Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Seven things I think I know about the NBA in 2014

Almost 50% Done, Actually
Here's a fun fact for many of you: the NBA season is nearly half over. And the biggest secret of the Association is that, just like you can learn a ton from those first 43 minutes that casual fans ignore, you can also learn a lot from the first half of the season that's also more or less ignored. Here's what I've got.

7) The Sixers are tanking right.

There are, of course, plenty of teams that are tanking wrong, mostly by jerking around the minutes rotation, grinding out every game as if it were an indictment of their coach, and shuffling the deck with short-term trades to try to get out of the depths of the Eastern Conference. (Milwaukee, Hello!) My laundry, on the other hand, are playing kids, insisting on a tempo that will bring in some guys looking to have fun next year, and artificially inflating the counting numbers of guys (Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner) that should not be around for the long term, and might be movable at the deadline to a franchise that doesn't know any better. They are also taking their own sweet time to make very, very sure that all of their players take the court completely healthy -- including and especially rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who makes this team nearly .500 when he's in the lineup. It's all for the good, honestly.

6) Miami could not care less about the regular season.

The record looks fine -- 27-10 -- and no one really thinks they are in any kind of trouble, especially in the East, where the #3 seed might -- might! -- win, oh, 45 games. They won't play a game that matters until the third round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the game but not great Pacers, about four-plus months from now. But it's still hard to watch these guys (a 6.1 points differential is the definition of meh, especially in the East) without seeing all of the playoff games on their legs, or how so many members of the rotation would be completely exposed without LeBron James drawing a double-team, or how much they miss Mike Miller, or how this might look better if they could only get Greg Oden or even a magically motivated Andrew Bynum on the floor. This is no way to three-peat, gentlemen... but it also may be the only way, given the realities of the salary cap and the schedule.

5) The current top eight Western playoff teams really should be the final.

Of those on the outside, you've got Minnesota, Denver and Memphis (see what unwarranted coach firings get you?), and most folks think they'll eventually oust the surprising Suns, or maybe even a Mavs team that has done most of its damage out of the conference. But that assumes that Denver adapts to the morale-killing slowball tempo of new coach Brian Shaw (who has already put Andre Miller and Kenneth Faried off their food), or that Memphis shakes off injury and age to their dominant post players. As for Minny, they are fun as hell to watch, but when your point guard shoots  35% (35%!) from the floor, that stinks, no matter how many assists and steals and highlight reels he makes.

Here's the scariest stat about Ricky Rubio: he shoots it better from outside of the 3-point arc than inside, and he also gets 2.6 steals per game. Which means that the inside the arc numbers are artificially inflated by clear path layups, and that he might be the worst shooting guard in NBA history inside the arc, in half court. I think I can guess the game plan against the Wolves if they ever get in a close game, and it will make the way teams defend Rajon Rondo look subtle.

4) The East is getting better, and it does not matter at all.

Basically, this comes down to Brooklyn and New York getting away from their godawful starts and getting back to the mediocre levels they should have always been at, then stealing one of the first two games in a playoff series against a high seed and terrifying the NBA into thinking that we might have to watch more of them. There's too much home court advantage and money on the bench for these teams to be truly terrible, and they've also got enough veteran cachet to get calls from the refs if they show just a modicum of effort. As for who will fall out, the Bulls are just dying to miss the playoffs, and no one ever lost money betting against Michael Jordan The GM. But in a conference where the Raptors qualify as intriguing just because they made an addition by subtraction deal in getting rid of Rudy Gay, I'm sorry to have made you read the last paragraph. And to have to watch the Eastern Conference Playoffs before the final round.

3) The Spurs aren't going away.

Here's what's gone right for the Spurs so far this year: very little, really. Kawhi Leonard has not taken a leap into superstardom. Danny Green has not become the consistent presence required to keep minutes off Tony Parker's legs. Manu Ginobili has not rediscovered health, youth and vitality. Tiago Splitter still looks like LeBron James ended his world with that Finals block. Boris Diaw is still fat. And if you drafted any Spurs in your fantasy league, you haven't made any real money from them.

Oh, and they are 30-8, and unlike the Clippers, Thunder, Grizzlies and Lakers, have had no real injury issues of note.

The plain and simple fact of the matter is that Gregg Popovich gets more out of his talent than any coach in the NBA, and it's not even close. And that Tim Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are that rarest of basketball player -- the kind that make their teammates better. A lot better.

Whether any of this will translate to a Finals run, or if they can pull one more sleight of hand championship out of their shorts, is a very open question. But for a miracle make by Ray Allen, they'd be the defending champs. And in the hands of a lesser coach, they would be a lottery team.

2) In a down year for Fun, the Warriors are the best show in the league, and maybe more than that.

In the past year, the Nuggets stopped being a fun team to watch. So did the Grizz, who were always more fun as an anomaly, anyway. The Lakers were fun in a train wreck way last year; now, they are just a NBDL team with a tempo coach. The Clips were dunking like mad last year, and now they are lacking Chris Paul, which always kills the party. (Not to slight Darren Collison, who is playing fine, but there's only one CP3.) OKC might be better off for losing Russell Westbrook now, because it's forcing them to give minutes to Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, but that doesn't equate to joy for the eyes. Dwight Howard has had his predictable buzzkill effect on the Rockets. Only the Blazers, who have morphed into a sort of younger Spurs, are more fun than the 2012-13 squad.

And then there's the Dubs, who crush when they have their starting five on the floor, and do so with all kinds of looks, many in the same quarter.

There's still the otherworldly 3-point barrage, which hasn't been hitting as hard as last year, but remains in play to turn any game into Globetrotter Time at any moment. They can thug you with big men, out run you with wing athletes, defend you with Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes, stay effective in transition from big men that can pass and finish, or just shake the rafters off with the best home crowd in the Association. And after a ridiculously long winning streak, they are still looking up at the Clippers in the Pacific, which means they are on the wrong side of the playoff draw. Mostly because along with all of the good stuff, they turn it over like the ball like no one's business.

What can I tell you? I'm a sucker for beautiful ball. And chaos.

1) There is something fundamentally wrong with Cleveland, and they may, well, never be good again until they change ownership.

The Cavs are 13-24 as I write this, with a point differential of -5.7, which means they are probably lucky to be just nine game under .500. They have been more or less healthy, spend their days playing in a division with one actually good team, in a conference with, well, two actually good teams. They have high draft picks all over the roster, a home crowd that marks out for them like nobody's business, and enough raw athletic ability that any number of people thought they'd win 45+ games and contend for a home series this year.

Instead, they snipe at each other, shuffle bodies, hoard the same player (shoot first undersized guards who can't defend, athletic bigs with no mid-range game), fail to bring in the right kind of vets or coaches, and wonder why it's not all better. Oh, and LeBron James was a big jerk for leaving, because he should have just continued to pound his head against the Quicken Loans wall and make pieces like Ancient Jamison and Unspeakably Ancient Shaq, along with Boobie Gibson and Eric Snow, into champions. Honestly, in 20 to 30 years, it's going to be as hard to find a guy who still hates James as it is now to find a guy who still hates Muhammad Ali. (Fun fact: Ali pretty much embraced the heel role for most of his career, because it made him a fantastic amount of money. But I digress.)

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