by: Michael Shields
With more than half of the NBA 2013 season behind us, we take a moment to check the pulse of the league…..
The Spurs are the best team in basketball, as of right now that is. A mid-season report, I believe, must begin with the State of the Union in respect to the cream of the crop – and that is surely San Antonio. A brief glimpse of the standings will solidify this statement as the Spurs have more wins than any other team (43), a 3.5 game lead in the West over arguably the second best team in the league (OKC Thunder, who has the second most wins in the league with 39), and an impressive record on the road ((A very telling sign that a team is legitimate or not – anyone can win at home)) (22-10). But let’s get past standings and records and such and dig deeper: Why is San Antonio, one of the oldest teams in the NBA, so good?
I find that two stats, year in and out, help one gauge the superiority of a team. One speaks to defense, which we all know wins championships, and the other tells us which teams share the ball the best. This season the San Antonio Spurs are ranked 9th in total points allowed (95.8 – They conversely are fourth in total points per game with 104.2, that is how you win ballgames.) and are FIRST in assists (25/game). What we can delineate from this information is two crucial points. First, San Antonio plays as a team. They share the rock, looking for the highest percentage shot available ((Pop will always be the most underrated coach in the game in my eyes, an under-appreciated genius.)). Second, they play stingy defense and they do it as a team – as you will hardly hear any of their roster praised for defensive prowess on their own. They are in this together – on both sides of the ball!
San Antonio’s consistency throughout the years is remarkable. Tony Parker is aging like a fine French wine, and every time you begin to utter the words “Tim Duncan is finished…..” you have to pull your foot out of your mouth to continue talking. But they were in a similar position last year. The fact of the matter is that the the road to a title (or even the Finals) goes through Oklahoma ((And let us not forget the LA Clippers – Chris Paul at his peak is as dangerous as it gets. They need to be discussed as true contenders in the West – due to that man alone.)). And to do what they couldn’t do last year San Antonio will need to be healthy, ((In November, mere weeks into the season, Popovich was criticized for sitting his 3 stars in a Nationally televised game vs. the Heat – a unique move but one which proved he is looking out for his players in the long haul.)) but even the Spurs being at the peak of physical wellness may not be enough to get by the Thunder. Could the difference be the absence of Harden? Or the Spurs finally finding a way to slow Durant and Westbrook? Or possibly the impact of San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard – to pick up the slack when The Big Three ((The most overused term in the NBA.)) can’t carry all the weight – gets them over the hump? Whatever the case, something will need to be different, or we can all begin to prepare for Bron v. Durant Part 2!
But we must, if we are to be thorough in discussing the league as a whole immediately following the All-Star break, talk about much more than just the league front-runner. There are countless storylines to consider: Lebron’s dominance, the reeling Lakers, the Knicks as contenders, Damian Lillard – hands down the rookie of the year, etc. etc. etc. So let’s start with Lebron and his Heat, seems as good a place as any….
Lebron James flat out cannot be contained at all this season, particularly as of late. He is on a pace to average over 30 points (on around 70 percent shooting!!! – that doesn’t even make sense.) for the month of February. But it isn’t him alone ((We cannot forget how valuable Wade is to this squad – He’s one of only three players in the league, along with James and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, to be averaging at least 20 points, four rebounds and four assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field.)). The Heat as a whole can be found occupying the No. 1 spot in NBA.com’s points per possession standings, recently displacing the Thunder. The problem, if any, is their defense is floundering some – dropping to 11th in points allowed per possession, and let us not forget what we all know – and what we discussed earlier – defense wins championships. They will have to tighten up on that end of the court if they are to hoist trophies again.
During most of the first half of the season The Knicks looked like a true title contender. Also, during this time period, Carmelo Anthony looked like an MVP candidate and Mike Woodson an ideal choice for Coach of the Year. While all this is still certainly possible the Knicks are reeling some. Going into the All-Star break they lost three of their last four and seemed to have misplaced the team chemistry that made them look so dangerous to start the season. But let’s not hit the panic button just yet – let’s leave that to overzealous NY sportswriters and talking heads. The Knicks are still 2nd in the East, are as deep as the Atlantic Ocean, are shooting 3’s like they are layups all season, can present true matchup problems for the Heat, and have a genuine stud in Melo (averaging 28.3 points for the season.). There is no real reason to count them out as this point. They can contend ((Another possible contender in the East is the surprising Pacers – who embarrassed the Knicks this week to the tune of 125-91. They backed the Heat against the wall in last years playoffs and are a true threat to beat them in this year’s postseason.)).
I won’t spend too much time on the Lakers – too much has already been said. Their problems have been dissected like a frog in high-school biology class and I won’t dig through those remains. Is it shocking that they have played so poorly with the talent they possess and Kobe still doing his thing – absolutely. But I, stubborn Kobe/Nash believer that I am, refuse to count them out. They are 3.5 games out of the 8th and final playoff spot and they would certainly be a dangerous first round matchup for anybody ((I would like to take a moment and say RIP Jerry Buss – your successful run was legendary and you, and your contributions to the league, will not be forgotten. What a loss.)).
One of my personal favorite stories of the year this season has been the emergence of Rookie of the Year frontrunner Damian Lillard. If you are not an avid fan of the league you just muttered under your breath….who? I got you. Damian Lillard went to Weber State University (The same folks that just said who?…just uttered the word where???) in Oregon where he was Big Sky Player of the Year in 2010 and 2012 ((Number 5 scorer in Big Sky history despite missing a year of eligibility.)). Surprisingly to many, he was drafted 6th in the 2012 NBA draft, but has proven why all season long ((On October 31, 2012, in his NBA debut against the Lakers, Lillard recorded 23 points and 11 assists, joining Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas as the only players in NBA history with at least 20 points and 10 assists in their NBA debuts.)). He is averaging 18.4 points per game, 6.4 assists per game, and even 3.2 rebounds per game. He has won Rookie of the Month in October, November, AND December, and this past weekend he won the Skills Challenge at the All-Star game ((It was the first time a rookie won the challenge since its inception in 2003.)). It has been a triumphant start to the season for this young rookie, and also an eye-opening start for a young man’s career. The league is beginning to take notice.
Of course there is much more to discuss when it comes to the NBA’s 2013 campaign – I mean I haven’t even mentioned the name Kyrie Irving ((A blossoming STAR!)), or Paul George ((Possibly the most undervalued player in the entire league!)), or conversed about the Rondo-less Celtics, the Rose-less Bulls staying relevant without their star ((Why is D rose not back yet?, he tore his ACL the same exact day as Shumpert – who is back!?!)), the Brooklyn Nets (whose first season in BK must be looked at as a success thus far), the caliber of food at the Barclay’s Center ((Fatty Cue in the house!)), the wheeling and dealing of Houston’s Daryl Morey ((Just fleeced Sacramento of Thomas Robinson.)), or even Memphis, Denver, Golden State, and the rest of the strong middle pack in the West. But one must draw the line somewhere. And I am willing to wager that the teams I did spend some time with (Heat, OKC, the Knicks, and of course the Spurs) will be the last ones standing come June. June…..wow, that sounds oh so far away….but with the type of high-level action we are seeing thus far, it will be here before we know it.