10 Takeaways from the First Half of the NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2013

10 Takeaways from the First Half of the NBA Season

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    Plenty of basketball remains before the 2013 NBA champion is crowned.

    But two-plus months of compelling games and even more intriguing storylines have afforded some early glimpses into how this year might play out.

    Some of those stories have inspired realistic championship hopes in places we'd never have imagined. Whether assembling the right pieces on the roster, fine-tuning what was already in place or putting the right people in positions of leadership, there has been no shortage of teams steering clear of the struggles of seasons past.

    Others, however, have simply perplexed the basketball world, as some traditional powerhouses have put forth uncharacteristic disasters.

    We thought LeBron James would continue his ascent up the all-time greatest lists, and that certainly hasn't changed.

    But my, how so many other things already have.

1. Linsanity Is Over

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    There wasn't a more inspirational story from the 2011-12 season than the global emergence of former NBA afterthought Jeremy Lin.

    His story of rejection, perseverance and ultimate triumph transcended the world of sports.

    The stark decline in media attention was to be expected given his offseason move to the Houston Rockets, but not even the savviest news veterans in the Big Apple could have spun his on-court struggles any differently.

    While he still nearly sniffed out a spot on the All-Star roster, he's probably relieved that moment never came to fruition. With 12 points and 6.0 assists per game and an unsightly 42.4 field-goal percentage on his 2012-13 resume, he's plummeted from the super elite ranks of phenomenon to the most humbling title of "fringe starter."

    Linsanity is no more than a memory at this point, and a distant one at that.

2. The NBA Needs a Protocol to Deal with Mental Illness

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    The end of Linsanity has not meant the end of stories that transcend the NBA, though.

    When the Houston Rockets selected Royce White with the 16th pick of the 2012 NBA draft, they did so knowing that the former Iowa State standout presented a peculiar situation for the franchise.

    White's generalized anxiety disorder presented a host of new obstacles for both the Rockets and the NBA altogether, not the least of which is his highly publicized fear of flying.

    The relationship has been a tumultuous one at best, with the rookie blasting the franchise for "inconsistent" efforts in treating his ailments (via Erik Malinowski of Deadspin.com). The team would eventually suspend White for "refusing to provide services" per the terms of his contract (via Jeff Caplan of NBA.com).

    Fans may not appreciate White's methods, but there's little denying that an opening of dialogue on a widely under-reported subject is positive. A healthy discourse on the subject leads to the implementation of protocol to handle similar situations in the future.

3. Stephen Curry's Snub Proves All-Star Selection Needs to Change

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    The relative insignificance of All-Star exhibitions is perhaps greatest seen in the NFL's continuing discussions over whether to suspend its Pro Bowl entirely (via Chris Mortensen of ESPN).

    But while the game itself lacks in importance, the actual selection to the All-Star roster represents one of the greatest achievements for any player in the league.

    Besides the financial gains afforded to the participants in the NBA, there's also the uplifting sense of pride in knowing that one's on-court performances had been publicly recognized by either the fans (who select the game's starters) or the coaches (who pick the reserves).

    It's a feeling that should have been extended to Stephen Curry. After two seasons of nagging ankle injuries, the finally healthy point guard has posted All-Star-caliber numbers this season: 20.9 points, 6.6 assists and 1.7 steals per game and an eye-opening 45.1 three-point percentage.

    With his team more than holding its own in the Western Conference (at 26-15, Golden State owns the fifth spot), there simply wasn't a legitimate reason to keep him out of the proceedings.

    The selection process is in dire need of a face-lift. While the fans should continue to have a say in the makeup of the teams, their autonomous votes need to be a thing of the past.

    Here's my idea: Give the fans and coaches an equal percentage of votes for the starters, and let the players pick the reserves. At least then players like Curry will know who was responsible for the travesties presented each year during the voting process.

4. Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis Lead Better-Than-Advertised 2012 Draft Class

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    If you listened to the pundits, the 2012 draft class wasn't supposed to be as bad as the 2011 group was, but there wasn't a lot of certainty surrounding any player not named Anthony Davis.

    Davis has done his best to validate that lofty status (20.9 player efficiency rating, via basketball-reference.com), but he's far from the only rookie impressing at the midway point.

    Lillard has ousted Davis as the Rookie of the Year front-runner, leading all rookies in scoring (18.3 points per game) and assists (6.6).

    Bradley Beal (13.6 points per game, 36.0 three-point percentage) has elevated the status of the Washington Wizards backcourt, while Andre Drummond (7.5 points, 7.4 rebounds in 20 minutes per game) is looking much more boom than bust for the Detroit Pistons.

    With Dion Waiters (14.6 points), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (10.1 points and 6.1 rebounds), Harrison Barnes (9.0 points and 4.4 rebounds) and Jared Sullinger (6.3 points, 6.0 rebounds in 20.0 minutes per game) all rounding into form, this class appears headed in the right direction.

5. Teams Can Win Without a Superstar

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    The Chicago Bulls (25-16) and Indiana Pacers (26-17) have solidified their positions among the Eastern Conference elite despite not seeing a minute of play from their superstars (Derrick Rose and Danny Granger, respectively).

    Those glaring voids at the top of the rotation have left gobs of opportunities, which have been devoured by first-time All-Stars Paul George (Indiana) and Joakim Noah (Chicago).

    But it's not just the teams that have risen in the face of adversity that have challenged the conventional belief that teams need superstar talent to compete.

    Think about the Atlanta Hawks, who cut ties with Joe Johnson over the summer in a cost-cutting move to put the club in position to win down the line. The remaining players on the roster haven't taken that same patient approach, but rather kept this club in the playoff hunt.

    The Western Conference has seen a host of clubs climbing the ladder without a superstar (injured or otherwise) on the roster. The Memphis Grizzlies have spent the first half of the season with a stranglehold on the fourth spot, while the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz (both 8-2 in their past 10 games) have changed their goals from grabbing a playoff berth to improving their seeding.

6. The Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets Are Legitimate Contenders

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    Just one month ago, the Brooklyn Nets were in disarray.

    Things had soured so quickly that the club cut ties with head coach Avery Johnson despite a .500 winning percentage.

    Apparently they knew what they were doing. Interim coach P.J. Carlesimo has sparked a rejuvenated Nets team to a 12-2 mark during his first 14 games at the helm. They've trimmed a once-sizable Atlantic Division deficit to just a single game behind their in-state rivals, the New York Knicks.

    As for the Warriors, they continue defying odds. Coach Mark Jackson (whose coaching resume holds nothing more than a strike-shortened 2011-12 season and the first half of this year) has his club competing on the defensive end without sacrificing its prolific offense.

    The Warriors' 26-15 mark isn't the result of a generous schedule, as the team has already defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers (three times).

    Early-season success doesn't guarantee sustainability, but the way these clubs battle on the defensive end leaves them legitimate threats in their respective conferences.

7. Paul George, Kyrie Irving Ready to Lead the Next Wave of Stars

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    The passing of the torch between superstars of overlapping generations isn't always a smooth transition.

    But for any fans worried about the state of the league when the likes of Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki step away from the game, the first-half performances of players like George and Irving has been a reassurance that this league is in great hands.

    George's monumental rise over his first three seasons (his 17.3 points per game mark nearly a 10-point jump over the 7.8 he averaged in his rookie year of 2010-11) has shifted the lanky wingman from building his brand of potential to now delivering with production.

    George has more than filled the void left by Danny Granger, but he's done so with a competent core of players around him.

    Irving's Cleveland Cavaliers teammates have limited his effectiveness and increased the level of attention thrown his way by opposing defenses, yet the point guard has played so well he's punched his first All-Star ticket.

    Those natural point guard abilities that had scouts salivating in the days before the 2011 draft remain very much intact. They've just been masked by the fact that coach Byron Scott has leaned so heavily on Irving for scoring.

    Although repeatedly calling his own number may be waging wars with his instincts to involve his teammates, his 23.7 points per game are a credit to his versatility.

8. Carmelo Anthony Has Redefined His Career

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    Knicks fans wanted to believe that the decision to bring Carmelo Anthony to New York was the right move. They tried pretending that the team's five-game dismantling by the Heat in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs never happened. Or that their experienced roster could actually outrun Father Time in a race to the NBA Finals.

    It was an optimistic leap of faith if there ever were one.

    But one that's been made possible by the evolution of Anthony.

    He's always enjoyed individual success, although critics would tell you that much of it came at the expense of his teammates.

    That couldn't be further from the truth so far this season.

    His career-best 25.1 player efficiency rating just hints at the improvements of his two-way effectiveness. Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd and coach Mike Woodson have received a lot of the credit for the team's defensive improvements, but their words would have fallen on deaf ears if not for Anthony buying in.

    He's talented enough to battle his way through some rough nights by his teammates, and now wise enough to allow them to pick him up when he's struggling.

9. LeBron James Still Best on Earth, but Kevin Durant Is Closing the Gap

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    LeBron James knew what he needed to elevate his game to a championship level, so he enlisted the help of Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon to help him enter the daunting realm of the NBA post.

    Considering the teacher (the best post scorer of his generation) and the student (then a two-time MVP), the results of those sessions were both predictable and remarkable: James' first NBA championship and unquestioned position as the best player on Earth.

    Kevin Durant took a different approach for improving his game. Rather then seeking out an all-time great, he chose the game's current greatest as his mentor, joining James in Akron over the past two seasons for a training period the duo have dubbed "Hell Week" (via Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com).

    Durant has responded with a James-like performance from all areas of the floor. One wouldn't assume that the reigning three-time scoring champion would need to improve his offense, but better playmaking skills (4.4 assists) and shot selection (52.0 field-goal percentage) have afforded him a career-best 29.2 player efficiency rating.

    Like James, Durant has shown a better understanding of the importance of playing both ends of the floor. With his length and athleticism, it's been a frustrating development for the opposition.

    He's still not on James' level defensively and can't yet match his court vision.

    But he has staked his claim to the King's throne and won't hesitate to overthrow James if the reigning MVP shows any vulnerability.

10. The Los Angeles Lakers Are the League's Most Dysfunctional Franchise

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    It wouldn't be a complete picture of the first half without a mention of perhaps the most disappointing team in the league's history.

    During L.A's disastrous 17-25 start, seemingly everyone in the franchise has been labeled the scapegoat.

    Former coach Mike Brown was the first to wear that title, and it cost him his position just five games into the season. His eventual replacement, Mike D'Antoni, inherited more than Brown's job, as his coaching credentials have been ripped apart as the losses keep piling up.

    As for the players, it's been much of the same. Kobe Bryant tried shooting this team out of the basement. Dwight Howard whined for more touches despite not being effective with those that came his way, and his defensive effort showed his frustrations. Pau Gasol has blamed his own struggles on being miscast in D'Antoni's system as a stretch 4 (a valid argument), but that hasn't spared him from shouldering some of the blame.

    Here's the unfortunate truth for Lakers fans: Everyone has been at fault, and that started at the top.

    Brown might not have fared any better than D'Antoni, but his firing reeked of panic. When the front office decided that the aging Lakers could handle D'Antoni's up-tempo system despite the lack of perimeter threats (and presence of isolation players), the season was lost.

    The Lakers are a mismatched group of players, with a larger portion of those players in their decline than they'd like to admit.

    They need the kind of dramatic change that simply cannot happen in the midst of the regular season.