Mike Prada puts the Pacers under the microscope and he does not like what he finds.
It was on Christmas Day when the NBA season began to take shape, which is fitting in that Christmas is typically the day when the general public emerges from its football stupor for a minute to remember the basketball season has been underway for almost two months.
It was on that day when the Nets hit rock bottom, the Lakers were rendered irrelevant and the Clippers and Warriors began what’s become one of the best and nastiest rivalries in the league. It was the day that the Bulls made it clear they weren’t going to go away and the Rockets began their ascent. It was also on Christmas when Russell Westbrook injured his knee, which set the stage for Kevin Durant to emerge as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Over the next two months, Durant averaged 35 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists and led the Thunder to a 20-7 record while Westbrook recuperated. Durant scored 54 points against the Warriors, broke the 40-point barrier six other times and outdueled LeBron James on his home floor. Even when Westbrook returned to the lineup, Durant continued putting the finishing touches on the best season of his career and one of the greatest of all time.
Take his traditional numbers, for example. In the history of the NBA there have been four players who averaged better than 32 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists for a full season. Wilt Chamberlain did it twice (of course) and Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor each did it once. Durant will be the fourth.
KD is also on track to record a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) over 30 for the first time. PER is not the end-all and be-all by any means, but as a statistical measure of comparison across the generations it does offer some context. Michael Jordan recorded a PER over 30 four times, as has LeBron. Wilt and Shaq surpassed the mark three times. The others: David Robinson, Dwyane Wade, Tracy McGrady and soon, Kevin Durant.
What makes Durant’s rise so exciting is there has never been another player like him. Take the best qualities of T-Mac and Dirk Nowitzki, put them in George Gervin’s body and give him a nasty competitive streak softened by an outwardly pleasant persona that’s still layered in mystery and you have a reasonable amalgam of Kevin Durant. Put them in the league in his prime at the exact same time that another unique player without historical precedent is at the peak of his powers and you have the NBA in 2013-14.
Unlike past seasons, James didn’t take his game to new heights. He didn’t add anything particularly noteworthy or improve his shooting noticeably. Like the rest of the Heat, he seemed to be biding his time during the regular season and was unimpressed with statements or milestones. All he did was maintain a level consistent with some of the greatest seasons that have ever been produced. Again.
There’s been a lot of talk this season about what’s wrong with the league. There were disasters and dumpster fires from New York to Los Angeles. There were teams with no intention of competing for real and franchises with delusions of grandeur who were met with the cold slap of reality.
Teams were tanking for a draft that may not even be that good. Players kept getting hurt and the national TV schedule was dominated by bad teams in glamour markets playing awful basketball. The Bucks happened. Sleeved jerseys happened. The Sixers -- good lord, the Sixers -- made a mockery of the entire endeavor and almost set a new low standard for on-court ineptness even if the off-court plan was intellectually sound.
All of that is worth talking about during the context of a season. The league and the players’ union has been tabling quality of life issues for so long that there’s a backlog of items waiting to be addressed from the age limit to instant replay. If we care about the league and its future then all those things are absolutely worth discussing, and there is no shortage of fresh ideas and innovative approaches.
But lost in the white noise of hot takes and honest reform efforts has been a season worth remembering and celebrating. History will judge it far more favorably than it’s being discussed in the present and we should take a moment to appreciate it for all that it’s been. KD and LeBron provided the highlights, but they aren’t the only reason to remember.
The Pacers dominated the first two months of the season and the Spurs have controlled the stretch run. If San Antonio continues at its current pace, it will be the most successful regular season in franchise history, to say nothing of the best of the Duncan/Pop era. The Pacers have slid into an awful funk, but there’s still time to get themselves right before the Eastern Conference finals matchup we’ve been anticipating since the last one ended.
Both teams took the Heat to seven games last season and both teams represent the greatest threat to Miami winning a third straight title. The Heat, meanwhile, have evolved from reviled upstart opportunists to wizened elders hanging on to what made them great, as all championship teams eventually do.
Against that backdrop, Doc Rivers has given the Clippers legitimacy and Dwight Howard has recaptured his form with the Rockets. The Blazers are going back to the playoffs with a great offense and the Warriors have become one of the top defensive outfits. The Phoenix Suns are the league’s most enjoyable surprise, and the Grizzlies are lying in wait to snap somebody’s head off in the playoffs. Assuming they even get there. "Monta Ellis" is once again a think piece.
The veteran-heavy Nets have improbably turned into a dangerous postseason team, thanks in part to the play of one-time phenom, Shaun Livingston. The Bulls are the counter-argument to every team that figured they should pack it in and Joakim Noah is a deserving MVP candidate. John Wall will make his playoff debut and Al Jefferson is finally getting his due. It’s impossible not to like the Raptors’ young core and what they’ve been able to accomplish.
Steph Curry, Blake Griffin, Paul George and Kevin Love have all had breakthrough seasons. Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan are still great. Anthony Davis may one day surpass them all. Jeff Hornacek, Steve Clifford and Dave Joerger made a case for bringing in new ideas and fresh approaches to the sidelines and Phil Jackson is finally back in the league.
This season has been cast in terms of teams trying not to win and angling for a better future. But the present has rarely been this wide open or filled with as many variables. There are great stories happening throughout the league waiting to unfold over the next two months. These are good times in the NBA, maybe some of the best we’ve ever had.
The Atlanta Hawks met the Cleveland Cavaliers in a playoff showdown Friday night and that’s the whole joke. The Hawks have been riddled with injuries. The Cavs have just been riddled. Only in the East could two teams that are 10+ games under .500 have a game with playoff implications.
The Hawks had lost seven of eight heading into Friday’s matchup, which allowed the Cavs and Knicks to sneak back into the playoff hunt. Not that the Cavaliers have been much better, or the Knicks for that matter. The Knicks may have generated the screaming headlines with their wacky ineptness, but the Cavs’ awful play has cost the GM his job and the young franchise player his standing across the league.
Gifted this amazing opportunity at redeeming themselves, the Cavs went out and lost by 19 points in Atlanta. The Knicks, meanwhile, turned the ball over 16 times in a home loss to the Wizards, allowing the Hawks to slide back into the eight spot.
At the risk of starting the obvious, the Hawks are not a playoff team. It’s not even clear if they want to get there. As Atlanta GM Danny Ferry said recently, "Being the 8th seed in a playoffs is not ever going to be our goal. We want more than that as a team."
That innocuous quote caused quite the stir, but what Ferry said is not only accurate, it’s entirely defensible. Save for a couple of playoff gates, there’s very little upside in getting one of the final playoff spots with a team that can’t reasonably compete for any more. That’s not an admission of tanking. That’s stating the obvious.
Meanwhile, out West there is a three-team deathmatch for the final two playoff spots involving Phoenix, Memphis and Dallas. At 45-31, either the Suns or Grizzlies would be the last team out with a record that’s almost a dozen games better than the Hawks. That’s absurd.
Go deeper and we find the Minnesota Timberwolves at a crossroads, specifically because they couldn’t get into the playoffs despite having the same record as the seventh-seeded Bobcats. The Wolves are one of the league’s biggest disappointments. The Bobcats are one of its greatest success stories. Why are we doing it this way?
If you are going to let more than half the teams in a sport into the playoffs, it stands to reason that you should get the best teams you can possibly find and not dilute the pool with something as arbitrary as geography. In other words, it’s time for the conferences to go.
The arguments against eliminating conferences are two-fold: history and travel. Here’s the rebuttal: It’s not 1984 anymore and thank god for that because teams have chartered planes now that are amazing. Funny how no one cares that baseball teams have bi-coastal playoffs before the World Series.
Let’s play this out in the standings as of Saturday morning.
(1) San Antonio vs. (16) Minnesota
Now this feels appropriate for a first-round matchup.
(8) Golden State vs. (9) Dallas
YES, YES, YES.
(4) Miami vs. (13) Chicago
So. Much. Blood.
(5) Indiana vs. (12) Toronto
Are the Pacers vulnerable here? I think they might be vulnerable.
(6) Houston vs. (11) Phoenix
This would go seven games and it would be glorious.
(3) Clippers vs. (14) Brooklyn
Here’s the big travel series, but what a series!
(7) Portland vs. (10) Memphis
Perfect contrast of styles.
(2) Oklahoma City vs. (15) Washington
Kevin Durant back in his hometown against John Wall. Yeah, I’ll watch that.
San Antonio vs. Golden State
Miami vs. Indiana
Clippers vs. Houston
OKC vs. Memphis
What’s not to like about any of this?
When I was younger I consumed far more college basketball than NBA. Even when I came back to covering the league in 2008, I still made time for a handful of college games. At some point in the last few years I completely lost interest in college hoops for all the reasons that NBA people tend to throw back at college bros: The shot clock is too long, the 3-point line is too short and there’s too many timeouts. That said, the NCAA tournament has been fantastic this year and here’s hoping the final is worthy of the buildup.
The Brooklyn Nets seem to have Miami’s number. Way back in November, the Nets held off a fourth quarter rally and won by a point. Then in January, Brooklyn held off another late rally and won in double overtime. In March, the Nets left Miami with yet another one-point victory. So that’s two wins decided by two points and another that went to double overtime. The Nets clearly match up well with the Heat, but let’s hold off on those upset picks if they happen to meet in the postseason.
The Clippers are probably going to finish with the third-best record in the West and the Thunder seem locked into the second spot, which means this is a potential second-round preview barring first-round upsets. Considering the Warriors and Grizzlies are lurking in the bottom half of the bracket, the pairing is no sure thing. Of all the possible playoff combinations, this is the one that I want to see because there would be so many lineup questions. Who guards Kevin Durant? Will Scott Brooks trust his young players and create matchup advantages or will Doc Rivers take the upper hand tactically? What about Blake Griffin versus Serge Ibaka or Chris Paul against Russell Westbrook? Bring it on.
As we head down the stretch, let’s take a moment to acknowledge Vince Carter, who has aged far more gracefully than one might have presumed. With his max contract days mercifully behind him, Carter has been a huge bargain for the Mavs the last three seasons. He’s an eight-time All-Star who ranks in the top 50 all-time in games played, field goal attempts, points and minutes and the top 10 in 3-pointers in addition to being a high school and college All-American. Did Carter disappoint during his peak? Perhaps, but take the full measure of his career before writing his legacy.
I wrote off the Heat’s chances to get the top seed in the Eastern Conference a week ago, which is looking more and more like one of my worst calls this season. I’m still not sold on Miami’s ability to flip the switch in the postseason, but I’m more optimistic about their chances than Indiana at the moment. The Pacers problems seem correctable -- more attention to detail, better execution, etc. -- but their bench is weaker now than it has been all season and all those starters’ minutes take a toll. I don’t fully trust that Miami will have enough to run the gauntlet again. But the Heat will enter the postseason as the conference favorites, regardless of what happens down the stretch, which says more about Indiana than Miami.
Gerald Green will get strong consideration for Most Improved Player honors, but that’s mainly due to the nebulous nature of the award. It’s one of the best stories of the season, but Green hasn’t really improved. He’s just earned more minutes and opportunities in an offense that suits his shoot-it-from-anywhere style. The player who has improved the most on the Suns’ roster is Markieff Morris, who went from fringe rotation player to legit Sixth Man candidate by learning how to create his own shot and becoming a complete scorer.
The Western Conference hierarchy has taken on a defined structure during the last month or so, with the Spurs on top followed by the Thunder and Clippers. Injuries have relegated the Rockets to fourth, and the race for the bottom two spots has been well-chronicled. But it’s these two teams that represent the great unknown this postseason. Portland started fast, regressed and seems to have righted itself since LaMarcus Aldridge came back. The Warriors have been all over the place, looking like legit contenders one minute and overmatched neophytes the next. Both have the potential to spring an upset, or completely collapse in the first round.
Since we’re winding down the season with a celebration of what made it great, let’s take a look back at some of the league’s biggest disasters.
1. Detroit: Some teams try to get better by getting worse, and in the process develop young players while adding them through the draft. Other teams try to improve with a massive trade or a dramatic free agent signing. The Pistons tried to do it both ways, integrating their promising young frontline of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond with Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings. It was unconventional, risky and a complete debacle.
2. Cleveland: The Cavaliers thought they were ready to compete. They were wrong and it cost GM Chris Grant his job. Andrew Bynum was a bust, Anderson Varejao got hurt and Luol Deng couldn’t fix all the defensive issues by himself. But the biggest disappointment was third-year guard Kyrie Irving, who didn’t have the breakout season many expected. Irving didn’t regress, but he more or less maintained his level of performance. Irving’s just 21 years old and the key to the franchise. He still needs to grow into the job, but like John Wall before him it will take time.
3. Minnesota: There’s a yeah/but quality to the Wolves who haven’t had a .500 season in almost a decade, but won’t make the playoffs. Kevin Love became one of the five best players in the league statistically after an injury-plagued season, but he falls short on the superstar spectrum. Rick Adelman is one of the all-time great coaches, but this season hasn’t been his best work. The Wolves are at a crossroads and facing a pivotal moment in their history.
4. New Orleans: Dell Demps bet big last summer when he traded two first-round picks for point guard Jrue Holiday and signed Tyreke Evans to a large contract. Despite the brilliant play of Anthony Davis, the Pels season has been plagued by injuries to Holiday and Ryan Anderson. The core is still young, but it’s not clear if it can work long-term and the consolation prize in the lottery is likely headed to Philadelphia.
5. Denver: Regression was expected after a 57-win season in 2012-13, the loss of Andre Iguodala and a coaching change from George Karl to Brian Shaw, but the Nuggets have never been a factor this season. They were constructed as a star-less team that was collectively better than the individual talent might suggest, but the injury to Danilo Gallinari was a killer. There are still a number of good players on the roster including Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, and with a few moves and better injury luck the Nuggets could be back in playoff contention sooner rather than later. But this team may have already reached its peak and a complete overhaul wouldn’t be a shock.
Mike Prada puts the Pacers under the microscope and he does not like what he finds.
A little something about Doc Rivers, Los Angeles traffic and yogis.
Introducing Bobert Awful and the Sixers' quest to lose every game in NBA Y2K courtesy of demented genius (or is that the geniusly demented) Jon Bois.
The game sped up in the first half of the season, but as Tom Ziller found this week, league pace has stayed consistent.
Ridiculous Upside’s David Vertsberger has a good look at the inherent D-League conflict between team play and individual success.
"That's what we've been saying for the whole time. You know, that's why when the Pacers were talking, 'Hey, No. 1 seed, home court!' It’s like, hey, it's August. Calm down a little bit."-- Heat forward Chris Bosh after the Heat moved percentage points ahead of the Pacers in the Eastern Conference.
Reaction: The Pacers deserve every bit of criticism that’s come their way for their late-season collapse, and there’s no denying that they left themselves open to ridicule with their bold/foolish intentions to claim the top seed in the East. They brought it on themselves.
"I think this is 10 years for (Joakim) Noah and I that we’ve played against each other. We played each other in AAU and obviously in college, so Noah and I have been battling for a long time. A very long time. About two years ago, we came to an understanding, because we were always going at each other, and we didn’t never really understand why, but I think it’s because we both love to compete. He’s a guy who’s going to bring it every night, and I do the same, but we don’t play the same position, so one game we were at the free throw line and just thought about why we even go at each other. We kind of squashed it. No beef. No big deal. He’s fun to compete against."-- Rajon Rondo, during his stint doing color commentary on the Celtics broadcast.
Reaction: You know that Joakim Noah has had a breakthrough season when even the Celtics are acknowledging him. Rondo was also pretty great as a guest commentator.
"I think it would be a good idea at some point to do that. I don't know when it will happen, but it will happen. When it does, that will be good."-- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Reaction: Pop was talking about losing, which the Spurs finally did on Thursday night in Oklahoma City on the second night of a back-to-back without Manu Ginobili. That was their first loss in almost six weeks. Only Pop would be worried about winning too much. Chalk this one up under #SpursProblems.
"In the last six weeks of the season, there are only a handful of players in the league who have been better than Kenneth Faried. He rebounds like he's 7-feet tall. His intensity and toughness overcomes his lack of size. His shooting percentage is high. And, of course, his energy level in contagious. In a lot of ways, Faried determines how we play."-- Nuggets GM Tim Connelly to the Denver Post..
Reaction: The Nuggets have questions to answer this offseason, but none are more intriguing than what to do with Faried, who will be entering the fourth season of his rookie contract. That’s the sweet spot in terms of trade value, but it can’t be easy to part with a double-double machine who plays as hard as he does. Rebuilding around Faried, Ty Lawson and a (healthy) Danilo Gallinari would be ideal, but there’s a lot of other contracts on the books taking up space.
A fitting end to the final Shootaround of the season: Blake Griffin dunking on everything and everyone, including his teammate.