Today is the first day of 2011 A.D.. It’s a brand new year, and by the end of it, things are unlikely to look much the way they look now, as it is with every 365 days. So consider this your NBA Time Capsule, to dig up later and see what life was like on this day.
The NBA’s Biggest Star is… Kobe Bryant. Even with LeBron James nipping at his heels in every category and the two-time MVP, Bryant holds on because of his international (read:China) stardom. Winning championships makes you famous abroad, and right now Bryant holds that moniker squarely in his hand. On the verge of his second three-peat which will tie him with Michael Jordan, Bryant has left behind accusations in Colorado, turmoil with Shaquille O’Neal, and questions about his selfishness. Bryant’s time is definitely limited in this slot, as his jumpshot begins to deteriorate even as he clings for life to his usage percentage (currently highest of his career). Bryant is the leader of the defending champion team, in the biggest basketball market in the league, with the biggest fanbase of “casual” fans, and does so by scoring a lot of points. He is this generation’s greatest player, for all the good and ill that means.
The NBA’s Best Player Is… LeBron James. LeBron is also the most hated player in the A, but that doesn’t change the facts. Even as his numbers dip beside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the Miami Heat, James is the only player who can take over on so many levels. He can rise up and nail the three-ball to dagger a team’s comeback hopes, he can fly in transition like no other athlete, he rebounds, chases down blocks, sees the whole floor, and is so good from so many spots. James’ value as a basketball player can be questioned in terms of heart, competitiveness, ability to rise to the moment, and humility (as if any NBA great has possessed true humility). But in terms of bouncing the ball on the hardwood and putting it through the net there is no question. LeBron James is the best player in the NBA.
The Most Underrated Player is… Al Horford. Horford was an All-Star last year, in the most quiet way possible. He’s better, much better, this year. On a Hawks team no one wants to look at or discuss because of their stale combination of players, limited playoff ability, and the contract of Joe Johnson which makes everyone squeamish to look at, Horford has been sensational. He’s averaging career highs in the following categories: points per game (16.7), points per 36 minutes (17.8), rebounds per 36 (10.3), assists per game (3.2), assists per 36 (3.4), AST% (17.3), Usage (21.3%), PER (23.3), FG% (58%), FT% (81%), Offensive Rating (122) and Defensive Rating (102). He’s the best player on the Atlanta Hawks, a team that features Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and Josh Smith. He is able to defend any frontcourt player in the league (even doing a decent job on Dwight Howard), works tirelessly, doesn’t create problems with his attitude, and gets the job done in every facet of the game. Horford should be talked about on halftime discussions on national television and voted into the All-Star game (he is currently third among East center reserves, behind a 38-year-old role player who averages 21 minutes a game and his brother-in-arms from Florida who has played 11 fewer games than Horford due to injury). Horford is an incredible player and one fans have not taken advantage of appreciating in his time.
The Biggest Problem for the NBA is… the CBA negotiations. On January 1st, 2011, we awake with the knowledge that we may not have professional basketball on this day in 2012. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires this summer, and both sides are deadlocked. The owners want massive rollbacks of the current salary structure, including contracts signed just this past summer, want to institute a hard cap which would dramatically change the sport, and generally peel back on everything financially related to the players. The Players pretty much don’t want anything to change, outside of better revenue sharing and more rules to allow more fluid player movement. The Players’ Union has agreed to a compromise regarding a change in the percentage of BRI (Basketball Related Income) they receive as part of the next CBA, a major compromise on their part indicating a willingness to work to get a deal. The owners have made no such equal compromise on their end. A lockout is regarded as unavoidable at this point, which is really depressing.
The Biggest Emerging Story in the NBA is… Blake Griffin is awesome. Seriously, if you’re reading this in the future, go check out his YouTube clips, if YouTube still exists.
The Best Team in the NBA is… the Boston Celtics. They’re starting to swoon just as this has been written, losers of their last two and three of their last four. But from October 26th through Christmas, they were far and away the best team. Even with the San Antonio Spurs rocking off a 28-4 mark, the Celtics have simply dismantled nearly every opponent that’s come their way, usually losing only due to mental miscues or injury. If at full strength, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where they do not win the Eastern Conference. Rajon Rondo has played at an incredible level when healthy, Kevin Garnett has appeared to have more explosion than he has in three years before a calf injury shut him down for two weeks, and Ray Allen is Ray Allen. All this and Kendrick Perkins is still on the shelf. The Celtics are downright terrifying.
The Biggest Bust in the NBA is… Hasheem Thabeet. Darko Milicic is a starter, now. Kwame Brown gets minutes. Hasheem Thabeet continues to haunt the Memphis Grizzlies as their biggest draft mistake in a long line of horrific draft mistakes. In a recent game he was unable to see the floor against the Toronto Raptors, despite the Raptors being without Reggie Evans and Andrea Bargnani. The Raptors started Amir Johnson and Joey Dorsey, yet Thabeet could not get playing time. What’s worse, as a colleague in Memphis pointed out, Thabeet somehow looks worse than he did last season. It’s a nightmare with the fact that Thabeet was drafted second overall. Hopefully in the far off future, this looks silly and premature.
The League’s Biggest Storyline is… How Good Are The Heat? The team everyone loves to hate (while they’re spending their hard-earned time and money on them) has destroyed everything in their path for the past month. After overcoming their early struggles, they used defensive stops to kick-start their transition offense, and in that area they are nearly unstoppable. They have a signature win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas in LA. But they have also lost twice to the Celtics, once to the Magic, twice to the Mavericks, and a host of other good-not-great teams. No team is harder to figure out than the Heat, and we’re still struggling to get a grip on them as 2011 begins.
The League’s Second Biggest Storyline is… Will Melo Get Moved? Carmelo Anthony is on the trade block, has been since summer when he requested a trade after declining to sign the Nuggets’ max extension. Since then it’s been a ridiculous circus for the Nuggets as they were able to piece together a four-team trade with him going to the Nets…only to have it fall apart when they decided they wanted more than what they were getting. Now they’re in danger of having no one to trade with after souring multiple partners with their flip-flopping and squeamish behavior. They seem unwilling to accept that Anthony is vapor trails, and cling to the hope that he’ll sign his extension and stay in Denver. If when you read this he’s signed with Denver, count us all surprised, because we’re betting when you read this his next jersey reads “New York.” Or at least “Brooklyn.”
The MVP is… Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has managed to do everything you’d want an MVP to do. He contributes on both ends of the floor, delivers in the clutch, puts up the numbers, can score when you need him to, has led his team to wins (second best record in the West), his team struggles without him (lost to Spurs with him on the bench), and he’s the face of the franchise. He’s done everything this season, so far. Other candidates include: Amar’e Stoudemire, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, and Dwight Howard.
We hope you enjoyed reading this on your rocket ship while sipping Tang, the beverage of the future.