NBA storylines abound

Published Dec. 20, 2010 10:11 a.m. ET

By Matt "Money" Smith
FOX Sports West and PRIME TICKET

Despite having worked on a radio morning show (Kevin & Bean) for nearly a decade, I never got used to the jarring sound of an alarm clock alerting me it was time to drag my nearly lifeless body out of bed.

The repeating digital sound was more like a blunt object being poked into the side of my head than a gentle reminder that it was time to get my day started. About a month ago while poking around the iTunes app store, I got something called "Nightstand Central," another of the many $.99 purchases that seem like a great deal until you've piled up 40 of them over the course of a month and over half are completely worthless. But "Nightstand Central" has turned out to be well worth the cash. Instead of a computer-generated scream to wake me from my slumber, I now have multiple options for my 6 a.m. announcement. "Birds Chirping" now gets me going, and I'm now a bit happier about waking up earlier than my body would like.

Typically there's that sharp blow to the head-like alarm sound when it comes time to pay attention to a given sport. It's jammed down your throat with commercials, media coverage and the idea that this particular game cannot be missed or somehow you're less of a sports fan. Usually the playoffs are the internal clock that goes off suggesting the part of the season that you tolerated for half a year is officially over, and the payoff has finally arrived. But this year's NBA regular-season has been has been the first of its kind, and I've been watching the product since the finals rolled out on tape delay.

In 1995-96, when the Chicago Bulls had their first full season of Michael Jordan's return and the speculation they could challenge the Lakers regular season record of 70-12, people paid attention to one single team. This year's NBA has storylines across both conferences, including no less than 10 teams, and we're just about a third of the way through the regular season. Now games against Toronto on a Sunday night, or Milwaukee on a Tuesday are must-see thanks to this past offseason's arms (and legs) race. It's the birds chirping alarm, slowly waking you up with a gentle reminder that it's time to pay attention to your surroundings.

At this time last year, we were focused on the Lakers and Celtics. Boston had raced out to a fast start, crushed the Orlando Magic on Christmas Day while LeBron James lit up the Lakers at STAPLES Center, and most ho hummed the day's events. It was widely accepted the Lakers would meet someone in the NBA finals, likely the Boston Celtics again, and until that time came around, the world of football had our full attention.

But this season, things have certainly changed.

The Miami Heat had their identity crisis about 10 games into the season, but have shaken off whatever it was that haunted them and have piled up 12 wins in a row. Some pointed out the victories came against sub-par competition, but sweeping a four-game west coast swing that included the Jazz in Utah was impressive. The Heat strength of schedule, currently at .475 is markedly higher than the Lakers .407 (the lowest number in the league).

Not to be outdone, the Boston Celtics have ripped off 13 consecutive victories, and are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference (offseason signings and outdoor celebrations be damned) and will once again face the Magic on Christmas day, reminding them they're not in the same league as the defending Eastern Conference champs. All of this and they're not entirely healthy. Rajon Rondo is out for a few weeks, as are the two old men manning the center spot. Remember it's likely the Celtics will get back their defense presence in the middle, Kendrick Perkins, back for the postseason.

The Spurs are on pace for a 70-win season (not that anyone would bother to notice). All they've done is win eight games in a row and have a league-best 23-3 record. This incarnation of the Spurs looks plenty capable of wining the championship this year. They're deep (who would have thought Richard Jefferson would be a bargain), they have an all-NBA point guard, a possible player of the decade, and without question the best "3rd option" in the league with Manu Ginobili. Doesn't hurt that Greg Popovich is their coach either.

The Mavericks have won 15 of 16, and since the acquisition of Tyson Chandler, look to have finally found some sort of defensive personality. I've said it repeatedly, when you look at the numbers it's hard to argue the NBA championship isn't won on opponent field goal percentage. Only one team in the last decade has been crowned champ without being top 5 in that category, and the Mavericks are currently ranked 5th in team defense. Most forget how good Dirk Nowitzki is, or that he has the same number of league MVP trophies as Kobe Bryant.

Look at what happened to the Orlando Magic. Having been mentioned as a possible contender at the start of the year, they've lost six of seven, and already threw in the towel. General Manager Otis Smith traded his starting power forward for a backup point guard, and moved three major pieces from his line up including a start two, extremely valuable backup five, and completely overhauled the team's roster. Why? Because for the first time in a long time, the NBA's regular season looks to matter.

No more being jarred awake to pay attention when the second season rolls around, judging by the current state of the association, it's essentially already arrived.

Matt "Money" Smith can be heard Monday-Friday on The Petros and Money Show on FOX Sports Radio's KLAC-AM 570 from 3 pm to 7 pm (PT).