Thursday, January 26, 2012

Seven things I think I know about the 2012 NBA

Thanks to the sprint schedule from the utterly unnecessary lockout, we're already at a point in the season, just one month in, that team records are really starting to matter. Also, some other trends are beginning to emerge. Here's what I'm seeing so far.

7) The East is better than the West.

At the top level, it's Miami and Chicago with Oklahoma City, so that's 2-1 for the East. On the second level, it's Indy, Philly, Orlando and Atlanta against both LA teams, Denver and San Antonio, and as the points below show, young legs win out. On the bottom level, the East just has fewer godawful teams (really, just Charlotte and Washington, and after Michael Jordan's performance in the lockout, I'd like to see the Hornets lose every game until he's dead), while the West makes the world look at Sacramento, Golden State and New Orleans. It's close, really, but pound for pound, I think the East is better. And that's true for the first time in, well, decades.

6) Clippers-Lakers is the league's next great rivalry.

I've seen all of these games courtesy of NBA TV, and they've been riveting in the extreme. The Lakers are much more of a grit and fingernails team under Mike Brown, especially after giving away Lamar Odom and crippling their bench. (Longest streak under 100 points in 20 years for this club, and now 11-8. Not exactly Showtime.) The Clippers are still figuring themselves out, especially with Chris Paul having injury issues, but Caron Butler looks like his old useful self, and having Chauncey Billups land here has been huge. These teams also have some definitive snarl to them, and the Staples crowd marks out huge for these games. I'd love to see them meet in the playoffs. It would be outstanding ball, and lots of it.

5) Home court means a lot more.

Not so much for crowd noise, which is still entirely hit or miss, but from simple fatigue and player management. If you have a team in the middle of back to backs, or a 3 games in 4 nights string, and the opponent doesn't need every game to keep the coach employed... you can win some games in the league now just from the calendar.

4) Old legs are not good legs.

Look at Dallas, Boston and the Lakers, the three most established teams in the Association -- they just don't look good. At all. Neither does Phoenix, who rely on Steve Nash and Grant Hill, otherwise known as 75+ years of basketball player, for a lot. If you don't have youth in your rotation, rather than just your bench, it's going to cost you for playoff position. Fast.

3) Random absences are common.

I've played fantasy hoop for a decade, and I've never had a year in which my guys have missed more games than this one. The only saving grace? That's true of every other team, too. You get the sense that guys are just taking games off without any kind of stigma now, or just as a precaution from management. It's frustrating, but understandable.

2) The officiating has also suffered.

You might not think that a crunched schedule would matter to the zebras, but it does. I've seen a lot more in the way of choppy play, questionable technicals and iffy flagrant calls, along with the usual assortment of erratic standards and all-star exemptions. I try not to call attention to this because it's pretty hack and not something that's very actionable, and it will probably improve in the playoffs. But for now, it's pretty bad.

1) The game is, somehow, even better.

Maybe I'm just viewing the Association through the happy haze that is my Sixers actually having some hope. Maybe I'm just so happy to have some sports in my life that doesn't devolve around the New York / New England circle jerk. Maybe I just love the fact that things have been shaken up a bit, and that young, deep, athletic and starless teams that get turned into hamburger in the playoffs might actually have a chance this time around.

But independent of all that, consider this fact. Basketball is played on six continents. The NBA is the best basketball league in the world, with the greatest coaching, arenas, rules and officiating. I get that many people like college ball, enjoy young people who seem uncorrupted by money, love the ferocity of the crowds and the excitement of the tournament. But I'll say this: if you like college ball but hate the pros, you don't really like basketball. You just like to root for your team.

I watched a truly terrible Wizards team this week in a Sunday matinee against the Celtics. (It was on before the NFL playoff games.) They were playing for a dead coach walking. They were playing in front of a dead crowd, in a lost season, against a team (Boston) that even their fans will admit is not exactly prone to artistry. And yet I was still into it, because John Wall is oddly fascinating (he does everything, but does he do it in a winning way?), Nick Young is a pure shooter that seems like he might have utility in some role and team, even though he's plainly terrible for them... and Paul Pierce still has more basketball IQ and production out of his talents than anyone else in his generation. I could go on, but won't. And when it got to crunch time? It was hard for me to turn away from it to watch Patriots-Ravens. A playoff game that decided the AFC's rep in the Super Bowl, versus the final minutes of a game between two teams that I really don't care about.

It's a great game. I'm sorry if you don't see it. And the further we get away from the lockout, the better it's going to get. Ball don't lie.

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