re 12-2 on the road, 8-0 against the Western Conference, their three losses have been by a combined nine points and they’re winning by an average of almost 14 points per game! Now I’m no Steven A. Smith, but I think that’s pretty good.
Toronto Raptors (17-15) - The Tornto Raptors should really be better than this. With or without T.J. Ford, the Raptors have a wide variety of weapons that they should be able to ride to more than 50 wins in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon have been the team’s only consistent threats in Ford’s absence, although Jason Kapono looks to be hitting his stride in recent games. Continued contributions from him, along with Andrea Bargnani playing as well as he’s capable of (I’m still holding out hope), should help this team mount an impressive run in the new year.
New Jersey Nets (14-16) - Why would anyone sign Vince Carter to a multi-year deal? Haven’t we learned that he only tries when presented with a direct personal incentive to do so? Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson are playing some outstanding ball, but they are going to need more help if this team is going to have any success. One quick side note- if you haven’t watched Sean Williams play yet, do so! This guy is already proving that he’s the steal of the draft, averaging more than 2 blocks per game and giving the Nets a major presence in the paint.
Philadelphia 76ers (14-17) - Ah, the perks of really low expectations. Not very many 14-17 teams would be considered a “pleasant surprise”, but the Sixers, who were pretty much left for dead entering the season, have had more success than anyone expected. They may still be a couple of years away, but there is some hope in Philly. This team has put together a nice young core with Andre Iguodala, Louis Williams and Samuel Dalembert (11.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 2.63 bpg), one of the NBA’s most underrated big men.
New York Knicks (8-21) - Whatever.
Detroit Pistons (24-7) - The Pistons have won fifteen of their last seventeen games, including eleven of twelve since their last home loss (Dec. 7 vs. Chicago). All but two of those fifteen wins have been by double-figures. They are healthy, deep, and experienced - and they are every bit as dominant as the Celtics.
Indiana Pacers (15-17) - The Pacers have gotten some nice early season performances from Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy and Jamaal Tinsley, but their recent four-game losing streak, combined with their inability to win consistently at home (8-9), in the division (1-4) or within the Eastern Conference (8-11) suggests that the party may be over. However, it will likely be some time in March before Indy’s fate is determined, with the #4-13 spots in the East currently separated by just five games.
Cleveland Cavaliers (14-17) - Good news: LeBron James’ finger injury was not serious and he’s back and in top form. More good news: Free agent holdout Anderson Varejao was signed at a very reasonable $11 million for the next two seasons (he has a player option for a third at $6.2 million). Now, a piece of bad news: this team still stinks. Well, maybe they don’t stink (they do still have LeBron), but there is ZERO chance of a return trip to the finals, almost-zero chance of a playoff series win and at least a 50/50 chance of a trip to the lottery. Let’s just accept that last year was a fluke and adjust our expectations for the Cavs down accordingly.
Chicago Bulls (11-18) - Being as horrible as they’ve been these last two months, the Bulls have NO business being just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and 4.5 games out of a home playoff series. Gotta love the Eastern Conference! Even if they do make the playoffs, the firing of Scott Skiles combined with yet another weak start to a season has taken a lot of the luster off of this “budding dynasty.”
Milwaukee Bucks (11-19) - The Bucks have to be considered one of the NBA’s most frustrating teams. After an encouraging 7-4 start to the season, highlighted by wins over the Mavericks and Lakers (and a subsequent win against Orlando), the Bucks have lost an embarrassing fifteen of nineteen game, (including a 45-point thumping in Detroit on December 31). Despite boasting a pretty talented roster, the Bucks’ inability to defend (101.2 ppg allowed) or win on the road (2-15) has them on the fast track for a return trip to the lottery.
Orlando Magic (22-11) - This team looks outstanding! Think about it, Rashard Lewis is Orlando’s third leading scorer- and no one’s complaining! Dwight Howard ’s emergence this year is kinda scary- the guy does absolutely anything he wants on the floor! He’s a skinnier, more nimble Shaq- and he’s only 22! Incredible! By the way, did anyone know Hedo Turkoglu could do this? Seriously, anyone? At less than $7 million per season, he's the biggest non-rookie-contract-bargain in the NBA.
Atlanta Hawks (15-13) - Playoffs? Playoffs?? Yup, you better believe the Atlanta Hawks will be making an appearance in the playoffs. Currently in the #4 spot in the East, the Hawks (who are really fun to watch) have a winning record against the Western Conference (6-4) and have finally managed a semi-respectable road record (5-7).
Washington Wizards (15-14) - With Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison leading the Wiz to a better-than-.500 record without free-agent-to-be Gilbert Arenas, wouldn’t it make sense to trade Agent-Zero rather than pay him? Think about it, for as gifted a player as he is, could you really see a Gilbert Arenas-led team contending for a title?
Charlotte Bobcats (11-18) - Looking over the Bobs’ schedule, it’s amazing just how few quality victories this team has managed this season. If their 1-10 road record wasn’t bad enough, the Bobcats have managed just a single victory against a team currently with a winning record (Nov. 19 vs. Portland)- that’s not very good. You’d think that this team would have an identity by now, but they are little more than a random collection of fairly talented players without any discernable style of play.
Miami Heat (8-23) - It’s so nice to see Shaq in such a happy situation, not complaining about his touches- wait, never mind. Well, at least he ditched Kobe for Dwyane Wade, who is so good, that he by himself could lead the Heat to the playoffs- huh, no good there either. Well, at least Pat Riley is still a genius on the sideline…
Phoenix Suns (22-9) - As good as the Suns are, you almost get the feeling that they’re teetering on the verge of a 2007 Mavericks-style disappointment. While Steve Nash and Leandro Barbosa are as good as ever, but the Suns are missing the offensive spark that’s made them so dominant the past three seasons. Right now, they are pretty much just a really good offensive team that doesn’t play much “D”.
Los Angeles Lakers (19-11) - With Andrew Bynum becoming the best young center in the NBA not named Dwight Howard, not to mention one of the league’s best passing big men, the Lakers are now one of the better all-around teams in the NBA. Don’t look now, but the Kobe Bryant -Bynum- Lamar Odom trio has become about as formidable as almost any in the league. It’ll be interesting to see what the Kobe-haters will find to complain about now- maybe now he’s not scoring enough?
Golden State Warriors (19-13) - These guys are a lot more than last season’s cute “feel good” story. Their outstanding team chemistry, the emergence of Andris Biedrins as a monster on the boards and 4 guys who can hit for 30+ points on any given night make this team one of the league’s most dangerous. Their early-January schedule, with road games in Dallas and Portland, with home games against the Hornets and Spurs in between, will tell us if the Warriors are a real contender in the West.
Sacramento Kings (11-18) - The Kings were fun, hard-working and competitive in the opening weeks of the season, but with both Mike Bibby and Kevin Martin out for lengthy stretches and Ron Artest not only banged up but running his mouth about wanting to play for the Knicks (you gotta be crazy to want to play for the Knicks!), it looks like it may be time to look to next year. Can a total overhaul be far away?
Los Angeles Clippers (10-19) - Watching this team on offense, I find myself constantly asking one question- do these guys have any actual plays? Seriously, it seems like a complete coincidence any time the Clippers get an open look at the basket. These guys really miss Elton Brand! But think of this: if you’re Elton Brand, how big a hurry are you in to join this mess?
San Antonio Spurs (21-8) - When they are healthy, the Spurs are once again the best team in the Western Conference. The problem is they haven’t managed to stay healthy thus far in 2007-08. This is compounded by the fact that the veteran depth that has carried them in years past is now beginning to look a bit old. You think Luis Scola might have been a bit of a help?
New Orleans Hornets (20-11) - With Chris Paul cementing himself as a top-three MVP candidate with every passing game, I’d like to take this opportunity to settle a big preseason debate- yes, Deron Williams is very good, but he’s no Chris Paul. CP3 is special! As for the Hornets, they are much more than just Chris Paul. They are an excellent 14-7 against the Western Conference, with Tyson Chandler and David West also posting All-Star caliber numbers. This is a very dangerous team.
Dallas Mavericks (20-11) - They may not be as dominant as last year, but the Mavs are poised for another outstanding regular season. These guys really ought to pad their record in January, with eight of their first games in 2008 coming against sub-.500 teams. However, the Mavs will also play three very telling games in January, hosting the Pistons and Lakers before closing out the month with a trip to Boston.
Houston Rockets (15-16) - This past offseason, the Houston Rockets ran out of excuses, didn’t they? Yao Ming entered the season rested, the team’s supporting cast was dramatically improved and Jeff Van Gundy was replaced by the offensive-minded Rick Adelman. However, this team is actually further away from contending for a title than they have been in some time. Even with a healthy Tracy McGrady this team was disappointing. Now that he’s banged up (again!), this season may be lost before the All-Star break.
Memphis Grizzlies (8-22) - Man, those 50-win seasons might as well have been a million years ago! It’s obvious that the Grizz won’t be contenders any time soon, and with Pau Gasol healthy and playing fairly well, it may be time to cash in on his remaining trade value, which should still be considerable.
Denver Nuggets (18-12) - As awesome as Allen Iverson (26.3 ppg, 7.1 apg, 2.4 spg), Carmelo Anthony (25.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Marcus Camby (9 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 3.66 bpg) have been, injuries to Kenyon Martin (hamstring) and Nene (thumb) have really eaten away at their depth on the front line. If George Karl can get these two healthy at playoff time, the Nuggets will be a nightmare matchup for anyone in the West. Otherwise, it’s tough to see the Nuggets surviving the first round of the postseason.
Portland Trailblazers (18-13) - So much for mailing in this season and returning to the lottery! The Blazers are young, hard-working, clutch and, thanks to the return of the NBA’s most loyal fans, almost unbeatable at home. As for Brandon Roy, can you think of more than three or four guys you’d rather have taking a big shot? His name should at least be mentioned in any MVP conversation.
Utah Jazz (17-16) - What the hell happened here? Utah’s swan dive from title contender to fringe playoff team in the past month has been absolutely unreal! With fifty games remaining, the Jazz are a safe bet to get back on track, but can they regain enough confidence to make a serious title run? It’s possible, but only if Jerry Sloan can get these guys to perform on the road (6-13 thru December 31).
Seattle Supersonics (9-22) - No one expected Kevin Durant to dominate in the NBA like he did in college, but he doesn't seems to have the same intensity on the boards (4.2 rpg this season vs. 11.1 in 2006-07) or on the defensive end (1.9 spg, 1.9 bpg in 2006-07 vs. .97 spg, 1.17 bpg this season). Now, there’s no denying his offensive talent, but how long can P.J. Carlesimo give him free reign to be a one-dimensional, 40%-shooting volume-scorer? Without a little bit of coaching and a lot more discipline, Durant might not be anything more than a very-good-but-not-great scorer, rather than a legitimate NBA superstar.