Expectations are a killer in sports. In this particular sport, expectations can be a coach killer. That's because coaches are viewed as less important than the players, and they're certainly paid less. When struggling to meet expectations, teams tend towards changes that are more cosmetic.
In the case of the Brooklyn Nets, it's hard to see what they thought this season would be. You don't go in with Brook Lopez as your defensive anchor and expect to compete for a championship. Given that Avery Johnson was fired at the first sign of trouble, you'd have to conclude that either: a) Team management wanted him fired for a while; or, b) Team management is wholly delusional. Hey, it can always be both options when your team is run by an occasionally interested Russian billionaire.
While we're sad to see Avery Johnson go, we're amused at how Dwight Howard has directly and indirectly led to so many firings. The Nets failed to meet expectations because they thought they were getting Dwight, thus helping to oust Johnson. The Magic wanted to keep Dwight, so they ousted Stan Van Gundy. The Lakers thought they were getting a healthy Dwight, and Mike Brown was fired when that wasn't the case.
Note to Rick Carlisle: Considering that your team was in the Dwight sweepstakes and whiffed, you could be next.
LolCats is back and worse than ever. Well, at least, worse than ever since they may have been the worst team ever last season. We keep talking about the Clippers' incredible winning streak while ignoring Charlotte's efforts in losing 18 consecutive games.
The lone recent bright spot has been Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's play. The rookie scored 22 points on 14 shots against former Kentucky teammate Anthony Davis.
Last season, NBA snobs scoffed at the notion of University of Kentucky competing with the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats. Considering that MKG and Davis are better than anyone on last year's (or this year's) Charlotte team, that's actually a retroactively legitimate discussion.
Poor Nene. He's been marooned in Washington, D.C., where basketball lives in a perpetual comatose state. He's an injury-prone player on a team with a questionable medical staff. Furthermore, said team is hopeless and effectively already eliminated from playoff contention.
It's enough to make people forget just how good Nene is. In his 16 games, with his minutes limit, Nene has notched a PER of 23.16 and 4.6 assists per 40 minutes. His quality amid dreck makes me wonder whether Denver should have held onto its skilled big man, even if he is oft-injured.
In my humble opinion, both Nene and the Nuggets would have been better off with each other.
The Cavs are better with Kyrie Irving back, but they certainly aren't good. While it's hard to know if they'd be decent with Kyrie and Varejao (gasp!) on the court at the same time, it's easy to know that a team has issues when they play Luke Walton big minutes. Last game, poor Luke went 30 minutes in a loss against Brooklyn, tallying four points and six assists.
At this point, I wouldn't be shocked to see Smush Parker in a Cavs jersey.
On the bright side, Tristan Thompson has played well lately for Cleveland. Here's hoping that he curbs that maddening tendency to pull the ball down after getting an offensive rebound. If he ever fixes that, he'll be a good NBA player. Today, for the most part, he's not.
The New Orleans Hornets beat Charlotte and Orlando last week and lost to Toronto. While I have some respect for Orlando and the reinvigorated Raptors, it's hard to be wholly impressed with that two-out-of-three stretch.
It is, however, wonderful to see Anthony Davis play again. All that Damian Lillard-for-ROY talk makes sense because he's been on the floor, but Davis looks to be a demonstrably better player. The kid is narrowly leading his team in PER and has averaged 14.6 points and 10 rebounds over the last five games.
Ryan Anderson is second on his team in PER, though he plays fewer than 33 minutes per night. More lineups involving both forwards, please.
The Suns keep racking up the L's—five in a row, to be specific. What's funny about Phoenix is that it's been competent on offense despite losing Steve Nash. Goran Dragic has made up for a lot of what it lost in that respect.
Where it's fallen down is on defense. It's even worse than last year, which should dispel any notion that Nash accounted for some serious defensive deficiency in his time there.
The issue, as far as I can see, is that it's hard to build a good defense around slow frontcourters like Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola. Throw in names like "Michael Beasley" and "Sebastian Telfair," and the task gets even harder.
Right now, the Suns are that bad defensive team the mainstream media mistakenly thought they were, back when Phoenix was good.
The Sacramento Kings have been playing some, well, competent basketball.
Kings have won seven of eight at home. And now, a four-game road trip. #welp— Tom Ziller (@teamziller) December 31, 2012
Their most recent victory came at home against the Celtics on Sunday night, where they beat down a listless Boston squad, 118-96.
The much-maligned DeMarcus Cousins is back from his mysterious suspension and went for a triple-double against Boston. This is par for the Cousin course. Make it seem like all is lost, like you're on your way out of Sacramento at any moment. Then, follow that up with a suspension. Then, follow that suspension up with some inspired play.
Also of note: Does anyone care that Jimmer Fredette's good now? He's claiming an over-20 PER and playing regular minutes. What a cool development for Kings fans.
Dirk Nowitzki is playing limited minutes, which is wise and prudent per his long-term health. On the other hand, time is running out on this Dallas Mavericks season.
The West has strengthened around last year's seventh seed, and the Mavs are diminished this season. For Dallas to get back in the hunt, it probably needs over 30-plus minutes from Dirk on a nightly basis.
The other concern is that, in the last three games (all losses), Nowitzki hasn't exactly looked like his old self. Is this the end of an era in Big D?
Well, we may be waving goodbye to that brief period where it looked like Dwight's former team could make the playoffs as Dwight's current team missed out. The Magic have been losing of late, most recently getting blown out, 123-88, by the Toronto Raptors.
I've never been the biggest Glen Davis fan in the world, but you have to wonder whether Orlando is reeling because of his absence. You also have to wonder whether and when the Magic will trade J.J. Redick.
Redick and Arron Afflalo are probably the two best players on this team. Unless you subscribe to the idea that they can play at the same time, one has to go. Currently, Redick is coveted around the league.
Not Having Bargnani keeps rocketing up the MVP rankings. What a player Not Having Bargnani is!
The Raptors are 7-1 since losing their defensively deficient big man to injury, and they most recently throttled the Orlando Magic, 123-88. Ed Davis has been a big improvement as a Bargnani replacement, and he's an intriguing young player to watch going forward.
Davis is an excellent leaper and rebounder without much else to his game. But those first two qualities are a great foundation for a 23-year-old who's finally getting serious run on this team. If you're averaging roughly 16 points and 12 rebounds per 40 minutes on few skills, imagine what you could do with some skill development?
What do I make of Detroit beating the Miami Heat by 10 points on Friday? Well, truth be told, not a whole lot. Credit to the Pistons for hitting on 63 percent of their three-point attempts, but there was an element of "fluke" in such a result. Also, the Heat were absent Dwyane Wade.
Still, it's hard to deny that Detroit has crawled out of its early-season doldrums. The Pistons would be winners of their last four if it weren't for a few bounces in a double-overtime game against Atlanta. Andre Drummond continues to play too few minutes, but he's been a thrill when on the court. Against Miami, he was a dunking, rebounding godzilla of a tasmanian devil.
If the draft were redone, he's going in the top three.
The Celtics are under .500, and they looked unengaged on Saturday night while getting smacked by the Warriors (that was before they got killed by the Sacramento Kings on Sunday). Though Rajon Rondo was out with a hip bruise, it wasn't the performance of a team operating with any sense of urgency.
Jeff Green continues to play terribly, which was wholly predictable considering that: a) He was never an above-average NBA player; and b) He's coming off a year away from basketball. His contract hamstrings Boston in many ways, which is unfortunate, because it seems like this team is in need of some kind of big move.
Avery Bradley remains its most alluring trade chip, but my guess would be that Boston wants to see him back and playing before giving him up. Jared Sullinger also might qualify as someone teams are interested in.
In their Friday night loss against the Warriors, Doug Collins could be spotted yelling instructions to Jrue Holiday in the run up to offensive sets. Given that this team is hardly an offensive juggernaut, can Doug relax a little? Sometimes, it feels like Holiday could be a star, if only Collins would let him.
As it stands, the strict control hasn't exactly made Holiday mistake-free. He had seven turnovers in the most recent loss to Portland (though he also did have 29 points, nine assists), and he's averaging 3.8 per contest. Perhaps less control would make the Sixers more powerful.
Al Jefferson continues to put up somewhat empty numbers. He's a good—though limited—offensive player, but he's such a liability on defense that I'm not sure his presence helps. Perhaps there's a way to mitigate Big Al's bad defense, like how Golden State has done with David Lee.
Right now, the Jazz aren't getting enough offensive compensation to justify what they lose with such a slow guy in the frontcourt. They aren't going far with the current setup.
The Blazers looked terrible on the road against the Lakers, which can happen to a young, defensively suspect team on occasion.
When it comes to the Blazers, I'm most interested in Damian Lillard's development than how the team is doing in general. Portland is more than likely missing the playoffs, so the progression of its young guys has greater meaning than the week-to-week record.
Lillard has impressed as a Chauncey Billups clone so far. He plays with a patient pace, runs the pick-and-roll well and has a deadly three-point shot, especially for a rookie. It all amounts to a likely Rookie of the Year campaign, though for someone who might fall out of the top three if the 2012 draft were re-held. (I still see the far younger Davis, Drummond and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist going before Lillard.)
P.J. Carlesimo is the interim coach; Avery Johnson is out. Johnson was likely fired due to unrealistic expectations for a team that doesn't have enough talent to compete, even in the depleted Eastern Conference.
The Nets started out well, but eventually, defensively depending on Andray Blatche and Brook Lopez came back to haunt them. Also, expecting Deron Williams and getting a non-shooting version didn't exactly help either.
This team is in a dark place, boxed in by high salaries and a lack of talent. Also, the Johnson-Williams backcourt hasn't exactly worked out so far, with Joe Johnson preferring an isolation-based offense and Williams preferring more motion and screens.
In other words, there are vast challenges ahead, the kind you probably wouldn't hire Carlesimo to overcome.
The Milwaukee Bucks confidently handled the visiting Miami Heat on Saturday, smacking them 104-85. None of that matters as much as the Monta Ellis interview that played during the game:
That's like something out of a mockumentary about basketball players. It's transcendent comedy from a man who's dead serious.
Here's something that Monta Ellis hasn't done, despite having it all: The notoriously bad defender hasn't hurt Milwaukee substantially on that end. The Bucks are top 10 in defensive efficiency, even thought they're logging big minutes with the undersized Ellis at the 2.
Has Monta been defensively reformed? Does he truly have it all?
David West deserves some All-Star consideration, but what a boring kind of player to feature in an All-Star Game. If fans start becoming wildly entertained by pick-and-pop mid-range shooting, West will certainly fill that All-Star Weekend void.
The Pacers are decent and should make the playoffs despite being wholly unwatchable on offense, save for West. They're still within range of the holy statistical novelty grail of "worst offense, best defense."
Indiana is currently ranked 28th on O and 2nd on D. It's so hard to pull off "worst offense, best defense" because offenses usually benefit from their good defense and vice versa. Stay (sleepily) tuned.
Houston killed a normally stout Chicago defense on Christmas night while demonstrating the limitations of any great D in our current era of basketball. While Tom Thibodeau's defensive principles win out on most nights, a spread pick-and-roll attack can break it.
It almost doesn't matter how talented or disciplined your team defense is: When the four-out pick-and-roll is rolling, it's unguardable.
So I'm not holding that 120-97 loss against Chicago too much. This is still one of the best defenses in the league, dragging along an understaffed offense. This is an above-average team, but it's asking a lot of the defense to carry an offense that puts up a 39 percent field-goal performance against the Wizards.
Chicago's a bit like a less extreme version of Indiana with the "all defense, no offense" approach.
The Rockets are explosive (get it? GET IT?!) in part because they've come to the radical conclusion that three points are worth more than two points.
That, and James Harden has been beasting of late. At 26 points per game and a 23-plus PER, Harden shouldn't just get All-Star consideration, he should be a lock.
That Houston defense might need some cinching up, though. The Rockets gave up 122 points in a loss to San Antonio on Friday and 124 in a loss to Oklahoma City on Saturday. In both cases, when Omer Asik sat, the defense hemorrhaged more points than a crashing stock market. It doesn't have much defensive talent outside of Asik.
Is anyone concerned that post-injury Kevin Love looks like he borrowed Louis C.K.'s body? I'm sorry; that's mean. It's Will Ferrell's body, at worst.
Love is slowly getting his shot back. On some nights, his form looks off and the ball flies to the side rim. You have to wonder if he's suffering any residual effects from the hand injury.
I've never been a push-ups aficionado, and now, Love's .233 three-point shooting has scared me straight: It's all couches and naps from here on out.
Elsewhere, Ricky Rubio is suffering back spasms. It might be bad luck, but if I were to give an early season Least Valuable Medical staff, Minnesota would certainly get some consideration. I fear getting injured by merely mentioning Minnesota players.
On the bright side, the three-headed frontcourt hydra of Kevin Love, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic put up 71 points and 34 rebounds in a win against Phoenix on Saturday.
While I acknowledge that "strange" isn't the most descriptive word in this language, the Nuggets make for a strange League Pass watch. The offense appears to be utter chaos of the occasionally successful variety, because defenses don't know what to anticipate. Denver lacks shooters, but that's in part because Danilo Gallinari forgot how to shoot (save for the last five games, that is).
It's a wholly unconventional, frenetic team, but one that boasts a lot of traditional rebounding, non-shooting bigs. Denver still has a lot of potential, but one senses that the roster pieces aren't quite right.
While much of the blame should fall on Ty Lawson for underperforming this season, I suspect that he'd be better with more floor space. The Nuggets should take some of their assets and swap those for three-point shooters, in my humble opinion.
Steve Nash has been a big help for this offense, and he looked at his best in an impressive Christmas Day win over the Knicks. It wasn't just that he had 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go along with 11 assists; it's that Nash controlled the team's offense in some of the game's more tense moments, hitting an especially big runner late in the fourth quarter.
Nash was less impressive in the Lakers' most recent win against Portland, but that's only because they didn't need much from him. They crushed the Blazers from the outset in what became a 104-87 romp.
Perhaps most encouraging of all has been Pau Gasol's energetic play since Nash's return. It's as though the Laker point guard allows Gasol to feel comfortable. Yes, the Lakers did lose to Denver on Wednesday, but it's hard to grouse much about a high-altitude end of the back-to-back when other factors are so positive.
The Team Nobody Loves has churned out four wins in a row. On Saturday, it had a fantastic offensive performance against the defensively stout Indiana Pacers, going 55 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range. They also weren't playing with Josh Smith, who was out with an injury.
It's one game, but I sometimes wonder whether the Atlanta offense would be better off without Smith and his terrible shot selection. It's mostly the same story from the incredibly talented, incredibly maddening Hawks power forward. He's taking and missing a lot of long twos when he'd be better served driving and posting up.
On the positive side for Smith, he's shooting .356 from three-point territory. Are we about to enter an era of long-distance competence from Josh Smith? In that case, ditch the long two, embrace the trey.
The Warriors are about to enter a brutal stretch of games, including two in a row against the white-hot Los Angeles Clippers. Warriors fans had better enjoy the 21-10 record right now, because the good times might take a bit of a pause soon.
It's still great to pause at a point like 21-10, though. The Warriors are doing it by hedging less with their bigs on defense and by playing excellent bench guys. The Clippers get all the bench publicity, but Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry both have Sixth Man of the Year arguments at this juncture of the season.
While I expect Jack's .439 from three-point range to regress some, he's been masterful in other ways at steering the offense through trouble. Jack is Golden State's crunch-time killer, even though he's a journeyman who happens to hail from the bench.
The Grizzlies got soundly beaten at home by Philadelphia on Wednesday, which is the kind of thing that can happen to a team with a mediocre offense. At the beginning of this season, the Memphis O was rolling, and it looked as though they might have evolved as a collective system. Now, they're down to middle of the pack in offensive efficiency.
Not only is losing to Philadelphia at home the kind of thing that can happen to a mediocre offense, but having Rudy Gay take the most shots on your team is the kind of thing that engenders a mediocre offense. The Grizzlies likely think of themselves as contenders, but I would beg to differ.
Unless they can make a move to get that offense in order, I don't see a way out of the West for them.
The Knicks insist that there is no structural damage to Carmelo Anthony's left knee. That might be a comfort to Knicks fans, and I say "might," because the organization has a bit of a reputation on matters of honesty and PR.
Without Anthony, the Knicks are adrift. They needed a miracle J.R. Smith shot to save them against Phoenix and narrowly lost to the mighty Sacramento Kings. While Melo wouldn't be my MVP choice at this juncture of the season (I'm leaning toward Durant), he's certainly made himself appear valuable by not playing.
Speaking of which, J.R. Smith has averaged 25 shots per game in Carmelo's absence. That's not exactly a recipe for success.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seem like a married couple who like each other for the long haul but cherish their moments apart. True to form, LeBron had a great game (35 points on 22 shots, six assists, five rebounds, six steals) when Dwyane Wade was sidelined with a dirty-play suspension. The problem was that Miami's defense reverted to bad, old form, ceding 63 percent on threes to the victorious Detroit Pistons.
Perhaps it's good that Wade gets some validation, even in the form of a loss. There's been some negativity swirling around him, some of it coming from Charles Barkley.
Wade has responded with some spirited play of late. His true shooting percentage is roughly 58 percent, though his shots and involvement are down from past seasons. In short, Wade isn't the problem for a Miami team that occasionally struggles at defense and rebounding.
Of course, the Heat then followed up Wade's return by getting trounced in Milwaukee. It was looking like their defense was on the rise, but Miami is falling apart on perimeter rotations yet again.
Recently, we've been hit with a reminder that it's not always going to be so easy for Oklahoma City. It had a tough national TV loss to Minnesota, followed by a hard-fought national TV loss to Miami, followed by a national TV near-loss to Dallas. At least they throttled the Rockets again.
Speaking of national exposure, let's hope that last one never becomes a playoff series. It looks like it'd end in four games.
My, have the Thunder been on your television a lot, though. Their publicized mini-struggles mean more scrutiny of the controversial Russell Westbrook, who has had a difficult-to-analyze season thus far. He's passing so well, but he's also shooting terribly—and shooting often. Nobody's sure how to judge a point guard who shoots under 40 percent, gets over eight assists a game and shoots over 18 times a game. It's mind-scrambling.
If the world cared about the Spurs, we might focus on how they kept churning out wins (12 in 18 games) while talented swingman Kawhi Leonard was out with an injury. We might also focus on how they got even better upon his recent return to the lineup (five wins in a row).
We don't pay attention to either storyline because: a) Spurs victories are taken for granted; and b) We forget that certain players contribute to said victories.
We're also taking Tim Duncan for granted, as per usual. He has the best PER of anyone listed as a power forward. Of course, Timmy isn't really a power forward, but still: That's quite the accomplishment for a 36-year-old.
Yep, 17 in a row—and counting.
The Clippers are the best team in basketball. This does not mean that I would pick them to win a title, nor that I would even pick them to win the Western Conference. They've just happened to be the best team over the 2012-13 season so far, and objectively so. Los Angeles still has the best record and point differential.
Now that that's out of the way, let us consider whether Blake Griffin is the game's best power forward (among guys who are listed as such). If you want to consider LeBron or Melo a PF, then they certainly blow Griffin out of the water. But if it's Griffin versus an out-of-shape Kevin Love, David Lee and defensively lacking LaMarcus Aldridge, Griffin has a real case.