Spurs, Lakers Both Upset!

by Jeff Fogle 17. April 2011 18:34

Is anybody ready to win a championship? Chicago was down double digits with four minutes to go Saturday before salvaging a win vs. Indiana. Miami had its worst shooting fourth quarter of the season before making late free throws to get past Philadelphia. Sunday, the #1 and #2 seeds in the West both lost at home, barely looking like teams capable of going the distance.

Let's crunch the numbers...

MEMPHIS 101, SAN ANTONIO 98
Two-Point Shooting: Memphis 54%, San Antonio 40%
Inside 10 Feet: Memphis 69%, San Antonio 50%
Three-Pointers: Memphis 6/10, San Antonio 6/15
Free Throws: Memphis 21/33, San Antonio 36/47

(Expanded boxscore is here)

The biggest difference between these teams coming into the series was in the area of three-pointers. San Antonio averaged 8.4 makes per game. Memphis averaged 3.8. The Grizzlies completely neutralized the stat today and were rewarded for their effort with an upset win.

Inside the arc, everything kind of came out the same in the wash. Memphis had a terrific day forcing their way to the rim (16 of 21 at the rim according to the expanded boxsore--while giving Antonio McDyess 5 fouls in 13 minutes, and DeJuan Blair 5 fouls in 22 minutes)). San Antonio couldn't do it the same way, but earned even more foul calls. Memphis made shots. San Antonio made free throws. The final score on 1's and 2's was 83-80 for Memphis.

If you assume the "high contact" area cancelled out because of all the Spurs free throws, the scoreboard differential comes down to this:

FROM 3 TO 23 FEET
Memphis: 15 of 36 for 42%
San Antonio: 7 of 33 for 21%

Almost the same number of attempts. San Antonio was abysmal.

Some quick notes:

*Manu Ginobili was in street clothes. The Spurs are a solid road team, so they can certainly get this one back in Memphis when Ginobili is playing again. Coach Gregg Popovich probably regrets the gamble. You definitely want Ginobili on the floor if the refs are a bit whistle-happy. He draws contact, and you need all the bodies you can have when 60 combined fouls are going to be called.

*Memphis lost the turnover category 16-10. They were great during the regular season at forcing turnovers. Didn't help them here because the Spurs handle the ball well and spread everyone out.

*Rebounding was tight, with the Spurs winning 40-38. This game had a few similarties to Portland/Dallas Saturday night:

Road team won two-point shooting by a lot
Road team won shooting inside 10 feet by even more
Home team won free throws by a lot
Rebounding was even

Treys were even at 6-6 in Grizzlies/Spurs, allowing the visitor to steal a win. If treys had been even at 6-6 in Blazers/Mavs, Portland would have won 93-77.

What do these similarities mean? The Texas hosts aren't currently playing "championship style" basketball. Both lost the inside game despite having home court advantage. The Spurs and Mavs probably won't enjoy made free throw advantages of +15 and +16 on the road. We now see early evidence for why so many pundits were looking at the Lakers/OKC/Denver as the "real" top three in the West entering the playoffs.

It's dangerous to draw conclusions off the first game in a series. Ginobili (though not a physical player) will likely provide a needed boost for the Spurs.

You may be aware that Charles Barkley called for a series upset with Memphis before this game started.

The last sentence of that story said:
"Also of note: Barkley charged the Grizzlies with intentionally throwing games to get to the four-time champions. So yes, someone may or may not have spiked his energy drink."

Memphis sat overpowering (lately) dynamo Zach Randolph for their last two games. They lost the second half in Portland 57-43. They trailed the lowly LA Clippers 66-37 at the half of the season finale. They obviously wanted to play the Spurs in the first round. Is it possible to trail the Clippers 66-37 after 24 minutes if you're going all out to win?

Though, it turns out the Lakers aren't as scary a #2 seed as everyone was thinking back during that 17-1 surge after the All-Star Break.

In the second afternoon game...

NEW ORLEANS 109, LA LAKERS 100
Two-Point Shooting: New Orleans 54%, Lakers 46%
Three-Pointers: New Orleans 4/11, Lakers 6/13
Free Throws: New Orleans 23/33, Lakers 26/33
Turnovers: New Orleans 3, Lakers 13

(Expanded box is here)

You don't often see a Kobe Bryant team lose the turnover category by 10. Chris Paul could run the New Orleans offense largely unobstructed. The Lakers didn't enjoy the kind of free throw edge most of the other home teams did this weekend. Maybe all of Kobe's pleading with the refs is backfiring on him. Hard to tell just eyeballing it how much of an impact Andrew Bynum's balky knee had on the game. He could only go 26 minutes, but had decent stats in those 26 minutes (13 points and 9 rebounds). He didn't seem to be much of a force on defense internally. New Orleans shot 59% inside 10 feet (with the Lakers at 58%).   

Other Notes:

*Chris Paul and Jarrett Jack, both listed as point guards, played a combined 63 minutes today...shooting 16 of 24 from the floor and 14 of 19 from the free throw line (while obviously not having turnover troubles!). These aren't guys Ron Artest can be assigned to guard.

*The Lakers only had six players go more than 13 minutes. The team looked tired defensively in the fourth quarter, which they dropped 36-28 on the scoreboard.

*This was definitely the same Lakers team that lost down the stretch to Denver, Utah, Golden State, Portland, and Oklahoma City. Whatever magic existed in the 17-1 run after the ASB (which included a 10-1 record vs. playoff teams) is still missing from view. They couldn't flick the switch when needed.

*Backup center Aaron Gray of New Orleans was 5-5 from the field, and had a stunning +25 plus/minus in his 20 minutes on the floor. He suffered what looked to be a bad ankle sprain (possibly worse) very late in the game. The Hornets have little margin for error as it is in this matchup (well, assuming the Lakers snap out of their funk eventually!). That injury could prove to be a big factor later in the series.

Back around midnight or so to look at numbers and notes from New York/Boston and Denver/Oklahoma City...

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Portland Grabs Sixth, Bynum Grabs Knee

by Jeff Fogle 13. April 2011 00:44

Just as Portland answered a question about the NBA Western Conference playoffs with a relatively easy 102-89 win over Memphis, new ones were raised when injury-plagued Andrew Bynum of the LA Lakers went down with a hyperextended knee against San Antonio.

Bynum won't make the trip to Sacramento Wednesday for the Lakers' season finale against the Kings. You will probably know more about his status for the playoffs when you read this than I do as I write it.

Memphis made it clear that Portland was a low priority game for them when they sat Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Here's how the bottom of the Western totem poll looks at the moment:

6...Portland 48-33 (locked in)
7...New Orleans 46-35 (at Dallas Wednesday)
8...Memphis 46-35 (at LA Clippers Wednesday)

New Orleans owns the tie-breaker with Memphis because of a better divisional record. New Orleans is 9-6 in the Southwest Division pending their trip to Dallas. Memphis finished 8-8 in the Southwest Division. The teams split four regular season meetings against each other.

The Lakers game Tuesday night started even later than scheduled, which means it will end too late for expanded commentary. Should the now shorthanded Lakers lose in Sacramento Wednesday night, they can't be the #2 seed unless Dallas loses at home to New Orleans. LA owns tie-breakers if there's a knot at 56-26 or 57-25.

Let's make a note of this now. On TNT this evening Charles Barkley said the Los Angeles Lakers will NOT win the championship this year. Sir Charles isn't right about everything of course. But, he carries on Al Maguire's legacy of sensing from the basketball bloodstream what everyone else's brain hasn't fully registered yet. His instincts were right about 10 of 11 Big East teams (the 10 who didn't have a dynamic scorer who could take over a game)...as they were about Arizona at halftime of the Duke game during the NCAA tournament.

This was before Andrew Bynum hyperextended his knee.  Barkley emphasized after the injury that the Lakers won't win the championship with or without Bynum. Considering the game was tied 45-all at the half, and San Antonio was sitting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, it was hard to argue.

Earlier in the evening, Chicago beat New York 103-90. Amare Stoudemire missed the game for New York, so it's dangerous trying to draw any conclusions from the result. Chicago kind of treaded water for a half...went on a 26-2 run to start the third quarter...then treaded water the rest of the game. During that 26-2 run, it was hard to imagine anyone threatening the Bulls until the Eastern Conference finals.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the "Rose for MVP" discussion since that's working its way toward conclusion. I'm wondering if the side you take in that debate comes down to how you watch the game.

*If you watch the ball, you see an extremely busy Rose on offense, and opponents that keep running into trouble against the Bulls' great defense.

*If you watch the schematics, you see perfect spacing on both sides of the floor, with intelligent play and hustle from everyone on the Bulls. The defense is beautiful to watch when they're really tightening the screws (like during that 26-2 run). Team rebounding approaches art. Chicago is 2nd in the league in defensive rebounding rate, and 3rd in offensive rebound rate (you can sort on either category here).

Looking at the ball makes it appear like Rose is badly outplaying whoever has the ball for the other team...hence he's an MVP if you've zoomed in. Pulling back and looking at the overall flow of the bodies makes Rose seem like a much smaller component. He barely registers defensively, or on the boards. On offense, he's doing what most point guards do...penetrating to either score or kick out to teammates positioned to catch and shoot...except he's much more adept at scoring and drawing fouls than other point guards.

So, best point guard in the NBA? Yes! MVP of the whole league? Rose's dynamism with the ball makes him seem like an MVP if that's where you're focused. Chicago's "beautiful game" as a team makes him seem like a component part who isn't that big a deal in their areas of strength (littlest guy on the best defense in the league, and the best rebounding team in the league).

Switch the conversation to Dwight Howard...and you're looking at a force of nature on defense (Defensive Player of the Year on the league's 3rd best defense) and on the boards (dominant rebounder on the league's 2nd best rebounding team). He's not very graceful with the ball though.

I'm okay with giving Rose some points for leadership. It's not like he's playing on a team of goof-offs though. And, he didn't design the schematics that have provided success for the head coach and main assistant wherever they've been.

Oh, wanted to mention this for awhile. You get the sense from players that it's CHAMPIONSHIPS right now that matter most to everyone's legacy. In interviews, it's like great players are saying "Why are you asking me about the MVP? It's CHAMPIONSHIPS that matter." Great sign for the league I think that stars are focued on rings (including Rose, who made that clear in his postgame interview on TNT). Would the sports world be a better place without MVP awards?

Back late Wednesday to tie up the lose ends in the Western brackets...

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Spurs Regain Control of Destiny

by Jeff Fogle 4. April 2011 00:28

That was quick! San Antonio held serve Sunday with an easy home win over Phoenix. The Los Angeles Lakers were caught flat-footed at home by the Denver Nuggets, losing a game that may ultimately cost them the #1 seed in the West.

Of course, finishing #2 in the West means the the Lakers can avoid worrying about Denver for the time being, and will probably lock up with #3 Dallas who they just crushed Thursday night.

Not exactly the end of the world for the Lakers!

If you watched both Lakers-Mavs and Lakers-Nuggets, you saw a much softer level of intensity Sunday. It's as if the Lakers had a message to send to Dallas about a likely meeting in the second round, and they delivered that message emphatically ("You've got no chance against us!). Sunday vs. Denver? It was more like "Well, we've heard you guys are playing well...but we may not have to worry about you at all...so we'll just kind of play this one by ear and see how it goes."

A faster tempo game than the score suggests was nip and tuck most of the way. Then Andrew Bynum of the Lakers banged up his knee a bit and sat out crunch time. Suddenly Denver was making shots while Kobe was launching poorly advised misses. It was Nuggets by eight by the time Jack Nicholson noticed something was wrong. The Lakers could get close, but time ran out on a comeback. Denver 95-90.

Worth noting:

*Ron Artest wasn't much of a factor in 29 minutes. He only made one basket. And, he's most dangerous defensively when he can harrass the best scorer on the opposing team. Denver is so balanced that it kind of takes Artest out of the game defensively. He can't harrass everybody at once.

*Denver was so balanced that only nine players saw minutes, but seven of the nine were positive in plus/minus. The worst scores were Nene at -2 and Raymond Felton at -1. Nobody was better than +7. On the one hand, you can sense that Denver's not sure who to go to when they NEED a basket. That could be an issue in the playoffs. On the other hand, defenses will have trouble denying whoever's on the floor a good look because ball movement is so good.

*Danilo Gallinari scored 20 points in the first half. Felton had 16 points in the second half. They were on the Knicks not too long ago.

*The Lakers bench outside of Lamar Odom (6th Man of the Year) could be a hindrance in big games. Matt Barnes was -12 in plus/minus in just 18 minutes...and he's been more of a mouth than a force since returning from injury. Shannon Brown was -8 in 11 minutes. Steve Blake was -4 in 19 minutes. The Lakers starters are a year older. The playoffs are likely to be a grind in the tough West. I know, the bench can't be worthless if the team is 17-2 since the All-Star break. Will they step up when it matters most? They didn't today.

In terms of the playoffs...it's tough to disagree with the Lakers' recent surge in the markets to championship favorite. And, Denver is going to have a very difficult path even if they keep playing well. Oklahoma City-Denver in the 4-5 slot is going to be something special. The winner then faces the #1 seed in the second round. And, that's just for the right to go to war again in the Western Finals.

San Antonio will deny LA the #1 seed if they can go at least 4-1 against this schedule:

Tuesday: at Atlanta
Wednesday: vs. Sacramento (back-to-back)
Saturday: vs.Utah
April 12: at LA Lakers
April 13: vs. Phoenix (back-to-back)

A Spurs' loss to Atlanta Tuesday, and the Lakers get back control of their destiny. Here's what the Lakers have left:

Tuesday: vs. Utah
Wednesday: at Golden State (back-to-back)
Friday: at Portland (big game for Blazers)
Sunday: vs. Oklahoma City
April 12: vs. San Antonio
April 13: at Sacramento (back-to-back)

The Lakers will be favored in all six. They were favored today and didn't win.

Transition Points

*Dallas lost at Portland Sunday Night 104-96. It was a tough spot for the Mavs because it was back-to-back off a loss at Golden State, and a third game in four nights. They have to be disappointed to show so poorly on the road against the Lakers and Blazers on this trip. But, the bigger issue may be that this is now the SEVENTH straight loss to Western Conference playoff teams since early March.

Memphis 104, Dallas 103 (in Dallas)
New Orleans 93, Dallas 92 (at New Orleans)
LA Lakers 96, Dallas 91 (in Dallas)
Portland 104, Dallas 101 (in Portland)
San Antonio 97, Dallas 91 (in Dallas)
LA Lakers 110, Dallas 82 (in Los Angeles)
Portland 104, Dallas 96 (in Portland)

They're still a #3 seed, and are in great shape to hold onto that spot. But, Dallas isn't showing any signs of being in the same class as the Lakers or Spurs in terms of contending for the title. They're in worse form lately in games that matter than most everyone else in the West.

An interesting tester awaits Wednesday when Denver visits the Metroplex. Dallas doesn't play until then. Denver will be on night two of a back-to-back after hosting Oklahoma City.

*Portland has every reason in the world to keep battling hard because the 6-7-8 spots in the West are so close...and #6 will likely draw Dallas while the other two get the Spurs and Lakers. The Blazers just took out Okahoma City and Dallas to start a homestand. Three of their last five will be at home as well.
 
*It's tough to see Shaquille O'Neal being much of a factor in the playoffs for Boston. He could only play five minutes in his Sunday return before badly straining a calf muscle. He's carrying so much weight that something is going to break down in any comeback. Just watching him try to get up and down the court tonight, I strained a calf muscle. Rajon Rondo will need to put on that Superman cape of his in the postseason. He apparently put it back in storage after the win at San Antonio.

*The Knicks are back to racing all over the floor now that they've had some time to rest their legs. A layoff since Tuesday led to an up tempo 123-107 win over Cleveland Sunday evening. Cleveland had 22 turnovers, helping inflate the Knicks victory margin. New York was actually outshot 53% to 48%.

*There are no games Monday in the NBA because of the NCAA Championship game. Let's skip Monday, then come back late Tuesday to look at highlights from the busy 13-game card (that includes San Antonio-Atlanta, Philadelphia-Boston in a potential playoff preview, and Oklahoma City-Denver in an extremely likely playoff preview). If any interesting stat notes pop up from Monday night's UCONN-Butler game, I'll post those Tuesday Night.

Other big games this week:
Wednesday: New York at Philadelphia, Denver at Dallas
Thursday: Boston at Chicago
Friday: Denver at Oklahoma City (the rematch!), LA Lakers at Portland
Sunday: Chicago at Orlando, Boston at Miami, Oklahoma City at the Lakers

Man, brutal week for Oklahoma City! But a week for basketball fans that should give us a strong sense for how the postseason might play out...

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Will Spurs Blow Top Seed in West?

by Jeff Fogle 2. April 2011 00:36

This didn't even seem conceivable a couple of weeks ago. But, the San Antonio Spurs have now dropped six straight after a Friday night overtime loss to Houston. They only lead the Lakers by one in the loss column, and they have a road game at Los Angeles down the road. The Spurs have one extra loss in conference play, which would loom large in a tiebreaker. THIS COULD HAPPEN!

The last bit of margin for error was gobbled up when San Antonio couldn't hold a late lead in Houston. Later in the evening, the Lakers won at Utah...creating these standings entering the weekend...

WESTERN CONFERENCE
1...San Antonio 57-19
2...LA Lakers 55-20
3...Dallas 53-22
4...Oklahoma City 50-25
5...Denver 46-29
6...Portland 44-32
7...New Orleans 43-33
8...Memphis 43-33

San Antonio leads by 1.5 games. But, again, it's only one in the loss column. If the Lakers win out...the Lakers win the West. The current 1.5 game lead is a bit of an illusion.

Assume the Lakers win out...

*That would yield a 62-20 record for the season, including a home win over the Spurs on April 12. The best San Antonio could do in that scenario would be 62-20 also.

*If both teams finish 62-20, the first tie-breaker (head-to-head) would be a wash because they went 2-2 against each other. The next tie-breaker would be conference record. The Lakers would win that 41-11 to 39-13 if the Lakers win out and the Spurs win every game but the Lakers.

There are other games to be played of course. Anyone can stub their toe against a non-playoff team. The Lakers have the tougher of the two schedules in terms of dangerous opponents.

Spurs vs. playoff opponents: at Atlanta, at LA Lakers
Lakers vs. playoff opponents: vs. Denver (Sunday on ABC), at Portland, vs. Oklahoma City, vs. San Antonio.

The Lakers will be favored on a game-by-game basis each time...but none of those foes are going to lay down. San Antonio will be able to afford a loss in LA if Denver, Portland, or OK City helps them out. 

Of course, given form since the All-Star Break, seeding may be moot...

WESTERN PLAYOFF TEAMS SINCE ASB
LA Lakers 17-1
Denver 14-4
Oklahoma City 15-6
Dallas 13-6
Memphis 12-7
Portland 12-8
New Orleans 10-8
San Antonio 11-9

We're looking at the possibility of the hottest teams after the break being in the 1-4-5 spots in the brackets if the Lakers do chase down the Spurs.

Friday night was also notable in the East because Miami snuck past Boston into the #2 position. Miami blew out hapless Minnesota. Boston lost in a back-to-back at Atlanta.

EASTERN CONFERENCE
1...Chicago 55-20
2...Miami 53-23
3...Boston 52-23
4...Orlando 48-28
5...Atlanta 44-32
6...Philadelphia 40-36
7...New York 37-38
8...Indiana 35-42

Chicago isn't currently in position to give away the top spot because they're 17-4 since the Break! Five wins in their last seven seals the deal, because that would be 60 wins and Miami or Boston can only get to 59. Chicago will be favored to defeat Toronto, Phoenix, Cleveland, and New Jersey for sure. They'll likely have an edge at home in a big game vs. Boston on April 7. If push comes to shove, they're capable of winning at Orlando or New York.

It's not a sure thing, but Chicago's in very good shape.

Miami has a fairly easy slate the rest of the way. They might be able to deal a knockout blow to Boston for the #2 spot in a home game April 10th. Bad news Celtics fans...you're in third place, and you still have road games left with Chicago and Miami!

I'll itemize games down the road if a nailbiter develops.

Since we ran them for the West, here are the Eastern records since the break...

EASTERN PLAYOFF TEAMS SINCE ASB

Chicago 17-4
Philadelphia 13-7
Orlando 12-7
Miami 12-8
Boston 12-9
Atlanta 10-11
Indiana 11-12
New York 9-12

Chicago continues trying to seal the deal Saturday vs. Toronto. Saturday's schedule is more notable for the Final Four games in the NCAA Tournament than the NBA slate. I'll be back after the college games are over to run some numbers from VCU-Butler and Kentucky-Connecticut...

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Changing Perspectives: West

by Jeff Fogle 22. February 2011 00:56

Who's playing the second best ball in the Western conference right now? You know the San Antonio Spurs are on top with a great record. Dallas currently is in second position in the full season standings. The Lakers are 2.5 games behnd them in third. But, neither Dallas nor the Lakers is playing the second best ball in the West since the start of 2011.

Who's your guess? We'll get to the answer in a second.

As we set up the kaleidoscope so you can see how perceptions change based on how you twist the lens...we start with the playoff race in the West as it appears in your morning newspaper here at the close of the All-Star Break. 

WEST AT THE ASB
1...San Antonio
2...Dallas
3...LA Lakers
4...Oklahoma City
5...Portland
6...New Orleans
7...Denver
8...Utah

Chasing
9...Memphis: (tied, but losing tie-breaker)
10...Phoenix (2.5 games back)
11...Golden State (4 games back)
12...Houston (5 games back)

Hopeless: LA Clippers, Sacramento, Minnesota

Everyone's talking about the Spurs and Lakers because they've ruled this conference for a dozen years. Dallas has moved authoritatively into the conversation because they're on the verge of taking control of home court in a potential series against the Lakers. People SHOULD be talking about Portland as they've surged into the top five despite battling injuries (like usual).

Denver will have little hope of reaching the playoffs this year if one of the talked about trades ever goes through. Poor Utah has slumped down to the eighth and final spot as the Jerry Sloan debacle plays itself out.

Notice at how perceptions of many teams change if you focus only on won-lost records since the end of November.

WEST SINCE END OF NOVEMBER
1...San Antonio: 31-8
2...Dallas: 27-12
3...LA Lakers: 25-14
4...Oklahoma City: 23-13
5...Portland 24-15
6...Memphis: 23-16
7...Denver: 22-19
8...Houston 21-19

Chasing:
9...New Orleans: 21-20 (half a game back)
10...Phoenix: 19-18 (half a game back
11...Golden State: 18-19
12...LA Clippers: 18-20
13...Utah: 17-21

Hopeless: Sacramento 9-28, Minnesota 9-30

Memphis surges into the sixth spot from off the grid. Houston is suddenly in the mix too. New Orleans is now on the outside looking in. Utah is WAY on the outside looking in.

And, look at all of those teams around the .500 mark playing very respectable basketball for two-and-a-half months. Phoenix is knocking on the door even though this was supposed to be a lost season. There's Golden State with a new coach and a new outlook. The LA Clippers and Blake Griffin would be within striking distance if the season started December 1st.

Turn the lens one more time and the places get really jumbled. The team playing the second best basketball in the West in the year 2011 isn't Dallas, or the Lakers, or even Oklahoma City or Portland. The team playing the second best ball in the West the past six weeks isn't even technically in the top eight yet for the full season...

WEST SINCE END OF DECEMBER
1...San Antonio: 18-6
2...Memphis: 17-8
3...Portland: 15-8
4...Dallas: 16-9
5...LA Lakers: 15-9
6...Oklahoma City: 12-8
7...Golden State: 13-10
7 (tie)...Phoenix: 13-10

Chasing:
9...New Orleans: 14-11
10...Denver: 14-12

The Rest: LA Clippers 11-12, Houston 10-15, Utah 9-15, Sacramento 7-17, Minnesota 5-18

Dallas and the Lakers are still winning at impressive clips, but they're a shade behind Memphis and Portland in 2011. Golden State and Phoenix would be playoff teams if the season started at the New Year. Let's keep an eye on the Warriors, who open the second portion of the season tonight vs. Boston.

Houston and Utah are suddenly down with Sacramento. Utah's demise has been well documented here and elsewhere. Houston's been almost as bad over the last 25 games.

I asked in the companion piece to this report on the East whether you think it's best to evaluate team quality "right now" on the full season numbers or recent form. Utah's making a very good case for throwing out early numbers given their demise. But, the talent's obviously there to turn things around if they ever get their heads on straight. Which Memphis will we see from this point forward? Which Portland? Which Lakers for that matter? Will a new Denver roster fall to the equal of Sacramento if any rumored trades go through as they build for the future?

There are many developing stories in both the East and West right now. It's tough to make moving objects stand still so we can get the best look. At least the All-Star Break gave us a chance to focus for a moment on where we need to aim our lens when everyone starts moving again...

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