By Ian Thomsen
While the rest of us are contriving our unlikely resolutions for the New Year, the league’s players, coaches and teams are already two months into their season. Therefore, we can applaud those who have begun to fulfill their own noble intentions since last season …
â€¢ For the Washington Wizards: A trade for Gilbert Arenas. How did they consummate an exit strategy so quickly? Not only had Arenas suffered a series of knee injuries that, together with last season’s suspension, had sidelined him for 199 games over the past three seasons, but he was also owed $80 million over the remaining four years of his contract. The inspiration for the departure of Arenas can be traced back to the scheming last summer by Heat president Pat Riley, whose recruitment of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade inspired every contender – the Lakers, Celtics, Mavericks and Spurs – to deepen their benches. Their improvement diminished the championship hopes of Orlando and left the Magic in need of firepower in order to compete. How many All-NBA scorers in their peak years were available to Orlando? None, other than 29-year-old Arenas. Now, Washington launches 2011 with John Wall firmly in charge of their developing roster, and with Rashard Lewis – the 6-foot-11 former All-Star who arrived in the December trade – spreading the floor for one less expensive year than the Wizards owed Arenas.
â€¢ For Heat coach Erik Spoelstra: Teamwork. He wasn’t asking for much from James, Wade and Bosh, apart from contributing to a team that outperformed the sum of its parts. Let’s list the complaints that were leaking out of Miami early this season about young Spoelstra: His practices were too exhausting, he wasn’t letting the players be themselves, he didn’t have the full support of Wade, he was shouldered violently by LeBron, he wasn’t making full use of Bosh, he didn’t command the players’ respect and was destined to be replaced by Riley and blah, blah, blah, blah. Now, the Heat have emerged as the league’s No. 1 defensive team, and with each fortnight, they appear to be improving around their confident coach – culminating in the Christmas Day clobbering of the Lakers, when they played with energy, selflessness and togetherness that left the champs a step behind. What a fascinating, soap-operatic team this is, and if it wins, the players should throw a party for Spoelstra for sticking with them. As opposed to vice versa.
â€¢ For Derrick Rose: A jump shot. Rose hasn’t won anything in postseason, so on the largest scale it’s premature to rate him ahead of quarterbacks like Deron Williams or Rajon Rondo. But by next spring, there should be nothing left to prevent his inclusion in the argument for best point guard in the NBA. The 22-year-old has been liberated by new coach Tom Thibodeau to emerge as Chicago’s leading scorer (24.0 points) as well as playmaker (8.5 assists) and it has more to do with his soaring confidence. Rose has grown from an unreliable shooter to a 39.3 percent shooter from three-point range. At 6-3 and 190 pounds, he has the size and explosive quickness to beat defenders any which way, and at his age, he has years of improvement to come. This is the star Chicago has been seeking since Michael Jordan left.
â€¢ For the Knicks: A point guard for Mike D’Antoni, and a liberating coach for Raymond Felton. D’Antoni’s career percentages took a beating the last two years as he suffered with some of the league’s least-talented teams. It was easy to say he couldn’t win without Steve Nash, but what can be said now? He has turned Felton – discarded without a replacement by Charlotte – into an 18.0-points and 8.9-assists contender for the All-Star team. Felton has been at his best in the open floor dating back to his national championship year at North Carolina, and now he has a coach whose style plays to that up-tempo strength. Such a happy marriage.
â€¢ For San Antonio: A new contract for Tony Parker. Just when it looked as if the elderly Spurs were on the verge of turning over their roster and replacing Parker once and for all with young George Hill, they pivoted and offered a four-year, $50 million extension for their 28-year-old point guard. It was yet another wise idea as Parker has played at a high level while driving the Spurs to play at a faster tempo than ever on their way to a league-leading 28-4 start. They enter New Year’s Eve with a deep roster and a six-game lead over the champion Lakers.
â€¢ For the Mavericks: A defender. The question for Dallas, dating back to Don Nelson, has been how to upgrade the talent defensively without limiting the offense? The answer is center Tyson Chandler, who has given the team a defensive identity and set standards that his teammates can achieve, knowing that he is protecting the rim behind them. At the other end of the floor he still dives in to dunk lob passes from Jason Kidd, just as he used to with Chris Paul the last time Chandler was healthy. The 24-7 Mavs now have a formula for both ends of the floor that gives them hope for a deep playoff run.
â€¢ For the Lakers: Another year from Phil Jackson. It hasn’t look good for the blasÃ© 22-10 Lakers. But Jackson isn’t going to panic. He is about enabling players to figure things out on their own, and that’s exactly what this team needs. After two straight championships and three straight Finals – amounting to 67 extra postseason games for Kobe Bryant, now in his 15th year – the Lakers weren’t going to surge out of the gate against the league’s weakest opening schedule. The recent losses to Miami and San Antonio will do more to inspire them than any rant from a coach. Now Jackson will guide them along, with reason, back into contention.
â€¢ For the Celtics: Urgency. Last year, Boston frittered away the back end of its season and wound up losing Game 7 on the Lakers home floor. With a potential lockout that could ruin next season and three Hall-of-Famers approaching retirement, they are clearly viewing this season as their last gasp. Injuries to center Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, Delonte West, Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal haven’t prevented the 24-6 Celtics from seizing the East’s best record, but they still have much to prove. On the eve of the New Year, their lead was a single game over the surging Heat, and Kevin Garnett is now out for at least two weeks – he will not be rushed back – with an injured calf. There is no question about their spirit; it’s the flesh that worries them.