January 29, 2013

LIAO | A Laker-less NBA Midseason Review

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The NBA season is already more than half over, yet I feel like I don’t know what’s really going on in the league. The culprit for this is the Los Angeles Lakers, who have kidnapped the entire NBA news cycle with headlines about their struggles. Sure, the story is compelling, but it has still taken away from the other 29 teams in the NBA. Let’s explore some of these other stories as ESPN continues to update us on what Kobe Bryant ate for breakfast and how it will affect his relationship with Dwight Howard, his legacy and the fate of the world.

Let’s start with today’s most prevalent story, one that can actually take headlines away from the Lakers: the Celtics losing Rajon Rondo for the season due to an ACL tear. Even with Rondo — the NBA’s leading assist man and creator of half of the open looks for the Celtics — the team is just 26th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. It’s hard to imagine where the team’s offense will go without its floor general. In order to salvage this season and the value of the last days of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, we may be looking at a blockbuster trade in the coming days. You’ll hear a lot of trade rumors as the deadline approaches, most likely looking to deal Pierce — a longtime Celtic. Trading him would be a sad, albeit practical, way to end Pierce’s 14-year run in Boston. My guess is that the Raptors will get Pierce and, in return, give up one of their point guards (Kyle Lowry or Jose Calderon) and forward Andrea Bargnani. This package will add a much-needed replacement for Rondo and some outside shooting to spread the floor. Stay tuned.

One of the feel-good stories of the year has been the play of the Golden State Warriors, who currently sit at 27-17. Playing without defensive stalwart Andrew Bogut for most of the season — he came back this Monday against the Raptors and played seemingly unaffected by his ankle injury — the Warriors have transformed from the 26th best defensive team to the 12th best, primarily due to head coach Mark Jackson molding his players into his defensive system.

With the great play of All-Star David Lee and All-Star snub Stephen Curry, there should be no drop-off in the second half of the season. In fact, with the return of Bogut and his passing, basketball I.Q. and shot-blocking ability, I expect both the team’s offense and defense to improve. With all due respect to rookie Festus Ezeli, who has filled in admirably at the center position, Bogut’s complete game will be more beneficial to the Warriors in the long run.

You’ve all heard the phrase “Never trust a guy with two first names,” but that simply isn’t true in the NBA. Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard — the current members of the Two-First-Name-All-Stars — will welcome Pacers forward Paul George this year, who is one of those rare cases where his ‘potential’ turned into tangible skills. With Danny Granger out all year, George has stepped into his role as the best player on the Pacers, averaging 17.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.7 steals a game while doubling as the best all-around defender on the best defensive team in the league. Despite already being so good,  he still has room to improve. Take the end of the Pacers-Nuggets game this Monday. With 20 seconds left and the game tied 101-101, Danilo Gallinari — who had 27 points at that point — drove to the basket and George stayed with him every step, standing strong as Gallinari lowered his shoulder, blocked his fadeaway and stripped the ball. The next possession, however, George turned it over to Andre Iguodala and with 0.5 seconds left, fouled Igoudala on an inbounds lob play (albeit on a ticky-tack foul), who proceeded to knock down one free throw to win the game. This sequence perfectly summed up George; he does so many things well, but is still just 22 years old and will only continue to improve and refine his game.

A story that should be significant if it wasn’t clockwork every year is the success of the San Antonio Spurs. They have the best record in the league at 36-11, yet there couldn’t be less fanfare about them. Coach Gregg Popovich keeps plugging players into his well-oiled machine and there is no noticeable drop-off. Popovich is able to limit his stars’ minutes this way, as Ginobili is averaging just 23.7 minutes a game. Additionally, no one on the team plays more than 33 minutes a game. Tim Duncan is silently — what’s quieter than ‘silently’? — having another great All-Star campaign at age 36 and has magically improved his defense, as he is averaging 2.7 blocks per game, his most since 2003-2004. His play in the paint has helped the Spurs regain their Top-5 ranking in defensive efficiency, which fell off the last two years, as they were just 11th in the league. With their key players clocking fewer minutes — Popovich will just rest his starters during some back-to-back games — they should be one of the two favorites to come out of the Western conference again, a sentence I could have accurately written in a column any year between 1999 and 2013.

Original Author: Albert Liao