- These are in no particular order, but I'll start with the Celtics. Without Rondo, we all know that the projections would be bleak for Boston, but before the Rondo injury. Boston was scuffling in a big way, and at 20-23 pre-injury, they were firmly entrenched in the #8 spot with a first-round exit looming against Miami. Before the season, I pegged Boston for 50 wins and the 3-seed in the East, and that looks to be embarrassingly wrong. Pierce and Garnett are still performing in a big way for Boston, with both guys posted PERs over 18, and both guys were deserving of All-star selections/consideration. The bigger issue is that a) those guys can't play the type of minutes necessary to "carry" a team, and b) the supporting cast has underwhelmed in a big way. Jason Terry is the biggest culprit, as the former Mavericks guard has struggled mightily to replace Ray Allen in their rotation. Terry is having the worst statistical season of his entire career (by a wide margin), and while the fit looked to be a good one on paper, he isn't the same type of catch-and-shoot assassin that Allen was, and the Boston offense can't run through Terry as much as it did in Dallas. To make matters worse, he's a non-factor defensively, so it's tough to play him over the defensively dominant Avery Bradley, or the two-way player in Courtney Lee. The other "big" acquisition in the off-season for the Celtics was the 4-year, $36 million deal for Jeff Green, and that doesn't look like a value at this point either. Green's PER is 11.8 (far below league average), and while he's a solid defender (who looked incredibly effective on Lebron during Sunday's game), his offense is sporadic at best, and his contributions certainly don't match his cap hold. In the end, this is now a two-man team with Pierce and Garnett, and they'll be in trouble to even make the playoffs in the absence of Rondo, but I have no problem admitting that my pre-season feelings were wrong... even before Rondo went on the shelf.
- The Bynum-less Sixers. The hilarious part about my pre-season thoughts on Philadelphia is that I actually wrote this sentence: "I. do. not. trust. Andrew. Bynum." and then I still picked them 5th in the East! It's probably not a "surprise" that Philly finds themselves in the 9th spot in the East, but it's a surprise to some that Bynum hasn't seen the court thus far. The bad thing for Philly is that they've gotten just about everything they could possibly ask for from Jrue Holiday (All-Star!) and Thaddeus Young, and they're still lottery-bound at the moment. Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner have been "fine", but they clearly built this year's roster around the prospects that Bynum could be dominant for 60+ games, and that's just not going to happen. Philly's off-season plans have flopped in a major way, as even if you remove Bynum, they downgraded (willingly) from Lou Williams to Nick Young (and his 40% field goal percentage), and they're starting Lavoy Allen at the power forward spot. Yep. As of this moment, I still think Philly squeaks into the 8th spot as they could easily pass the Rondo-less Celtics, but that's about it.
- Tom Thibodeau for President! Did you know that the Bulls are 27-17 and holding the #3 seed in the East? Well, they are. Did I mention that their backcourt consists of Richard Hamilton, Nate Robinson, Marco Bellinelli, Kirk Hinrich, and Marquis Teague? No really! That's the list! That team is 10 games over .500! The Bulls are doing this with an elite defensive team (3rd in the league in efficiency) and a probably unsustainable win rate in close games, but it's been a masterful coaching job from Thibodeau. It's certainly important to point out that they have one of the best front-courts in the league with Noah and Deng (both All-Star selections) joined by Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson, but anyone saying that they aren't surprised by Chicago's record without Derrick Rose would be lying. I firmly believe that Chicago is the biggest potential threat (whatever that means) to Miami's stranglehold on the East this year, but that would require a near-100% Derrick Rose by playoff time, and I'm not sold on that. Even so, they've gotten stellar play from Nate Robinson (18 PER) and a resurgence from Carlos Boozer to make up for some of that loss. Thibs is my Coach of the Year right now, and the job he's doing is nothing short of incredible.
- I'll admit it. I thought the Magic were going to be an utter abomination, and they've really, really competed this season. I won't tell you that 14-30 is a positive record (lol), but when I picked them to win 17 games for the season, 14-30 looks pretty darn good. It's tough timing to write them up considering they've lost 6 in a row, but Jacque Vaughn looks to be the right man for the job, and with the roster limitations that they have in the post-Dwight era, I don't know what else they can expect. The two best players entering the season for Orlando were Arron Afflalo and JJ Redick, who happen to play the same position, and while Afflalo has actually been a slight disappointment (13 PER despite leading the team in scoring), Redick has been tremendous, and has turned himself into one of the most desired commodities on the trade market. The biggest bright spot for the new Magic is the play of Nikola Vucevic. He's averaging 12 points and over 11 rebounds a game, and at 22 years old, it looks like Orlando could have their starting center for the foreseeable future. In addition, Jameer Nelson has returned to semi-prominence by averaging 15 and 7 this season, and looking much more like the player he was during their Finals run than the disaster he was the last two seasons. Really positive news for Orlando despite their ugly-looking roster.
- Finally, the Heat are a surprise. Why, you ask!? They are, of course, the #1 seed at the moment with a 1.5 game lead over New York at the time of posting, but that certainly doesn't mean that they've lived up to expectations. The Heat are currently just 4th in Hollinger's statistical power rankings, they are barely hanging on to the top seed in the East, and lest we forget that they were an absolute lock for 60+ wins coming in to the season. There's no question in my mind that they are the team to beat in the East and that, with no injuries, they'll win the conference championship, but that doesn't mean it's not a little surprising to see them "struggle" a bit. Lebron has been Lebron this season, posting a PER over 30+ and again reminding us how much better he is than everyone else, but outside of him, no one has impressed. Wade has been significantly worse this year, the Chalmers/Cole point guard duo has been a borderline disaster, Shane Battier looks old, and they've gotten virtually nothing from Rashard Lewis and Mike Miller. I'm not in full panic mode on the Heat, but it would be foolish to flatly ignore their mini-struggles and anoint them as defending champs.
- Let's get it over with. I, like everyone else, thought that the Lakers would be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference. I picked them 2nd in the loaded West and projected them for 57 wins. It's painful to even read that sentence. First, the positives. Kobe has been borderline masterful offensively, putting up his best statistical year in the last five, shooting the highest FG% of his entire career, and doing it with a 3-year low in usage rate. This has also been the best season in the last 4 years for Metta World Peace (who is actually putting up league average numbers offensively, somehow), and Earl Clark has been a revelation off the bench. That's where the positives stop, but I will say one thing. Offense is NOT the problem for the LA Lakers. In the midst of crapping on D'Antoni, people have lost sight of the real issue. The Lakers offense is #6 in the league in offensive efficiency, scoring nearly 106 points per 100 possessions, and while it hasn't always been pretty, they are scoring the basketball. There is room for improvement with integration of Nash and Gasol, but it's not the problem, at all. Defensively, this team has been a grease fire at times. No team that features Dwight Howard should be 20th in defensive efficiency, but LA is achieving that. Kobe has taken a giant step back defensively (he's a turn-style at times), Nash can't guard anyone, Metta is susceptible to smaller, quicker wings, Gasol is league-average at best, and Dwight isn't DWIGHT on the defensive end after his back surgery. Sounds great, right!? Put it all together and LA is 19-25 after 44 games. Now, to the future. I firmly believe that Dwight is better than he's shown this season, and whether it's environment, injury, or a combination of both, I believe he improves in the second half. That said, he can't cover up for every defensive mistake like some people (myself included) thought he could, and they'll need better from the rest of the perimeter defense. The biggest question is whether Pau Gasol can fit in this system, and the jury is out. I still wouldn't move Dwight Howard in a trade because his value is too great when he's going well, but the Dwight/Pau combo has serious flaws that Mike D'Antoni can't fix. He's not that guy. My suggestion? Either deal Pau for 80 cents on the dollar and a better "fit" or fire Mike D'Antoni (who shouldn't have been hired) and let Steve Nash figure it out for you with Bernie Bickerstaff at the helm. I could go for 500 more words, but I'll stop here.
- Dallas is in the tank also, but fortunately for Mark Cuban and company, LA has taken the heat off of them. After winning 50 games every season forever, the Mavs are also 19-25, but they don't have the luxury of statistical trends in their direction like LA does. Dirk has taken a step back post-injury, and right now, he's a league-average player when it comes to stats. That's a huge problem for the way this roster is constructed, as Dirk needs to be super-human to get them wins, and he's not that guy right now. OJ Mayo has been a revelation, averaging 18 a game as the main option pre-Dirk, but he can't be asked to do much more. Outside of Mayo's acquisition, the other big moves that Dallas made have flopped. Elton Brand has been solid but they won't play him, Darren Collison hasn't inspired confidence in anyone but me, and Chris Kaman is a turn-style defensively. Other than that, things are great! I picked Dallas for the playoffs at 42-40, and they could still get there if Dirk turns things around, but no one thought they'd look as ugly as they have at times this year.
- Let's go positive here. Golden State is playing out of their minds, and the crazy thing is, they are doing it on both ends. The Warriors are 10th in off. efficiency, and a shocking 12th in def. efficiency to propel themselves to a 27-17 record in the deadly Western conference. Head Coach Mark Jackson has this team actually guarding this year, and with big-time defensive advancement from their best two players (David Lee and Steph Curry), that helps. Speaking of those two, both guys are playing at star levels this year, averaging 20 points each, and with Lee grabbing his typical 11 boards per game, while Curry dishes out 6+ assists and shoots 45% from three. The supporting cast has also been tremendous. Jarrett Jack was an absolute steal, and he's closing games alongside Curry in the backcourt, Harrison Barnes has fit in from the beginning and he's cashing in on his lottery pedigree, and Carl Landry provides stability and efficiency in the front-court. This week, they're adding Andrew Bogut (who looked fantastic in his debut), and if he can anchor them defensively and get Andris Biedrins off the court, that's a huge win for an already promising team. Let's all take a minute to pray for Steph Curry's ankles....
- This one is injury-related, but the T-Wolves are in flux. Kevin Love has missed all but 18 games, and as a result, they are 17-24. Love wasn't even his typically efficient self when he was out there, and when you add in injuries to Pekovic (7 games missed), Rubio (25 games missed), and Chase Budinger (gone for the year), it gets ugly quick. I'm not burying Minnesota quite yet, but they're going to need an influx from an unlikely source. Ricky Rubio has really, really struggled from the field (shooting 25% in his 16 games) and Derrick Williams is shooting just 40% from a front-court spot. No one ever thought that offense would be the issue in Minnesota, but they're 24th in the league in off. efficiency with no signs of recovery. I have faith in Rick Adelman to bandage the wounds and get some wins, but I don't think it's a playoff team unless Love gets back sooner rather than later.
- Finally, I think Oklahoma City is a bit of a surprise. No one buried them (obviously) after the James Harden trade, but I think it's fair to say that most people knocked them down a peg. They've responded by starting the season 34-11 (62-win pace) and leading the league in point differential (as well as offense). Kevin Durant has made yet another leap in production and he's the unquestioned #2 player in the league, averaging 30/7/4 with absurd shooting percentages of 52/42/91 that place him in historic territory. Westbrook has picked up the slack for Harden, pushing his assist numbers up, and Ibaka has taken a giant leap forward on both ends. I'm not convinced that they are as good as they would've been with Harden (a top-20 player) in the lineup, but they've done their absolute best to make everyone forget about that drop-off.
- Most Improved Player - Andray Blatche (Brooklyn) - Blatche has done a remarkable job at rehabbing his career. His PER has jumped from just over 10 (dreadful) last season in Washington, to over 22 this season in Brooklyn. He's shooting a career-high 48% from the field, is rebounding the heck out of the ball (11.3 per 40 minutes), and even defending at a high level. The MIP award is always miscast and given to the guy who's opportunity jumped in a big way, but if you're looking at actual improvement, my vote goes to Blatche. Preseason Pick - Tristan Thompson
- 6th Man of the Year - Ryan Anderson (New Orleans) - Before you ask, I already know he has no chance of winning.... but that doesn't mean he shouldn't. In a year where JR Smith and Jamal Crawford are getting story after story, Anderson has been a far better player than both of them. Anderson leads his team in scoring at 17 a game, he's shooting 40% from three, grabbing 7 rebounds a game, and has a significantly higher PER (19.67) than either Crawford (16.55) or Smith (15.15) and he's playing even more minutes. Anderson won't win the award because his team stinks, but he's the best bench player in the league in a year where Manu has been banged up. Preseason Pick - Kevin Martin
- Rookie of the Year - Damian Lillard (Portland) - I'll say this before I start. The only reason Lillard is winning the award as of this moment is because Anthony Davis missed 13 games, and if he's healthy the rest of the year, I think he'll be the deserving winner. That said, Lillard has been tremendous. He's playing over 38 minutes a night on a fringe playoff contender and carrying their point guard spot single-handedly (Ronnie Price, really!?). 18 points, nearly 7 assists, 54% true shooting. He's been a wonderful player in his rookie year. He's clearly limited defensively, and I don't think he has huge upside, but he's very, very good. Preseason Pick - Anthony Davis
- Coach of the Year - Tom Thibodeau (Chicago) - Scroll up to the East surprises for the full argument, but it's this simple. They are 27-17 without far and away their best player, and they gave away their entire bench in the off-season. He's been absolutely tremendous. Preseason Pick - Erik Spoelstra (yikes)
- Defensive Player of the Year - Tim Duncan (San Antonio) - The old man! He's always in the right spot, he's averaging 2.7 blocks a game (2nd-best of his illustrious career), and Dwight Howard has taken a giant step back. Of every big in the league, if I needed just one to have for one game tomorrow, I'd take Duncan, and a lot of that has to do with his incredible defense. He's not the athlete he used to be, but his smarts are incredible, his positioning is spot-on, and his shot-blocking is an asset. Preseason Pick - Dwight Howard
- MVP - Lebron James (Miami) - With all due respect to Kevin Durant (who's having an incredible season), Lebron shouldn't lose this award. He has the better rebounding rate, the better assist rate, the lower turnover rate, and he's the much, much better defensive player. There's no question that Durant is the better shooter and really, the more efficient scorer, but Lebron has the higher FG% and it's not as if he's a slouch in that department. Durant has closed the gap by virtue of his improvement, but there's no argument for who the better player is, and Lebron is the most "valuable" player to his team at least since Duncan in his prime, and if not back to Jordan in the late 90's. He's a monster. Preseason Pick - Lebron James
- Rudy Gay or Josh Smith will be dealt... but not both of them. The basis for this one is that these guys fit a similar profile and the market doesn't seem to be yearning for mid-tier stars with 8 figure salaries. Smith's deal is, on the one hand, more enticing because it is expiring, but that could also work against him getting out of Atlanta because of the receiving team being assured nothing past this season. Rudy Gay seems more likely, but Memphis is also the much, much bigger threat to contend for a title so they're looking for on-court help as much as cap relief. I think one of them gets moved, but I have no clue which one.
- By the end of the season, Kyrie Irving will be considered the 2nd best point guard on Earth. This may already be true, but if he does it for 35 more games, he'll get even more love. Irving is already 3rd in the league among point guards in PER (behind Chris Paul and Tony Parker), he leads all PGs in scoring (24.2 per game over Russ Westbrook's 22.2 per game), and he's shooting 48%. I realize he's on one of the worst teams in the league, but if you take a look at the roster, no one short of Lebron could take that team to the playoffs. He's been an injury risk throughout his career, but if he stays healthy and maintains this level of production, he's taking a backseat to no one this side of CP3.
- Chicago will take Miami to 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals. I see a Derrick Rose return in just enough time to provide the push Chicago needs to grab either the #2 or #3 seed in the East, and they'll dispatch of the Knicks in the East Semis before taking LBJ and company to the brink. I'm all-in on Chicago, and if Rose is even 80% of his full self, that's a scary, scary basketball team with how they defend.
- The Lakers will make the playoffs. I may be insane here, but I think LA makes it. Hollinger's playoff odds have them at 31% with the fact that they have a mountain to climb, but their positive point differential shows that they may have been unlucky in accumulating their 19-25 record. This prediction is grounded firmly in the fact that I expect better from Dwight Howard in the final 38 games while a getting-close-to-full-strength Steve Nash improves the offense even more. They've dug a hole, but with only 4.5 games to make up on a struggling Utah team, it's manageable, and I think they pull it off.... only to get dispatched by San Antonio/Oklahoma City in round one.
- The Western Conference Champion will beat Miami in the Finals. You're thinking, "he's not even going to make a real pick!??!" and no, I'm not. I've gone back and forth between OKC and San Antonio about 100 times, and I can't decide until I see Manu at full-strength for San Antonio. If he's right, they are the best team in the league, but if he's not, they don't have the firepower to battle OKC's offense. Either way, I think both teams are better than Miami and would present serious interior problems for the Heat in the finals. I'm not one to count Lebron (or Pat Riley) out but if they don't grab a competent big off the scrap heap or get better production from their old veterans, they're not repeating.
It's been a fantastically entertaining first half, and I can't wait for the final 40 games and a riveting playoff drive. Enjoy!