Rarely has an NBA season played out to its midpoint — at least for many around the league — less about the journey than the late-June destination.
Even the Great LeBronapalooza Free Agency of 2010 didn’t bleed back into the season that preceded it the way some obsessions with the 2014 Draft have tried to pre-empt this one. Even before Anthony Bennett heard his name called, rather surprisingly, as the No. 1 pick last June, the focus for a lot of franchises and their like-it-or-not customers already was fixed on a game of chance 11 months away.
“Tanking” will show up more often in your Google search of this season than “three-peat” (which still is rather special in historical terms, with the Miami Heat positioned to join the Celtics, the Bulls and the Lakers as the only teams ever to achieve that). NBA fans have become nearly as familiar with the names of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart and Joel Embiid as they are with the likes of Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Chandler Parsons, Andre Drummond, Michael Carter-Williams and a bunch of other low national-profile guys already making significant contributions.
It’s as if everyone was getting bored with Derek Jeter and Jacoby Ellsbury and only wanted to talk about Masahiro Tanaka — who has yet to throw a pitch.
Milwaukee, somewhat surprisingly, is leading in the rush to the bottom, earning its lottery odds on merit because the Bucks expressly disavowed any notions of tanking and re-stocked the roster with established NBA role players. Other contenders in the down-is-up standings are Orlando, Utah, Philadelphia, Boston, Sacramento and a few others – several of whom didn’t exactly plan it that way.
It didn’t help to keep people’s attention on the present when some of the game’s biggest and high-impact names started succumbing to injuries. You wince just stringing together the list: Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Tyson Chandler, Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe, Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Kawhi Leonard and on and on. Some are down through summer, others have missed or are missing significant chunks of this season and a lot of teams’ ambitions have been whipsawed by events both unexpected and unfortunate.
New players — the rookies — have plugged some of the holes or added to healthier rosters. Fellas such as Carter-Williams in Philadelphia, Victor Oladipo in Orlando, the Jazz’s Trey Burke, the Knicks’ Tim Hardaway Jr., the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk and the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo have stepped up. (No. 1 pick Bennett? Not so much.) As their careers play out, they might benefit from the chips on their shoulders, put there by getting stuck in coach, relative to the fawning first-class treatment next year’s rookies already are receiving.
Besides injuries and a low-watt class of newcomers (again, compared to what’s supposedly on the horizon), the first half of the 2013-14 regular season featured a warping to the West. It wasn’t just that Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Golden State and others from the Western Conference had more intriguing players, rotations and styles of play than their counterparts in the East. It’s that the superiority has been more than just a matter of taste.
At this writing, with less than half of the 450 interconference games in the book, West teams have dominated by a 143-74 (.659) margin. Only Indiana (11) and Miami (10) have hit double-digits in victories against the opposite conference, compared to eight West clubs vs. the East.
If the season had ended Wednesday night – we can wait while you make your own joke there – two West teams sporting .500 records would be outside looking in, while three East teams lugging sub-.500 marks would be prepping for first rounds. It’s largely a cyclical thing, teams’ competitive arcs and all that. But it was worse earlier and had panicked pundits grasping at extreme fixes, like seeding 16 playoff teams without East-West regard.
Waking up to five .500 teams in the East seems to have calmed that, fortunately.
There have been some happy stories east of the Mississippi. Former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer has had a solid start as coach in Atlanta, leading a reconfigured and Horford-less roster to third place. Toronto has benefited from the jelling of its young core, coach Dwane Casey‘s steady message and GM Masai Ujiri‘s arrival, along with the well-documented addition-by-subtraction of shooter Rudy Gay.
Chicago has no business chasing a top-4 seed with Rose down and Luol Deng gone. Washington broke .500 briefly – hope someone minted a coin. Brooklyn is dusting itself off after a horrendous and humiliating start. And Charlotte will try to hang on to a projected playoff spot without Kemba Walker for a while.
The West’s biggest surprise has played out in Portland, where the offense is out-Warrior-ing Golden State in points and 3-point potency. Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek has pushed into Coach of the Year conversation despite shedding veterans such as Luis Scola, Caron Butler, Michael Beasley and Marcin Gortat before the season.
As for disappointments, Cleveland promised its fans a playoff team but, at 15-27, faces a struggle to deliver, even in the East . Memphis and Minnesota both envisioned more than hovering around .500 midway through their schedule. New York can deal with its Knicks when it digs out from the latest polar-vortex dump; they’re buried somewhere in those drifts.
Individually, LeBron James still is the NBA’s best player. But his “valuableness” has been under assault from the Pacers’ George and, most of all, that bad man in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant plays for the Thunder and strikes like lightning, stringing together scoring performances lately that call to mind Bryant in his prime and Jordan back in the day. If enough MVP voters suffer from the so-called fatigue of automatically scribbling James’ name first on their ballots, a No. 1 seed in the West for OKC and another scoring title for Durant – with the added heft of working without Westbrook for so many games – might shift that Podoloff trophy to the Slim Reaper. (The Interwebs has been test-driving that nickname for Durant. Thoughts?)
Special mention must be made here of a couple historic events in 2013-14: By the season’s midpoint, not one of the 30 head coaches had been fired, which has to at least tie the record. And we’ve just wrapped up the last of David J. Stern‘s 60 half-seasons as NBA commissioner. In so many ways, especially in light of the Forbes franchise valuations out this week, there already is a creeping sense of “Commish, we hardly knew ye.”
Enough reflection, though. The season’s second half has begun. And somewhere, Kyle Korver just hit another 3-pointer.