By: The Same Page Team
As we move into the final third of the NBA season with the All-Star game behind us and the trade deadline looming, the Same Page figured it was time to rally together another Three for 3. This time out Reynolds, Grant and Osubronie take stock of the fortunes of teams making that final push for the playoffs.
1) With the trade deadline coming this week which team needs to make a major move?
Osubronie: The Houston Rockets are in third place in the Western Conference with a 36-17 record. It may seem like everything is going well for James Harden and company, however they are they still missing some pieces to help them excel at the next level. They are currently lacking depth and role players which are essential for a playoff run. If only they had a player who wants to be traded before Thursday’s trade deadline. A player who was promised to be a starter when they agreed to pay him 25 million over 3 years, then tossed him to the side when they acquired Dwight Howard. I’m sure you’ve clicked the active links in the last two sentences, so by now you know I mean Omir Asik. Doesn’t that sound like a team that needs to make a trade to you?
The Rockets may be easily dominating most of the NBA, although they can’t seem to beat the elite. They currently have a 1-4 record against Trailblazers, Thunder and the Clippers. I purposely omitted their 2-0 record against San Antonio because we all know coach Popovich doesn’t care about winning regular season games. If the Rockets want to have any chance of beating those contenders in the playoffs, they will have to increase their depth. Don’t expect Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi, and Greg Smith to give them that extra push. It will also give their injury plagued starters some time to rest and get healthy before the playoffs.
Right now GM Daryl Morey is engaging in talks with the Sixers, so hopefully this gets settled. We all know there’s nothing sadder than a healthy player spending all his time on the bench.
Grant: I’ve never been a huge Blake Griffin guy. I saw his terrible free-throwing shooting and complete lack of a mid-range game early in his career as giant red-flags, and many critics agreed. I mean, you’re supposed to be a basketball player right? You’re insanely athletic – you clearly have the coordination. Hit the gym, bud! I guess Griffin heard the critics around the league, because he’s shooting a non-cringe worthy 40-ish % from mid-range this season, while still mainly relying on his power close to the basket. Couple the two together and he’s shooting a career high 54.7% from the field, which is elite. Beyond that, he’s increased his FT% to a respectable 70%, something that didn’t appear possible just two seasons ago. I still don’t like his face, but I’m sold on his game. He’s just 24 years old, averaging 24-10 and is one of the best big men in the NBA. When paired with behemoth DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have a formidable front court.
The problem is when either one of them are on the bench.
Take a look at the Clippers roster, here.
Now take a look at the names that have heights higher than 6’7.
You have Griffin and Jordan of course. And hey, two seven footers, that’s a promising start. Who are… Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens. Yikes. OK, there must be someone else. Oh OK, two guys, 6’10 and 6’9! Who are… Hedo Turkoglu and Antawn Jamison. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear.
The Clippers need a big man. Enough said. It doesn’t have to be a star, just someone who can play some post defense and be better than that mess of washed-uppedness and whatever Byron Mullens is. It may not be a ‘major move’ in terms of personnel, but it would be a major move in terms of pushing the Clippers from dark horse in the West to legitimate title contender.
Reynolds: Can I get crazy and say the Miami Heat? Let’s get nuts and say the Miami Heat. Now, hear me out. The Heat have the biggest and best basketball force in the world, two other All-Star players, and a semi-savvy cast of role players to employ in their mission for a third straight title. The issue? I had to use the qualifier “semi” back there. The Heat bench is not what it was. I don’t want to get all googly-eyed Doc Brown on you here, but just listen.
Last season the Heat relied on the timely – extremely timely – shooting of Ray Allen, the ramshackle brilliance of Mike Miller, and the heady play of Shane Battier. Toss in a little crazy Chris Andersen and Norris Cole intensity and you have a world champion. But now hear this: Allen is having one of the worst 3-point shooting seasons of his career, Miller is gone, and Battier is doing a McFly-esque disappearing act. This season has seen sporadic 20 minute games from Michael Beasley and considerable Rashard Lewis sightings – though those have wisely tapered off in February. More troubling: lead backup big men are Udonis Haslem (certified basketball corpse) and Greg Oden (feel good story, but still, a member of the walking dead). That puts a lot of onus on Chris Bosh (a steady hand at this point) and one of the wildest of wild cards in Andersen. The Heat don’t have a lot of cards to play on the trade market. They moved Joel Anthony to get Toney Douglas, largely for tax purposes. And while the Heat would be loathe to change the past (three straight finals appearances and two championships will do that), the future may get written without them if the team is not kept up to speed.
2) Which team will be the most surprising flame out or underdog in the playoffs?
Osubronie: The San Antonio Spurs and coach, Gregg Popovich are notoriously famous for resting their players before the playoffs. Whether it’s a nationally televised game against a potential finals contender or against the worst team in the league, veterans like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli will sit as many games as possible. Since last year’s surprises off the playoffs, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have both yet to play at the same level, if any team was going to plummet in the standings, it’s the Spurs.
History might say “Pop” won’t jeopardize home court advantage, but at this point in his career, I wouldn’t be surprised. With the Southeast division becoming increasingly more competitive the only question will now be how many spots will the Spurs fall. Houston is playing better than ever and Dallas is surprising everyone with a well balanced attack. Although Memphis is not the team it once was, expect them to make a strong put to get back into a playoff position. There is a good chance one of these teams can overcome the lead San Antonio’s currently has in the division.
Injuries, always an issue with the Spurs, are usually a factor for the veterans; however it’s the future of San Antonio that can’t seem to stay healthy. Belinelli, Leonard, Green and Splitter have all missed games due to injury. If they all cannot find a way to get back on the court and give the Spurs “big three” the rest they need, this team may not only lose home court advantage but a playoff push could also be in jeopardy.
Grant: I’m going to stick with the West here, since it’s a lot more interesting. I could legitimately see five different teams coming out of the conference; unfortunately one of them is not the Golden State Warriors. Don’t get me wrong, I love G-State. They’re fun to watch (Splash Brothers!) and they’ve given themselves a defensive identity with the additions of Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. Unfortunately, that new identity is also their biggest flaw: they’re just not deep enough to withstand any injury.
Now you could say that about a lot of teams. If they lose a key piece, obviously their chances will be hampered. However, it’s particularly pertinent to the Warriors, who truly function as a team. They don’t have a Kevin Durant or LeBron James to carry them. They need everyone. The team is built around different pieces on offense and defense, which means they need them all. If they lose Andrew Bogut, their interior defense crumbles. If they lose Stephen Curry on offense, they’re down to Jordan Crawford. And if they lose Iguodala? This actually happened earlier in the year and this dark horse ‘title contender‘ reeled off a 5-7 stretch where they looked completely lost. That, combined with their struggles involving Harrison Barnes (check out his monthly splits) now that David Lee and Iguodala are healthy, probably means that the Warriors are at least a year away. I could see them making a first round exit, people being baffled and them doing something to fix their bench in the off-season. Think trading Lee or even Barnes.
Reynolds: Since the East is basically all underdogs (and decidedly not of the super, capitalized version), this question really gets pointed at the Western Conference. All roads in the east lead to the world’s end in Miami or Indiana. While a second round playoff appearance can be seen as a victory (go Raptors!), it will also be where dreams go to die. And so, after perusing the murderer’s row of contenders in the west, I settle on the most potent answer: the Portland Trailblazers, a possible flame out and underdog rolled into one.
As an underdog? The Blazers have a 5-man unit that currently ranks as one of the most efficient and exciting in the NBA. Robin Lopez is on hand to do all the dirty work, LaMarcus Aldridge is a post monster, Nicolas Batum the jack-of-all-trades wingman, Wesley Matthews as the potent trigger man, and Damian Lillard keeps the engine revving.
As a flame out? The bench, while improved from last year’s disaster show, is still none too pretty. Be honest: how far are the terrifying combination of Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright and the immortal Mo Williams taking you? I worry. As with the Blazers teams of five years ago, the ones chaired by the sainted Brandon Roy, the beautiful pieces never seem to come together into a musical whole. For Portland fans, ever the believers, the spirit of ’77 sings out jubilantly across the city, but the memories of 2000 are never far away.
3) Who will be the most surprising winner of an individual award this season?
Osubronie: Lebron James is the best player in the NBA. Now that we have that settled it’s going to surprise everyone when, at the end of the season, Kevin Durant is named to his first ever MVP award. It will be a combination of KD having a great year and everyone just being sick of voting for James. “The Servant” as Durant would to now be called, has been playing exceptionally well in the absence of Russell Westbrook to the team. This year will be his best chance to hoist one of the trophies that means a lot to him.
In regard to James, I think Grant Hughes from Bleacher report said it best.
“Despite James’ unparalleled dominance, we’re all in a bizarre hurry to nitpick his game, to crown his chief challenger and make cases for others to steal his MVP throne.”
We are so eager to see more of a competition that we are ignoring that James is still playing at the superior level as when he won his second straight and fourth total MVP award. This is where Durant comes in. He is making a good case to finally surpass James, averaging 31.5 points per game (with a peak average of 35.9 in January). After carrying his team since Westbrook went down with another injury, Durant seemed like he already won the MVP. There is still, however, over a month of basketball to play and with Westbrook’s return imminent, one can only wonder if he can keep this up.
As the season comes to a close, I have doubts that James will make his own MVP case, Durant will win the award and you will still be more surprised than Rondo realizing his team isn’t what it used to be.
Grant: The Phoenix Suns were supposed to be awful. Ranked in the bottom three of essentially every season preview or power rankings and thrown in the middle of any and all ‘Riggin for Wiggins’ talk, this was supposed to be a season for Eric Bledsoe to learn to be a starter, Alex Len to get his feet wet and the Suns to see what they had in the Morris twins and Miles Plumlee. This was a team that was going to feature big minutes from Channing Frye and P.J. Tucker. Goran Dragic was supposed to play his way into some trade value and get dealt. The over/under in Las Vegas for their wins pre-season? 19. Out of 82. That is not a typo.
Here we sit, after the All-Star break and this team is 30-21, with 31 games left. If they go even .500 down the stretch, they’ll win 46 games and probably make the playoffs. 50 wins is not out of reach. They’re hanging on to the seventh spot in a cut-throat Western Conference. They’ve done it for the last month or so without Bledsoe, who was having a breakout season.
How is this possible? It’s possible because the Suns have struck gold with their rookie coach, former NBA sharpshooter Jeff Hornacek.
Hornacek came in to a Suns team that was in a state of flux. The 7 Seconds or Less era was dead and gone; the team needed a new identity. Hornacek has instilled that in them immediately. Like Hornacek during his playing days, the team plays unselfishly and unashamedly. They’re aggressive on offense and buckled down on defense. They’re well prepared, professional, believe in their teammates and give every ounce of effort, every single night. That’s an A-one coaching job. That’s your Coach of the Year.
Reynolds: I’ve been continuously nibbling away at the idea of writing about Lance Stephenson. I’d toss his name into a parenthetical here, compare him to Jennifer Lawrence there, but I’ve never gone all-in on the discussion. Now, Stephenson winning the Most Improved Player award this year will probably not be an earth shattering surprise to anyone who has watched the Indiana Pacers ritualistically strangle the NBA this season. Nor will it be a surprise to all those who thought the Born Ready prep star was due for an All-Star berth this season. It certainly won’t surprise Larry Bird, who is credited with supporting Stephenson when he was just a too energetic bundle at the end of the Pacers’ bench.
And yet, here we are. Stephenson leads the league this year in triple-doubles, he leads the league in 1 on 5 fast breaks, he leads the league in I-don’t-give-a-fucks on a title contending team. My backup pick here, interesting enough, was Kyle Lowry, another guard labelled as prickly or troubled, who eventually found the right situation and flourished. Lowry’s numbers are gaudier than Stephenson’s, but Lance (or, Laaaaaaaaance!) is just having one of those seasons. He is defining the terms of his relationship to the NBA, he is pushing the gas pedal to the floor, he is tossing all the grenades, he is every crazy metaphor you want to choose.