With the NBA’s unofficial halfway point marked this weekend by the All-Star game, many teams are using the break to gear up for a championship run.
The playoffs are just two months away and while some teams are looking strong, others seem to be fading. In the East, Boston, Miami and Chicago are the front runners. The Celtics have the best winning percentage in the conference, and seem to possess the deepest bench having already suffered many injuries. They have been able to maintain their position on top of the East thanks to their fast experience. However, with experience comes age. The average age of Boston roster is 28 years, and that age has shown with two of its oldest members, Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal, on the disabled list for most of the season.
However, they have been able to continually defeat the top teams in the league with wins against the Spurs, Lakers, Bulls and Heat. The Heat are one of the strongest teams going into the break. After struggling early in the season, Miami has the second best record in the East at 41-15. The top three players, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, have finally gelled together nicely, and their defense has shown up only allowing over 100 points twice in February.
Each of those games saw the Heat victorious. One reason the Heat may not be considered the best team in the East is because they are 0-3 against the one team they know they will have to beat if they want a ring, the Celtics. The Bulls have gone 15-6 since Jan. 1 benefitting from the return of their main off-season acquisition Carlos Boozer. Boozer’s return is especially important considering he averages a double-double a night, and Joakim Noah’s static position on the bench. Derrick Rose is emerging as an MVP candidate on the verge of tripling his double-double total from last year.
Rose has lead his team to an 8-2 record in its last 10 games leading up to probably the most anticipated game of the Bulls’ season against the NBA leading San Antonio Spurs. In the West, the Spurs started as the top team in the league and have not looked back. San Antonio has benefitted from some familiar faces, most of whom critics thought too old to lead the team back to prominence in the NBA. After a disappointing conference semi-final exit last season, the Spurs have been on a tear going 25-2 at home and 21-7 on the road.
The Spurs are the owners of the second-highest point differential in the league next to Miami. Five players on the Spurs average double figures in scoring but none are among the leaders in the league. This shows that the Spurs are truly getting it done with a team effort, a dangerous reality for the rest of the teams in the league. The Dallas Mavericks are putting it together at the right time, going 9-1 in their last 10 games. Dirk Nowitzki is doing his best to lead his team back to the finals, and is getting help from veterans Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler. After a six game skid in January, the club has responded by losing only one game in February; a 121-120 heartbreaker to the Denver Nuggets on a buzzer beater by Arron Afflalo.
More importantly, the Mavs look like they will be able to continue the season without making any major changes to its roster with only Caron Butler out for the season with a knee injury. Oklahoma City is showing why the youth movement is becoming a strong theme around the NBA. There are two players on the Thunder roster over the age of 30, neither of whom is on the starting roster. Kevin Durant leads the league in points per game, and is joined in the top ten by his point guard Russell Westbrook. Jeff Green has blossomed at the right time for the Thunder shooting 50 percent from the field and averaging over 15 points per game. With the roster clear of injuries, look for the Thunder to make another deep playoff run. Room For Improvement:
The Orlando Magic seemed to be one of the strongest teams in the East at the beginning of the season. Then December came and two four-game losing streaks forced the team to make a move. In a monumental trade, the Magic added Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and former Magic player Hedo Turkoglu to the roster. The additions resulted in a nine-game winning streak, and it looked as if things were heading in the right direction. Since that streak ended in early January the team has gone just 11-8. They remain 5 1/2 games behind the Heat in the Southeast division, and are going to need the top three teams in the East to fall from grace if they want a better seed in the playoffs.
After disappointing losses to Orlando, Charlotte and league-worst Cleveland the Los Angeles Lakers are hitting the All-Star break nine games behind San Antonio for the top spot in the West. The two-time defending champions are looking lethargic on defense, and are missing their usual rhythm on offense. Trade rumors involving Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets might have caused the Lakers to lose their focus, though players and coach Phil Jackson deny that assumption. Jackson seemed more animated than ever in Wednesday’s loss to the Cavaliers, shouting at players during timeouts, and frantically scribbling what they were doing wrong on an erasable clip board. The Lakers handed the Cavs a 55 point loss earlier in the season, the most lopsided loss in Cleveland’s history. Anthony trade rumors will likely heat up due to the Lakers lack of effort on the court.
With the All-Star festivities being held in Los Angeles, it will be interesting to see how the Lakers treat the weekend off at home, and if Mitch Kupchak will make any roster moves. Though the future of the Lakers and other teams hangs in the balance, the electrifying events of All-Star weekend will be a welcomed distraction from the labors of the season. The most hyped event of the spring will be the dunk contest, where rookie Blake Griffin is sure light up the Staples Center with an array of high-flying dunks.