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February 15, 2010
Back and Forth
The NBA at the Break

by Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton


KP: Well, Bradford, the first half of the season has flown by. With the All-Star Game behind us and the trade deadline just ahead, it's a natural time to reflect on what has happened so far and what lies ahead over the final two months. Let's start with this: What do you think is the biggest story of the first half of the year?

BD: I'd have to go with the "emergence" of Kevin Durant. I use the quotes because I think most people considered him to be a star player coming into the season, but he's reached the top flight of NBA players faster than I would have thought possible. He's improved almost as much from last season to this season as he did from his rookie year to his second year. I'd put him in that small class of superstar players with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade--and he's only 21 years old. What stands out for you?

KP: No Chris Paul?

I'm going to go with the fact that there hasn't quite been as much separation between the haves and the have-nots as everyone worried there might be going into the season. In October, there were four teams we all legitimately thought had a chance to win a championship: the Boston Celtics, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the L.A. Lakers and the Orlando Magic. At the very least, that group has expanded to include the Atlanta Hawks (boy, were our systems both wrong about them) and the Denver Nuggets, and you could probably throw the Utah Jazz in that group too. Whether because of Pau Gasol's injury or a drop-off on offense, the West has been closer than even I expected and there are four legitimate contenders now in the East.

That said, at the break I think Cleveland is the clear favorite in the NBA right now. Agree?

BD: Well, I guess Paul is pretty good, too.

Given the season to date and what look like the current trend lines, I don't see how you could declare anybody but Cleveland as the favorite to win it all. I'm a little concerned about the next few days for the Cavaliers. Last season, they stood pat at the trade deadline, then added Joe Smith after he was waived by Oklahoma City. When they found themselves unable to match up with the Magic in the East finals, it looked like the inactivity came back to bite them. Will they overreact to that this time around and add a significant player that could mess with the chemistry they've built? Do they really need another player?

KP: It looks clear right now that Cleveland is going to add someone. The question is just whether it will be Antawn Jamison or Amar'e Stoudemire, with Troy Murphy also a possibility. I think Stoudemire is more of a risk as far as on-court chemistry goes. The Cavaliers could plug Jamison or Murphy in without having to change a lot of what they do, but giving such heavy minutes to a non-shooter at power forward would change their philosophy. J.J. Hickson has been playing a lot more lately and is actually fairly similar to Stoudemire, but Anderson Varejao is still the guy down the stretch most of the time. Would a Varejao-Stoudemire lineup provide enough floor spacing if they put the Brazilian at center? And could they possibly get away with Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal on defense?

BD: We've seen that experiment before. While the Cavs are more sound defensively than the Suns were when they paired Shaq and Amar'e the last couple of years, we've seen the problems that can be created by having two poor pick-and-roll defenders on the floor together. Why mess with a good thing?

Now, by anointing the Cavaliers as a clear-cut favorite, we're overlooking the Lakers a little bit. L.A. is the defending champs, after all, and even with its injury problems looks like a good bet to cruise to another No. 1 seed in the West playoffs. Right behind the Lakers is a gaggle of teams, any one of which could conceivably face the Lakers in the conference finals. How do you handicap that race?

KP: I think the Nuggets have to be atop that group right now. We talked in the book about how Denver really wasn't much better by point differential in 2008-09 than 2007-08, but ended up in a much more favorable situation in the playoffs. Well, this year their point differential has in fact gone up from +3.4 ppg to +5.0 ppg, reflecting the development of Carmelo Anthony and the addition of Ty Lawson. Arron Afflalo has stepped neatly into Dahntay Jones' role and probably been an upgrade in it the way he's shot the basketball the last month. If J.R. Smith gets going at some point, the Nuggets have a legit chance to win the title. Utah is a solid No. 3 right now in my mind. Things get real interesting after that. Who's going to step up and claim the last spot with home-court advantage in the first round? Dallas' chances are much more legitimate after yesterday's trade, and I'm not ready to write off San Antonio just yet--especially after the Spurs capped the first half with one of their best performances, a win at Denver. I think Oklahoma City is the wild card in the race, since the Thunder too has played much better basketball since the New Year.

How about the East? Who gets the No. 2 seed and home-court advantage in a big semifinal, and which team is doomed to facing the Cavaliers in the second round?

BD: It's gonna be a heck of a race. Right now, my system has it going Orlando-Boston-Atlanta, but it's really close. That's based on the Celtics going 28-4 to finish the season, but Boston is break-even over its last 28 games and it sounds like Danny Ainge wants to shake things up, even though nothing material has come to pass. The Hawks have the easiest set of opponents down the stretch, but also the most road games. Despite what my numbers say, I'm gong to venture it'll be Orlando-Atlanta-Boston, which means the Celtics are doomed to a second-round matchup against Cleveland.

The last two or three spots in either conference look to be up for grabs. Without knowing the outcome of the trade talks this week, who do you see getting in and who gets left out?

KP: I think the West is actually looking pretty straightforward right now. The Rockets have fallen off lately, and they and the Grizzlies seem to be a notch below the top eight or nine in the West. Basketball-Reference's projections have Houston finishing 3.5 games out of the playoffs and Memphis further back than that. In the East, Basketball-Reference has Milwaukee eighth, but it's very close with Chicago and I think the Bulls are simply the better basketball team with a healthy Derrick Rose. Miami's schedule is extremely easy, so I think the eight that are in right now will still be standing at the finish. You know Chicago better than me, however. Is that accurate?

BD: The Bulls really have no business holding the eight spot in the East given their point differential, but I still believe their record is actually indicative of where they should be. So, like you, I think the current top eight in the East will make the postseason, with a mad scramble to avoid Cleveland in the first round. In the West, I think there is a difference in "want-to" between Phoenix and Memphis and even Houston that will help the Grizzlies. The landscape on that terrace of the West could look a lot different a week from now.

You're gearing up for what could be a hectic week up to and including Thursday's trade deadline. Which teams do you think could most improve their standing by making a move?

KP: Basing this on the opportunity to really improve and realistic chance of making a move (for example, Denver will be hard pressed to do anything before the deadline), I'm going to go with a couple of unusual answers: Oklahoma City and Portland. Both of those teams could help their chances of getting home-court advantage and winning a playoff series this year by upgrading at the center position. What I didn't mention in last week's discussion of the Thunder defense was how remarkable it is that Oklahoma City is doing what it's doing with Nenad Krstic in the middle. The other top defenses in the league are anchored by Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett/Kendrick Perkins, Andrew Bynum/Pau Gasol and O'Neal/Varejao. Krstic doesn't belong in that group. The Blazers' need in the middle is obvious. Both Kevin Pritchard and Sam Presti are long-term thinkers, but they've stockpiled enough young talent that I don't think sacrificing a first-round pick would really hurt them too much and it could be the difference in one of those two teams reaching the second round for the first time.

Let's take this from discussion of teams to individuals and maybe a look at the awards as they stand. Can anyone challenge LeBron James for MVP?

BD: Unless LeBron James blows something important out in the next couple of days, no way. I've got him in a whole different stratosphere from every other player in the league. As Kobe Bryant's physical ailments have mounted, James has pulled away from him. I think it's a good race for No. 2--Bryant, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade are all in the same ballpark. The battle I have my eye on is the one for Rookie of the Year. Brandon Jennings looked like he was going to run away with it. Then the league caught up to him a bit and Tyreke Evans closed in on him. Now they've sort of been on a plateau the last month or so, with Jennings still the favorite, but Evans capable of mounting a push. How do you see these two races?

KP: WARP sees Evans having opened up a bit of ground on Jennings right now, and that's what I've seen when I watch these two players play. I think the conventional wisdom on Jennings has swung too far the negative direction. He's very good at creating shots, and not in a sarcastic sense; his attempts are largely makeable, but he just isn't making them. Eventually he will improve in this regard. Right now, however, Evans is having the bigger impact at both ends of the floor. On the MVP front, let me throw one other name into that runner-up discussion: Tim Duncan. If the Spurs do come together in the second half of the season, Duncan is playing well enough to merit discussion.

What about the Sixth Man Award and Most Improved Player?

BD: Ah, Most Improved. Makes me sad to think that this should have been Greg Oden's award. Durant is one possibility. Joakim Noah, if his feet get right, is another. However, I've got to go with Josh Smith. For a player to make this much improvement this far into his career is laudable. He's proof of how much you can add to your game by subtracting the elements at which you don't excel. I hope more players follow his example.

For top sixth man--and I never thought I'd back this player for any kind of award--I favor Jamal Crawford.

KP: I'm going to say Aaron Brooks for Most Improved. He was solid as a starter last year, but we didn't really know before the season whether he could handle a larger role with Yao Ming out. Brooks has been very solid as a scorer and effectively become a go-to guy along with Trevor Ariza (who has proven considerably less well suited for the job). You could give the Sixth Man Award to a Rocket too, since Carl Landry is essentially even with Crawford in WARP despite tailing off a little lately. I'd give Crawford the edge because he's carried an Atlanta bench that is otherwise lacking. One other name to watch, assuming he returns to a sixth-man role in the second half of the season, is Lamar Odom. His scoring is down this season, but Odom has been phenomenal on the glass.

Rounding out the individual awards is Defensive Player of the Year, where I see Dwight Howard maintaining his stranglehold on the trophy. Agree?

BD: Yeah, my numbers for Howard are overwhelming and I love when the numbers line up with our eyeball accounts. Who's your choice for Coach of the Year?

KP: Coach of the Year is rarely easy, and I think I'm going to need the rest of the season to make my pick. Right now, though, I'd go with George Karl. He wasn't handed an easy Nuggets team to coach, and Karl has them playing team basketball at both ends of the floor and exceeding expectations. Along the same lines, Lionel Hollins has done a fine job of getting the Grizzlies on the same page and Larry Brown and Scott Brooks deserve credit for molding their teams into elite defensive squads.

I'll also throw out Geoff Petrie for Executive of the Year on the strength of a phenomenal draft. Beyond Evans, Omri Casspi looks like a keeper and Jon Brockman has offered quality minutes off the bench. Your take?

BD: I agree with you that there isn't a clear-cut favorite for Coach of the Year, so I'll root for my perennial pick: Jerry Sloan. The Carlos Boozer situation could have derailed the Jazz's season, but they've come on strong. (Granted, the Jazz are merely performing at about the level I projected, but that is worth something, too.).

Exec of the Year ... Petrie is a definite frontrunner, but perhaps that question will be settled this week.

I open the floor to you, sir, for any closing thoughts.

KP: Great point. Sloan has had better coaching efforts, but if anybody deserves a lifetime-achievement award, it's him. On the other side, I'd be inclined to mention Mike Brown had he not been honored a year ago. I think this has been a much more impressive season on the sidelines given the issue of integrating O'Neal and dealing with injuries at the point.

I'll say this before we wrap up: Watching the All-Star Game last night, it was more evident than ever that the torch has been passed in the NBA. While Bryant sat out, Duncan and Kevin Garnett played limited minutes and O'Neal wasn't even picked, it was the Class of 2003's time to shine. Sure, this group, Howard, Paul and maybe even Durant has already accomplished plenty, but now it looks like the league is theirs--unless Bryant's Lakers win another championship.

You get the last word.

BD: There has been some great basketball played this season, not the least of which has come from LeBron James, who is putting on a night-after-night show on the level of any in hoops history. So many of the storylines since last season ended have involved off-the-court issues, like 2010 free agency and the expiring C.B.A. I can understand why this is, but let's not lose track of the moment. The core thing for us all is what happens on the court. There is plenty going on there and I hope nobody misses it.

Join Bradford and Kevin as well as Anthony Macri and Hoopdata.com's Tom Haberstroh to discuss the NBA trade deadline live this Thursday starting at 11:00 a.m. Eastern.

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.

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Around the Rim (02/15)
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