On Wednesday, before his Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, Dwight Howard offered up a bout of optimistic thinking despite a season of nearly continuous negativity and frustration.
"I think this will be the start of a new season for us tonight," Howard said. "Hopefully, our effort and energy is where it needs to be."
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni hit on a similar theme a few weeks ago, saying they were "restarting" the season.
Fair enough. Let’s restart it.
Halfway through the 2012-13 season, we know several things about the NBA we didn’t know when it began: The Lakers are a mess. The Clippers are a force. The Thunder are better without James Harden. The Knicks are much, much better without Jeremy Lin and D’Antoni. The Bulls are still a very good team without Derrick Rose, who should return soon. And the Heat, while good, are not the juggernaut we’d expected after retaining their championship roster and adding to it Ray Allen. At least not yet.
We also know that the NBA world as we understand it can be turned upside down over the course of 41 games, or half a season.
So, as we prepare for the second half of the season, here are some key storylines and how they’ve defied our expectations and reset the facts.
The Lakers are the clearest picture of how quickly things can unravel, and how hard, really, it is to reset things in the league when you’re in a freefall.
They pushed the “reset” button five games into their much-hyped season when they fired coach Mike Brown. They pushed it again when Steve Nash returned from injury in December. They pushed it after that, several times, with talk of getting it right. They pushed it Wednesay night, or so they said, and lost anyway. Now they’re 17-25 and in 12th place in the Western Conference.
One of the greatest starting lineups in history? Ah, no. These guys together may not even constitute a playoff team.
When the season started, the Lakers – along with the Thunder and Heat – were expected to own the NBA and fight among themselves for supremacy. For the Lakers, the focus was this season and this season only – the winning, the playoff run, the Finals, maybe a championship.
Instead, the next 40 games aren’t about this year, not really, and about winning only in the sense that it helps preserve the future. It’s now about doing enough to fix the dysfunction so that Dwight Howard doesn’t leave. That’ll take playing better, yes, as a team, but there’s more. Howard has made it clear he doesn’t like D’Antoni’s system, there’s reported tension between him and Kobe Bryant, and Showtime has become Misery.
If things stay bad, and Howard miserable, the next 40 games for the Lakers will be all about the very real possibility of not having Howard in the purple and gold after this season.
The idea was that the Clippers would be good, no doubt. But this good? Either the best or second-best team in the league? That wasn’t in the cards at the start of the season. It is now.
If Chris Paul can stay healthy, the Clippers should finish off this regular season with one of the best records in basketball. They are what we all thought the Lakers were going to be: the Los Angeles team that is a true title threat, one up there with the Thunder and Heat among the league’s elite.
Yes, the Heat are at the top of the Eastern Conference. Yes, LeBron James is somehow having an even better season than last year. And yes, it’s reasonable if premature to think Miami will walk backward into the NBA Finals.
But this isn’t the team we’d expected, not really. There’s a title hangover on South Beach and signs that the pain could continue. Dwyane Wade can still dominate some nights, but not at will or like he used to. Chris Bosh is having an abysmal rebounding season, reminding most everyone that he is, like it or not, a soft player. The idea that the Heat could go small has been aided by a weak Eastern Conference but isn’t the revolutionary rethinking of the game many thought it would be in October.
The Heat are good. But resetting things, and seeing clearly now, we can see Miami is not the best team in the NBA and not as good as it was last season. That could change, sure, but it will need to in the second half of the season if the Heat are going to be the favorites for the title this year.
Let’s give credit where credit is due: to Mike Woodson and Carmelo Anthony.
Though several front-office personnel in the league do not think the Knicks are the force their record indicates – count me in agreement, since I think they’ll finish fourth or fifth in the East – they are far surpassing most preseason expectations.
‘Melo didn’t want Lin there, not really, no more than he wanted D’Antoni as his head caoch. And now it looks like his whims were right on. The team is built around him, and with Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler providing a championship DNA, Raymond Felton (when healthy) playing the point-guard position smoothly and in sync with the team’s star, J.R. Smith excellent, Amar’e Stoudemire not the distraction some worried about and ‘Melo putting up MVP numbers, the Knicks have brought some basketball magic back to the Garden.
Yes, they rely too heavily on the three-point shot, and as that’s come back to earth so has their record. Yes, their team defense has gone from exemplary last season to poor this season.
But the Knicks have turned the game’s shrine from a place of dysfunction to a place for winners. Few saw it coming the first half of the season. It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep it going the next half.
What can we say? Tom Thibodeau is one of the best coaches in the league, and his ability to keep the Bulls as a top-tier team despite Derrick Rose’s absence is a testimony to his skill and a pleasant surprise for the Windy City. It’s also got the potential, if and when Rose returns and if and when he’s near 100 percent, to quickly turn the Bulls into title contenders.
Few put Chicago on their Finals roadmap when the season started. But this is a group of guys that has learned to lead and succeed without the team’s singular star. Carlos Boozer, just named Eastern Conference player of the week, has matured outside Rose’s presence. Same for Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. If the lessons they’ve learned can be applied when and if Rose is back in full swing, Chicago goes from the nonentity most expected the first half of the season to a title contender in the second.
There’s more, of course. The Pacers are good without Danny Granger; so good that when he returns, they, too, could be a serious sleeper in the East. The Celtics, thought by many in the Eastern Conference to be poised for a last run, are a mess – almost as dysfunctional as the Lakers, nearly as frustrated and almost as harmless. The Rockets are middling with both Lin and Harden and the Mavs aren’t good without Dirk Nowitzki – or with him.
These are the things we know, but we know this, too: half a season is a long time. Maybe Howard and the Lakers can reset their season – maybe not – but over the second half count on some more surprises to reveal themselves.