Note: The following was organized and written by BleacherReport and OTRBasketball.com's Erick Blasco.
With the season almost halfway over, now is as good a time as any to reflect over the current state of the NBA. Most teams and players have established their identities—for better or for worse—but some teams spark debate as to where exactly they fit into the NBA’s hierarchy.
With that as an introduction, I’ve assembled a collection of some of the brightest, most energetic basketball minds OTR has to offer to reflect on the past, weigh the present, and predict the future of the upcoming NBA season.
1) The Boston Celtics have lost seven of nine, including to their top competitors (the Cavs and Lakers), to solid, but crippled opponents (the Blazers without Brandon Roy, and the Rockets without Shane Battier and Tracy McGrady) and to the league’s bottom feeders (the Bobcats and Warriors). What’s gone wrong with Boston?
His Greatness, member:
I believe the loss to LA on Christmas shattered their mettle. Their confidence was shot, Rondo began playing scared, and it began trickling down to the rest of the team, interpolating a myriad of problems.
The bench's production took a hit, the defense was out of sync, their shots weren't falling, and offensively they became over-reliant on the Big Three, deviating from the offensive unison that made them so effective.
They endured a bad stretch that every team goes through, and I have reason to believe that they may have snapped out of it after the back-to-back wins against Toronto and New Jersey.
Without P.J. Brown and James Posey, the Boston Celtics' bench is now thin. It was deep last season with experience of Brown and Posey, without them there really isn't anyone on the bench that can out and give them that boost off of the bench other than Leon Powe and an inconsistent Eddie House. Their intensity is gone.
Real Deal, owner:
Rajon Rondo. Rondo is slumping, and it may be due to teams locking in on him, or just his game taking a nose-dive midway through the season.
Without Rondo, Boston has no defense in the backcourt (Ray Allen doesn't play defense), and nobody is kicking the ball out to open shooters.
Rajon isn't your traditional point guard, but he gets his teammates open shots, and when your teammates are All-Stars, they will more than likely hit them. In the end, Boston may go as Rondo does.
First of all, it’s easy to overreact to Boston’s slump and assume the sky is falling. It’s not. Boston will get through this rough patch and is arguably still the best team in the East.
However, a number of concerning factors have all combined to knock Boston off their perch.
For starters, Boston’s incredible win streak to start the year may have been the worst thing to happen to them. They became arrogant, and were stuck in a number of close games against opponents who played harder than them.
Since Paul Pierce was able to bail them out of close losses with a number of huge last-minute shots, the Celtics were never punished for their arrogance.
After losing to the Lakers though, the Celtics were exposed in their minds as mortals. Just because they were champions didn’t mean they were invincible. That has led to doubting, and less confident play.
The other two reasons are more tactical. The Lakers started the trend of playing Rajon Rondo with a longer defender (like the Knicks did with Jared Jeffries) and sagging into the lane.
This has made entry passing with Rondo difficult, and has allowed opponents to have a free double-teamer either to double the post, or to shadow penetration. Since Rondo still has trouble shooting, Boston’s offense has stagnated.
The third reason has been every pundit’s concern when discussing the Celtics. They simply don’t have a deep bench. They don’t have an effective ball-handler backing up Rajon Rondo.
They don’t have length in their frontcourt (Patrick O’Bryant simply isn’t an NBA player). They don’t have an elite defensive stopper off the bench, forcing Paul Pierce to be both the team’s primary playmaker and defender, a task which has limited his effectiveness.
As the Celtics win more games, they should regain their confidence. Doc Rivers will also find a way to tweak his offense and adapt to longer defenders on Rondo. But if they don’t improve their bench, the Celtics are a worse team than last year’s version.
2) The defending Western Conference champion Los Angeles Lakers have cruised to the top spot in the West, while the Cleveland Cavaliers have been exceptional for the better part of two months. Which of those teams is the best in the league right now, or is it someone else?
Still think it's Boston until proved otherwise. The Lakers and Cavs may have been better team in January, but Boston has the better track record, the Big Three, and Brian Scalabrine.
I think both teams are great, the top two in the league. But in the end, I still think the Lakers are a better team. They have more depth, and when Jordan Farmar comes back their recent struggles will come to an end.
Point guard position isn't looking great for them, but they have Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, who are both players that can help each other when one is having a bad game.
LeBron doesn't really have the sidekick right now that Kobe does. But it might change depending on what I see from these two teams on Martin Luther King Jr. game day.
The Cavs are the best team in the NBA, even if the Lakers defeat them on Monday. What Cleveland has is the top defense in the league (the only team holding their opponents to under 90 a game), arguably the best player, and a very complicated offense to defend against, scoring 100 points per game, above the league average.
Right now, it’s Cleveland. LeBron is playing at a level he’s never played before. His defense began to improve late last season, and after a lazy start to the year defensively, he’s turned into a true stopper.
His hands are more active, his feet are more active, and his awareness is better. Mo Williams hasn’t been a defensive disaster, and the rest of the team has always been exceptional defensively.
On the other end, Mike Brown has come a long way as a head coach. Cleveland’s offense has a lot more movement, and is no longer LeBron screen/roll left, LeBron screen/roll right.
With their toughness, commitment to defense, more complex offense combining with LeBron’s brilliance, the Cavs are playing like last year’s Celtics.
The Lakers aren’t far off, and their speed, quickness, length, and athleticism disrupt opponents and mercilessly capitalize on mistakes. I still wonder if they have the interior muscle, or the maturity, to be truly great.
Andrew Bynum was supposed to help, but he’s more concerned with his own touches than rebounding and playing defense. If he comes around, then the Lakers will start playing at an even higher level, but if he doesn’t, then the Lakers will have problems in the postseason.
3) Conversely, which team is the very worst in the NBA?
The Thunder. A total of eight wins speaks for itself.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are the worst team in the league. They will be a good team in the future, but as of right now, they are pretty bad. They have their nights where the upset their opponents, but in the end, they only really have Durant and Green for now.
The Washington Wizards are the worst, by a slim margin, over the Thunder. Washington's defensive rating is 28th in the league (points allowed per 100 possessions), while the Thunder are sitting at 19th.
The two offenses are in the bottom five, but you have to wonder how a team with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison can manage to win just eight of their 39 games, tied with a very young Thunder team, who are now 5-4 in their last nine games (the Wizards are 2-8 in their last ten).
Talent-wise, the Timberwolves. Al Jefferson only plays offense, the team has no athleticism, Corey Brewer is fundamentally poor, Kevin Love can’t jump, defend, or finish, Rashard McCants is too impatient, and the roster is comprised of too many guys who are strictly role players.
That said, the Timberwolves at least play hard and smart (and have played much better basketball under Kevin McHale).
The Thunder are pretty bad, but that’s expected with so much roster filler, so many youngsters still learning to play professionally, and so many veterans playing the same position. At least they have an exciting nucleus for the future.
Since the Clippers don’t play hard, don’t play smart, have given up on the season, and have no future, they’re the very worst team in the NBA.
4) Which team has been the most disappointing team?
Philadelphia. A pick by many to be amongst the upper ranks in the East after the biggest pickup in the offseason, they've fallen short of expectations. Although in their defense, a lot of those expectations were awfully lofty and unfair to them. They've started to get it together as of late, but they never should've been in this hole to begin with.
Phoenix Suns. Shaq is the only player on the team right now who is playing well, but he sits out for some games just because he isn't the same young Shaq he once was. Nash and Amare are both struggling without the run-'n'-gun tempo of Mike D'Antoni.
The Toronto Raptors are the most disappointing team in the league. In 42 games, they have won only 16 of them. For a team that contains the best power forward in the East in Chris Bosh, a point guard who was making an All-Star push last season, and another big (Jermaine) that was said to be revitalized in Toronto, getting to 35 wins looks more difficult than what everyone thought would be the disaster called the Knicks, who are actually right on the Raptors' tail.
Though I miscalculated the degree, I expected the Wizards to fall off this year. I was also never on the Raptors bandwagon, and the Sixers have shown signs of turning things around.
That’s why the Clippers are the most disappointing team. Certainly a team stockpiled with as much talent as they have couldn’t own the second worst record in their conference, could they?
Oh wait, Baron Davis has always strictly been for numero uno, Ricky Davis has never been more anything other than a brainless waste, Chris Kaman’s always been robotic where good defenders can completely take him out of his game, Marcus Camby is one of the most overrated defenders of our generation, and Al Thornton and Eric Gordon are too young to understand how to play team-oriented offense and defense.
No, the Clippers’ struggles come as no surprise. Washington’s even worse than I thought they’d be, so they’re my pick for Most Disappointing Team.
5) The Spurs, Rockets, Mavs, and Hornets all boast winning percentages near or above 60 percent. Which of them is the best in the Southwest, either now or come playoff time?
San Antonio's still got it. As always, they're slept on going into the playoffs when people realize they're legit after dominating the preliminary rounds. Duncan isn't letting this team go away.
Spurs. They have the experience, a point guard who can take over games and make everyone around him better. A perimeter threat who can either start or come off of the bench. The best power forward of all time, and possibly even in the league right now. And they have one of the best coaches in the league. All they need is the fourth player to step up, and Roger Mason Jr. is doing a great job with his clutch shooting. He and Matt Bonner spread out the floor nicely.
If they stay healthy, the Spurs will remain the best in their division, and the second best in the Western Conference. The Hornets are struggling on defense, Houston can't stay healthy, and Dallas is out seeking trades to improve only because they realize they need it (rumors of Howard being traded, right after Diop goes).
Dallas is too fragile to be reliable come playoff time, and the Rockets still haven’t integrated their superstars into their offense (to say nothing of Tracy McGrady’s lack of passion, which has finally been taken to task by Houston’s media and fan base).
New Orleans has the talent, but David West and Chris Paul don’t play with passion every night, and their offense is way too reliant on Paul.
San Antonio still has a dominant post threat, potent shooting, and unlike last year, Roger Mason and a healthy Manu Ginobili. Mason is the defender the Spurs wanted Ime Udoka to be, and he’s the creative scorer Michael Finley can’t be anymore. And a healthy Ginobili gives the Spurs a dynamic scorer who can get his shots off everywhere on the court.
Plus, San Antonio is one of the best-coached teams in the league, and their players are extremely clutch, both traits invaluable come playoff-time.
6) How good are the Orlando Magic?
Good, arguably elite. I still think they're fool's gold in that they haven't proved anything and that offensively, they're overly dependent on their stroke from outside. There are teams in the playoffs that will clamp down on that defensively and force Dwight to consistently beat them in the pivot, and I just don't think he's ready to carry his team in that situation yet.
Overrated by fans, underrated by the media. They will be a threat in the playoffs, but being a three-point shooting team may hurt them if they aren't hitting their shots. They are a top three team in the East for sure, and top five in the league as a whole.
Orlando is the third best team in the NBA, despite two wins over the Lakers. Cleveland remains on top as of today. Orlando relies too heavily on the three, and if it isn't falling for them, they are in trouble.
In five of their last seven wins (streak), they have had more free throw attempts than three-point attempts. In all but two losses the entire season, they have had more three-point attempts (and one of those losses was nearly equal from beyond the arc and at the charity stripe).
They are good, but come playoff time, the threes aren't going to be there for seven consecutive games against the same team. Ask Rashard Lewis, who played for a Ray Allen-led Sonics team who did the same thing.
Very, very close, but still below Boston and Cleveland.
Dwight Howard loses focus occasionally (especially on defense), and he still isn’t a reliable enough playmaker in the pivot. Plus Orlando has little frontcourt depth and is very reliant on three-point shooting.
Once Howard matures as a defender (and he’s made considerable strides since last year), then Orlando will really be magical. Until then, they’ll only beat great teams when their outside shots are falling, which according to their percentages would be about three times out of every seven games.
7) Mike D’Antoni, Michael Curry, Scott Skiles, Vinny Del Negro, Eric Spolestra, Larry Brown, Rick Carlisle, and Terry Porter. Which of those coaches has done the best job with their new teams?
Gotta go with Skiles. The Bucks have made a marked improvement (seven wins away from their win total last season) and are currently sitting pretty at eighth in the East. You can throw it up to personnel changes all you want, but it takes a coach to manage that and let the players buy into the system he's selling. Skiles has these guys playing their asses off on every night, and while they don't look to be too big a threat when April comes around, they're playing better than I expected out of them.
Mike D'Antoni. Who would have expected the Knicks to not be at the bottom of the league this season? They are playing good basketball considering all the off court troubles they have with Stephon Marbury. Wilson Chandler, Nate Robinson, and David Lee are three players that this team needs to keep.
Many will pick the best team's coach, but I'm going with Larry Brown. They may not be in the playoffs, and may be on pace to matching last year's record, but Brown is a defensive coach, and Charlotte's defense has changed, dramatically.
From last year's 20th ranking, to 9th this season, the Bobcats have been toying with different lineups and losing Jason Richardson to the Suns, yet are still finding a way to stay just outside of the playoff hunt, four wins less than the 8th seed out East.
Eric Spolestra and it’s not even close. Spolestra inherited Dwyane Wade, a pair of rookies in Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers, and a mishmash of veterans, most of them either sharing a position or projected to play out of position. Out of that, he’s inspired his team to play some of the best defense in the NBA.
Spolestra’s gotten the most out of basketball journeymen like Jamaal Magloire (who many thought was washed up) and Joel Anthony (who never played an NBA game until last year). He’s banished selfless, defenseless veterans in Mark Blount and Marcus Banks from the rotation. He’s developed Chalmers into a dependable point guard.
Most importantly is Spolestra’s relationship with his players. Wade has bought into his message completely, and despite being benched because of poor defense, blue chip draft pick Michael Beasley has never complained, and practices hard to improve his game.
While 19-17 isn’t a fantastic number, keep in mind that the Heat had the worst record in the NBA last season.
8) What’s been the difference in Miami’s turnaround from last year's disaster?
Dwyane Wade, Dwyane Wade, Dwyane Wade, and Dwyane Wade. That's the difference. There really is no other way to reword it. You can copy and paste Dwyane Wade until my entry is lengthy enough to qualify as a paragraph, just so it would seem more writer-ly.
Dwyane Wade. He is a top three player in the league and can take over games like only a few other people in the NBA. He is making players around him better, and the additions of Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers are turning the team around.
Health in general is the key. They won't be anything special in the playoffs though, if they make it unless Beasley or Marion step up.
Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers are the two factors in their turnaround. A healthy Wade makes his teammates better (ask Cook) and has improved his defense, while Chalmers' defense and decision-making (less than two turnovers in 31 minutes) takes the load off Wade's shoulders.
The two biggest reasons are clearly Dwyane Wade’s return to good health, and Eric Spolestra’s coaching work.
I mentioned Spolestra above, and when Wade’s healthy, he’s one of the true elite players in the game. He’s always in rhythm when shooting, he’s a great playmaker, and he has a terrific ability to change directions at the last minute when attacking the basket.
Plus he’s fearless, strong, and relentless, making him a nightmare for opposing paint defenders. And he’s fantastic defensively, especially at rotation down and blocking bigger players’ shots at the rim.
Since Wade values defense, and Spolestra emphasizes defense, everyone else has fallen into place.
9) Assuming Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, Detroit, Atlanta, and Miami are good enough to make the playoffs, which other two Eastern Conference teams fill out the postseason bracket?
I am a homer, so I will say Philadelphia because they are on the come up, and look to finally be back on track with Elton's timely return. And New Jersey, because, well, it would only make sense since Carter is finally playing with heart, right?
New Jersey Nets. Brook Lopez is playing amazing these past few games, Yi was looking good until the injury, Devin Harris is playing like a star, and Vince Carter is playing like the type of Vince we have never seen before. He is showing great playmaking skills, effort on defense, and leadership.
Philadelphia 76ers. Too much talent on this team to not make the playoffs. Elton Brand will have to step up though when he comes back from injury and Andre Iguodala will have to play like he has been doing since Brand has been injured.
The Sixers and Bulls should get in, barring any injuries, while the Nets miss out by a single loss. Philly is starting to gel, and with everyone healthy in Chicago, the fight between them and New Jersey should go down to the last couple of games.
For our enjoyment, they play each other April 4, in Chicago, while the Nets move on to face four-consecutive East bad boys: Sixers, Celtics, Pistons and Magic. The Bulls end their season playing eight of their last 11 at home.
New Jersey and Indiana (yes, Indiana) will have a say, but I have a feeling Philadelphia and Milwaukee make the playoffs.
The Sixers are starting to play better basketball, especially on the offensive end. They’re putting the ball in Andre Miller’s hands more and allowing him to find the open areas for teammates.
Plus, Andre Iguodala looks much more comfortable since interim coach Tony DiLeo has challenged him to shoot from the perimeter when he’s open. The last two seasons, the Sixers have been a second half team, so with Elton Brand returning, it isn’t a stretch to expect the Sixers to play their best ball over the final three months.
Meanwhile, the Bucks are relentlessly energetic. Michael Redd is playing the most complete ball of his life, and looks much more explosive with the ball, instead of solely relying on his jumper.
Richard Jefferson’s been a slight help, Luke Ridnour has rebounded from a awful 2007-2008 to save his career, and the entire team hustles, runs, fights, and contests everything defensively.
They have more offense and scrappiness than Chicago or New Jersey.
10) List your top three Most Improved Player candidates and why you chose them.
This starts and ends with Devin Harris, who has made the quantum leap from average NBA starter to All-Star scorer. His offensive awareness has improved, his jump shot has become more consistent, and best of all, he's become one of the NBA's best at getting to the line, one of the indicators of a legit NBA scorer.
It's a big drop-off after him, then there's Andris Biedrins, who is finally and deservedly getting more burn with his improved touch around the basket and is arguably the only highlight on a dysfunctional team.
Danny Granger, whose numbers might be inflated because of how fast-paced the offense is, has still transformed into an awesome player and legitimate scorer (fourth in the league). That's in elite territory.
Runner-ups include John Salmons, who was actually one of my picks as MIP prior to the season because the "Most Improved Player" award isn't actually quite that literal, and he's posting a statline that I had to do a triple take on.
And Paul Millsap, who's been a serviceable replacement for Carlos Boozer in Utah, and could potentially make him expendable.
1. Devin Harris - Number one for sure. Isn't letting Mark Cuban get any sleep.
2. Danny Granger - Improved in every aspect of his game this season.
3. Marco Belinelli - Has played great defense and great in general since Don Nelson has given him minutes.
Assuming they continue their play, Von Wafer wins this, but I'm not quite sure where he'll fit in once McGrady starts playing again, so I'm putting him on the backburner. Otherwise, you have to consider John Salmons and Rodney Stuckey.
Salmons is averaging career highs in most categories, shooting almost 47% and netting nearly 20 a game, while Stuckey came out and proved that he could drop nearly 40, out of nowhere, and is averaging 14/5 on almost 47% shooting, after shooting poorly last season. Out of the three, Salmons gets my vote.
Devin Harris: His jumper used to be a liability and now its very reliable. Harris has also been a tougher finisher at the rim, is much more aggressive on defense, and has perfected a right-to-left step-back crossover that makes defenders look silly. He used to be a nice player, now Devin Harris is an All-Star-caliber player.
LeBron James: His jumper is slightly better, his defense is infinitely better, he’s better at moving without the ball, he’s better at posting up, he’s better in every facet of his game. It’s scary how much LeBron has improved—and even scarier as to what his ceiling is.
Danny Granger: He’s always been a great jump shooter, but he’s smarter moving without the ball to set up his shots. And he’s better at creating and defending than in years past. He gives Indiana hope that they can make the playoffs.
A heartfelt thanks to the writers and the owner of OTRBasketball, who decided to participate in this roundtable.
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