A year ago at this time, the NBA was getting ready to get started.
To a degree, that’s the case again this season, only this time it has nothing to do with a lockout.
Yes, the New York Knicks have had their moments, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers their winning streaks, the San Antonio Spurs their metronome-like consistency. And yet, to a degree, as Christmas approaches, we really have little clue how this season is going to play out, particularly in the Eastern Conference.
Just as the NBA was late arriving to the calendar last season, the same could be said about nearly a dozen impact players this season.
Because how can the Chicago Bulls possibly not look better should Derrick Rose return with a functional knee?
Or the Indiana Pacers not be better with Danny Granger?
Or the Philadelphia 76ers with Andrew Bynum?
And that’s not even mentioning how returns by Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert could impact the Knicks, for better or worse, or how a return by Hedo Turkoglu just might make the surprising Orlando Magic even more of a surprise.
Just this past week, Avery Bradley began practicing with the Boston Celtics following last season’s shoulder issues.
As Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, “Right now, we are not a good team. We’re a .500 team. We’re playing like it. We’re not a good team, but we’re searching for one.”
Perhaps more than ever before at this point of a season, teams still are looking within for answers.
Much of the Celtics’ makeover strategy was predicated on Bradley being a significant upgrade on Ray Allen. Only now can we start to find out.
It’s not just the Eastern Conference. The Dallas Mavericks with Dirk Nowitzki certainly could push up the West standings, as many are expecting with the Los Angeles Lakers and Steve Nash. And the Clippers, for all they have accomplished to this point, have yet to inject Grant Hill into their mix.
Midseason might only be weeks away, but in many ways it still feels like preseason when it comes to piecing together the playoff puzzle. Take the Knicks, for example: While Shumpert might provide more of a defensive edge, how will reduced minutes for Steve Novak or J.R. Smith change the 3-point dynamic?
“We don’t know anything yet,” Heat forward LeBron James said when asked to assess the NBA’s missing pieces, particularly in the East. “There’s a lot of teams right now that are missing some impact players, Danny Granger, Derrick Rose, that’s the big question mark.
“It can be very interesting. I mean you look at the West, too. Dirk hasn’t played. We’re going to see. We’re going to find out.”
How much difference can one more piece make? This season, plenty.
“I looked at the Eastern Conference standings, and there are a bunch of teams right there,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “Whatever team can get hot … a hot streak in the East, for two weeks, could separate you from the pack.”
The type of difference Bynum could make if he actually makes it back. The type Rose or Granger certainly can make.
“It is kind of weird, in the volume of guys who still aren’t playing.” Heat center Chris Bosh said. “It’s kind of a good and a bad thing for those teams, because you know what they’re capable of, but you’ve got to work them in, and it takes a while.”
The result could be a No. 7 or No. 8 seed that is just hitting its stride come playoff time.
“That’s always a danger,” Battier said. “New York was that team last year. And they sort of created a new identity once Amare got hurt and they were playing as well as anybody.
“There always will be that team that changes its identity late, and becomes a buzz-saw.”
A year ago, no one knew what to expect with the lockout-compacted schedule, players pushed into action after months of inactivity. This season, though, it seems as if there are as many unknowns at Christmastime, even nearly two months into the schedule.
“I think,” Battier said, “this is the year everyone thought it would be last year.”