Thursday, January 31, 2013
This Shine Isn’t Fool’s Gold
We've reached the top of the NBA roller coaster. At the halfway point, it's all downhill from now until mid-April. However, that doesn't mean there won't be more twists and turns to maneuver in the rest of the regular season. The biggest loops have revolved around the Association's two marquee franchises.
Basically, no one could have figured on the Lakers and Celtics struggling so much that it made their fans reach for a motion sickness bag. But, as mind-boggling as L.A. has been, and as disappointing as the now Rajon Rondo-less Boston club is, I'm not headed in that direction.
I came here to heap some praise on one of the more pleasant detours in the NBA track. No, it's not the fact that the Clippers have taken over Los Angeles to this point. No, it's not the fact that the Thunder have smoothly implemented Kevin Martin into the role once filled by James Harden. No, it's not the Bulls squad that continues to thrive without Derrick Rose in the lineup.
Who would have thought that the best story in the league resides in the Bay Area? Golden State has really started to gel in their second season under coach Mark Jackson. The Warriors are eleven games north of .500 (28-17) after Tuesday's thrashing of Cleveland, second in the topsy-turvy Pacific Division, and only a game and a half behind fourth-seeded Memphis.
The reason that they have seen such a jump in the standings? It's partly to do with a slight improvement in their defense (something Jackson would champion during his broadcasting days). Even though the scoring is up (from 97.8 last season to 100.9), the more important step might well be the nearly 1.5 points less that opponents are tallying each game.
You could point to the defense as a sign of improved resolve on a broader scale. The Warriors have played 25 of their 45 games on the road, with a record of 14-11. That's more victories than the 11 they had in 33 road games last season. Plus, this team is slapping the East around, going 15-5 against the conference so far. That includes a season split with Miami.
Another reason the team might be getting better might be the old "addition by subtraction" mantra. It was no secret that Golden State had a backcourt that could light up a scoreboard as well as any in the league. But the midseason trade of Monta Ellis in early 2012 may have actually cured a case of overcrowding at point guard spot.
This move made way for Stephen Curry to be the main decision maker, and the shooter's 21.0 ppg (8th in the league) makes the front office look quite smart. The March 2012 trade also sent young power forward Ekpe Udoh to the Bucks, which may have relieved a little pressure off of starter David Lee.
The team appears to be clicking in the short term. Lee has given the organization its first all-star selection in 16 ... that's right, sixteen ... years. Curry is probably the biggest all-star snub of this year's non-invitees. And Jackson has the ability to mix and match NBA vets (Andris Biedrins, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, etc.) with a lot of budding talent (Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, etc.).
However, don't think this coaster will just glide comfortably into the playoffs. There are more loops to roll through. The first will come in the form of returning center Andrew Bogut. The other key figure in the Monta Ellis/Udoh trade made his unexpected season debut on Monday. If the oft-injured Aussie can stay on the court, this could only help the defense get even stronger. Moreover, I wonder how his return will affect the offensive mindset of the team.
Probably the biggest obstacle to manage will be the expectations as the season winds down. We all (or most of us, at least) remember the images Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson provided when the organization upset top-seeded Dallas in the first round of the Playoffs. But that was in 2007. The only player left from that team is Biedrins. It'll be interesting to see how this young core reacts to the pressures of the chase. (The schedule should be a HUGE help, with 16 of their last 22 games at home.)
So, fans of Golden State, make sure that you're strapped in tight for the next few weeks. The climbs and dips aren't for the weak-hearted. And if you make it through this ride, just be warned before rushing off to the next thrill-seeking moment ... the playoff coaster is even bumpier.