Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What we've learned so far, or why the NBA regular season matters

One of the disparaging things that you hear, as an NBA fan (and yes, I know that many of you just grabbed the scroll bar -- hear me out anyway) is that the regular season doesn't matter. You hear this from people who just don't like pro hoop and don't want to just flatly admit it.

This is, of course, bull. The regular season matters a ton, because home court in the playoffs is a big deal, and the record of higher seeds every year proves it. By the time 82 games is up, unless there is some mitigating injury factor, we usually know who the best teams are. They are the ones with the best record.

So in the East, what the first 8 to 12 games have shown is the following:

> Washington has lost any margin for error. Basically, there are two very good teams in the East (Boston and Cleveland), followed by a middle tier that's going to be .500 or better (which describes, gulp, 8 teams right now). By being six under .500 two weeks before Thanksgiving, they've got to play the rest of the year at least 41-33, and probably more like 45-29 to be truly safe. Considering that they aren't likely to get better until the return of Gilbert Arenas (and given how badly Gilbert played last year when attempting to come back from injury, not even then)... well, if you want to stick a fork in them after only eight games, I won't disagree with you. You need bigs to win in this league, and they've got, in the words of Jack Black, squadouche.

> People who think that LeBron James is going to bolt Cleveland to be with a winner need to realize... he's already with a winner. The Cavs are 9-2 after a convincing road win tonight in New Jersey, with their only losses coming on the road in Boston and New Orleans -- and both of those games were in single digits. Beyond 'Bron, they are getting serious production out of their garbagemen (combine Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao, and you get 13 boards and 2 blocks a game in 48 useful minutes), and a clear second option in Mo Williams (15.9 points a game). They still aren't a work of art to watch outside of King James, but they defend well, rebound better, and work people under the table.

It also, of course, doesn't hurt that James is throwing down 30, 8 and 7 every night. Ye gads.

> Orlando's just fine, thanks. When they dropped the first two games, there was the temptation to think that Dwight Howard's bad Olympics and Hedo Turkoglu's ill health was going to take these guys down a peg or three. Eight wins in their last nine fixed that problem, including a three-game road sweep. They still look vulnerable to me for as long as they want to fool themselves with Jameer Nelson at the point, and I'm not sold on them as road warriors. But they're still the best team in the Southeast, even if Atlanta and Miami are better.

> Your Philadelphia 76ers are 5-5 and looking much better than they did a week ago, thanks to a three win in four night streak in Toronto, Indiana, and the lay-up at home over the Cursed Thunder at home. The most intriguing thing is how they are doing it. Your leading scorer is second-year man Thaddeus Young, not Elton Brand or Andre Iguodala. Seven men are in striking range of double figures per game in points per game. They out-rebound the opponents by 8 boards a game while shooting a higher percentage from the field -- and that's a pretty rare combo right there.

There are flaws, of course, and it's a pretty glaring one, in that they don't take care of the ball. But given the turnover in the roster, that's more than understandable. My guess is that we won't really know anything about this team until the usual monster West Coast trip (this year, it's six games from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3), but getting back to .500 fast is a major relief.

In the West...

> Punch the lottery tickets for the Wolves, Cursed Thunder and Clippers already. They are a combined 3-27 (hard to do, Harry), and if you combined the rosters for all of them, you might have a playoff team. But only if you can get Baron Davis to show up and give a damn, and I'm not thinking you will, really.

Honestly, I'd like to find the people who talked about how the Wolves got a good deal in the Garnett trade and hook them up to lie detectors, just to see if they are idiots or morons. Basketball is not baseball; numbers do not exist in a vacuum, and you don't replace a high plus defensive player with a defensive sieve and have it be a zero-sum game. The bigger question is, really... what exactly does Kevin McHale have to do to lose his job? Now that Isiah Thomas is (presumably) being kept in a room with safety scissors and non-effective glue, he's Top Choice for the Guy Who Shouldn't Be Employed...

> The West will regret not burying the Spurs when they had the chance. The old robots are a one-legged stool right now, with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili both out with injuries, but a motivated Tim Duncan is a monstrous thing, and after three wins in five nights (over Houston, then on the road in Sacramento and in Clipland), they are back to .500, with four out of the next six at home. Assuming they'll be .500 or better at the end of that, they'll welcome back Manu and Parker, spend December getting everything settled, and be the team that no one wants to play in May -- especially because everyone but Duncan will have fresh legs, and he's still young enough to handle the minutes.

Remember, if Ginobili's healthy, they really could have stretched the Lakers much more in last year's playoffs, and it's not like they don't have the pedigree. And to think, they were 2-6 just a week ago, and looking like the Warriors '07 choice for the team to be hurt most by a slow start.

> This is a very top-heavy conference -- which is why the Nuggets are still relevant. Only four teams (Utah, Lakers, Suns and Rockets) look all that good to me, though you expect that the Hornets will turn it around any day now. After that, you've got the Blazers, Nuggets and Suns... and your nine-hole team, which last year was a 48-win Warrior club that was wildly entertaining, is going to be a sad-sack Maverick team that just needs to be euthanized.

> George Karl didn't take long to throw Allen Iverson under the bus, did he? I guess the poor boy is just giddy over a road win in Boston, the night after losing in Cleveland. This has left many to follow the logic that Chaunce must be better than AI, and well, OK, what the hell, it's not like the Nugs were doing anything before the trade.

But honestly, just how magical of a creature is AI, to make a very highly paid coach in Karl tolerate so many bad moments? I'm thinking The Answer has hidden Anti-Jedi powers and just enjoys losing. Either that, or George Karl quit on his team like a bitch last year, which, given that there was a whole Internet movement trying to get him pink-slipped last year, strikes me as just a *little* more likely.

(And yes, of course I am defensive about AI, who is, of course, a defensive hole and no one's idea of a great point guard... but for heaven's sake, the man killed himself for you for a year and a half, and didn't say a negative word to anyone. And you just pretty much took a dump on him in public. In the words of the great Ricky Watters, for who? For What?)

Oh, and George? I know you work for a team that won't ever spend money again, and you're probably going to spend maybe one more year twiddling your junk around .500 while collecting your paycheck in a weak division in a watered-down conference. But you might not want to poison the well so much for your successor. He might actually want to attract a free agent that's worth a damn some day, especially when you realize that Chaunce is old, getting older, and wears down very badly by the end of the year...


Anonymous said...

I think we need another 10-15 games before calling Cleveland a "very good team." Of their 9 wins, only 2 have come against teams with winning records. Let's wait a bit and see how they continue. Good team, yes. Very good team, verdict is still out.

DMtShooter said...

Fair enough, but we are talking about a club that was Final 2 two years ago and Final 4 a year ago... and they've gotten better on the personnel. Not seeing the need for skepticism at this point.

Dirty Davey said...

"The bigger question is, really... what exactly does Kevin McHale have to do to lose his job?"

You're assuming McHale works for the Timberwolves. He's actually done really well for the Celtics.

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