All right, so the NBA All-Star game isn't exactly at the halfway point in the season, but who said it needed to be? The NFL has its All-Star game after the season's over, and MLB starts the balloting after only a month and a half of the season.
I figured that with the trade deadline in the NBA coming today, I should look at the state of the league and see what's what. So I'm gonna give a little bit of my love to you... er, a little bit of Monica in my... no, a little bit of analysis of some teams in the hunt and some teams vying for a Jared Sullinger or somesuch.
So, in order of league standings, and excluding the teams I don't feel like have anything interesting to talk about...
1. San Antonio Spurs (47-10)
They have a six-game lead on the rest of the Western Conference, which can be easily explained through two simultaneous processes: the Spurs finally don't have one of their three best players (Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili) injured, and they're actually living up to their full potential with the help of young guns George Hill and DeJuan Blair.
Projected finish: 65-17 (1-seed in West)
Next year? Down. They're just too lucky this year, and Duncan is clearly on the decline.
2. Boston Celtics (41-14)
Both of the last two years, this team has defied expectations about their increasing age (Ray Allen is 35, Kevin Garnett is 34, and Paul Pierce is 33) and has performed well in the regular season. Last year, they faded down the stretch as Coach Rivers rested his walking wounded, but turned it on in the playoffs and made the Finals. This year, they look even better thanks to Rajon Rondo's emergence, and with a team full of experience they look to be the best shot to come out of the East.
Projected finish: 59-23 (2-seed in East)
Next year? Down (they HAVE to age eventually, right?)
3. Miami Heat (42-15)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Miami Thrice and all that. They've gone 33-7 since starting 9-8, and I showed in a previous post that each of their stars is doing just fine. Their real concern should be the fact that they haven't beaten the Celtics this year (0-3), and it doesn't appear like having homecourt against them by being the top seed in the East is going to matter too much in the playoffs.
Projected finish: 61-21 (1-seed in East)
Next year? Up. The improved chemistry and in-game execution can only help them, and they will have a better understanding of what pieces the Big 3 need around them in order to succeed.
5. LA Lakers (40-19)
After all that Andrew Bynum trade talk and the Grammy road trip starting off strong (4 straight wins) but ending up disgusting (losses to Charlotte and Cleveland), the Lakers must be pretty tired of this season. They've still got Kobe, who showed in the All-Star game that he can still do it up real nice (albeit in a game with no defense), and three effective big guys in Gasol, Bynum, and Odom. I just don't know if they have the mental fortitude to keep their intensity up this season. I think they will stay about where they are in the playoff standings and just hope they get the 3 seed and avoid the Spurs. At least the bottom of the playoff bracket looks to have thinned out thanks to the 'Melo and Deron Williams trades.
Projected finish: 57-25 (3-seed in West)
Next year? Down. Kobe and Derek Fisher are aging, and the Ron Artest thing isn't working out so hot. They need an infusion of youth akin to that of the Spurs, because the whole get-another-superstar thing isn't going to work so well as long as Kobe's around.
11. Denver Nuggets (33-25)
After all that Melo-drama, they finally got the deal done. And I think they made out like bandits. Yes, they lost a top-10 player in Carmelo, but he was clearly going to leave for New York after the season, and they had to make something out of nothing. And what they got was 4 of the Knicks better players who are young and talented, as well as moving a good deal of salary off their books in Chauncey Billups and Anthony. With Ty Lawson at the point, this team is built to be a solid team for the next few years, although they could use a go-to scorer. However, there IS that ticket sale thing...
Projected finish: 49-33 (7-seed in West)
Next year? Up. For all the reasons above.
15. New York Knicks (29-26)
After winning their first game in the Carmelo AnthoNY era, the Knicks are going to the 'ship! No? Oh, right, they need a little bit of time. I do like the trio of Melo, Billups, and Amare Stoudemire, but the latter two play a similar position and may have some trouble when it comes to getting theirs on a game-to-game basis. They're going to need some time to gel just like the Heat did, but they should be fine for a playoff berth, and at that point perhaps their star power can push them through a series. I just don't know if they have what it takes to beat Miami and Boston, let alone Chicago.
Projected finish: 45-37 (6-seed in East)
Next year? Up. But the year after that? Way up, thanks to the imminent Chris Paul acquisition.
17. Philadelphia 76ers (28-29)
After starting 3-13, the young and plucky Sixers have gone 25-16 and are in position to lose in the first round to the Heat or Celtics. Get psyched, Philly. Unfortunately, the recent shift in star power to the East is not going to help matters this year or in the future, and unless Jrue Holliday and Evan Turner can turn themselves into bona fide stars, I don't see them really competing for a while.
Projected finish: 43-39
Next year? Up, but so is everyone else, so perhaps it will be down, relatively.
25. New Jersey Nets (17-40)
Mikhail Prokhorov is a crazy Russian. He re-entered the 'Melo sweepstakes so that he could raise the price for the Knicks, which he did, and then came out of nowhere to trade for Jazz PG Deron Williams, who no one really though was on the trade block. Unfortunately for the Nets, Williams doesn't really have too much to work with other than that Lopez kid from Stanford, but he's been able to up the game of his teammates so far and is one of the better scoring threats at point guard in the league. If they can convince some solid role players to come to Jersey/Brooklyn to play with Williams in the next year and a half, perhaps they can be a little more relevant. I'm just not so sure Williams is going to be around after his contract expires in 2012.
Projected finish: 28-54
Next year? Up, but how much? We'll have to see what this offseason brings.
30. Cleveland Cavaliers (10-47)
After that 23-game losing streak, at least they've won two games to get them out of the conversation for the worst team ever. However, the loss of Lebron James appears to have been utterly devastating both mentally and on-the-court, and this may be the best argument for James being the MVP of the NBA. They just traded Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to the Clippers for Baron Davis, so maybe there will be a little more pep in their step, but this team is in the doldrums and I don't see a guy in the draft this year that's going to do much for them immediately.
Projected finish: 16-66
Next year? Flat. Just like their play this year.
Random Conference Finals predictions:
Lakers vs. Spurs
Celtics vs. Bulls