Dwight Howard Photo Credit: Icon SMI
– After hitting a bit of a rough patch to kick off the new year, dropping six of their first eight games in January, the Orlando Magic have rebounded nicely and head into tonight’s road match in Detroit on a modest three-game winning streak. Vacuum-cleaner-salesman-cum-head coach Stan Van Gundy has been treating his rotation like a deck of cards, shuffling it every few games and even admitting that maybe he should stick with what was working early in the season. The injury to point guard Jameer Nelson has a lot to do with it, but so does Van Gundy’s uncertainty with his current batch of available wingmen, which includes Keith Bogans, Maurice Evans, and J.J. “Better Basketball” Reddick.
Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard are going to win a championship together… or at least play for one in an NBA Finals in the somewhat near future. The question is who from the current roster will still be around when that time comes. Clearly, team brass need to re-evaluate the backcourt and more than likely steer the ship into new, uncharted waters: Jameer Nelson does not appear to be the long-term answer–at least as a starter–and neither is Carlos Arroyo, who tempers every one of his flashy between-the-legs passes with an ill-advised jumper, a turnover, or a poor decision. Keyon Dooling and Keith Bogans are also stop gaps, though to Bogans’ credit he’s having a fine enough season and currently in the NBA’s top 20 for three-pointers made (2/per).
Looking down the rest of the roster, no other players of significance are signed past the 2009/10 season, unless you include Reddick in that category, and I don’t. Hedo Turkoglu is having his finest season yet, but will be 31 years old when his contract expires in the summer of 2010. The Magic may have severely overpaid for Lewis’ services, but they know there’s really not much depth of consequence on the roster at the moment and it did make sense to lock up a dynamic scorer like Lewis now to help appease the best center in the Eastern Conference. It’ll be interesting to see how this team is retooled in the coming years given their somewhat mediocre leverage with free agents because of the Howard and Lewis contracts. One move that would help a whole helluva lot is to find a taker for Nelson and the remaining 5 years and $33 million odd he’s owed.
– Detroit Pistons rookie guard Rodney Stuckey has now played 18 games since missing the first month and a half or so with a broken hand. Known as a slasher in the mode of Dwayne Wade during his college days at Eastern Washington, Stuckey has made his fair share of rookie mistakes and has endured a particularly rough stretch over the past eight games, shooting a dismal 16% FG and averaging just 2.2 points and 1.2 assists in about 13 minutes a night. To be sure, he’s had trouble adjusting to the point-guard position and the speed of the NBA, but this kid has shown that he has the talent to do some special things in this league. The Pistons knew there’d be a learning curve, and he’s smack dab in the middle of it.
I think Stuckey will improve in spades as the season wears on, and really the biggest thing that troubles me is his coach’s influence. Flip Saunders’ offense is designed to give his players open jump shots, and for the most part his schemes accomplish just that. The problem is that as I mentioned, Stuckey came into this league with a reputation as a fearless slasher who can create his own shot, drive to the hole, and get to the free-throw line. I don’t want to see that talent muted or chipped away at, as part of the reason he was drafted 15th overall in last June’s entry draft was that the team lacked a player of Stuckey’s skill set. Hopefully the coaching staff and GM Joe Dumars continue to encourage him to not think too much and to act more on instinct. As with most rookies, that should happen naturally as he becomes more comfortable with the professional game.
– Big ups to Allen Iverson for beating out Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash, etc in fan voting and earning himself a spot in the starting lineup for the Western Conference All-Star team. You don’t hear all that much about A.I. these days, but he’s quietly having an MVP-caliber season, averaging 27 points, 6.9 assists, 2.1 steals, and 45% from the field. He may no longer be the marquee name that he was in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but clearly he’s still getting it done and hasn’t lost an ounce of his legendary tenacity. As incredible as Chris Paul has become for New Orleans, and as clutch as Steve Nash is on offense, if I needed to win one game–just one–in a crucial playoff series I’d still choose to go to the battle with Iverson if I had a choice between the three.
Allen Iverson Photo Credit: Icon SMI
– With Minnesota’s second victory of the season over the Phoenix Suns (stop the presses, the Timberwolves have won back-to-back games!), they’re now just one game away from turning over the League’s Worst Team honor to the moribund Miami Heat, who dropped another close one Thursday night and are now the proud owners of a 15-game losing streak. To his credit, Dwayne Wade is doing all he can, but the man has been battling various injuries all season and simply can’t continue to play one-on-five basketball, which was basically the case in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs. It’s this less tangible malady–extreme fatigue–that will threaten and ultimately take Wade over before too long.
And by the way, as it stands now the T’Wolves are in a much better position to turn it around than Miami is. There’s no way I’d trade Minnesota’s roster, which is laden with young, raw, but talented athletes for Miami’s, which outside of Wade and the hard-working Udonis Haslem doesn’t exactly scream with hope for a brighter future. Big changes are on the way–and in a few seasons, that might include Wade looking for greener pastures.
– At 12-30, the Memphis Grizzlies have to be considered one of the biggest disappointments from the first half of the season. Pau Gasol has long been the subjet of trade rumors, and though statistically he’s having a solid campaign (19 points, 8.9 boards, 1.4 blocks, 50% FG) it might be time to finally find him a new home while his value is still high, and rebuild around emerging superstar Rudy Gay and promising rookie PG Mike Conley, Jr. Gasol just doesn’t seem to provide the kind of leadership the Grizzlies so desperately need, and unfortunately it feels like that’s what many of his teammates look to him for as one of the senior members of the team. Of course, the Grizz were also banking on Darko Milicic to make good on his God-given talent, but after a strong start his confidence has eroded along with his production.
– There’s basically two Eastern Conference playoff spots up for grabs if, of course, you buy into the notion that Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, Orlando, and Toronto all look like pretty sure things at the moment. The race to face the Celtics and Pistons in Round One could come down to the wire, with the Bulls, Pacers, Hawks, Bobcats, and Nets locked in an iron cage match of mediocrity until two prove to be slightly better than the rest. In the name of seeing some fresh new faces in the postseason, I’m pulling for the Hawks and Bobcats to both somehow slip in out of the Southeast Division. It just doesn’t feel like there’s room for both, though. You gotta believe the Bulls will pull themselves together enough to at least earn an 8th seed, and maybe the Nets will experience some sort of epiphany and realize there’s more talent on their team than many of their competitors, and actually play like it.
It’d be pretty juicy if Chicago earned the 7th seed and a matchup with the Pistons–whom they’ve owned during the regular season over the past two years–and if Charlotte somehow squeezed in to the 8th seed and a date with the Celtics, whom they’ve beaten once, in Boston, and nearly beat twice (Ray Allen’s three-pointer as time expired saved the day and earned the Celts a one-point win back on November 24).