Recent Trends Around the League

Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.

Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.

But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…

The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.

Will Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis be able to coexist?

Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.

Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.

The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.

Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.

Gallinari and Nene led the Nuggets to a big overtime win over the Hawks last night

I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.

Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.

Andrew Bynum and Kobe powered the Lakers to a double-overtime victory on the road

Trade Impact: Monta Ellis to Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Bucks recently snuck into the number 8 seed in the East, but after today’s fantastic trade, they may have a few more spots to climb. The Bucks acquired Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown from Golden State and will send the injury-laden pair of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson to the Warriors.

For the Bucks, this is a fantastic trade at the moment. Although they initially struggled without their star big man Bogut, Milwaukee worked its way back into the playoff race thanks phenomenal elevated play from Ersan Ilyasova and Drew Gooden, consistently great play from Jennings, and the Knicks’ six game losing streak. All with Bogut and Jackson sitting on the bench. Can you imagine a starting lineup of Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Ilyasova, Gooden and Tobias Harris, with Mike Dunleavy (consistent bench scoring), Carlos Delfino (current starter averaging 9.0 ppg) and Beno Udrih (a semi-efficient guard) coming off the bench and giving decent minutes? Ignoring the Tobias Harris part, that sounds like a pretty decent squad! The biggest concern is how Jennings and Ellis will play together, as both are phenomenal guards who look to score first and need a lot of shots. The give-and-take at the guard position may take some getting used to if this team is to be successful. But if these two can learn to play together, you’re potentially looking at the NBA’s most dangerous backcourt. Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh don’t really bring much to the table, but trading Milwaukee’s two injured players for the Warriors’ scoring machine, especially when one of those players has a history of injury, is a great move for the Bucks.

If Ellis can fit in with Jennings, the Bucks could become a solid team in the East

On the other side of the coin, this move is perplexing if you’re a Warriors fan, as Golden State just gave up its best offensive weapon for two injured players who have been riding Milwaukee’s bench all season. Bogut has played in 12 games this season, spending the majority of his time on the sideline after fracturing his ankle against the Rockets on Jan. 25.  Stephen Jackson hasn’t played since Feb. 19, sitting out with a hamstring injury, but even when he was healthy, he saw limited minutes as Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles didn’t like his attitude problem. Apparently the Warriors have given up on Mark Jackson and the Warriors for this season and look to rebuild for next year starting now. A healthy core of Curry, Bogut, Jackson, and David Lee along with Dorrell Wright, Brandon Rush and Nate Robinson is an interesting concept for next season, especially if Coach Jackson can learn to control the new Jackson. But as long as Curry continues to be riddled with ankle injuries and Mark Jackson continues to struggle as a head coach (you think Stephen Jackson’s attitude problem will improve with a first-year coach?), Warriors basketball may not be so fun to watch for the time being.

Golden State, give it up for your injured big man....Andrew Bogut!

NOTE: Could the Warriors be setting themselves up to try and trade multiple pieces for Dwight Howard? They now have Bogut, Jackson, Curry, Lee and other role-player assets that could be packaged into a big deal for Superman. It would be interesting to see what kind of package would interest the Magic in exchange for Howard, but just a thought to keep in mind.

When Magic Becomes Kryptonite

With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, talks of the Magic dealing Dwight Howard have all but died down and the general consensus is that Superman will spend the remainder of the season in Orlando. Howard made his intentions of leaving clear a long time ago, but it looks like the Magic are going to take their chances on trying to land a big piece to lure him into staying around a little longer. They take this risk with the knowledge that if they fail, Dwight is free to leave after the season is over and they will receive nothing in return for his departure. Their faith that he will stay either out of loyalty to the city or because they believe they can attract big names is inspiring, but even with Howard, the Magic have seemed to be extremely unpredictable this season.

What’s funny about all of this is that in actuality, the Magic are currently third in the Eastern Conference standings at 25-15. Dwight Howard’s been a monster in the paint, putting up MVP-numbers of 20.7 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1.5 steals per game, leading his team in all four of these categories. Even the NBA All-Star game, which brings in a considerable amount of attention and general good feelings, was in Orlando this year. So why does Superman need to leave? And why do the Magic look so dysfunctional despite their status in the East?

The Magic are third in the East, but they don't look like it when they play. Remember the 31-point loss to the Hornets?

First of all, the current state of the East should be addressed. Atlanta, Indiana and Philadelphia are behind right now, but only because they have played less games. Although the Pacers and Sixers are currently suffering losing streaks, they have shown for the majority of the season that they can win and you can be guaranteed they’ll start climbing back up the standings soon. These three teams will soon deflate the Magic’s seemingly impressive standing in the East, which brings up another problem: what’s wrong with the Orlando Magic.

The Magic have a wealth of problems to deal with. Jameer Nelson’s lackluster season is a big one. Orlando’s lack of a bench beyond JJ Reddick is another. A significant drop in Glen Davis’ production from last year with the Celtics, which is a huge contributor to the team’s lack of a bench, represents another unspoken problem. Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu’s inconsistent 3-point shooting and all-around offensive presence compounds the Magic’s troubles even further (J-Rich’s age and injuries certainly don’t help). But the biggest problem the Magic face might come as a surprise. Because of the lack of a great supporting cast around Dwight Howard, the city of Orlando is starting to realize that the biggest reason for the Magic’s problems is Superman himself.

Jameer Nelson's lackluster season is one of many problems that all stack up into the biggest problem: Dwight Howard wanting to leave.

On paper, that statement doesn’t make much sense. Howard is the most coveted big man in the league for a reason. He’s putting up MVP-numbers this season and is the biggest factor in the Orlando Magic winning games. On a team where Ryan Anderson is the only other bright spot, the majority of the Magic’s success should be attributed to Dwight Howard. But although this is all true, Superman is still the reason for Orlando’s losses and problems. We can point to Nelson and J-Rich not contributing enough, but it must be pretty difficult to focus on your job when your star player and team rock is talking about where he could see himself playing every week. Howard opening his mouth about playing in New Jersey or Chicago or L.A. or Golden State has damaged this team’s chemistry. Yes, the Magic are winning ballgames. Yes, Dwight Howard has stated over and over again that until that trading day comes, he’s giving everything he’s got to the city of Orlando. And yes, Howard has elevated his play to prove that he means what he says. But can anyone really be fooled into thinking that Superman and the rest of his teammates are of sound mind or have any chance at building team chemistry with all this off-court turmoil?

The smartest thing would have been to accept that it’s time to rebuild, find a quality trade for Howard (a decent big man and a dynamic guard/forward would have been ideal) and move on. There were talks of dealing Howard to the Lakers, but the Magic would have been slightly downgrading at the center position, and even if they got both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, they would still be hurting for better guards/forwards. And any chances of Dwight joining Deron Williams in New Jersey faded as the already-downgrade prospect Brook Lopez continues to struggle with injury problems.

This trade doesn't seem likely anymore.

So instead, the Magic switched to trying to keep Howard interested in staying in Orlando by looking at Monta Ellis in Golden State. But the Warriors aren’t interested in what the Magic have to offer (what team should be?), so the only way Ellis is coming to Orlando is if Superman himself ships off for Golden State. Now the Magic are in real trouble, because without the ability to attract any big names, along with several bad losses on the season (a 31-point loss to the Celtics, a 26-point loss to the Hornets and Tuesday’s 16-point loss to the five-win Charlotte Bobcats), Dwight Howard most likely feels like it’s time to move on. The only thing Orlando has going for it in hoping that Dwight Howard resigns with the Magic is that their pure loyalty and love for him persuades him to stick around.

Superman has had an immediate and substantial impact on his team since he first donned an Orlando Magic uniform. The Magic went to the Finals and have been competitive in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the past few years, but have come up just short every time. And every time Dwight Howard takes the court and leads the Magic to a win, I’m reminded of the climactic scene of Superman Returns, where Superman carries a giant growing mass of land and kryptonite away from the citizens of Metropolis, flying higher and higher into the sky where he launches it into space before plummeting to the ground as the kyptonite finally takes its toll. Dwight Howard’s superhuman efforts carry this team, but the kryptonite that is the Orlando Magic has taken its toll and it might not be long before Superman falls right into another city.

Coming soon to an NBA arena near you.

2012 All-Star Snubs

There are six players that definitely should have been All-Star reserves, along with a few honorable mentions that are open to debate. Here are the biggest snubs of the 2012 All-Star game.

Top 3 East Snubs:

1) Josh Smith – If the Hawks were to have somebody make the cut, it should have been this guy. He’s been doing everything for Atlanta this year (points, rebounds and blocks) and is the biggest All-Star snub overall.

"How are you gonna leave me hanging like that?"

2) Danny Granger – Hibbert has had a solid season, but why put a Pacer in the All-Star game if it’s not their leader Danny Granger? I’m not just saying that as a Lobos fan (Danny Granger is a UNM alum), but Granger is the center-piece in what is becoming an impressive Indiana squad.

They chose the wrong Pacer

3) Brandon Jennings -Milwaukee’s young point guard has been leading the Bucks all year, even when Bogut was on the floor. And although the Bucks aren’t a terrific team, his absence from the All-Star game is unfortunate because he should have been strongly considered as a reserve.

Jennings was close, but not close enough

East Honorable Mentions:
Rajon Rondo – I honestly don’t think Rondo should have gotten in over Deron Williams or Andre Iguodala for a guard spot, but he is the new leader of the Celtics and deserves a spot on the “what if?” list.
Ryan Anderson – Anderson has really stepped up this season for the Magic, and although his numbers aren’t fantastic, he may be considered more strongly next year if he continues to improve.

Top 3 West Snubs:

1) Rudy Gay – Gay is the biggest snub in the West and if any member of the Grizzlies should have made the All-Star lineup, it should have been him. Marc Gasol’s inclusion is questionable when one considers Rudy Gay’s great season.

The best player on Memphis didn't make the cut

2) Danilo Gallinari – Although his injury ruined any chance at making the All-Star game, Gallinari has led the Nuggets this season and without him, the team has taken a small dive. When he was healthy, the Nuggets were a formidable force and it’s a shame they won’t have Gallinari represent them in the All-Star game.

Sure he's hurt. But if he wasn't, he would be an All-Star

3) Pau Gasol – Fans and coaches chose the wrong Gasol this year. I personally wouldn’t have liked seeing three Lakers in the All-Star lineup, but Pau should have taken that center reserve spot.

"Dibs on next year's All-Star game"

Honorable mentions:

Monta Ellis – The Warriors aren’t a tremendous team but I’d rather see a young and exciting talent like Monta make the list than an older and already accomplished player like Steve Nash. Sure Nash is leading the league in assists this season, but his spot in the lineup seems to be more like a lifetime achievement award than a real testament to the kind of season he’s having (along with Dirk and Paul Pierce).
James Harden – Maybe I’m a little bit biased as an ASU fan, but James Harden is going to be an All-Star one day. He’s a lock for this year’s 6th Man award and is a huge reason for the Thunder’s success due to his ability to produce off the bench. And that beard. You can’t ignore a beard like that!

How can you not cheer for this guy??

Others: Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap, Tyson Chandler, Lou Williams, Tyreke Evans, Greg Monroe