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NBA at the All-Star break: Time for all to take stock

The contenders gather themselves for the stretch run, while the also-rans plot a longer-term future.

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant running the ball up the court against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first quarter of Thursday night's game.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

They call it midseason, but the traditional President’s Day weekend timing for the NBA All-Star break generally occurs closer to the two-thirds of the way through the 82-game campaign.

With the trading deadline on tap less than a week later, the break is a chance for all 30 NBA teams to take stock. The contenders gather themselves for the stretch run, while the also-rans plot a longer-term future. Meanwhile, the pundits identify the dominant trends and surprises that have taken place thus far. So let’s get started.

The emergence of Kevin Durant

The most improved player in the NBA may well be the one who has been considered the league’s second-best performer for the previous three or four years. During that time it was assumed that Durant lacked the muscular body type and overall athleticism to physically match the exploits of Lebron James. While that may still be technically true, Durant has closed that gap by bulking up without losing quickness. His already glorious skill set has steadily matured, refined by experience to become more versatile and contoured to conquer a wider variety of NBA game situations.

But most of all, Durant has fostered an increasingly effective killer instinct. The nice guy and class act who kisses his mother on the sidelines after games and says and does all the right things for his small-market team in Oklahoma City is still present — just not while the contest is taking place. 

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Last April, Durant gave a revealing interview to Sports Illustrated  in which he proclaimed himself “tired of being second” — second in high school, second in the NBA draft, second to James in the MVP voting for two straight years, and, at the time, second to James and the Miami Heat in the 2011-12 NBA Finals. As it turned out, an injury to OKC’s other star, point guard Russell Westbrook, doomed Durant’s chances of even returning to the Finals last season, where the Heat repeated as champions and James took home another MVP award, with Durant finishing second.

This season, Durant is walking his talk — and talking louder. Timberwolves fans got a taste of it in their most recent meeting with OKC, when he personally willed his team back from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter, exploding for 16 points in less than four minutes. He ranks among the top five in the NBA in technical fouls, with nine.

Durant had 48 points to power OKC to a win in that Wolves game. After a tragic-comically bad defensive performance his rookie season, he slowly but surely improved at that end of the court — then took a pronounced leap forward this season, ranking among the top defenders in both on-ball and pick-and-roll coverage. Westbrook has already missed 30 games this season with more knee injuries, yet OKC owns the best record in the NBA at 43-12 and Durant sits atop the individual rankings that measure all-around dominance, including PER, Win Shares, and Usage rate.

One of the more compelling story lines for the rest of the season will be Durant’s ability to position OKC for a championship and get the “second place” stigma off his resume. But already he has accomplished something fairly remarkable — he is the current consensus MVP in a season when Lebron is having another stellar campaign.

3-point shots more important than ever

Three-point attempts have steadily risen from 18.01 per game in 2010-11 to 21.03 per game this season. The reason is simple: it is the most efficient way to score (without having to count on the referee agreeing that you’ve drawn the foul).

The accuracy of three-pointers has remained remarkably similar for the past four years, either 35.8 or 35.9 percent except for the strike-shortened 2011-12 season when it was 34.9 percent. This season it is 35.8 percent. To score as often using the same number of two-point attempts, you’d have to convert 53.7 percent, and only one team, Miami, is that accurate.

Put another way, the NBA average accuracy on two-pointers thus far this season is 48.3 percent. To generate the same amount of points, a team would only have to convert 32.3 of its treys, something all but Philadelphia and Detroit are accomplishing among the 30 NBA teams. Even factoring in the notion that it is easier to draw fouls on attempts closer to the basket, it generally pays to shoot from a distance.

Of course that means structuring your offense to generate as many open three-pointers as possible, preferably from the corner, where the distance is slightly shorter. San Antonio was a pioneer of this style a few years ago and currently leads the NBA in three-point accuracy at 39.3 percent. More significantly, the three most surprisingly successful teams in the rugged Western Conference, Phoenix, Portland and Dallas, all rank among the top ten teams in three-pointers attempted, and among the top eight in three-pointers made.

The Phoenix Suns are the poster team for how to overachieve via the three-point shot. After trading one of their top three players, center Marcin Gortat, for Emeka Okafor, who had recently undergone neck surgery and has an expiring contract this season, it was widely assumed that the Suns were “tanking” in order to obtain a more exalted position in the next NBA college draft. In my preseason preview, I was among the consensus of pundits who picked them to finish last among the 15 Western Conference teams.

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Instead, the Suns would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, sporting a record of 30-21 that is fueled by the eighth-most efficient offense (points scored per possession) in the NBA. This is despite the fact that guard Eric Bledsoe, arguably their best player, has been out since New Year’s Eve with a knee injury.

The Suns compensate for a lack of star power by shooting the fourth-most three-pointers in the league and making 37 percent of them, good for ninth overall in accuracy. Crucial to their success from long distance is the fact that their most accurate shooters make the most attempts. Five different players have launched at least 100 treys (nearly two per game apiece) thus far this season, and the most inaccurate of that bunch is forward Marcus Morris at 37.1 percent.

Armed with this selective but still extensive use of this offensive weapon, rookie coach Jeff Hornacek has a crew of retreads and formerly fringe players believing in themselves enough to compete hard on defense and pull for each other from the bench.

Without going into as much detail, the boon of the trey is also playing out in Portland, where coach Terry Stotts has buttressed his All-Star, LaMarcus Aldridge (who is shooting 2-for-10 on threes this season) with a starting backcourt of Damian Lillard and Wes Matthews, who each are shooting better than 40 percent on more than 300 three-point attempts (better than six per game) thus far this season. Thought to be on the cusp of the playoff picture, the Blazers are instead tied for the third-best record in the conference at 36-17.

And in Dallas, a quartet of aging veterans — Dirk Nowitzki (age 35), Vince Carter (37), Shawn Marion (35) and Jose Calderon (32) — are collectively averaging 40.4 percent on a combined 819 three-point attempts thus far this season, the main factor in the team’s fourth-best ranking in offensive efficiency.

Big spenders don’t always win

The assumption that major market teams can simply go out and purchase themselves a championship is being soundly rebutted for a second straight season. Last year the Los Angeles Lakers plucked center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash from other teams to join their All Stars, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. But a combination of injuries and infighting doomed this “super team,” and the Lakers plunged from the third seed to the seventh seed in the West and were bounced out in the first round of the playoffs. Howard promptly packed his bags and headed to Houston, tarnishing the myth that L.A. is the sun-besotted lifestyle Mecca to which every player aspires.

This season, the top-salaried teams both reside in New York City and currently have losing records in the weak Eastern Conference. Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire Russian owner of the Brooklyn Nets, has assembled a whopping $101 million roster of players who have collectively appeared in 36 All-Star games. Rarely have so many dollars been squandered with such glib stupidity. Only one of the Nets’ top six players — center Brook Lopez, out for the season after foot surgery — isn’t well past his prime, with a salary structured on past achievement. Brooklyn is 24-27. (Confession: I picked them to finish third in the East.)

Over in Manhattan, the New York Knicks are 12 games under .500 (20-32) with an $88 million payroll. Four players are pulling down seven-figure salaries, including two of the game’s worst individual defenders in Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire.

Meanwhile, the Lakers are in full tanking mode now that injuries have sidelined Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash for most of the season and Pau Gasol for the past two weeks — combined salary of the trio, $60 million this season.

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The exception to the rule is in Miami, where Lebron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all accepted slightly less money in order play together during their respective primes and successfully attempt to win multiple championships. They are on two, and counting, and have appeared in the Finals every season they have been together.

That said, the notion that great players will necessarily go to big markets has become a canard. Three of the final four teams in the playoffs last season hailed from San Antonio, Indianapolis and Memphis. This season, you could make a strong case for an Indiana versus Oklahoma City matchup in the Finals.

Assembling a quality franchise involves much more than an open checkbook. Yet another reason why the NBA is the best sporting activity on the planet. Have a good All-Star break and we’ll be back next Friday.