Saturday, December 23, 2006

NBA standings : A space oddity

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As we approach Christmas and we have seen close to two months of NBA action, it's time to analyse the oddities of the standings to date. There are the usual expected results so far: Dallas and San Antonio have the best records in the league (20-7), Detroit have had to make some adjustments to the departure of Big Ben, but are leading the East (16-8). However, there have been many surprises as we reach the one-third mark of the season.
UTAH JAZZ (19-8): continuing to over-achieve
Behind the unexpected Dukesque form of Carlos Boozer and the solid sophomore season of Deron Williams, the Jazz have managed to far and away lead the Northwest division and aren't showing any signs of slowing down. Jerry Sloan knows how to run a team and has a fine stable of young swingmen along with do-it-all Andrei Kirilenko. Despite all of this, noone expected them to be this good.
ORLANDO MAGIC (17-11): young and not over the Hill
Grant Hill is past it all. Well, so everyone thought before this season. The popular swingman has had the worst string of injuries known to man in recent years, yet he proclaimed he would be back for more this season. Hill has provided scoring and veteran leadership and without his 15.4ppg (53.1 FG%), 3.9rpg and 1.2spg, the Magic wouldn't be where they are at the top of the Southeast division and narrowly behind Detroit for the lead in the East. Of course, when thinking of the Magic, Dwight Howard is like David Robinson to the Spurs of the 90s. The manchild is averaging 17.0ppg and a league leading 12.7rpg along with 2.0bpg. As he proved with Team USA over the Summer, the league will be in fear of Mr Howard for a long time to come. Darko Milicic has proven that he does not have the same superstar potential that he flashed glimpses of at the end of last season, but he has acted as an adequate support player. Should he improve his offence, the Magic's form will only accelerate.
ATLANTIC DIVISION: a very cold winter ahead
The entire Atlantic division has been a disappointment. Toronto leads the division with a pultry 12-15 record. The Raptors started the season trying to play Phoenix Suns basketball at 1000 miles per hour, but when Sam Mitchell realised this wasn't the key to success and slowed things down, they have improved to win 5 of their last 10. The New Jersey trio of Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Vince Carter has not been able to push their teammates beyond a .423 record. Part of the problem may be that Kidd as PG has had to lead the team in rebounding night after night. New York has been the mess that is expected season after season. Boston is still young with plenty of potential and will no doubt improve as the season continues. Philadelphia is only 2 losses ahead of Memphis for the worst record in the league after their shambolic season so far, which has seen the trade of team icon The Answer and the distemper of Chris Webber. There is no real sign of improvement to come this season for any of the teams in the Atlantic.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS (18-9): not exactly Showtime but not B-Grade either
The Lakers have been surprisingly competitive this season, to the point that they are second in the Pacific -- only 1 game behind the always tough Phoenix Suns. The wrap on the Lakers last season? They're a one man show... everyone is standing around watching the selfish Kobe Bryant... the Lakers are a bunch of D-Leaguers around a superstar (Kobe) and a supressed star (Lamar Odom). What has changed this season? Not a whole lot in terms of personnel. I for one have to admit that I thought that this season would be another disaster for the Lakeshow. Somehow though, the Lakers have managed to play some more team-orientated basketball. KB24 has reduced his shot attempts per game from 27.2 last season to 19.3 this season. Perhaps after the 2006 playoffs Kobe has realised that the team winning is not all about him scoring 50+ on a semi-regular basis. Odom has been his versatile best -- he is averaging 17.5ppg, 8.7rpg, 4.9apg and a career best 1.4 treys per contest. The supporting cast of Luke Walton, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown (yes, that Kwame), Andrew Bynum and even rookie Jordan Farmar have played the roles that Phil Jackson loves so much and suddenly the Lakers are 7 games ahead of their cross-town rivals. Of course, the Lakers remain one of those teams that noone wants to face in the playoffs due to the x-factor named Bryant who can win a game single-handedly.
MIAMI HEAT (11-14): D-Wade and... umm...
The Championship celebrations are long over and it seems like a decade ago that the Miami Heat were the most feared team in the league. Junior superstar Dwyane Wade is once again doing everything for this team. The only difference from last season is, he is the only one doing everything. Miami stacked this roster with superstars, yet at the moment they are playing like the Lakers v.05-06. Wade is averaging 28.6ppg, 8.0apg, 4.7rpg, 1.8spg and 1.obpg -- nothing short of stellar. The problems however, are many... Shaquille O'Neal (14.0ppg, 7.5rpg, 1.obpg -- all career lows) has only played 4 games due to injury. The Big Aristotle is clearly showing his age, as injuries start to take their toll. Antoine Walker has been disappointing to say the least, as he continues to jack up threes like they are going out of fashion. Jason Williams has been injured and in the 14 games he has played, has been a low-flavour variety of White Chocolate. Gary Payton is showing his age -- the Glove that guarded Michael Jordan is a distant memory. However it's not all doom and gloom. Alonzo Mourning continues to defy medical science with his cameo role, as his 2.9pbg are third in the league to go along with his 9.6ppg and 5.7rpg in 23 minutes. Rookie Dorell Wright has surprised many by gaining election as a starter by freshman-hater Pat Riley. Udonis Haslem has been the workman that we have come to expect him to be (12.0ppg and 8.8rpg). However the next championship for the Heat could be sometime away unless they get things together this season. O'Neal, Mourning and Payton are clearly not far from their retirement celebrations. Walker appears nothing but selfish and Williams needs to regain some confidence. Things aren't looking so hot in Florida.
PORTLAND TRAIL-BLAZERS (12-15): easybeats no more
Remember the Portland Trail Blazers of last season? The ones that were more interesting off the court than on it. The team that finished dead last in the league with only 21 wins... Well many expected exactly the same thing to happen this season. Have a look back in the archives here and you'll see that this site was one of the few to argue that the Blazers would be competitive this season. Not playoff material, but competitive. That they have been. The Blazers have won 5 of their last six, with that loss against the Raptors being by 1 in OT. They have gone most of this way without injured Rookie of the Year candidate, Brandon Roy. They have done it with a team full of youngsters and uncertain starters. Zach Randolph's play has been nothing short of all-star calibre. Z-Bo went through an off-season dominated by controversy but has put that behind him to average 25.1ppg and 10.1rpg. Night after night he provides the Blazers with a target down low that the opposition can not neutralise. Jarrett Jack has been surprising in his leadership at the point, as he has been thrown the starting role. Roy has shown in the little time he has had, that he will be the face of Portland basketball for years to come. His all-round game gives the Blazers a perimeter, penetrating threat to complement Randolph down low. Joel Przybilla committed to the Blazers long-term in the off-season and has been a defensive presence in the key, whilst swingmen Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw and Ime Udoka have pushed aside the injury to Darius Miles which has been such a distraction to the team. The Blazers will not push too many teams around this season, however they will not be bottom-fodder that they were last season and are building a solid foundation for the future.

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