The halfway mark of the 2012-13 NBA season is as good a time as any to reassess the big picture of contenders for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
The Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder are back in the eye of the storm, as most expected coming into the campaign. Granted, the defending champs aren't setting the basketball world ablaze to the extent that the Thunder are, but the Heat are thus far milking the benefit of the doubt given on account of their 2012 title.
The San Antonio Spurs remain in the mix and, as always, hardly a peep has been heard about their long-term prospects. The Memphis Grizzlies have fallen into a similar category since their torrid start, though trade rumors regarding Rudy Gay have since thrust them back into the spotlight.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers and the New York Knicks appear to have supplanted the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics in the discussion in their respective conferences. However, the Lakers and the C's have both shown signs of life of late—the latter more so than the former.
For a look at where all these teams stand as of mid-January, we turn to the "sages" of Las Vegas (via bovada.lv) to reset the NBA title race.
Note: All statistics and odds are accurate as of January 18th, 2013.
The Trail Blazers are currently a half-game out of the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff picture, thanks in large part to the efforts of Damian Lillard. The first-year point guard from Weber State has been nothing short of sensational, particularly on the offensive end. He leads all rookies in points (18.1) and assists (6.5) to go along with 3.5 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game.
But even Lillard's efforts may not be enough to keep Portland in the postseason hunt. The Blazers have dropped each of their last three games by slim margins and currently sport an alarmingly negative point differential (minus-2.1 per game).
With the Utah Jazz, the Dallas Mavericks, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Lakers all poised to make moves at the trade deadline and/or get back into the hunt as their stars heal up, don't be surprised if the Blazers tire and fall further back into the lottery, especially given their alarming lack of depth.
The Philadelphia 76ers' title odds would probably be much worse if not for the impending return of Andrew Bynum.
As it stands, the Sixers' picture isn't a particularly rosy one. They've dropped 17 of their last 23 games and sit four-and-a-half games behind the eighth-seed Boston Celtics. They're anemic offensively (25th in offensive efficiency) and patently average defensively (19th in defensive efficiency).
This, despite an All-Star-caliber campaign by Jrue Holiday and a schedule that ranks among the least difficult in the NBA so far.
Bynum thinks he might be ready to go by the All-Star break, but he can't come back soon enough to suit the Sixers as they attempt to claw their way back into the playoff race.
The Jazz are currently on the fence separating "Buyers" and "Sellers" as the trade deadline approaches. On the one hand, Utah is 21-19, in a virtual tie with the Houston Rockets for the seventh seed in the West.
On the other hand, the Jazz sport a pair of big men—Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap—on expiring contracts who could prove to be valuable trade chips. The (occasionally) eye-opening play of Utah's young bigs, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, has left head coach Tyrone Corbin with a bit of a conundrum as to who to play and when.
And, in the bigger picture, the organization as a whole with a pivotal decision: settle for the potential of a fringe playoff spot now, or blow it up by trading Jefferson and/or Millsap and build for the future?
In any case, Utah's chances of winning the title are slim to none, even if the team remains in the playoff picture going forward.
Strange as it may seem, the Timberwolves, at 16-20, haven't been cast aside completely by the oracles in Sin City just yet.
Even though Kevin Love could be out until March and Ricky Rubio has yet to fully recover from ACL surgery.
The bookmakers' faith in Minny may have something to do with the bang-up job Rick Adelman has done to keep this team afloat. Being four games under .500 isn't much to write home about in and of itself, but for Adelman's T-Wolves, who've had just three players (Luke Ridnour, Alexey Shved and Dante Cunningham) take part in all 35 of their games thus far, that apparent mediocrity is an accomplishment in and of itself.
If the T-Wolves can hold the fort for another month or so, they might just be able to sneak their way into the postseason once Love's hand is fit for full contact.
It's tough to characterize the Bucks' place in a virtual tie for the seventh seed in the East as a comfortable one. Milwaukee is currently 20-18, including a 4-2 mark since Scott Skiles stepped down on January 8th.
Then again, the competition in the muddled middle of the Eastern Conference isn't exactly stellar. The Sixers appear to pose the biggest threat, while the Detroit Pistons, the Toronto Raptors and the Orlando Magic—the next three teams in the standings—are all closer to the last-place Washington Wizards than they are to the eighth-place Bucks.
To their credit, the Bucks boast a ton of size and energy up front between Larry Sanders, John Henson, Ekpe Udoh, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. And, in Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, they have a pair of scoring guards who can always shoot them into any given game.
Or, just as quickly shoot Milwaukee out of one.
Better than waiting on Andrew Bogut's ankle to heal up, I suppose.
The exact capacity of that activity remains to be seen. Right now, the signs seem to point to the Mavs sacrificing some of their cap flexibility to land themselves a star or star-like talent, seeing as how Chris Paul and Dwight Howard aren't likely to take less money to play in the Metroplex this summer.
Unless, perhaps, the Mavs can pry Josh Smith, one of Howard's closest friends, from the Atlanta Hawks before February 21st.
Dallas could certainly use the help. The Mavs' current four-game winning streak has helped to stop the bleeding after a brutal stretch during which they dropped 13 of 15. Dirk Nowitzki is rounding into form, but not quickly enough to counteract the respective returns of OJ Mayo and Darren Collison to their more earthbound selves after hot starts.
Then again, if the whole operation winds up down the tubes over the next few weeks, the Mavs may well look to offload some of their more fungible assets in an attempt to construct a winning outfit for 2013-14.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey deserves all the credit in the world for putting together a team that's not only entertaining as heck to watch, but also a legitimate threat to crack the postseason for the first time since 2009.
And with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the stars of Houston's last playoff squad, both working in China, no less.
Kevin McHale has done a masterful job of turning the Rockets' status as the NBA's youngest team from a weakness into a strength. They play at the fastest pace in the league, attack the basket with reckless abandon (fifth in free throws per field-goal attempt, second in points in the paint) and get more of their points and field goal attempts from behind the three-point line than any team other than the New York Knicks.
Houston's defense (20th in efficiency) remains a work-in-progress. But, on the whole, the Rockets are a joy to follow on League Pass, thanks in no small part to the budding chemistry between James Harden and Jeremy Lin. This team is a way away from title contention, but has the talent to build something special over the long haul and the trade chips to accelerate the maturation process in the interim.
It's all but official: the Atlanta Hawks are no longer soaring. A 109-95 win over the blazing-hot Brooklyn Nets helped to stem the tide of a slide that saw the Hawks drop six games in seven tries.
Even in victory, it's clear that Atlanta is currently coming apart at the seams. The Hawks suspended star forward Josh Smith for the game for the typically-collegian offense of "conduct detrimental to the team," perhaps stoking the flames of another round of Smith-related trade rumors.
Hawks general manager Danny Ferry may well choose to parlay Smith's expiring contract into a package of valuable assets with which to rebuild the middling franchise. Little was expected of Atlanta coming into the season after Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams were sent packing for flotsam and Devin Harris (i.e. also flotsam) over the summer.
But the Hawks' assortment of slashers (Lou Williams, Jeff Teague, Harris), shooters (Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow) and versatile bigs (Smith, Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia) has proven surprisingly potent, at least in the early going. Atlanta has slipped from third in the East to sixth in recent weeks, though only a handful of games separate the Hawks from the upper echelon in the conference.
In any case, it'll be up to Danny Ferry to determine whether this team should bother with another so-so postseason seed or continue to scale back. What's clear, though, is that the Hawks aren't yet prepared to truly challenge the Heat, the Knicks, the Celtics and the Chicago Bulls for Eastern Conference supremacy.
A blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder doesn't change the fact that the Denver Nuggets are, for all intents and purposes, the Hawks of the West—a team that's good enough to make the playoffs without appearing prepared to win much more than a single playoff series, if that.
Not to take anything away from the Nuggets. Prior to January 16th, Denver had been on a bit of a tear, winning six in a row, seven of eight, nine of 11 and 12 of 16.
As expected. A brutal early-season schedule, filled with road trips and tough matchups, made the Nuggets' attempt to adjust to life with Andre Iguodala on board and Ty Lawson set to make significantly more money that much harder.
But, at last, the Nuggets are starting to attack the hoop and run teams ragged amidst the thin air at the Pepsi Center. Their assortment of bigs remains somewhat miscast, due to Kenneth Faried's lack of true size and Danilo Gallinari's vanishing accuracy.
Nonetheless, this squad has the talent, athleticism and experience to make some noise come playoff time. Also, don't be surprised if general manager Masai Ujiri makes another shrewd move within the next month or so, especially given the interest seldom-used center Timofey Mozgov is reportedly garnering on the open market.
The Pacers' 50-to-1 title odds don't seem so unfair in the wake of their 97-86 loss to the lowly Magic. But, given Indy's recent run of play, one might've expected Sin City to be a bit more generous in the Pacers' case.
The Pacers stand as the third seed in the Eastern Conference, just a half-game ahead of the Brooklyn Nets and the Chicago Bulls and three behind the Heat for top honors. A run of 13 wins in 17 games had done wonders for Indy's once-moribund place among the pack.
As had the team's wholehearted adoption of a defensive identity. Even after losing to Orlando, the Pacers' defense remains the stingiest in the NBA, allowing a mere 95.6 points per 100 possessions.
Oddly enough, Danny Granger may be among those most to credit for the turnaround, despite having played nary a minute this season on account of injury. His absence has allowed Paul George to continue his climb toward stardom while forcing the Pacers to rely even more on their effort and synchronicity on the defensive end.
Playing a grind-it-out, defense-first style may not be fun to watch, but when the pace of play slows and every possession becomes paramount in the postseason, the Pacers may well find themselves among those best prepared to bludgeon their way through the East.
Believe it or not, the Golden State Warriors—yes, the Golden State Warriors—have established their rightful place within the Western Conference playoff picture on a foundation of strong team defense.
Head coach Mark Jackson has instilled a certain toughness in a franchise long known for playing fast-paced, wide-open basketball (defense be damned!). The Warriors currently rank a respectable 11th in defensive efficiency, sixth in opponent effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of three-pointers) and fifth in rebounding percentage.
And they still score, shoot and push the pace at top-10 rates. Stephen Curry has been spectacular as a scoring point guard while avoiding damage to his troubled ankle (for the most part) and Klay Thompson's shooting has finally come back online a bit.
But the real surprise in the Bay has been the play of David Lee and Carl Landry, particularly in tandem. Lee is the closest thing the league has to a 20-10 man at the moment—he's 10th in scoring (19.7 points) and seventh in rebounding (10.9 boards). Landry, meanwhile, is averaging 12.1 points and 6.6 rebounds off the bench for Golden State. Together, these two have helped the Warriors to outscore the opposition by 6.9 points per 100 possessions, as gleaned from a sample size of over 500 minutes.
Now, nobody's suggesting that the Dubs are a threat to win the West. However, a playoff berth—the franchise's first since the days of the "We Believe" Warriors—would be progress enough for this long-suffering squad.
The Nets' 109-95 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on January 16th was just their second such result of the PJ Carlesimo Era. They're now 9-2 since Avery Johnson was run out (by Deron Williams), though seven of those wins have come against teams under the .500 mark.
Whatever the quality of the competition, this recent run of play has been enough to propel Brooklyn back to within just a few games of the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Nets would be hard-pressed to contest Miami's claim, but a run at the No. 2 seed isn't out of the question.
That is, so long as D-Will and Joe Johnson haven't already hit the downward slopes of their respective careers and Brook Lopez continues to hold the fort in the middle of the floor. Gerald Wallace's return from bruised ribs bodes well for Brooklyn's defensive improvement—the Nets are currently 21st in defensive efficiency.
All told, Brooklyn isn't about to inspire championship-caliber confidence—at least, not in anyone outside the New York metropolitan area—but sports more than enough veteran talent to win a playoff series (or two) for the first time since 2007.
Speaking of teams making injury-related comebacks, the Boston Celtics have been on a roll since Avery Bradley returned from double shoulder surgery. The C's had won six in a row with Bradley back at shooting guard until suffering a 90-78 loss to the New Orleans Hornets on January 16th.
That defeat aside, the Celtics have looked much more like the Celtics of old since the calendar turned to 2013. They're back to defending and forcing turnovers at a top-10 rate while taking care of it on the other end. Rajon Rondo is handling the ball and creating for his teammates, to the point where he's leading the league in assists by a country mile. Paul Pierce is scoring like a player five years his junior, thanks to what Jalen Rose calls his "Old Man Game." Kevin Garnett is anchoring the backline of Boston's defense at an All-Star level, and Bradley is doing the same on the perimeter.
And Boston's bench, once a liability, has developed into another strength, with Jason Terry moving out of the starting lineup and rookie Jared Sullinger finally finding his footing down low.
A 20-18 record and the eighth seed in the East may not seem like much, but with the way the pieces are falling into the place, these C's may well have the horses to sneak their way back into the Eastern Conference Finals once the playoffs roll around.
Tom Thibodeau has once again done a masterful job of keeping the Chicago Bulls together without the services of Derrick Rose. The Bulls are currently 22-15, good enough for fourth-place in the Eastern Conference, despite lacking a true shot-creator amidst an offense that ranks 20th in efficiency.
How's Chicago managed it? Simple: by playing hard-nosed, typically-Thibs defense. The Bulls are fourth in defensive efficiency, seventh in rebounding percentage and second in opponent effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of the three-point shot).
Their efforts in this regard have been aided by the play of Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, both of whom are defending at an All-World level so far. Those two, along with Carlos Boozer, have combined to carry Chicago's offense as well, to the tune of 46.3 points and 9.2 assists per game.
Whether the Bulls can sustain this level of success remains to be seen. Deng (40.2 minutes) and Noah (38.4 minutes) rank first and fifth in the NBA, respectively, in minutes per game, and Chicago has relied a bit too heavily on Richard Hamilton to provide perimeter scoring.
Luckily for the Bulls, D-Rose is on the mend and could be back in action around the All-Star break.
Have the Rudy Gay trade rumors doomed the Memphis Grizzlies, or did the flurry of hearsay simply pre-empt a slide that was already well underway?
Whatever the case may be, the Grizzlies have fallen off considerably in recent weeks. A 103-82 loss to the Spurs on January 16th was Memphis' third in a row (by an average of 22.7 points, no less) and dropped the team's record to a middling 6-7 since its scorching 18-6 start.
The causes of the Grizzlies' regression, beyond the maelstrom surrounding Rudy Gay, aren't all that difficult to pinpoint, either. Memphis' bench scoring and three-point shooting have both collapsed since a hot start—the Grizzlies now rank 29th in reserve scoring and 22nd in three-point percentage.
Not that this is all reason enough for full-blown doom and gloom in the Music City. Memphis still sports the second-stingiest defense, stands third in rebounding percentage and features a pair of giants, in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who, while earthbound and relatively slow, are both incredibly smart and skilled players who do a fantastic job of anchoring this team on both ends of the floor.
Still, if the Grizz are to get back on that "Memphis Grind" and truly challenge for the title, they'll need to snag themselves a shooter (or two) and another slasher who can create his own shot.
Which, inevitably, brings Rudy Gay back to the fore.
Need proof that the bookies in Vegas are not, in fact, infallible? Look no further than the Los Angeles Lakers.
Sin City currently has the Lakers listed as a top-six title contender, despite the fact that LA is five games under .500, has been riddled with injuries and has played atrocious team defense more often than not.
Apparently, Vegas still sees the Lakers through Jim Buss-colored glasses. The big names in Purple and Gold—Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol—look good on paper, and the supporting cast is finally showing signs of life, especially since Earl Clark burst onto the scene.
And, if this team cracks the postseason picture, they boast the requisite experience to make hay in the Western Conference. Kobe and Pau have won titles together, Dwight's carried a team to the NBA Finals and Nash and Mike D'Antoni came close with the Phoenix Suns once upon a time.
Unfortunately for fans in LA, that "if" is a rather large one. The Western Conference playoff race is uncrowding before the Lakers' very eyes, but what good would that do if they wound up opposite the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs?
The Lakers' best hope for title contention, it seems, is to get healthy, play their way into a series with the Clippers, and hope their historical mojo against their "little brothers" can carry them to what would (strangely enough) be a monumental upset.
Carmelo Anthony has been getting a ton of attention this season as an MVP, but he might not even hold that distinction on his own team. The New York Knicks have a 20-point win over the mighty Miami Heat sans 'Melo on their resume.
To be sure, the Knicks' overall record without Anthony (3-4) is far from sterling, though the same could certainly be said of this squad minus Raymond Felton. The Knicks are a middling 5-5 since Felton was sidelined with a fractured pinky, including a stretch of three losses against Eastern Conference playoff contenders.
But Felton is aiming to return to action much sooner than initially expected. New York could certainly use Ray around to lend life to an offense that's gone limp without his dribble penetration. With nobody to drive and kick, the Knicks' perimeter shots haven't been quite as wide open as before, and their percentages have tailed off accordingly.
If any fast-starting team was bound to slow down, it was these Knicks. They'd been far too reliant on streaky three-point shooting and decrepit veterans (i.e. Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby) to stitch together what was admittedly an impressive fabric of wins.
The Knicks have paid a bit of a price since their 18-5 start. However, with Felton on the mend, Amar'e Stoudemire getting his legs back under him and 'Melo and Tyson Chandler anchoring the squad on either end, New York could be a serious threat in the East come playoff time, assuming all the disparate parts come together.
Another year, another strong regular season for the San Antonio Spurs. If the playoffs started today, the Spurs would be the three-seed in the West by way of a 30-11 record, one that puts them just two games behind the NBA-best Oklahoma City Thunder and a game-and-a-half back of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The actual gap between those two and the Spurs, though, may be much wider, at least as far as title contention is concerned. San Antonio has lost twice to the Clips this season, and would probably be 0-2 against OKC if not for Tony Parker saving the team's behind in the second game of the season.
Not that the Spurs don't have the requisite talent and experience to win big in the postseason. Parkers' enjoying arguably the finest season of his spectacular career (19.4 points, 7.2 assists, .520 from the field, .426 from three) and Tim Duncan is enjoying a resurgence of his own (17.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.8 blocks). Both have helped to keep the Spurs afloat amidst the age-related decline (and now injury-riddle absence) of Sixth Man extraordinaire Manu Ginobili.
Which brings to mind a bigger question—can the Spurs keep this up long enough to bring home a fifth Larry O'Brien Trophy?
Maybe. General manager RC Buford and head coach Gregg Popovich have done a masterful job in recent years of injecting their squad with younger, more athletic players, among them Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter. In the meantime, it helps the Spurs' case that they're one of two teams in the NBA that ranks among the top-five in offensive and defensive efficiency.
The other being the Clippers.
Still, none of that will matter if San Antonio's Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili isn't fit enough to stay on the court and play effectively through April and May, and potentially into June.
What's not to like about the Los Angeles Clippers right now?
They're a franchise-best 31-9 through their first 40 games, thanks to an offense that ranks fourth in efficiency and a defense that checks in third in points allowed per 100 possessions. They can play fast (fifth in fast-break points) or slow, inside (third in points in the paint) or out.
Two of their starters (Blake Griffin and Chris Paul) will be serving in the same capacity for the Western Conference squad at the 2013 NBA All-Star Game. One of them (Paul) has missed the last three games, though the Clips have won all three on the strength of a bench that's arguably the NBA's best, with Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe leading the way.
And is only getting better. Lamar Odom is rounding back into proper form, Grant Hill made his Clippers debut this week, and Chauncey Billups' return, whenever it comes, will probably push Willie Green, a surprisingly competent starter, back into the second unit, if he's lucky.
It would seem, then, that the Clippers will only be held back insofar as they allow their coaching, lack of championship experience among its top seven players and haunted franchise history to do just that. LA has already beaten the Miami Heat handily and pushed the Thunder into overtime this season, thereby showing that they can hang with the best of the best.
All that's left to do now is prove they can do it when the games really matter.
Also in the Clippers' way? The Thunder.
Who, as it happens, are still rather formidable, even without James Harden coming off the bench.
The Thunder have won their last five games in a row—four by double-digit margins—to move to an NBA-best 31-8 on the season. They own the league's best point differential (plus-9.6 points), the most efficient offense and the sixth-stingiest defense.
How'd they do it, even after sending Harden, a potential top-10 player and likely All-Star, to the Houston Rockets prior to the season?
As they always have—on the backs of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both superstars are enjoying transformative (if not entirely transcendent) seasons in 2012-13. Durant is scoring as much (28.7 points) and as efficiently (.525 from the field, .402 from three, .901 from the line) as he ever has, while morphing into the sort of fear-inducing, jack-of-all-trades menace on both ends of the floor that's helped to entrench LeBron James as the best player on the planet in recent years.
Westbrook, meanwhile, continues to fluctuate between Good Russ and Bad Russ, but has done a much better job of picking his spots as a scorer (22.4 points) while working to become more of a point-guard-like facilitator (8.3 assists, 41.3 percent assist rate).
That's not to discount the development of Serge Ibaka into far more than just a shot-blocking menace, or to ignore how seamlessly Kevin Martin has slid into Harden's role as a scoring sixth man.
But if this team is to make a return trip to the NBA Finals (and emerge victorious), it'll need Durant and Westbrook to dominate the competition to an even greater extent than they have so far this season.
It's fair to say that the Miami Heat haven't been particularly impressive on the whole this season. Their 26-12 record is the best in the Eastern Conference, but remains only one game better than that of second-place New York and six ahead of the eighth-seed Celtics.
Miami's fast-paced, small-ball offense has been spectacular at times (third in efficiency), but the defense (12th in efficiency) has come and gone, and the Heat's lack of size has left them vulnerable on the boards (26th in rebounding percentage).
Luckily, the Heat have enough going for them to think that they'll be the favorites come playoff time. For one, LeBron James still plays in Miami, and he just so happens to be the best player on planet Earth. His last two nationally-televised performances—25 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists against the Warriors; a season-high 39 points, seven rebounds and eight assists opposite the Lakers—have served reminder of as much.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh haven't always carried their weight for Miami, though they're both fully capable of superstar-worthy play more often than not. The Heat's 2012 title has also granted them the benefit of the doubt that once eluded them at every turn. Now, when the team struggles, there are more calls for calm than for panic in the basketball world.
Not that there isn't reason enough for concern. The Heat clearly struggle against teams with size, since such opponents force them to play the offensively-inept Joel Anthony. Their defensive effort has been almost as maddeningly inconsistent as the contributions of their bench, to which Ray Allen hasn't always added as much as expected.
And the Heat's reliance on LeBron to save them, time and again, could come back to bite them should the reigning MVP wear down.
But, for now, the Eastern Conference is weak, making Miami's road to a repeat the best bet of any in basketball.