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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

NBA Review at the break

Race for the playoffs tight in Western Conference

Published: February 15, 2008
Section: Sports

By the All-Star break four years ago, Byron Scott had been ousted as coach of the New Jersey Nets by Jason Kidd and Doc Rivers had been fired as coach of the Orlando Magic. This year, Kidd was nearly traded to Dallas and Orlando only has one player left from that 2004 team. Meanwhile Scott and Rivers have found new success in New Orleans and Boston and will coach the All-Star game this Sunday. This is only one of many stories surrounding the NBA halfway through the season.

The Eastern Conference at this point can be defined as a two-horse race. In one corner: the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons’ veteran starting five has been strengthened by a tremendous young bench led by Jason Maxiell. In the other corner, the Boston Celtics, rejuvenated by two tremendous trades this off-season, which created a new big three of Pierce, Allen, and Garnett. Boston currently has won over 80 percent of its games, a figure it has not had in a full season since its last championship in 1986. This shall make for a fun-filled playoff matchup.

The Western Conference is another story. Ten teams have a winning percentage over .500, meaning two winning teams won’t make the playoffs. The ninth seeded team in the West would be the third seeded team in the East. In the last two weeks, blockbuster trades have defined the west as Dallas acquired Jason Kidd, Phoenix traded Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal, and the Lakers magically pulled Pau Gasol out of a Memphis shaped hat. Only time will tell if these trades affect the balance of power in the West.

The season has had many surprises, in terms of both failures and successes. For failures, look no further than two teams who matched up in the playoffs last season: Miami and Chicago. Despite losing no major players, Chicago has struggled mightily. Meanwhile, injuries have plagued the Heat, ending the career of Alonzo Mourning and leading to the trade of Shaquille O’Neal. Miami has already lost more games this season than it has since 2003. There is a bright side to Miami’s struggles. The only two times in the past ten years that Miami has lost 41 or more games, they have drafted an all-star in the subsequent draft (Dwayne Wade and Caron Butler).

On the other side of surprises, New Orelans and Portland have become strong teams despite not making the playoffs last year. Led by Chris Paul, the Hornets are one of the elite teams in the West. Portland meanwhile was expected to flounder after losing number one pick Greg Oden to season ending surgery in the summer. Yet Brandon Roy has become an elite player, willing them to 13 straight wins in December and into playoff contention.

Perhaps no award is more ignored in this league than the Executive of the Year, but looking back at this season so far, the executives may be the most important of all. There are three chief contenders. First and foremost is Danny Ainge of the Celtics. Acquiring Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, along with signing key role players has made the Celtics the best team in the league. Steve Kerr of Phoenix may yet become a genius in just his first season in a front office. Kerr has signed Grant Hill and rejuvenated his career, and trading for O’Neal may prove to be bold or boneheaded.

But the man who may deserve the most accolades is Mitch Kupchak. He traded for Gasol in a steal of a deal, and made strong moves in the draft which have given the Lakers a strong bench. But perhaps he made the biggest decision of all that nobody yet recognizes. Kupchak did not trade Kobe Bryant. Sometimes the best move is a non-move, and it has produced wonders for the team. Bryant is playing fewer minutes and taking fewer shots than he has in recent years, but has something the fans haven’t seen in a while: a smile. When we look back at this season, whether we are Celtics fans, Lakers fans, or any other fan, we will have smiles.