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NBA mid-season report (Part 1)

   by Larry Ness - 02/18/2005

As the league heads to its 54th All-Star Game at the Pepsi Center in Denver, a quick look at the roster of players tells how much the NBA has changed since last year.

There are SEVEN first-time All-Stars at this year's game. The Phoenix Suns (much more on them later) have the most representatives with three while six clubs, including Cleveland, Seattle and Washington, have each placed two players on the team. I single out these four franchises because all four finished last season with losing records, a combined 76 games under .500 with a collective winning percentage of .384!

Cleveland, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington head into this year's break a combined 65 games over .500 and with a collective winning percentage of .657. With approximately 30 games remaining in the season, only Washington has any chance at all of NOT being included in this year's postseason!

One need look no further than last year's NBA "Final Four", to see how quickly things have changed. In last year's Western Conference Finals it was the Lakers and the Timberwolves. In the East, it was the Pistons and the Pacers.

The Lakers went 56-26 during last year's regular season but enter the break at 26-24. The Timberwolves owned the West's best record last year with 58 wins but find themselves just 27-27 at the break. If the playoffs were to start today, the Lakers would squeak in as the eighth and final seed, with the Timberwolves finding themselves on the outside looking-in!

As for the Pistons and Pacers, we all know what happened back on November 19. The Pacers won that game in Detroit 97-82 but the late-game brawl cost the Pacers Artest (for the season?) plus O'Neal and Jackson for significant games due to the ensuing suspensions. Indiana led the NBA with 61 wins last year but currently sits at 25-26, a record that would like Minnesota, keep the team one spot out of the postseason picture if the playoffs were to begin today.

The Pistons, last year's champs, have regrouped from a slow start and are the only one of last year's "Final Four" that looks like title contenders this season. With wins in NINE of their last 10 games, the Pistons enter the break with the East's second-best record, at 32-19.

The Charlotte Bobcats joined the NBA this year giving the league an even 30 teams. With the Bobcats joining the Eastern Conference, the league moved New Orleans into the West and each conference went from a two-division format to three, five-team divisions.

That's not all that looks different. Last year just two teams, Indiana and Minnesota, played better than .700 basketball while only Orlando and Chicago played worse than .300. A check of the standings at this year's break shows FOUR teams at .700 or above (San Antonio, Phoenix, Miami and Seattle) with an equal number of teams below. 300 (Atlanta, New Orleans, Charlotte and Golden State).

Here's a look at the league's biggest turnarounds (so far!), both good and bad!

The Phoenix Suns were just 29-53 .354 last year but own the NBA's second-best record at the break (41-13 .759). With the addition of point guard Steve Nash and incredible play of Amare Stoudemire the Suns are averaging 110.2 PPG. That's 7.5 PPG higher than the next highest-scoring team and the highest scoring average of any NBA team since three teams topped 110 PPG in the 1994-95 season! In comparison, the team(s) most similar to the Suns last year (both Atlanta and the LA Clippers went 28-54), are 10-41 and 23-30 respectively, at the current time.

The Seattle Sonics led by All-Stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis sit at 35-15 .700 at the break, quite an improvement from last year's 37-45 .451 mark! Golden State mirrored Seattle's 37-45 mark last year but is 15-38 .283 this year!

The Cleveland Cavaliers went 35-47 .427 last year but LeBron James has led the Cavs to a 30-21 .588 mark at the break, the first time in 12 seasons that the Cavs have won 30 games by the All-Star break! The team most similar to the Cavs last year was the 36-36 Celtics who enter the break at 27-26 .509 (AMAZINGLY in first place in the pathetic Atlantic Division).

The Miami Heat made a late-season run last year and made the playoffs at 42-40 .512. With Wade blossoming into one of the league's best players in just his second season and Shaq playing with a chip on his shoulder (as well as something to prove!), the Heat have almost matched last year's win total with a current record of 40-14 .741. In comparison the Utah Jazz, like Miami a 42-40 team last year, are currently 17-35 .327!

The NBA's three-worst records last year belonged to Orlando (21-61), Chicago (23-59) and Washington (25-57)! All THREE are seemingly playoff-bound at the break!

The Magic have ridden Grant Hill's return to health, the outstanding play of guard Steve Francis (more later on him!) and the major contributions of last year's No. 1 pick (high-schooler Josh Howard) to a 28-24 mark!

The Bulls, playoff-less since MJ retired, opened 0-9 but sit at 26-23 at the break. The Bulls are winning with two rookies (Deng and Gordon), second-year player Hinrich (team's leading scorer) and two former No. 1 picks that were "left for dead" in Curry and Chandler.

The Wizards rode three 20-point scorers, Arenas, Jamison and Hughes to a hot start and even after losing Hughes to an injury, have continued to play well. Eddie Jordan is one of the favorites for Coach of the Year as the Wizards enter the break with a record of 30-22.

I'll continue my mid-season update on Monday with a listing of this year's teams going in the wrong direction, some early playoff scenarios and an All-Star Game recap (my college hoop notes will be available on Wednesday).

CLOSING ALL-STAR NOTES:

I mentioned earlier that there are seven first-time All-Stars this year. There are also exactly SEVEN All-Star members who entered the league directly out of high school. They are Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Rashard Lewis, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal and Amare Stoudemire.

In comparison, just FOUR players making an All-Star Game appearance this year played four years of college basketball. They are Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Steve Nash and Ben Wallace. You do the math!

Jason Richardson of the Golden Stae Warriors is the highest scoring player (22.6 PPG) to NOT make the team while Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons is the ONLY player averaging less than 10 PPG (9.5) TO make the team!

Then there is the case of Steve Francis of the Orlando Magic. The 6-3 Francis is averaging 21.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 7.1 APG. He is one of just FOUR NBA players who are averaging better than 20 PPG, six RPG and six APG. The other three (Kobe, KG and LeBron), are all at the All-Star Game. Try and do the math on that one!




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