The NBA: Almost Mid-Season Takeaways
Zaza Pachulia sits among the All-Star voting leaders… Let that sink in for a second. Zaza Pachulia! Fans should not vote more than once in my honest opinion, but that’s just me. Yet, the crazier the NBA gets, the more some things remain the same.
Contenders Still Unmatched
The Cavs are still the team to beat. As if that wasn’t enough, they added more firepower in acquiring Kyle Korver from the Hawks. All of a sudden, one of the most lethal 3 point shooters in recent seasons joins one of the best 3 point shooting teams in the league. Korver will be getting the most open shots he has had in his career, and his uncanny ability to run off screens and always be in motion will only be a bonus within the Cavs offense, even though it might not be how they play. He might trigger more of a motion offense with the bench and that can only work in Ty Lue and the Cav’s favour when LeBron is off the floor.
Moving West, that Golden State locomotion is still trying to figure itself out but is churning along. There’s much better defensive communication and KD looks more comfortable in the defensive setup, but of their 32–6 record, 5 of those losses have come against San Antonio, Houston, Memphis twice and Cleveland on Christmas Day. Memphis Grizzlies’ big men pounded the Warriors tremendously down low, and the second loss was particularly worrying because GSW blew a massive lead, and ended up losing in OT. They are still figuring themselves out and currently have the best record in the league, long way to go until the playoffs.
The Rockets might be the surprise of the lot with a 30–9 record, sitting 3rd in a top-heavy Western Conference. Harden is playing out of his mind and is getting triple doubles with a minimum of 30 points most nights. His drive and kicks out to the likes of Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza and more effectively, Eric Gordon, has them first in 3 points attempted, 6.7 more attempted 3’s than Cleveland. With Mike d’Antoni’s quick offense, they get lots of possessions and that tremendously inflates most Rockets’ players offensive stats. Nene must be spending time with Hakeem Olajuwon too, he’s been pulling simple, nifty moves down low to make him quite effective in the low post.
The Spurs will always be the Spurs. They lowkey play their brand of basketball but the main thing with them is the focus on execution. They execute on offense with great ball movement and unselfishness. They look very solid on defense especially and it’s that execution that allows them to pull away late in games, as in the game against the Rockets which was close until the final 2 minutes. They will probably get the second seed in the West. They just keep producing and LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi take turns in taking over games. Danny Green is more effective with his 3 pt shooting, currently 2nd in the league in 3pt % shooting .458. Tony Parker is slowing down but Patty Mills has picked up his production off the bench and is the 3rd best shooting PG in the league, in the top 10 for field goal percentage and 3 point percentage (and 8th- .426 FG% and 3rd- .593 3P%).
Over at Staples, the LA Clippers have tailed off after quite the start. Blake got injured, CP3 is just coming back from a hamstring strain, but it is the bench’s productivity that stands out. Mo Speights is a baller off the bench and his scoring just can’t be undermined. Add Austin Rivers, Felton and Jamal Crawford’s playmaking and 3 point threat to that, and you get a very potent 5 that can outscore most starting lineups in the league. Let’s see if they can keep this up until Blake returns and if they can keep pushing for the playoffs.
Of teams getting great productivity from their bench, the Utah Jazz, my darkhorse to cause a playoff upset, can’t be overlooked. Joe Ingles is 4th in 3p% in the league shooting .451, off the bench. Joe Johnson too is a proven scorer in the league providing some much needed veteran presence with the great Boris Diaw. Those two alone boast plenty of NBA and playoff experience with Diaw having gone the whole way with the Spurs. The Jazz have a 23–16 record and are amongst the best in the league in points allowed, a very solid defensive team. Their main concern is the health of George Hill, who has been in and out of the lineup due to injury, but his leadership and ability to be a floor general makes them much better with him in the side than not having won more with him than without him. He also shoots quite effectively, which they miss when he’s out.
And then There’s Memphis
Early on in the season when Coach Fiz decided to start Zach ‘Z-Bo’ Randolph off the bench, many were abit confused by the move. JaMychal Green got the nod and little did we expect the Memphis Grizzlies to embrace the modern NBA by introducing 3 pt shooters in the lineup. Gasol has also been given the green light to pop from 3, but he’s such a good big man that he doesn’t rely on it heavily, he just added it to his game. The Grizzlies, along with the Jazz, aren’t League Pass friendly because their games are normally slugfests and involve great execution of defense. When the two recently played each other, Utah barely got to 50 points late in the 3rd quarter. Marc Gasol’s play this season has been immense, coupled with the most underrated PG in the league, Mike Conley, they are probably the only team in the West that can cause all playoff teams unique matchup nightmares. They currently sit at 5th in the West with a 24–16 record, expect them to move higher up.
The Rest of the East
Surprisingly this season, the East has more teams .500 and over than the West (9 compared to 7). Still, the Cavs should easily win it, but it will be a battle of the rest to see who finishes 2–6.The Raptors have been very solid with DeRozan lighting it up, he has 18 games with 30 points or more. Kyle Lowry should be an All-Star alongside DeRozan he’s been putting up massive numbers and the Toronto outfit will probably finish second.
My Boston Celtics have managed to cling on 3rd. The addition of Al Horford, a centre that can do a bit of everything, has made us very versatile and dynamic. Isaiah Thomas leads us from the front, he doesn’t shy away from any challenge with his dimunitive frame but absolutely big heart. Defensively is where our strengths lie, being able to conjure stops and scoring on the break. Boston are currently 4th in defending the 3 pt line, opponents shoot a meagre .344 from 3 against the Celtics, especially at a time when so many NBA teams are falling in love with shooting beyond the arc. Amir Johnson and Horford are not afraid to step out and guard stretch big men… we already know how Bradley and Crowder can pester on defense. A team that’s also on the up in the East are the Hornets. Kemba Walker is coming into his own, as the Charlotte team figures itself out going into the All Star break. Their biggest threat is probably their coach, Steve Clifford.
The Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is out here just being that, a freak! His length and versatility is a weapon that head coach Jason Kidd is unleashing on the league as they find a way to play without Khris Middleton. Jabari Parker complements Giannis with his power and rim attacks. They play hard. Giannis’ length makes him a very tough defender and his name is among those being floated around MVP talk behind the two obvious contenders James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook, whom I referred to as the Big O before the season began, is living up to exactly that. He’s currently on 17 triple doubles in 38 games, averaging 31.2 points 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists. His Thunder have an inferior record of 23–16 compared to Harden’s Rockets, 30–9, but he is my choice for MVP because I honestly don’t think there’s a wrong answer… But he plays better defense than Harden.
Kevin Durant is slowly having a very effective season, shooting 9-of-17 per game, averaging 25.9 pts per game. When he season began we lamented Golden State’s lack of rebounding and rim protection. The Warriors actually lead the league in blocks, KD being the only non-centre or non-power forward in the top 25. He averages 1.68 block per game. Not to forget Kawhi Leonard who’s also quite efficient in scoring but is also in the top 10 in steals, a very good defender.
And finally, mark your calendars for Jan 19th. Kevin Durant will make his much anticipated return to the Thunder in what will be his first game in OKC since his move to the Warriors. And also, we have one more week to make things right in the All Star ballot because Zaza Pachulia should not be starting or be in the West All-Star team ahead of Kawhi, Boogie or even Marc Gasol.