Midseason Superlatives (cont.)
Chandler carved out a nice niche as a defensive backstop in New Orleans, only to have chronic ankle and toe injuries cut into his last two seasons and threaten to stall his career. In Dallas, a healthy Chandler has fortified the Mavericks' defense, giving the team's potent offense a championship-caliber defense to rely on.
Runner-up: How many former $20-million-per-year players would be willing to reinvent themselves as a backup on a floundering team? Tracy McGrady did, and in doing so probably tacked a few more years onto his career.
Clippers topple Heat 111-105
LeBron James' kick-the-crap-out-of-every-team-that-recruited-me-tour seemed likely to continue in L.A. on Jan. 12, what with Miami riding a 13-game road winning streak and having won 21 of 22 overall. But the Clippers weren't the least bit intimidated by the Heat's star power as they led 44-26 after the first quarter and held on to improve to 13-24. Griffin, as usual, was the catalyst, muscling Miami's smallish front line on his way to a ho-hum (for him, anyway) 24-point, 14-rebound night.
Runner-up: The Cavs have only eight wins, but their season-opening W against Boston -- a day after the Celtics beat the Heat -- gave Cleveland something to cheer about.
LeBron vs. Cleveland
James has insulted his former team on television (with the ill-conceived "Decision"), on the court (with a nationally televised 28-point pasting in December) and last week took the fight to Twitter (more on that below). The city has played its part, what with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's scathing open letter in the wake of James' departure and the constantly replayed images of Cleveland fans burning their former hero's jersey. Three or four annual meetings over the next five years won't help this feud cool down much, either.
Runner-up: John Kuester vs. several Pistons veterans, the latest being Rip Hamilton, who's been handed five consecutive DNP-CDs.
MOST TELLING STAT
Cavs' nonexistent defense
Wins and losses are the easiest way to quantify LeBron James' impact on Cleveland -- through 41 games last season, the Cavs were 31-10; this year they are a league-worst 8-33. But a closer look reveals even uglier numbers, especially on defense. Last season, Cleveland surrendered a stingy 95.6 points per game while holding opponents to 44.2 percent shooting. This season, with nine players from last year's squad still on the roster, the Cavs have allowed opponents to score 104.9 points and shoot 48.1 percent. Ugh.
Runner-up: For the first time, four teams (Boston, Miami, Dallas and New York) were riding eight-game winning streaks at the same time.
Let it go, LeBron
Moments after Cleveland's 55-point pasting by the Lakers on Jan. 11, James couldn't resist getting in one more dig, tweeting, "Crazy. Karma is a b****.. Gets you every time. Its not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!" The implication, of course, being that Gilbert's nasty letter was coming back to haunt him. It was an entirely unnecessary taunt at a moribund franchise that probably erased the smallest sliver of goodwill James might have had left in Cleveland.
Runner-up: Gotta love Shaquille O'Neal's ability to mobilize hundreds of Celtics fans to Harvard Square with a simple tweet indicating he would be spending some time as a statue.
MOST BIZARRE STORY
Refs gone wild! (San Antonio vs. Minnesota)
In an effort to curb complaining, the NBA authorized officials to hand out quick technicals for too many theatrics. The crackdown has been widely panned because of its subjectivity, with some referees willing to blow the quick whistle and others showing more restraint. Veteran official Ken Mauer is one of the former. In Minnesota on Jan. 11, Mauer blew five -- count 'em, five! -- techs in a 10-second span, tagging Wolves coach Kurt Rambis with two and Darko Milicic, Corey Brewer and Kevin Love with one apiece. The Spurs converted all five free throws, expanding a six-point third-quarter lead to 11 en route to an 11-point win.
Runner-up: David Lee wanted to take a piece out of the Knicks. He did, catching Wilson Chandler's tooth in his elbow that led to two surgeries to clean out the infection.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
Durant was a chic pick to supplant LeBron as the league's MVP. But Durant isn't the best player on his team. That distinction belongs to Westbrook, who is one of two players (the other being James) averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. Westbrook has raised his scoring six points per game from last season while simultaneously bumping up his assist and rebound numbers. That's not a knock on Durant, either. He leads the league in scoring and, after a shaky shooting start, is connecting on 47.6 percent.
Runner-up: Whatever problems James and Dwyane Wade had early in the season have been resolved. Big time.
BEST HIGHLIGHT REEL
Blake Griffin's. Any of them.
Can't have a midseason report without a frank discussion of Griffin, whose rookie season has been one jaw-dropping highlight after another. There was the poster-worthy dunks over Timofey Mozgov and Danilo Gallinari. There was the aerial show he put on against Detroit. There was the 47 points he dropped on Indiana. For a Clippers franchise that has been largely irrelevant for so long, Griffin's brilliance offers hope for the future.
Runner-up: Have you seen Derrick Rose's slams lately? Oh my.