NBA Predictions: Top 25 Storylines To Watch for in 2011
The NBA is off to one of its most compelling, intriguing and entertaining regular season starts ever and as the calendar turns from 2010 to 2011, the drama that is encompassed in the league on a nightly basis will only continue to intensify as the year progresses.
Two cable television networks that are commonly associated with their coverage of the NBA, ESPN and TNT, are reporting increased ratings of 30 percent from last year's totals at this time.
On opening night, the Heat and Celtics drew a 5.6 overnight rating, up 75 percent from the 2009 opener between Boston and Cleveland. It was the most-viewed opening night game on TNT and the overall rating shares were up 125 percent from 2008.
In addition, the featured Dec. 25 contest between the Heat and Lakers drew a 6.4—the highest-rated regular season game since '04, when Miami and Los Angeles met on Christmas Day.
The league also announced that the five-game lineup on Christmas Day on ESPN and ABC posted its highest cumulative audience ever. Ratings increased by 45 percent on ABC from last year and 20 percent on ESPN.
The first two months of the season have been quite the roller coaster. We went from dubbing the Celtics and Lakers as hands-down favorites to win the Finals to now having six or seven teams with a seemingly legitimate chance of claiming the championship.
Miami couldn't live up to the hype surrounding their epic offseason...for the first month of the season at least. Now the Heat have reeled off 16 wins in 17 games and suddenly look like the juggernaut many expected them to be.
John Wall and Blake Griffin appeared to be neck-and-neck in their Rookie of the Year battle, but injuries have slowed down Wall and Griffin's incredible performance over the last month now has him featured as the Association's next superstar.
These are just a few examples of the ups-and-downs that both individuals and teams have experienced from October to December. Many more are sure to come in the next calendar year. So let's take a look at some regular and postseason storylines that you won't want to miss heading into 2011.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
Charlotte's Larry Brown was the first coach to be out of a job this season when he resigned (or was fired, depending on the source) last Wednesday from the Bobcats.
He won't be the only to go this season either.
Coaches are routinely let go during the season as front offices look for either a spark for a team to rally around or are simply trying to rebuild.
A few names are already being mentioned on the hot seat, including Sacramento's Paul Westphal. Alex Kennedy of HoopsWorld wrote last week that a source close to the situation has said that Westphal has all but lost his team, which is the league-worst 5-23.
Some other coaches that got off to shaky starts and have unpredictable futures are Jay Triano of Toronto, Vinny Del Negro in L.A. and Kurt Rambis in Minnesota.
It's a lot easier to replace coaches than it is players—year after year franchises show this when they let coaches go after just one or two seasons at the helm. Teams will no doubt continue that trend in 2011.
Development of '10 Rookie Class
The one word surrounding almost every single draft pick in the last 10 years: potential.
Players come into the league with raw, undeveloped talents and, in many cases, never get a real chance to enhance and develop their game.
So it should be no surprise that last year's draft class isn't exactly off to a blazing start this season.
John Wall has been the exception to the rule, but knee problems have forced him to sit out nearly half of Washington's 30 games.
Evan Turner showed glimpses of why he was the No. 2 pick at times, but overall he hasn't played well—last night was his first game in double-figures since Dec. 3, and he's shooting just 38.4 percent from the field.
Derrick Favors and DeMarcus Cousins have been sporadic with their consistency.
Ekpe Udoh, Paul George and Cole Aldrich have seen minimal playing time.
You can argue (and it wouldn't be much of an argument) that the No. 39 pick in the draft, Landry Fields, has been the second-best player through the first two months.
As mentioned earlier, these guys need a lot of playing time to develop their game and adjust to how much quicker, faster and stronger the NBA is. At the same time, they can easily pick up bad habits and tendencies in the wrong system or under the wrong coach.
Several of these guys (Favors, Cousins, Udoh, Greg Monroe, Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis, to name a few) will more than likely get increased playing time in the second half of the year since they play for non-contending playoff teams. How successful they become will be an interesting subplot.
Will the Portland Trail Blazers Ever Field a Healthy Roster?
The Trail Blazers must have done something unspeakable in their previous lives to receive the kind of treatment karma has given them in the past years.
There is no need to re-hash every one of the devastating and debilitating injuries. Just two or three years ago, Portland was a different version of the current Oklahoma City Thunder: young, athletic, loads of talent and great chemistry.
Unfortunately, they never got a chance to showcase themselves on a playoff stage and now it appears their window as a Western Conference contender is rapidly closing.
Even if they somehow return, it's difficult to imagine Brandon Roy and Greg Oden being the premier players they used to be (or in Oden's case, the dominant Patrick Ewing-type of center that many envisioned he could be).
It's an incredible shame because the front office has made some great moves—the trade for Marcus Camby and the signing of Wes Matthews (who everyone thought was ridiculously overpaid, but as it turns out, could be a steal) immediately jump to mind. But instead of being complementary players on a contending team, they're relegated to playing extensive minutes while fighting to stay above .500.
For the sake of competitive balance, let's hope Portland can some how, some way get the roster as close to 100 percent healthy as possible.
Second-Half Breakout Players
Every year, whether it's due to injuries on a team, a guy looking for a new contract or some other circumstance, the second-half of an NBA season typically features a few relatively unknown or unexpected players that burst onto the scene and make a name for themselves.
This was exemplified in 2009 in New Orleans—twice, actually. Marcus Thornton took advantage of a weak perimeter unit to get into the starting lineup and score in double-digits in all but one game in the last two months of the season.
And Darren Collison filled in admirably for Chris Paul while the All-Star was injured and ultimately wound up landing a starting job in Indiana because of his strong performance.
Guys like Kevin Martin ('06), Danny Granger ('07) and Eric Gordon ('08) all used impressive performances in the final 30 or 40 games of their respective seasons to improve their game and build momentum heading into the following year.
Which guys will take advantage of increased playing time this year? A few to possibly keep your eye on include Ekpe Udoh in Golden State (starting to play more due to an Andris Biedrins injury), Amir Johnson in Toronto, Taj Gibson in Chicago (as long as Joakim Noah is out) and Al-Farouq Aminu in Los Angeles.
There's no exact science in predicting who will come out of nowhere...and that's part of the fun of watching it all unfold.
Kevin Love's Statistical Dominance
The NBA's most instinctive rebounder since Dennis Rodman is enjoying one of the most statistically dominant seasons in recent memory...and yet it's still a debate on whether or not he should be an All-Star starter.
On Nov. 12, Kevin Love posted a stat line that hadn't been seen in almost 30 years—a 31-point, 31-rebound night against the New York Knicks, the first 30-30 game in the NBA since Moses Malone in 1982.
He's logged five games of 20 points and 20 rebounds already—to put that in perspective, Dwight Howard accomplished that feat just three times last season.
He has 27 double-doubles, which leads the NBA, and has one in 19 consecutive games.
His 15.5 rebounds per game are on pace to be the most a player has averaged in one season since Rodman pulled down 16.05 in '97.
And if his numbers hold up, he'd be just the seventh different player to average 20 points and 15 rebounds a game for an entire season and the first since 1976.
The other five? Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy, Elvin Hayes and Bob Pettit. That's pretty good company to keep.
The Next Crop of Superstars
The lottery frontrunners for the '11 Draft appear to be the Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Jersey Nets...which means it's more than likely that one of these teams will be holding the No. 1 pick and a chance to add a significant piece to their roster.
The race for last-place in the league may not sound so enthralling, but it's never too early to speculate which players have the ability to be the face of a franchise or will become one of the league's superstars in the '10s.
Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), Terrence Jones (Kentucky) and Perry Jones (Baylor) are making a big splash for their respective universities this year.
Brandon Knight (Kentucky) and Kyrie Irving (Duke) are guards that have John Wall-esque potential and will have scouts feverishly researching and studying their games throughout the season.
Of course, it's not a given that all of these guys will declare for the '11 Draft. Especially considering a potentially pending lockout...
How Would a Potential Lockout Affect the Draft and Free Agency?
The new collective bargaining agreement that has yet to be settled and a potential lockout that could follow will be the most discussed basketball issues that won't unfold on the court for the next six or seven months.
The value and length of player contracts, the distribution of basketball-related income, and a hard versus soft salary cap will be just some of the focal points outlined in the CBA.
Players that aren't under contract for next year are at risk to possibly make less money in the next several years—that's part of the reason why it would be so significant if a franchise player like Carmelo Anthony turned down an extension this year and took a gamble in free agency next summer despite an uncertain future.
Take a guy like David West, for example. He's one of the league's most properly-valued players (you can argue he's underpaid as well) making $8.3 million with a $7.5 million player option for 2011-12.
At any point in the last five years, West would more than likely opt out of his final year to either work out an extension with New Orleans or try to find a bigger deal elsewhere. But if he's not guaranteed as much money (if contracts are guaranteed at all) or a new deal is only for a few years, then perhaps he won't test the free-agent market.
And if the mid-level exception is removed from a CBA, then it further affects players like Jamal Crawford, Caron Butler, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith—all solid role players, but ones who probably won't find lucrative deals.
To further complicate matters, several top-to-mid-level college players could choose to remain in school instead of declaring for the draft and walking into a murky situation.
This year's draft class will most likely be affected, but the way the free-agent process is constructed could be altered not just for 2011, but in the years to come as well.
How Effective Can Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer Be?
Personally, I love the frontcourt combination of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. They complement each other's games nicely and both have strengths that help mask the other's deficiencies.
For example, Boozer is a much better back-to-the-basket player than Noah...but Noah is a better defender and is more active on both ends of the floor.
We've barely got an opportunity to see these two combine forces with Derrick Rose because of injuries. A broken wrist sidelined Boozer for the first month of the season and Noah just went down a few weeks ago with a torn ligament in his hand and isn't expected back until March.
Chicago has only had both players active for nine of their 30 games, so we don't really have an accurate sample size of their effectiveness. After back-to-back losses to Orlando and Boston, they reeled off seven straight wins before Noah's surgery.
If both are healthy in the playoffs, then the Bulls will boast interior presences that can pretty much only be rivaled by Los Angeles and Boston. And based on what we've seen in the last decade, size wins in the postseason.
Boozer is a difficult matchup for any power forward, be it Kevin Garnett, Hedo Turkoglu/Brandon Bass, Chris Bosh or Josh Smith.
It will also be difficult for most methodical, slow-it-down centers like Kendrick Perkins, Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier to match Noah's constant energy and movement. And Noah's probably one of the two or three most formidable defenders to handle Dwight Howard one-on-one.
Chicago is still a piece or two away from being a championship contender, but Boozer and Noah could be as effective an inside combination as any tandem in the league. The question is whether or not they'll get a chance to show it in 2011.
The whispers of contraction lingered well before LeBron James' comments on the matter...but his thoughts definitely sparked many conversations from fans and media alike over the last week and brought renewed vigor to the topic.
Back in October, Ken Berger detailed possible talks of contraction in collective bargaining negotiations amongst the owners and that the league remains open to contraction as a "possible mechanism for restoring the league to profitability."
One of the most surprising things about James' comments was that you typically don't see players or unions advocating contraction—it essentially equates to less jobs.
Whether or not the quality of play would be better is debatable. It's not just James that fondly reminisces of '80s nostalgia—several fans that grew up with basketball during that decade will remember it as the most iconic in NBA history.
But several teams outside of the notable conference finalists (L.A., Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit) weren't exactly the most exciting to watch, yet they still routinely made the playoffs and even the conference finals. In 1984, for example, the 41-41 Phoenix Suns, which featured Walter Davis as their best player, made the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Lakers.
The league now isn't depleted of talent—that pool is probably deeper than its ever been. And it's still routine to see multiple All-Stars on the league's best teams—look at the Pistons in '05, Celtics in '08 or Lakers in '09.
Contraction was quietly an issue dating back to the summer. Now it will be a hot-button issue surrounding the CBA moving forward.
Continuing Success of Team USA's FIBA Championship Players
Called by some as the "B-Team," the USA squad assembled for the 2010 FIBA World Championships walked through the final rounds to win the gold and featured impressive performances by some of the league's best young players.
Not surprisingly, those guys are flourishing this season and some of the confidence they're displaying has to be attributed to their time spent together in Turkey.
Kevin Love's incredible accomplishments have been outlined earlier.
Kevin Durant is leading the league in scoring for a second consecutive season while Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook used the momentum from an explosive elimination-round performance to average career-highs in points, assists, steals and field goal and free-throw percentages.
Derrick Rose is putting on a show night-in and night-out in Chicago, emerging as the best scoring PG in the league.
Tyson Chandler is anchoring a vastly improved Mavericks defense and has helped lead them to the second-best record in the West.
Rudy Gay is putting up career-high point, assist, rebound, steal and block numbers and is teetering on the brink of joining the 50-40-90 club (48.0 field-goal percent, 41.8 three-point percent, 84.6 free-throw percent).
Eric Gordon is ninth in the league in scoring at 23.9 points per game and is building a nice foundation with Blake Griffin in Los Angeles.
Lamar Odom is having a year that would typically get him more All-Star recognition if it weren't for the plethora of West forwards that are having dynamic seasons.
Stephen Curry, Chauncey Billups, Danny Granger and Andre Iguodala are all having strong to above-average seasons as well.
It's no coincidence that everyone on this roster is having success this season—the experience of playing for your country, being surrounded by a group of not just great players but friends as well, learning from a coach with the championship pedigree of Mike Krzyzewski, and developing a winning culture and attitude all had positive effects (especially on Rose, Durant and Westbrook).
The excitement of this team and the '08 Olympic team hopefully has many young players aspiring to represent the U.S. in future international games...and in turn using what they learned to become better players in the NBA as well.
Will Two Sub-.500 Teams Make the Playoffs in the East?
As of Dec. 29, the top six teams in the East look like this: Boston, Miami, Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta, New York.
The difference between the sixth place Knicks and the seventh place Pacers is four-and-a-half games—a pretty large distance after just 30-32 games. There are five other teams within four-and-a-half games of Indiana.
Barring anything drastic, the top six teams in the East look cemented for the postseason. New York could come back to Earth a little bit, but they still have more talent and firepower than any of the lottery teams, plus they could theoretically add someone like Carmelo Anthony to further bolster their roster.
After that, it's anyone's guess who will fill-in the final two spots.
The Pacers got off to a strong start, highlighted by a thumping of the Heat in Miami, but are just 3-7 in their last 10 games.
Milwaukee was widely expected to be a playoff contender, but they've struggled to find consistency and will be without starting PG Brandon Jennings for the next three-to-five weeks. Since their backups at that spot are Earl Boykins and Keyon Dooling, it's not a guarantee that they will right the ship anytime soon.
Following them are Philadelphia, Toronto, Charlotte and Detroit. In other words, yikes.
It's conceivable that two teams in the East will finish the year with losing records and still make the postseason. That last happened in 2008 with Philadelphia (40-42) and Atlanta (37-45)—in fact, it's only happened twice in the last 19 years.
Compare that to the Western Conference in 2009-10—all eight playoff participants won at least 50 games.
The top of each conference is balanced, but it's evident that, from top-to-bottom, the West is still the far more competitive conference.
Effectiveness of Dallas Mavericks Zone Defense
Dallas' improved defense can largely be credited to two factors—the addition of Tyson Chandler and the enhanced use of a zone defense.
Many teams have implemented some sort of zone since the illegal defense rules were altered in 2001, but few, if any, have used it as frequent and successfully as the Mavericks.
Thanks to their defensive X-factors, Dallas is sixth in the league in points allowed (93.1), fourth in opponent field-goal percentage (43.5) and fifth in rebounds allowed (47.6).
The Mavericks are so effective with their zone because of their personnel. The core of the team has played together for several years—they know the strengths and weaknesses of many opponents and when and where they need to be aggressive and attack.
They have athletes like Shawn Marion, Caron Butler and Jason Terry that can cover a lot of ground. And a 7'0" shot-blocker like Tyson Chandler who can erase any mistakes with great help defense is a nice insurance policy in the paint as well.
The question is, after teams have a chance to study and analyze this zone for a full season, will it be as effective in the playoffs? Can they use it to garner crucial stops in postseason games without being exploited on the glass or at the three-point line?
If so, then Dallas has another dimension that gives them an added bonus against teams like Los Angeles, San Antonio and Utah.
Who Will Be the First Big Name Player Traded?
Until two weekends ago, it had been a relatively quiet season in terms of trades.
In mid-November, the Hornets traded Jerryd Bayless and Peja Stojakovic to the Raptors for Jarrett Jack, David Anderson and Marcus Banks.
On Dec. 15, the Lakers, Rockets and Nets participated in a three-team deal that sent Sasha Vujacic and a '12 first-round pick to New Jersey, Joe Smith and two second-round picks to Los Angeles and Terrence Williams to Houston. The Rockets then traded Jermaine Taylor to Sacramento for a conditional second-round pick in 2011 to make room on the roster for Williams.
It was the Magic who made the first real noise on the trade market when they sent Rashard Lewis to Washington for Gilbert Arenas, then dealt Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus to Phoenix for Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Earl Clark.
It's unlikely that another deal will happen in the next two days, meaning it will be 2011 before another major deal transpires. And the list of names that could potentially be on the move is ever-growing as some teams begin to realize their lottery fate and others look to bolster a potential championship or playoff run.
Andre Iguodala, Steve Nash, Yao Ming, Rip Hamilton, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Carmelo Anthony (of course) are among several players whose names have been mentioned in trade rumors. The most recent buzz surrounds Memphis guard O.J. Mayo heading to Minnesota or Chicago.
Owners and GMs may be less afraid to make a risky deal this year as well, because of the uncertainty involving player contracts heading into the offseason—if there is a lockout, players will probably lose some of their guaranteed money.
It's more than likely only a matter of time before the dominoes start falling.
Dominance of PGs vs. Need for Size in Playoffs
Unless you've missed all of the NBA action so far this season, you're aware that point guards are running rampant and starting to dominate the league.
Whether that's because of rule changes (like hand-checking) or simply an influx of talent and athleticism at the position is something that can be debated for hours on end. But you can't argue the success at the position, not just this season but in the past few years as well.
There's the veteran group of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Tony Parker and Chauncey Billups.
There's the up-and-coming group of Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose who are ready to supplant the previous six as the next generation of dominant PGs.
There's the guys who have pleasantly surprised us with great play this year: Raymond Felton, Devin Harris, D.J. Augustin, Rodney Stuckey and Mike Conley.
And that's not even mentioning Steph Curry, Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans and Aaron Brooks, who all had excellent campaigns in 2009-10.
But while point guards are slowly taking over the regular season, size still matters in the postseason. The featured interior players on championship teams in the post-Jordan era include Pau Gasol ('09, '10), Kevin Garnett ('08), Tim Duncan ('03, '05, '07) and Shaquille O'Neal ('00, '01, '02, '06).
In last year's playoffs, despite the exceptional performances from Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose, it was the size, strength and defense of the bigs from Boston and Los Angeles that led them to the Finals.
Will this trend continue into 2011 and the rest of the decade or will the dominant point guards finally set the tone and start being the featured players on championship teams?
Blake Griffin has been so good this year, he's the only individual player to earn his own storyline in 2011.
What else can be said about the guy that hasn't been said? Every game it seems like he does something that only adds to his arsenal...like the other night in Sacramento when he buried a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Griffin this season is that he has made the Los Angeles Clippers—
that's right, the Clippers—must-see television every night. For the first time ever in probably every NBA city, season-ticket holders circled a Clippers game on the schedule and said "there's no way I'm missing this."
The only other player in the last decade I can think of that has generated this kind of buzz and excitement, a grandeur and mystique that surrounds them every time they step on the court, is LeBron James.
There appears to be no limit on Griffin's ceiling heading forward. But every time he's in the game, your eyes are almost instinctively drawn to him.
He's the most explosive and captivating player in the league...at age 21. It's scary to think how good he could be if he keeps improving and playing with such high intensity.
Is Oklahoma City Ready To Be a Legitimate Threat in the Western Conference?
A trendy pick to dethrone the favored Lakers in the offseason, the Thunder haven't been a let-down at all this season.
Kevin Durant is leading the league in scoring, Russell Westbrook has become a much more efficient offensive player while still learning to become the team's primary playmaker and the team is off to a 22-11 record, good for fifth in the West and trailing the division-leading Jazz by just a half-game.
At this point last season they were just 18-15, so they are progressing.
But were we (and I was one of the people touting OKC as a possible Finals contender in the offseason) just a little too impatient in thinking they could make the leap in 2011?
They've regressed a little defensively. Last season they were No. 11 in opponents points (98.0)—this year they're No. 21 (101.7).
They were No. 7 in opponent's field-goal percentage (44.8)—in 2010-11 they're No. 22 (46.7). Opponents also shoot 39.2 percent from the three-point line (No. 29 in league) and score 44.1 points in the paint (No. 24).
It's not just what the Thunder is doing, though—it's what the other teams are doing. Few expected the Spurs to look so dominant or for the Mavericks to become one of the league's best defensive teams. Add in an always-competitive Utah team and suddenly the West is more top-heavy than just the Lakers.
Because they tend to settle for jump shots, don't have a knock-down three-point shooter or a consistent low-post scorer, and the defensive struggles, the Thunder will have their work cut out for them in the postseason if they want to continue to become one of the West's upper-class franchises.
Race for the MVP
No-clear cut candidate has emerged through the first 30-plus games as the front-runner for the MVP, and this year's race could be one of the most wide open ones in recent memory.
Back-to-back MVP LeBron James is having a season that's not worth discounting. He's averaging 24.5 points, 7.2 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals while leading the Heat to 16 wins in 17 games. In the last month, he's played like the best basketball player in the world.
Don't forget his teammate Dwyane Wade though. In the last month, Wade is shooting 52.4 percent from the field while averaging 26.6 points and 7.0 rebounds. It's no coincidence that his recent explosion has correlated with Miami's winning streak.
But odds are, unless one of these two takes complete control of the team or puts up ridiculous stat lines in '11, it'll be tough for them to win MVP simply because they'll cancel each other's votes—it'll be hard to definitively state who is more valuable to the team.
The same situation could be unfolding in Oklahoma City, where Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are each having great seasons but neither is putting up mind-blowing numbers or performances that make you say one is better than the other.
Kevin Love's incredible statistics were discussed earlier but, simply put, there's no way an MVP is coming from a team that has eight wins heading into 2011.
Deron Williams, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard should all be the conversation as well.
Right now, my two favorites would be Manu Ginobili (best player on the best team) and Dirk Nowitzki (shooting a career-high 54.5 percent from the field). But there are holes in their arguments as well—the Spurs have gotten great balance and improved play from guys like Tony Parker, George Hill and DeJuan Blair while Dirk might not be Dallas' late-game MVP (that honor could go to Jason Terry).
Seeing who steps up and carries their team in the second half of the season will undoubtedly be one of the most intriguing plots of the 2011 regular season.
Can Anyone Win Four of Seven vs. a Healthy Boston Celtics Team?
I had this highlighted as one of the key points of 2011 a few days ago...and right on cue, Kevin Garnett went down in last night's game against the Pistons with a calf injury and didn't return.
Doc Rivers said he didn't think the injury was too serious and that KG might miss a few games but nothing will be known for sure until the results of his MRI return.
Garnett has arguably been Boston's MVP so far this season, anchoring the league's best defense, shooting a career-high 54.1 percent from the floor and putting up his highest rebounding total in his four years as a Celtic.
His injury in 2009 was too critical for Boston to overcome in the postseason and what transpired last night was eerily similar to how he hurt his knee against Utah. Add in Kendrick Perkins' injury before Game 7 of last year's Finals, and the Celtics are a few bad breaks away from appearing in three straight NBA Finals and having maybe one more championship in the process.
They've already dealt with injuries this season as well—Rajon Rondo has missed six consecutive games with a sprained ankle, Delonte West broke his wrist right after he returned from suspension and Jermaine O'Neal and Shaquille O'Neal have missed several games as well (though that was to be expected, especially in the regular season).
When healthy, no team has a better 1-10 roster than Boston. And I'll answer the question: when healthy, no team can beat them four times in seven games.
But given their age and health concerns, will they be 100 percent (or as close as any team can get) come May and June?
Have the San Antonio Spurs Peaked Too Early?
An interesting question was posed by Nate Jones after Tuesday night's second-half throttling of the Lakers: has San Antonio peaked too soon this year?
Past championship Spur teams have typically started the season slow, found their niche as the regular season progressed and played their best basketball in the postseason.
This year's team is 27-4, fourth in the league in scoring (105.9 points per game) and fastbreak points (16.8) and third in three-point shooting with nearly nine makes a game.
They've reeled off two win streaks of 10 or more games. And they showed on Tuesday night that they can still get after teams on defense and make it difficult for opponents to consistently score, holding the high-powered Laker offense to just 82 points.
So how much better can they actually be in the playoffs?
Can they keep scoring at this rate for the rest of the regular season?
And will they get the type of performances from DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, George Hill and Gary Neal in May that they've been getting in November and December?
It's nitpicking because the Spurs have played the best basketball of any team this season. But they'll judge their season based on whether or not they win a title, and these are legitimate questions and concerns that won't be answered for a few months.
How Will the New-Look Orlando Magic Fare in the Postseason?
The new-look Magic have several old faces that are once again leading the way: Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson are looking to once again bring the Magic back to head of the class in the Eastern Conference and earn another trip to the NBA Finals.
They showed their moxie from the three-point line on Tuesday night in Cleveland when they hit 19-of-31 attempts—the second-most makes in franchise history.
They've always had three-point threats around Dwight Howard but with Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas, they have three players who can create off the dribble as well. Defenses can't just fly out to the three-point line with minimal repercussions—if you close out too far, they now have multiple playmakers on the perimeter.
But in acquiring these guys, they gave up a lot of size and are now kind of redefining their style mid-season. I doubt Orlando heads into the playoffs with their current roster—they have to get a little more size inside, even if it's only a minor move.
I like the move for the Magic. It's a bit risky, but they already had one of the league's highest payrolls and overpaid players (Rashard Lewis) so why not take a chance? They probably weren't good enough to beat the Heat, Celtics and the West champ in the playoffs—it could make them worse in the long-haul but they realize the window to win is now.
It just remains to be seen how much the new additions make them.
Where Will Carmelo Anthony Be Playing?
One of the biggest storylines of the last five months will carry over to the new year with just about as much fervor as when it initially began.
Carmelo Anthony is still a member of the Nuggets but for how much longer is up in the air. The Nets seem determined to find a way to make him a Net—they have five first-round picks in the next two years and are attempting to restructure a deal that would entice him enough to sign an extension.
The same article also states that no team that's been involved in trade talks believes Anthony will pass on the extension and become a free agent. That would put more pressure on interested teams to build the framework of a deal that would convince Anthony to sign on for a few years.
Teams like Houston and Dallas have the assets to make something happen, but it will probably come down to New York or New Jersey. Anthony seems to prefer the Knicks so I still think they're the favorites to land him.
But as the deadline approaches, the Nets could find a way to pull in a third team and completely revamp their roster to build around Anthony and Brook Lopez.
Five months later and we know as much as when we first started—practically nothing.
Lakers Challengers in the Western Conference
For a few months, it's always been assumed that the Lakers would win the Western Conference. Whenever you read about the Celtics, Heat or Magic's championship chances, the end question would be, "do they have enough to beat the Lakers?"
But two Texas teams have shown that the road to a fourth straight Finals appearance won't be an easy one for Los Angeles.
San Antonio and Dallas have the West's two best records and each have a new dynamic that could really test the Lakers.
Utah always has a tough team, even if the Lakers have had their number in the past, and Oklahoma City is an improved team...and played them as well as any team in the West playoffs last season.
L.A. is just 3-5 against teams with winning records, Pau Gasol looks exhausted and Kobe Bryant is struggling with his shot. These are problems that more than likely will be rectified by the time the playoffs begin.
But they don't get a lot of transition buckets and struggle against teams that can push the pace and get easy hoops, as the Spurs and Heat showed in the last week. They will have to find ways to control tempo and get some more open shots off better ball movement.
It won't be as easy as just turning up the intensity in the playoffs. The Lakers do have a few flaws, and if they aren't addressed, a fourth straight Western Conference title won't be a given.
Improvement of Miami Heat Players Not Named LeBron James and Dwyane Wade
Forget about LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for a minute. They're both playing fantastic and anybody that truly believed they never would have after their slow start in November was just fooling themselves.
Their great play has opened things up for the role players...and the No. 3-9 guys have taken advantage.
It has started with Chris Bosh, who took a brunt of the abuse during the losing streak. He isn't getting much credit now but his play of late has been phenomenal. In the last two weeks, he's averaging 21 points on 54 percent shooting to go along with nine rebounds.
Being called a superstar and making as much money as James and Wade probably put too much pressure on him. But as a No. 3 option, he's still pretty solid. He's stretching the floor, creating space in the middle, grabbing a few offensive rebounds and giving the productive minutes. The Heat don't need him to be great to win, they just need him to be productive and hold his own defensively (which he has).
We knew James Jones and Eddie House would be great three-point shooters, but we never expected Mario Chalmers and Carlos Arroyo to become legitimate deep threats as well. Combined they're giving solid minutes at PG—couple that in with their defense and it's no secret Miami is starting to play their best basketball of the season.
And they haven't yet worked Mike Miller, their No. 4 option at the beginning of the season, back into the lineup.
In the playoffs, they're going to continue to need this kind of play, from Bosh, Chalmers and Zydrunas Ilgauskas in particular. It's a good sign that they're starting to develop this rapport and chemistry now and keep building confidence as the season progresses.
If the Lakers Three-Peat, What Will Be of Kobe Bryant's Legacy?
This is a pretty big if—possible pitfalls for the Lakers and a number of potential title contenders were outlined earlier, so this is purely a hypothetical scenario.
But if L.A. was to capture its third straight title and Kobe Bryant collected his sixth ring, where would that place him among the greatest of all-time?
Would his career be more storied than Magic Johnson?
Wouldn't you at least have to take the Michael Jordan comparison seriously? The two will forever be linked—for many people, Bryant's accomplishments will always be held next to Jordan's.
It's impossible to sit here and say with certainty that another Lakers title makes Bryant's career better than Player X or Y. But it will say that we're watching the defining player of this generation add another notch in his already illustrious career.
If they win, of course.
Will There Be Basketball beyond June 2011?
The collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the 2010-11 season and a new deal won't be completed any time in the next few months.
Some think a lockout is all but guaranteed to transpire. Others believe the odds of a work stoppage are around the 60/40 mark.
If there is a lockout, will it be a replicate of 1999 and result in missed games?
The league and players are at an all-time popularity high and both sides are aware of how devastating a lockout could be. As the deadline approaches, the pressure to reach an agreement will mount...but the two sides don't appear to be close on many fronts.
How much of an overhaul to the system will be made is obviously uncertain. For the sake of the game and the direction the league is headed, a deal will have to be made in a timely manner—with its highest public interest in years, no basketball would be beyond detrimental to the future.
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