Now that we've passed the All-Star Break, what types of storylines will emerge as the NBA hits its stretch run? I'm going to take a team-by-team look to find out. First the Eastern Conference, tomorrow the West.
Atlanta Hawks: Well look what we have here. A Hawks team that actually wants to contend? After years of living in the basement since the days of Mookie Blaylock and Steve Smith, Atlanta has finally positioned itself to be a contender. Maybe not a title contender, but their trade for Mike Bibby at least gives them a shot at the 5th seed. Without giving up any players of importance, Atlanta acquired that point guard they should've drafted 3 years ago (Paul or Williams). Acie Law IV isn't the answer yet, and while Bibby isn't the player he was six years ago, he's also playoff-tested and has shown the ability to run a high-octane offense.
Boston Celtics: The key down the stretch will be the C's bench. In the preseason, no one knew what to expect beyond the Big 3. Now, as Rondo has proven capable at the point, Boston needs people like Leon Powe and Glen Davis to provide help up front. They have come up big occasionally when Garnett has sat out. But, what will they do come playoff time? Rather, will Rivers trust them in the playoffs? Many coaches shorten the bench in May, but with Boston's Big 3 being older and having played so 35+ minutes per game, that bench will be counted upon.
Charlotte Bobcats: With as much talent as their starting five has, I'm surprised they haven't won more games, esp. in the East. Richardson and Wallace on the wings, with Okafor up front should be enough for more victories. There are two problems, though, that seem to hurt them. Okafor has never been, and never will be, a go-to post scorer. He gets his 12-15 points/gm without many plays run for him. It's J-Rich and Wallace that get the most scoring opps. The Cats need a post scoring option that can create his own offense. Their bench is also non-existent. Matt Carroll is the only bench player averaging over 4.4 points/gm. And Carroll is just a spot-up shooter. It makes me sick to even look at the bench. Othella Harrington and Derek Anderson are about 10 years beyond their prime. Earl Boykins no longer has the speed to make up for his stature. Adam Morrison and Sean May are great college players, but aren't going to cut it as pros (even when healthy). The other 3 are young big men Jared Dudley, Jemareo Davidson, and Ryan Hollins. All 3 have their uses on defense, but none is going to provide much offense. So, maybe the Cats can sneak in as an 8 seed, but beyond that, this team isn't set up to go very far in the future.
Chicago Bulls: This is a team without an identity. Coaches Boylen and Skiles have flip-flopped lineups all year, never settling on a working rotation. Kirk Hinrich has had a miserable year. Yea, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng are nice to have on the perimeter, but with no viable post options, spacing and easy shots become a difficulty. Perhaps because of his name, hair, or contract, Ben Wallace continues to get heavy playing time in the post. At ten games under .500, I want to see Ty Thomas and Joakim Noah get a little more PT. Really, is Joe Smith the answer at PF? No, as many teams have found out. He had a good couple months, but this team isn't going to win anything this year. Why not let Noah and Thomas play up front? Looking back, Pau Gasol would've played pretty nicely in this frontcourt, too bad they turned it down.
Cleveland Cavaliers: For the past three years, this team has gone largely unchanged. It's LeBron, Big Z, Gooden, Hughes, and Snow (now Gibson). James has proven he can carry the team to the Finals all by himself, so GM Danny Ferry basically said, 'Let's see you do it again.' They haven't improved this team at all, even missing out on the rumored Bibby trade. I want to see what Larry Hughes can do the rest of the way. A lottery pick out of St. Louis, Hughes once put up 20/gm in Washington. Now, whether it's his injuries or inability to play with LeBron, Hughes has struggled mightily in Ohio. However, in February he has put up 19/gm and 5 boards. That's the type of production Cleveland needs if it wants to take out Boston or Detroit.
Detroit Pistons: I've talked about this team recently, but if I want to pick one storyline for the 2nd half, it's the continued emergence of the bench. We all know what the starters give us. The bench is the question mark. Will Saunders continue to give them minutes so they can find a rhythm? Will he trust them in big playoff games? I'm anxious to see what Saunders does with Lindsey Hunter once the playoffs come. How much PT will he steal from Stuckey? I know his defense is a plus, but I cringe every time he shoots. For short bursts, I'd love to see Hunter and Afflalo attack on D, but anything more might cripple our offense.
Indiana Pacers: Sometimes I forget this team still exists. Seriously, how boring can one team be? Mike Dunleavy is your 2nd-leading scorer? I have no idea why they haven't gotten rid of O'Neal and Tinsley yet. Their injury concerns and contracts must be too much for anyone else to take on. As weird as this is, O'Neal is already 29 and on the downside of his career. Injuries have sapped his aggressiveness, forcing him into a jump-shooter. Now, Chris Webber and Antonio McDyess were able to effectively make the transition into that role. I'm curious to see if O'Neal can do the same. But the Pacers need to realize he's not a leading man anymore. And until that happens, this team won't go anywhere.
Miami Heat: Unless you lose Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, it's pretty tough to go from Champs to chumps in two years. Miami has done exactly that, though. It's aging core from the title team got older and their bench wasn't strong enough to help. Shaq and Zo inevitably suffered injuries and Jason Williams showed once again that he can't be a dependable point. They traded one player Riley didn't like (Antoine Walker) for someone else he doesn't like (Ricky Davis) and a center who doesn't rebound (Mark Blount). I like what Dorell Wright and Daequan Cook can do off the bench, unfortunately Wright has had to start and neither is a point guard. Marcus Banks isn't the answer, either. Now, Miami has four guys who can play the wing with Marion and Wade starting, but no one who can effectively play center or point guard. Sadly, those are the two toughest positions to find. I'd almost rather see Miami get Derrick Rose in the draft than Michael Beasley. Point guard is a bigger need than PF, Haslem has manned that spot capably.
Milwaukee Bucks: A theme in the East, teams going nowhere. The Bucks aren't particularly bad, nor are they that good either. Although Yi has been playing the 4, I think he'll eventually end up at 3, where his slashing ability plays a little better. I expected Charlie Villanueva to develop better than he has. He had a good rookie year in Toronto, even putting up 50 one game. But, the trade to Milwaukee seems to have stunted his growth. If V can't put up better numbers in the 2nd half, I think Milwaukee needs to address his position in the draft. Perhaps Donte Greene out of Syracuse, or maybe grab Hasheem Thabeet from UConn and shift Bogut to 4.
New Jersey Nets: I like what the Nets are doing here. I mentioned this in previous Jason Kidd post, but I want to say it again. Getting Devin Harris and two picks for Kidd is brilliant. They still have Jefferson and VC on the wings. They're developing Sean Williams and Josh Boone inside. Plus, they still have Nenad Krstic, who once healthy, is an above-average center that can score and defend. This will be a dangerous team as a 7 or 8 seed in the East, although I think they'll eventually be battling Atlanta for the 5th spot behind Cleveland.
New York Knicks: Eddy Curry averages 4.8 rpg, David Lee 8.3. Who do you think starts for New York? Exactly. The Knicks management is clueless. Quentin Richardson, who has made a living off his head/fist pounding thing he did Darius Miles six years ago, has started every game. And he scores 7 ppg on 35% shooting!! There's really very little to say about the Knicks. Until Isiah Thomas leaves, the Knicks won't improve. Thomas is horrible at what he does, and much like he did the CBA, he has run the Knicks into the ground and it's going to take a long time before it gets better.
Orlando Magic: Who would've thought Rashard Lewis would be the Magic's third-leading scorer when he came over from Seattle? Probably the same amount of people that knew Hedo Turkoglu would be scoring 20/gm. I think the only thing holding this team back is a quality power forward and consistent point guard play. They've got away without a PF because Turkoglu and Lewis are both tall enough to grab some boards, but defensively, Howard has to take on double duty. Brian Cook and Adonal Foyle aren't the answers. Jameer Nelson has been in and out of the lineup this year, but he's shown he can handle the role. With a combo of Nelson, Arroyo, and Dooling, there's no reason Orlando should have a problem offensively. It's defense where they have problems. All 3 are too small to defend big guards like Billups, perhaps why Orlando was swept out of the playoffs last year.
Philadelphia 76ers: Quietly, the Sixers have snuck into the 8th spot in the East. Moreso out of default than anything else, but Philadelphia has found a good 1-2 combo in Iguodala and Miller. They also have terrific athletes off the bench that have the potential to grow into more complete players. When the inevitable Andre Miller trade happens, Philly has their new PG in Louis Williams. More of a scorer than a traditional point, Williams still averages 3.3 assists in only 22 minutes. I also like Thaddeus Young and Rodney Carney. Young should be Philly's starting PF for years to come. He's already taken the role from one-dimensional Reggie Evans, putting up season-highs in February of 12 ppg and 6.6 rpg. Though A.I. has been gone fora year, Philly has adjusted nicely, and I can see the core of Iguodala, Young, and Williams fitting together well.
Toronto Raptors: This is a team all about balance. They have nine guys over 6 points per game and only one over 12.5. Bosh clearly leads the team, but Toronto's array of guards and wings complements him nicely. After a surprising division title last year, Toronto has been eclipsed by the Celts in '08. Yet, this is still a dangerous squad. Jose Calderon was the best player in the East not on the All-Star team. He shoots 54%, dishes out 9 a game, and only turns it over 1.6 times per game. He's incredibly efficient and his pairing with T.J. Ford makes this the best point guard combo in the league. With Anthony Parker, Delfino, and Kapono on the wings, they have plenty of options. The Raptors are still hurting when it comes to the 4. Bosh is playing out of position at center because Andrea Bargnani has not progressed as most had hoped. He's regressed in almost all major categories in his 2nd season. And at 6'10" 250, he has the size to draw defenders away from Bosh. If he can do that, Toronto is a much better squad.
Washington Wizards: Frankly, I'm surprised Washington is still around in the playoff hunt. Arenas only played 8 games, leaving Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison to pick up the slack. Those two have done their usual work. It's been the supporting cast that has impressed me. Andray Blatche and Brendan Haywood have turned in remarkable seasons and will be the key for Washington down the stretch. With Arenas out, Washington has been more of an inside team. Haywood is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, shot attempts, and minutes played. For a guy known mostly for fighting with Etan Thomas over playing time, Haywood has been a major plus for the Wizards. Off the bench, young Andray Blatche has been the catalyst. He only played 12 minutes/gm last season, but he now plays 20/gm. With Butler out most of Feb., Blatche stepped up with 10.8 ppg and 8.5 rpg. His size (6'11") and ability to play the wing has made him dangerous to defend. In the past, Washington has lacked much depth behind its Big 3. Now, with Blatche and Haywood playing well, the Wizards are a different team. Unfortunately, Arenas's injury has hindered the team's progress as a whole.