Our NBA experts size up the league as it convenes in New Orleans for the midwinter classic.
Brad: Hard as it is to believe, we're already at the midway point of the NBA season--it's All-Star time! In reality, 63.3% of the season has actually been played, but you know how these All-Star things go. Before we get into parsing the All-Star selections, handing out our midseason awards and debating the conference frontrunners, tell me, Kevin, do you pay any attention whatsoever to the All-Star Saturday shenanigans?
Kevin: Based on the fact that you're terming them "shenanigans," I'm going to assume you're not a fan? I must confess a childlike enthusiasm for All-Star Saturday Night, though I'm disappointed Dick Bavetta racing Charles Barkley will not be an annual event. The Dunk Contest is a tougher sell as the marquee event now because it's become more difficult to do something we've never seen before, but I still anxiously tune in just in case that lightning strikes.
I give the NBA a lot of credit for being creative with All-Star Saturday Night. I'm fascinated to see how the D-League's "H-O-R-S-E" competition goes this year and whether that migrates to the NBA. I'm loving the YouTube videos featuring the dunkers to encourage fans to vote for the winner.
Brad: For me, it was all downhill after Spud Webb won the dunk contest. I do still kind of like the three-point contest, though. The H-O-R-S-E idea has potential. The NBA had something like that way back in the '70s, shown at halftime of their national broadcasts. I think Paul Westphal might have won it. Anyway, don't listen to me. I could be an NFL consultant, dreaming up ways to legislate fun out of existence. If the people like it...
As for the All-Star game itself, I'll always have a soft spot for that. Even if the actual competitiveness is not quite what I'd like to see, I still love seeing the greatest players on the court all at once. The question is, will we actually be seeing the greatest players? What roster omissions trip your trigger?
Kevin: I don't get too worked up over the All-Star rosters. Either way, we'll get probably about the 10 best players in each conference, so No. 11 vs. No. 15 isn't a huge difference. I can't really quibble with the West roster; I might have gone with a slightly different backcourt, but all of those backup guards were deserving and it was very hard to pick just 12 West players. I'm not so sure about Joe Johnson's selection in the East. Josh Smith has arguably become more important on Johnson's own team, really picking up his one-on-one defense this year. Still, I would have picked Toronto's Jose Calderon, who has been nothing short of tremendous both as a reserve and as a starter after replacing the injured T.J. Ford. He's averaging 13.9 points and 10.0 assists per game as a starter. In a certain sense, Calderon might be the most efficient player in the league; he's sixth in the league in True Shooting Percentage (.629) and first by a mile in assist-to-turnover rate (5.56). I'll take that combo.
Brad: In my pet stat "efficiency ratio," which is simply good stuff divided by bad stuff, Calderon ranks seventh in the league. That's pretty much unheard of--every other player in the top 10 is a low-usage big man. The All-Star game would have been a perfect showcase for Calderon's talents. I guess I only get worked up about All-Star rosters in that they are meant to recognize the best players in the respective conferences, so it bugs me when they don't. Ray Allen should have made it over Joe Johnson but, to me, Deron Williams is the best player that didn't make it. I'm not sure who'd you cut, though. He deserves it more than Iverson but that was the fans' doing.
I found a link to that old NBA H-O-R-S-E tournament I mentioned: It's Pistol Pete vs. the Ice Man. Good, solid stuff.
Since we're talking individual performance here, how about some midseason awards. Who are your leading MVP contenders?
Kevin: You would think the guy famous for the finger roll would be able to hit an underhand scoop shot. Go figure.
I'm not sure that anyone has emerged as the frontrunner in the MVP debate at the midway point of the season. It might have been Kevin Garnett, but his abdominal injury has cost him seven games and the Celtics have stayed afloat without him (5-2), which hasn't helped his case. Statistically, I have him behind the group of three frontrunners: LeBron James (14.0 Wins Above Replacement Player by my system), Dwight Howard (13.7) and Chris Paul (13.2). I know the Magic has cooled considerably after a fast start, but I'm surprised we haven't heard more MVP talk about Howard. I could make a case for any of those three guys or Garnett, and the field is still open enough that a darkhorse could emerge.
Does one of those guys (or someone else) stand out to you?
Brad: K.G. has led my player rankings for most of the season but because of the injury, LeBron James is now sitting on top, with Garnett and Kobe Bryant close behind. I agree that the race is pretty wide open. Behind those three, I have five guys who all could move up fast: Paul, Howard, Amare Stoudemire, Yao Ming and Carlos Boozer. Of late, Paul has been sliding in my ratings just a bit while Amare has been making a move. I'm interested to see what happens with his numbers playing alongside Shaq. Garnett's injury muddles things for me because he would have been my pick. We'll see what happens when he returns.
OK, how about a stab at the other major award winners: rookie, defense, coach, sixth man and most improved.
Kevin: I'll recuse myself on Rookie of the Year, because I'm too biased. As for the rest...
Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Camby. How strange is it to think that durability actually helps Camby over Garnett here? Josh Smith also deserves to be in the mix--Atlanta is winning with defense right now.
Coach of the Year: I like Nate McMillan in this category. He's done a great job of improving the Blazers on defense by mixing up zone and man looks on defense and has this team contending well ahead of schedule. That said, hard to argue with what Byron Scott has done, and some day Jerry Sloan has to win this award, right?
Sixth Man: Manu Ginobili. This has got to be his award to lose, right?
Most Improved Player: Andrew Bynum. He made huge strides at both ends of the floor before his injury to legitimately join the discussion about the best big men in the NBA.
Your take, Brad?
Brad: I'll take Garnett's amazing transformative powers on the Boston defense as ample evidence that he's the best in the league on that end this year. To me, he hasn't quite missed enough time to be considered out of play for the season-end awards. Hopefully, he'll be back after the break. Others...
Rookie: I'm already on record as favoring Al Horford. He was at it again last week, grabbing 18 boards against Detroit. I still bet Kevin Durant is a near-unanimous pick. Which is fine--in 10 years, I doubt that selection will look out of place.
Most improved: It's hard to argue against Bynum. However, he's missed 16 games and counting. Leaving him out of the discussion, I'd turn to Rajon Rondo, followed closely by Linas Kleiza (Mizzou!), Ronnie Brewer, Jordan Farmar and Brandon Bass. Bynum is the one guy who has jumped from good to elite, but there is still that darned injury.
Coach: I'm going to go with Doc Rivers. I mean, no one thought it would work this well. Doc has to get credit for some of that, right? The way Boston has played with Garnett out sort of cements that for me. Just in terms of teams that are furthest ahead of my projection, it's Boston. So I guess that makes Pat Riley the anti-coach of the year.
Sixth man: Yeah, it's almost not even fair that Ginobili is up for this award. In the non-Manu division, I'd go with Paul Millsap.
OK, let's shift gears here. As you pointed out in your article on Western Conference trades, the landscape could really change. But after the moves made to date, how do you see the pecking order in the West right now?
Kevin: Would it be wrong if I just picked names out of a hat? The West seems that close right now.
Given that, I'm going to make the case for Utah. The Jazz's point differential stands with anyone's in the conference, and Utah has been on fire since the start of 2008. Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur allow the Jazz to match up with the various different frontcourts they'll face in the West; Dirk Nowitzki is the only guy I think really presents a problem for them from a matchup perspective. They've got a terrific point guard and the experience of advancing to the Western Conference Finals last year, and I don't see how other teams are going to stop them in the halfcourt down the stretch of close games.
I'm not saying I would necessarily pick Utah, but I think they deserve very legitimate consideration. Beyond that, I'm not sold on Phoenix with Shaquille O'Neal and I've got a nagging feeling that the Hornets are still a year away because their bench is so iffy.
If I had to take three teams to win the West, I think right now they would be Utah, the Lakers and San Antonio.
Is that crazy?
Brad: Not crazy. Totally and completely rational, in fact. Twice this week, I've turned on one of those ESPN roundtable shows where they all yell things at each other and there was someone who, in a vitriolic frenzy, started rattling off West contenders off the top of their head. Neither one thought of Utah. Those who forget the Jazz are really missing the boat. Since I'm working on a Jazz column, that's all I'll say right now. I don't know that I'd declare Utah the favorite. But I don't know that I wouldn't. What weakness do they have with the possible exception of a shot-blocking center? If Ginobili keeps playing out of his mind--46 in Cleveland Thursday night--you can't rule out the Spurs, either. I like those two--the teams that have made minor tweaks (Stoudamire, Korver) rather than headline moves.
In the East, I can't see anyone impeding the collision course that Detroit and Boston are on. The strength of the Pistons' bench has been sort of an underplayed story so far. If those two teams were healthy and playing a seven-game series starting today, I'm not sure who I'd pick. Can you see anyone else rising up out East?
Kevin: Well, I don't think I would ever completely discount a team with LeBron James. Cleveland still hasn't gotten to last year's level on the defensive end, but if the Cavaliers are healthy and if James goes off, they can beat anyone in a seven-game series. I also think Orlando could cause some matchup problems for Boston if everything comes together, as it did early in the season. But I don't think we have a lot to offer analytically in the East--Boston and Detroit are way ahead of everyone else in the conference.
As for a matchup between the two, I really hope Rivers would avoid giving a bunch of Rondo's minutes to Tony Allen because of Chauncey Billups' size. That matchup isn't great for Rondo, but he is clearly Boston's best option at the point--right now. We'll see who, if anyone, they add between now and then. Strange as it might sound, a seven-game series between these two might come down to the benches. Detroit's bench was on the floor when the Pistons took the lead in the first head-to-head matchup, and Big Baby Davis' play was a big reason the Celtics won in Detroit. I think I like the Celtics narrowly, but ask me tomorrow and my answer could be different.
The East playoffs before the conference finals might be a little iffy, but nonetheless it appears we are headed for an outstanding postseason. Agree?
Brad: One result of the recent spate of trades is to up the drama level of a postseason that was already shaping up as epic. In the West, there will be four terrific first-round matchups with two teams each that have legitimate shots at winning. (Not to mention a ninth-place non-playoff team that could be a three-seed in the East.)
If everything breaks right in the East, you could have the two outstanding teams in the conference--Detroit and Boston--and two teams with young superstars--Orlando and Cleveland--in the semifinals. I can't remember another year like this one, at least in terms of the depth and quality of the contending teams and the fact that no one team has established itself as a clear frontrunner. Celtics fans would probably stake claim to that frontrunner status and I'm not sure they'd be wrong, but because this is a roster in its first year of contention, there are going to be questions about Boston until we see what they do in the playoffs.
As for the Cavs, I just don't get a good feeling about them. This is a team I really think needs to make a significant transaction. Though if Larry Hughes really has re-discovered his game, that would render that observation moot.
This is all good stuff to look forward to three months down the line. But the rest of the regular season is ripe with storylines as well. This is a great year for the NBA--at a time when they really needed one.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.