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We’re once again approaching the mid-point of the NBA season. It is a time of hope and excitement for teams on the rise in the standings; careful thought and deliberation for bubble teams looking to make a late-season run; and the perfect opportunity for the owners, coaches and general managers of fledgling franchises to burn their entire wardrobe in a fire barrel and cry in an angry, undignified sort of way. Kind of like when the man punted Ron Burgundy’s dog in “Anchorman”.
Okay, I’ll admit it, that last one’s probably only true of Mark Cuban, but what can I say, he’s an emotional kind of guy.
That being said, there have definitely been some dramatic storylines in the NBA this season. Some surprises, some letdowns, definitely some strange haircuts – you name it. As such, I feel that it’s an appropriate time for me to look into my mystical crystal ball and make some necessarily bold predictions about what will happen during the second half of the year – just let me get some Windex to clean the damn thing first.
The Rudy Gay trade will help none of the teams involved. In fact, it kind of just shuffles several parts on to different teams where they still won’t fit. I like Rudy Gay’s game, but I don’t think he’ll be the long-term answer with the Raptors. Toronto’s getting another guy who needs the ball in his hands and is adding him to a starting five with three shoot-first guys in Lowry, DeRozan and Bargnani – there’s only one basketball to go around folks. They’ll also miss the cap flexibility Calderon’s expiring contract would’ve brought them in the off-season. Memphis gets their cap relief and adds another young big man in Ed Davis, as well as an aging Tayshaun Prince, and have now solidified their identity as a post-first team – but they didn’t get any better. Prince and Davis won’t replace Gay’s scoring output (as of January 31st, his PPG was at 17.2, just below his career average of 17.9), which means the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers are still higher up on the Western Conference totem pole. Detroit is a team of expiring contracts now, so they’re probably in the best shape to improve long-term, but I don’t think move significantly helps anybody involved. Chances are Gay bolts in two years when his contract expires too if the Raptors can’t turn it around.
The Lakers will eventually admit this year was all a big mistake. Either that, or they’ll try and change their name to the Clippers, because that’s the only way they’re getting into the playoffs this year. Yes, I realize that Denver made that big second-half run a few years ago, but they had a few qualities the Lakers lack, namely: speed, good free-throw shooting, and a coach who was able to focus his team and inspire them get some stops. Somehow, I don’t think D’Antoni’s track record sets a great precedent to replicate this formula for late-season success, as entertaining as his teams often are to watch. Couple that with the fact that their roster is very thin behind the likes of Nash, Kobe and Dwight and the outlook is all rainbows and unicorns. To that end, they also need to deal Pau Gasol and get something substantial back for him, which might be easier said than done given his cumbersome contract. Oh, and Mr. Howard isn’t a guarantee to stick around either. Who said soap operas were dead in Hollywood?
The Celtics will miss the playoffs, but more valiantly than the Lakers. Rondo is gone for the year, sure, but Doc Rivers got his team to within one game of the Finals last year with injuries and inconsistency abound – you can bet he’ll have the Celts fighting to the end once again. I’ve had to put my Celtics pride (and my team-themed thong) aside for the sake of this article, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they have any hope of making it to the postseason. They’ve won two straight since Rondo’s injury and three out of their next four games are against non-playoff teams, so in the immediate future, winning some games isn’t that far-fetched an idea. A lot of pressure will be on their bench, which is knee-deep in under-performing star power with the likes of Jeff Green and Jason Terry, to pick up their game on both sides of the ball in #9’s absence. It would also be nice if Pierce could start making shots again. Again, like with the Lakers, logic suggests they will be on the outside looking in come the end of the regular season, but with the Celtics, it’s kind of like a young kid faced with the idea of Santa Claus: you can never really be sure one way or the other.
Damian Lillard will win ROTY and (gasp!) lead the Trailblazers to the playoffs. Lillard is the latest in a long line of outstanding young guards to come into the league through the draft … well, everyone kind of knows that already. The even better news is that I think he has enough help around him to get this Blazers team into the postseason. They’ve been playing well as a unit this year in tough conference, but I also think that the teams around them are more likely to stumble down the stretch. The Mavs, Lakers and co. aren’t primed to make any big leaps up the standings with their creaky rosters, and Houston is one injury away from being a one-man team (if they aren’t that already). Portland has also bought into Terry Stotts’ unselfish, pass-first culture, which is something that will serve them well and speed up their rebuilding plans substantially. Book your tickets for May games at the Rose Garden now!
This year’s champion will be … someone from the Western conference. As far as the East is concerned, even if Derrick Rose comes back and makes a difference for the Bulls, I still wouldn’t bet against LeBron and his will to get the Heat back to the Finals. That being said, whomever comes out of the West will be the more well-rounded team and more than well-equipped to beat Miami. My gut tells me it will be a rematch of last year, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Clippers or the Spurs there instead of OKC. Still, I’m going with the Thunder as my pick to win it all, with that trio of Durant, Westbrook and Martin leading the way. Durant will win Finals MVP and, for a brief moment, fool the world into thinking he’s better than LeBron. But that’s a discussion for another column.
Main Photo Credit: Photo by Game face in Wiki Commons, CC