NBA Midseason Report
Issue   |   Tue, 02/28/2012 - 22:16

Despite stubborn, ill-advised negotiating tactics, a collective bargaining agreement that still needs adjustments and the pressure of losing games, the NBA players and owners managed to reach a deal a few months ago to end the league’s first lockout in over a decade in time. In the process, they managed to save most of the regular season. While we have a right to complain about the shortened schedule, every NBA fan (well, maybe besides for the 10 existing Charlotte Bobcats supporters) should thank our lucky stars that the two sides reached a resolution; although the compressed schedule has resulted in a plethora of injuries as well as conditioning issues for nearly every team, the altered NBA season has been one of the most entertaining and surprising in recent memory.

The arrival of All-Star Weekend a few days ago gave teams a brief chance to exhale and relax roughly halfway through the season, and it gave fans a chance to reflect on everything that has glued us to the television screen or drove us in hordes to arenas around the country. The necessity to squeeze more games into a shorter period of time has resulted in a continual flow of NBA action, music to the ears of the basketball lover. Major storylines and developing rivalries formed right from Christmas Day, when the season opened with a thrilling battle between the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Derrick Rose’s game-winning floater in that matchup set the table for heroics to abound throughout the season. Merely four days later, Kevin Durant topped Rose by nailing a long, buzzer-beating three-pointer to take down the defending champion Dallas Mavericks. However, the clutch play did not dissipate as the season continued, even as the brutal schedule took its toll on team health. In particular, any discussion of recent clutch play cannot exclude one of the lasting images from the first half of the season — the young point guard sensation for the New York Knicks, Jeremy Lin, dribbling down the clock in a tied game and calmly burying a three over Toronto Raptors guard Jose Calderon to win the game and extend the frenzy dubbed “Linsanity” that has quickly morphed into an international phenomenon.

Indeed, Jeremy Lin’s emergence expanded the NBA audience to almost all of society. He passes the ‘Mom’ test coined by’s Bill Simmons — if your mother asks you how Lin did on a given night, it’s safe to assume he has become more than just a basketball player. Lin’s story reinforces our belief in the underdog in the most gratifying way possible and breaks down implicit stereotypes that thrive to this day. Casting the other implications of this phenomenon aside, however, one thing is clear: Jeremy Lin can ball. By fixing the Knicks’ gaping hole at point guard, he has given one of the league’s most storied franchises the spotlight and a legitimate hope to be competitive and advance in the playoffs.

While Linsanity has transcended basketball and remains one of the best new stories to emerge from any sport, the season held more than enough entertainment value even before Lin came from relative obscurity to dominate the league. The trade saga that eventually resulted in Chris Paul playing his home games in the Staples Center for the Clippers instead of the Lakers caused ripples throughout the league, as owners, players and fans all voiced their varying opinions on the situation. Even though David Stern’s veto of the Hornets/Lakers trade prompted consternation and frustration, the on-court pairing of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul has finally done what nothing else, including an occasional playoff appearance, could do for the league’s most chronically inept franchise — it made the Clippers relevant and the talk of the town in Los Angeles and around the league. The orchestrating brilliance of Paul and the finishing prowess of Griffin have combined for an intriguing tandem; fans can only hope that the second half of the season brings more moments like Griffin’s dunk of the year, an absolutely thunderous throwdown over Kendrick Perkins in late January.

The prowess of point guards other than Lin and Paul has also played a huge role in the season thus far. The quick development of both the number one pick Kyrie Irving and Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio, in particular, have taken the league by surprise. Rubio’s ability to find previously unseen lanes for his passes and Irving’s composure, finishing ability and clutch play have definitely earned respect early in their careers, and the future looks bright for these young players.

Unfortunately, the Miami Heat’s extraordinary play in the last few weeks merits a mention as a major part of the season’s first half, as well. LeBron James, when not making self-indulgent comments on returning to Cleveland or complaining about the negative public image that he brought upon himself, has played at perhaps the most efficient level in his career. As a result, the Heat seem like a juggernaut that will be hard to beat come playoff time, unless they grant the wishes of countless fans and choke again on the big stage.

The theme of surprise in the NBA season is not limited to stories of success, however, as recent league powers such as the Lakers and Boston Celtics have taken big steps back thus far. The Lakers continue to suffer from the fallout of the failed Chris Paul trade; not only did it alienate former bench stalwart Lamar Odom so much that he requested a trade, but it provided additional trade fodder that will follow forward Pau Gasol until the trade deadline passes. Yet, the admirable determination of Kobe Bryant to will his team through to the playoffs (albeit while taking his penchant for ball-hogging to a new level) may keep the Lakers afloat. The Celtics, on the other hand, are reeling from an old roster that cannot seem to keep up with its younger rivals.

With the Lakers and Celtics struggling, the NBA status quo has shifted. Along with the Bulls and Heat, the Clippers, Knicks, Thunder and other surprising teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, have become worthy of our attention every time they take the court. As the season enters its second half, these storylines should continue to develop until the playoffs, where we will see whether the hype generated before the All-Star break has any merit in the postseason.