1. The Lakers Are At Five Minutes To Midnight
Under normal circumstances, your sport is in trouble when its most high-profile team is 17-24. That’s not the case in this year’s NBA; with the league still in the midst of a renaissance, swimming in spectacular but unselfish stars on competitive teams, the most captivating story is a bunch of accomplished veterans falling on their face. Steve Nash and Dwight Howard were supposed to help Kobe Bryant win another title, and the Lakers were supposed to win, like, a TON of games. Chris Sheridan, who is a very smart dude and a basketball writer with decades of experience, had them pegged at 70 wins. Right now, they’re on pace for 34, and most people are beginning to concede that they probably won’t make the playoffs in a hotly contested Western Conference. The Lakers are like if Zero Dark Thirty came out and it was actually Movie 43. Their internal strain is visible on the court, and it’s just so transfixingly weird to watch Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash getting casually whomped by, like, the Raptors. It’s as if we could’ve watched Kate Winslet’s face when it slowly dawned on her that she had no way to get out of being in Movie 43.
Right now it looks like there’s nothing for the Lakers to do but trainwreck their way until the end of the season. They already discarded coach Mike Brown for Mike D’Antoni. If anything, it made the situation worse; Howard apparently doesn’t like D’Antoni’s system. It’ll be hard to trade Gasol, because they’ve been messing with his minutes and role for the last two seasons, and he’s been so bad that the Lakers have no leverage now in making a trade. Howard’s trade value is about as low as could be; there’s only a half-season left on his contact, and he still doesn’t seem to have recovered from last season’s back injury. Their best option might just be to do nothing and hope Dwight gets his act together. Which, actually, worked for another team with a talented malcontent…
2. Carmelo And The New York Knicks Are Finally Making It Work
Although the Knicks have cooled a bit from their hot start, that’s sort of like saying fire is cooler than the sun — they’re still second in the East and they still have the league’s third-best offensive efficiency rating despite the predictable drop in what was an unreasonably high three-point percentage. Most importantly, and excepting that little episode in which he may or may not have tried to fight Kevin Garnett after Garnett may or may not have told him his wife tasted like Honey Nut Cheerios, Carmelo Anthony has been a smart, consistent player who’s having the best season of his career. With Melo as a top-10 guy on a well-coached team that has one of the league’s best centers and a raft of handy role players — Iman Shumpert’s back, Ray Felton will be back soon — the Knicks have a realistic chance (as realistic as anyone’s, anyway) at upsetting the Heat in the Eastern Conference. Speaking of which:
3. The Heat Are…You Know What? They’re Probably Fine
Miami has gone 5-4 in January and there’s been some fretting afoot, talk of trading Chris Bosh and the like. Unlike the Miami-freude of the past, this fretting has a tinge of real concern: LeBron has become one of those guys who everyone claims to be annoyed by but actually secretly roots for. (Like Kanye.) The Heat have finally shown a glaring weakness, and that weakness is rebounding: they’re dead last in offensive rebounding percentage and 24th in defensive rebounding percentage. The problem largely comes as a result of coach Erik Spoelstra’s dedicated move to small-ball, with LeBron playing 50% of his minutes at the four. However, the Heat can revert to a larger lineup when necessary, with effective rebounder Joel Anthony still a part of the roster, and they will almost certainly do that in the playoffs if the rebounding doesn’t improve. Also, the Heat have LeBron James, so they’re still pretty safe to pencil into the Finals. At that point, though…
4. The Heat’s Three Biggest Rivals Are In The West
The San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, and Oklahoma City Thunder are a combined 98-31 and all have basically the same record, battling it out for the West’s first seed and general cultural hegemony. The Spurs are remarkable to watch if you want to see a team do the exact right thing at pretty much all times; with a Parker-Duncan-Ginobili core coached by Gregg Popovich, they’re essentially a basketball fan’s fantasy come to life, the antidote to every bad contested jumper and out-of-control turnover you’ve ever slapped your forehead over. The Thunder have created a seemingly unimaginable situation in which they aren’t suffering at all from the absence of James Harden even as he proves himself one of the league’s best players in Houston. And the Clippers, behind a resplendent Chris Paul, still-improving All-Star Blake Griffin (who’s starting to look like his understanding of the game has begun to match his physical ability, which is terrifying), and the league’s best bench, have been so good that people are seriously discussing Vinny del Negro as a potential Coach of the Year. But even among these three killer teams, one player stands out.
5. Kevin Durant Will Be The League’s MVP
So, right, LeBron James, the reigning NBA and Olympic champion, who has a PER just over 30, probably deserves the MVP. The thing is, LeBron won three of the last four, and Kevin Durant is shooting with insane accuracy, leading the league in scoring, and generally making the elite, long-limbed athletes defending him look like stumpy, awkward nuisances. By awarding the MVP to Durant in 2012-13, voters can once again feel permitted to give it to LeBron for the next three years. And after that, it might be this next guy.
6. Kyrie Irving Is A Phenom Superstar
God, Kyrie Irving. Tuesday night, he scored 40 on the Celtics, including 11 in the last two-and-a-half minutes of the game. Paul Pierce called him the best scoring point guard in the league, and, honestly, the only two other guys even in the conversation are Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose, though both are very much in the conversation. But it’s Kyrie, with his Messi-like control of the ball and 39% shooting from long-range — a tremendous number for a guy who’s shooting off the dribble so often — who’s really striking fear into the souls of NBA defenses, and it’s made all the more impressive because, unlike Russ Westbrook and D-Rose, Irving’s supporting cast lacks any other dangerous scorers — or really, any above-average players to speak of. They did earlier in the season, but then…
7. Anderson Varejao’s Injury Is The Year’s Biggest Bummer
Pity poor Andy Varejao, an energetic and charismatic banger who was having the best year of his career before suffering that most common of sports injuries: the torn-leg-muscle/blood-clot-in-the-lung two-fer. (This is not at all common.) Varejao’s blood clot, which was announced while he was recovering from surgery on the leg muscle, is a serious health issue beyond just basketball, and it’ll keep him out for the rest of the season; it’s also Varejao’s third major injury in the last three seasons. Here’s wishing Varejao a swift recovery, and if he does return at the speed and strength he was at earlier in the year, and the Cavs add a few more pieces, they could be a breakout team in the near future — 2014’s version of these next two squads…
8. The Upstart Brooklyn Nets And Golden State Warriors Are Legit
The Golden State Warriors are fifth in the West at 25-15 and the Brooklyn Nets are fourth in the East at 25-16 despite firing coach Avery Johnson less than a month ago. The Warriors have been exceeding expectations since the beginning of the season thanks to the excellent play of Steph Curry, Jarret Jack, David Lee, and others, while the Nets have rebounded beautifully from a December crash, going 11-2 under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo. Most importantly: these are fun, hard-working teams whose sense of cohesion could carry them well into the playoffs.
9. But Paul George’s Indiana Pacers Might Be Better Than Both Of Them
The Pacers play a belabored, constant, suffocating defense that calls to mind the violence and struggle of wrestling. And having a league-best defense would mean that the Pacers could be a threat in the East even if they lacked a true All-Star-caliber scorer. But they do have one of those guys: with former go-to guy Danny Granger injured, Paul George, the Pacers’ 6’8” shooting guard, has evolved into a multi-faceted scoring threat in addition to being a superb, long defender. Even with the off-year that Roy Hibbert’s having on the offensive end, the 2012-13 Pacers are an improvement on the version that took the Heat to six games last season. Of course, their status as the East’s number-one dark horse could change soon…
10. Derrick Rose Will Rise Again
As Derrick Rose’s arrival grows closer, anticipation mounts. And it mounts quickly: Rose could return to practice next week, and could be playing in a month or so. Without Rose, the Bulls haven’t just endured — they’ve been very good. If the only player to win an MVP award not named LeBron James in the last four years pulls an Adrian Peterson and is at anything near his former capacity, Chicago will be incredibly dangerous in the inconsistent East.
11. Bonus Item: The Kings Are Moving To Seattle (Probably) (We Think) (Definitely) (Maybe) — Aw, Hell
So, it’s been kind of hard to keep up with this one, but: as of right now, it looks very likely/basically certain that the Sacramento Kings are moving to Seattle. I think. The most recent word is that Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson is leading a 25th-hour push to keep the team in town, but that it’s a long-long shot at best, with 65% of the team still likely to be sold to a Seattle group of investors for $341 million. That means the return of NBA basketball, and along with it the Sonics name, to Seattle. But considering how this story has developed so far — remember when the Kings were going to Virginia Beach? — it’s worth not counting any chickens until they’ve flown to the Pacific Northwest.