The West has gone pretty much as expected. The defending champion Lakers seem to be on cruise control, especially in an awful Pacific division. Critics will take shots at Phil’s bunch throughout the season, but I think they’ll be able to turn it on when needed as long as they’re healthy. One small surprise this season has been the gaudy record of San Antonio. No is shocked to see Tim Duncan and crew at the top of the standings, but the Spurs are destroying the competition at the halfway mark. If Duncan and Manu Ginobili do not wear down through 82 games, San Antonio could make a postseason run with their experience and almost perfect record at home.
Three other teams that could challenge the leaders in the West are the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way, OKC can score with anybody. However, Scott Brooks’ club is probably a post threat away from seriously contending for a title. You never want to count out a Deron Williams-led team, but the Jazz just have too many issues with a rebounding and wing scoring. Dallas does not seem to have the firepower to contend with Caron Butler out for the season and Dirk Nowitzki already battling injuries.
The East has a similar look to the West, with two heavyweights and three other quality squads that will stand in the way of a title run. The defending conference champion Boston Celtics have been solid all season, with six players averaging in double figures. Much like San Antonio, the Celts will be hard to beat in the postseason if they can weather the 82-game grind with a veteran club. The obvious challenger to Boston’s throne is the new-look Miami Heat. Obviously, this team is a major threat with the three elite scoring options of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But will the Big Three be enough against a loaded Boston roster? If the C’s are battling injuries, maybe so. But in the end, the lack of a post presence may catch up with Miami.
It’s hard to count out the Orlando Magic, a team that has won five playoff series over the last two years. But this version looks much different than those two squads, with the exception of catalyst big man Dwight Howard. Will the additions of Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas look better in April than right now? That answer will be the key to the Magic making another run. The Chicago Bulls have battled injuries (Joakim Noah/Carlos Boozer/etc.), but Derrick Rose is playing well enough to do some damage in the postseason if the post guys are healthy. The Atlanta Hawks have a well-balanced and talented team, but they may struggle against the big boys with a lack of high-end scoring and rebounding.
Around the Association
* When will a Carmelo Anthony deal take place? The Nuggets will now see proposals pour in from around the league after New Jersey Nets’ owner Mikhail Prokhorov pulled his team’s (best for Denver) offer. I think most of us – especially Denver fans – are ready for some resolution with Melo. It’s going to be quite uncomfortable at the Pepsi Center the longer this ordeal keeps going.
* It’s nice to see the New York Knicks become relevant once again. Amare Stoudemire has been a hit at MSG so far, and point guard Raymond Felton has been a quality acquisition. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler can both score, and second-round draft choice Landry Fields (remember all the Knick fans booing when they selected him instead of hometown kid Lance Stephenson?) has been a solid contributor.
* Every season we see some new stars truly take off. Three young players that have been outstanding in the first half are Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. Westbrook started to emerge a year ago, but the third-year guard has fully blossomed into a superstar. Kevin Durant gets much of the attention in Oklahoma City, but Westbrook fills up the stat sheet every night. He is now averaging over 22 points, eight assists, five boards and almost two steals a game.
Anyone who can make the Los Angeles Clippers relevant – or even noticed - has to be a bright star. And Blake Griffin has done just that by leading the NBA in dunks and standing second in the league in double-doubles. The highlight machine, who missed all of last season following knee surgery, had a streak of 27 consecutive double-doubles at one point this season. If you haven’t noticed, the Clippers have played above .500 ball after a horrendous 1-13 start.
The only man with more double-doubles than Griffin is Minnesota’s Kevin Love. He leads the NBA in that category and is averaging over 20 points and 15 rebounds per contest. In fact, he is halfway to becoming the first NBA player since Ben Wallace in 2002-03 to average over 15 rebounds per game for a season. The Timberwolves (and their lack of guard play) may not be competing like the Clippers, but at least Love gives them some hope.