If you had better things to do last fall, we understand. If you spent most of winter obsessing over the NFL, we get it. If March Madness took up most of your time last month, we feel ya.
We’re about to move into the second week of April, and you’re with the NBA now. Each team has but a few games left, the regular season has just eight days to go, the days are getting longer and it won’t be long – won’t be long until the playoffs hit.
Thankfully, the minds at Ball Don’t Lie have been paying attention since October, and we’re here to catch you up on eight key storylines as the NBA’s 2014-15 starts to get real.
The Spurs’ quest for a repeat
After a sluggish-by-their-standards start to the season that had them just 2 1/2 games away from being out of the West’s top eight in late February, the San Antonio Spurs have been a world-class wrecking crew (shouts to Dre) for the past five weeks. San Antonio’s 17-3 since Feb. 27, a stretch that’s included signature stomp-outs of the East-leading Hawks and West-topping Warriors.
The Spurs have outscored their opponents by 15.2 points per 100 possessions over the last 20 games, far and away the best mark in the league. They’re cranking things up on both ends of the floor — their offensive and defensive efficiency marks during this run would each rank first in the league over the full season. Kawhi Leonard is arguably the most impressive and impactful two-way player in the NBA right now. Tim Duncan remains invaluable as a defensive anchor, space-creating screener and offensive fall-back option. Danny Green — shooting 49 percent from the floor, 49.6 percent from the 3-point arc and 93.5 percent from the foul line since the All-Star break while still playing exceptional defense — continues to make the case that he’s less “‘in this system’ good” and more “‘worthy of a giant new contract‘ good.”
Facing a deep, talented, experienced Spurs team in a seven-game series with Gregg Popovich at the controls and Leonard wreaking havoc seems like a terrifying proposition for anyone out West. And that’s even without several critical elements of San Antonio’s 2014 title team — star point guard Tony Parker, key reserves Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills — resembling the dangerous playmakers who helped hoist the O’Brien last summer. It’s scary to think about, but if Pop can get the rest of the Spurs’ vets in sync over the next few weeks, the Spurs could soon look even better than they have over the past few.
But that cuts both ways. What if Parker and Ginobili can’t return to full speed after being struck by hamstring injuries this season? What if Mills can’t get all the way back to last June’s Microwave flow after having most of his season scuttled by shoulder surgery? What if Diaw can’t consistently serve as the Swiss army knife matchup nightmare who gave the Thunder and Heat fits?
In that scenario, San Antonio could find itself short of defense-unlocking answers against elite opponents that have the time and resources to properly prepare for them in a short series. Yes, Leonard and Green have proven capable of shouldering an increased load during the regular season. But are they ready to do the same in the crucible of the playoffs?
Even if they are, will a Spurs team that currently sits in sixth place in the West and has so many miles on its collective tires — not just due to the mammoth burden that Duncan, Ginobili and Parker have borne over the years, but also due to having played 208 total games during their back-to-back NBA Finals appearances (about 2 1/2 regular seasons’ worth of work in two years) — have enough left to win three straight series on the road just to get back to the Finals? History wouldn’t be with them there — the last team to win it all without home-court advantage in any round was the 1994-95 Houston Rockets — but, as ever, you bet against the Spurs at your own peril.
The Hawks’ quest for validation
For a while, we looked at Atlanta as the Spurs’ heir apparent, a team whose many-hands-make-light-work approach to scoring and commitment to sharing the ball took the league by storm. Then LeBron James came back from his two-week siesta, David Griffin shuffled the deck and the Cleveland Cavaliers started incinerating opposing defenses. Then we remembered that, back in October, we expected Cleveland (or maybe the unicorn of a healthy Chicago Bulls team) to represent the East in the Finals, while the Hawks just kept puttering along to the middle of the pack and a week or two of NBA TV playoff games.
But what about the 19-game winning streak? What about the big wins over the Warriors and Cavs? What about the dynamite clutch-time numbers and Kyle Korver catching fire and “Nobody in the league can keep Jeff Teague in front of them?” What happened to all that?
Well, it’s tougher to sustain positive press when you play .500 ball for a month, as the Hawks have, going 8-7 since their win over the Cavs. It’s a bit trickier to get buy-in when your defense falls from just outside the top five in points allowed per possession to barely clear of the bottom 10.
It’s harder to believe that a non-superstar-based system makes you less vulnerable to the loss of one player when we watched Atlanta’s offense fall apart without Korver in the “rematch” loss to Golden State. (We’ll learn more about how Atlanta handles missing pieces this week, as the Hawks will be without All-Star power forward Paul Millsap for at least two games.) It’s more difficult to consider you a true member of the championship elite after watching you lose three straight to the Warriors, Thunder and Spurs, all while watching Cleveland beat every Western playoff team except Houston (to whom they lost in overtime) in a two-month stretch.
None of this means Atlanta can’t win the whole flippin’ thing. Millsap (probably) won’t be sidelined for long. Korver, Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Scott are healthy and back in the fold, with Dennis Schröder reportedly set to join them. They’ve got a pair of pace-pushing point guards in Teague and Schröder, an interior game-changer in Al Horford, and shooters all over the place.
They’re deep, tough, smart and they don’t often beat themselves. They’ve got a coach, Mike Budenholzer, who’s regarded as one of the sharpest tactical minds in the game. There’s enough here to stir the echoes of early-season dominance and remind the public why the East runs through Atlanta this spring. The Hawks have to prove it, though.
They’ll have to prove that this iffy month owed more to ill-timed injuries and a tough stretch of schedule than to cracks in their foundation. They’ll have to prove they’re not just a team aping San Antonio’s style, but that they also have the sort of grit and sand that enables the Spurs to persevere, coming back from unthinkable pain to rise again.
They’ll have to prove that their defense can really stand up to the kind of heat this Cavs offense can bring, and the kind of individual brilliance LeBron and Kyrie are capable of authoring. They’ll have to prove they’re not just the rabbit on the rail who raced out ahead for the rest of the East to chase all season, but rather (if you’ll permit a mixed metaphor) the tortoise who stayed steady as Cleveland has flashed-and-dashed through the last seven weeks, and will still cross the finish line first. Watching the Hawks try to do all that — to prove that they are who so many of us never seemed to think they were, despite nightly evidence to the contrary — ought to be fascinating.
Derrick Rose could return on Wednesday.
As was the case during his initial 2013 comeback with the Chicago Bulls, he could return in Miami on a nationally televised stage on Thursday. He could wait until his team’s first home game on Saturday against a pancake opponent in the Philadelphia 76ers, even. Rose, who underwent surgery on Feb. 27, could sit out the entire season. If he doesn’t feel right he doesn’t play, and you can’t blame the guy for that in most instances.
What you are allowed to do, this time, is get angry at the man if he does decide to delay his return indefinitely. Rose missing all of 2012-13 after an ACL tear was somewhat understandable, he tore the ligament in late April the season before and any late-season return to action felt like a needless chemistry compromise – at the time, at least. His decision to sit out for most of 2013-14 after tearing his right meniscus was also somewhat understandable – good buddy Russell Westbrook had the luxury of tearing his own in April and the offseason to mend. Russell even returned too early, necessitating two follow-up surgeries which Rose certainly noticed.
Derrick had his own follow-up surgery the day before February ended, and Friday will mark the “six” portion of the “four-to-six weeks” return window the Bulls tossed out to the media after his procedure. Chicago did that to put the pressure on Rose to return early, to make him the bad guy. We’re past the early stages, however, and as frightening as meniscus repairs are, returning after six weeks of rehabilitation (Rose walked out of the hospital after his latest surgery) is entirely reasonable for even a player as snakebitten as Derrick Rose.
Chicago has gone 10-10 in Rose’s absence. They’ve improved slightly defensively, but they’ve also had to play center Pau Gasol big minutes and push Joakim Noah into games and situations his surgically repaired right knee (still recovering, ten months later) shouldn’t be working in. The dream of Gasol and Noah acting as frontcourt stunners, whipping the ball around and filling the holes in one’s head with bumps from another, hasn’t been fully realized. Both players are unselfish and they’ve been stellar at times, but both also play far better in lineups that don’t pair the two together.
Rose himself wasn’t exactly stellar in his healthier moments this season, he managed 18.4 points and five assists a contest but he also took a ridiculous 5.5 three-pointers a game (in only 31 minutes a contest) despite shooting 28 percent. His defense, once passably-bad, was miserable.
Chicago’s postseason could start in 11 days, Rose and the team understandably cite “conditioning” as his main concern currently, and five regular season games (mostly against teams that are already out of it or teams that might be resting players with their playoff status in place) will most assuredly not be enough to re-imagine chemistry that wasn’t consistently there in the first place.
No, the hope is what the hope was in October. That the Bulls would somehow get to late April in one piece, ready to go at one singular opponent at a time under coach Tom Thibodeau’s guidance. Somehow, they might get there: Rose could soon return, Jimmy Butler is back, Noah is at least mobile every other game, Gasol has been a trooper, Taj Gibson is back as well. While knocking on wood, the Bulls have nearly made it to the end, working their way toward a beginning that couldn’t get here soon enough even in fall.
That’s assuming Derrick Rose returns, of course.
It’s just fine to hate the Los Angeles Clippers.
It was appropriate to dislike the team in years past, knowing that every Blake Griffin finish or Chris Paul step-back was financed by a discriminatory slumlord, and there is no earthly way to compare your unease of whiny basketball players with the out and out evil that was Donald Sterling’s time with the team. In what should have been a glorious emergence, the Clippers instead traipsed on all of that goodwill. This should be everyone’s second-favorite team, and yet the endless kvetching has cast a (Chris) pall on things.
We’re not out to try to sell this team as the Anti-Heroes That Own It, either, because it is more than OK to genuinely dislike the way the team moans. You do have to recognize the team’s potential brilliance, or the season that you may have missed by glaring at Doc Rivers’ pained sideline expression.
Paul has turned in yet another MVP-level year, and while Griffin’s numbers have dropped off due to both injury and an ever-shifting role, he remains the sort of offensive threat that can win a series on his own. Much maligned for dodgy team-defense, the Clippers currently rank 16th in the NBA, the team has shot up considerably at that end as of late.
This is the best offensive team in the NBA, and if the improved defense can sustain into the postseason, this is also a championship contender. Once that postseason hits, Spencer Hawes’ sub-40 percent shooting mark from the regular season will be reset to .000, and he remains the sort of rotation talent that can win you a pivotal Game 5. The team’s depth is laughable, Doc Rivers has lined the walls with all manner of posters he admired in 2009, but because Paul and Griffin can dominate so many playoff possessions this spring it may not matter.
These aren’t the bad boys you love to hate, some incorrigible band of scamps that will eventually worm their way into your heart. Forget that – these dudes whine, and the act gets old.
This play might run until June, however. Get ready to furrow your brow.
Will it be different for the Warriors in the playoffs?
The NBA-best Golden State Warriors are having a historically great regular season, ranking first in virtually every key category and currently putting up a ridiculous plus-10.4 point differential even after Sunday’s big loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Only seven teams have ever registered a plus-10 in the regular season, and all but one of them won the title. Based on that information alone — no team this year is closer than the Clippers at plus-6.5 — the Warriors are the favorites to win the title. Teams just don’t beat up the competition over 82 games with this kind of regularity.
However, observers can be forgiven for wondering if the playoffs will treat Golden State differently. While the team won a playoff series two years ago and the roster includes a number of veterans with postseason experience, it features no players who have participated in an NBA Finals. Plus, Steve Kerr is still in his first season as a head coach at any level. He has been fantastic, but it’s fair to note that his greatest strengths have been in the context of a long schedule — keeping minutes low, juggling a 10-man rotation to please everyone, and ensuring that the team stays focused from night to night. We don’t know how Kerr will adjust to the specific challenge of playing a single team over a seven-game series, although the Warriors’ tremendous success in third quarters suggests that he and his staff know how to make adjustments. There’s also the matter of Golden State’s offensive style, which old-school types like Charles Barkley label as living and dying by the three-pointer. That’s an outdated mindset — relying heavily on outside shots is the norm in today’s league, and the Warriors are as good at it as any team has ever been — but it’s yet another reminder that they are fighting the conventional wisdom as they enter the playoffs.
In a way, then, their potential title run doesn’t only serve as a referendum on an already remarkable season, but also a test of the ideas and concepts that have informed the NBA for several decades. To win, the Warriors will have to prove that having been there before, working under a seasoned coach, and working from the inside-out are not essential to a title. Much of the basketball world already thinks this way — the question is if it becomes the new standard.
Will Anyone Else Step Up in the East?
It’s hard to remember now, but back in November it looked as if the Eastern Conference was going to be very competitive with no obvious favorites. That ended up being partially true — the Atlanta Hawks were certainly not expected to take the No. 1 seed — but we are on the brink of yet another postseason in which only two teams in the conference seem like reasonable threats. Outside of the Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers, it’s only really possible to make an argument for the Chicago Bulls as legitimate contenders, and their case requires a number of ideal recoveries from injury and various other positive breaks.
How did this come to pass? For the most part, the blame seems to fall upon the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards, two teams that seemed poised to break out this season. The former started strong and looked like a worthy challenger before a late-season swoon that coincided with injuries and struggles of All-Star Kyle Lowry, while the latter simply seemed to forget how to play effective basketball before returning to form in recent weeks. It’s difficult to trust that either squad will impress significantly, and not just because they’re likely to face each other in the opening round’s 4 vs. 5 series.
It’s also worth wondering exactly where both franchises go from here if they don’t succeed. The Raptors have progressed at a steady rate over the past few years — would a second-straight first-round exit convince them that they need to make a major trade? The stakes in D.C. seem a lot clearer — Randy Wittman is coaching for his job, and it’s not even clear that a series win would save him after this year’s in-season regression. Regardless of specifics, both the Raptors and Wizards appear to be approaching major decisions. Their performance over the next month (or, for them, hopefully longer) could define the parameters of their choices.
LeBron and the Cavaliers
When the greatest basketball player of his generation announced his return to Cleveland after holding the NBA offseason hostage for two weeks this past summer, the notion that this winter’s main plotline would feature anybody but LeBron James and his Cavaliers was unimaginable. But when the calendar turned to 2015, James was in the midst of another fortnight pondering his future in the south Florida sun, this time nursing knee and back injuries as his Cavs floundered to a sub-.500 record through their first 39 games. All the while, the Warriors marched, the Hawks took flight and as many as four players not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant led the MVP discussion.
On Jan. 13, 2015, LeBron returned to a revamped Cavaliers roster. Again. Equipped now with Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in his quiver, James has led Cleveland to the NBA’s best win percentage (.795) since his sabbatical, submitting a stat line that rivals fellow MVP candidates Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. Winners of 18 straight at home, the Cavs are title contenders anew, and should LeBron reach the NBA Finals with this group, he will have done so with four entirely different starters for the third time in his career.
Questions remain, of course, and how LeBron answers them has now become a fascinating subplot.
The Final Four featured as many as 10 first-round picks — and nearly a quarter of the 60 overall projected selections in most mock drafts — so even casual basketball fans should be able to form an opinion about many of the names on the board this June. That ought to make life fun for lottery-bound general managers as they make their way down the grocery aisle this spring. Meanwhile, a handful of fascinating to-be-determined developments remain in the NBA’s annual race to the bottom, as far as who lands which pick(s) between now and the May 19 lottery is concerned.
— For the first time since New York won the inaugural NBA draft lottery and drafted Patrick Ewing, the Knicks (15-62) have a real shot at the first overall pick as two more potentially franchise-altering centers await. Team president Phil Jackson has openly discussed, by name and by size, the relative merits of each of the projected first three picks (D’Angelo Russell is the other), and how utterly “James Dolan’s Knicks” would it be to somehow land outside the top three against all odds?
— With Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins already in uniform, the Timberwolves (16-60) could potentially feature three straight No. 1 overall picks. Too bad Anthony Davis isn’t one of them.
— Where will Sam Hinkie steer his tank next? Will he draft a third straight 7-footer in the top 10? Select Kristaps Porzingis and stash him overseas? It’s all on the table for the 76ers (18-60).
— As they currently stand with the league’s fourth-worst record, the Lakers (20-56) have almost equal odds of having a top-two pick (21.6 percent chance) or no lottery pick at all (19 percent), since their own first-round selection will go to the 76ers should it fall outside the top five.
— Depending on how the East and West playoff races shake out, ping pong balls could pair a handful of future franchise cornerstones with some of the current game’s brightest stars. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Paul George and Dwyane Wade are all in danger of missing the postseason (and James Harden’s Rockets would receive the Pelicans’ pick if it lands outside the top three), while Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and DeMarcus Cousins are already on the outside looking in. Likewise, the NBA’s two largest media markets, Los Angeles and New York, will be among the favorites to land the No. 1 overall pick. So, yeah, the June 25 draft should be fun.