Clippers, Celtics Et Al.: 6 Storylines so Far This Season, and Which Will Last
We all love a good storyline to make the season more interesting. It just wouldn't be the same watching 990 games get played without some themes to go along with it.
This season, in all its rushed messiness, is already turning out to be chock-full of unexpected angles. In fact, had we known ahead of time the season was going to turn so quickly into such an anthology of intriguing subplots, the five-month wait would have surely driven some of us utterly insane.
The following lists six of the major storylines currently developing around the 2011-12 season, along with which ones are likely to persist. After all, things constantly happen over the course of 82 games (or 66, whatever) that can bring these little miniseries to a halt at any time.
Of course, nothing is an absolute given, so we're just working with probabilities here...
Celtics Nosediving out of Playoff Picture
Could the loss of "Big Baby" Davis really be haunting them so badly?
For the first time since they all wound up in green together, the Big Three Plus Rondo are finally living up to preseason predictions of their geriatric fall from grace.
Other years, they've gone out and proven the pundits embarrassingly wrong as each season wore on. One year—after they won a title and were dubbed too old—they started out 27-2, and over a year later would come within four points of another ring.
While the "Celts are finished" camp had yet to lower its collective voice this offseason, there was a growing number of fans who learned their lesson from prior years and began predicting another opening in Boston's window of opportunity.
They would have learned that lesson just in time to see it disproven, that is—at least that's how it looks at the moment. The kooky thing is, the number one culprit so far has been defense, on a team that bases its entire identity on its stopping power.
Man, if only they could have that Perkins deal back...
There's still just over 50 games to play, so there's still time for a turnaround, right? No way the Celtics drop into the lottery this quickly, right? Well, some yes and some no.
Can Boston regain its old form? Contrary to my opinion from a few weeks ago, I must conclude from seeing these guys in action that no, they cannot. They're already fighting hard enough against the backslide that is age to actually make up ground along the way, especially with the finish line that much closer this season.
Can they play better than they have thus far? As long as they can rediscover the seemingly lost art of Celtics defense, they'll give themselves a chance every night. Plus, at least they have Ray Allen's age-proof shooting.
That, combined with a possible drop-off among the East's current bottom seeds, would be enough to punch yet another ticket to the playoffs.
They will do so, however, without the luxury of home-court advantage or remotely favorable odds. In this respect, the Celtics' latest golden age is over already—which marks the first time I've said that.
Heat Not Unstoppable Yet
The story here isn't so much that Miami isn't 13-0 right now—which was frankly not that bold a prediction to make—but the fact that the losses they've compiled thus far have mostly been bouts of history repeating.
Squandered leads, late breakdowns and at times the familiar sin of being too sure of themselves for their own good. Meanwhile, the only thing keeping the Heat back on any given night was supposed to be their continued void on the offensive blocks, which it turns out is of little import thus far.
That other stuff was supposed to be crossed off the list after the learning experience that was last season. Turns out, they're going to have to take a retest on that one; results have looked largely regular so far.
When you're a super-mega team talking about six- and seven-peats—either jokingly or not—regular is actually pretty bad considering expectations, even after devouring the Spurs in the second half of their most recent win—a beatdown that ideally would be par for the course in Mouth Beach.
Does this less-than-dominant play continue for very long? Considering who we're talking about, that's never ever a smart bet to take. This team has a setting called "steamroll," and they haven't even looked at that button yet this season.
While everybody is busy pointing out what is so horribly wrong with this team, they'll probably reel off some huge winning streak just to remind everybody that all these "issues" of theirs are utterly meaningless once they put their minds to it.
Also, it has often been speculated that this team is bored to death with regular-season play. Being a yearly playoff lock, their outlook on the postseason is probably something along the lines of "are we there yet?"
The regular season may well be nothing more than a nuisance to be dispensed with, a way to keep in shape until the big dance comes back around.
So maybe Miami doesn't necessarily come back and own the season. Will people be any less terrified of them come playoff time?
Ricky Rubio Actually Justifying All the Attention
So far this season, you can count this writer among the people who are eating their words about one Ricard Rubio Vives, a.k.a Ricky.
I, like many, was severely turned off by Rubio's apparent reluctance to report to the Wolves and the contrived series of events that kept him offshore for two years.
There were questions as to whether his flashiness and ease of play would translate all that well in NBA competition, and a number of people foresaw a player whose production couldn't possibly match the hype built up for him.
Well, it's not often people are genuinely glad to be proven wrong, but in this case, it's great news. Setting aside the briefness of his young career, this Rubio kid is giving every indication that he's going to be one special point guard sooner than later.
The passing flair is already on full display, along with a rather un-touted arsenal of ways to score (lack of polish notwithstanding), placing the youngster a good distance ahead of the curve people predicted for him.
He already seems so at home in Minny that you completely forget you once swore he wanted no part of this team.
How likely is this to continue storyline? Trick question... it will most likely continue to be one until Rubio becomes a household name, at which point it will simply go from a storyline to the norm.
A mid-rookie or sophomore slump is never out of the question, but judging by the way he's hit the ground running, his progress shows more signs of speeding up than of slowing down. From the look of things, Rubio will probably continue making fools of his doubters (guilty).
The draft class of '09 could very well boast an unprecedented three Rookie of the Year winners.
L.A. Clippers Have Become "Elite"
How about those Clips?
You can't have a list of storylines without talking about the turnaround in L.A. The Clippers are now privileged to trot out a team nobody would have even dreamed only two short months ago.
In fact, if you were coming out of a coma just now, you'd probably think you'd woken up in the Twilight Zone.
Between signing Caron Butler, scoring newly re-purposed 2-guard Chauncey Billups off waivers and landing the the prettiest girl at the offseason prom (I think they call him C3PO, or something...), for the first time ever, the optimism meter (optimometer?) in Clipperland has gone above "guarded."
Add in that other guy—the one with the fear of having the earth under his feet—and a budding young stud at center, and suddenly this team is one of the rough spots on every team's schedule.
As of this writing, L.A.'s two teams are dead even at .667, with either headed in opposite long-term directions. Just like that, Billy Crystal finally has something to brag about to Jack Nicholson.
So... Clips for Angeleno alpha status, anybody? In this writer's opinion, not yet. I've said before that I refuse to pass judgment on a team that has yet to face the roller coaster that is a full season, condensed or not.
How many precocious young squads have come flying out of the gates only to suffer some inevitable setbacks before season's end? Far too many to count. This Clippers team is moving up at a 90-degree angle, but that doesn't mean they're impervious to the pitfalls of months worth of basketball.
One still has to expect their unusually crowded backcourt rotation to give them headaches at some point down the line, and the more time passes, the more teams will learn to defend against the Lob City paradigm.
These anticipated speed bumps are what lead this writer to believe that: a) this team's roster is not yet in its final state; and b) it can't be all smiles all year... yet.
Kobe Back Atop Scorers' List
Kobe Bryant may be 33, but let's face it, he had the odometer of a 37-year-old, and it's been a shock to few that he finally started showing his age last year. Conversely, it's been a bit of an eyebrow-raiser to see the creaky former teen sensation revisit his merciless old scoring ways this year.
On top of being north of 30, he's once again north of 30 points per game for the first time since what feels like 2007. He's had a four-game streak of 40-plus, and has twice come within one field goal of that mark.
Essentially, Kobe scored 40-ish points in 40 percent of his first 15 games, which is a rather sharp blip in what is traditionally an uninterrupted downward trajectory (hat tip: "Sick Boy"). At his relatively advanced age, even for a guy with Kobe's offensive pedigree, that's about as bananas as it gets this side of a chimpanzee on street drugs.
So what's the durability factor in this scoring spike? The answer is in the wording: There's a reason it's called a spike.
Even for a guy like Kobe (I have to keep saying it) it's remarkably hard to overachieve through a full schedule, much less one as bizarre and discombobulated as this one promises to be.
Witness his 14-point lull against Dallas, more than likely not his last conservative scoring game as old man Kobe picks his spots more carefully throughout an increasingly taxing sixteenth year as a pro.
This newly vulnerable Lakers team will be much more dependent on him than in recent years, which will mean a few more scoring outbursts out of sheer necessity. Still, the need to throttle back and save gas for April will soon make itself felt just as often, and we can likely expect Kobe's average to organically taper off at around 24 or 25, leaving the scoring title to the Kevin Durants of the NBA.
Unless he stays on his aforementioned current pace and finishes the year with 30 or so games at or around the 40 mark... in which case, I say check that man for a CPU.
Wizards Look Like They Need Merlin Himself...
You'd think it would be a bit more fun to be a Wizards fan right about now...
You have John Wall, who would have been the Rookie of the Year if only Blake Griffin had stayed healthy for one regular season game two years ago.
You have JaVale McGee, who in his own unpolished and mildly knuckle-headed way, has an upside surpassed only by the NBA's other freaks of nature.
You have a core of pretty solid talent and a decently reputable coach in Flip Saunders to bring it all together.
So what's the problem?
Wall hit the wall (pun inevitable), McGee is pissing off Saunders and as a whole this team has been undoubtedly brutal to root for, going 1-11 through a dozen games. Nobody was counting on the recently repainted Wiz to be vying for the postseason yet, but nobody was predicting such a limp, dysfunctional start.
What's the likelihood of this continuing all year? Well, it boils down to this: Show me a coach who can't point a team this uniquely talented back in the right general direction sooner than later, and I'll show you a guy who's either overpaid or specifically paid to do nothing.
No offense, Flip... hey, I think you can do it—your curmudgeonly distaste for fancy play notwithstanding.
The Wizards have already gotten about 20 yards worth of baby steps out of the way by knocking off OKC Wednesday night, definitely a good way to kick off a turnaround. The question is, will those baby steps continue, or will their performance revert right back to the potty a week from now?
Wait and see, I suppose.