The NBA season is past the quarter mark and the Celtics are right where they want to be, sitting atop the Eastern Conference, owners of the 2nd best record in the league. This week on “Around the NBA,” I will take a close look at the Atlantic Division, specifically the Amare Stoudemire Effect, and top scoring duos in the league, but we start as always with a trip to South Beach.
-Heat Check: Not surprised by the Miami Heat’s 8 game winning streak. They were at one point 9-8 on the year after losing 3 of 4, but suddenly the Heat lead their division at 17-8. The winning could continue as their next 5 are: vs. Hornets, vs. Cavs, @ Knicks, @ Wizards, vs. Mavericks. Miami also travels to LA to face Kobe and the Lakers on Christmas day.
I truly believe the team used that Cleveland game as a rallying point and it’s hard to argue. Not only have they won 8 straight, but they have all been by double digits. LeBron James claims that he and Dwyane Wade have, “figured it out.” Well maybe they have, but the Heat still trot out a below average point guard and get to play an exciting game of Washed Up Center Roulette with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Jamaal Magloire, Erick Dampier, and Joel Anthony. How can you lose?
Wade and LeBron are a ruthless combination though, you can’t joke about that. I still expect the Heat to meet the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.
-Division Dissection: Atlantic
Since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston, the Celtics have been the only team in the Atlantic Division to finish the season with a winning record. Think about that for a second. For three straight years the 76ers, Raptors, Knicks, and Nets have all finished with 41 or fewer wins. (Philly and Toronto tied for the best record since 2007 at 41-41).
Well as of right now the New York Knicks are an impressive and surprising 16-9, thanks to an 8 game winning streak and an MVP like start to the year from Amare Stoudemire. Only the Celtics, Heat, and Magic have a better record than the Knicks in the East. They outscored the Nuggets 129-125 on Sunday monster performances by Stoudemire and Raymond Felton.
Those additions of Stoudemire and Felton combined with the out-of-no-where rookie Landry Fields, and 3rd year man Wilson Chandler have the Knicks playing with a spark for the first time in seemingly forever.
The Knicks have not won 40 games in a season since 2000-2001, which was just two years removed from their trip to the NBA Finals. They were led by Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, and Marcus Camby during that span. New York has not made the playoffs since 2003-2004 where they were bounced out in the 1st round. As for now, they are on track to potentially host the 1st round. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though. With the state of the Eastern Conference as long as the Knicks stay healthy (very weak bench, despite Bill Walker being on the team!); they should be a playoff team. And if Carmelo Anthony gets his wish and is traded to New York? Their goals change.
But did anyone think New York would be in this position after 25 games? They couldn’t get LeBron, D-Wade, Bosh, or even Joe Johnson or Rudy Gay. Instead they signed Amare Stoudemire and heard rumors of how Carmelo and Chris Paul or Tony Parker would one day work out a deal to form another Super Team. Well Amare is there and playing like a man possessed, 26 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks for the season.
–Amare Effect: (quick timeout from the Atlantic breakdown to discuss Stoudemire) During the Knicks 8 game winning streak, Amare has scored 30+ points in each game and is averaging just under a 34-11. I was always under the assumption that Stoudemire was a good, not great player, and a bit overrated. I thought he was an incredible athlete, and coupled with the Suns’ system and Steve Nash he couldn’t help but put up 23-8. He was a great offensive player, but poor rebounder for his size and lazy defender.
I might have to rethink my stance. New York is 16-9 with Amare playing like the league’s MVP while his former team, Phoenix, is struggling at 11-12. Is Amare more than just a good fit in a Nash offense? Yes he is. Although I do understand he is still playing in an up-tempo system with his old Suns coach, and Ray Felton is proving to be better than anticipated. But remember when Stoudemire dominated, and I mean dominated Tim Duncan in the playoffs a few years back? He has the ability, and teams outside of Boston and Orlando in the East are all going to have their hands full with him.
Amare is a 5-time All-Star and 4-time All-NBA selection (one 1st team, three 2nd teams), but I have not been this impressed by him, in the regular season, until this year. He’s going to have to keep it up, obviously, to warrant a complete change of heart by me, but he’s on the way. For the first time in his career, he is the number one option, talent, threat, you name it, and he’s living up to the billing.
Of course another reason why I think the Knicks will end their playoff drought this year is because they have so many games with the Raptors, Nets, and 76ers.
The Celtics just saw the young 6ers this past week and needed a near buzzer beater to knock them off, but Philly is clearly a few years away from contending, if not more. They have seven players 23 or younger including the #2 pick in the draft Evan Turner and second year man/ boy Jrue Holiday. Doug Collins is trying to get the most out of them and he has his hands full. They are not a threat this season.
The Nets, like Philly, have a new coach this season. Avery Johnson is back in the league after spending time as an analyst at ESPN. There is really only one way to go after a 12-70 season; however 6-18 out of the gate has got to lead to thoughts of more of the same. Devin Harris and Brook Lopez is a good combo… right? Well are we sure? 18-88 in the last year plus doesn’t sound like a good anything. Derrick Favors could blossom into a star. Reports are New Jersey offered Denver Favors, Troy Murphy, and two #1 picks for Carmelo, but Anthony won’t sign a long term deal, so that’s a no go. New Jersey is also a clear non-factor this year.
The last team in the division, currently in 3rd place, is the Toronto Raptors. You watch a Raps game and you say, “Who?” or “Oh, he’s on the Raptors this year?” Former #1 Andrea Bargnani is average over 21 points per game, but who else is going to score for this team. Leandro Barbosa, DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems, and Linas Kleiza are all averages double digits for this team. Not a team I’m dying to see play 2-3 times a week that’s for sure. Save to say Toronto is also not a playoff factor this year. Take that Canada.
The Atlantic Division can be broken into three groups. The Title Contender: Celtics; the Playoff Bound: Knicks; and the What’s Jay Bilas Saying About Him?: Raptors, 76ers, Nets.
–Batman & Robin: We all know the most talked about duo in the league, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but are they the highest scoring? A high scoring duo does not mean much; the Celtics top tandem is Paul Pierce and Ray Allen at 34.6 combined points per game, which ranks no where near the top. But I’m interested in it, and maybe you are too.
Top 10 Scoring Duos