With the All-Star Break now in the rear-view mirror, the NBA now begins it’s two-month sprint to the finish line, as the Playoff Picture becomes more and more clear. Due to the impact of Free Agency, a bevy of trades, coaching changes, and a rash of injuries, the league hasn’t experienced this much parity in ages. The old guard of the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Pacers, and Heat have fallen by the wayside to make room for upstarts such as the Hawks, Warriors, Wizards, and Grizzlies to flourish, while the Cavaliers return to relevance with the return of some dude named LeBron James. This is Money Time, folks. The time when contenders begin to reveal their true nature, while those trending towards the cellar throw in the towel in hopes of improving their odds in the Draft Lottery. With the Trade Deadline quickly approaching this Thursday, which of these alleged contenders will make the requisite changes to fortify their respective ship? Who in fact is buying, and who is selling the farm? Either way, it should make for riveting entertainment as we barrel head-on towards the Playoffs…
As has been the case for over a decade now, the league’s power brokers continue to lie almost exclusively in the Western Conference, with the dichotomy between the two conferences being totally unbalanced for the second consecutive season. Just take a look at the Phoenix Suns for instance; after missing out on the postseason despite accumulating a 48-34 record, the Suns are currently clinging to the final Playoff Seed out West at 29-25. Had they called the Eastern Conference home, Phoenix would have been the Third Seed last season, and would have the Seventh Seed in their grasp this year. At the top of the mountain sit the Golden State Warriors, who at 42-9 own the league best record; First-year Head Coach has unlocked the untapped potential of this unit, morphing them into a legitimate powerhouse on both ends of the court, with both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson comprising the most lethal tandem of sharpshooters in recent memory. Not far behind them are the Memphis Grizzlies (39-14) and Portland Trailblazers (36-17), with the Houston Rockets (36-17) also in the mix. Oh, and the San Antonio Spurs (34-19) continue to simply bide their time, laying in wait at the Seventh Seed, no doubt plotting another second-half run to propel them towards defense of their NBA Title. With that said, arguably the most interesting facet of this race is the ninth-place Oklahoma City Thunder (28-25), who could very well end up being the most dangerous Eight Seed in Basketball History. Due to injuries to the likes of Superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder haven’t had the luxury of playing with their full complement of players for anything close to a prolonged period thus far, but after a stellar All-Star Game performance from Westbrook (41 points), and the return of a healthy Durant (foot) there may be enough time yet for these contenders to ascend the pecking order out West. Just think about it folks; the prospect of a First Round Series pitting the Warriors against the Thunder in a Seven-Game Set is absolutely tantalizing entertainment, not to mention any of the other potential matchups.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference continues to play the role of Little Brother to the West, though in many respects it hasn’t been this exciting in years after various Offseason moves have turned the traditional hierarchy on it’s head. Sitting atop the East are the surprising Atlanta Hawks, who at 43-11 legitimately challenge for the best record in the league. In his second season at the helm, Mike Budenholzer is a shoe-in to earn Coach of the Year honors, turning a middling Eastern Conference squad into a force to be reckoned with. At one point, his charges ran through the month of January like a hot knife through a stick of butter, amassing a perfect 17-0 record, the first time that has been done in NBA history. In a league where teams are so dependent on stars, the Hawks have bucked that trend; all five starters average in double digits, with none scoring over 16.8, despite a quartet consisting of Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Al Horford, and Jeff Teague all earnings selections to the All-Star Game. Hot on their heels are a number of upstarts including the Washington Wizards (33-21), Chicago Bulls (34-20), and Toronto Raptors (36-17). In the Nation’s Captial, the young tandem of John Wall and Bradley Beal continue to mature, while North of the border, the deep Raptors have the look of a dark horse contender, and in the Windy City, the Bulls have climbed back towards the top of the mountain on the strength of the acquisition of Pau Gasol and the return of a healthy Derrick Rose. Oh, and did we fail to mention the Cleveland Cavaliers? It was a rough few months to start the season for LeBron James and Co. in his second stint in Cleveland, but some savvy transactions coupled with better chemistry and a return to health have the Cavs propelled towards the top of the East. Winners of fourteen of their final sixteen heading into the All-Star Break, James, Kyrie Irving, and the gang remain just 1.5 games out of the third seed in the East.
However, it looks to be a virtual certainty that for the second consecutive season neither the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, or Boston Celtics will qualify for the Playoffs. Last year marked the first occurrence since the NBA/ABA Merger that all three hallowed franchises failed to advance to the postseason, and as they each continue to wade through dramatic rebuilding projects, it could a long while before we see them playing basketball again in May. With a combined thirty-five NBA Championships to their credit, it’s a real shame to see these franchises so synonymous with success struggle so; today, the Lakers, Celtics, and Knicks are a pitiful 53-114, with Los Angeles and New York languishing in last place in their divisions. In a he case of the Lakers, the franchise remains stuck in limbo as Kobe Bryant plays out the end of his mammoth contract,while Byron Scott attempts to make lemonade out of a group of subpar lemons. In the Big Apple, the arrival of Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher turned the Knicks into a laughingstock at the moment, as thee franchise looks to figuratively “take it’s medicine” so that they can emerge with a clean slate in the Summer. Ironically, the Celtics are the furthest along in thier rebuild, embracing the Youth Movement concept, while trying to acquire as many draft picks as they can along the way. All three teams have chosen to essentially let the current campaign go to waste, as they turn their collective eyes to Free Agency in the next two Summers, in hopes that their respectively sizable cap space will allow them to spend lavishly on superstars. After all, with the NBA’s Salary Cap expected to rise nearly sixteen million over the next two years, these perennial powerhouses sit poised for a spending spree.
To the delight of many, there have been a number is players to raise their respective games to the next level, emerging as new stars of today and torchbearers of tomorrow. Coinciding with the Warriors’ success has been the meteoric rise of Stephen Curry, who has developed into a bonafide MVP candidate this season. It’s all coming together for the sharpshooting Point Guard, after balancing his sweet stroke with the handles and decision-making skills of a hardened floor general. Averaging 23.6 points on 48.1% shooting for the top seed in the wild Western Conference is impressive enough, but career-highs in both rebounds (4.7) and steals (2.2) show that the sixth-year veteran is becoming a force on both ends of the floor, while shooting a career-best 55.3% from inside the three-point arc goes a long way towards dispelling the myth that he is only a sharpshooter. And then there is James Harden, who has lifted the Houston Rockets upon his shoulders in the wake of a knee injury to teammate Dwight Howard (more on him in a bit). The bearded Shooting Guard currently paces the league at 27.4 points per game, while also rounding out his game considerably on both ends of the court; Harden has enjoyed career-bests in rebounds (5.7), assists (6.8), and steals (2.0), proving that he can in fact play defense when engaged. Lastly, how could we leave out Anthony Davis, who has become a statistical anomaly of the highest order? In just his third campaign, the hyper-athletic 6-10 big man has put together some truly dominant performances thus far this season; a 26-point, 17-rebound, 9-block show served as his coming out party in the season opener, with a 43-point, 14-rebound outburst nearly a month afterward. Averaging 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and a league-high 2.7 blocks looks only to be the beginning for the 21-year old, who continues to grow into is body.
Unfortunately, the 2014-2015 campaign has also seen far too many star players ravaged by injuries. Just look at the number of perennial All-Stars that were unable to participate in this past weekend’s festivities due to an assortment of ailments; Dwight Howard (sprained ankle/knee), Kobe Bryant (torn rotator cuff), Paul George (fractured leg), Rajon Rondo (broken orbital/nose), Dwyane Wade (strained hamstring), and Bake Griffin (right elbow infection) were all sidelined for the event, while rumors continue to spread that Carmelo Anthony (sore left knee) will likely “shut it down” when the regular season schedule commences Tuesday Night. Howard is expected to be shelved for at least a minimum of a month, before even being reevaluated, while Rondo is out indefintately after fracturing the orbital bone beneath his eye. In Griffin’s case, a staph infection in his arm threatens to keep the explosive Forward out for the foreseeable future, while Bryant sees yet another term end prematurely after having surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, coming off the heels of missing nearly all of last season with a torn Achilles. Years of nagging bumps, bruises, and collisions have seemingly taken a toll on Wade, who sat out of the weekend gala, in hope of being fit for a postseason push. For George, the season ended before it even started, after the National Team member suffered a gruesome broken leg during a meaningless scrimmage back in June. Together, these players account for a whopping fifty-five combined All-Star selections, leaving the league a lesser place without them.
With the Trade Deadline arriving Thursday, teams will be looking to add reinforcements in lieu of the Playoffs, as others look to offload hefty contracts in exchange for cap space and draft picks. With a plethora of transactions already in the books, it could be a rather quite Deadline Day, particularly after Dallas already made the significant deal for Rajon Rondo, while Memphis followed shortly thereafter with a trade for another former Celtic, Jeff Green. Cleveland too, was rather active earlier in the season, acquiring the likes of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov from the woeful Knicks, while Houston was quick to sign Josh Smith after the enigma-like Forward was released by the Pistons. With that said, all eyes will be focused on the Nuggets who look most likely to start a fire sale with any number of their assets serving as desirable pieces for a variety of contenders . At 20-33, the Nuggets are wasting away in Basketball purgatory, and have been for some time now, making the likes of Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, and Jameer Nelson expendable for the right price. Any of those names could help bolster a contender under the right circumstances, with Houston, Oklahoma City, and the Los Angeles Clippers prime candidates to make a deal. In Minnesota, Kevin Martin has been made available for the right price, as the Timberwolves continue to move forward with their Youth Movement. Any of those aforementioned teams could use a sharpshooter off the bench, while the Pacers have also made rugged Power Forward available as well. And then there is the Brooklyn Nets, who have hung a “For Sale” sign on the triumvirate of Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, and Joe Johnson for months now. Neither will come cheap, possessing some of the most bloated contracts in the league, but again, under the right circumstances could be the difference for a contender in need of taking that next step. If healthy, who wouldn’t want a legitimate seven-footer with a sweet post-game like Lopez? Or how about a consistent shooter capable of creating his own offense from anywhere on the court like Johnson? And though he hasn’t played like it for a few years now, there is always a chance Williams rediscovers that spark that made him a three-time All-Star, right? The difference between postseason glory and a premature exit could be made with a single phone call, similar to the Pistons acquiring Rasheed Wallace midway through the 2003-2004 campaign, or the Lakers dealing for Pau Gasol in 2007-2008. In both cases, those respective franchises won NBA Titles within the next two seasons with those aforementioned players playing crucial roles in their success. Will we see it happen again this week?
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