February 1, 2016

SHATZMAN | NBA Midseason Storylines

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It has been 15 years since the Lakers and Sixers met in the 2001 NBA Finals. That series featured several notable names. Let’s focus on two of them: Kobe Bryant and Tyronn Lue. Bryant, the five-time champ, former league MVP and future HOF-er, is retiring at the end of this season. I’m sure you know this. The other guy, Tyronn Lue, who is best known for being that dude Allen Iverson crossed-over in the ’01 Finals, is now the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Tyronn Lue is LeBron James’ basketball coach. The Sixers are 7-41 this season. The Lakers are 9-41. Both occupy last place in their respective conferences. Crazy what 15 years can do, huh? Below I will take a look at some of the major NBA storylines as All-Star Weekend approaches.

1. The Warriors
Are they beatable? It depends. They’ve lost four games thus far, so yes, on a single night, they can lose. After starting the season 24-0, the Warriors lost to the Bucks on December 12th. But get this. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Warriors shot 8-48 from outside of the restricted area that night. That is 16.7 percent, which is the lowest FG percentage from outside the restricted area by a team in the last 15 years. That, plus a great shooting effort by the Bucks, shows what it takes to beat Golden State once. But one game is a far cry from a seven-game playoff series. Stephen Curry is on another level. He’s on his way to his second consecutive MVP award, and if he stays healthy, he may win many more. His backcourt-mate, Klay Thompson, is among the best shooters in the league, and has established himself as a lockdown wing defender. Then add Draymond Green, who has nine triple-doubles on the season. Some people say Green is the product of Curry’s brilliance. Those people are wrong. He excels in every facet of the game — scoring, rebounding, passing, defense — and he’s shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc. Harrison Barnes is the fourth option on Golden State. He could, and will down the road, be a go-to-guy for an NBA team. If healthy, I expect the Warriors to break the ’96 Bulls’ single-season record of 72-10 on their way to another NBA title. This team is something else.

2. Coaching in Cleveland
David Blatt or Tyronn Lue, it doesn’t matter. The Cavaliers are LeBron James’ team. What he wants, he will get. Blatt has proven himself as a basketball coach. He won five titles in Israel. But the fact is, David Blatt didn’t will the Cavs to the NBA Finals last season. LeBron James did. And Tyronn Lue is not going to coach the Cavs to the Finals this season. That responsibility rests on LeBron James with help from his teammates. Tyronn Lue also isn’t going to magically fix LeBron’s inability to make an outside jumper. James is shooting 28 percent from deep this season. That ranks 104th out of the 105 players currently on pace to make 82 three-pointers (Kobe occupies the 105th spot). LeBron will need to make perimeter jumpers if the Cavs are going to go deep in the playoffs. Establishing his outside game is crucial, for the top-notch defensive teams will sell-out on stopping his drives if he can’t make jump shots. David Blatt or Tyronn Lue, the Cavaliers are in LeBron James’ hands.

3. All-Star Snubs
In the NBA, coaches select the All-Star reserves, while fans vote for the starters. Thus, being named a starter comes down to a popularity contest. Kobe is starting, obviously. Zaza Pachulia narrowly missed being voted in as a starter. With such great depth in the league, it’s difficult to remove one player in favor another. The Sacramento Kings are in the playoff hunt for the first time in a decade, and while much of their success is due to DeMarcus Cousins’ MVP-caliber campaign, Cousins’ play has been boosted by the presence of Rajon Rondo. Rondo is the only player in the league averaging more than 10 assists per game (11.8, identical to his PPG average). His dribble penetration and passing wizardry draws defenders away from Boogie Cousins. Rondo has elevated the Kings’ offense to third in the league in scoring. After a bizarre season in Dallas, Rondo is playing like the point guard he was with the Celtics. I would love to see Cousins and Rondo match up with a top team in playoffs. In the Eastern Conference, Pau Gasol, at age 35, is having a tremendous season. He has helped lead the Bulls to third in the East, and it is especially impressive for Gasol, as his frontcourt partner Joakim Noah has missed significant time with injuries. But with so much talent in the league, and only twelve All-Star spots, there will always be differences of opinion.
Kobe Bryant’s last All-Star game will be his former teammate Tyronn Lue’s first, as Lue will be coaching the Eastern Conference team. Funny the way things work sometimes.