NBA conference races tight at midway mark

Corey Marine

As we approach the midway point of the ’08-’09 NBA season, some teams appear to be running away with their respective divisions while everyone else seems to be playing catch up. Similar to last year, a select few teams are dominating the Eastern Conference, while the Western Conference looks like it will be a long battle for a playoff seed.


Although few are surprised that the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics are among the top teams in the East, no one could have predicted that they would be ranked in this particular order. The Celtics were projected favorites to have the best record in the East, if not the entire league. After starting the season off with a 27-2 record, the Celtics seemed on pace to break the NBA record for wins in a season set by the ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls (72-10). The pace has since slowed down, with the Celtics going 5-7. James Posey’s offseason departure may be a factor in the team’s recent poor play, and opponents have exposed the lack of depth coming off the bench. The Big Three – Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen – are going to have to step up even more if they want to regain possession of the top spot in the East.

The resurgence of the Cleveland Cavaliers has been a topic of discussion throughout the league. Despite the controversy surrounding his future with the Cavaliers, LeBron James is as dominant as ever. He is clearly intent on winning a championship ring, leading his team in scoring, assists and rebounds. With arguably the strongest supporting cast he has ever had, James and the Cavs are undefeated at home. As of Jan. 17, the Cavaliers are sitting atop the East with the best record and defense in the league.

The Orlando Magic are showing the rest of the league what having a true, dominant big man at center can do for a team. Dwight Howard is averaging close to 20 points and 14 rebounds a game, living up to his nickname “Superman.” Jameer Nelson is providing solid play at the point, and Rashard Lewis is still a productive offensive weapon. Coming off a sweep of the Lakers in the season series, the Magic should be a force to be reckoned with this spring.

For a team in a rebuilding season, the Miami Heat are doing rather well. The team is rallying behind the dynamic Dwayne Wade, who is leading the league in scoring at this point in the season. First-round draft pick Michael Beasley is currently a bench player as the team continues to take a defense-first approach, but look for him to get more playing time as he toughens up on the defensive end. There have also been rumors surrounding forward Shawn Marion. The Heat may be seeking to add another impact player or simply acquire more draft picks as they try to improve beyond this season.


The playoff picture seems to be a battle for second place. The Lakers have solidified themselves as the best team in the conference. Kobe is being Kobe. Derek Fisher is controlling games like the veteran he is. Pau Gasol is slowly emerging as Bryant’s Scottie Pippen. Andrew Bynum is providing the interior presence that was severely lacking in last year’s Finals matchup against the Celtics. Barring any major upsets, the Lakers have a legitimate shot at taking the Western Conference crown again.

In San Antonio, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are starting to come together and play well again. After a rough start, during which Ginobili missed a significant number of games, Coach Gregg Popovich has the group playing the same solid team basketball that has been a mainstay in San Antonio for the past decade. Guard Roger Mason has also emerged as a clutch shooter, having already knocked down several game-winning shots.

Although they are in the middle of the playoff race, the Houston Rockets are not where everyone expected them to be. The reason? Injuries. The Rockets are among the most injury-plagued teams in the league. Tracy McGrady, Ron Artest and Yao Ming have all had stints on the bench due to various injuries. This has had an impact on the team’s chemistry, as the starters’ injuries have reduced their playing time together.

The Phoenix Suns are one of the more interesting teams in the NBA. After struggling to find an identity earlier this season, the Suns have settled down. Shaquille O’Neal is looking like the Shaq of old and has even gotten into a free throw shooting groove. Steve Nash is not having a great year statistically, but he still provides the presence of an MVP on the court. Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson are providing an offensive impact that may very well propel the Suns into this year’s postseason. They could very well decide their team’s fate down the stretch.

The playoff race in the East should not change too drastically in the upcoming months, but the West can change on a nightly basis. Another 50-win team may be on the outside looking in again this season, leaving many questions about the conference left to be answered.

As the season reaches the midpoint, many questions are arising. Will there be another major trade to shift the power in the conference? How will injured players affect the playoff races? Will a dark horse title contender arise out of nowhere? Only time will tell.