Going into this season, there were at least four and possibly five teams that were seen as head and Dwight Howard’s shoulders above the rest of the league. Those four/five teams were, in no particular order: the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, and possibly the San Antonio Spurs. These teams had the right combination of talent, coaching, and offseason moves to move them into the pantheon of championship contenders for at least this season. Well, something has changed, at least a little bit.
Now, I still consider these four or five teams to still be the best in the league with possibly one or two other teams joining the conversation (Atlanta and who knows in the West? Maybe Phoenix, Portland has been disappointing, Denver hasn’t been overly impressive beyond the first two weeks of the season). But, these teams have been disappointing in one area or another.
None of these teams send out the vibe that they are truly great. They don’t have that ability that some championship teams do where they were capable of beating their opponent mentally even before they entered the arena. Those teams knew they were better than their opponents and their opponents knew that they were going to get beat.
Maybe this can be attributed to the fact that no team is truly devoid of significant talent anymore. Even the worst teams in the league have potential All-Stars. Think about it. Minnesota has Al Jefferson, Sacramento has Tyreke Evans blossoming into a great player before our eyes, the Clippers will eventually have Blake Griffin (who is still unproven) and Chris Kaman who routinely posts 20 PPG. Even the Nets, who own the record for most consecutive losses, have a better than solid center in Brook Lopez and an All-Star point guard in Devin Harris.
Cleveland started as sluggish as possible, losing its first two games, leading to overall panic in northeast Ohio (I don’t know if I panicked, but I began to look for the fire alarm, you know, just incase). Since then, they have nearly steadied the ship, losing more than a couple more inexplicable losses (Chicago and Toronto?). Yet, they have beaten Orlando and Los Angeles on impressive terms, or at least Los Angeles was impressive.
Which leads us to the aforementioned Lakers of Los Angeles. They were clear favorites heading into this year, and why not? They had Kobe Bryant (the best player on the planet), Pau Gasol (who is a top 15 player and top 4 forward), a hopefully kept in check Ron Artest, and an improving Andrew Bynum. Heck, they are still the favorites despite the fact that Kobe has broken a finger on his shooting hand and they lost badly at home to Cleveland.
Boston is once again on the verge of being plagued by the injury bug with Garnett having a slight issue. Garnett is the key to the Celtics. They can win a lot of regular season games, but they can’t beat any important team in the playoffs (they nearly lost to a Bulls team that featured a rookie point guard, an erratic shooting guard, and undersized big men). I am pretty sure that Garnett will return, but he is still recovering from that knee and he wasn’t exactly looking as if he fully returned to form. Still, a 75 percent Garnett is enough to put the Celtics over the edge. Plus, if they lose anyone else they are finished.
I feel odd saying this, but the one player they cannot afford to lose is Rajon Rondo. Obviously, I don’t think they can win with any of the big three missing, but they have absolutely no depth at point behind Rondo. They may be able to replace Allen with various forms of House and the other Allen. Pierce is the best scorer and would be hard to replace, and Garnett is the undeniable heart of the team. But, the addition of Rasheed Wallace can help offset either one of those losses enough to not totally kill them right away. You know what? On second thought, Rondo is as not of greater importance than Pierce or Garnett, which is still astonishing.
Okay, moving on to the Orlando Magic, I don’t know what exactly is happening to Stan Van Gundy’s team. If I may jest, perhaps it is time for Pat Riley to take this team over. Seriously, there are games that should be a walk in the park for a team that advanced to the finals last season that they lose, and often lose badly. There seems to be more than a little contempt between the players and coach, often spewing out into the media for no good reason.
Dwight Howard hasn’t lived up to the reasonable expectations, his offensive game regressing even more and his impeccable rebounding numbers dropping from superman levels. I still don’t feel as though the Carter for Hedo move is a negative move still. Regardless of what you think of Vince Carter, he is better in the clutch than he gets credit for and he is a better shooter than Turkoglu. Rashard Lewis hasn’t been the same and Nelson has been hurt only to have Jason “White Chocolate” Williams step up in an unexpected way. Still, I feel that there are more inexplicable losses on Orlando’s schedule than any other team in the league.
And San Antonio? Well, I don’t know what to think of San Antonio. They have been slightly above average despite making moves in the offseason that were universally hailed as phenomenal. Bringing in Richard Jefferson for the over the hill Bruce Bowen, an aged Kurt Thomas, and the indescribable Fabricio Oberto. Yet, they struggled for a long time.
Granted, everyone was learning, and still is learning to adjust to one another’s skill set. Not everyone knew their roles and these roles are probably still trying to be defined by Gregg Popovich, who is one of the three best coaches of the past decade (Jackson, Pops, maybe Brown). For no logical reason other than the fact that Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward of all time (despite the fact that he is slowly crumbling, you know, injury wise) I have confidence that the Spurs will be there beyond April.
Basically, there is no team that you feel is bulletproof like you did for the early 2000s Lakers, and the mid 2000s Spurs and Pistons. You knew that when all is said and done, these teams are going to advance deep into the playoffs. Now, sure I feel that the Lakers are clearly the best team in the West and one of the big three in the East will advance, but it wouldn’t be as surprising if a lesser team took anyone of these teams out.
I don’t know how to accurately quantify the Lakers though. Like I just said, I think they will advance through the West with little worry, but I think a team like Phoenix or Denver or San Antonio could upset them. They were nearly beaten by a Houston Rockets team that was absent of Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady, so anything is possible. But, they would be the team I would worry about the least of all those teams.
In the East I feel as though it is a rock-paper-scissors game played out on a basketball court. I think that Cleveland could beat Boston, but Boston could beat Orlando. However, Orlando could beat Cleveland so the first seed is beyond a luxury, its an essential. The wildcard is Atlanta, who could upset any of the big three and not have it be a gigantic surprise (that is an entirely different post). But if the regular season means anything, then any one of the big three could easily defeat the others.
And if I could just touch on the Pete Carroll thing for just a few short paragraphs. I think this would be a big mistake for Pete. First off, the Seahawks aren’t exactly contenders or threatening to be one anytime soon. Secondly, he is a god at USC.
Seriously, he will have statues built in his likeness before he retires, the ground he walks on is worshiped and he can literally do no wrong. I know some will say that there are only 32 jobs like this in the world and when you have a chance you have to go for it, but why?
The way I see it, he is already paid like a professional head coach. Plus, there are hardly 10 jobs like the one he has now (by my estimation only Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, USC, maybe Nebraska, and possibly Penn State and one of the other SEC schools). He gets to live year round in southern California and consistently bring in top 10 recruiting classes. How do you give that up?
Bringing it to a basketball scenario, this is very similar to Billy Donavon a few years back when he nearly became the head coach of the Orlando Magic. He quickly regretted the decision and came running back to Florida where he was welcomed as a near deity after winning consecutive national championships at Florida. Now, Florida basketball is nowhere near USC football traditionally, which sort of makes Carroll’s potential exit even more astonishing.