It’s been one of the craziest NBA weeks in recent memory, and that’s as good an excuse as any to lap around the league.
Let’s start in the Pacific Northwest.
1. There’s Only One True Sleeper in the NBA
There are like 800 smart people writing about basketball on the Internet for at least 100 good NBA blogs. It’s very difficult for NBA players or teams to get overlooked in 2015. Borderline impossible. Whenever a team gets ignored in the mainstream (Hawks, Raptors), it ends up shining just as much as the big franchises, because then every conversation becomes, “Stop sleeping on the Raptors/Hawks!!!”
All of which is to say … It’s obnoxious almost every time a fan complains about their team not getting enough love, but Blazers fans have a point.
Maybe it’s because the Blazers play almost all of their games at 10 p.m. ET and half the country is asleep while they wreak havoc. Maybe it’s because the Warriors are too good for any other young team to get noticed. Maybe it’s because everyone remembers that this team is good and that has kept people from noticing how great it’s become.
I noticed Monday night. Chris Ryan and I had cleared our schedules to watch Thunder-Warriors, but that turned into a blowout that was over by halftime, so I wound up watching the end of Lakers-Blazers instead. And Damian Lillard was just destroying people. He had 39 points and five assists, including 16 fourth-quarter points, to bury the Lakers.
All stats against the Lakers should probably be graded on a curve, but still. Lillard also did that to the Spurs a few weeks ago. So I stepped back to look at the bigger picture, and … Did you know the Blazers have the second-best record in the West? Did you know their biggest weakness last year has turned into the best D in the league?
I honestly didn’t know either one of those things before Lillard’s ridiculousness shook me out of my sleep around 1 a.m. Tuesday.
Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images
There are other reasons to get excited about this team. Wes Matthews looks fantastic … Nic Batum has looked awful, but it hasn’t affected them, and he should get better as he gets healthy … Robin Lopez is out, and they haven’t missed a beat … Terry Stotts has one of the league’s deepest benches, and he uses it better than just about anyone … LaMarcus Aldridge is still one of the four or five most unstoppable offensive players in the half court.
If the defense is going to stay top-five good, the Blazers as a top-two or -three team in the West isn’t a fluke. Then there’s Lillard, the Everclear in the Portland punch bowl. During last year’s playoffs, I wrote about him before the end of the Blazers-Rockets series:
Whether he’s drilling pull-up 3s or blowing past people for floaters at the rim, he has a special knack for just breaking people’s hearts.
“I don’t really believe in the clutch gene,” my roommate was saying Sunday night. “But man. Dame Lillard makes you wonder.”
He’s been doing this all year, but the playoffs — and Houston’s horrible defense — just amplify all of it on national TV … he’s got two chances to finish off Houston this weekend. That means this section is either the greatest jinx ever, or Lillard’s playoff debut is about to get even more ruthless.
A night later, this happened. Damian Lillard makes people believe in the clutch gene. He’s like Kemba Walker, but he’s also great for the first 47 minutes. At some point, this isn’t a fluke anymore.
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I’m not saying the Blazers should be title favorites. If a couple of plays had gone differently, they might not have even beaten the Rockets last year. The West is so competitive right now, it’s hard to pick a favorite without immediately thinking of four teams that could beat them. But almost every time anyone mentions title contenders, the Blazers either get ignored entirely or thrown into a list of teams as a token on the way to discussing someone else.
The Blazers’ biggest weakness last season is one of their strengths nine months later. While the whole world gawks at the Warriors and Grizzlies at the top of the West playoff race, and then the Spurs and Thunder near the bottom, the Blazers are lurking suspiciously out of sight in the Pacific Northwest, with the most terrifying closer in basketball.
Anyone can be beaten in the West.
But can’t Dame and the Blazers beat anyone?
Now, let’s look elsewhere.
2. The Cavs Are Fine
Gregory Shamus/NBAE via Getty Images
J.R. Smith will be a massive upgrade over Dion Waiters. Aside from the thousands of jokes we’ve all told, J.R.’s a good shooter who could help any good team. After two years in Knicks hell, he’s due to break out. Cleveland also added Iman Shumpert, a perimeter defender they’ve needed since the summer, and Timofey Mozgov, who immediately becomes the most useful defender and rebounder inside.
It may have cost them most of the tradable assets they had coming into this year, but what do you expect? LeBron is already showing signs of age, Kevin Love could leave this summer, and the title window is only open for the next few years. Forget the first-round picks that would’ve been in the low 20s anyway. The Cavs just addressed every weakness they had, and it makes them much scarier than they were a week ago.
On the other hand …
3. The Cavs Are NOT Fine
Iman Shumpert might be the most overrated player in the NBA. He has parlayed two good months with the Knicks, as a rookie, into a career-long reputation as a great 3-and-D role player, and it’s almost never borne out in reality. Timofey Mozgov is competent, but if the solution to your season is adding Timofey Mozgov, you’ve probably already lost. J.R. Smith will surprise people in Cleveland, but for a team that’s had ball movement and chemistry issues since game one, adding J.R. Smith isn’t guaranteed to be a good thing.
Bigger-picture, these trades bear a disturbing resemblance to the kind of panicked, quick-fix moves that cost Cleveland all its flexibility five years ago and ultimately cost them LeBron. Remember when Larry Hughes was the solution? Or Antawn Jamison? Or Shaq? The Cavs have had uncomfortable levels of tension all year, and you can see that old insecurity starting to seep into the way the front office is operating. Yes, the window is closing. Yes, first-round picks are overvalued, but still … First-round picks, and guys like Dion Waiters, are valuable for future trades that could bring back more than Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert.
I don’t know which version of the Cavs’ season I trust more. I’m leaning toward the second one. It probably all depends on whether LeBron can get back to being LeBron. We’ll see.
In the meantime, completely earnest analysis like this is what makes the NBA the best sport in America.
As for the other sides of that trade, I wrote about the Knicks in the Shootaround yesterday. And then there is …
4. Dion Waiters Is the New James Harden?
It’s tough to imagine a team for which the only thing Dion Waiters does well (ball-dominant scoring) fits worse than OKC. This felt as desperate as the Cavs move, and if Reggie Jackson leaves this summer and Waiters is left as the insurance plan, it’ll be a pretty brutal symbol of everything this franchise has done to waste Durant and Westbrook. So, sure … DION WAITERS IS THE NEW JAMES HARDEN.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
5. The Warriors Look Unstoppable, Still
Just a public service announcement here. It’s OK if you were quietly wondering whether this whole Warriors thing would come back to earth. I definitely was. Watching Golden State destroy Oklahoma City the other night was the first time all year I’ve believed they could actually win a title. Bogut wasn’t even playing, and it didn’t matter. The Golden State offense is like a weaponized version of the Spurs. How many coaches will get fired this summer because of owners looking for the Steve Kerr effect?
[Crosses fingers, arms, and toes for the Wizards.]
[Speaking of which … ]
6. Behind the Music With Randy Wittman
Cannot recommend this link enough. It will change the way you view Randy Wittman forever.
ALSO: The endless @Wzzntzz follow-up tweets.
This is the week I emailed to a friend, “Nothing will change until summer 2016, and there will be enough great moments to make things fun regardless, there’s enough talent to make them compete with the best in the league, but as long as Wittman’s around, this team will underachieve in the grand scheme.”
But then, this was also the week when I learned to love Randy Wittman more than ever before. Go Wizards.
7. Steve Ballmer Feels the Spirit
Most clips that go viral get old in less than 12 hours, but I’m pretty sure this Steve Ballmer Vine will be enjoyable for the rest of the NBA season. Every time the Clippers win, Staples should throw this on the scoreboard. It’s also more proof that the best part of being a billionaire is the freedom to go completely insane.
8. The Jusuf Nurkic Era!
Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images
A few months ago, Juliet Litman called the Nuggets the most depressing team in the league, and she wasn’t wrong. The Knicks and Lakers fail in spectacular ways. The Sixers have convinced their fans that this season is all part of some championship blueprint. The Nuggets are just quietly mediocre, and the handful of stars they have will probably go elsewhere soon. It’s not great.
But Jusuf Nurkic will change all that. From now until the end of the season, every Nuggets game becomes an opportunity to watch this massive Bosnian wrecking ball crash into the rest of the NBA. It’s not as much fun as Kobe and Swaggy P on the Lakers, but you gotta admit, that sounds much better than the Sixers or Cole Aldrich in New York.
9. The Regular-Season Renaissance
The NBA has never been better, the regular season has never been more addictive, and I can’t believe I’m saying any of this, but weeks like this are proof. I used to make fun of people who cared about the NBA before the All-Star Game, but at this point, how can you not?
There’s at least one great game just about every night, and in the past five days, we’ve had two contenders making trades, an owner experiencing a baseline exorcism, a coach’s legendary farting ability exposed … what more do you want? Would you rather talk about the Mueller Report or the chalk outline of Josh Smith spawning the sequel to Linsanity? That’s where we end …
10. A Message From Stan Van Gundy
The best part about the Pistons is that nobody can totally explain what’s happening here. It’s like the entire league is speechless.
Sure, Jodie Meeks came back. Yes, definitely, the spacing makes more sense now. Van Gundy’s spreading the floor around either Andre Drummond or Greg Monroe, letting guards wreak havoc, and the offense looks better than ever.
But don’t waste time trying to rationalize the basketball.
True miracles cannot be explained.
Just enjoy this for as long as we can. Brandon Jennings has turned into Tony Parker. Greg Monroe had 27 and 18 the other night, and Andre Drummond looks like Andre Drummond again. Jodie Meeks and D.J. Augustin are terrorizing people. Stan Van Gundy is building a fucking wall, and the Pistons are making the playoffs.
The only lesson here is for the rest of us. When things look hopeless, it’s time to take a look around. Who’s jacking up 25-footers at will? Who’s eating away at your salary cap and draining your sanity? What’s weighing you down? What’s holding you back? Problems are inevitable in this world, but suffering is optional. Stan Van Gundy is living proof. There are solutions out there.
Find the Josh Smith in your life, and waive the Josh Smith in your life.