Winners and Losers from This Week in the NBA
The NBA held its own during the first week of March Madness. Much of the credit for that garnering of attention belongs to the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets, whose simultaneously historic streaks gave even the casual basketball fan reason to tune away from the NCAA tournament, if only for a short spell.
Of course, there's much more to the Association than just a pair of high-profile playoff teams. The week that was also bore witness to the resurgence of a pair of gifted point guards, the late-game agony of a certain team in green, and the ecstasy of another that had gone a full four months without tasting victory on consecutive occasions.
Not to mention one instance in which a franchise based north of the border was made to look both ahead of the curve and behind the eight ball by its own futuristic analytics.
Before you get too wrapped up in how a bunch of college kids are ruining your carefully constructed bracket, let's have a look at who "won" and who "lost" the week that was in the NBA.
Winner: LeBron James
If we're being honest here, we could give LeBron James a "Winner of the Week" just about every week. He's been the Eastern Conference Player of the Week five times and Player of the Month on four occasions, and has taken care of business in so many different ways (especially during the Miami Heat's 24-game winning streak) that he seems less like a basketball player and more like a super-powered chameleon on the court.
This last week, in particular, saw LeBron land a few more blows on that old, dead horse about his lack of "clutchness." He did it at the free-throw line against the Philadelphia 76ers. He did it from the left wing to seal a double-comeback victory against the Boston Celtics, and again to lead the Heat back from 27 down in Cleveland.
According to NBA.com, LeBron now ranks second in the league with 130 points scored during the last five minutes of games wherein the two teams are separated by no more than five points, to go along with his Association-best 50 assists under such circumstances.
So much for LeBron not having the mental fortitude to close out games.
Loser: Boston Celtics
Surely, the Boston Celtics could use a lesson or two from LeBron on how to finish games. They certainly got one on Monday, when James poured in 13 points in the fourth quarter, including the winning jumper over Jeff Green.
That game saw the C's choke away double-digit leads not once, but twice. Boston led by as many as 17 points in the first half and by 13 points in the fourth quarter but couldn't quite hang on, even with Green going off for the game of his life.
Of course, you could do worse than lose to the defending champs on your home parquet, even after owning the lead for most of the evening.
Like, say, cede another steady, double-digit margin to the New Orleans Hornets before getting out-tipped by Anthony Davis at the buzzer.
Let's just say the C's haven't had the best of luck against former No. 1 picks this week.
Winner: Charlotte Bobcats
It's not often that the Charlotte Bobcats have any excuse whatsoever to be included amongst the winners in a given week. So when the Bobcats beat the Washington Wizards one night and then the Toronto Raptors two nights later, I felt compelled to include them here when I could.
Who knows when I'd be able to justify it again? The 'Cats had gone four months without winning consecutive games. In fact, since doubling down on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Raptors in late November, Charlotte had compiled an abysmal record of 8-48.
Which, for some perspective, would grade out better than the historically awful 7-59 showing the 'Cats put forth last season.
With any luck, the 'Cats will push this winning trend to three games this weekend, when they welcome in the Detroit Pistons, who've thus far gone winless in March.
Loser: Lawrence Frank
Speaking of those Pistons, how about the job Lawrence Frank has done so far in Detroit? Through his first 135 games on the bench, Frank has led the Pistons to 48 wins and 87 losses, including defeats in each of his team's last nine games and 12 of its last 13.
Not that Frank is entirely to blame. He's been saddled with a roster replete with overpriced veterans, bewildered youngsters and all manner of filler-caliber flotsam. What's more, Frank recently spent six games away from the team to tend to his wife Susan amidst a major operation.
All of which has left Lawrence down in the dumps. He (correctly) characterized Detroit's 37-point smackdown by the Brooklyn Nets as "disheartening to watch" and has since gone on to wonder aloud about whether his status with the team is any safer than those of the players bound for free agency this summer.
And to think, it's been almost a decade since Frank began his head-coaching career with a perfect 13-0 start at the helm of the New Jersey Nets. How far the not-so-mighty have fallen, eh?
Loser: Philadelphia 76ers
At the very least, Lawrence Frank has plenty of company on the NBA hot seat. Doug Collins' "Three-Year Rule" (i.e. he's never been a head coach in any one place for more than three years) appears to be coming due again. Dougie Not-So-Fresh's Philadelphia 76ers continue to fall apart, this time by blowing a late-game lead against the Denver Nuggets that had the new owner up in arms on Twitter.
And that was just the insult added to the latest injury news regarding Andrew Bynum. The All-Star center will officially spend the entire 2012-13 season on the shelf after undergoing microfracture surgery on both of his bad knees. Meanwhile, the assets the Sixers sacrificed to acquire the All-Star center—Andrew Iguodala to the Nuggets, Nikola Vucevic and Moe Harkless to the Orlando Magic—are all enjoying productive campaigns with their current squads.
To call that trade and this season unmitigated disasters, then, would be more than fair. Not even the growth of Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young into franchise staples can change that.
Let's just hope, for Philly's sake, that the Sixers don't dig themselves another gaping hole this summer by spending beaucoup bucks to keep Bynum and Evan Turner long term. Better that the Sixers cut their losses and rebuild than tie up their money in underwhelming assets for the foreseeable future.
Winner: Denver Nuggets
As pathetic as it was for the Sixers to let that lead in the Mile High City evaporate into thin air, you can bet the Denver Nuggets didn't mind taking the result in their favor. The win extended Denver's current winning streak to a franchise-record 14 games, four of which have been decided by two points or fewer.
The Nuggets, though, have done far more than just pull out nail-biters against lottery-bound opponents. Eight of those 14 wins have come at the expense of fellow playoff foes, including two against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Denver's 10-point in OKC was particularly impressive, in part because the Thunder had lost just four games at home prior to that meeting, but also because the Nuggets had needed overtime to top the Chicago Bulls the night before.
The Nuggets still have a ways to go before they can catch up to Miami's epic streak and would need to carry this run through to 2013-14 to match what the Los Angeles Lakers did in 1971-72. For now, though, the Nuggets have been successful enough to sneak their way into the mix for home-court advantage in the first-round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Which, given Denver's league-best 31-3 record at the Pepsi Center, could mean a big postseason push for the Nuggets just two years removed from Carmelo Anthony's departure.
Loser: Los Angeles Clippers
If the Nuggets do, indeed, steal a top-four spot from someone, it may well come at the expense of the Los Angeles Clippers. They've alternated wins and losses through the first three weeks of March.
Of course, there's no shame in losing to the likes of the Thunder, Nuggets and Grizzlies. But a 15-point spanking by the Kings in Sacramento, in which the Clips allowed a middling offensive unit to pile up 116 points on 50.7 percent shooting, seemed cause enough for concern.
Even though that particular result might just as easily be explained away by injuries to Chauncey Billups and Eric Bledsoe, as well as by Toney Douglas' explosive fourth quarter.
But while those defeats may be forgivable in and of themselves, they count just the same in the standings. As such, the Clips now find themselves teetering on the brink of a bottom-four seed out West, "thanks" to the 15-13 mark they've posted since reaching the halfway point of the season at an NBA-best 32-9.
Winner: Deron Williams
Deron Williams, on the other hand, appears to be catching fire at just the right time. He's scored 31 points in each of his last two games, including a "Wish You Were Here"-worthy performance against his hometown Dallas Mavericks.
Those performances marked the first time all season that Williams has topped the 30-point plateau not only this season, but also since December of 2010, when he strung together three straight 30-plus-point games. Back when he was still a member of the Utah Jazz.
If the Brooklyn Nets intend to make some noise in the playoffs, they'll need D-Will playing at or near his former level far more consistently than he has thus far as a Tristate resident.
Winner: John Wall
Dear Basketball World, John Wall wants to be an All-Star.
At least, that's what his recent run of play would suggest. The third-year point guard has been plagued by injuries as a pro, but is finally showing more consistent flashes that corroborate the Washington Wizards' wisdom in making him the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft.
Not that there was really any debate about it at the time.
Wall's been particularly prolific since mid-March. In his last six games, Wall has averaged 23.3 points, 9.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 57.1 percent from the floor. He's still as speedy and athletic as ever, but has also shown much more touch as a passer and distributor.
Roles in which the Wizards will need Wall to thrive if their dead-last offense is to catch up to their top-10 defense in time for a playoff run next season.
Loser: Toronto Raptors
It's not every day that a sports franchise is so far ahead of the analytics curve that its own advanced evaluation techniques make everyone involved look foolish.
Then again, the Toronto Raptors aren't your average major-league team. Grantland's Zach Lowe did a masterful job of digging into how the Raptors have turned piles of data from STATS LLC's SportVU camera system into useful information about how the team should organize itself and what players should be doing under different circumstances on the court.
In doing so, though, the Raps have unintentionally revealed the extent of the disconnect between the team's analytics department and everyone else. The actual players seem to trail their "ghosts" more often than not, at least in what's shown.
Realistically, you don't need a state-of-the-art breakdown to understand that the Raps defense is subpar. One need only have watched them play since February 20th—during which time Toronto has dropped 10 of 13—to see the Raptors careen back toward the NBA draft lottery.