After a one-week hiatus, the NBA Round Up is back and ready to bounce into action! Here is what you may have missed in the past two weeks in the roundabout world of the National Basketball Association.
RETURN TO RIP CITY
When you look at the top of the Western Conference standings so far, it is no surprise to see the last two conference champions, the 22-4 Oklahoma City Thunder and the 21-5 San Antonio Spurs. But what if I told you that the third team in that elite pack that is challenging for the best record in the NBA (let alone the West) is none other than the Portland Trail Blazers? Sitting at 22-5 in the Northwest Division, the Blazers have had quite the month of December after having a really good November. This month, they have only lost two games so far, the latest one being a 120-109 loss at Minnesota on Wednesday.
The Blazers seemed to have lost hope during the lockout-shortened 2012 season when they fired their longtime coach Nate McMillan late in the season and then Kaleb Canales went an even worse 8-15 to finish out the season. Terry Stotts was named the head coach and they used two lottery picks to get point guard Damian Lillard and center Meyers Leonard. Leonard might be a disappointment, but Lillard was not, winning Rookie of the Year going away in what amounted to an otherwise forgettable season for the Blazers, who lost 13 games in a row to close out the season. This season, their transactions were mild (Dorrell Wright, Mo Williams, Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson) but all three of those players have been good helpers for the team, especially Lopez, who has fit in perfectly as a rebounder and occasional shot blocker.
Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews, who are both signed to long-term deals, have blossomed into having career-best seasons respectively, giving Portland (which is 1st in scoring offense in the league) two deep threats at the same time. But the true nuts and bolts of this team is the excellent play of Lillard in his second season and their quiet All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge was drafted along with Brandon Roy in 2006 for an earlier reboot of the team under McMillan, and he developed quickly in his second season, but Roy’s knees degenerated overnight and the Blazers were constantly stuck in neutral come playoff time when Aldridge was asked to do more than he was capable of. Two All-Star Game appearances later, and Aldridge is now a double-double machine, the most well-rounded player on his team and perhaps the best power forward in the whole league next to Kevin Love. He is averaging a career high in points (23.3), rebounds (11.2) and assists (2.8).
Aldridge carries the weight of the team many times on his well-built shoulders, and when it comes to late game heroics, it is Lillard’s time to shine, hitting two daggers on the road in back-to-back games against the Pistons and the Cavaliers. One way or another, even after picking the Blazers to be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, you cannot help but become a believer in Rip City, a town that has not had an elite team since Rasheed Wallace was around. They might not maintain the best record in the West, but look out for the Blazers.
KOBE BRYANT SAYS “HELLO, GOODBYE”
Outside of the doomed return of Derrick Rose, the other player that NBA fans were clamoring to see come back to his team at the beginning of the season was the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant. After going on a tear in the last few months of the 2012-13 regular season to carry his team to a playoff spot, Bryant suffered a more unfortunate tear of his own to his Achilles tendon, ending his season a week before the playoffs began. Achilles tears are awful for NBA players, especially those who are reaching the later stages of their careers. Just ask Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Isiah Thomas, who both retired after suffering torn Achilles tendons in what was planned to be their final seasons.
But Bryant was insistent via social networking and interviews that he would come back in record time from this devastating injury, seemingly the opposite of what the Bulls and Rose did with his torn knee ligament. No one was surprised when the season began and Kobe was still in the shadows working his way to come back. While he was trying to get back into playing form, Mike D’Antoni’s Lakers had to rely on Pau Gasol and a team of also-rans like Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and Nick Young to get through things. They played over the heads in Kobe’s absence, going 10-9 when Bryant made his long-awaited return to Staples Center to a raucous crowd and top-story coverage on SportsCenter.
Unfortunately, the game itself was a sign of things to come for the Lakers, as Bryant only scored 9 points off of two made baskets in 27 minutes and the team lost to the Raptors by 12. Like most players coming off of injuries, Kobe had a sequence where he would have a good scoring night followed by a not so good one in order to avoid overkill. After the 9-point return against the Raptors, he scored 20 on 6-11 shooting in a road loss to the Suns. He was unable to score more than 4 in a blowout loss to the Thunder, but Kobe still managed to get 13 assists and facilitate the offense somewhat. He followed that one up with probably his best game of the season so far (21 points, 7 boards, 8 assists) in a win over Charlotte.
Bryant had played more than 32 minutes in the past three games and was averaging 13.8 PPG when against the Grizzlies, he suffered a fracture in his left knee, shelving him for six more weeks only six games into a slowly developing comeback. Never has Bryant suffered two long-term injuries this close together, and now knowing that the Lakers have signed him to a two-year extension that continues his $20-million-plus salary, you have to wonder if the only thing to look forward to for Kobe Bryant is the eventual farewell tour that we will get in 2016, his last contractual year as a Laker at nearly 40 years old. Fortunately, unlike the sad destiny of Derrick Rose, Bryant will likely be back before the All-Star break, if not sooner, but this is definitely not a good sign for the Mamba.
BANG THE DRUMMOND SLOWLY
The top rebounders in the league look like a who’s who in NBA big guys, from Kevin Love to Dwight Howard to LaMarcus Aldridge to DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins. However, there is a fresh, not so familiar face sitting at fourth in the league at 12.7 rebounds per game. That man is Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons. He is a second-year player at center, but unbelievably, he is only 20 years old. He accelerated his development at the high school level by reclassifying as a 2011 recruit instead of playing one more year of high school. After the surprising reclassification, Drummond committed to play for UConn in Jim Calhoun’s last season. The team was a disappointment and Drummond’s numbers were just above modest, albeit not as dominant as those of Kentucky’s Anthony Davis.
When he declared for the NBA Draft as a one-and-done, many were wary about his decision-making because of the bad season at UConn and his inability to score. However, many believed that had he played it out originally and come out the following year, he would have been the 2013 #1 pick. His stock slipped, but his name stayed in the lottery because of the raw physical potential of this 6’11”, 270-lb. prospect who seemed to make the basket look like a Nerf hoop sometimes. Taking a chance in the draft on size, the Pistons drafted him 9th overall. In his rookie year, the Pistons were bad and Drummond was one of many on the bench, but he stood out to many because of nasty dunks and a sturdy 7.9 rebounding average. He was selected to the Rising Stars Game in Houston during the All-Star break, but had to back out due to an injury. By the end of the season, Drummond finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting behind only Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, and Bradley Beal.
This season, however, there have definitely been signs of blossoming for the very young and athletic center, one of the rare ones left in the NBA right now. Drummond has nearly doubled his scoring average at 13.3 PPG while leading the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks. Changing his number from 1 to 0 in order to accommodate the veteran Chauncey Billups, Drummond has been no zero on the court, starting all 27 games, second in the league in field goal percentage, and routinely dominating the opposing big man on the other team in the rebounding margin. He had one game against the Sixers that was a statistical jaw-dropper: 31 points, 19 rebounds, and 6 steals in a 15-point win. There is obviously room for growth with this man-child. His scoring is still open to droughts and his free throw shooting is, in a word, terrible. But as the Pistons stand currently at second place in the Central Division behind the Indiana Pacers (who just suffered their first home loss to the Pistons thanks in part to Drummond’s 9 rebounds), keep that man’s name on the tip of your tongue, because he is too damn big to get out-of-the-way right now.
BACK TO LIFE, BACK TO REALITY
We talked in the month of November about how teams expected to tank or lose in numerous fashion in the preseason were some of the early surprises in the first few weeks of the regular season by simply not sucking. Some of those teams, such as Eric Bledsoe’s Phoenix Suns and the Charlotte Bobcats, have managed to stay afloat in the playoff seedings in their respective conferences. As for those other teams off to hot starts, that burn has gone cold. The Philadelphia 76ers were the talk of the NBA town after starting out 3-0 with wins over the Heat and Bulls. But since mid-November, the Sixers have only won 2 games (both in overtime) and have lost 7 in a row. They are currently last in the Atlantic Division.
One of those two teams the Sixers defeated during their doldrums is another team that started out well and has hit the reality wall, and that would be the Orlando Magic. They also tailed off in mid-November, going on losing streaks of three games, four games, and six games. They are also last in their division now. Those are two teams that were expected to suck, though. There were hopes going into the season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were at 6-3 to start the season behind Kevin Love’s awesome stats and Ricky Rubio’s point guard play. But after some injuries to their lineup and one of the worst defenses in the league, Love’s Timberwolves slipped to 13-13 and have become victims of a loaded division as they trail the Thunder, the Blazers, and the still-solid Denver Nuggets. Nothing is impossible, but it is really tough to make the playoffs when you are fourth in your own division, especially in a conference as deep as the West is right now.
Not everything is dark and dreary for NBA teams in the muddled middle, though, as three teams have sprung to life in the much-mocked Eastern Conference and have had fruitful months in December to climb into the playoff chase. One is the aforementioned Detroit Pistons, and the other two are the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards. The Celtics lived up to their suckitude at first to start things off, going 0-4 and looking bad in the process. Then they went streaking, winning 4 in a row (including Jeff Green’s amazing game winning three over the Heat in Miami) to get to .500, followed by 6 losses in a row. Since then, they have gone 8-5 to settle at 12-15 and, unbelievably, sitting atop the Atlantic Division.
Meanwhile, the Wizards had a lot of supporters before the season started (including me), and they lumbered along to a 3-7 start and people were already wondering if Randy Whitman was going to make it to Christmas with his job. Well, he will after the Wizards went 7-2 in late November and early December thanks to the continuously rising star of point guard John Wall, and excellent three-point shooting from Trevor Ariza, whose contract will be up at the end of the season. With Bradley Beal back in the lineup after a long injury, the Wizards have won two in a row and are right back in the fray for what is a very winnable Eastern Conference outside of Miami and Indiana. Brad Stevens’ Celtics might fade out eventually, but Randy Whitman’s team looks like they are getting ready to make a run.
CHRISTMAS DAY PREVIEW
I could round-up a litany of good games in the coming days, like the Rockets going to the Pacers tonight, the above mentioned Wizards and Celtics on Saturday, the Thunder going to San Antonio later that night, and the Timberwolves and Clippers in what is bound to be a shootout Sunday night at Staples Center. But many casual fans and hardcore fans look forward to the all-day celebration of hoops that has become an annual tradition on Christmas Day. That holiday became even more vital for the NBA when it was scheduled as the tip-off to the league’s lockout shortened season in late 2011, loaded with good match-ups and potential All-Star-laden duels.
Unfortunately, these games, which were planned in advance back in the summer, involve many teams either on the mend from health setbacks or are off to bad starts. For example, the day begins with two teams that have been letdowns so far this year, one (the Chicago Bulls) due to things beyond their powers, and the other (the Brooklyn Nets) due to crises of their own doing. Then we get the powerful Thunder going to Madison Square Garden to play the Knicks, who have just been hot garbage so far this year, even worse than the cross-town Nets have been. The Miami Heat will go to L.A. to play the Lakers, who will don their holiday white unis without Kobe due to a knee injury.
The real fun probably won’t begin until the evening when the Rockets play the Spurs in San Antonio on ESPN, capped off in the late night by the run-and-gun Clippers and Warriors at Oracle Arena. It may not be the most enticing list of games on paper, but don’t ever count out the invariables and how many great performances you might see from the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, or Dwight Howard when the lights shine brightly for one night on the NBA, long after the presents under the tree are opened.