For Oberlin students, the middle of February signifies the return to college life after Winter Term and settling down in new classes — a bitter cold compounded with periodic snow and the continuing quest toward summer. To professional basketball fans, however, the weekend following the day of “single awareness,” or Valentine’s Day, usually means the annual All-Star game.
With the Super Bowl fanatics packing up their food and sportswear until September and baseball admirers still preparing for opening day, the NBA is left in sole possession of the American sports spotlight (minus hockey and this year’s winter Olympics). Although I am a soccer fan at heart, I do enjoy attending the occasional basketball game and remaining informed on the NBA.
The first half of the 2005-06 season has had some spectacular team and individual moments, but there are some who might wish the season’s end would come quicker. Including a brief update on the highs and lows of an exciting season at its halfway point, I also wanted to preview the mouthwatering All-Star festivities this weekend. Much has gone on this season and I will do my best to cover a variety of the highlights.
The individual player and his obsession with high statistics and stardom characterize the NBA, which is something drastically different from the college game. But over the years, handfuls of teams have continued to remind us that the best players cannot always win single-handedly. To name a couple, there have been the Chicago Bulls in the ’90s; the dominant Celtics in the ’60s; and now the Detroit Pistons. Four of the Pistons’ five starters average double digits in points and play an unselfish, team-oriented style. The shooting abilities of Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace along with a rugged defense led by Ben Wallace (all who happened to make it to the All-Star game) have helped lead the Pistons to a league best 42-9 record. Much has been talked about regarding a second title in three years and while they have all the pieces to challenge for the game’s ultimate prize, including a deep bench, it will be interesting to see if they can keep up the magic they started with this season.
Dallas and San Antonio are only a couple games behind the Pistons for the best record. If the Spurs’ big three of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan can remain consistent and stay healthy, it could lead them to back-to-back titles. However, Dallas remains neck and neck with its division counterpart, led by Dirk Nowitzki’s scoring threat and point guard Jason Terry’s improved all-around game. Phoenix’s potent firepower and fast paced style of play is the reason why they average a league best of 106 points per game. Everyone knows Steve Nash and Shawn Marion can put up the offensive numbers and superstar Amare Stoudamire will be returning from injury soon, but their success will depend heavily on their ability to defend.
The big teams have been producing the goods that have been expected, but there have been some team and individual surprises. The most notable was Kobe Bryant’s month of January. Not only did he score an astonishing 81 points in a game, the second highest in NBA history, but he managed to average a whopping 43.4 points a game during the month, which made his January the eighth-highest scoring month in NBA history. The other nine of the top ten are all held by hall-of-famer Wilt Chamberlin. Bryant currently leads the league with about 35 points per game, just barely ahead of two other offensive fanatics, Philadelphia’s iron man Allen Iverson and the versatile Lebron James of Cleveland. Iverson’s aggressive offensive style shows that he is unafraid to risk his body in order to attack the hoop, which has resulted in an average of 33.3 points per game. Lebron James is a little better rounded, putting up 31 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists a game. His leadership has put Cleveland in a favorable playoff position.
Los Angeles remains a basketball hotbed with the Clippers finally hitting their stride. After years of rebuilding, the Clippers enter the break 11 games over .500 and only 2.5 games behind Phoenix. A second half similar to this will also earn them a solid playoff spot. Other individual brilliance has come from second year power forward Dwight Howard of Orlando who is averaging 15 points and a league-leading 12.6 rebounds a game with a 51.6 field goal percentage, along with rookie Chris Paul out of Wake Forest, who has stepped up brilliantly to lead the New Orleans Hornets to a winning record and third place in the division with excellent point guard play.
To every upside there is a downside and the NBA had a few of those this first half of the season. The first team that comes to mind is the Miami Heat. They may have a solid record and are first place in their division, but they have underachieved when many thought they would dominate. With a team made up of superstars such as young starlet Dwayne Wade and veterans Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, Alonzo Mourning and Jason William, losing 20 games already seems very uncharacteristic. If their defense doesn’t improve and if they don’t play together, then it may be another no-go for Payton’s undying quest for a title.
Sacramento, Minnesota, Indiana and Philadelphia are all teams that can compete in the playoffs, but they have not been getting the job done, resulting in all sub-par .500 records. The Knicks’ young team is evident as they have mustered only 14 wins in a tough half while the Portland Trail Blazers have likewise gone through numerous struggles trying to find the right combination under new coach Nate McMillan. With all of Kobe Bryant’s spectacular play, the Lakers under Phil Jackson could be struggling to make it to the playoffs as well.
All the numbers, stats and analysis aside, it now is time to briefly preview the All-Star weekend. The usual star players will be there, with Shaq making his thirteenth game and Kobe making his eighth. All-Star debuts were handed out to Pau Gasol of the Grizzlies, Tony Parker of the Spurs, Chris Bosh of Toronto and the Piston duo of Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. The four Pistons players all made the East team as reserves, the first time in history that this has happened. Eastern all-stars and Pistons coach Flip Saunders has stated he will send in all four of his players at the same time, another touching point on how the Pistons are truly a team.
Bryant, Duncan, Nash, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, the latter two representing the Rockets, will lead the West into Houston. The East is starting Iverson, Cavalier-hero James, Wade, Shaq and a player to be named, as Jermaine O’Neal pulled out injured and was replaced by Gilbert Arenas. The rest of the line-ups can be found on the NBA website at www.NBA.com/allstar2006.
Not only will the game itself be an entertaining fixture, but the surrounding events are also sure to excite the regular fan. There is the usual Slam Dunk Contest with Atlanta’s Josh Smith looking to double up on the title against his fellow athletic youngsters Andre Iguodala, Nate Robinson and Hakim Warrick. The three-point challenge will feature the sharp-shooting of Iverson, Nowitzki and last year’s champion Quentin Richardson to name a few. Steve Nash will hope to repeat in the skills contest, and retired stars such as Clyde Drexler, Dan Majerle, Magic Johnson and Steve Kerr will make up four teams, partnered with a current NBA and WNBA star in an in-depth shooting contest. The rookies will also look to strut their stuff against the sophomores of the NBA in the Rookie Game.
All in all, basketball fans should not be disappointed in the weekend ahead. It has been more or less an exciting first half of the season and we all hope there is much more to come. The championship has the usual suspects in line but who knows if an unknown team will sneak in for an upset.
The All-Star game will be televised on TNT at 8 p.m. EST. Go to the NBA
website or consult your local listings for the events’ other times.