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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

LA Lakers 2011-12 Season Recap: Who's to blame?


NOTE:  This article will be published on Fansided's Saving the Skyhook blog, where I am currently contributing as a staff writer.

For the 2nd straight year, the Los Angeles Lakers fell short in the Western Conference Semifinals.  And also for the 2nd straight year, the vast majority of fans and the media have labeled it as a disappointing season.  Out of all the teams going fishing so far, I’ve never heard so many names being thrown around as possible scapegoats than the Lakers.  People think they know who to blame (for the most part, Pau Gasol), but they don’t seem to fully understand how much adversity has affected this team’s chances of contending for a title.

All things considered, the Lakers have overachieved this season.  Since the offseason, there was a series of team chemistry-crushing events that make me wonder why anybody expected them to win a championship.  First, their offseason turmoil last summer was overshadowed by that of the Orlando Magic with the Dwight Howard debacle.  After being swept by Dallas in last year’s playoffs, the Lakers did almost nothing to improve their team.  In fact, they took about five steps back over the course of the season.  Considering their lack of chemistry with this particular roster and style of play, current or incoming players that did not meet expectations, or uncertainty with the roster as well as coaching staff and general disarray, the Lakers should consider themselves lucky for getting this far. 

That being said, let’s break down the top three reasons why the Lakers fell short this year.

1. Instability of the team caused by the front office and coaching staff
The quality of roster management of this team has been shaky at best, and the trade rumors didn’t help matters there.  Star bigs Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum dealt were involved in trade rumors virtually all season.  In fact, Gasol was almost shipped as part of the Chris Paul trade that David Stern eventually nixed – something that many seem to think would have made them serious title contenders had Stern not rejected it.  Since last season, Bynum has been in trade rumors involving Dwight Howard.  Clearly, the trades made (as well as the trade talk) affected the chemistry of the team.  Even when Kobe Bryant pleaded to GM Mitch Kupchak to make up his mind on the trade rumors – particularly with Gasol – in an attempt to establish some stability for the team, Kupchak and the Laker management continued to keep the team in a state of limbo.  Even Derek Fisher – a staple of the Lakers’ success over the years and one of Kobe’s best friends – was sent packing.

Kobe Bryant wasn't - and still isn't - sure how long
either Gasol or Bynum would be his teammates

A lack of cohesion can be blamed on the coaching staff, as well.  On several segments of the ESPN/ABC studio show, I heard Magic Johnson make several critical comments about Mike Brown and his inability to make in-game adjustments.  He emphasized the fact that this has hindered Brown’s playoff success in years past with Cleveland, as well.  While I don’t disagree with that, people do need to understand how different his system is than that of his predecessor, Phil Jackson.  The Lakers got very accustomed to Jackson’s triangle offense, and Kobe and Gasol absolutely flourished in that system that helped them get to three NBA Finals (and winning two of them).  Talk about big shoes to fill. Adjusting to a new system takes time.  But at the same time, Brown had to realize that he did not have the personnel to run his pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop schemes.  Bynum and Gasol were vastly underutilized throughout the season, despite the two of them being a matchup advantage for the Lakers on a nightly basis.

2.  Pau Gasol got fed up
Short term memory? Just remember how
valuable Gasol was to LA's 09 and 10 titles
As I mentioned, there has been a lot of misplaced finger pointing going on.  One of the biggest scapegoats, of course, is Pau Gasol.  Now, because of how badly people underestimate Gasol’s impact as a Laker, allow me to take the time to defend him.  Since STEALING him from Memphis in 2009 (which was quite possibly the most lopsided and shadiest trade in NBA history), the Lakers have had a 70%+ winning percentage with Gasol.  In their two championship runs in 2009 and 2010, he outplayed many of the league’s premier power forwards and centers in crucial playoff games (Amare Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Carlos Boozer, Dwight Howard, and Nene to name a few), even after being universally labeled “soft” in his first season as a Laker in 2007-08.  He became arguably the best two-way big man in the league, and is one of the few top talents that don’t mind playing with Kobe (at least until now).   Being in the shadow of Kobe, his impact has been vastly underrated, and is one of the most underrated true team players on a championship team that I can remember.

That being said, Gasol obviously had a subpar and inconsistent year.  But before you go on blaming him, there are many reasons why Gasol’s play has suffered this season.  First and foremost is the coaching situation, as described above.  He thrives in the post – not running pick-and-roll offenses 20+ feet from the basket.  The second major factor why Gasol is so jaded was the aforementioned nixed trade for CP3.  You saw how Lamar Odom, who was in the same trade, reacted – he was distraught to the point where LA had to dump him to Dallas for basically nothing.  Gasol, on the other hand, maintained his professionalism throughout the season, despite continuing to be in trade rumors and being called out by fans (and sometimes his teammates…and by his teammates, I mean Kobe – more on that below).  When the trade for CP3 got nixed, I thought it was a blessing in disguise, as the Lakers front court depth would have suffered severely without him.  In the end, why he constantly seems get blame and a lack of appreciation is beyond me. 

After a few successful seasons together, you have to wonder
 if  Pau and Kobe's relationship has now deteroirated 
Let’s go back to Kobe for a second.  We all admire his drive and competitiveness, and the fact that he’s almost 34 and is still arguably somehow one of the top 5 players in the league (I was talking to a coworker, a Laker fan, about this:  he’s only a year younger than KG and is the same age as Jermaine O’Neal – yet we consider the latter two to be much, much older).  But this season, not unlike other seasons, he has made several team-dividing comments. When Kobe publicly criticized Gasol for his play in Game 4, TNT’s Charles Barkley couldn’t help but say that Kobe should have been the one to blame for his atrocious shot selection; the Lakers were up handily in that game, and Kobe went away from throwing the ball into Gasol and Bynum and instead took several contested long jumpers.  In the waning moments of Game 5, even with the game out of hand, Kobe was expressing a constant visible frustration toward Gasol on several plays where it appeared the two were not on the same page.  Let’s not forget that this is not the last time he has called out his teammates and refused to shoulder any blame – I will never forget when he completely quit on his team in two very important games:  Game 7 vs. Phoenix in the first round of the 2006 playoffs, and Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals vs. Boston.  As much praise as Kobe gets for his freakish durability, high level of play and intense competitiveness, instances like these can help one understand why many players don’t like playing with him.  I think he’s been extremely overcritical of Gasol, and I don’t think Gasol wants to play another possession with Kobe.

Because of these issues Gasol has had this season with both the front office and Kobe, I think he’s gone this offseason.  He’s sick of being in trade rumors, and he’s sick of being called out and blamed.  And when he does get traded, hopefully he will be in a system more conducive to his strengths.  Maybe then he will get the recognition as an elite player that he deserves. 

3.  The supporting cast was terrible
The issues went deeper than just the star players.  The Lakers’ supporting cast was among the worst of the league over the season (their bench was DEAD last in scoring this season).  Ron Artest, Steve Blake, Ramon Sessions, and Matt Barnes proved not to be effective enough to put the Lakers over the top.  Changes to the roster over the course of the season proved not to be very constructive, either.  Two vital pieces to their 09 and 10 championship runs – Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher – were no longer there.  When they acquired Ramon Sessions from Cleveland, I was suspicious that he would provide the same impact as Derek Fisher.  Early on, he seemed to be on track to proving me wrong (12.7 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.2 rebounds in 30.5 mins per game as a Laker).  But after a horrible postseason (9.7 points, 3.6 assists, and 3.0 rebounds a game), the Lakers have to wonder if they should have got rid of Fisher, who is now in a position to win a title NOT in a Laker uniform. 

Kobe had to get accustomed to playing without two of his best
role players in Lamar Odom (left) and Derek Fisher (right)

Before the playoffs even started, Artest didn’t help matters after earning a seven-game suspension for elbowing James Harden into a concussion.  His absence made the Lakers already-thin bench even worse, and was a big reason why LA even struggled closing out Denver in the first round.  In my opinion, they were very fortunate to even advance past them; if Blake didn’t catch fire in Game 7, the Lakers could have gone home much earlier.  Other than Jordan Hill, the Laker role players were a disappointment.

What should the Lakers do?
With Kobe making $30 million next year, there is not much that LA can do in free agency.  Their best move would be to throw Bynum and whoever else Orlando wants (other than Kobe) for Dwight Howard.  But then, you would have to look at the coaching situation.  If LA gets Howard, is Mike Brown the right coach for them?  He failed to find ways to get two of the league’s best post players to get consistent touches.  Howard had issues with his Orlando teammates for not getting the ball enough; how do you think he will like Brown’s offensive schemes? 

Some have gone as far as to say the Lakers should consider amnesty’ing Kobe.  As much as I blame him for having an adverse psychological affect on his teammates, I still think waiving him is an extreme.  Of all players on the team, he is the one lock to remain in a Laker uniform.
I know this is never gonna happen, but LA and Orlando should make the first ever head coach trade.  I honestly think both teams would be better off.

Summary
Ultimately, the Lakers’ failures have been a result of a lack of chemistry – from the front office to the coaches, and to the players as well.  The fact that they were a few breaks away from possibly being in a position to make the Conference Finals is nothing short of amazing.  I expect a major overhaul over the offseason, with Kobe being the lone guaranteed Laker next season.

Friday, April 6, 2012

After Season-Long Dwightmare, Stan Van Gundy Strikes Back

NOTE:  This article will be published on Fansided's Saving the Skyhook blog, where I am currently contributing as a staff writer.

If you thought the Dwight Howard drama came to an end after the trade deadline passed, think again.  After a mere few weeks passed, we saw yet another episode unveil in the Orlando Magic soap opera.  Once again, the media frenzy is surrounding the Magic – again.  On Thursday morning, Coach Stan Van Gundy revealed to the media that he was told that Howard asked Magic management to fire him.  When asked whether his coach was speaking the truth, Howard – who has been heavily criticized all season long –made himself look even more foolish in his subsequent actions and words in denial of SVG’s accusations.  In one fell swoop, this created the most egregiously awkward press conference I can remember to date (if you have a few minutes, it’s worth watching the whole thing – you’ll get a good laugh).
Thursday morning's press conference had Stan Van Gundy (left)
and Dwight Howard (right) in a bizzare and awkward situation 
Before offering my opinion on Howard, I will say this:  ESPN’s David Thorpe offered some very perceptive words about Dwight Howard on Thursday, saying that Howard “is really just like so many young stars in all careers — Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Young men with enormous talent and a promising future, forced to grow up faster than they are prepared to do. Mistakes in judgment are made, and sometimes emotions ugly things up for a while. But I am sure that over time things will get better for him as he matures.”
While it’s so easy for all of us outsiders to criticize Dwight, we do tend to overlook what Thorpe pointed out:  he’s still a young 26-year old kid.  We just tend to ignore that because, like many lines of work, the NBA is another place that forces you to mature faster than you can.  That’s why Howard has been handling all of this so poorly – even though we have high expectations, maturity wise, for a team’s franchise player, being in a position to flex power and leverage can have dire consequences for an immature person.  So, while I am just as guilty as anyone of no longer giving Howard any benefit of the doubt, we do have to give him a chance to grow up after this experience.
Okay, enough of playing devil’s advocate.  That being said…
Howard simply cannot be trusted.  He has a disturbing tendency to throw everyone else around him – players, coaches, GMs, what have you – under the bus.  And as we found out before the trade deadline, he is extraordinarily flaky.  After Thursday night’s blowout loss to the Knicks (at HOME, no less), where Howard had a poor game (8 points, 8 rebounds, and was scoreless at the half), he claimed he was trying to get back in a rhythm after returning from injury - but still putting in max effort for his team.  Who’s BSing now?  If I’m a GM, I’d be weary of a guy who has a history of calling out his teammates for not being good enough and his coach for being too negative.  There are extenuating circumstances when a player has a right to complain to upper management about their coaching situation (e.g. Magic Johnson with Paul Westhead), but this is certainly not one of them.
After Dwight’s series of bad decision making, does LeBron James’ “Decision” look that bad anymore?  I don’t think it does.  Unlike LeBron, Howard has caused several uproars and imploded the team before even becoming a free agent.  Yes, I think Howard has made people hate LeBron a little less – and that in itself is no small feat.
Much of the hatred toward LeBron for his "Decision"
has been shifting towards Dwight Howard
Van Gundy has taken a lot of criticism as well – especially for revealing a supposedly private conversation with management to the media.  But if you were Van Gundy, would you WANT to keep quiet and continue to be a scapegoat in defense of a guy who’s trying to get you fired?  He has kept pretty quiet in the midst of all the turmoil for this long.  After Howard continued his subversive antics, you can’t blame SVG for saying what he said.  Let’s not side with the guy who – let’s not forget – is still handcuffing the organization by refusing to commit to them long term.  Why would GM Otis Smith take his advice on personnel decisions?
So what’s next for Van Gundy, Howard, and Orlando?
Don't expect many more exchanges between Van Gundy and Howard
I think Stan is going to resign.  Whether he’s lost the entire team is up for debate, as we’re not entirely sure if the rest of the team has any qualms with Van Gundy the same way Dwight evidently has.  If Stan has lost the team, then so has Howard; he has isolated himself by his flakiness and the constant criticism of everyone else around him.  The fact that they’ve had the 3rd-best record in the East for most of the season is a miracle – and a testament to Van Gundy, not Howard.  But either way, there’s no way Van Gundy can keep this up for much longer.  If they think they can suck it up the rest of the season, they’re kidding themselves.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Analyzing the Effect of Trade Rumors on NBA Stars

Note:  this article will be published on FanSided's Saving the Skyhook blog.

With the March 15th NBA trade deadline looming, many players league-wide are wondering what jersey they are going to don by week’s end.  Although it’s hard for the average sports fan to feel sympathy for multi-millionaire athletes dealing with uncertain futures, you have to wonder just how much the psyche of these players are being affected by swirling trade rumors.  One would think that the growing shroud of uncertainty constantly hanging over them has to wear on them in one way or another – both on and off the court. 

We’ve seen several high-profile players being shopped around over the last few years.  This season has been no different; rumors involving Dwight Howard Rajon Rondo, and Pau Gasol have been under the most scrutiny.  How have they been personally handling these rumors?  And what can we expect from them going forward after the trade deadline this Thursday? 

Rondo (left) and Gasol (right) have been saying all the right things,
but how are they really handling the constant trade talk?

We recently heard Kobe Bryant stick up for his teammate Gasol by calling out GM Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers’ management.  He was publicly trying to relay just how difficult it is for Gasol (or any player being shopped around) to put his whole heart into playing for a team that’s actively trying to trade him.  Due to the sensitive nature of trade rumors and the private manner in which teams address them to the media, we have a relatively limited idea of how much of an effect they have on the implicated players.  We just saw the Lakers management tell their players to cut the external chatter short, in an attempt to minimize the drama caused from trade rumors.  So unless players publicly speak about their feelings, our opportunities to gauge their psyche are limited.  For that reason, the performance of these players in the midst of trade rumors may be our best way to make an assessment. 

Now, let’s examine a sample of prominent players that were involved in trade rumors and blockbuster trades over the last 10 seasons.   Whether these players were driving the trade talks themselves, or their respective teams put players on the trading block against their will, here are some of the more notable cases below.  The blocks highlighted in green denote a 10% improvement after the trade, while the red blocks indicate at least a 10% decline in the respective stats as shown.  For better resolution quality, please click on the figure.  Special thanks to ESPN TrueHoop blogger Ian Levy of Hickory High, who was a great help in putting these numbers together. 



If you go by a case-by-case basis, some players on this list wanted to be traded, and some didn’t.  And some, well, could have cared less.  Obviously, every player’s situation was different, and many variables factored into each player’s performance.  Nonetheless, the before/after comparisons are something very interesting to look at in light of Kobe Bryant’s aforementioned assessment on the impact of trade rumor drama.

Vince Carter made the biggest improvement of any star traded in the last ten  years

Bar none, Vince Carter gained the single-most benefit from the resolution of his situation after being traded from Toronto to New Jersey – and his gargantuan improvement shown in these stats reflect that.  But as he admitted, this was largely attributed to his half-hearted effort during his waning days in Toronto.  More than any star player in the last decade, Vince’s performance was directly correlated to how motivated he was.  In Toronto, he publicly criticized Raptors management for failing to put together enough talent around him to build a contending team.  When traded to New Jersey, he did all the things he failed to do during his last couple years in Toronto:  attacking the basket, playing some defense, and just putting in more effort overall.  Playing alongside Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson was a huge motivator for him, as he spent years being the lone star in Toronto.  All of this led to a vast improvement in nearly every statistical category.  Of course, this was all short-lived, and Carter was not always engaged in subsequent years to date.  To learn about his ups and downs some more, take a look at my in-depth take on his career as a whole, which tries to explain his sporadic effort over the years. 

C-Webb (right) did not find greener pastures in Philly
playing alongside AI (left)
In contrast to Vince’s case, some players didn't exactly benefit from being traded.  Of everyone listed here, Chris Webber seems to be the one who suffered the most from changing jerseys.  Of course, injuries played into his decline (and eventual retirement) more than anything.   Nonetheless, then-Sixers GM Billy King’s experiment of pairing him up with Allen Iverson was obviously a failiure – as the Sixers only managed to obtain a 7th seed and only win a single playoff game that season.  But given Webber’s and Iverson’s respective situations at the time – as two perennial All-Stars yet to win a title – both felt it was an experiment worth attempting.  I’m not entirely sure if Chris Webber was forcing his way out of Sacramento the same year he was traded, even though he did express a desire to leave before he became a free agent in 2001.  But I suspect that his decline was due to a combination of his injuries, his lack of cohesion with Iverson, and the realization that he had a pretty damn good team in Sacramento compared to his new team in Philly.

Although Howard has his eyes set elsewhere, he's
still playing well in Orlando
Unlike Rondo and Gasol, we know Dwight Howard has publicly requested to be traded.  Since he has been under the most scrutiny as far as trade rumors are concerned, let’s compare his situation to other superstar players demanding a trade in years past:  Shaq, Allen Iverson, Ron Artest (BTW, I still refuse to call him by his new name), and Carmelo Anthony.   Shaq showed slightly greater improvement and efficiency after being traded, which was to be expected after a bad situation (the most memorable part being his feud with Kobe Bryant) got worse in LA prior to being traded.  But of course, pairing up with the young but highly-gifted Dwyane Wade had something to do with that.  Iverson and Artest welcomed a change of scenery, but their +’s and –‘s in their stat comparisons were a relative wash; Iverson’s shot attempts went down, but he had to get used to having a high-volume shooting teammate in Melo.  Years later, Melo benefited from more shot attempts being in Mike D’Antoni’s system, but overall has been playing at about the same level since the trade.  So in the end, the superstars we’ve seen publicly demand a trade have neither improved nor regressed on a significant level.   

While we don’t see too much of a distinct pattern (at least, not to the same degree as with Vince Carter and Chris Webber) with most of the players on this list – at least in terms of individual performance –  this analysis does show that there is some precedence to the situations of Howard, Gasol, and Rondo.  In terms of a prediction, it’s tough to see any of them improving from their already-solid productivity with their current teams.  All three have been able to put up stellar numbers regularly, but they have all expressed disdain over the lack of resolution on their respective situations.   Their individual performances have not suffered, but their uncertain futures have had an effect on the success of their teams as a whole.  We saw the 2010-11 Nuggets improve significantly after Melo’s departure, even with Melo maintaining his productivity in Denver.  So while trades and trade rumors do not have a huge overall effect on individual performance (with a few exceptions), teams as a whole are put at ease upon resolution of the trade talk.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Live diary on a busy night of NBA League Pass


Since the condensed NBA season has allowed me to consume my evenings watching several games for hours on end, I’m going to try to capture random thoughts I have for all of the teams playing in tonight’s games.

San Antonio Spurs @ Toronto Raptors

Spurs:  I’m 50/50 with my take on the Spurs.  First, I said early on in the season that no one should sleep on them yet – and now they are the West’s 2nd best team at the moment.   With the Western Conference being up for grabs, I think they have potential to make the Conference Finals this year.  I was wrong about one thing, though:  Tony Parker should have been on my All-Star reserves list.  He absolutely deserves to be there.  He is the main reason the Spurs find themselves as 2nd in the West. 

Raptors:  As the first team that the god-awful Wizards beat this season (after Washington started 0-8), Toronto was supposed to be awful.  Well, I’ve paid close attention to them in the last week or so, and they’re really not that bad.  Their point guard, Jose Calderon, is an above-average playmaker, averaging 8.7 assists per game; he’s 4th in the NBA behind Nash, Rondo, and Paul – not too shabby. 

The unfortunate thing about Toronto is that they’re the epitome of talented-but-bad team that always finds ways to lose.  Against the Lakers the other night, they blew a 4-point lead and committed a crucial 5-second violation in the final seconds.  Monday night, they were victims of Linsanity.  And at this time of writing, they’re about to lose a close one to the Spurs.  They play well for about 40-45 minutes, but commit silly mistakes toward the end of games.  This is a team that badly needs veteran leadership and closers to contend – but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Philadelphia 76ers @ Orlando Magic

76ers:  I can’t quite figure this team out.  Sometimes they look like legitimate contenders, and other times they fall flat.  Tonight was a good example of the latter, getting their butts kicked by a highly dysfunctional Magic team.  This is the problem with a team that has more than two or three go-to guys; it’s hard to get a team rhythm when five or six guys have to get in a groove for the team to be successful.  It works on nights when the ball is moving well, but it’s hard to do when you’re sluggish overall.  Lou Williams looks like the team’s best player (especially in the clutch), but it’s not by a wide margin. 

Magic:  Dwight continues to pad his stats on his emotionally detached campaign with this team.  But the guy who’s really impressed everyone is Ryan Anderson, who scored 27 points in this game.  Btw, since the All-Star 3-point shootout contestants were announced, I can’t decide who I’m going to pick to win it.  But Anderson definitely has a great chance – a guy who doesn’t use a lot of energy to get his shots up, his shooting stroke might be built to win such an event.  But the shootout is one of the least predictable events, unless Steve Kerr or Larry Bird are participating.   Anyway, I think the shootout will come down to him or Anthony Morrow of the Nets.

Sacramento Kings @ New York Knicks

Kings:  As J.M. Poulard (ESPN Truehoop Warriors writer) says, this team is a playground unit masquerading as an NBA team.  Walt Clyde Frazier, who’s calling the Knicks broadcast, can’t help but express relief on the Knicks finally being on the favorable end of a blowout.  That goes to show just how terrible Sacramento is – especially on the road.  Much like the Raptors, they have talent, but not the veteran leadership to help cultivate the roster. 

Knicks:  Ok..impossible not to mention Jeremy Lin in this paragraph, right?  I’ll keep this short since everyone in the sports world has beat this to death:  the team is playing well – will be very, very interesting when Melo gets back. Melo is saying all the right things now – but the minute he holds the ball on isolation plays for more than 2 seconds, boos will start coming down on him from the Garden.  Wondering when he’s coming back?  Don’t worry, there will be plenty of media attention on this.

Detroit Pistons @ Boston Celtics

Pistons:  Surprisingly playing well tonight on the road, but it may be because no one in Boston bothered to attend this game.  For a team that lacks talent, they still play hard. 

Quick side note:  Ben Wallace announced he’s retiring at season’s end, and is fittingly finishing the season in a Detroit jersey.  The closest precedence to Jeremy Lin, he was undrafted out of Virginia Union and blossomed into a defensive beast for several years on a very good team.  He will get serious consideration for the Hall of Fame.  I don’t think he should, but a dominant defensive player will always get the benefit of the doubt.

Celtics:  Rondo is back, but the Celtics offense is not.  For a pass-first point guard, Rondo sure has been scoring a lot lately – including a career high 32-point game on Sunday vs. Chicago.  They’re about to embark on a 5-game road trip, so maybe they’re just coasting in preparation for that.  They did sit KG, after all. 

Memphis Grizzlies @ New Jersey Nets

Grizzlies:  Man, this team can’t wait until Zach Randolph comes back from a torn MCL (probably after the All-Star break).  Still, even without him they’re beating the teams they should beat – such as the Nets tonight.  My only complaint with them is to get rid of the gnarly gold and green retro jerseys – it’s the only thing that makes me not want to watch them.

Nets:  Typical New Jersey game – Deron Williams gets a double double (26 pts, 11 assists), everyone else plays mediocre, and the Nets come up short.  Let’s hope Brook Lopez gets back from a broken foot injury as soon as possible, so that we don’t have too many terrible teams in the East.  I mean, look at the list:  New Jersey, Washington, Charlotte, Detroit, Toronto – the list seems to be growing.  Good thing Cleveland and New York seem to be decent now, otherwise the “Leastern” conference jokes would have ran rampant once again.

And speaking of decent Eastern Conference teams..

Indiana Pacers @ Cleveland Cavaliers

Pacers:  Looked to still be shell-shocked after getting streamrolled by Miami the other night.  This no-show against Cleveland is their 5th straight loss, and need to snap out of this funk as soon as they can.  With upcoming games against New Jersey, Charlotte, and New Orleans, I think they will. 

Cavaliers:  They managed to play well in Kyrie Irving’s first game back after sitting out with a concussion.  News flash – LeBron is returning to Cleveland to play this team on Friday.  Hopefully, the Cavs can actually be competitive against him this year. 

Charlotte Bobcats @ Minnesota Timberwolves

Bobcats:  Ugh – just a god-AWFUL team.  With a shortened season, they might not get past single digits in the win column over the entire season.  One of their biggest disappointments is the lackluster play of Tyrus Thomas.  When he was drafted by Chicago a few years ago, he had tremendous upside.  Now, I don’t think the Bulls miss him much.  I guess owner Michael Jordan still wishes there was still a lockout.

Timberwolves:  Kevin Love is a BEAST.  I mean, the guy gets more rebounds in games than people can in practice in a gym by themselves.  He’s putting up numbers that Wilt Chamberlain used to put up in the 60s.  And what some people don’t know is that he can shoot the lights out – which is why he was also invited this year’s All-Star 3-point shootout.   

New Orleans Hornets @ Milwaukee Bucks

Hornets:  Poor Hornets.  David Stern really screwed the pooch on this one.  First they pull of a blockbuster trade to get Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, AND Lamar Odom out of unloading Chris Paul.  Then, Stern rescinds the trade, and they get Eric Gordon, Al Farooq Aminu, and a draft pick from Minnesota.  Now, Gordon will basically miss the entire season, and Minnesota’s draft pick will not be as high as they originally thought (since the Wolves are playing well).  Stern not only is showing incompetence as a commissioner, but looks like a terrible team owner as well. 

Bucks:  Recently, Brandon Jennings said he’s looking into the possibility of signing with a bigger market team.  Why would he say that now, to the team that made him a lottery pick even after a year of playing terribly abroad?  Is that a slap to the face of the franchise or what?   He’s going to be a restricted free agent in the summer, so any offer he gets this year could be matched by the Bucks.  Still, with the new CBA, players get rewarded for staying with the teams that drafted them.  So, only time will tell if he actually leaves.  Such is the life for a small market team.

OKC Thunder @ Houston Rockets

Thunder:  As good as they are, I’m questioning whether this team is a shoe-in to the Finals this year.  First, they only have three guys (Durant, Westbrook, Harden) who can create shots for themselves and teammates. Second, they seem to be a jump-shooting team; Ibaka and Perkins don’t really have a low post game, and neither do any of their perimeter players.  Also, losing backup point guard Eric Maynor for the season hurts them more than people think.  If they don’t address these issues, I can see teams like Dallas and the Lakers giving them fits in the postseason. 

Rockets:  This team could upset someone in the first round of the playoffs.  In addition to keeping Martin and Scola, they have Kyle Lowry – the Rockets’ daily triple-double threat and an All-Star caliber player.  They’re my early favorite to earn the label “The Team No One Wants to Face in the First Round.”

Denver Nuggets @ Dallas Mavericks

Nuggets:  Much like Indiana and Philadelphia, Denver is a decent team that’s been struggling lately.  After playing Dallas tonight, they are going to go through a brutal stretch in their schedule.  Take a look at their next eight games:  Memphis, OKC, Minnesota, LA Clippers, San Antonio, and Portland, Houston, then again San Antonio.  For a team that’s struggling and could use some easy wins these days, that’s rough.  They could really use Gallo right now.

Mavericks:  With Dirk rounding into shape, this team is starting to look like an elite contender again.  If only Lamar Odom can snap out of his season-long funk, I still think they have a great chance of defending their Western Conference title.

Atlanta Hawks @ Phoenix Suns

Hawks:  Still baffled by the snubbing of Josh Smith from the All-Star team.  What’s it going to take for this guy to make it?  Hopefully, Melo sits out the All-Star game and Smith takes his place. 

Suns:  Somehow, Steve Nash continues to play with remarkable efficiency and make his teammates better, even at age 38.  Yes, even guys like Jared Dudley, Grant Hill, Channing Frye, and Marcin Gortat are all beneficiaries of Nash’s brilliant playmaking.  Let’s try to admire Nash as much as we can before his inevitable departure from the game. 

Portland Trailblazers @ Golden State Warriors

Blazers:  After they were defeated handily by Washington at HOME last night, I’m not sure if this is a dangerous team anymore.  I know the Wizards have been playing surprisingly well lately, but still.  With the West being as loaded as it is, they need to address their issues in their backcourt.  I refer, of course, to guards Ray Felton and Wesley Matthews.  They’ve been subject to widespread criticism lately, and that’s only multiplied since their double-OT loss to Dallas on Saturday. 

Warriors: In my recent battle with insomnia, I’ve been watching the Warriors quite frequently even though their games are always on really late.  And I gotta say, I am very impressed with what first-time head coach Mark Jackson is doing.  He has the team playing pretty well.  The one major flaw this team has, though, is their lack of rebounding.  They are 30th in the NBA, and it clearly hampers their ability to win close games.  On paper, they’re one of the more talented teams in the league.  But if they can’t rebound, they won’t even be a .500 team.

Washington Wizards @ Los Angeles Clippers

Is this even worth talking about?  I’m tired..

Monday, February 13, 2012