Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Tale of Two Coasts

By Ross Lancaster

During the young NBA season, there have been two storylines which seem to tower over the rest. They take place on opposite sides of the country and feature exceeding expectations on the East Coast and one of the biggest disappointments to this point in the season in league history on the West Coast.

Currently, that East Coast team, the New York Knicks, stunningly sit on top of the Eastern Conference with an 19-6 record despite not having their second most well-known player for any part of the season to this point and possessing a supporting cast that can best be described as geriatric. In fact, when Rasheed Wallace signed for the Knicks, it put the team's average age at 32 years, 240 days — the oldest team in the history of the league.

Some of those older players, especially point guard Jason Kidd, are making the most of the twilight of their career. But it's two of the Knicks younger players, albeit that they are 10+ year NBA veterans, that have the greatest part in making the Knicks into one of the league's best teams.

At this point in his career, it seems like everything that could possibly be said about Carmelo Anthony could be summed up pretty well in a few short sentences. He's one of the best pure scorers in the game and a fantastic crunch time option in the regular season. He's almost impossible to guard and has been a top-10 player for most, if not all, of his career. However, he also has extremely limited playoff success for someone of his stature and quality that is regularly characterized as a selfish ball-hog. But this year, he seems to be morphing into a leader with a great attitude for the game.

And perhaps Anthony has become more of a leader because the Knicks' other key cog, Tyson Chandler is wearing off on him. Chandler is the most valuable center in the league right now because of the emotion and defense that he brings to the Knicks. He's not known by anyone as a go-to option offensively, but he'll probably lead the league in field goal percentage again thanks to his ability to find a few easy baskets and put backs each game.

Chandler's prowess and leadership as a center can be contrasted with his rival for best center in the league and for last year's Defensive Player of the Year honors, Dwight Howard. Right now, despite all of the talent Howard possesses, he doesn't look ready to become the force his new team needs him to be as Pau Gasol comes back from injury, Steve Nash returns for the first time since October and Kobe Bryant continues to glare at him after every costly missed free throw.

It's very tough to understate how much of a disappointment the Lakers have been. After they traded for Howard and Nash, conventional wisdom said West was down to two players before a ball had been tipped in anger. When the Thunder traded James Harden on the season's eve, the Lakers were supposed to coast to the Finals against Miami because no other team could be so dynamic and put that much talent on the floor at one time. But that conventional wisdom also didn't recognize the chemistry and depth teams like Oklahoma City and San Antonio have.

Additionally, with Mike D'Antoni now coaching the team, I fail to see how his system is going to translate to the Lakers once all four superstars are playing and healthy. While D'Antoni and Nash are seen as basketball soul-mates, Nash and his bad back turn 39 before the end of the season. Questions also have yet to be answered about if D'Antoni's style can work with a bigger frontline that includes Gasol and Howard on the floor together. And better yet, in the more recent small-ball-as-status-quo NBA, can any style that relies on such a frontline work to win a title?

Even though the Knicks are on top of the East and the Lakers are still below .500 despite a recent, there is an element of "the jury's still out" as the calendar turns to 2013. For New York, the elephant in the room is how Amare Stoudemire's return will affect the chemistry and Chandler/Anthony leadership dynamic. Also, it remains to be seen how the team's older legs will handle the latter part of the season and the playoffs.

For the Lakers, the obvious consideration is getting everyone back healthy, which should help the club at least get over .500. There's also the possibility of trading Gasol for more athletic pieces to keep up with Oklahoma City/San Antonio/Memphis. But one overlooked part of a possible Laker run is that even without Nash, they have been outscoring opponents by 2.7 points per game, which is far better than the teams around them in the standings. So the Lakers' luck may turn soon if they can find a way to win close games/have Howard hit free throws.

At this point in the NBA season, you'd still have to favor the Heat and Thunder to return to the finals. However, it's quite the story that the Knicks seem more likely to be playing deep into the spring than the Lakers.

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