The best way to describe this first half of basketball is to say, despite the 39-36 score and the poor shooting and the sloppy play and all those dreadful stretches that made your eyes watery: Stick around, because the next half is going to be really, really special.
Because it has to be. Right?
Summing up the first half of the NBA season, we can be thankful for two things: the NFL and college football. Otherwise, we'd be stuck watching the horror show that is the Lakers and wondering who'll get life for killing the Eastern Conference. The last three and a half months were pretty dreadful, save for a few bright spots and Charles Barkley's always-welcomed commentary.
It can be better. It must be better.
It will be better because Derrick Rose will return and Andrew Bynum will return and the Heat -- quick, someone pour cold water on them and wake them up -- will return to elevate the entertainment level.
You disagree? Fine. But I contend the NBA's first half wasn't better off without Rose, the 2011 MVP who's about ready to resume practice after rehabbing from knee surgery. It wasn't better off without Bynum, one of the few big men who can transform a team. And it wasn't better off without the Lakers, now well into their second coach of the season but still waiting to catch their second wind as they struggle to win games and keep Kobe Bryant's head from exploding.
Sure, we've had the usual and expected events. The Clippers are still throwing lob passes, Oklahoma City is winning despite trimming its beard considerably and the Spurs remain brilliant and boring. But other than the Knicks finally getting what they paid for, and maybe a good little story developing in Oakland, the first half wasn't anything to send to Springfield.
And that's OK. It's all about where the NBA is going, not where it's been, and for all the reasons mentioned earlier, this season appears headed toward a better place. During this brief intermission we take a look back at what the heck just happened, in case you were busy watching football to notice, and give a shout out to the best and worst.
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Best Team: Thunder
We're talking about the first half of the season right here, not about who'll put together the best second half based on health and schedule (Clippers or maybe the Derrick Rose Bulls). Not about who'll be the best team when the playoffs begin (Spurs). Not about who'll be the last team standing (Heat). We're talking right now, and that means nobody is threatening OKC for that honor. Really: The Clippers lost three out of four to the Warriors, Miami is sleepwalking through the season (especially on the road) and Gregg Popovich is pampering his stars.
The best team at the moment has two bad-asses playing out of their minds and a supporting cast that has suffered minimally, if at all, after losing the best reserve in basketball. Do you think they're missing James Harden in OKC? Not now, anyway. The Thunder have the best record at the break and are doing it in a conference where there's a tough game once and sometimes twice a week. Their longest losing streak is two games, and the only reason for pause is they're 2-2 against the Spurs, Heat and Clippers (not counting Tuesday's game). There's no telling if they can keep this up and win 63-plus games, but right now they're the class of the class.
Next four: Spurs (lost to OKC without Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard), Clippers (best team in LA), Heat (best team in the East), Grizzlies (fully healthy and hungry).
Best Player: Kevin Durant, Thunder
This is still a two-man race and has been since last April when the playoffs began. And while LeBron James won that segment fair and square, and as emphatically as anyone can over Durant, things are tightening up again.
Here's our case for Durant, the NBA scoring leader: He has sustained a high level of excellence while keeping his team near the top of the toughest conference in basketball. What more proof do you need that Durant is a floor above everyone right now, even LeBron? There are three reasons why we're seeing the best of Durant: the lost championship, the Olympic experience and the departure of Harden. They've all played a role, to different degrees, in making him more polished and determined this season. He doesn't have LeBron's overall gifts -- nor does anyone else -- but after 41 games he has a firmer grip on the MVP trophy.
Next four: LeBron (typical season), Chris Paul, Clippers (second in assists, first in leadership); Carmelo Anthony, Knicks (doing more than just scoring); Kobe Bryant, Lakers (only bright spot for the Lakers, averaging almost 30 points).
Best Rookie: Damian Lillard, Blazers
Yes, he's playing well, but also consider the position he's playing. That's why this is an easy call.
Not many can master the nuances and skill-set required to play point guard fluently as a rookie. A number of greats struggled early: Gary Payton, Steve Nash, John Stockton, etc., etc. The best compliment you can give Lillard is he looked like he belonged in the NBA from opening night. His stats are impressive (18.3 points, 6.6 assists) but it's the poise and the take-control approach that stands out, especially when the game's on the line for Portland. In the moment of truth the Blazers look to him. A rookie. Imagine that.
Next four: Anthony Davis, Hornets (double-double guy); Bradley Beal, Wizards (shooting much better and averaging nearly 14 points); Andre Drummond, Pistons (second-most rebounds per minute in the NBA); Jared Sullinger, Celtics (solid off the bench).
Best Coaching Job: Mike Woodson, Knicks
The Knicks are playing defense, humming as a unit and winning like they haven't in a decade. And they're doing this while Woodson juggles a ton of moving pieces. The Knicks haven't operated at full strength all season, and still don't have their entire team intact. But somehow, almost everyone on the roster has a role and has made a measurable impact at some point. Plus, the players seem to respect Woodson and enjoy playing for him. He's this team's best coach since Jeff Van Gundy.
Next four: Scott Brooks, Thunder (based on record); Vinny Del Negro, Clippers (seriously!); Gregg Popovich, Spurs (stubborn old reliable); Tom Thibodeau, Bulls (no Rose, no problem).
Best Executive Decisions: Glen Grunwald, Knicks
There are two responsibilities for GMs here in the new labor agreement era. They must build a winner and do so as economically as possible, even in the big markets. They must get the best back for the buck. It's easy to have an owner write a check for a superstar; that's not good GM-ing. How about drafting well, finding the right free agents and making trades that help now and also tomorrow?
Which brings us to Grunwald. How many GMs have done the most with the least? Any way you look at it, Grunwald assembled a contender by stretching a buck, which isn't the Knick way. Grunwald thought Raymond Felton was still a quality starting point guard and had the guts to convince ownership not to bring back Jeremy Lin at an inflated cost. He also got Jason Kidd cheap, thought Rasheed Wallace had something left after taking two years off and re-signed J.R. Smith at the blue-plate special of $2.8 million per for the next two seasons. Finally, he found a smart "rookie" in Pablo Prigioni, another cheap pickup. This was cap management at its finest. If only the Knicks had Grunwald instead of his buddy Isiah Thomas all those years.
The Knicks' payroll is high, but that didn't happen on Grunwald's watch and besides, at least the money is showing up on the court.
Next four: Daryl Morey, Rockets (Harden trade); Danny Ferry, Hawks (dumped Joe Johnson's contract); Sam Presti, Thunder (Harden trade); Gary Sacks, Clippers (Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes).
Best Reserve: Jamal Crawford, Clippers
He's giving the Clippers everything they need from a bench player: instant energy, scoring and an emotional lift. This is something Crawford seems born to do, and has done it everywhere except Portland last season.
Crawford plays less than 30 minutes a game -- a true reserve, basically -- and gives just as much scoring punch as J.R. Smith, with a better shooting percentage. Outside of Paul, the Clippers really don't have anyone who can score consistently outside of the paint, and that's why Crawford has been so valuable.
Next four: J.R. Smith, Knicks (potential All-Star); Jarrett Jack, Warriors (best backup point in the league?); Kevin Martin, Thunder (not Harden, but still good); Carl Landry, Warriors (tough inside).
Best Improvement: Greivis Vasquez, Hornets
Too often, "best improvement" is designated for lottery picks who finally figure it out in two years, instead of so-so players who genuinely improve through hard work and dedication. Well, two years ago the Grizzlies dumped Vasquez (foolishly), and last season he had mop-up duty. He wasn't on anyone's radar, in terms of making a leap. This year he took full advantage of Eric Gordon's absence and made himself into a dependable point guard with a future.
He's third in the NBA in assists, and doing it on a Hornets team that's still developing. Vasquez at 6-6 is a solid rebounder (nearly five per game), reliable three-point shooter and a fast-developing player who should keep Gordon at the two-position.
Next four: Larry Sanders, Bucks (blocking shots everywhere); Omer Asik, Rockets (rebounding fool); Corey Brewer, Nuggets (good off the bench); J.J. Hickson, Blazers (double-double guy).
Best Comeback: Andrei Kirilenko, Timberwolves
He was out of basketball, and honestly, you probably didn't notice. Not many teams missed him or wanted him because of how quickly he'd fizzled in Utah. With the Jazz, AK-47 went from intriguing and budding star to overpaid flop. That was a steep fall and his reputation took a hit.
The Wolves took a chance, and Kirilenko has since done a bit of everything: scoring, rebounding, blocking shots and finding the open man. Too bad a contender didn't snap him up last summer; he'd be a difference-maker for someone instead of wasting away in Minnesota.
Next two: Raymond Felton, Knicks (from DOA to dead-on); O.J. Mayo, Mavericks (playing for money).
Step-Up Player: Jrue Holiday, Sixers
This is about the progression from pretty good to really good, a slippery step for some. How many players can break out of their comfort zone and into an elite group, suddenly considered All-Stars or borderline cases?
Well, lost in the muck of the Sixers' season is the blossoming of a potential star. Holiday seemed poised to do this the last two years, but never found consistency or the extra gear. Well, it has been located. Always good but never able to make anyone gush until now, Holiday, averaging 19 points, 46 percent shooting and nine assists, is impacting games if not outcomes. His scoring, shooting and defense are all better, and Doug Collins is screaming less and less.
Next three: Steph Curry, Warriors (big time shooter and passer); Paul George, Pacers (Indy's go-to guy now); Gordon Hayward, Jazz (would trade it all for that last shot vs. Duke).
Step-Back Player: Deron Williams, Nets
Brooklyn threw him a ton of money and all the cheesecakes he could want, and now, well, ask yourself: Is Williams still an elite player? Among the top five point guards? Is he even the best player on his own team? It's all up for debate suddenly, because Williams isn't having a stellar season. His important numbers are all down, and what's particularly alarming is his 40-percent shooting.
Williams essentially cost Avery Johnson his job -- not totally because Williams questioned Johnson's system, but also since with the exception of a few weeks, Williams played poorly for Johnson. The Nets have since improved, but Williams must reclaim his All-Star-level game, if that's possible, in order for them to go places in the post-season.
Next four: Pau Gasol, Lakers (playing out of position); Nene, Wizards (left best years in Denver); Andrea Bargnani, Raptors (little impact anymore); Derrick Williams, Wolves (already for sale).
Step-Back Team: Celtics
The most disappointing team in the NBA thus far isn't Boston -- best we can tell, the Celtics didn't change their colors to purple and gold and relocate to the West Coast. But the Lakers don't qualify as a step-back team when they never really stepped forward; they collapsed from the very start this season, firing Mike Brown and never gaining any traction.
The Celtics were a win away from reaching the NBA Finals last summer. But now? They're fluttering in a very weak conference and sitting on the edge of the playoff ledge while somehow escaping the heat that's suffocating the Lakers. Basically, the Celtics are Lakers East.
How can that be for a team that returned Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, two veterans who haven't shown any huge drop-off, and also have the best play-making point guard in basketball in Rajon Rondo? Something's amiss in Boston, and it perplexes Doc Rivers. They've got 41 games to figure it out.
Next four: Lakers (I think you know), Wolves (injuries haven't helped), Sixers (weak record, weak conference), Suns (directionless).
Worst Coaching Job: Mike D'Antoni
Let's be fair about this: He was put in about as tough a spot, for a coach, as anyone can recall. D'Antoni walked into a burning building and was asked to save everyone in sight in five minutes.
That said, he hasn't left a mark on the Lakers. Their defense is poor, their chemistry broke, their outlook bordering on hopeless. He's an up-tempo coach assigned to a half-court team that can't shoot, and the point guard is 39. What's the strategy here? What unique system did he bring, or what wrinkle has he introduced? While the Lakers, in hindsight, aren't as good as advertised -- you think? -- they shouldn't be this lousy. Everyone is surprised, which means, everyone expected better.
Next two: Byron Scott (can't win respectably with Kyrie Irving), Keith Smart (won't make the trip to Seattle).
Worst Off-Season Addition: Steve Nash
This is all about perspective. For example, the Raptors gave $20 million to Landry Fields only to quickly discover he's a lousy player who can't make them better. The Celtics thought Jason Terry could replace some of the offense Ray Allen gave them, and oops to that. The Rockets used a first-round pick on Royce White, who suffers from an anxiety disorder, and thought they were doing a good deed and improving their team, only to see it blow up in their face.
Here's the thing about Nash. He hasn't been terrible; only four players average more assists. But he had big expectations and fell off the cliff quickly. He went from a very good 38-year-old to a vulnerable and limited 39-year-old. This came at the absolute wrong time. That's not to blame Nash for all that's gone wrong in L.A., but he hasn't made a difference. And the Lakers gave him a two-year deal and gave up an unprotected No. 1 pick for him.
Next four: Terry (42 percent shooting), Lamar Odom, Clippers (took until December to get into shape); Fields (seventh man); White (off the roster).
Worst of the Worst: Raptors
Of all the losing teams, which one is finishing the first half in saddest shape, from an overall standpoint? Meaning, ownership, management, coaching, talent and salary cap situation? It's a really close call, with the Raptors squeaking past the Bobcats. Bad as Michael Jordan's team has been the last few years, at least he isn't wasting millions on it. Same for the Suns (who'll likely have two lottery picks next summer) and Cavaliers (who'll have millions to spend but, alas, nobody willing to take their money). The Wizards are locked into tough salary-cap sledding for another two years but there's John Wall and Bradley Beal around to cushion the fall.
The Raptors, on the other hand, are a hot mess. They lack all the necessities for survival: A budding star, tradable assets, cap flexibility and free-agent appeal. There's little to none of that. It'll take plenty of work to spruce them up and GM Bryan Colangelo isn't expected to be around to do it. Too bad the Raptors are broken, because as the Vince Carter years showed, Toronto can be a terrific place when the Raptors are winning.
Next four: Bobcats (few assets), Wizards (Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza), Kings (best player, suspended three times, is nutty), Pistons (few assets).