We’re just past midway on the NBA season, and there’s a lot for us to look at.
The big buzz before the season started (like, say, here, here, here, and here) was about the big free-agent moves in the offseason, and whose would pay off the best. We’ve mostly got that figured out now—Rasheed Wallace hasn’t turned the Boston Celtics into 73-game winners, and Vince Carter’s recent slump is making Stan Van Gundy’s face all the redder. On the flip side, Shaquille O’Neal has improbably become a boon to the Cleveland Cavaliers, providing a physical interior defensive presence in limited minutes each game.
Then we had big games to start the season, and some show-stoppers on Christmas day pitting top teams against each other. The Los Angeles Lakers have struggled against the league’s elite, including losing their Christmas showdown to the Cavs. The Atlanta Hawks have had the most tests against league-wide top-6 teams, and while splitting the series with the Denver Nuggets managed to win all three against the Celtics.
The top six teams in the league, at the moment I’m typing this, are Cleveland, LA, Boston, Denver, Atlanta, and Orlando. Hot on the Magic’s heels are the Dallas Mavericks, followed by Portland and San Antonio, but I’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Here’s my mid-season take on each one of those squads, and what we can expect leading up to the playoffs. I’m most interested in each team’s record against the other five, and the impact of their key offseason moves.
Record: 34-11 (.756)
Record against top-6 teams: 5-2 (.714)
Key offseason moves/impact: Shaquille O’Neal/Finally a positive impact, Anthony Parker/Secretly a strong veteran presence.
The Cavaliers have been brewing for a few years; trying to put together the right supporting cast for LeBron, especially since he took the team on his back in 2007 and got them to the Finals by his sheer will. This team seems to have more focus than even last year’s 66-win team. If that can carry into the playoffs, the Cavs will have to be favorites in the East.
The biggest improvement of this team over last year’s is against top competition. Last year’s squad struggled to 3-6 against the Celtics, Magic, and Lakers—but this year’s incarnation is 5-2 against top-6 teams, with the only losses coming to Boston (on opening night) and Denver. The only record close to this is Denver’s 4-1 mark against the top teams. After that, there’s quite a dropoff (see the Lakers, below).
The Cavs’ offseason moves have made major improvements to this team, and they’re still being realized. Shaq was more of a liability than a help early in the season, but he’s started to excel in his role as a complementary player. They’ve run the offense through him at times lately, and it’s been very effective. The quiet acquisition of Anthony Parker, however, has been an immediate boon to the backcourt—here’s a long, tenacious defender, a veteran player, and someone who can fill in whatever position is needed. He’s especially useful now, with Mo Williams out for six weeks and Delonte West missing time with a broken finger.
Outlook: Mo is being missed. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer, and the Cavs are missing some offensive firepower that is sometimes marginal even when he’s there. They might lose a few extra games in the coming weeks, but they’ll be back to full strength for the playoffs. With LeBron doing what he does and a strong Greek chorus behind him, the Cavs are on track for a ring.
Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 33-11 (.750)
Record against top-6 teams: 2-3 (.400)
Key offseason moves/impact: Ron Artest/Not much, really.
The Lakers are the Lakers again this year, and that’s all there is to it. Kobe Bryant is having a slightly down year, which only means he’s not better than LeBron this year. Pau Gasol has been the glue guy—they’re 11-6 when he’s sat out with injuries, and 22-5 when he’s playing.
They’ve got wins over Atlanta and Orlando, but lost both a home and away to King James and the Cavaliers. They’ve also notched a forgivable loss to the Nuggets, coming on the second half of a traveling back-to-back. It’s not a terrible record, but it hints at a lack of focus, and not getting up for big games.
As for Ron Artest? He’s there, he’s shooting the ball, and he’s playing defense, but it’s still tough to say if he’s a huge upgrade over Trevor Ariza (especially given Ariza’s performance with the Rockets). At least we’ve had his interesting falling-down-the-stairs-on-Christmas-day-and-getting-a-concussion story to remind us that he’s there. I’d say that his true mettle will come out in the playoffs, except that Ariza was stellar in last year’s playoffs. Really, we have to say it’s a wash.
Outlook: Even if the Lakers aren’t blowing the roof off like they were supposed to be with adding Artest, they still have the league’s second-best record and have to be considered the favorite to take the West—again. I mean, they have Kobe.
Record: 28-13 (.683)
Record against top-6 teams: 2-4 (.333)
Key offseason moves/impact: Rasheed Wallace/Yeah, that one was probably a mistake.
The Celtics have already taken a couple hits from injuries—Kevin Garnett has missed 11 games, Paul Pierce missed five—but still manage to hold the league’s third-best record. The injuries have been expected, to some extent, given the age of the team, but the team’s success in spite of them must be encouraging to the Boston faithful. The team struggled in last year’s playoffs when KG was out—maybe this is a new team.
Their record against the top six leaves a tremendous amount to be desired, but it’s most thanks to three losses to the impressive Atlanta Hawks (in a matchup Boston hopes to avoid in the playoffs). The Celtics’ wins come over Eastern Conference rivals Cleveland and Orlando, but the opening-night win over the Cavs seems so long ago now that it hardly feels relevant.
Let me go on the record and say that I was struck with fear when I heard that Rasheed Wallace was joining the Celtics in the offseason. In his top days in Detroit he was the league’s best on-ball defender, and his versatility could spread the floor on offense. The reality in Boston, however, is that his rebounding is down, he’s not spending much time in the post, and he’s hoisting up threes at an alarming rate (4.9 per game!) and making them at a terrifyingly-poor rate (29.9%!). The positive is that he was there to fill in for KG when he was out; the negative is that he’s not been a great contributor.
Outlook: The success of this team, just like we all said in the preseason, depends on how many guys can stay healthy. Rajon Rondo is an elite point guard who will take this team as far as he can. They’ve got the talent and veteran leadership to go far in the playoffs, but even if everyone’s on the floor their age is still a question mark.
Record: 29-14 (.674)
Record against top-6 teams: 4-1 (.800)
Key offseason moves/impact: Ty Lawson/Surprising and excellent, Arron Afflalo/I guess he counts, too.
The Denver Nuggets had a breakout season last year, led by Carmelo Anthony and the steady hand of Chauncey Billups. This year’s team is mostly the same, and as the West’s #2 team they’re on track to repeat last year’s success (if you’ve forgotten, they made it as far as Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals). Melo is having a career year, and is second in the league in scoring (behind only LeBron).
Where this team is most remarkable is in its 4-1 record against the other top teams. The lone loss comes to Atlanta, way back on November 7th—and they turned it back on the Hawks with a retaliatory win on December 23rd. When it comes to big games, Chauncey “Mr. Big Shot” Billups keeps this team’s feet on the ground, and consequently they look like a team that won’t fear anyone in the playoffs, even if they’re in purple and gold.
Ty Lawson, as a rookie out of North Carolina, has been a bonus for this team. He’s a point guard, and thus redundant to Billups; all the same, he’s played a bit at the point with Billups moved to shooting guard, and played well. Perhaps more importantly, he played quality minutes to replace Billups when he sat with injuries. Arron Afflalo was acquired in the off-season to replace the outgoing Dahntay Jones, and he’s done exactly that—his defense has been excellent, and according to coach George Karl he continues to improve each week. Is he an upgrade over Jones? Not really, but he’s not a downgrade.
Outlook: All the postseason attention will be on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, but this is a Nuggets team that could steal away the Western Conference.
Record: 28-14 (.667)
Record against top-6 teams: 4-6 (.400)
Key offseason moves/impact: Jamal Crawford/A huge key to this team.
Last year, the Hawks were a much improved team at 47-35, and they took out Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. This year, they’re much improved and on pace for 56 wins. This is a team that has finally found its identity.
They’re also the most tested team in the league. They’ve played the other top teams ten times, and taken four of them. The patterns are clear, too: They won lost two each to Cleveland and Orlando, but won all three against the Celtics. If they get a good draw in the playoffs, they could make real waves.
Acquiring Jamal Crawford from the Golden State Warriors in the offseason was huge for this team. He comes off the bench, and has made his mark as one of the league’s top sixth men—he provides an instant offensive spark, and is second on the team in scoring with 17.3 points per game. This team is otherwise the same team that grew into its britches last year (they resigned Mike Bibby, Zaza Pachulia, and Marvin Williams), and Crawford may be the piece that is pushing them into the league’s upper crust.
Outlook: This team’s success has been primarily built on a talented group of players finally jelling, finally striking the perfect chemistry. I have to imagine they’ll continue to put together strong performances, and at the very least find themselves in the second round of the playoffs again. If they can solve their matchup problems against Orlando or Cleveland, they have the talent to go further.
Record: 29-15 (.659)
Record against top-6 teams: 3-3 (.500)
Key offseason moves/impace: Vince Carter/Oops, Ryan Anderson/A nice addition.
After Orlando manhandled Cleveland in the playoffs last year to make it to the Finals, and especially after their slew of offseason upgrades, I thought they’d be doing better than holding down the sixth-best record in the league. Sixth isn’t bad, clearly, but last year’s team had purpose, had a mission. They’re loaded with talent (Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, and Jameer Nelson form 4/5 of a brutal starting lineup), but they’re paced to win more like 54 games, as opposed to last year’s 59.
Their record against the top teams isn’t really the problem, though, and two of the three losses come against the Lakers and Nuggets out of the West—which tends to be a little less pertinent. They’ve split two with Boston, won both over Atlanta, and lost their only matchup with Cleveland, none of which suggests they’ll flame out early in the playoffs.
Orlando’s biggest problem right now is Vince Carter. He was a big-name pickup in the offseason, but his name does counter-act his career-lowest FG% (.390) and 3-point % (.310). He’s just not exploding on the floor like he used to, and his game is not being the boon to Orlando’s backcourt that they hoped it would be. Ryan Anderson has been providing some nice minutes off the bench, in relief of (and as a clone of) Rashard Lewis. I could also mention Brandon Bass, Matt Barnes (who’s starting), and Jason Williams—they’ve all provided some sort of upgrade in their various spots, but somehow it just hasn’t all turned into wins.
Outlook: I’ve picked on the Magic a bit here, but they’re still a loaded team. As long as they’ve got Dwight Howard in the middle they’ll have a strong presence in the middle, and if they can perfect their high screen and roll like they did in last year’s playoffs they’ll give some teams headaches.