Howdy once again, sportsfans! It’s halftime in the 2018 NBA basketball derby. Time for the much-awaited All-Star break. Yup, once again, it’s that time of year when the league showcases the best talents of the recent past, as selected by fellow players, fans and the media. But first, let’s take a look at what’s been going on across the NBA horizon.
As expected, the Golden State’s wild and well-oiled Warriors – the reigning NBA champs – are leading the western conference. Who can withstand the offensive onslaught coming from the 4 Horsemen bringing Apocalypse to the neighborhood? Steph Curry has been phenomenal this January, taking co-Player of the Month honors with Toronto’s Demar DeRozan. Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have likewise dazzled and delivered with their sizzling speed and saber-sharp shooting.
But close on their heels are James Harden’s Houston Rockets. With a crew of similarly gifted sharpshooters, the Rockets are considered the biggest threat to the Warriors’ bid for another ring. Unknown to many, Houston have averaged 15.6 3-pointers a game last year, which is way better than Golden State’s 11.7. And with Chris Paul aboard, their offensive arsenal becomes even more lethal, given Chris’ uncanny knack for creating ungodly situations for the Houston offense and finding the open man.
Not to be counted out in the West are the upstarts from the Minnesota Timberwolves, the slowly-jelling Oklahoma Thunder and Greg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.
Despite creeping age, the Coach Greg has always found a way to pace the Spurs to reach the playoffs at peak form. Over-achieving has been an annual routine for them. And this season doesn’t look any different. Expect the Spurs to contend for the Western title with Kawhi Leonard and veterans Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Unlike Coach Greg who has been holding his horses, Minnesota’s Coach Tom Thibodeau has been giving his first team maximum exposure. His young thoroughbreds are so full of energy, so spry and speedy, but are lacking in maturity and court smarts. To address this, Coach Tibs is giving them more playing time together. With their newest All-Star Karl Anthony Towns (22 years), Andrew Wiggins (22) and Jimmy Butler (28) leading the charge, the youth committee working the Timberwolves is a refreshing sight.
The iffy team in the west is the Oklahoma Thunder. With last year’s MVP Russell Westbrook, plus fellow superstars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony – both of whom were the ‘main man’ in their respective teams before, the team’s potential is just huge. That is, if the team jells. If each one becomes comfortable with his role in the team. If they are able to share the ball equitably. If their defense sticks. If Coach Billy Donovan is able to get these egos to make sweet music together.
Over in the east, the Toronto Raptors are the surprise co-leaders as erstwhile frontrunner Boston Celtics has been stalled by a variety of injuries. Coach Dwane Casey’s low-key approach has the team winning games under the radar. The Raptors’ dynamic duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan continue to weave their magic over teams that tend to take them for granted.
Boston Celtics continue to confound everyone with sterling teamwork, leading the pack earlier despite the injury suffered by Gordon Haywood on his very first game as a Celtic. Kyrie Irving is showing naysayers that he can lead his crew to the promised land. Jayson Tatum is showing a court maturity not normally seen among rookies. And coach Brad Stevens is getting his players to believe in his system. Now, if only they can stay healthy come the playoffs.
The Cleveland Cavaliers on the other hand are struggling. Chemistry problems. Inside bickering. Injuries. Aging line-up. So they made a bold move before the trade deadline. Shipped out were Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder and Channing Frye. Brought in were George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hill and Larry Nance Jr. The team became younger, faster and more healthy. And the bickering stopped. Now, how to solve the chemistry woes. But it does look so much better already with the smaller egos.
But come the playoffs, watch out for the Cavs. No one, and I mean, NO TEAM in the east has the depth and the smarts to beat them in a best-of-seven series. Not the Celtics. Not the over-achieving Toronto Raptors. Not anyone else it seems, not now, not ever. And this was validated in the recent Cleveland-Boston face-off where the Cavs – despite having 4 new players in tow – totally outclassed Boston 121 – 99. With Lebron front and center, they are still the baddest dudes in the east. Period.
But Golden State’s recent humiliating blowout loss to a lowly Utah Jazz 129-99 clearly shows how erratic and unpredictable the league has been this year. Score it on the huge migration of players at the start of the season. (And this continued till the trade deadline.) Score it on the new breed of high-flyers and speedsters. Score it on basketball’s new look with growing emphasis on the 3-point shot. Score it too on the players’ tendency to relax after a – or a series of – marquee games.
Bottomline is that the NBA has been rapidly evolving as more and more youngsters come in with their fresh legs and their fantastic flight times, challenging the old standard-bearers; Lebron, Steph, Kevin Durant.
There’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, now on his second All-Star appearance. At 6’ 11” and only 23 years of age, the ‘Greek Freak’ is a joy to watch. He has redefined the flight limits in the NBA. He is leading today’s new crop of frequent flyers by taking off farther, taking flight higher and staying airborne longer.
Then, there’s the Philadelphia tag team of Joel Embiid (first time All-Star) and leading Rookie of the year candidate, Ben Simmons. There are other first time All-Stars in Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Victor Oladipo, and Bradley Beal signalling the onslaught of the new kids on the block. All these augur well for an exciting dash for the playoffs in the second half.
As for the new format All-Star game, the line-ups have been drawn. Team captains Lebron and Steph had a conference call, and they went picking their teammates alternately, with Lebron picking first for the starters, and Steph picking first for the reserves.
Lebron picked Durant, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and Demarcus Cousins for his starters. Cousins was later replaced due to an injury. Lebron’s key reserves include Russell Westbrook and Kristaps. Steph’s starters will be Harden, Giannis, Embid and DeRozan. His key reserves include guards Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson.
Expectedly, Lebron’s team gets the bulk, the brawn. Steph’s has the speed, the shot. Lebron’s team will try to outmuzzle, Steph’s will try to outshoot. It will be inside versus out. It will be the old and traditional versus the young and the I-couldn’t-care-less.
Lebron gets to play with Kyrie once again. Ditto for Durant and Westbrook. Durant plays against his fellow Dubs Steph, Klay and Draymond. For the first time, we have a playground-type format. Many first time All-Stars get to display their games. Indeed, there are lots of storylines to look forward to.
Come the 18th of Feb, at the Staples Arena, who you got?