It has been anything but dull in the NBA 2012-2013 season so far, as several perrenial powerhouses appear to be fading and new contenders have materialized. The Los Angeles Lakers have made a soap opera of their season and are playing .500 ball, and no one is afraid of the Boston Celtics anymore. The Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies have all managed to play at an extremely high level. No team has exceded expectations more than the Golden State Warriors. What does it all mean? The odds on favorites for the finals remain the Miami Heat and OKC Thunder, a repeat of last year. Let’s take a closer look at why….
The Heat are clearly the favorites in the East to head to the finals for a third year in a row. They have struggled with focus at times, and it seems like Dwayne Wade may be playing wih nagging injuries again, but they are very athletic and when they are being led by LeBron James and at the top of their game, no one can stay with them.
The New York Knicks have been at the top of the Atlantic Division all season and the talk is that Carmelo Anthony has actually stepped his game up. There is still no way to know how they will mesh when Amare Stoudamire returns however, and they have the feel of a team with a lot of players playing over their levels.
The Pacers badly need Danny Granger back to enter the serious discussion. The Hawks have played well, but appear a notch below. The Nets appear to have fallen apart, firing their coach, and with 2 superstars who may not be so super in Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. The Celtics have the will but not the legs, as age has caught them.
It should be the Knicks and Heat in the Eastern Finals, and that pretty much assures you the Heat will advance.
In the West, things get more complicated. The Thunder have adapted well to the post James Harden era. Kevin Durant has improved his games nuances to the point where he is a legit threat to LeBron’s lock on the MVP award. They are the most athletic team in the conference – they run by teams on offense and out athlete teams on defense.
The darlings of the NBA at the 30 game mark are the Los Angeles Clippers, and they have played outstanding. As proof we offer their 16 game winning streak, and best in the NBA overall record. Their bench is destroying people, led by Jamal Crawford. Veteran Lamar Odom is actually contributing on what is also the league’s deepest bench. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the starting lineup they are truly formidable, and fun to watch. Their may be something magical there in Clipperland. The catch here is coach Vinny Del Negro, who has long been criticized for a lack of leadership and x’s and o’s type of knowledge. Come playoff time, facing a team like OKC or the Spurs, Del Negro may be their biggest liability.
The San Antonio Spurs are playing excellent basketball as expected. Coach Greg Popovich has faith in his rotation, but he always knows his bread is buttered by the big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. They have championship pedigree and will be a threat to anyone in a Conference final, but they are now 5 years removed from their last title, which means the playoffs have seen them hit their wall in recent years.
The Memphis Grizzlies are dangerous as well, as the team has been together for a long time, and they know how to get teams to play their game. And their game is a bruising, grinding style led by their burly frontline of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay. Their lone weakness may be a lack of deep playoff run experience, but if this team can stay healthy they can be especially dangerous to a team like the Clippers, who have less playoff experience as a team overall.
The Golden State Warriors sit at a surprising 20-10 and have played well despite missing Andrew Bogut for extended periods. Mark Jackson is certainly proving himself as a solid coach in his second year, with the team playing active defense at the core of their schemes. The team has little playoff experience, and will likely be a first round out. Take it as a learning experience.
The Lakers appear to be below the above contenders, despite the individual talent. Just on a karma basis, with injuries and public dissarray (remember Phil Jackson?) this team appears to have failed on a chemistry level. I am not a fan of LeBron James, but perhaps it is part of his legacy we are witnessing in LA. James is special and has made it work in Miami. Dwight Howard is a terrific talent and a top 5 player in the league, no doubt. But he is an idiot. He was an idiot in Orlando in the way he handled his whole free agency. His legacy there includes one Final appearance where most observers think he had ‘fun’ but was not there to win. Other facets of his legacy include posting pictures of himself ‘planking’ on his autos and in myriad places, and stalking porn stars. And he has been an aloof, non commital Laker. This guy is no LeBron. He is unlikely to impress Kobe, who is a snob. Pau Gasol is at his Euro whining best this year, and Steve Nash hasn’t played for real yet. And Mike D’Antoni is supposed to be the coach to pull it all together? Good luck guys.
The divison is top heavy, but in the end it is OKC that would appear to have the edge overall. Come the finals, the team that emerges from the West will have had a tougher road.