Thursday, January 22, 2015

2014-2015 NBA Halftime Report

  College football is over and there is only the Super Bowl left in the NFL (I don’t count the Pro Bowl as a real football game) my sports viewing attention has turned to the NBA. Like last year Mediacom is providing the Fox Sports telecasts of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Indiana Pacers. The 2013-14 Timberwolves were a .500 team (40-42) and the 2013-14 Pacers had the top record in the Eastern Conference. This years’ Timberwolves are mess with their the second worst record in the league at 7-33 while the Indiana Pacers are limping along on the outside of the playoff race with a 15-27 mark. Both teams have been decimated by injuries and except for Minnesota rookie Andrew Wiggins are all but unwatchable. I watched the Pacers game at Charlotte last Saturday where they lost 80-71 to the Hornets in overtime. Yes, there was a grand total of 151 points in this game and it went to overtime. It wasn’t as if this game was a rock-ribbed defensive battle – it was a clinic in missed shots. By comparison, Friday’s ESPN matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors saw the Thunder with a 69-60 halftime lead which at the 24 minute mark had only 22 points less than the Pacers and Hornets scored in 53 minutes.

  Until they lost back to back games in Los Angeles to the woeful Lakers and hopeful Clippers I thought the Warriors were a legitimate threat to break the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls all-time best record of 72 wins against 10 losses. They were 23-3 and slightly ahead of the Bulls pace and winning all their home games (except one loss to the defending champion Spurs) by huge margins. The back to back losses put them at 23-5 and even though they are in the midst of a streak of winning 11 of 12 games their current record of 34-6 means they would have to win 9 straight games just to get back on the Bulls pace.

  This is the closest any team has to the 72-10 all-time record since the 1996-1997 Bulls went 68-10 before losing three of their last four games. The last team to do as well as this year’s Warriors were the 2007-2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics who started 29-3 before dropping 5 of their next 10 games to drop to 34-8 on their way to a 66-16 regular season record. I can’t count out the Warriors entirely since their coach is Steve Kerr who was a member of that record setting Bulls team and understands the mindset needed to attack that record as well or better than anyone.

  I don’t know why the 1995-1996 Bulls never receive the credit I feel they deserve for their record setting season. Coach Phil Jackson and star players Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan are pretty accessible to the media so there could be plenty of chances to interview them about it. Maybe the presence of the tremendous defender and Hall of Fame oddball Dennis Rodman on the team makes the media feel less willing to highlight them. Nevertheless, the 72-10 mark will have stood 19 years after this season and I can’t see it being surpassed anytime soon.

  I predicted the Chicago Bulls to win the NBA championship this year but they have hit a major slump as of late. Coach Tom Thibodeau turned the Bulls into a tough, gritty team but he constantly wears his team out by playing his star players way too much and allowing them to play despite nagging injuries instead of resting even if it means some extra losses. The Bulls signed 34 year old center Pau Gasol in the offseason. Gasol has missed large parts of the last three seasons with leg injuries yet is on pace to play the fourth most minutes of his 15 year career. All-star 2013-2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah has been battling injuries all season but he never takes more than a game or two off before hobbling back into the lineup and aggravating his injuries. At this pace he will never be healthy for an extended playoff run.

  The success the San Antonio Spurs have had while giving key players games off has led the rest of the league to follow suit. Recently LeBron James took nine games off to rest his back and legs and indicated that his injuries wouldn’t have kept him out of the playoffs. Thibodeau has not recognized the usefulness of this new trend and each year seems to exhaust his team a little earlier in the season in order to have a better regular season record. The Bulls have amassed a tremendous amount of talent but I don’t think they can win a championship unless they manage their player’s usage in a better way.

  The NBA trading deadline is almost a month away (February 20th), but the contending teams have already started to beef up their rosters for a playoff push. The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the most active. They picked up center Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets along with guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the Knicks in return for semi star guard Dion Waiters and a couple of draft picks. I like the pickup of Mozgov a lot. I think the Cavaliers had dreams of Kevin Love playing center on defense much like Chris Bosh did in Miami but when Love proved he can’t play much defense at all getting a traditional center made a lot of sense. Shumpert should be a welcome addition as a defensive guard that doesn’t need the ball much and Smith will take Waiters place as the guard that sits on the bench because he shoots too much. The rest of the Eastern Conference contenders haven’t made any pickups yet. I think all the leading contenders are pretty much set with their rosters except for the Toronto Raptors who have slumped in the past month. Raptors GM Masai Ujiri was a frequent trader when he ran the Nuggets and I expect a major shakeup in the next three weeks.

  While the East contenders aside from the Cavaliers have yet to make any big moves, trading season in the West began almost a month ago when on December 18th the Dallas Mavericks acquired all-star point guard Rajon Rondo from the Boston Celtics for some draft picks and spare parts. The Mavericks were 19-8 before the trade and 11-5 after the trade so while there hasn’t been a dramatic improvement there also hasn’t been the drop off that sometimes happens when the roster is changed. Rondo is an experienced playoff veteran who was on two NBA Finals teams and the Mavericks expect his playoff experience to pay off in May.

  The Oklahoma City Thunder has been one of the league’s top teams over the past five years but have one Finals appearance and no championships to show for it. Superstar Kevin Durant is a free agent after next year and there is wide speculation that Nike will push last years’ MVP to move on to a bigger market. The Thunder have never traded draft picks or gone over the luxury tax but GM Sam Presti may see his championship window closing and spent a first round pick to get sharpshooter Dion Waiters from the Cavaliers as part of the Mozgov deal (The Cavs passed the pick on to the Nuggets for Mozgov). I don’t know if Waiters is the missing piece for the Thunder but his outside shooting abilities should complement superstars Russell Westbrook and Durant and allows the team to trade backup guard Reggie Jackson for another ‘missing piece’ if the opportunity arises. The Thunder look to be making their move to win it all this year but injuries to Durant and Westbrook earlier this year will likely force them to win at least two playoff series on the road this year IF everyone stays healthy and given their recent injury record that is a big IF. I don’t think the Thunder’s championship window is closing – I think it is shut.

  The weirdest trade of the NBA season wasn’t a trade at all. On December 22nd the 5-23 Detroit Pistons released former All-star Josh Smith. Players are released all the time but Smith was in the second year of a 4 year $54 million dollar guaranteed contract. Not only do the Pistons have to pay Smith the remaining $30 million owed to him, they have to count that money against their salary cap over the next five years. Smith was signed on December 26th by the then 20-7 Houston Rockets for $2 million dollars for the remainder of the year.

  Most sports commentators thought the Pistons had released Smith in order to ensure an awful record and get a top draft pick but the Pistons immediately went on a 7 game winning streak and have gone 11-3 since the release to enter the periphery of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Meanwhile the Rockets have gone a pedestrian 9-7 since picking up Smith. I picked the Rockets as my surprise team in the West but while the Pistons have performed addition by subtraction, the Rockets seem to have discovered the fine art of subtraction by addition.