Leaning a Certain Way

The beginning of February usually signifies that we've got around a month until the stretch run for the NBA. It also means that we've had enough time to settle into a groove when it comes to following this chapter of the league's ongoing archives. One thing this game continues to show me is that there are multiple sides to any story. When discussing the MVP race, title contenders, or the trade deadline, the focal points and connections could create an octagon.

But what about a straight line? Two points, connected to a singular crux, tilted to show favor to one side or the other. Well, it just so happens that those stories exist, too. And I've brought them together today on: scale tippers. We stack the evidence of two sides on a balanced fulcrum and figure out "who tips the scale?" Commissioner Stern, who are our first contestants?

Scales of Woe: Road to Nowhere vs. The Chosen None

Going into February 2010, we all wondered if the New Jersey Nets might own the most dubious honor in the professional game. With a record of 4-42, there was the possibility that they could win less games than the 1972-1973 Philadelphia 76ers (finished at 9-73). This season, that mark looks to be safe. Matter of fact, as of Sunday, there's only one team that even has the possibility of breaking it. That would be the Cleveland Cavaliers.

What a difference a summer makes. A year ago, we saw someone from this same team push the Cavs to a League-best 61 wins, while earning his second straight MVP award. Eight months later, we kind of see why that award was deserved. Without LeBron James, the Cavs are pretty horrid. This is showcased through the squad's current 20-game losing streak (and 29 losses in their last 30 contests). While it's good to be the King, it's fairly sad to need him.

At least Cleveland has won away from Cleveland. The same can't be said about the current version of the Wizards. I was in DC the night of the draft lottery. My buddy Craig and I tuned in to find out who inevitably won the John Wall sweepstakes. To our surprise, Washington got the fortuitous bounce of the ping pong ball. The few calls we heard on talk radio buzzed with a bright anticipation of the years to come with Wall at the helm. Growing pains, however, usually come before success.

The Wizards are more than decent at home. They actually have a winning record (13-10). But outside of the beltway, they can't buy a victory. There have been close calls. They went to overtime in Detroit and double OT Friday night in Oklahoma City. But 0-for-23 is still a lot a missed chances. Looking at the rest of the schedule, there might not be to many left. They missed their chances at Minnesota, at Sacramento, and at Memphis. Just goes to show, even with bad teams, winning on the road is hard livin'.

Verdict — The city of Cleveland has more woe to this point. Aside from piling on with the LeBron saga, the Cavs have done nothing but fall apart after they started the season 7-10. A losing streak this long just can't be good for the psyche.

Reservation to tip the scales the other way — The Wizards could very well go into their February 13th date at Cleveland 0-25 away from home. If they lose to the Cavs (who might be on a 27-game losing streak by then), the balance may have to shift.

Scales of Awe: The Double-Double Machines

I first heard about Kevin Love when I was living in Portland. The third-year pro was a senior in high school, and he was doing the schooling to most post players across the Willamette Valley. I first heard of Blake Griffin pretty much when most others did. As a freshman at Oklahoma, he spilled the kerosene that would lay the foundation for him to torch the Big 12 (and most of the country) as a sophomore. Now he's showing his superhuman capabilities as the face of the Clippers.

It's been a battle of one-upmanship regarding the two forwards since early on in the season. The streak of double digit points and rebounds for both players culminated in the showdown between the two on January 19th. Griffin's Clippers won, but his streak was halted at 27 games. Love's Timberwolves couldn't get the W, but his streak extended itself to 29 games (it's now at 33 and counting). So what sets them apart?

Griffin is the more athletic, exciting player. His highlight dunks are reminding us of the days of Dominique Wilkins or an early Shawn Kemp. He can jump out of the gym and is a bull in the post. That has led him to more points per game (22.6). Love has a better face-up game. Although Blake has higher field goal and three-point percentages, Kevin has done it with more outer-range abundance, especially beyond the arc (Griffin threes: 6-11, Love threes: 65-146). And even though Griffin leaps tall buildings in a single bound, it's Love that actually leads the league in boards (15.6 a game).

Verdict — Maybe I'm biased because of where I live right now, but given the choice of who I'd pick for my team, I'd take Love. The fact that he works so hard for his boards says quite a bit about his technique and will. The first 30-30 effort since 1982 doesn't hurt, either. That being said, the All-Star Game better show both guys playing on the court.

Scales of Revival: Bayou Voodoo vs. Garden Magic

It's no question who the biggest surprise of the Association is for the first half of this season. Amare Stoudemire has awakened Madison Square Garden for the first time in close to a decade. Because of him (and coach Mike D'Antoni), the Knicks might give Manhattan real playoff basketball for the first time since 2004 and real playoff basketball for the first time since 2001 (i.e. not getting in as a seven seed and being swept by the Nets).

There's is still a ways to go until mid-April, and it wouldn't be shocking if these guys struggle down the stretch (and even more than they have over the last month-plus). But have you've noticed the teams behind them in the East? Philly? Charlotte? Milwaukee (we'll get to them later)? The competition isn't that daunting.

At this time last season, New Orleans was struggling through something of a "hangover" campaign. Byron Scott was long-fired. Owner George Shinn was looking for a buyer. Rumors of Chris Paul being sick of the situation in the Big Easy were rampant. Who would've thought that a change in coach (Monty Williams), another term with the man in the middle (Emeka Okafor), and the addition of a "role" champion (Trevor Ariza) could bring back the glory days of three years ago.

Even with the mystery of who might step into the ownership role, the fact that the Hornets have rebounded to a playoff-quality squad has the Delta buzzing again.

Verdict — If both teams had been bad for a similar stretch of years, I'd go with New Orleans. But we've seen how good the core of this team can be. That pulls me over to the Knicks side this time. And with St. John's showing signs of life, could the Garden be rocking twice as much in the near future?

Scales of Disappointment: Grounded Rocket vs. Bucking Success

This is an annual, ongoing cycle that affects all sports across the board. Whether it be through a toxic mix of team chemistry or just plain underachievement, there are always teams that don't live up to the expectations of past seasons. This time around, I'm just going to go with the most obvious of explanations: physical injury.

Houston has known for the last couple of years that their all-star center, Yao Ming, is prone to lower leg injuries (broken feet, torn knees, stress fractures, etc.). Just before Christmas, that fact reared up yet again. The 7'6" Ming suffered a season-ending stress fracture, leaving the Rockets without their franchise player for another grueling campaign.

But they could get by, right? They had banded together to reach 42-40 without Yao all of last season. However, what they did have at their disposal was underrated point guard Aaron Brooks. After Houston struggled to find themselves at the outset of November, they lost Brooks for almost 25 games. Now that the trigger man is working his way back into the fold, we'll find out if the ship has been retrofitted for launch.

To the north, we have the squad I alluded to earlier. Milwaukee was last season's Knicks, making the playoffs and giving Atlanta everything they could handle. But like Houston, the Bucks stumbled out of the gate this time around.

Then came the compounding injury. It wasn't to center Andrew Bogut. They've gotten by without him before (barely). It wasn't to all-star shooter Michael Redd (remember him?). He hasn't even played since last January. Who does that leave? No other than spark plug Brandon Jennings. The second-year point guard brought the new dynamic to the team that made last April's postseason run possible. He's now getting back to action after sitting out 19 games due to a broken foot (his official return was Saturday). Just like Houston, it'll be interesting to find out if Milwaukee can find the winning path again with the floor coach back in the fold.

Verdict — Milwaukee is still in the easier conference, which means they have time to recover. That why I tip the scales in Houston's favor. The Rockets dug themselves into a really deep hole early, and they might not find enough to climb the whole way out. That'll only lead to more disappointment on the shores of the Gulf.

And now, for the bonus round. A triad of terror ... what is the scale?

Scales of Dominance: Right Coast vs. Left Coast vs. Lake Shore

It may only be at the midpoint, but there is some serious separation going on in most of the League. As of Sunday, four of the division leaders were out in front of their respective groupings by at least eight games. Three stand out, though. First, the defending champs.

The Lake Show has had their bumps throughout the late part of 2010. But despite having a three and a four-game losing skid, the Purple and Gold are only four games worse than at this time last season. The difference is that their main division rival, Phoenix, faded without Amare. That's left the more successful L.A. team as the only one above .500 through January.

On the opposite coast, the other historical behemoth is in a "runaway train" situation of their own. The Celtics actually have a little more competition close to home with the Knicks showing some kind of vital signs. But a one-sided nature has been the case for the Atlantic for a while now. Since 2005, only the division champ has finished with a winning record. This season might break that spell if the Knicks can keep it together. Otherwise, the Big Three may have a chance to rest some bones come Valentine's Day.

The biggest spread, though, resides on the shores of Lake Michigan. It took a while for the Bulls to get things rolling. Now that they have, it's turned the Windy City into the center of a Cyclonic beatdown toward their rivals. Just like the Lakers, the Bulls' biggest threat hasn't lived up to snuff. With Milwaukee struggling, this has set up Chicago for a smooth transition from the 82-game grind into the postseason.

Verdict — I'll give the slight edge to the Champs. It's impressive how the Bulls have come of age under Derrick Rose (and without Joakim Noah). The Celtics have the toughest contender to this point. My choice to wrap a shiny bow on their division first, though, would be Kobe and the Gang.

I'd like to thank all of our players. The winners all get a chance to return in the next column for more fame and glory. All other participants will receive a year's supply of Puppy Chow and Miracle Gro. Thanks, everyone, and good night.

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