Getting With It

We've just passed the true midpoint of the NBA season. We're still trying to shuffle through the overall disappointments (Houston and Milwaukee come to mind) and surprises (Detroit's rise appears to be a bit ahead of schedule) on a "macro" level. But more recent items of "micro" note are setting up an intriguing second half of the campaign. In several cases, one person (or one absence) could lead to a big difference in the outlook of a franchise. Think the Butterfly Effect with sneakers. So, what happens when you go with or without?

With: A New York State of Mind

Living in Minnesota, I've had quite a lot of opportunities to follow the last two top overall draft picks. Andrew Wiggins pretty much ran away with last season's Rookie of the Year race. After getting Rookie of the Month honors for each of the first four months of the season, Wiggins basically had the trophy on lock. Karl-Anthony Towns is off to a good start in keeping that distinction here in the Twin Cities (won the Western Conference's award for both November and December). The difference in 2016 is that this should be an actual race.

At the time of June's NBA draft, there wasn't a lot of excitement over Kristaps Porzingis. Actually, there were quite a few New York jeers when the Knicks took him at fourth overall. That's all changed over the first 12 weeks of the current campaign. Porzingis has matched Towns' monthly award collection in the East. The Latvian is third in rookie scoring (14.0 ppg; behind Jahlil Okafor and Towns), second in rookie rebounding (7.8 rpg; behind Towns), and has a positive plus/minus (1.2) despite averaging the fourth-most minutes (28.2) in this rookie class.

Putting Towns with Wiggins has provided a needed boost in the Timeberwolves' rebuilding project. Putting Porzingis alongside Carmelo Anthony might push the Knicks back into the postseason. Could that be the tipping point for this year's award?

Without: The Supposed Cornerstone of the Franchise

In some circles, the Clippers have risen to the status of championship contender. That building process began the day that the organization drafted Oklahoma high-flyer Blake Griffin. Adding point man Chris Paul and coach Doc Rivers helped accelerate the timeline, but Griffin was the catalyst. When DeAndre Jordan was wooed back during free agency, the sky seemed to be the limit, even with the champs just up the highway. A 16-13 start to the season told a tale of disappointment. On Christmas night, the Clips edged out their Staples Center-mate Lakers by 10 to halt a three-game losing streak.

Everything didn't go smoothly, though. Griffin ended up suffering a partially torn quadriceps tendon and hasn't seen a minute of playing time since. The good news for the Clippers was that Blake wasn't the sole face of the franchise. The bad news, his face was on the same level as any other one in the organization. Most figured that the staggering team would struggle a bit more. Little did we realize that the Clippers would roll off wins over the next nine games. That roll has expanded to 11 wins in the last 13 contests. It begs the question ... has this particular team found a better stride sans its brightest light? It'll be interesting to see what happens when Griffin returns.

With: The Return of a Title-Winning Coach

There must be something in the Gatorade in Oakland. The Warriors parted ways with successful coach Mark Jackson (whom they hired with no previous coaching experience) and decided that their future was better off in the hands of Steve Kerr (whom also had no previous coaching experience). The move paid off, with The City celebrating its first championship in 40 years. This past offseason, Kerr underwent surgical procedures on his back, leaving him on the shelf with an unknown return date. Enter Luke Walton (whom at least has had assistant coaching experience) and the supposed drop-off in success, right? Well, their answer was only an NBA record 24-game winning streak to start the season and a 39-4 record heading into Kerr's return on Friday night.

So what will the Warriors be with their leader back on the sideline? Yes, I understand that Kerr was always in the background. However, there is a tangible difference with a head coach being right alongside the team instead of just "being available." Will this offer another boost of energy to a squad that might challenge the record wins mark of the '95-'96 Bulls?

Without: A Coach That Led You to the Finals

What does a Finals appearance and a 30-11 record get you? In Cleveland, that would be your walking papers. Since David Blatt's firing on Friday, I've heard all kind of opinions on why the second-year coach wasn't the best fit for the current makeup of the Cavaliers. Personally, I still don't get it.

I didn't really get it when the Warriors fired Mark Jackson. I really didn't get it when the Clippers fired Vinny Del Negro. The thing is that those guys at least got to the offseason before management decided to go a different way. Cleveland, fresh off of a trip to the Finals, sports the best record in the Eastern Conference. Sure, there was strife in the locker room, but haven't we always heard of those championship teams with key pieces that only got along with each other on the field/court/diamond? So, is Tyronn Lue the answer to make the roster and a title fit together? (By the way, I am rooting for Lue to do well as a head coach, being a Kansas City native and all.) All I can is that, in my view, the sands in the hourglass are now falling at a pour instead of a trickle.

In the end, all of these pieces can coagulate to change one's perception. The overall result...

With: More Strength Than We Anticipated

It has been a few years since the Eastern Conference was held in the regard of being better than the West. Sure, Eastern teams have won the title lately. Since 2000, though, Western squads have accounted for more than two-thirds (11 of 16) of the Larry O'Brien Trophy recipients. Last season, the West was pretty ridiculous, with the entire Southwest Division making the postseason and a 45-win Oklahoma City squad being edged out in the process. Meanwhile, Milwaukee's .500 record was good enough for a six-seed in the East.

Through half of this season, the roles appeared to have switched. Yes, the larger number of championship contenders reside out Wwest. But going into Monday (1/25), it's the East that has all of its potential postseason contestants above even. The next four teams fighting for playoff position (Washington, New York, Charlotte, Orlando) are within a couple of games of .500. In the West, possible eighth-seed Sacramento resides below that mark (20-23). But while everything appears to be going through Golden State and San Antonio, it'll be interesting to see if the East continues to get deeper.

Welcome to the second half of the NBA season. There's still a ways to go, but a minor factor now could have a major effect come April.

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