Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Early Thoughts On The Association

The Los Angeles Lakers are absolutely deadly. This team is a nightmare combo for the rest of the league: the best, most competitive player in the NBA, surrounded by loads of talent, a deep roster (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Trevor Ariza, Vladimir Radmanovic, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton- that’s a legitimate 10-deep rotation!), driven by the memory of last summer’s humiliation in the Finals. The Lakers are demoralizing their early-season opponents, winning by an average score of 107-84, holding opponents to just 39% from the field, and outrebounding them 51-39. To be sure, this level of devastating dominance can’t last for an entire season, but this team is on a mission. A back-to-back on the road this week (with the second game in New Orleans), followed by the Pistons at home, will definitely be a test, but it’s going to take an great effort at both eonds of the floor to beat this team right now.

More than at any point in recent memory, the NBA has a legion of genuinely clutch star-quality players. I don’t just mean buzzer-beaters, I’m talking about the guys who not only make plays with the game on the line, but completely dominate the last few minutes of a game, and make you feel safe when they the ball’s in their hands. Think about it- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Brandon Roy (more than anyone right now), Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Derrick Rose (believe it!)- if any one of these guys has the ball for your team in the final seconds of a close game, don’t you have to feel good? I mean, you may not win every single time, but it feels good to know that your star is not going to shrink in a clutch moment. And, man, is it ever fun to watch!

Every one of us could use some more Rudy Fernandez in our lives. If you’ve actually seen this guy play, and he’s not climbing your list of favorite players, you just might be nuts! The numbers (13.7 ppg in ~28 mpg; 46.4% FG, 42.4% 3PT, 94.1% FT) are flattering, but hardly spectacular. Fernandez is a 6’6” two-guard who can handle the ball, runs the floor and has amazing range on his jump shot. That still doesn’t do him justice! You know what make Rudy Fernandez one of the best players in the NBA to watch? He plays with balls!!! Seriously, who does THIS to Dwight Howard???

The Hawks are no fluke! Whether or not the Atlanta Hawks wind up contending for the Eastern Conference title remains to be seen, but these guys are legitimately winning games. The Hawks are holding their opponents to under 86 points a night, on just over 40% from the field and under 30% from 3-point range. Also, the Hawks are outrebounding the opposition by 3.2/night, forcing two more turnovers than they commit, and averaging 8.6 steals per game. Finally, the only member of the Hawks averaging more than 15 shot attempts a night is Joe Johnson, who is shooting 50.5% from the field (44% 3PT) and averaging over 25 ppg on just 19 field goals attempts a night. That’s winning ball! The coming weeks without Josh Smith are sure to be challenging, but the Hawks could really use it to their advantage. They’ve been spotted a 5-0 start and have an opportunity to gauge the quality of their defense, minus their top defender. Plus, if they thrive with Smith out of the lineup, the added confidence will help this team take a giant leap when they’re back at full strength.

I never thought I would say this, but it really looks like the New Jersey Nets got the better of the Draft Day trade with the Milwaukee Bucks that brought them Yi Jianlian. Yi’s numbers (9.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, just 36% FG) won't blow you away, but this guy can really play! Watching him in person on Election Night against the Phoenix Suns, there is a fluidity to his game that Yi doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for- at close to 7’, Yi is able to comfortably put the ball on the floor, can spot up on the perimeter and has a beautiful stoke on his jump shot. Seriously, this guy can play! It won’t be too long before he’s the NBA’s top Chinese-born player.

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