After some pretty decent conversations with some mates on a bus trip this past weekend, I felt the need to have a discussion about some of the topics we discussed, but more importantly, we discussed if the “usual suspects” weren’t back in the NBA Finals, who we thought would be right there waiting for their opportunity to snare a Larry O’Brien trophy. The following article is part my own thoughts but also some intellectual property of a few basketball mad mates on a Buck’s Day bus trip!
At the start of the season everyone had their favourites, with all the off-season moves and drama, we headed into the NBA season thinking we pretty much knew who would be the top contenders in both divisions. Hell, we even previewed every team and gave our thoughts on where we thought they may end up. Not saying we were wrong, but I am saying that there have been some surprises both pleasant and nasty so far in the NBA.
The Lakers have been failing miserably, when most people had them either taking home Larry or at least giving Miami a run for their money in a 7 game finals series! The Thunder traded Harden and this just gave the Lakers bandwagon a little more fuel for the journey. Most wrote off the Spurs, then Timmy Duncan and crew told father time to “piss off” for another year or two. The Clippers have been as good as advertised, probably even better and then there are the Grizzlies who have flat out been superb so far. In the East, the Heat have dropped a couple of games late, but are still at the top of the table. The Celtics have not been able to find their feet and are languishing. The Sixers have been surprising but without Bynum they don’t look as threatening. New York have come on in a big way and Amare hasn’t played yet and Brooklyn are looking as schmick as their new arena.
So that all leaves us with a few questions….. If the Heat and Thunder DON’T play off in a finals rematch, who do we think might be ready and waiting to snare the opportunity with both hands and deliver their city a ring? Let’s see….
Memphis Grizzlies (14-4)
These guys are playing a terrific brand of basketball and they are all on the same page. The core of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay is as good as any frontcourt in recent memory and Mike Conley Jnr is doing a great job of running the offence, getting the ball to the right guys at the right time and is a handy 4th option himself. Their defence has been better and they look damaging. Probably a little deeper than they have been in the past with role players like Allen, Ellington, Arthur all doing what is required. The Grizz look like they could ride a wave of good form all the way to a Finals series and at the very least give the Western Conference playoff race a big scare.
San Antonio Spurs (17-4)
Another year older and wiser, and still not slowing down. They have a great blend of youth and athleticism, but with wily veteran presence and experience. They run the right play at the right time and somehow manage to keep winning games. They may not be the most exciting team to watch but there is no doubt they are one of the best teams in the league. Even when they rest the big names (and get a hefty fine for doing so), they are so well drilled and schooled that they can give the Miami Heat a good run for their money. The Spurs will keep winning games, and if they can remain healthy and rest some of the older guys to keep them fresh, they could be returning to the NBA Finals.
Los Angeles Clippers (14-6)
We know they have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and of course any team that has a duo like that one, is going to be competitive. However, something bigger is happening in Clippertown. DeAndre Jordan has become a bonafide Centre who has really worked on his game and it is paying dividends already. They now have more depth in the backcourt with a healthy Chauncey Billups but it is the youth and athleticism of Eric Bledsoe that is even more encouraging. Finally they have the 6th man of the year. Jamal Crawford has played great basketball for a lot of teams, but he really belongs here. He fits the system well and is playing at a super high level. Add to this, Caron Butler and a cast of veterans (Grant Hill, Lamar Odom etc) and this could be the makeup of an NBA Finals squad.
Los Angeles Lakers (9-11)
Wondering what they are doing here? I’m not. As much as I like watching them lose (I’m a hater!) I still believe they get this right over time. Nash will be a solid influence on this team and even though he is nowhere near as good as he used to be, he is the veteran presence with the ball in his hands that this squad needs. Right now they are dysfunctional and predictable and they are losing games because of it. Howard as impressive as he can be, is equally flawed and his performances at the line will lose playoff games. Kobe has been awesome but he can’t do it alone. Pau Gasol needs to get healthy and get on the same page before he finds himself in New York for Amare. Perhaps that is his plan? Get traded to an actual contender?
New York Knicks (15-5)
The Knicks are finally back and are heating up the Eastern Conference. Melo has flat out been balling like a mofo and has to be the frontrunner for MVP at this stage. Even a lacerated finger won’t slow him down (but they beat the Heat without him anyway!). Anthony has now cemented himself as one of the best in the league and he has the pieces around him to get the job done. Felton is playing really well and distributing the ball well and JR Smith is having more good performances than bad ones. Chandler is a workhorse and a perfect fit for this squad. The role players and outside shooting has been outstanding and Novak is a main reason for that. It will be interesting to see how Amare alters the dynamics when he returns and also if he gets traded to LA for Pau. Either way, I have a very strong suspicion that the Knicks and Heat will be playing in the ECF.
Brooklyn Nets (11-7)
They have dropped a couple of late as well, but there is no denying they are the real deal. With an All Star PG in Deron Williams and with Joe Johnson finally starting to find his shot, they look dangerous. Brook Lopez has been a bright spot with his work down low of both ends of the floor. Kris Humphries is a very solid role player (and probably husband but he never really got to show his wares there!) The depth is a little concerning but Stackhouse is still putting up buckets and Brooks etc can provide some assistance. Blatche has been good most of the time which is a bonus. If everything clicks in 60 games time, look out.
Chicago Bulls (11-8)
This is a team that some people thought may struggle without their superstar and franchise player – Derrick Rose. However, the well-coached Bulls are still managing to win games and develop their other players and bench which can only be a good thing if Rose can make a return prior to the playoffs. Rip Hamilton has been terrific and his injury will be tough to cover. Deng has been great and Noah could make the All Star game but the little names like Nate Robinson, Kirk Hinrich are putting in work. Taj Gibson has put together another solid if unspectacular season and Boozer is as serviceable as ever. If this team is all healthy at playoff time, they can beat anyone in a seven game series and might be deeper this time around.
Boston Celtics (11-9)
I put these guys in here because I still feel you would have to be a fool to count them out. They have added a number of new pieces and also are trying to develop their rookies to play a decent part in the rotation. They are still without Avery Bradley who is a great player and really balances this team well. Rondo is playing at a terrific level even if he still can be a bonehead at times. KG is doing his thing, not quite as well as Timmy D in San Antonio, but very good nonetheless. Paul Pierce will always be dangerous and could really be a playoff MVP but he needs to stop reaching on defence and save those ankles – a couple of near misses have occurred already! If they can constantly get good minutes out of Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, they will be ok. Terry is still finding his feet but I would back him by the end of the season and with Sullinger and Bradley, the Celtics still could surprise a lot of teams.
I know I have missed a number of teams that are playing some great basketball – GSW and ATL are two that spring to mind, but I can’t cover them all – plus, you have to do SOME of the work! Have a read over this article again and share some of your thoughts or ask some questions. ATR is for all of us remember!