The Diversity at the Top of the NBA

There was once a time in the NBA where critics of the Conference system lobbied to split the conferences up and make them into an NFL like division system. The tide has changed in the NBA. 3 out of the 4 best teams in the league are Eastern Conference teams. The worst team in the NBA comes from the West (OKC). For the purposes of this post, we should look at the top teams in the NBA, the Lakers, Celtics, Magic, and Cavs, and examine the diversity each of the 4 teams' diverse style. As a fan of the game, it is a joy to watch the differences in the makeup and style of the 4 teams. I'll tell you what I mean.

The Celtics: At the beginning of the season, everyone was talking about the reigning NBA champions losing single digit games. That is not going to happen, and since their loss the Lakers on Christmas, the Celtics went on a bit of a skid. They have regained their swagger, and look like they are back to their old selves. The Celtics are made up around The Big 3. They have their proven superstar in KG, another clutch superstar in Paul Pierce, and one of the best shooters/scorers in NBA history in Ray Allen. Put those 3 together, and some role players, and you have the reigning NBA champions. No other team in the league can boast 3 household names on one team. They proved that they could get the job done with that mix of players. Then we have Rajon Rondo. Rondo has been in a slump right now, but that is expected of his youth. The talent Rondo has at age 22 is amazing. He is a great complementary player to The Big 3.

When it comes down to it. The Celtics have built around 3 key players. It makes them tough to beat because you can lock down on KG all you want, but then you have the problem of Pierce and Allen to deal with, lock down on Pierce, and then you have the same dilemma. Lock down on Allen, and you know the story. It forces teams to be superior on defense. Defense needs to be the #1 priority when playing the Celtics. Throwing single coverage on any of the players means you need to have some really good perimeter defenders to guard Pierce and Allen, and then you need to have a heck of a versatile defender to defend KG. These are the types of matchup problems the Celtics pose every night for opposing teams. A lot of NBA teams try to center around a superstar. The Celtics did that too, times 3.

The Magic: Coming off a season sweep of the Lakers, the first time that has happened in 10 years, the Magic have proven they can play with the best. The Magic have their superstar in Dwight Howard, and they have their great scoring forwards in Turkoglu and Lewis. Another big boost for the Magic is Jameer Nelson. He is putting up career numbers with 16.9 ppg, 5.4 assts, and 1.26 stls. Nelson has proven that he can lead the team. When the Magic's shooters are off, Nelson takes it upon himself to go for 30+. Coach Stan Van Gundy doesn't even need to tell Nelson what they need from him that night because Nelson has that innate intuition of what he needs to bring to the table. Last night was a great example of Nelson and his leadership. He saw his teammates struggling from the floor. He goes 9/18 and drops 28 pts, 8 assts, and 6 rebs, and only 3 TO's against the Lakers. It was a performance from a player who is ready to win.

The Magic have the $100 million man in Rashard Lewis. He is a deadly shooter who is a rich man's Lamar Odom. He can do everything you want, and he brings you a pretty good level of consistency. Of course, Lewis has his off nights, but the Magic have scorers who will pick up the slack. Hedo Turkoglu is also a great player for the Magic. He has consistently contributed at a high level and is 4th on the team in scoring by only .1 of a margin at 16.8ppg behind Nelson. Hedo has also hit big shots for the Magic this season. With Nelson running the show in the backcourt, an up and coming rookie in Courtney Lee, the gunners, Turkoglu and Lewis, Dwight Howard's job is pretty easy. Wrong. Howard is undoubtedly the reason for the Magic's success. He leads the team in every category except for assists. He leads the league in rebs and blks. The one stat that he is not top 5 in the NBA in, is in FG%. That is something Howard needs to improve for the Magic to maintain this success. He only shot 8 for 18 last night against the Lakers, and finished with 25 pts. Some might not think that is of concern for the Magic. I mean, they won. You can't complain. The Magic have built themselves around Howard. They put 2 of the best shooters in the NBA next to him, and a point guard who has risen to his potential, but Howard needs to shoot north of 50% consistently for the Magic to be successful in the postseason. The Magic have proven they are one of the deadliest shooting teams in the league with their record setting 3point shooting night in Sacramento the other night. What is unique about the Magic is how much they have improved since last season with virtually the same team. You would think that with all the movement in the East, and the Magic staying the same, they would not be a top 3 team in the East anymore. Well, they have stayed the same. The Magic got better on the court while a lot of other teams got better on paper. Building around the best Center in the league is not a bad deal either. They are going to make some noise.

The Lakers: The Lakers are looking to make another Finals appearance. They have been hit with the injury bug lately, but the consistency of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol is about all the Lakers need to be a threat. Many argue that the Lakers are the deepest team in the Association. I tend to agree with that assessment. When healthy, they can bring Jordan Farmar off the bench behind Fisher. Farmar could start for 75% of teams in this league. Unfortunately for Farmar, he is playing for one of the 25% of teams that can start a point guard ahead of him. The Lakers are unique in the sense that they have players who can play multiple positions. Phil Jackson is known to have Kobe and Sasha Vujacic to play the 1. Pau can play the 4 or 5, Lamar can play pretty much any position except for the 5, Walton can play 2 or 3, and Ariza can play the 3 or 4. The Lakers also have the most size in the NBA. A front court that can play 2 7-footers and and a 6'10 SF is a pretty tough thing to go against. Put 6'7 Kobe in the backcourt, and the Lakers become a matchup nightmare. Phil Jackson has always been an advocate of size, and the current Lakers roster is proving his philosophy correct.

The Lakers have been centered around Kobe for so many years that people have been reluctant to accept the level of talent the Lakers have on their team. Kobe has come into a role where he has become more comfortable trusting his teammates and being a faciltator and a scorer, and most importantly, knowing when to be in both roles. The Lakers are a team that is struggling to find a level of consistency at this point. One can't argue they are being lackadaisical per say, but one could argue they struggle to effectively execute. The most glaring problem for the Lakers is their lack of defense. The Lakers allow 99.5 points per game, but their strong offense has been able to cover up for that every game, except for 8. The Lakers consistently allow their opponents into the century mark midway through the 4th. That will need to change come playoff time. Throwing their unrivaled combination of size, experience, and talent into the playoffs makes them a huge threat to any team, and unlike any other.

Cavaliers: Lebron James. Not much more needs to be said here. The help of Mo Williams has helped Lebron and the Cavs hold the best record in the NBA. Lebron does everything a superstar should do. He is a freak of an athlete, and is virtually unguardable. If he improves his jumpshot, Lebron is the best player in the league. The biggest highlight for Lebron is his impressive passing ability. We have all seen his bullet passes on SportsCenter, and if he continues his high level of play, I would not be surprised to see them in the Finals.

What makes the Cavs unique is that outside of Lebron, every player is a role player. Obviously Mo Williams is the #2 option, but he feeds off Lebron. Williams has to wait to pick his spots, and go for it. Wally Sczerbiak is the same way. He is a shooter that feeds off of double teams from Lebron. The Cavs also play surprisingly good defense for their lack of size. They only allow 89ppg, the best in the NBA. They average 11 more points than their opponents. You can't argue with that stat. It proves their defensive superiority. Their defense comes from the perimeter. They have shot blockers in Ben Wallace, Varejao, and Ilgauskas (when healthy). Mo Williams is a great on the ball defender, and of course, James' unparalled athleticism makes it hard for any offensive player to get what he wants. I can't even find a comparison to the makeup of the Cavs in the last 25 years. There is almost no contemporary example of a team that has had the success the Cavs have enjoyed without another star on the team. There is an argument for Mo Williams to be that star, but we know that he is playing at this level because of Lebron. Ask the Bucks if they recognize this Mo Williams. This is all Lebron James. He is the future of this league, and maybe the only player we may ever seen that has James' physical build that mixes athleticism and overall basketball skill together to produce what Lebron has produced in his very young career.

All 4 of these teams have proven they are fallible. The Celtics went for a stretch of losing 6 out of 8, the Magic have losses to Memphis and Toronto, the Lakers have back-to-back losses twice this season, and the Cavs have lost to the Bulls. As good as these teams are, they have their vulnerabilities. For the first time in a while, the East is more top heavy than the West. I think the Spurs can challenge the Lakers for a Finals spot, but the race in the East is what everyone will be watching.



Have Jumpshot Will Travel (a.k.a. Trashtalk Superstar) said...

I concur with your point about different styles being fun to watch. Historically, that's been the case with the top teams in the league. Back in the late 80's/early 90's, the Bad Boy Pistons' physical/dirty style of play contrasted drastically with the styles of their main Eastern Conference rivals, the Celtics and, later, the Bulls, as well as with their NBA Finals opponents, the Lakers and the Blazers.

When the Pistons' run was over, and Bulls took over the East, the Knicks adopted the old Pistons style in an attempt to slow down Michael Jordan and get past the Bulls in the East.

And while all the Eastern Conference teams were focused on defense and half court sets, teams from the Western Conference ran a wide open, uptempo style.

There isn't quite as much divergence in the way NBA teams play today, but it's still interesting to see how different teams approach the game with different styles.

The diversity in playing styles is more apparent in college basketball, with the ACC and SEC playing a more athletic, finesse style, and the Big East and Big Ten being more physical, defense-minded and half-court oriented.

That's one of the things that makes college basketball great.

Also, I agree that the Spurs will give the Lakers a run for it in the West.

By the way, I like your blog and I'm adding you to the blogroll at Drive and Dish (driveanddish.blogspot.com). I'll probably link to one of your posts at some point in the relatively near future (although right now college basketball, not the NBA, is front and center at Drive and Dish: we focus on college basketball until the National Championship game, but when college basketball is over, we always turn our attention to the NBA).

Izzy said...

Very well said. Appreciate the love and the comment.

I do agree with you that the styles of play are as diverse right now as they were since the days of the Bad Boy Pistons to the days of the Jordan era Bulls. I was too young at the time to accurately assess and analyze the styles of play of those teams. From what I have studied, I would say your assessment is true. As a fan and student of the game, it is a dream come true. To be able to turn on any game and know that you will see a different style of play from the best teams in the league. In the college game, each conference seems to develop its own identity. We see less diversity in the styles of play from inside conference play, but when there is inter-conference play, you can definitely see the differences in their respective styles. That all seems like a manifestation of how coaches coach and adjust to the different styles of play from other teams in the conference.