Sunday, February 26, 2012

Talking Hoops 2012

  This is the weekend of the NBA All-Star Game and a good time to take stock of the strike shortened season. Because of the NBA lockout, the season was shortened from 82 to 66 games and started on Christmas Day instead of the traditional first week in November. This has led to a premium on young players and depth to withstand the compressed schedule of 3 or 4 games a week with some back to back to back games mixed in so it shouldn’t be surprising that of all the teams that have won 60 percent of their games, only the Spurs and defending champion Dallas Mavericks are led by star players in their mid-30’s while young teams like the Pacers, 76ers, and Clippers have made great strides.

  The 3 teams with the best records are the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Chicago Bulls. I’ve seen the Heat play a number of times and they look like world championship material to me. They still don’t have the top quality center most championship teams have, but with the addition of Udonis Haslem (who missed most of last season with injury) they have a rebounding machine and a tough defender that lets superstars Dwayne Wade and LeBron James try for steals and get out on the fast break instead of staying by the basket to help with the rebounding. The Bulls and Thunder are also very talented teams, but I don’t think they can match up to the Heat in a playoff series. The Heat’s one main shortcoming is the lack of a top notch center, but none of the other top contenders have a top center either.

  When I look at the league, I see only two championship quality centers, Dwight Howard of Orlando and Andrew Bynum of the Lakers. The Lakers seem to think the often injured Bynum is the cornerstone of their post-Kobe Bryant roster, but Howard is able to opt out of his contract at the end of the season and become a free agent. This gives him the leverage to force a trade to a contending team and reshape this year’s championship picture. The Nets, Mavericks, and Lakers all have permission to talk to Howard’s agent about a trade and contract extension. I can’t see Howard wanting to go to the loser Nets or be a second banana to Bryant with the Lakers. The Mavericks would give him a chance to win this year, but all they have to offer Orlando is a bunch of aging players. I think the Chicago Bulls make the most sense for Howard. They have a glaring weakness at center and a surplus of talented players and a couple of extra first round picks to give to the Magic in return. I listen to Chicago’s 670 – The Score all sports radio over the internet and their pundits seem to think that Howard wouldn’t be a good teammate, would disrupt the great chemistry of the Bulls team, and wouldn’t extend his contract with the Bulls after the season. I think that the Bulls will never beat the Heat with their current roster and if they want to win a championship, they should get Howard this year and take their chances on resigning him after the season.

  The New York Knicks are also making a big push for Howard. They tried to trade for him in the off season, but after letting Shaquille O’Neal leave for the Lakers a generation ago, the Magic has been very slow to come to the conclusion that Howard doesn’t want to play for them and understandably want to keep their franchise player. Since the Patrick Ewing era ended 10 years ago, the Knicks have been searching for a marquee superstar. Their current incarnation has been their best team yet with former all-star Amare Stoudemire and current all-star Carmelo Anthony surrounded by a nice group of role players. The team got off to an awful start, but then with both their star players hurt, Jeremy Lin came out of nowhere to lead the team to 7 straight wins and attain instant superstardom. Lin had a great start, but the past weeks matchups against Deron Williams of the Nets and the Miami Heat have proven that he can’t handle pressure defense and isn’t close to an all-star talent despite the Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine cover status conferred upon him as being the novelty of a speedy Asian-American point guard. Lin is in the right system as coach Mike D’antoni’s run and gun approach caters to Lin’s strengths more than traditional half-court offenses. I think Howard would be a great fit for the Knicks even if they have to part with a superstar or two but there would be no championship this year as D’antoni’s system will struggle in the playoffs when the game slows down and physical play leads to less foul calls which will make Lin a liability rather than an asset.

  With the NBA season reduced to 66 games, the great 1995-96 Chicago Bulls record of 72 wins (against 10 losses) is safe for another year, but it is noteworthy that halfway through the shortened season only 3 teams have less than the 10 losses of the record setting Bulls. The Heat and Thunder have 27-7 records and that 4-1 ratio of wins to losses is a far cry from the Bulls 7-1 ratio. I know it was only 15 years ago that the Bulls set the wins record, but I feel it is a record that will last my lifetime and I’m surprised that it isn’t mentioned yearly by the basketball writers in the same manner as the 1972 Miami Dolphins perfect season.

  Along with the 15 year old Bulls mark for excellence, the other NBA mark I like to track is the 1972-1973 Philadelphia 76ers ignominious 9-73 mark for futility. This is a down year for bad NBA teams with only 3 teams having less than 10 wins at the halfway point, but the Charlotte Bobcats have a chance to set the record for the least wins in a season. They are currently sitting at 4-28, having a win against Toronto on the 17th interrupting a 14 game losing streak and nudging them ahead of the 76er’s pace. It would only take 8 wins to beat the 76ers winning percentage, but 9 or 10 wins may be out of reach of these Bobcats, who were in the playoffs just 2 years ago. I think the Bobcats will take advantage of the tendency of many NBA teams to lose to lesser teams at the end of a long season and get to 10 wins, but it would be ironic if they were to set a new record for futility since their owner is none other than the same Michael Jordan who was the driving force of the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls, the winningest team of all time.