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NBA Surprises at the half way point

Observations, trends, and bad puns after 41-ish games

Lon Shapiro
Jan 15, 2019 · 23 min read

This will be a little shorter than my first post about all 30 teams at the quarter point of the season, as many of the trends have solidified into consistent performances, and some predictions have been right on.

While I asked which teams can maintain their level of play throughout the rest of the season, the last couple of months have made me ask a slightly different question.

Which teams can maintain their level of play in spite of the injuries that can plague every team?

Once again, I will divide the league up into tiers, paying special attention to those teams that have jumped or fallen relative to where they were at the quarter mark.

Tier 1: Can’t get higher

Golden State, Toronto, Milwaukee and DENVER(!)

Golden State got Curry healthy and they are more or less in cruise control, waiting to introduce DeMarcus Cousins into their line up. They play just well enough to win most of their games and are only one game out of first place in the West.

The last time the Warriors showed any real fire was a revenge game in Milwaukee at the beginning of December. They are really thin at center with the loss of all those big guys from last year who could bang for 24 minutes against big teams and then let the small ball lineups take over the ends of games. The aging of Iguodala and Livingston, and the loss of Patrick McCaw has weakened the Warriors’ bench substantially. Last year, they were the #3 bench with a +7.2 point differential. This year, they are #11, with a +2.5 point differential.

The entire league is holding its breath, waiting for the Warriors to finally flip the switch, but we won’t know if it actually happens until their last game of the season.

The poor outside shooting of Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell has forced the Warriors to play 3 on 5 on offense for large portions of the season. No other team could survive this imbalance, but Curry, Thompson and Durant are three of the greatest shooters of all time.

Toronto has been fighting off some injuries, but they have such good depth they have weathered the storm and have the most wins in the league. My thought on them haven’t changed. They still look like the best team in the East. However, injuries to Valanciunas and Lowry have moved everyone up in the roster, a change in the roster dynamic I wrote about in detail last year.

Last year, Toronto’s bench led the league with a +10.0 point differential. With the injuries to two of their best six players, the bench is suddenly in the bottom 10, with a -2.0 point differential.

Milwaukee has been fairly healthy, tearing up the league with a huge positive point differential. After a little 3–4 slump, which included losses to Phoenix, Charlotte the Knicks, and a home beat down against the Warriors, they’ve gone 13–3, feasting on the East and picking up three wins against the West, after starting the season at only 7–5.

The Bucks will be challenged over the next two months, playing 17 of their next 24 games on the road.

If they get through this part of the schedule, they should be no worse than a #2 seed in the East, and Budenholzer will be one of the top candidates for coach of the year.

Denver is the biggest surprise. I originally predicted they would be the #5 seed in the West.

Instead, they parlayed an early 9–1 start, and survived a series of injuries to three starters (Barton, Harris, and Millsap for a few games). While their defense has regressed (#22 over the last 15 games), they’re still winning games because of their depth and balance. They still are one of the only teams that ranks in the Top 10 in point differential for both starters and the bench.

Denver’s bench guys (Malik Beasley, Monte Morris and Juan Hernangomez) are taking 10.5 three pointers per game and making 4.4 of them, which more than makes up for the inefficient volume shooting by Jamal Murray.

Their point differential and terrific home court record point to this team winning over 50 games and remaining in the top three in the West. (And, of course, they finish their first half of the season losing to a Phoenix team missing its best player.)

Tier 2: Chillin’ or on fire?

Houston, Indiana, Philadelphia, Boston

These four teams are all vying for a first round home playoff series, and yet my questions about each team haven’t really changed.

Houston

I have to say that I really enjoyed watching Houston implode as the season begin. I really dislike the way they play, and I hate James Harden for his flopping and other assorted dirty tricks.

But out of those early season struggles, Houston has emerged as a completely different team. They got rid of Carmelo Anthony, banished Gary Clark and Brandon Knight to the bench, and Michael Carter-Williams’ girlfriend has filed a missing persons report, as he completely disappeared from the Houston area. (Oh wait, Houston paid Chicago to take his contract, in exchange for a heavily-protected second round pick that is unlikely to ever convey.)

They found incredible play from former journeyman and G-Leaguer Danuel House Jr. (who got signed to a 10-day contract by the Warriors in October and then was released back to the Rocket’s G-League team!). And in spite of his problems in the Clippers locker room and his fractured relationship with Chris Paul, the Rockets signed Austin Rivers to fill in for the injured Chris Paul.

Guess what? Houston won 8 out of 10 games during a brutal stretch of the schedule — including games against San Antonio, OKC, Boston, New Orleans, Golden State, Portland, Denver, Milwaukee — and done it without Chris Paul. A big part of it has to do with the beard…

Starting with his 50-point explosion against the Lakers on December 13th, Harden hasn’t scored less than 32 points in 16 straight games. In 9 of them, he scored over 40.

But everyone else is playing out of their minds. In that incredible comeback overtime win at Golden State on Harden’s impossible buzzer beating 3-pointer, PJ Tucker Austin Rivers and Gerald Green went 5 for 5 from beyond the arc in the third quarter, matching the Warriors shot for shot to keep the Rockets in the game.

Even though I think it’s highly improbable that a rag tag bunch of average shooters (32–37% career 3-pointer percentages) will continue to roast the league (as evidenced by their loss to Orlando), there’s no doubt that Harden is playing at an incredible level. He scored 42 points against the Bucks, even though he only made 13 of 30 shots. When a guy goes to the free throw line 15 times a game, he’s going to score a lot of points. Regardless of whether Houston ends up in the top 4 in the West, they will be a dangerous team for anybody but the Warriors.

Final verdict: Houston will be on fire longer than any other the other teams in this tier.

Indiana

The Pacers look good right now, with a 28–14 record, a big point differential and all kinds of internet chatter about how good they are. Reading the chatter on the internet, the Pacers were happy to have a “winning” road trip, beating the bottom three teams in the NBA, while losing to Toronto by 16 and Boston by 27.

How can we regard Indiana as an elite team when they have a losing record against the Western Conference without playing against Golden State and a combined 3–5 record against Toronto, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston?

As I wrote in my Eastern Conference predictions, “If Evans can shore up the bench, maybe the Pacers could move up as high as the #3 seed, if Philadelphia falls apart.” Well, Evans hasn’t been great, but Sabonis has, and Philadelphia is showing some signs of tension as life with Jimmy Butler starts to look more and more like it did in the other cities where he has played.

Indiana has one All-Star in Victor Oladipo and a very deep roster that plays great defense. They are the definition of a very good regular season team, as they have the best record in the East against sub .500 teams (19–3). But a lot of things have to work out for them to win a playoff series against the more talented teams in the East.

Final verdict: Indiana will be Chillin’ by the time June rolls around.

Philadelphia

The young 76ers didn’t make the jump I expected them to make over the Summer. Ben Simmons still can’t shoot from outside the paint, and he is receiving the same kind of criticism that’s been directed at Draymond Green. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid has improved his play making ability and stamina.

In the first game of the season, they were destroyed by Boston. When a trash talker like Joel Embiid says that his team can’t compete with the Celtics, that’s a really bad sign.

In response, Philadelphia swung for the stands and traded their best role players for Jimmy Butler. So now, their roster is even thinner, plus the rumblings of dissatisfaction are bouncing around the locker room of the Wells Fargo Center and there are no more easy moves to make.

Philadelphia’s future depends solely on Ben Simmons. Either he learns how to make an outside shot, or he becomes a trade asset in order to give the 76ers any chance of breaking through in the East.

Philadelphia is a combined 1–5 against the other top three teams in the East, with their sole win coming against a Toronto team missing Leonard and Valaciunas. They haven’t played Golden State, Denver, Oklahoma City, Houston, or the LA Brons. Against Western playoff teams, they’ve lost to Portland and San Antonio, but beat the Clippers.

I’m not a fan of Brett Brown after watching him get completely bungle two last minute leads against the Celtics in last year’s playoffs. And the problems they’re having on offense this year haven’t made me change my mind about this team’s potential. Once Budenholzer proved his worth to transform the Bucks, and the brilliant fit provided by Brook Lopez, Philadelphia will battle with Indiana and Boston for the third seed, but it won’t matter they aren’t going to win a second round playoff series against the top 2 teams in their conference.

Final verdict: Philadelphia will be Chillin’ by the time June rolls around.

Boston

The Celtics struggled early in the season and all of the hand wringing of their fans and talking heads wasn’t totally justified. Those people had such unrealistic expectations for a team that has almost the exact same strengths and weaknesses as the team from last season. I went into a lot of depth to answer the question “why shouldn’t the Celtics be struggling?”

Here’s the super short summary of all those unrealistic expectations:

  1. With the exit of LeBron James, the East wasn’t really left open for the Celtics, as Toronto, Milwaukee and Philadelphia made bold moves to improve their teams.
  2. Regardless of how well the young players played last year, the young Celtics have mostly regressed in their 3-point shooting.
  3. The addition of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward doesn’t make Boston a superteam, as neither player will be the best player on the floor when they play against Kawhi, Giannis or Embiid in the East.
  4. There’s a huge difference in the pressure you feel and the performance of opponents when your team is anointed as the team to beat. And,
  5. There’s no need to panic — the Celtics still play in the Leastern Conference, and that just about guarantees a 50-win season.

Sure enough, Boston went on a huge hot streak because of some insane 3-point shooting, but they are still the same flawed team they’ve always been.

Unless the law of averages is suspended by the Supreme Court for the rest of this season, or they are able to steal the talent of the Splash Brothers, the Celtics will live and die by their outside shooting. That makes it highly unlikely they will make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals.

For every amazing comeback from a double digit game the Celtics pull out of their butts, the bottom line is they fall behind in too many games to hope they can win all of them. One day after the Celtics won a miracle overtime game against Toronto, with Kyrie Irving playing one of the best games of his career, they lost to Utah, Charlotte and New York. Then, they won eight straight games against mostly mediocre competition, only to lose three straight to Detroit, Phoenix and Milwaukee. Once again, the Celtic had a four-game winning streak, which included a 27-point blow out of the Pacers, then followed it up with losses at Miami and Orlando.

I think the Celtics will eventually earn a first round playoff series at home, but it doesn’t mean I think they can beat both Toronto and Milwaukee in consecutive playoff series without having home court advantage.

Final verdict: Boston will be Chillin’ by the time June rolls around.

Tier 3: Lots of desire

OKC, Portland, L.A. Clippers, SAN ANTONIO (!), Utah

These five teams are fighting for the playoffs every single game, but only four of them will make the post season. Any short winning or losing streak creates havoc in the standings, and every injury is magnified because of the competitiveness in the West.

Oklahoma City

In spite of Westbrook’s horrible shooting slump, the Thunder have played fantastic defense and have gotten a career year out of Paul George. They’re currently the #3 seed.

I have to say that for now, they’re a mild surprise, because I thought their offense would be terrible (it was #30 to start the season), but Paul George is playing so well he has raised them up to #19.

Turbulence ahead: since their miraculous come back win against Brooklyn, Paul George has averaged 30.6 ppg on 41.2% 3-point shooting, but the Thunder are only 10–9.

Unlike most of the NBA talking heads, I’m not convinced that the Thunder are an elite team. They have played one of the easier schedules so far, and face one of the hardest remaining schedules in the league.

If Paul George doesn’t stay this hot for the rest of the season, OKC could drop a couple of games and find itself as the #7 seed. A four-game losing streak could put them out of the playoff. But even if everything goes well the rest of the season, there’s a very good chance they would still not make it out of the first round.

Portland

Portland has had a roller coaster ride in the Western Conference standings. They are an established veteran solid team that rides on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. They climbed back to the #4 seed on the strength of an 11–5 run that featured 11 home games where they beat Toronto, the Clippers, Philadelphia and Houston.

Even though Portland has a wide variation in their play, based on the shooting of Lillard and McCollum, their overall trajectory this season hasn’t changed too much from my original prediction.

Portland has a very strong home court advantage. Their only big road win came at Golden State after Christmas, but then lost to the Warriors two days later at home. They will have six more road games than home games to finish the season, so look for a slide back in the standings.

L.A. Clippers

The Clippers are a surprise to most people, but not me. I predicted that they would be on the border line of making the playoffs before the season started. They got a little bump from the unexpectedly good play of Montrezel Harrell and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the unexpectedly good health of Gallinari. They’ve got a super deep roster with no elite players and Coach Doc Rivers has done a great job in his in-game adjustments where he throws fresh waves of players at opposing starters in the second half. If opponents have any drop off in play, the Clippers can stay close in the games and then depend on Lou Williams’ 4th quarter fireworks. He has been fantastic in clutch situations for them.

The Clippers have been really good in overtime, with a 4–0 record. That razor sharp difference in their games is the difference between #4 and #12 in the West, but don’t expect those results to continue through the rest of the season.

The only thing surprising about the Clippers has been their near miraculous timing in playing good teams struggling with injuries. Almost every win against good teams has been when they were most vulnerable: OKC (no Westbrook), Houston (no CP3), Houston (no Harden), Golden State (no Curry), New Orleans (no Payton and Mirotic), Denver (no Barton, Harris and Millsap), the Lakers (no LeBron, Rondo and McGee). Again, that’s a 7–0 record against teams that should be favored against them, and 7 less games remaining against good teams.

San Antonio

Aside from Denver, the Spurs are the biggest surprise this season. They completely retooled their roster, losing everyone from their last title run except Patty Mills, as well as Kyle Anderson, who was their best wing defender/creator from last year.

They went from being an old, slow, unathletic team that couldn’t defend (rated #30 in November) to being an old, slow, unathletic team that can defend (rated #5 in their last 14 games). I just don’t get it.

Unlike the rest of the NBA, they have based their team around two All-Stars who are shooting the most inefficient shots in basketball, but in an incredibly efficient manner.

Coach Popovich has turned DeMar DeRozen into a smaller, better-jump- shooting version of LeBron James, with career highs in rebounds and assists to go along with his efficient scoring.

LaMarcus Aldridge is starting to look more like Tim Duncan as he age. During their 7–2 hot steak that included wins over Denver, the Clippers, Boston, Toronto and OKC, Aldridge averaged over 28.4 points while shooting almost 60%.

And Rudy Gay is having the best year of his career, hitting 41.5% of his 3-pointers, 51.1% of his field goals. It’s as if the first 15 years of ball stopping, bad iso plays and forced shots, were somehow wiped clean from his memory.

Maybe that’s Pop’s secret. The Spurs really are mindless hoop killing zombies.

Utah

Since December, the Jazz have recaptured their defensive mojo, with the #2 rated defense. They were 20–21 at the halfway point of the season, but three straight home wins have moved them up to a tie for the #8 seed.

Utah has great coaching, fairly good continuity despite the injuries to Rubio and Exum (their core of Gobert, Mitchell, Ingles, Favors and Crowder has missed a total of 6 games), and the trade for Kyle Korver has improved their 3-point shooting a little bit.

But the biggest thing is they started the year with a brutal schedule, playing 24 of their first 41 games on the road, with one of the toughest strengths of schedule. Utah has a huge home court advantage, and with six more home games than road games over the rest of this season, along with one of the easiest schedules left, they should have an excellent chance of making the playoffs.

[Palette Cleanser]

At this point, we’re looking at teams that probably won’t make the playoffs, or are so weak they will get swept in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. For this reason, I’m not going to spend as much time on these teams .

Tier 4: Taking a flyer

Orlando, Brooklyn, Sacramento, Minnesota

All four of these teams are making a big push to get into the playoffs. It’s not going to happen for the Kings and Timberwolves, who face too much competition in the West. But the Nets or Magic might just make it as any playoff team below the #5 seed in the East looks to be a sub .500 team. If they were in the West, Brooklyn would be #13 in the conference.

Orlando

The Magic are a really flawed team with a few players that can do some damage in the right circumstances. Nikola Vucevic is still having an All-Star level season, averaging 20.1 ppg, 11 rpg, 3.8 apg, and 1.1 blkpg, while stretching the floor with his 38% shooting from deep. After that, they’ve got some decent young big men in Gordon and Isaac. The problem is their weakness at guard, as DJ Augustin is a small point guard who can’t dominate games on either end of the floor, while Evan Fournier is in a horrible slump on his 3-point shooting. Without a solid back court, Orlando is a wildly inconsistent team that has more wins (11) against winning teams than anyone in the East except Toronto and Milwaukee, while only splitting half their games against sub .500 teams (8–8). Wins include: Toronto, Boston (x2), Los Angeles (x2), Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Utah.

The good news is the schedule now favors the Magic, who have played 27 games against winning teams, and only 16 games against losing teams. That leaves 41 remaining games against sub .500 teams. and more games against the East than any other team in the conference. If they could starting winning a decent percentage of games against losing teams, they could overtake Brooklyn and Charlotte, the two teams currently ahead of them.

Brooklyn

I wrote at the quarter mark, that “Brooklyn will be good in less time than the other teams in (their) tier.” They’ve done a good job of speeding up that time line by creating a deep roster of young role players who fight hard every night. But they don’t have an All-Star so they’re not going to make a lot of noise, even if they do sneak into the playoffs.

I love Spenser Dinwiddie, as he’s been the Nets’ most consistent backcourt player, but their star is D’Angelo Russell, who leads the team in points, assists, and steals.

D’Angelo Russell has improved in the two years he’s been with Brooklyn, but he’s one of those guys who makes headlines when he has a big offensive game and is generally ignored when he stinks up the court.

I wrote three years ago that DAR is sort of a poor man’s version of James Harden — a big left handed slow guard with good offense and very little defense, and if you look at his shooting stats this year, he’s not that far off Harden’s fourth season, except in one stat:

Russell (‘18-’19): .429 FG%, .356 3P%, 18.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists

Harden (‘12-’’13): .438 FG%, .368 3P%, 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists

The missing piece is Harden’s ability to get to the rim and draw fouls. Year 4 Harden made 8.6 out of 10.2 free throws per game, while Year 4 Russell only makes 1.6 out of 1.9 free throws.

Sacramento

The Kings are above .500 this late in the season since 2005. They have done it by killing bad teams (15–4) with their youth and speed, led by D’Aaron Fox. After a home game with Portland, they go on the road for six straight games. This will be a really good test of the team to see if they can keep their heads above .500 a little while longer. However, 22 of their remaining 39 games will be against current playoff teams, so their chances of making the playoffs are negligible.

Minnesota

When I watched Minnesota pull out a close win against OKC last week, I was amazed by the play of Andrew Wiggins, who has one of the worst contracts in the NBA, and who I wouldn’t want on my team even if he were on a rookie contract.

But “Air Canada” had one of the best games of his career, with 40 points and 10 rebounds and 4 assists, and most of that came while being guarded by Paul George. I was all ready to write a glowing article about him to the delight of Brandon Anderson and then I saw Wiggin’s game log. He has an efficient scoring game (over 1.2 points per shot) about once every three games. But he has been much better without Butler on the team.

Tier 5: Starting to tire

New Orleans, Dallas, Charlotte, Detroit, Memphis

All of these teams have been slipping in the standings either due to poor roster constructions or injuries. It’s a frustrating place for all these teams that were in the top eight of their conference at one point in the season. But it doesn’t look like a lot is going to change for the better for these teams.

New Orleans may have fallen further than any team in the NBA. Watching them destroy Houston in the first game of the season, I thought that Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle could make their fans completely forget about Rajon Rondo and Boogie Cousins. For four games, they looked like a real threat to the Warriors, as they led the league in points (128.2 ppg), pace (#1), and point differential (+12.0). Then Elfrid Payton got hurt and the team floundered, as they have no depth. The Pelicans’ bench is #29 in the NBA with a -13.2 point differential. (Houston is the NBA’s worst at -16.5.)

When healthy, the Pelicans have an outstanding 6-man lineup, but teams can’t survive an NBA schedule by playing only 6 guys (except if you have James Harden).

I thought New Orleans could be in the top 6 in the West, but they are currently #12. Anthony Davis is averaging 28.9 ppg and 13.3 rpg and he’s frustrated that the team can’t win even though he’s playing great.

Dallas is happy to have Luka Doncic, but the rest of the team could be in flux. Wesley Matthews could be trade bait. Dennis Smith Jr. has really struggled in crunch time, so there are questions about the need to get a dependable point guard, especially because of JJ Barea’s age. Harrison Barnes and DeAndre Jordan have big contracts and not much upside. And Dirk is going to retire. They can’t tank because they traded away their first round pick to move up in the draft to get Doncic, but they need to make some move to have any shot at staying in the crowded Western playoff race.

Charlotte is still the #8 seed in the East, but they’ve gone 3–8 since they last flirted with a winning record. The early glory of their wins over Boston, Indiana, and Milwaukee, and Denver have been long forgotten. Basically, Kemba Walker has to play better than Kyrie Irving for this team to win.

Detroit doesn’t have much beyond Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. If they can’t dominate the boards, they are in trouble, like they did when they got beaten badly by the “Sans-Brons” (otherwise known as the Lakers). Griffin is still an All-Star, though, and when he brings his best game, he can still put the team on his back (44 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 block) as he did in a little revenge game against the Clippers two days later.

Memphis had a nice early run with Gasol and Conley, even leading the Western conference briefly, but they have gone 4–15 and are #14 in the West, with little indication that they can turn things around. Marc Gasol started the first two months of the season averaging about 19 and 9 while shooting over 40% on 3-pointers. Since then, he’s averaging 13 and 7.5, while shooting under 30%. Memphis doesn’t have enough fire power or athleticism to stay in fast paced games, so every missed shot represents an opportunity for the other team to get out in transition. I’d say Memphis is cooked, and that’s the dry rub of it.

Tier 6: Players for hire

Atlanta, Cleveland, Chicago, Phoenix, New York

These are teams that are hoping to get high on Zion. Look for them to sell assets in order to improve their lottery position. There’s not much to say here, but the Knicks and Cavs recently stumbled by hitting a bunch of 3-pointers to beat a depleted Lakers team at home that was giving an effort that made me think they were the ones tanking this season.

Tier 7: On the funeral pyre

Washington

The Wizards will once again go on a mini run now that John Wall is injured and the rest of the team can share the ball. They might even sneak back into the playoffs, only to lose in the first round again. But look at the dead weight on their roster: Wall, Mahinmi, and Howard.

There’s an old saying: if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. In his weekly NBA rankings roundup, Zach Harper of the Athletic doesn’t write about the Wizards, but instead tells stories about the history of magic. It’s not a bad idea.

The only bright spots have been picking up Thomas Bryant (who might turn into a decent stretch 5) off waivers from the Lakers, and unloading Oubre and Rivers in exchange for the expiring contract of Trevor Ariza for some cap space relief.

This team is exactly who we thought they would be. Enough said.

Los Angeles Lakers

The internet is bursting with schadenfreude, as fans and blog boys are torching LeBron, Lonzo, and Ingram, while wondering when Luke Walton will be fired. So many people have buried the Lakers, why not put them in the funeral pyre tier?

For a young core trying to blend with six new veterans, this season has been a continuous sequence of building, breaking, triumphing and then collapsing, as injuries and suspensions have killed any chance for the team to figure out which lineups work and build the continuity that has helped more established teams.

I was almost tempted to listed them as the LA Brons, because this team has temporarily imploded in his absence.

In the first four games, the young Lakers blew double digit leads against the Kings and Clippers, beat the Kings and then fell apart after leading by 5 in the 4th quarter against the Thunder. Unfortunately, a third key Laker, Kyle Kuzma was hurt against OKC.

Even though they went 1–3 since the injury, the team competed but simply couldn’t finish games. That’s why the loss of both veterans leaders has hurt so much. Since then, it seems as if the Lakers got so discouraged they came out flat in every game, giving up double digits leads in the first half in 5 of the next six games.

When the team finally decided to fight and play defense, they came back to beat Dallas and Detroit by double digits, but their finishing problems plagued them in horrific losses to the Knicks and the Cavs, plus two expected losses at Minnesota and Utah.

In spite of all this turmoil, the Lakers still have a lot of good things that inspire confidence for the second half of the season.

  1. Since the November signing of Tyson Chandler, the Lakers have been the #4 rated defense in the league, in spite of LeBron’s well publicized lack of effort on defense.
  2. When the Lakers have had both Chandler and McGee healthy and playing in games, the team went 14–5, and broke a 15-game losing streak in Portland. They also beat Minnesota and Utah, two teams that present match up problems, as both team swept the Lakers last year.
  3. Christmas presents. We are only three weeks removed from the sweet moment when the Lakers crushed the Warriors — at full strength — twice in the same game. First, they built a 19-point lead with LeBron. Then Golden State cut the lead to 2 points. Then Rondo took over the game and the lead ballooned to 26 points in the fourth quarter, at which point Steve Kerr pulled his starters. That game showed how well this team matches up with the Warriors. The Lakers were the #4 seed and looking to catch the Thunder before losing LeBron and Rondo in the same game.
  4. Playoff Rondo could definitely be a thing, as the Lakers hope their veteran leader will play more games in the post season than he has so far in the regular season. Rondo’s ability to lead the offense when LeBron is not on the floor may be the least understood part of the Lakers’ struggles this season. With him in games, the Lakers bench could go on fire, building 20 point leads at Portland and Golden State. Without him, the Lakers bench has been set on fire, with Brandon Ingram and Lance Stephenson playing iso ball that results in a rain of turnovers, bricks and fast break opportunities for opponents. In the 10 games Rondo has played as the leader of the second unit, the Lakers bench was #7, with a point differential of +4.7. Overall, the bench is rated #16, with a -1.1 point differential.
  5. The emergence of Michael Beasley as a bench scoring option. Without all the injuries, Beasley might have stayed on the bench all year, as coaches like to stick to what they know (Lance Stephenson), even if it’s not always good. And to be fair to Lance, he has played some great basketball for the Lakers, but it’s tough to trust him when you get one highlight play followed by two entries for Shaq’tin a Fool. Beasley is a gifted offensive player who makes quick decisions to either shoot, attack the rim, or move the ball. Where Ingram and Lance stop the ball and the team’s momentum, Beasley keeps the flow going, and his finishing ability at the rim has created instant offense for the Lakers.

The only question remaining is whether the funeral pyre becomes the ashes from which the Phoenix rises. IF the team can finally get healthy, the Lakers could still become the team no one wants to see in the playoffs.

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Lon Shapiro

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Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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