Right now we are at the point of the season where we are beginning to see which teams are going to be players in the Larry O’Brien Trophy hunt. Teams like the Knicks, Hornets and Kings have been weeded out and exposed as posers. We have three more exciting months in front of us and I can’t wait to see who ends up where in the standings. Anyway, on with the column. Enjoy.
The Hawks Have A Great Supporting ‘Cast’
Fittingly, a group of hawks in wildlife are called a cast. The cast of the Hawks down in Atlanta look pretty solid 36 games into the season. On paper they look like a team of role-players and cast-offs but on the court they look like the best team in the Eastern Conference. They have won 21 of their past 23 games and are in first place in the conference (28-8, three game lead). Seventh in offensive points per game (102.47) and fifth in defensive points allowed (97.39), they are one of the more well-balanced teams in the league.
Providing big shot after big shot, Jeff Teague has been as valuable as any point guard in the NBA (17.5 points per game, 7.2 assists per game). Alongside him in the backcourt, Kyle Korver has been the most accurate three-point shooter (.517 three-point percentage) in the NBA. Their frontcourt is as talented as any in the East right now and you can make a case for either Al Horford (14.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.43 BPG) or Paul Milsap (17.0 PPG, 8.1 RPG) being on the All-Star team. Dennis Schroeder, Thabo Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll are all playing their roles perfectly and have contributed to the squad’s success.
The question is whether or not the Hawks can stay competitive throughout the rest of the season. In 2013-14, the Indiana Pacers looked like the best team in the NBA until the All-Star break came around. Their season sank quicker than the Titanic in the final two months.
The Eastern Conference is weaker than a virgin cocktail so realistically it gives Atlanta a real shot at making the NBA Finals. They remind me of the 2004 Detroit Pistons who were considered huge underdogs against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. Behind a strong defense and unselfish play, the Pistons were able to pull the upset. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer is in his second year coaching the team after 13 seasons as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs. He knows that it takes a complete team to win and he is installing the Spurs philosophy (and making it work) in Atlanta.
The Golden State Warriors have been on fire all season long. After 34 games, they are in first-place in the Western Conference (29-5). With a league-leading offense (109.2 PPG) and a tenth-ranked defense (98.2 OPPG), this team is being looked at as the favorites by most fans and analysts. Some are even questioning whether they could break the 1996 Chicago Bulls record for most wins in a season (72-10). While that is probably ridiculous, they will be in the running for the best record in the NBA.
Meanwhile, up north in the Rose City, the Portland Trailblazers are beginning to make a case of their own for the best team in the West. Behind the play of their two All-Stars, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers have won 12 of their last 14 games and are 29-8 themselves. First in points allowed (96.5 OPPG), first in rebounding (46.6 RPG) and sixth in scoring (103.7 PPG), they have great balance.
Which team is the best in the West? It all comes down to the eye of the beholder but if these teams were to face off in a seven game series I would probably have to take the Warriors. It would be one of the highest-scoring series in NBA history considering how well these two squads shoot the ball. They each make ten three-pointers a game and earn them at a healthy percentage (37% for both).
The difference would be depth on the bench. The Warriors have benefited with big contributions from Mareese Speights (12.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG), Andre Iguodala (6.9 PPG) and Shaun Livingston (5.6 PPG, 2.9 APG). They also have Daivd Lee back in the lineup and playing a reserve role. Lee and Iguodala are both former All-Stars in their own right. While Portland’s bench has been improved with the additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, the majority of the players are unproven. If the Trailblazers decide to make a move for Wilson Chandler (the Nuggets reportedly want a first round pick) and/or sign Jermaine O’Neal, it would give the team a better shot of making the NBA Finals. All in all, you can make an argument for either team.
Jeff Green is finally out of Boston. After a couple of years of dangling him in trade rumors, they pulled the trigger on a three-team trade with the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. Here is what the trade looks like…
- Boston Celtics Trade: F Jeff Green
- Boston Celtics Receive: G Austin Rivers, F Tayshaun Prince, 1st Round Pick (from Memphis)
- Memphis Grizzlies Trade: F Tayshaun Prince, G Quincy Pondexter, 1st Round Pick
- Memphis Grizzlies Receive: F Jeff Green
- New Orleans Pelicans Trade: G Austin Rivers
- New Orlean Pelicans Receive: G Quincy Pondexter
This is a great trade for the Celtics after trading Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks earlier in the season. One of the players they got back in that deal, Brandan Wright, was traded to the Suns for another first-round pick a few days ago. The Celtics (12-23) are in the stages of rebuilding and they have no use for Jeff Green anymore. He is going to be a free-agent at the end of the season and it’s dooubtful he would have re-signed. They have six first-round picks in the next two drafts and their roster is full of potential. Now it’s up to General Manager Danny Ainge and Head Coach Brad Stevens to figure out which of their players are legitimate NBA players that can contribute to a successful team.
I also think this is a solid move for the Grizzlies. If they are going to make noise in the Playoffs, they are going to have to find some scoring somewhere. That’s one thing that Green (17.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG) can provide. He is one of the most inconsistent players in the league but when he is playing well he is hard to stop. The Grizzlies have a playing style that should be successful in the Playoffs, relying on tough defense and coming up with productive possessions when they need them. Green gives them another scoring option that can stretch the defense. When Tony Allen is in the game the defense can take gambles on double-teams and traps because Allen is an offensive liability. Opposing teams will have to respect Green or he will make them pay for it.
All in all, a good trade for both sides. Down in New Orleans, the Pels switched out Austin Rivers for Quincy Pondexter. Rivers has been a disppointment since being drafted 10th overall in 2012. Rumors are he will be flipped again in a few days to the Los Angeles Clippers for a second-round pick. It makes sense considering their Head Coach Doc Rivers is his dad. Maybe with some fatherly guidance he can get his career going. If not he’s going to be the butt of a lot of “daddy’s boy” jokes.
Ladies and gentleman, meet your 2014-15 NBA Rookie of the Year… Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins.
This has been a disappointing year for the rookies but at least there’s a lone bright spot. Over the past eight games Wiggins is putting up the numbers (21.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG, .515 FG%, .423 3P%) scouts expected when they compared him to LeBron James in high school. He has had the uptick in scoring thanks to changing his playing style and moving closer to the basket. Instead of trying to face-up players and beat them off the dribble every possession, he is working on gaining position in the lane and relying on his quickness to take dribble-steps to the hoop. Through his first 26 games, shots from 8-feet and out made up 53% of his offense. They have accounted for 33% of his attempts during this hot streak and it has raised his field goal percentage exponentially.
The one criticism of Wiggins has always been his habit of floating in and out of games. He was inconsistent as a freshman at Kentucky and no-showed in a loss in the NCAA Tournament to Stanford. He has unbelievable athleticism and if he can mix that with the cerebral part of the game (finding good position, taking what the defense will give you) then he will develop into a multiple-time All-Star.
At least he’s giving the Wolves faithful something to cheer for. They haven’t been in the Playoffs since 2004 and are entering an entirely new rebuilding mode. Being a Minnesota fan has to feel like the Bill Murray movie ‘Groundhog Day’ because they have been stuck in quicksand for ten years. They have lost 15 games in a row and have the second-worst record in the NBA (5-31). I think they could be one of the more entertaining teams in the future, similar to the Phoenix Suns, but it’s going to take time. Trading Kevin Love took them about five steps backward but it could have been worse. Wiggins will be a nice piece to build around.
30.2 PPG, 4.8 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.4 SPG, .495 FG%, 5-0 W/L Record (January 3 – January 10, 2015)
What is the definition of clutch? Here is the definition courtesy of http://dictionary.com.
Sports. An extremely important or crucial moment of a game
ex: He was famous for his coolness in pitching in the clutch.
If clutch is defined as a moment of the game, a clutch player is someone who thrives in the situation. Some people fold like umbrellas when the game is on the line while others seize the moment. That’s how Michael Jordan became a household name. Sometimes we give nicknames to players like Jordan such as assasin, killer or cold-blooded.
The Charlotte Hornets, owner by MJ himself, have been playing like a completely different team in 2015. They began the season with high expectations following their first Playoff appearance since 2010. They re-branded their team in the offseason (from Bobcats) and signed big-name free-agent Lance Stephenson from the Indiana Pacers. Through the first two months of the season the team was a mess and coming into the New Year the team was 8-23. They were stuck in neutral, playing at a snail’s pace but unable to create in half-court sets. When your guards can’t hit a jump-shot it becomes easy for the defense to lock down the paint.
Thankfully for Charlotte fans, who have seen more bad basketball than the Minnesota fans over the past ten years, the Hornets have stepped up their level of play over the past couple of weeks. The biggest contributor to their success has been Kemba Walker. He has finally found his shot and looks like the player we all watched at UConn in 2011. Over the past five games, all Charlotte wins, he has been shooting the ball at amazing 50% clip.
Never afraid of the big moment, Walker has made three game-winning shots so far this campaign. His latest came at home against the New Orleans Pelicans on January 7th. With the game tied at 94-all, he brought the ball up the floor for the final possession of the game. Driving against Jrue Holiday to the right side of the floor, Walker drew contact on his jumpshot attempt. He double-clutched the ball and banked the shot in with 1.4 seconds remaining in the game. Kemba also sank the free-throw which completed the three-point play.
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After playing more like the Bobcats than the Hornets for the past two months, the ‘sting’ may be back in their offense. If they are going to continue to win, the Hornets are going to need more games like this from Kemba Walker in the future.
Thanks For Reading
I hope you enjoyed reading ‘The Fast Break’ and I will be back in a couple of weeks with a whole new set of opinions. Maybe by then the Knicks will be demoted to the D-League.