NBA Report Card: Do You Believe in Basketball Miracles?
We’ve reached the halfway point in the NBA season. It’s hard to believe we’ve seen this much hoops and still have a solid five months left. But factor in the playoffs, and we’re smack in the middle. Take a deep breath. Chris is down in New Orleans partying with Chris Tucker and Aquaman this weekend, and that leaves me back in our L.A. office, working on not very much sleep and way too much coffee. So just for fun today, let’s look back at the first half of the season, and hand out some grades for the good, the bad, and everything in between. Rambling about basketball will make any day better.
Let’s start with the big picture.
We say this every year, but there is nothing better than the Western Conference right now. Somehow this conference gets a little better and more insane every year. There were probably 20 different players who deserved to make the All-Star Game from the West. The Warriors, Thunder, Clippers, and Blazers have spent the past three months rotating in order as the most entertaining teams in basketball; the Spurs weathered Kawhi Leonard’s injury and are still lurking as the second seed and possible favorite once everyone gets healthy. Even at the bottom of the conference, you’ve got teams like the Suns and guys like Trey Burke and Kevin Love to keep things entertaining on a nightly basis.
When people look at the NBA and say the league’s better than ever, they are really talking about the West, plus LeBron. I don’t know how anyone can watch Western Conference hoops and not love the NBA. Imagine how good this will be when the Lakers have Andrew Wiggins and Kevin Love in two years. Grade: A+
Nothing makes you appreciate the West more than the East. One day someone’s going to be on Wikipedia and say, “Wait, DeMar DeRozan made an All-Star Game?” Then they’ll remember this year, and this conference, and the era of sadness that came with it. Grade: F F F F
The only thing that’s made the Eastern Conference bearable.
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Grade: HAMMER BARGS
There have been good wins, basketball is fun again at the Verizon Center, and the Beal-Wall combination will be good enough to keep D.C. relevant in the NBA for at least the next five years. But as good as every Wizards fan feels, this team has given away at least 10 winnable games over the past two months, and in a year when they could break through to another level of competence, there have been sooooo many moments when they remind everyone they’re still the Wizards. They make stupid mistakes, they have ZERO crunch-time offense, and every week this team finds a new way to break my heart.
I was feeling pretty good about the first half of the year until a friend emailed me last night to remind me: The Wizards were 24-25 when John Wall was healthy last year, and this year they’re 25-27. Have they actually gotten better or is this conference just awful enough to make them look decent? More important: Will the playoffs-obsessed owner make the mistake of seeing a mediocre team finish in the top half of a horrible conference and then rewarding everyone involved with irrational contract extensions? Probably! Grade: C-
Anyone who thinks coaching doesn’t matter in the NBA need only compare what the Mavericks’ roster has done in the West to what the Wizards have done in the East.
Rick Carlisle is the Jay Z to Gregg Popovich’s Biggie. There can never be another B.I.G., but whenever Pop leaves, Rick Carlisle will be King of New York. Grade: A
Life Without Russ and Rondo and Kobe
We’ve actually been fine without them for most of this year. Others have filled the entertainment void. This section’s just an excuse to include one of the best exchanges of the first half.
The Nets …
It should be impossible to be more depressing than the Brooklyn Nets. They mortgaged their future on a team that was a bad idea at the time, and then got infinitely worse once the season started and Jason Kidd got involved. Watching a Nets game will make you sad even when they win. Everyone mocked the Nets when they were in New Jersey, but Brooklyn might be even worse. At least the New Jersey Nets could take pride in being the perpetually disrespected little brother. Right now these Nets are just the obnoxious stepbrother. They are the off-brand Knicks, without any of the stuff that makes the Knicks fun. You think Carmelo’s bad? Watch Deron Williams play basketball in 2014. Grade: D
… and the Bulls
But the Bulls might be even sadder than Brooklyn.
• Their coach is insane enough to keep them competitive this year, so they can’t even bottom out and turn this season’s disaster into a star.
• Their owner is the cheapest guy in the NBA, which is guaranteed to drive fans crazy every year the Bulls are in playoff contention.
• Kirk Hinrich will never, ever go away.
• Joakim Noah continues to be one of the most enjoyable humans pro basketball has, and there’s a good chance he’s spent the peak of his prime playing on the past two hopeless Bulls teams, and the next few years will see him get even more injury-prone.
• The future of Derrick Rose. After two season-ending knee injuries in two years, this alone might make the Bulls the saddest team in the NBA right now. Every Bulls game is just one long reminder that one of the best players of this generation may be the next Penny Hardaway. Grade: Go watch clips of Patrick Kane to cheer yourself up.
Goran & Eric & Horny & PLUMS
In brighter news, look at the Phoenix Suns. They were supposed to be the Ali to Philly’s Frazier in the tanking wars of 2013, but somehow they’ve turned into the feel-good story of the NBA season. Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic are cold-blooded killers in the backcourt, Jeff Hornacek looks like the best offseason coaching hire we’ve seen in the past few years, and MILES PLUMLEE has become a cult hero.
I don’t care how many different articles there have been attempting to explain this Suns season, it will never make any sense.
Where are the Suns going with all this? Nobody knows. Part of me hopes they tank their ass off the rest of the year to get Bledsoe and Dragic some help down the road. They’ve got a bunch of draft picks this spring, but none will be high enough to get a real star, and it’s still a stretch to say that Bledsoe or Dragic could ever be that guy for them, so we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, just remember that this team was supposed to be a disgrace to the NBA and wound up turning into the one of the most entertaining in the league. There’s been nothing more baffling from the first half. Grade: B
Pelicans and Pistons
First of all, this Pierre the Pelican Boyz II Men tribute is going to be amazing to come back and watch in five years. It’s already pretty emotional, actually. Boyz II Men will tear your heart open, man.
But the Pelicans and Pistons. Two teams with the two best young big men in basketball, and lineups around them that have been a disaster so far this year. My love of Detroit’s insane offseason is well documented — they were and still are the official team of the Triangle — but Mo Cheeks was clueless all year trying to make it work. Now? They’ve won three out of four, and will come out of the All-Star break with back-to-back games against the Bobcats. It’s been a disappointing first half, but I’m not giving up hope.
Same with the Pelicans. Instead of bad coaching, their problem has been injuries. Kevin Arnovitz wrote a great column on where the Murderbirds are right now, and it included this note: “[General manager Dell] Demps confidently backs his vision, and his arguments aren’t without merit. He points to the lineup data: The Pelicans’ desired closing unit — Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson, Davis — dominated the league offensively this season before its members started dropping like flies, scoring an ungodly 123.5 points per 100 possessions.” That’s a pretty convincing argument. Not necessarily for believing in that closing unit, but at least for waiting long enough to see what they can do when healthy.
Even after disappointing first halves, we should still feel good about both these teams. I think. Grade: C+
With all due respect to Melo’s 62, J.R. Smith’s shoelace controversy, and all things Bargs, nothing from the first half of this Knicks season will ever top the photo above.
Or the thousand faces of Michelle Rodriguez and that model.
Or Larry David’s face here.
If the Knicks season gives us nothing more for the next few months, we should all be satisfied. 50 Cent also added follow-up photos with captions, if you need something to make your day 200 percent better. Grade: I wish these were my parents.
They lost Kawhi Leonard for extended time, Manu’s been hurt, Pop’s doing that thing where he rests Duncan and Parker as often as possible and especially whenever they play on national TV, the West is better than ever … and San Antonio’s still sitting there as the 2-seed. This team will never die. Grade: B+
There are nights when they look like a title contender. Wednesday against the Heat, they came back against the best team in the league and had them beat before an act of God intervened. They can play with anyone, Steph Curry is a cheat code come playoff time, and the defense this year is worlds better. Zach made the case for them a month ago.
But they also lose a lot of games you’d expect them to win (Bobcats, Wizards, T-Wolves in the past month), and in the year of the new and improved Warriors, we still haven’t seen them put together a six-week stretch where they actually look all that different from what they were last year. Maybe that stretch comes in the playoffs. Or maybe they end up with the seventh seed and lose in the first round to San Antonio. The second one feels more likely right now. Grade: C
Just a reminder that Lance Stephenson has gone from benchwarming cartoon two years ago to cult hero last year to, now, a legitimate catalyst for everything the Pacers do on a nightly basis, and a borderline All-Star. He’s not the most important player on the team, but this team wouldn’t be the same without him. It’s incredible. Here’s to hoping the Pacers realize this and re-sign him this offseason, because Indiana is the perfect place for him to spend his prime.
While he’s down at All-Star, Chris’s only assignment for the Triangle is to stand outside the stadium in New Orleans and join the religious picketers who show up for every All-Star Game. He’s gonna make his own giant sign and everything, protesting Lance’s exclusion from the All-Star Game this year, carrying the message to the world. In the meantime, Lance is just gonna go out and kill everyone. Grade: There is no God but Lance.
We dealt with Blake yesterday (at the bottom here), but DeAndre is just as crucial to making the Clippers contenders. More than any single guy in either conference, DeAndre could swing who shows up in the Finals. On the one hand, he’s turned into the best rebounder in the NBA. On the other, his defense is still an adventure, as Rob Mahoney breaks down here, and that’s a problem for a Clippers team that needs him to anchor everything down low. If he gets better on that end by the playoffs, the Clippers become so much scarier as contenders. For now, DeAndre’s halfway to being the player everyone’s always wanted him to be. And that’s better than nothing! Grade: B-
Probably the greatest anecdote of the season, via Woj: “He stopped trying on the floor, and became a disruptive presence in practices. Before Bynum was thrown out of his final practice and suspended, he was shooting the ball every time he touched it in a practice scrimmage, sources said — from whatever remote part of the court he had caught the ball.”
Andrew Bynum is performance art right now. Like that Joaquin Phoenix documentary. I would give anything for video of that practice. Cleveland and Philly may hate him forever, but everyone else has to respect what’s happening here. It’s not just that he doesn’t care, but that he’s so GREAT at it. He’s turned not giving a f— into a religion. Andrew Bynum is a human who probably doesn’t enjoy basketball, but while he’s got the chance, he’s going to have fun with all this and squeeze various NBA teams for as much money as he possibly can.
In a league where superstars are underpaid and owners look to screw the players into a shittier CBA once every decade, I’ve got nothing but love for the player who’s beating the system. Grade: A+
First you ask, “Who wins Rookie of the Year?” and then you think … and think … and … thank God for Giannis and the recent rise of Trey Burke, because otherwise this would be the most depressing rookie class we’ve seen in a decade. Grade: D
As for last year’s rookie of the year …
Dame and the Blazers
The greatest GIF of the first half, via Pinwheel Empire.
There are still questions about Portland’s defense, they’ll be the most inexperienced team in the playoffs, and it’s unclear if Dame and LaMarcus can keep this up for an entire season, let alone through a deep playoff run. But for now, no team in the NBA has maxed out its potential better than the Blazers through the first four months of the season. They’ve also been involved in (and usually winning) four or five of the best games we’ve seen so far this year, which is just a bonus. Grade: A
Never forget the Christmas Swag Miracle. King James may have our heads, but Nick Young has our hearts. Grade: SWAGGY
And we’re abandoning the grades for these last two entries …
He retired during the middle of Super Bowl week, 30 years to the day after he took over in 1984, but also during the one time of the season when his retirement wouldn’t launch a hundred retrospectives and ruminations on his legacy. If he’d stayed until All-Star Weekend and passed the torch to Adam Silver right before the game this weekend, he would be the biggest story in sports right now. So let’s talk about Stern real quick.
Maybe it’s impressive that he kept a lower profile at the end, but I wish he’d gone the other way, just because Stern was as fascinating a character as this sport has ever seen — and a mainstream debate over his legacy would’ve been just as interesting. He started his career as a lawyer for the NBA fighting Oscar Robertson’s lawsuit demanding free agency, and wound up presiding over three decades that saw NBA players turn into the most empowered athletes in sports.
He was one of the most stubborn humans in sports who was also the most open-minded commissioner we’ve ever seen when it came to things like global marketing, the Internet, and TV. He could be condescending and charming at the exact same time. He cultivated the myth of his own omnipotence (he knows where the bodies are buried), then played helpless whenever it suited him (Seattle, the lockouts). He could be nothing but a cheap bully, but then he could also be brilliant, and sometimes both. Stuff like the dress code and the CP3 trade were decisions that insulted fans’ intelligence and probably abused the commissioner’s power, but they both wound up being much better than the alternative.
All the criticism and all the credit he’s gotten over the years is 100 percent fair. I’ll remember him for this more than anything. The stories of his brilliance and his pettiness all ring true. And the most memorable humans in any field — Michael Jordan, Bill Clinton, whoever — are like that. You probably won’t hear much about him this weekend, but as far as basketball’s concerned, Stern is in that category forever.
LeBron and KD
The only time the league really struggled during Stern’s 30 years was that weird vacuum in the eight or nine years after Jordan retired. That may be the clearest lesson Stern leaves us. Even with a commissioner who was better at marketing his sport than anyone ever, the NBA is as healthy as the stars it has.
When people say the league’s in better shape than ever right now, it’s because there are more superstars than ever, and they’re all easy to love. Those are the guys who keep people entertained during a season that’s way too long, in a league where only five or six teams ever have a real shot at a title. And nobody proves this rule better than Kevin Durant and LeBron James. They’re basically two basketball miracles happening at once.
Before the year, I wrote about KD and said: “People understand he’s the second-best player in the league, but I’m not sure everyone understands quite what we’re dealing with. He’s Steph Curry in Kevin Garnett’s body. He’s every bit as unfair as LeBron, he’s just a few years younger … Fear Kevin Durant, because the next six months could get diabolical.” That was probably more a dream than a real prediction, but here we are now. After a few years of looking like the little brother next to LeBron, Durant’s on equal footing now. Every bit as unfair.
Meanwhile, LeBron’s not going away. Look at what happened in Golden State on Wednesday. The last few months have seen James and Durant trade off mind-boggling nights. And if anything, the rise of KD will just push LeBron harder over the second half. Then the playoffs start, and we’ll watch them orbit each other for a few rounds and hopefully collide in the finals.
The NBA is great because of Swaggy P and the shitty Knicks and kids like Anthony Davis and grumpy old men like Gregg Popovich and a hundred other people, but there’s nothing better than what’s happening with LeBron and KD right now. For the last few years, it felt like a stretch when people would write columns calling these guys the Bird and Magic of our generation. It doesn’t anymore.