The NBA season has been a tale of two different conferences.
In the East, surprises have been the norm, with teams like the Nets, Pistons and Celtics ahead of favorites like Orlando, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Toronto.
In the West, the Lakers once again are the dominant force, while other high-profile squads like the Spurs and Kings continue to play well.
The New Jersey Nets made the biggest trade of the off-season and completely overhauled their roster. The changes have paid big dividends already. At the time of this writing, New Jersey had a 12-6 record. Last season the Nets didn’t get their 12th win until their 38th game.
Getting Jason Kidd in exchange for Stephon Marbury was the big move for New Jersey, but the signing of free agent center Todd MacCulloch has also helped turn the Nets into a frontrunner in the East, as did the acquisition of three first round draft picks, including athletic Richard Jefferson.
Led by Kidd, the Nets have turned into one of the better defensive teams in the league and can contend all season if Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles can stay healthy. At this point, the Nets’ biggest challenge in the Atlantic Division could come from the Celtics. Boston has two of the best offensive players in the Association in Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, as well as a number of young, athletic bodies to throw at opponents. The Celtics have played well on the road and against the West, but it remains to be seen whether they have the depth to stick around all season.
The same can be said for Detroit. The Pistons added a number of veteran role players during the off-season and were atop the Central Division with a 12-6 record through Friday’s games. Detroit has played great defense this season, but eventually the lack of serious offensive talent will catch up.
The Magic are one of a number of disappointing East teams. Orlando suffered another big loss this weekend, with Grant Hill placed on injured reserve. Still, with Tracy McGrady and Mike Miller, Orlando has enough firepower to right the ship.
In Philadelphia, the Sixers have faced seemingly endless injury problems, especially to Allen Iverson. Iverson missed Philadelphia’s game against the Spurs on Friday night with a thumb problem, and the Sixers have virtually no chance to repeat last year’s success without the Answer.
The two Central favorites, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors, are both currently hovering around .500, just behind the Pistons. The Bucks have played well against other East teams, but have had very little luck against the West. The Milwaukee offense is down, averaging under 95 points per game, and the defense is lackluster.
The West has just six teams above .500, but three are probably the best in basketball. The Lakers are the two-time defending champs and seem to be on the same path this season. Los Angeles is outscoring opponents by more than 10 points per game. Eight of the wins have been by double figures. This could actually be the strongest Lakers squad in this era, with the acquisitions of Samaki Walker, Lindsay Hunter and Mitch Richmond adding to the team’s versatility and depth.
Sacramento has been a great story. Playing without Chris Webber, the Kings have gotten off to a great start, which included a win Friday night over the Lakers. Scot Pollard has stepped up his game, while Peja Stojakovic is a legitimate All-Star and Mike Bibby has added a presence at the point guard position that was sorely needed. Webber is expected to return to the lineup soon, and that should only help the team-oriented Kings, who could certainly use another big body when playoff time rolls round, especially one with the offensive skills of Webber.
The Spurs were demolished by the Lakers in the playoffs last season and didn’t seem to improve over the off-season, exchanging Derek Anderson for Steve Smith. Despite the negative perceptions, things haven’t changed much in San Antonio, where they continue to dominate at home, and against the East.
San Antonio has two solid challengers in the Midwest. The Minnesota Timberwolves, led by Kevin Garnett, are very athletic up front and have one of the breakout players of the season in shooting guard Wally Szczerbiak. The Dallas Mavericks were last year’s surprise, but they haven’t been sneaking up on anybody this season. They are comfortably over .500 and playoff bound, but haven’t played well in their new home arena. Dallas doesn’t have the inside toughness to be a real threat to the Lakers, Kings or Spurs.
The only thing that looks certain is the fact that the Lakers will be very difficult to beat in a seven-game series, no matter who they play.