Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Final Day of 2008 – Reflections on the Eastern Conference

Ah yes. The last day of the year. A moment of reflection for some, a day for many to make plans for the year ahead of us. Lose weight, exercise more, stop smoking, stop making Heineken / Budweiser / Miller / whoever so rich, blablabla, all that crap to make our lives more miserable. I’ll go with “reflection” this time, no plans for 2009 so far. Well, not really anyway, but that’s something for another time. Over one-third of the season has been played, so let’s take a brief look where all the 30 teams stand so far.

Records and standings are through December 30.

1. Boston Celtics (28-5): Who doesn’t love the holidays? Apparently, the Celtics don’t. They lost three of their last four games since Christmas, losing to the Lakers, Warriors and a Roy-less Blazers team. Their next three games will be against New York, Washington and Charlotte, anything is possible.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (28-5): My thoughts? I think the Cavs are one Joe Smith away from taking the number one spot in the East.

3. Orlando Magic (24-7): Is Jameer Nelson overachieving, or finally showing what he’s worth? Flight Howard is so much of a beast, it’s a beauty to watch him play, and Rashard Lewis is quietly putting up the numbers once again. Fun team to watch, and watch out if Hedo finally breaks out of his season-long shooting slump.

4. Atlanta Hawks (21-10): The young Hawks have one thing one their mind: 50 wins. Since pushing the Celtics to seven games last spring, they believe they can beat anybody. And they might be right. Wait, they’ve got another thing on their mind: Joe Johnson is an all-star. Coaches, do your work.

5. Detroit Pistons (18-11): The Pistons have now won four in a row, which was needed to prove to their loyal fanbase that the AI can help this team, but for how long? Coach Curry even admits that playing with two, instead of three guards, works out better for them defensively. Their best line-up might be Stuckey, Hamilton, Prince, Johnson / Maxiell / McDyess, and Rasheed Wallace. I know, call me mr. Obvious, but AI coming off the bench? Can’t see it happening.

6. Miami Heat (17-13): Who is Miami’s most important player besides Dwyane Wade this season? If you’re answer isn’t Udonis Haslem, you’re wrong. Of course Wade is the biggest reason that they are now sixth in the East, but without Haslem, they wouldn’t even be in the top eight.

7. New Jersey (15-16): I know, I don’t believe it either. If the Nets played 82 games on the road, they would be amongst the East elite. I might be reaching here, but take a look at these numbers: they are 10-4 on the road, but only 5-12 at home. And if you haven’t already read this somewhere: this is a record.The Nets are the only team in the history of the NBA to be 5 games over .500 on the road, and 5 games under .500 at home. Certainly won’t help attendance, which was already dreadful.

8. Milwaukee Bucks (15-17): On paper, the Bucks have a very good roster, but their record doesn’t show for it (yet). But if this will be a playoff season, their record doesn’t matter anymore, and they could be a tough team to face in the first round.

9. Chicago Bulls (14-17): An implosion waiting to happen. Derrick Rose is playing at such a high level, it’s almost unavoidable for a rookie to go through some rough times too. The question is: who will carry this once proud franchise when that happens? Luol Deng? Maybe when he’s healthy. Ben Gordon? Dude’s still waiting for that big contract, and it might not be in Chicago. Tyrus Thomas is inconsistent, Noah is not doing enough, Larry Hughes is (surprise!) unhappy with his role coming off the bench, and not a single big man on this roster can post up and score if his name isn’t Drew Gooden, so they need to do something before the trading deadline. Rumors of bringing Brad Miller back might not be a bad idea.

10. Philadelphia 76’ers (12-18): Already one of the most disappointing teams of this season, just behind the Raptors and Clippers, and then the Sixers lost Elton Brand. Since they played really well without Brand last season, let’s see what they can do. Firing Maurice Cheeks really helped, didn’t it?

11. New York Knicks (12-18): Hey, they could be worse. They’re actually fun to watch, so that’s at least one thing Mike D’Antoni has accomplished. Nate Robison is still making a lot of boneheaded plays, no matter how many points he puts up, and he’s not alone. They can’t defend anyone, but The only player who really impressed me so far is Chris Duhon. He’s carrying that team so far, doing so without a back-up.

12. Toronto Raptors (12-19): There’s hardly any help from the bench, Jermaine O’Neal can play great in one game, completely disappear in the other, the same thing goes for Bargs, and it still feels like Chris Bosh is still all alone in Canada whenever I see the Raptors play. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are some roster moves being made come February.

13. Charlotte Bobcats (11-21): I really don’t know what to think of this team. Haven’t seen them play yet, but at least Boris Diaw is performing very well. Same goes for Gerald Wallace, when healthy. Will the both of them still be here in two months?

14. Indiana Pacers (10-21): No one expected the Pacers to win much this season, as they try to assemble a decent team around young star Danny Granger. By the way: will Jamaal Tinsley ever get traded? Place your bets now!

15. Washington Wizards (6-21): Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler are once again carrying the load, with both of them putting up All-Star numbers. Will Arenas ever get back? And when will Eddie Jordan be back into the League? Dude got screwed.

(Tomorrow we'll take a look at the the Western Conference)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Renaissance

A year ago Jason Kidd was one unhappy man, and when talking about his own team he “didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel”. When the Nets had a game against the Knicks in December ’08, Kidd didn’t play because he suffered from a migraine. This was remarkable, because in the seven years that I’ve been following him more closely than any other player in the League, he hasn’t missed a single game because of that. So when your team captain and franchise saviour is trying to send a message to the organization by sitting out a game, it was time for a change. Now in no way will I be hateful towards Jason Kidd, and I’m certainly not writing him off. I have too much respect for what he has done: finally the team was no longer the laughingstock in the NBA when he arrived; finally the Knicks had to pay attention to what was happening at the other side of the Hudson River. He brought my team to the Finals, not once, but twice, racking up triple-doubles so often that legendary nicknames like “Magic” and “The Big O” were mentioned whenever someone talked about Kidd. I hope he’s happy in his current situation, and I will keep rooting for him. But after his departure I was left without a favorite player. Now what?

There are several players that I enjoy watching more than others, so in that way I’m no different than the average fan. Seeing a Dwight Howard block, a Dwyane Wade traffic jam, a Chris Paul no-look dime or a LeBron James alley-oop gets me out of my seat too. But to me your favorite player, the one whose jersey you would rock with pride if you would go to a game, should be on your favorite team. Back when I was still rooting for the Bulls, obviously MJ was the man; he was the first pro ballplayer I heard of. But Scottie Pippen was my guy. He could do it all: a great defender, ball handler, could go up for a graceful scoop or a forceful dunk. Pippen made it look easy. I even had a black Pippen jersey (I actually liked those black jerseys they had for while – not with the red pinstripes though. I still wonder where it is. I think it got lost since I moved around a couple of times in the last 12 years).

When the Bulls’ president Jerry Reinsdorf and then GM Jerry Krause decided to dismantle the championship team back in ’98, and Pippen left to play for Houston, what could I do? Luckily I started following the Nets around that time, and they had the pale white rider: Keith Van Horn. Van Horn could really play, but for some reason it never really panned out for him in his career (then again, he’s still getting paid for doing nothing, which you could also call my dream job). I also was checking out what the Knicks were doing those years, with Latrell Sprewell being the man back then. However, when you were a Bulls fan at first, became a Nets fan after that, there’s no way you can switch to the Knicks (looking back I’m glad I let the Knicks go).

After bouncing around a couple of years, not knowing who would be “the” player for me, Jason Kidd was traded to the Nets, and my fandom was safe for the next seven years. Until February 13, 2008 when Kidd was traded to Dallas, along with Antoine Wright and Malik Allen in exchange for Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop and Maurice Ager. Read: Kidd for Harris. When Devin Harris finally made his debut against the Milwaukee Bucks, there were plenty of reasons to still have some hope for this Nets team. Harris penetrated at will, showing off his speed, passing to his new teammates, and had a wonderful one-handed dunk over Andrew Bogut. The few people who actually showed up at the IZOD gave him a standing ovation, because already they were convinced that this trade was really for the better. But a point guard being traded in the middle of the season, adapting to 11 new guys isn’t something you can get used to in one game. And while Harris occasionally showed what he could do on the court, it wasn’t until this season that he was finally playing relaxed out there. And with “relaxed” I mean doing what he does best, going 100 mph, twisting and twirling like the Tasmanian Devil, which makes Harris New Jersey’s Devil. He’s daring opposing point guards to stop him while they are back pedalling hoping that if he blows by them, some big guy will swap Harris’ shot away. But those logs can only send him to the free throw line, where Harris is getting many of his 24 points per game every night. Devin is becoming “The Man” now in Jersey, or should we say “The Dude”? (I am so hip hop)

Whatever is going to happen in two years, wherever the Nets will play or which star might or might not (expect the latter) come over, the Nets got their own star. A franchise left for dead by many journalists in their season previews (even I had doubts, but I always had hope), Devin Harris has brought them back to life; a renaissance is going on in New Jersey, because Devin is Gettin’ Up.