by: Michael Shields
Across the Margin checks in on the State of the NBA at the 2014-2015 season’s midway mark…..
I am a fan of one of the two teams in the Atlantic Division that have failed to win even ten games so far this season. This being the case, when I tune in to watch my favorite team it has more often than not been a bloodbath. Having tendencies that some would describe as masochistic, I fail to turn away. I am not the sort of person that abandons my squad, whether they deserve it or not. Compounding this issue is the fact that almost the entire division is in turmoil (Not you Toronoto – keep doing you!). Time and again the team my boys are playing share their inability to put a decent product on the floor as all these franchises are focusing on “rebuilding,” which likens the action on the hardwood to a sort of tire fire that burns with putrid ferocity. These are tough times for once-proud franchises like the Boston Celtics, the New York Knicks, and the Philadelphia 76ers. But this malignancy has not corrupted the entirety of the NBA. Fortuitously, the action outside of the Atlantic Division is as hot as the carolina reaper pepper (went to Guinness for that one, hottest on record!), and the drama around the NBA is thick and enticing as we approach the midway point in this 2014-2015 NBA regular season.
Yes, the NBA is in fine form, on many levels. A recent report release by Forbes detailed the fact that the franchise values of NBA teams rose an average of seventy-two percent just this year. Last year, there were only three teams valued over one billion dollars (the Knicks, the Lakers, and the Bulls). But this year Forbes says those three teams are worth at least two billion and eight other teams are worth more than one billion ((The Celtics, the Clippers, the Nets, the Warriors, the Rockets, the Heat, and the Mavericks.)). But the financial worth of NBA teams are only of periphery concerns to NBA enthusiasts. It is what is happening between the lines and throughout the country in even the smallest of NBA markets that is uncanny and of certain interest. The NBA, in this unique and remarkable moment in time, is exhibiting the defining characteristic of a healthy, thriving, and profoundly entertaining professional sports league – parity.
Possibly, all this uniformity is just an allusion. Maybe King James is just getting his feet wet in Cleveland and when he finally immerses himself fully, the Cavaliers will become what many thought they would be to commence the season. And maybe the Spurs are taking it easy during the regular season. It might be the case that they are far better than the fourth best team in their division, and they are simply resting their weary, aged legs for the Playoffs where they will wittingly put their foot on the gas and remind us that they are the one who knocks. They are the danger. And maybe the Thunder, with the Durantula now back at full strength, are finally ready to take that next step. But for now, the list of teams that seem poised for a legitimate title run is bountiful. It’s a cup overflowing with contenders, some perpetual and a few that may surprise you. With that in mind, I can think of nowhere better to start than in The ATL – with one of the most pleasant of all surprises….
It would be easy to simply focus on the brilliant play of Jeff Teague when speaking of the resurgent Hawks, as he has been, in a word, tremendous. Teague is scoring 17.5 points per game with 7.2 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals while making everyone around him better. He has become a disciplined defender and an astounding playmaker. Teague is a sure-fire All-Star. But what’s remarkable, I am not so sure that three of his teammates shouldn’t be All-Stars either, in Paul Millsap, Al Horford, and Kyle Korver. What has happened in Atlanta – and the reason why what is happening there is not some flash in the pan – is that the man at the helm of this finely-tuned machine is one Mike Budenholzer. Coach Budenholzer spent nineteen years under the incomparable Gregg Popovich, and the Spurs organization was not pleased when he decided to head to Hotlanta. They saw him as the future, Pop’s eventual replacement, and now we can see why. The Hawks play selfless, team ball. They move the rock with zest, and they are now doing something that they haven’t before – assertively playing defense. It’s going down in Atlanta. Buckhead could be jumping come June. Hootie-hoo!
The Washington Wizards are the cream of the crop in terms of DC sports franchises. While maybe not the loftiest of accolades at this juncture, a force has awoken in DC. Let us not forget that the Wiz reached the Eastern Conference semifinals a season ago, and this year at 28-14 they are exceeding expectations. John Wall’s name has appropriately been cast into the ring of MVP contenders, and while at times he can be a prolific scorer (17 ppg) he is undoubtedly one of the best passers in the league (10 apg). Now aided by the veteran leadership of Paul “The Truth” Pearce (who still somehow has some gas in the tank) and with an excellent supporting cast in Marcin Gortat, Bradley Beal, and Nene Hilario, Wall’s Wizards are one of the most thrilling teams in not just the East, but the entire NBA. And now, DC’s native son and Wizard’s creative liaison Wale has enlisted Kanye West to help in designing new uniforms for the team. With Yeezus as their co-pilot, the Wizards are Bound 2 (see what I did there!), make some noise come playoffs.
For years, legions of Bulls fans hailed Derrick Rose as the team’s savior, the chosen one with stupendous talents who would assuredly restore glory to the franchise. Shockingly, that sort of adoration is now showered upon the most improved player in the league this year, Jimmy Butler. Butler has blossomed into one of the best offensive players in the league and is all but a lock to make the All-Star Team. His season has been so awe-inspiring that teams have already began salivating over the notion of signing him as a free agent at the season’s conclude (specifically the Lakers). But things are far from perfect in Chicago, as a loss to Cleveland earlier this week prompted Rose to express how “fucking irritating” his team’s unwillingness to compete has been all month. They have now lost six of their last eight, and with the Spurs arriving in town tonight it doesn’t get any easier. But counting the Bulls out as true contenders in the East would be absurd, as ludicrous as that fake-ass baby in the propaganda film, American Sniper ((Thank you to Tommy Rau for sharing his infinite wisdon concerning his Chicago Bulls.)).
I have been watching a great deal of Broad City as of late. It’s funny as all hell. But I cannot help but wondering if people outside of New York City understand all the nuances. There is such a great resplendence of local humor that seems to cater only to seasoned Big Apple vets, that I can’t help but speculate on its reception in states with a more Boehner-esque hue. In this light, I wonder if casual NBA fans outside of Toronto realize just how exciting of a thing is occurring north of the border. Now it can easily be reasoned that the Raptors have the advantage of stockpiling wins in the easiest division in the league. While this is true, this is only half the story. The other half tells of a team that everyone expected to be liquidated for draft picks, young players and salary-cap space who instead rallied behind a fierce six-foot point guard in former Villanova standout Kyle Lowry (19.8 ppg, 7.5 apg) to become one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. Lou Williams has emerged as a deadly weapon off the bench, the front-runner for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year, and with a healthy DeMarcus DeRozan ((Who has struggled in his last two games, being held scoreless in Toronto’s win Monday over Milwaukee, and compiling a mere six points last night verses Memphis on 2-of-11 shooting.)), Toronto is poised to make even casual fans take note of the happenings in The 416!
While Kevin Love and David Blatt are taking most of the heat for an impotent start to the season, let’s get down to the brass tax. Let’s expeditiously find our way to the heart of the matter. Let’s call a motherfucking spade a spade. What has been wrong with the Cleveland Cavaliers is that they thought they were bringing the best player on the planet back home – and Lebron has been anything but. I could bombard you with YouTube clips of Bron slacking on defense, or one’s that display a diminished explosiveness on offense, but just take my word for it – something’s off. One can easily hypothesize that Bron is saving his best for the home stretch of the season, and if so this could be trouble for the rest of the league. Because although he doesn’t resemble anything near the best player in the league, rest assured – he is!
“They aren’t that good,” a confident James Harden was quoted as saying before this past Saturday’s Warriors – Rockets game in Houston. That evening the Warriors responded with a 131-106 thumping of Harden’s Rockets. And not to be outdone, last night in Oakland the Warriors beat the Rockets again 126-113 on way to their seventeenth straight home win. In truth, the Warriors are that good, led by MVP candidate Stephen Curry, an offensive beast who is the only player in the NBA in the top ten in scoring (23.2 ppg) and assists (8 apg). But offense has never been the problem in Oakland, as the Splash Brothers (the affectionate nickname of the sharp-shooting backcourt of the Warriors, Curry and Klay Thompson) can light it up. But now first year coach Steve Kerr has them playing with intensity on both ends of the court, which fashions a team that was simply good into a true title contender. Curry and Thompson stood shoulder to shoulder this past Summer in Spain as they collected gold medals in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. The way they are playing this season makes one wonder if more hardware may be in their future.
I have some beef with Damian Lillard. If I were to come face to face with this silky-smooth, fiery young man I would have a grievance to air. Because of Damian Lillard’s prodigious talents, I find myself obliged to take in the West Coast late games, Portland in particular (and GS), in their entirety. If the Blazers are on, I’m watching – it’s as simple as that. Be damned the responsibilities that await me come dawn. So how has a 6’ 3” point guard out of Weber State become one of my favorite players in the league? Well, it’s certainly because of plays such as this, and ones like this. At 24, Lillard is already one of the league’s best closers, one of the league’s best point guards, and he appears to have that certain intangible, that fire that burns like a smoldering calderon within, that shows he has what it takes to be a true winner in this punishing league. And oh yeah, his teammates aren’t so bad either, particularly a guy named LaMarcus Aldridge.
It’s fun to think about the most exciting teams in the league, many who we have already spoke of, and the engines that run them. The level of point guard play in the NBA right now is just stupid. Wall, Lillard, Teague, Paul, Harden, Curry, Bledsoe, etc – just stupid! And Michael Conley, the offensive ringleader on one of the league’s best teams, belongs in this class. The Grizz are now 30-12, with Conley averaging 17.9 points and 5.9 assists per game. His play has kept Memphis afloat while Zach Randolph missed nine games in December and January with pain and swelling in his right knee. Well Zach is back! – and now has a double-double in seven straight games. The Grizz are close and they know it. Resting not on their laurels, they went out and acquired Jeff Green from the Celtics to shore up their mammoth front court, who in tandem with a healthy Marc Gasol (who is having a brilliant season and has Conley’s back!) have the Grizz in first place in the cutthroat Southwest conference.
Three words come immediately to mind when discussing the Houston Rockets, and those words are, ‘Fear the Beard’. James Harden is, along with Stephen Curry, one of the most lethal and unstoppable offensive weapons in the league. He is leading the league in scoring (27.3 ppg) and has put up forty or more points on four separate occasions this season. Impressively, Harden has led the Rockets to a 29-14 record despite extended absences from elite center Dwight Howard and starting power forward Terrence Jones. Unbeknownst to many, Harden has even become a more conscientious defender (his achilles-heel), a presumable result of his time working with Team USA coach Tom Thibodeau back in August. If Harden is able to maintain this level of play, the Rockets are not going to be an easy out come the Playoffs. And if you want to see an elite NBA player performing at the absolute peak of his ability – tune into Harden and the Rockets. It’s exhilarating. Fear the Beard.
Los Angeles Clippers
I wasn’t so sure about the Clippers as this season got underway. I questioned their defensive ability and their blatant incapacity to keep an opponent under one hundred points per game. I questioned their ability to win on the road and, in that vein, continually compete with the best in the West. But last week, in a 100-94 win over the Trailblazers on the road, I finally became impressed. Chris Paul while valiant offensively all evening, shined defensively, aggressively menacing Damian Lillard holding him to 15 points on five of sixteen shooting. Jamal Crawford was unconscious from the field, compiling 25 points, and Blake and DeAndre Jordan played with passion. I understand this was simply just a “meaningless” game in January, but it showed grit. And it takes grit to be a champion. True grit.
Mark Cuban might rub some the wrong way, but the fashion in which he runs his team is undeniably admirable.. There are no off seasons in Mark’s world, no rebuilding seasons or tanking for draft picks. He understands the window to win with a generational talent such as Dirk Nowitzki is closing, and he isn’t letting that ship go down without a fight. Enter Rajon Rondo, acquired from the Celtics for a trio of players in late December. Rondo, perennially one of the league’s best playmakers, joins an already stacked starting five with Monta Ellis, Tyson Chandler, and Chandler Parsons. The Mavericks are 30-13, and although it might take some time for Rondo to mesh, teams in the West should be concerned when that occurs. Mark Cuban, always with his foot on the gas, always keeping the Mavs in the mix, is my type of owner, one that wants to win, and win now.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Staying afloat without one of the best players in the league isn’t easy, but that is just what the Thunder managed to do while Kevin Durant healed from a broken right foot (a Jones fracture?). The Thunder treaded enough water so that now, after a Durantula-inspired resurgence, they are finally above .500 and playing exhilarating ball as exhibited by last night’s 105-103 overtime win over the Wizards. Although Kevin is back, and Westbrook is attacking the basket with his patented ferocity, the Thunder are still are a few pieces away from being a true threat, and even making the Playoffs in a loaded West is not promised. The recently-acquired Dion Waters is an interesting addition, and word on the street tells of a genuine interest in obtaining oft-injured Brooks Lopez from the Nets. But hardcore fans of the league cannot help but scoff at the idea that Waiters and Lopez are the answer, to any question frankly, and left wondering if this would be enough. Regardless, with Kevin, anything is possible.
Admittedly, the Suns are a bit out of their league here, on a list of the genuine true players. But I would be damned if we didn’t spend a minute on Jeff Hornacek’s lissome brand of basketball. Hornacek’s Suns push the ball at breakneck speed, and are deep enough to do just that all game long. The team features one of the most exciting backcourts in the league in Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isiah Thomas (who comes off the bench!), while Alex Len is having an impressive sophomore season, holding down the paint and allowing the Suns to go small (and fast) at the other four positions. Maybe I am discounting the Suns a bit, who are coming off a win last night versus the Blazers, and have compiled an impressive 26-18 record, but it will be interesting to see how they fare in the battle for the last couple of Playoff spots. I for one will be watching.
San Antonio Spurs
Coach Popovich has little to prove anymore. He’s as good a coach as any I have seen, in any sport, and because of this, it is impossible to ever count the San Antonio Spurs out of title consideration. Sure, they have sputtered some out the gate, but that can surely be attributed to a prolonged absence of 2014s Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (the Spurs were 9 and 9 without him). Leonard appears to be the difference in the Spurs competing for titles or degenerating into an aged, lowly has-been. Since he has returned, the Spurs are undefeated, posting double-digit wins over Denver, Utah, and Portland. And Kawhi is still getting his groove back, shooting only forty-two percent from the field since returning. But like I said, doubting Popovich and the Spurs is a fool’s errand. I can almost hear Pop, like Barry at the State of The Union, proudly exclaiming, “I have no campaigns to run, and I should know, I’ve already won five!”
When I was a young up-and-coming NBA addict, there were basically five teams the casual fan was aware of. Those were the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Detroit Pistons, and the Boston Celtics ((The NBA Playoffs with no Celtics, no Lakers, and no Knicks for the second year in a row is mind-blowing!)). Incredibly, four of those five teams find themselves in various forms of disarray presently. What’s so interesting about this season, is those juggernaut franchises are hardly missed due to the outstanding competitiveness displayed throughout the rest of the league. This 2014-2015 campaign feels different. It feels as if a tide is turning. With so many teams competing for a title, and so many of them not your typical stalwarts, we find ourselves with the luxury of relishing in intense and alluring NBA action on any given night, in any given city. It’s a marvelous time to be an NBA fan, and as unbelievable as it is that the league hasn’t skipped a beat without the Lakeshow and the Celtics and the like – it emphatically hasn’t. As we quickly approach this season’s All-Star break the league is, as I stated earlier, in fine form!
ATM Mid-Season Awards
Most Valuable Player(s) – Stephen Curry / James Harden
Rookie of the Year – Andrew Wiggins
Most Improved Player – Jimmy Butler (landslide)
Defensive Player of the Year – Draymond Green (one must see it to believe it!)