Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The NBA at the 40% Mark: 10 Things To Know

Pills Are Tasty
Most casual NBA fans don't start paying attention until Christmas Day, which is usually a mistake, given how over 40% of the season is already in the books. The thing about the NBA is that the early season is actually a great predictor for the entire year. So without more ado, here's what we've learned from the season so far.

1) Golden State might (shh!) be better than last year.

Not on defense, of course, and the bench isn't as killing. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston haven't been as effective as last year, and both guys are on the downside of their career; they also miss Mo Speights and, of course, Andrew Bogut. But when they need tough buckets, playoff buckets, half-court and grindy buckets... well, Kevin Durant might be the best guy in the Association to get those points. At least from a percentage standpoint. Dude is also seriously good at defense with the length, too. Oh, and the three other guys they already had that were in the NBA's Top 15 (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) aren't pikers, either.

2) It might not matter.

Cleveland, as the Christmas Day game showed, has no fear of the Dubs, and Peak LeBron stills looks capable of willing his team to victory often enough to make a best of seven fairly crapshooty. It also helps loads when the NBA's refs don't call ridiculously obvious fouls like when he treats the rim like it's the parallel bars, or when his teammates get to foul with impunity at the buzzer. But good teams make their own luck, and after coming back from 3-1 last June, the Cavs don't regard the Dubs as something to be feared. They also seem particularly good at pushing Green's ample buttons, which is something else the NBA seems to be fine with. If you are asking me who'd win today, I honestly have no idea.

3) The East has become a .500 festival of futility.

The current 4th seed (Carolina, as I write this) is 3 games over. The current 12th seed (Orlando) is 3 games under. Orlando is looking better recently, and Carolina blew a game to Brooklyn, who might have the worst roster in the Association. Sure, Boston might become dangerous if they can trade 2 or 3 of their shiny quarters for a dollar, but the league's new CBA is punishing studs in a big way for leaving their draft team, so moving top talent is a non-starter, most of the time. Short of a Boogie Cousins move with Sacramento (and that club is currently the 8th seed in the West, so Boogie's going nowhere for now), dollars are hard to come by.

Which means that the playoffs in the lEast might be entertaining, but no one's beating Cleveland. Not unless James suffers a major injury, or Toronto's guys sell their souls to Krampus.

4) I have no idea what Pat Riley is smoking.

He's got a studdish but injury prone scoring PG in Goran Dragic, who is on the wrong side of 30. He's got one of the best young bigs in the game in C Hassan Whiteside. He's got some young athletic guys who can defend. And that's about it, especially since he peed on the corn flakes of any stud player in the league by dissing Dwyane Wade all the way to Chicago.

If it's my club, I package Dragic for whatever I can get for him (Indy is currently trying to make Monta Ellis work there, and, um, he's not a PG, and never has been) and play the kids until it hurts. But they keep running out rotations as if they were a contender, rather than a club that has to pass 5 clubs just to be the first round speed bump for LeBron. Cut your losses, Riles. The game is passing you by.

5) Jahlil Okafor is showing the world why the game is different now, and will never be the same again.

Oak would have made a ton decades ago, where empty calorie counting bigs were on half of the teams in the league, and casual fans had a devil of a time figuring out who wasn't very good. But now, it's clear to anyone that he's just ten pounds of loss in a five pound bag, and the extraordinary drop that the Sixers endure when he's out there are just obvious. If you can't shoot threes or defend them, and if you also can't defend the rim... well, I don't need to hear about your hands and your passing eye or your post moves, because that's all "how was the play otherwise, Mrs. Lincoln?"

when Oak is on his game, you trade 2s for 3s. when he's not, turn the 2s into 0s. And that's why Sixer Fan chants for Nerlens Noel, because while Double N is a malcontent and injury prone and has cement blocks where his hands should be, he can also close on anyone anywhere, and dunk in traffic. Comps to NN appear on playoff teams; comps to Oak appear in footage that doesn't come in HD.

6) The West isn't nearly as deep as it used to be. 

Houston is, like all Mike D'Antoni teams, a fun fraud. The Clips can't stay healthy. OKC is a one-man band with a bunch of shooters who don't make open jumpers. Memphis and Utah can only win ugly. And that gets us through the top 7 slots, with the 8th currently held by (hee!) Boogie and the Kings. (Portland's been abysmal, and the other bad teams are mostly potential-free, with the possible exception of the Wolves.)

7) Giannis Antetokounmpo is changing the game.

The Bucks' 6'-11" swiss army player is putting up monster numbers as the biggest NBA player to man the point since Magic Johnson, and while he's got a wildly different game than Magic, he's still a revelatory talent. On a Buck club that has been mediocre or worse for most of the last two decades, he's now Must Watch TV, and could be the guy who finally ends LeBron in the East. (Not before, say, 2020.) Plus, the dude is still 22, and as a Greek dude, far from his eventual ceiling, in that he didn't get the immersing AAU childhood experience of survival of the fittest. The numbers put up by this guy just don't compute.

8) Anthony Davis is sliding.

The other day, I saw Joel Embiid just own him for much of a game, and while Embiid is all kinds of great, it was still shocking to see a guy who seemed like the best young big in the world a couple of years ago get turned into Just Another Guy on a non-playoff team. Just pray he doesn't get shipped to Boston.

9) Okafor notwithstanding, ex-Sixers GM Sam Hinkie looks better every day.

That's how good Embiid is, and how much better it is to root for basketball laundry that resembles a game changer, rather than failed hopes. If this translates into actual wins in the second half of the year, when Embiid is slated to playing games with the franchise avoid through the use of his own damned self. Add in the new CBA, and growing your own seems the only thing to do with hoop stars. But being right about much of everything doesn't mean you get another gig right away...

10) The Association is making strides to being the biggest league on the planet.

Sure, the NFL seems like everything, but the plain and simple is that it's nearing its cap with North America as the only real driver of viewership and e-commerce. The NBA is an all continents game, and the social media / use in emerging markets, means that growth isn't anywhere close to capacity. Add in the fact that hoop is a game where the end result of a lifetime of playing isn't severe worries about concussion or debilitating illness, and the CBA that's going to make the game better by ending back to back games at the expense of a preseason that no one watches. So growth won't be a matter of overcoming leadership; it will be a matter of leadership creating the situations for growth.

Bonus: Russell Westbrook will be the MVP,
because OKC is going to win 50 games and he's going to average a triple double. They are also going to lose in the first round, because it's a top-heavy team with no bench or head coach, but that's why the MVP doesn't go after the playoffs, but during...

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