In the midst of the Dwight Howard deal, it was all but certain. David Stern would get the Finals of his dreams — LeBron, Bosh and Wade up against Kobe, Dwight, Nash and Pau. Miami and Los Angeles. Probably the two most dominant players of the 21st century, with a cast of future Hall of Famers to sweeten the deal. I dug it, even predicted it was a lock. But L.A.’s season has turned into a nightmare; I mean, they’re being outclassed … by the Clippers.
At 15-20, the Lakers are far from done. They’re only 4.5 games out of the 8 spot, with, you know, 47 to play. But they’re 12.5 behind the West-leading L.A. Clippers and 12 behind my new favorite to win the West: the Oklahoma City Thunder.
I was getting this blog off the ground (well, technically it’s hardly off the ground) when the James Harden deal happened. For the Thunder, it was far from a horrible deal, but I didn’t understand (then or now) Sam Presti’s rush in dealing one of the NBA’s few billable franchise guys. With Harden, you’ve got a championship-caliber roster; that, in and of itself, is worth holding on to, even if only for a season.
But I also did get Presti’s rush — he didn’t want to be like Cleveland, getting nothing in return as the city watches its franchise star leave in free agency and set the organization back five years. He already committed too much to Serge Ibaka (4 years, $48 million) and probably wouldn’t find a taker for Kendrick Perkins’ oversized deal (around $8 million per over next three years, unless they amnesty him), leaving no wiggle room with max dollars for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant already on the books.
Even as Harden puts up killer numbers in Houston, the Thunder have to be happy. Their 27-8 clip through 35 games is the league’s second best, only a half game behind CP3’s Clips. Their 15-3 mark against Western Conference opponents can’t be touched, and they’re second in the league (105.4 points per game) in scoring, only trailing, you guessed it, Houston’s 106 ppg. Average margin of victory? Well, they lead the league there, too, besting teams by 9.1 points per night on average.
Perhaps the biggest concern after Harden left for the Rockets was who would facilitate for OKC. Westbrook has been known, for better or worse, as being a shoot first, pass second “point guard” throughout his career, and Harden, though a cold-blooded scorer himself, largely assumed the role of facilitator for OKC, particular in those crucial crunch-time moments. But Westbrook has answered the call, averaging a career-high 8.5 assists per game through 35, an even 3 more per game than his 5.5 average in 2011-12.
Durant (28.1 ppg) and Westbrook (21.8 ppg) remain the team’s dominant scorers, much like last year, but Kevin Martin has assumed Harden’s sixth-man role without much drop-off. Martin’s averaging 15.3 points a night, compared to Harden’s 16.8 ppg last year, and he’s doing it in only 29.9 minutes, compared to Harden’s 31.4.
But that’s not even the main reason I like OKC to come out of the West in my revised predictions. Those reasons are much simpler: the Lakers are a mess, the Clippers aren’t legit, or at least as legit as their record indicates, and the Spurs are too old (yeah, I know, we’ve heard that one before). So expect Durant, Westbrook & Co. to get another shot at the Miami Heat.
Whether they can get past LeBron, well, that’s another story.
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