Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The start of the 2014-15 NBA season has been nothing but short of spectacular, exciting, humbling and disappointing. Members of the 2011 draft class earned some well-deserved contract extensions and have played to the level of those extensions in the early part of this season. A perennial 50-plus win team and one of the best stories in the league last season have risen their level of play and are leading their respective conferences. Four of the NBA’s flagship franchises have begun this season behind the eight ball and show no signs of turning things around anytime soon. Here is the good, the bad and the ugly for the months of Oct. /Nov. in NBA.
The Good
Hot starts by the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors
At the start of last season, the Atlantic Division was supposed to belong to the Brooklyn Nets. A slow start to the season opened the door for the Toronto Raptors, who shook off a slow start and won a franchise record 48 games to capture the No. 3 Seed and win the Atlantic for the second time in franchise history.
In the playoffs however, they lost in seven games to the aforementioned Nets.
This season, the Raptors (16-5) exploded out of the gates with 13 wins in their first 16 opportunities, leading the Eastern Conference.
Leading the charge is the explosive starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry (18.6 ppg, 6.4 apg), who had a career season a year ago. That earned him a new four-year $48 million contract this off-season. Alongside Lowry is first-time All-Star a season ago DeMar DeRozen (19.4 ppg-leads team). They both have picked where they left off a season ago, which has resulted in the Raptors having the best record in the East to this point.
The addition of Lou Williams (14.9 ppg, 44.9 FG%, 40.9 3-Pt.%) has given the team an offensive force off the bench. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers, who got an up close view of the scoring effectiveness of Williams who scored 36 points off the bench going 9 for 19 from the field, 3 for 8 from three-point range and 15 for 15 from the free throw line to lead the Raptors to a 110-93 victory at the Cavaliers on Nov. 22, their fourth win in a row. In that same contest, Lowry had 23 points and eight assists and DeRozen had 20.
Also, the steady growth of starting center Jonas Valanciunas (11.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg-leads team, 57.8 FG%-leads team) and starting small forward Terrence Ross (10.7 ppg, 41.9 3-Pt.%) is a major reason the Raptors have gone from a good story a season ago to a serious contender at least early on.
In their 104-100 win versus the Phoenix Suns, their fifth consecutive win on Nov. 24, Valanciunas had a career-high 27 points on 10 for 11 from the floor to go along with 11 rebounds.
The Raptors got their sixth win in succession at the Atlanta Hawks two nights later 126-115 with DeRozen leading the way with 27 points. Williams had 22 points off the bench against his former team and back-up guard Greivis Vasquez had 21 and Lowry had 14 points and 13 assists.
Two nights later though, the Raptors’ six-game winning streak ended at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks 106-102. They not only lost the game, but they lost DeRozen who in the early stages of the third quarter slipped and fell to the ground and began kicking his leg in great pain. He eventually was able to get to his feet and walked very gingerly to the Raptors’ dressing room.
The first time All-Star a season ago was diagnosed this past Saturday with a torn left adductor longus tendon in his leg and is out indefinitely.
The Raptors finished the month with a 129-122 loss at the Los Angeles Lakers last Sunday night. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant finished with the 20th triple-double of his career with 31 points 11 rebounds and 12 assists.
Lowry tried to pick up the slack for the absence of DeRozen had 29 points and nine assists for the Raptors, but shot just 10 for 28 from the field, including going 1 for 8 from three-point land. Swingman Terrence Ross scored 20. Williams and Vasquez, who started in DeRozen’s place at two-guard each had 19 points. Forward Patrick Patterson had 10 points and 13 rebounds off the bench for Toronto.
Without one half of one of the most explosive backcourts in the league, the Raptors for an extended period of time will have to get more out of the likes of Ross, Valanciunas, Patterson and Williams  if they want to stay atop the Eastern Conference.
In the last three seasons the Golden State Warriors have gone from perennial bad team to one of the best in the Western Conference. Last season they went 51-31 marking the first 50-plus win season in two decades.
Their season came to a disappointing end last April losing to their Division rival Los Angeles Clippers in seven games in the first round.
The organization decided to shake things up and relieved then head coach Mark Jackson of his duties and hired five-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs and former NBATV/NBA on TNT color analyst Steve Kerr.
This was a bold and risky move by the organization. The one thing that was in their favor was the fact that the team was stacked with talent lead by dynamic backcourt of Stehpen Curry and Klay Thompson and supported by guards Leandro Barbosa and Shaun Livingston; a solid front court that features center Andrew Bogut, forwards David Lee, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Marreese Speights.
The team has so far been nothing short of sensational at 18-2, leading the Western Conference. They shot out of the gates 5-0, consisting of a 95-90 victory at the Portland Trail Blazers (16-4) on Nov. 2; a 121-104 victory versus the arch rival and Pacific Division rival Clippers (15-5) on Nov. 5 and a 98-87 win at the Houston Rockets (16-4) on Nov. 8.
Following two straight defeats at the Phoenix Suns (12-10) 107-95 back on Nov. 9 and versus the defending champion San Antonio Spurs (15-5) 113-100 on Nov. 11, the Warriors closed out the month of November with nine consecutive victories.
What has helped the Warriors get off one of the best starts in team history is the fact that they are one of the most efficient teams in the league on both ends.
They rank fourth in the league in points per game at 106.9. The Warriors are No. 4 in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent and in three-point makes per game at 9.5. On top of that, they lead the NBA in assists per contest at 26.0 and Curry leads the team at 7.7 assists per contest, after averaging 8.5 a season ago.
The strong offensive output is the lead by Curry, who is averaging 23.1 points per contest. Second to him is Thompson, who is averaging a career best 21.0 points per game.
Rounding out the double figure scorers for the team are Green, Speights and Barnes who are having career seasons scoring wise.
Green, who has been filling in as the starting power forward in place of Lee, who has been on the shelf because of a hamstring injury is third on the team in scoring at 13.3 points per game, while also averaging 7.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 45.5 percent from the floor and 36.7 percent from three-point range.  
Speights, an early contender for Sixth Man of the Year, is the fourth best scorer on the Warriors averaging 12.3 points per contest off the bench along with 5.1 rebounds per game and shooting 54.2 percent from the floor.
After struggling for much of his second season last year, Barnes, who is back as the starting small forward for the Warriors has come into his own in this third season averaging 11.2 points per contest, 6.4 boards on 51.6 percent shooting from the floor and 42.2 percent from three-point range.
On defense where they Warriors have gotten better and better over the past two seasons, they are ranked fifth in points allowed at 95.7; they are leading the league in opponent’s field goal percentage at 40.9 percent and in blocks per game at 6.5. They are third in the league in rebounding per game at 45.9. They also get 8.7 steals per game, which is tied for seventh in the league and are sixth in the league with 15.6 forced turnovers per game.
In their 11 games of their 13-game winning streak, Golden State surrendered just 94.9 points per contest. Their last 11 opponents have manage to shoot just 41 percent against them and teams have managed just 20.9 assists per contest.
One big for the Warriors continued improvement at the defensive end has been the play of Bogut who is averaging 9.4 boards and 2.3 blocks per contest, which is ranked fourth in the league. His interior presence in the paint has been a good as gold for the Warriors. The only question is can he continue to stay healthy so that the can continue their amazing play at the defensive end.
Two years ago, the Warriors took the league by storm and came within two games of appearing in the Western Conference Finals.
Last season in the eyes of the organization, they took a step backwards not getting out of the first round.
The hiring of Kerr, who is coaching for the first time, could have gone the other way. With that being said, the five-time champion has played for two of the best coaches in NBA history in Phil Jackson and Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich. He has been able to take bits and pieces from both and has incorporated them into his own style. One area that can be seen is that the Warriors share the ball very well at the offensive end. Above all else, from their best players to the bench guys, the team has a cohesiveness that is very rare and that has translated into a level of winning in the Bay Area that has been a long time coming.
The question is can the Warriors sustain this hot start though. The defending champion Spurs are laying in the weeds and it will not be long before they make a serious run for that top spot in the West the Warriors occupy right now.
If David Lee can come back and be that offensive presence in the paint and Barnes, Speights and Green continue to play at a high level, the Warriors have as good a chance to be in the Western Conference Finals.
The 2011 Draft Class Gets Paid
For a long time when each new draft class enters the NBA, the question all surfaces is this the next coming of great talent in the NBA? Will members of this class lead their team’s from the valley of nowhere to the top of the NBA mountain where champions reside? Who of this draft class change the way we see the game of basketball?
Well several players of the 2011 draft class have taken their teams at least from the valley of nowhere and have put their team’s at least in the conversation of becoming a consistent playoff contender; an important building block for the future and a couple even into the conversation of being a championship contender.
The No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft class in guard Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers this off-season got a five-year $90 million contract extension.
His resume in his first three seasons consist of him winning Rookie of the Year (2012) and made the 2012 NBA All-Rookie First Team. Being a two-time All-Star, capturing MVP honors with a 31-point 14 assists performance in leading the Eastern Conference to a 163-155 win over the Western Conference at the 2014 All-Star Game a season ago. He helped Team USA capture Gold at the FIBA World Cup in Spain this past summer.
With all of his individual accomplishments, Irving has yet to lead the Cavs to the playoffs. His chances of achieving that this season became greater with the return of LeBron James  and the additions of Kevin Love, Mike Miller and Shawn Marion to name a few.
While the team struggled out of the gates with a 5-7 mark after a 110-93 defeat versus the Raptors on Nov. 22, the Cavs have won seven consecutive games, which includes three straight victories to close the month of November.  
With the new additions, James in particular, anything less than an appearance in the NBA Finals would be considered a failed season for the Cavs. Irving’s ability to play at a high level not just in the regular season, but in the postseason, where he has yet to be, will be very important in helping make the Cavs dream a reality.
So far he has played at okay averaging 21.2 points and 4.8 assists per contest on 47.9 percent from the floor and 41.8 percent from three-point range.  
Another player who was a major factor in helping Team USA capture Gold this past summer in Spain was starting two-guard of the Warriors Klay Thompson.
On Oct. 31st, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 out of Washington State and the son of former NBA champion Mychal Thompson signed a four-year $70 million contract extension and 24 hours later, he scored a career high 41 points going 14 for 18 from the field in the 127-104 victory versus the Lakers on Nov. 1.
Each season, Thompson has improved his scoring going from 12.5 points in his rookie season of 2011-12 to 16.6 the next season; to 18.4 a season ago and to 21.2 so far this season.
While he has been known as a sharp shooter, he has expanded his game to where he can more than hold his own guarding the opposing team’s best player on the perimeter. At the offensive end, Thompson can is as good as any perimeter player not just scoring on the perimeter, but putting the ball on the floor and scoring at the rim or getting to the free throw line more consistently, where he is shooting at 87 percent this season.
His floor game has been pretty good as well averaging nearly 3.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.
Ever since his entrance into the NBA, he and his backcourt mate Stephen Curry, who is the father of Dell Curry, one of the best shooters in league history have taken the Warriors from a perennial bottom dweller in the West to a championship contender especially this season.
Two years ago the duo dubbed “The Splash Brothers” helped lead the Warriors back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 as the No. 6 Seed. They upset the No. 3 Seeded Denver Nuggets in six games, but fell in six games to the San Antonio Spurs in the Conference Semifinals.
Last season, Curry and Thompson helped guide the Warriors to a 51-31 record, the team first 50-plus win season in 20 years.
The duo set an NBA record that season by making a combined 484 three-point field goals a season ago, besting their mark from the year prior by one.
They entered the playoffs as the No. 6 Seed again, but lost to the Pacific Division champion Clippers in a thrilling seven game series.
Despite the great season, the Warriors let Head Coach Mark Jackson go and they hired former NBATV/NBA on TNT color analyst Steve Kerr.
So far, the team has made out great with nine consecutive wins to close out November and with their 112-85 victory versus the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night, the team tied a franchise record with 11 consecutive wins and right now are neck and neck with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Thompson had 23 points in the contest on 8 for 16 from the field, where five of those field goals came from three-point range in eight tries.
A player who unexpectedly made Team USA this past summer and turned his great season a year ago into a major pay day was Denver Nuggets’ forward Kenneth Faried.
In the first two seasons of his career, Faried put up solid numbers with 10.2 points, 7.7 boards on 58.6 percent shooting in his rookie season and 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds on 55.2 percent shooting in his second season.
In a season where the Nuggets were without key member of their team because of injury, it gave opportunity to the likes of Faried, who really capitalized averaging 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per contest on 54.5 percent shooting.
His stellar third season earned him a contract extension of four years and $50 million that the 22nd overall pick out of Morehead State signed back on Oct. 8, when the 22nd overall pick out of Morehead State.
He really kicked it into high gear the last two months of the season averaging 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest in the month of March and 21.0 points and 13.0 rebounds in the month of April last season.
On Apr. 2, he scored a career-high 34 points in a 137-107 victory over the Pelicans.
This past summer, his trade hustle and relentless energy which has become a trade mark in the early part of his career helped him become a member of Team USA this summer and that same intensity was a big reason the team went 9-0 on their way to capturing Gold in Spain.
During the FIBA World Cup games, Faried averaged 12.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game and he was named to the All-Tournament Team.
With several Nuggets back in the fold like J.J. Hickson, Darrell Arthur, Nate Robinson, Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee, the number for Faried (11.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) have been down a little bit.
However, his energy and effort are just as important as the talents of the other players. He brings something to the table that you cannot teach. You either have it or you do not.
If the Nuggets (9-12), who have been up and down in the early part of this season can bring the consistent energy and effort Faried has going back to his early years of playing on the courts of Newark, NJ, the Nuggets can get back into the difficult playoff chase in the West.
Other members of the 2011 draft class that received contract extensions include Charlotte Hornets lead guard Kemba Walker, who received a four-year $48 million contract extension; Utah Jazz guard Alec Burks, who got a four-year $42 million extension; forward Markieff and Marcus Morris of the Phoenix Suns received four-year $52 million contract extensions and Orlando Magic starting center Nikola Vucevic received a four-year $53 million extension.
What each of these players has in common is that they are on teams where they are trying to get into the conversation of becoming a consistent participant in the playoffs.
Last season, the Hornets, then the Bobcats made the playoffs for just the second time in team history with a 43-39 record making them the No. 7 Seed. They took on the Miami Heat and got swept 4-0.
A major reason for the team’s turnaround a season ago was the addition of Al Jefferson in free agency, who gave the then Bobcats a presence in the paint, especially at the offensive end. That allowed Walker and the other perimeter players like Gerald Henderson and Gary Neal to name a few more room to operate on the perimeter. The result, Walker had a solid season tying a career-high in scoring per game with a 17.7 average.
This season though, the now Hornets (4-15) have struggled out the gates with nine straight defeats to close the month of Nov. and their 102-95 setback versus the Chicago Bulls (12-8) six days ago was their 10 straight defeat.
The Hornets ended their 10-game slide in dramatic fashion last Friday night when Walker scored on a driving layup with four seconds left to defeat the New York Knicks 103-102.  
The additions via free agency and the draft of Lance Stephenson, Brian Roberts, Jason Maxiell and P.J. Hairston have not panned out and Walker is scoring just 14.3 points per game is only shooting just 36 percent from the field.
While they have been singing the blues over the past couple of seasons in Utah (6-16), Burks is part of team that at least has talented players to build towards the future and he is a big part of that.
The 12th overall pick out of Colorado has really emerged last season scoring 14.0 points on 45.7 percent shooting from the floor and 35.0 percent from three-point range coming off the bench.
This season as Utah’s starting shooting guard, Burks has been very steady scoring 13.4 points and grabbing 4.5 rebounds per game, but is shooting just 40.7 percent from the field.
He along with starting point guard Trey Burke, swingman Gordon Hayward, forward Derrick Favors, center Enes Kanter, rookie guard Dante Exum, back-up center Rudy Gobert are the nucleus that Jazz fans, under the direction of new head coach Kirk Snyder are counting on to get them back to being a consistent playoff contender and championship contender like they were back in the 1990s lead by of Hall of Famers John Stockton, Karl Malone and head coach Jerry Sloan.
In the history of the Orlando Magic, they have had two big man in future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and current Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard lead them to the NBA Finals although they could not get them to the finish line in 1994 and 2009.
On Aug. 12, 2012, the team acquired center Nikola Vucevic in a four-team trade involving the Howard, Andrew Bynum, Arron Affalo, Andre Iguodala and others.
Since arriving in Orlando, Vucevic and been a fixture in the middle with his scoring and rebounding presence.
In his first two season with the Magic, the 16th overall pick in 2011 by the Philadelphia 76ers out of University of Southern California (USC) has garnered 82 double-doubles. In 2012-13, Vucevic has averaged 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per game and last season he averaged 14.2 points and 11.0 boards per contest.
Back on Dec. 31, 2012 in a 112-110 overtime loss versus the in-state rival Miami Heat, Vucevic had 20 points to go along with a single-game team record 29 rebounds.
He was rewarded this past off-season with a four-year $53 million extension.
So far this season, he has garnered 13 double-doubles, which leads the NBA and he is averaging career-highs with 18.6 points, second on the team and 11.7 rebounds per game, which is fifth in the league.
That move has allowed the team to put its focus on taking care of other areas. In the draft over the past two seasons they have drafted their starting backcourt in Victory Oladipo, the No. 2 overall pick a season ago out of Indiana and rookie lead guard Elfrid Payton, the No. 10 overall pick this past June out of Louisiana-Lafayette. The Magic also drafted this past summer forward Aaron Gordon, the No. 4 overall pick out of Arizona, who is out for the next six to eight weeks because of surgery to repair the fifth metatarsal in his left foot.
Through free agency this summer, the Magic signed sharp some veterans in shooting forward in Channing Frye, guards Luke Ridnour, Willie Green and Ben Gordon.
Last season, they acquired their current starting power forward in Long Island native and cousin of Frye in Tobias Harris and they acquired this past summer their starting small forward from the Denver Nuggets in Frenchman sharp shooter Evan Fournier.
Rounding out the team’s nucleus is forwards Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O’Quinn. 
The talent is there, the question now is can it call come together and soon under third-year head coach Jacque Vaughn. So far the team is 9-14, on the outside of the playoffs looking right now. You only have so long to have losing season after losing season.
One team ahead of the curve in terms of become a playoff contender is the Phoenix Suns.
After an awful 25-57 season two years ago, the Suns had a 23-game improvement but missed out on the playoffs by one game.
Two key contributors to that turnaround a season ago were the Morris’ twins Markieff and Marcus.
Both were primetime contributors off the bench a season ago as Markieff averaged 13.8 points, 6.0 boards on 48.6 percent shooting and Marcus averaged 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds on 44.2 percent shooting.
Back on Sept. 29, Markieff, the 13th overall pick out of Kansas and Marcus, the 14th overall pick by the Rockets, who was traded to the Suns back on Feb. 21, 2013 received a] four-year $52 million contract extensions.
So far this season, now the starting power forward, Markieff is averaging a career-high 14.9 points 6.6 rebounds on 46.7 percent shooting.
On Nov. 17, he scored a career-high 30 points to go along with seven boards, five assists and four steals in a 118-114 win at the Boston Celtics (7-12). In that same game, Marcus, who is averaging 9.4 points and 3.9 rebounds shooting 38.2 percent from three-point range had 13 points, five boards and seven assists as well in the victory at the Celtics.
The Morris twins ability to score inside and stretch the floor have been great in complementing the likes of starting guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe as well as center Miles Plumlee, forward P.J. Tucker, swingman Gerald Green and Isaiah Thomas.
So far the Suns (12-10) has held their own in the tough Western Conference and through their moves the past two off-seasons has emerged as a consistent playoff contender and whose future is very bright.
Mavericks’ Star Player Making History
Back in the 1998 Draft, the Dallas Mavericks acquired the draft rights to a sharp shooting forward from Wurzburg, Germany named Dirk Nowitzki, the ninth overall pick.
Many people did not know who he was and really did not expect much from him.
After 17 seasons, he not only made his presence known across the NBA landscape as well as the world, he helped turned the Mavericks from a perennial loser into a consistent playoff participant and lead the Mavs to their first ever NBA title when they defeated the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals in six games. Nowitzki capture the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award.
Along the way he has been named the MVP of the league, which happened in 2007. He has been All-Star 12 times; a four-time All-NBA First Team selection; a five-time All-NBA Second Team selection and a three-time All-NBA Third-Team selection.
On Nov. 11, Nowitzki scored 23 points to surpass Hall of Fame center of the Rockers Hakeem Olajuwon as the highest scoring player in the league that was born outside North America as the Mavericks defeated the Sacramento Kings 106-98, garnering their 21st consecutive regular season home victory over the team from the capital of California.
The history making points came when Nowitzki hit a jumper from inside the three-point line in the early part of the fourth quarter.
Along with becoming the highest scoring foreign player in NBA history, Nowitzki moved into ninth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list passing Olajuwon, also known as “The Dream.” Nowitzki at that time had 26,953 total points.
“You know to pass ‘The Dream’ is unbelievable,” the 36-year-old Nowitzki, who is in his 17th season with the Mavs said after the victory.
“He was unguardable on the block. His footwork, his skill level, his hands, his touch was second to none, so I’m pretty proud.”
Six days later in a 107-80 victory at the Hornets, Nowitzki scored 13 points and surpassed the 27,000 point mark. He joined Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone as the only players in NBA history to score 27,000-plus points with one NBA franchise.
In the Mavs 106-102 victory over the Raptors back on Nov. 28, Nowitzki had 15 points and eight rebounds and became the 23rd player in NBA history to make 1,500 three-pointers in his NBA career when he connected on his only make in seven tries at the 7:27 mark of the open period. He now has a total of 1,503 three-point connections in his career and sometime this season he will move into the top twenty surpassing former Vancover Grizzlies’, Kings, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards’, Miami Heat and New York Knicks guard Mike Bibby and former Los Angeles Lakers,' Denver Nuggets’, Mavericks’, Warriors’, Portland Trail Blazers’ and Spurs guard Nick Van Exel.
Along with achieving this amazing milestones, the Mavericks have gotten off to a solid start at 16-6 so far this season, No. 7 Seed in the West.
The additions of center Tyson Chandler, in his second tour of duty with the Mavs along with the Chandler Parsons, Richard Jefferson, Jameer Nelson, Al-Farouq Aminu and J.J. Barea, who is also in his second tour of duty with the Mavs has been great.
Those additions along with the continued steady play of Nowitzki and the great play of last season’s free agent acquisition of Monta Ellis has put the Mavs back in the conversation of winning another title.
The Bad
Injuries Shelve Marquee Players to Start Season
Like most professional sports it is about the team coming together to achieve a common goal. Most of the time it is to win a championship. On top of that, it is also about some key individuals who take the spotlight in leading that team to that goal.
The 2014-15 season began with a number of marquee players on the shelf because of injury.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder (7-13), the dynamic duo of forward Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have combined to play in just five games because of injury.
Durant, last season’s MVP missed the first 17 games because of a fracture in his right foot. Westbrook broke his right hand in just the second game of the season back on Oct. 30th, a 93-90 loss at the Los Angeles Clippers.
The result, the Thunder won four of their first 16 contest. So far this season, they have averaged just 92.5 points per game and rank 29th in assists per contest at 19.2.
Westbrook made his return last Friday versus the New York Knicks and he came back with a vengeance, finishing with 32 points, seven boards and eight assists in 24 minutes in the Thunder’s 105-78 victory.
The Thunder’s lead guard became the first player in the 24-second shot clock era to have 30 points and eight assists in 24 minutes or fewer.
To put this in an even bigger perspective, Westbrook in the first quarter had 14 points on 6 for 7 shooting and the Knicks had 13 points on 4 for 22 from the floor as a team. With Westbrook on the court, the Knicks managed just 36 points going just 14 for 40 from the field, 0 for 8 from three-point land and having just seven assists.
“I’m just blessed to be able to get back out on the floor with my teammates,” Westbrook, who went 12 for 17 from the field, including 3 for 4 on three-pointers, said to ESPN’s Marc Stein after the game last week.
This past Tuesday, the Thunder got their All-Star forward back in Durant, who scored 27 points on 9 for 18 shooting in the 112-104 loss at the New Orleans Pelicans.
In his second game back, Westbrook put in 21 points, six boards and seven assists, but shot just 6 for 20 from the field.
With the West loaded with so many good teams, the slow start by the Thunder this season has put them behind the eight ball in a major way and just making the playoffs will not be an easy task.
In the past six seasons in the West, the No. 8 Seed has averaged 48 wins. Four years ago, the Thunder were the No. 8 Seed with a 50-32 mark.
For them to even have a chance to make the post-season this year, where the Thunder currently are four games out of right now, they have to go 43-19 the rest of the way to even give themselves a chance.
With Durant and Westbrook back now, the team can start developing chemistry with the rest of the cast in Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow, Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison to make this major run to the postseason
Another team that sustained injuries to key people are last season’s Eastern Conference runner-up the Indiana Pacers (7-14).
Their injury problems began this summer when their All-Star forward Paul George suffered a fractured leg during a Team USA scrimmage.
While he has started working on his conditioning on an underwater treadmill, George is still expected to be out for this season.
Things went from bad to worse as starting lead guard George Hill has yet to play this season because of a left knee contusion; starting power forward David West and back-up guard C.J. Watson missed the first twelve games of the season because of a sprained right ankle and right foot injury respectably.
West and Watson made their 2014-15 season debuts back on Nov. 28 versus the Magic.
West finished with 18 points and six boards on 8 for 17 from the field in the 98-83 victory. Watson had nine points and four assists off the bench in 18 minutes.
The Pacers have been able to stay afloat in the playoff race because of the solid play of center Roy Hibbert, who averaged 12.9 points, 7.7 boards (leads team) and 2.4 blocks (3rd NBA) per contest.
The team has also gotten major contributions from its free agent guard Rodney Stuckey, the Pacers leading scorer 12.9 points per contest.
The absence of George, Hill, West and Watson has given playing time to forward Chris Copeland (11.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 34.5 3-Pt.%), forward Solomon Hill (11.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and guard Donald Sloan (11.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 5.0 apg) and forward Lavoy Allen (7.1 ppg 7.7 rpg)
In that 15-point win versus the Magic, Stuckey lead the way with 24 points on 9 for 15 from the field. Hill had 11 points and four rebounds and Allen had 10 points and 14 rebounds.
The solid play from the rest of the team in the absence of Hill, West and Watson has allowed the Pacers to be within striking distance of making the playoffs again. A recent three-game losing streak however, with their last loss at the Portland Trail Blazers this past Thursday night has not helped.
What has allowed the Pacers to stay afloat to start this season has been the fact that they have remained true to their identity of being a defensive team first and foremost.
They are ranked seventh in points allowed surrendering just 96.9 per contest and they are second in rebounds per game at 46.0.
The good thing the Pacers have in their favor unlike the Thunder, the East aside from the Bulls, Cavs, Washington Wizards and Raptors is very weak. If they can string a run together, they can easily be back in the playoff mix.  
The Ugly
NBA Flagship Franchises at the Bottom
The National Basketball Association has been around for nearly seven decades. In that period of time the Lakers, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have a combined total of 38 championships.
When it comes to players in the Hall of Fame and game changers, these three teams have had some of the best to ever lace them up from guys like Larry Bird, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Earl “Pearl” Monroe, Dr. Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlin, Dennis Johnson, Bob Cousy, Maurice Cheeks, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and many more.
This season, all four of these franchises are a far cry from those moments of glory and the supposed stars of those teams and who hoped to become stars have individually been okay or played great, but have not lifted their team to that plateau.
The Sixers in particular are building to a championship culture starting at the very bottom.
Aside from last season’s Rookie of the Year in the 11th overall pick guard Michael Carter-Williams out of Syracuse, forward/center Nerlens Noel, the sixth overall pick last June and center Joel Embiid, the third overall pick out of Kansas, the team is made up of players who otherwise would be playing in the D-League or overseas.
Just two years ago, the team from the city of “Brotherly Love” was just one game away from the Eastern Conference Finals as they lost to the Celtics in the East Semifinals in seven game.
Key members of that team like head coach Doug Collins, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, Lavoy Allen, Lou Williams, Jodie Meeks, Spencer Hawes, Elton Brand Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday are all with other teams now as they all left via free agency or they were traded.
The journey to get back to respectability has been one that has been filled with a lot of losing streaks for the Sixers over the past two seasons.
Last year, they set a franchise record and tied the 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers for the longest losing streak in NBA history dropping 26 consecutive games.
The Sixers dropped their first 17 games of this season, losing all 15 games in Oct. and Nov., before finally getting into the win column last Wednesday night with an 85-77 win at the Minnesota Timberwolves (4-16).
The hope for the rest of this season is that Carter-Williams and Noel can develop into the key building blocks that can lead the Sixers to brighter and better days ahead. That some of the players who are getting a chance now like Tony Wroten, K.J. McDaniels, Robert Covington, Hollis Thompson, Henry Sims and Alexey Shved show well enough that they can be a part of the Sixers going forward. More than anything, they need Embiid to rehab from his back injury and return whether it is this season or next season and they need Dario Saric, the 12th overall pick in last summer’s draft to make an immediate impact when he does play for the Sixers.
Both the Laker and the Knicks have a number of things in common. Both have superstar players in Kobe Bryant for the Lakers and Carmelo Anthony for the Knicks. Both are cities with fan bases that expect them to win every year. Both are parts of teams that are struggling to win.
The Lakers are next to last in the West with one loan victory against a Western Conference opponent in 15 chances.
The Knicks have not only three victories against Eastern Conference opponents and are in the middle of an 8-game losing streak and they are in the middle of their worst start in franchise history.
They have lost every which way possible. They have been blown out and they have suffered gut wrenching losses like the one they had back on Nov. 14 when Jazz guard Trey Burke scored on a fade away jumper at the buzzer to beat the Knicks 102-100.
The other thing that these two franchises have in common is the fact that the supporting cast is not one that is championship caliber.
For the Lakers, the likes of Carlos Boozer, Ed Davis, Wayne Ellington, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young and Ryan Kelly are all talented players and were very high draft choices when they entered the league. Unfortunately, they never materialized into players that were able to be traded, amnestied in the case of Boozer and some are just players that on championship caliber teams would be solid players.
In the case of the Knicks, the likes of Andrea Bargnani, Samuel Dalembert, Cold Aldrich, Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Jason Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire are all players who have worlds of talent, but have been inconsistent.
In the cases of Stoudemire and Bargnani, injuries in their careers have set them back. When each was brought to the Knicks via trade or in the case of Stoudemire, signing a five –year, $100 million contract as a free agent four years ago, they were expected to be big parts of the Knicks becoming a championship caliber team. The furthest the Knicks have gotten since Stoudemire has arrived in New York is the East Semifinals two years ago.  
What has also happened for these two teams also is that they have had serious bad luck.
Since he was acquired from the Suns a couple of seasons back, two-time MVP guard Steve Nash has managed to play in just 65 games the past two seasons because of injury and he has yet to get back on the court this season.
Their prized first round pick, seventh overall out of Kentucky Julius Randle broke his right tibia in the season opener a 108-90 loss versus the Rockets on Oct. 28.
On top of that they had a chance to bring Phil Jackson back into the fold as head coach a season ago, but they never pounced on that chance and it has hurt them. Also, they allowed two of the best front court player in the game in Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, who helped the Lakers win championships 2009 and 2010 walk in free agency of the past two summers.
While both of these teams have a long road back to playoff contention, the Knicks right now seem to have the upper hand. Why? For starters, they have Jackson in the front office. Their superstar player in Carmelo Anthony is signed for a lengthy period. Also the contracts of Stoudemire and Bargnani will be off the books this off-season.
The Lakers on the other hand have an aging star in Bryant who has battled back from two serious injuries and has played well this season tied with emerging superstar forward/center for the New Orleans Pelicans Anthony Davis and Rockets guard All-Star guard James Harden for NBA scoring lead at 25.2 per game.
Bryant is at the tail end of his career and when he does finish out his two-year contract for about $49.0 million, what plan do the Lakers have for this summer to bring in better players to get the Lakers back in the championship conversation?
The one flagship franchise that has given faith and hope to their fan base is the Celtics. For starters they have a headline player in guard Rajon Rondo, who is a free agent at season’s end.
In Rondo the Celtics have a bargaining chip that they can turn into draft picks or players to help guide the team into the future.
The current roster right now has some very talented building blocks in rookie guards James Young and Marcus Smart; forwards Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass; centers Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller and guards Marcus Thornton, Evan Turner and Avery Bradley.
Two years ago, they signed Brad Stevens, who led Butler University to two straight NCAA title games as their new head coach and the team has played much better this season.
Whether they can make a serious push for the playoffs this year is uncertain. With that being said they have a puncher’s chance of getting back into the conversation of being a playoff team in the near future because of what they already have and what could be coming their way in the future.  
Information, quotes and statistics are courtesy of www.espn.go.com/nba; 11/1/14 3 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” with Rick Kamla, Steve Smith and Dennis Scott; 11/13/14 6:30 p.m. edition of NBATV’s “The Starters” with Trey Kerby, J.E. Skeets, Tas Melas and Leigh Ellis; 11/18/14 2 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” with Matt Winer, Steve Smith and Brent Barry; 11/29/14 1:30 a.m. edition of “NBA Tonight” on ESPN 2 with  Doug Kezirian and George Karl; 11/29/14 10 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” with Rick Kamla, Steve Smith and Sekou Smith; 12/5/14 1 a.m. edition of “Inside the NBA” on TNT with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal; en.wikipedia.org.  

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