STARTING LINEUP: STEPHEN CURRY
After running away with the Rookie of the Year in 2008, it’s no secret Stephen Curry’s rise to stardom was derailed last season. Yet, after playing just 26 games a year ago due to ankle injuries, Curry has silenced his critics this season with a career year and is the main reason why the Golden State Warriors are a legitimate playoff contender in the Western Conference. Not only are the Warriors (23-13) on pace for their most promising season in 19 years, but their franchise player has (surprisingly) stayed healthy all season. As a result, Oracle Arena has sold out nine straight games, and it’s pretty much fucking mayhem in Oakland, a city that has been dying to support a winning basketball team for what seems like centuries.
Another big reason why Curry has bounced back so strongly this season? Monta Ellis and his ball-hogging ways are long gone, allowing Curry to be the focal point of this potent Warriors offense. The move to ditch Ellis has paid off for Golden State; Curry’s 20.5 points per game ranks eighth in the NBA, while his 6.6 assists per game rank right outside the top ten. Curry, who is second in the NBA with 113 threes this season, is clearly well on his way to becoming one of the all-time great snipers from downtown. He’s already buried 485 treys in just four seasons and is a 45 percent career shooter from long range. If he stays healthy for the remainder of his career, he could go down as the most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history. Ray Allen had 497 threes after his four years in the league, so Curry isn’t far behind the pace.
The 2012-13 campaign hasn’t been a banner season by any means for the Philadelphia 76ers, but if there’s been one overwhelmingly bright spot this year, it’s the emergence of Jrue Holiday. Change was imminent in Philly after the front office chose to swap Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bynum, but as we all know by now, the Bynum Era isn’t off to the hottest of starts in the City of Brotherly Love. Yet, even with the departure of Iguodala and Lou Williams, and the delayed arrival of Bynum, Holiday has made the most of what could have a disappointing season so far for the 76ers. The fourth year floor general is averaging a career-high 19.0 points per game, ranks fourth in the NBA in assists (8.8 apg), and is also shooting a much-improved 46 percent from the floor. He’s been given the keys to Philadelphia’s offense and has kept the underachieving 76ers in the playoff hunt; Philly (16-23) is just four games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for 8th place. So yeah, they aren’t out of the mix by any means. With the impending arrival of Bynum now estimated to happen around the All-Star break, the Sixers could get a boost when they need it most. But regardless of whether or not Bynum makes his long-awaited return to the court (I’ll believe it when I see it), Holiday is the reason that Philadelphia is the playoff hunt and continues to show why he should be a lock to win the league’s Most Improved Player award.
Here are some quick facts about Andre Miller:
-He ranks 10th all time in career assists
-Nine different seasons he’s finished among the top 10 in the NBA in assists
-He ranks 46th all time in career steals
-Never has he averaged lower than 9.7 points, 5.4 assists, and 1.0 steals per game in a season
-He’s missed just three games in his 13-year career
Sounds like a pretty decent resume to me, but he’s also never been selected to an All-Star Game, he’s played for five different teams, he’s been traded like four times…and he’s never made it past the first round of the playoffs. You probably don’t even know what team he plays for right now. Call it bad luck, call it what you want, but unfortunately for Miller, he’s also never been viewed as a franchise player and has seemingly flown under the radar for years. Yet, at 36 years old, he’s taken on a leadership role with the Denver Nuggets and is still one of the more efficient point guards in the league, managing 9 points and almost 6 assists a game, despite getting less than 25 minutes as the team’s backup behind Ty Lawson. His best years may be behind him, but Andre Miller can still ball, and it looks like he’s still out to prove that he’s been one of the most consistent point guards of the last decade.
Here’s a question for you: if LeBron James is taking the final shot in the Eastern Conference Finals, who do you want covering him? Think about it…it might just be Paul George. In his third year in the league, the Man with Two First Names is establishing himself as one of the top perimeter defenders in the game. George stands at 6’9” (rumor has it he’s still growing), has a ridiculous seven-foot wingspan, and is athletic enough to guard four of the five positions on the floor. He’s quick enough to stay with the best guards in the game and strong enough to stand his ground in the paint. He has defensive instincts you simply can’t teach. Did I mention his arms? Stretch Armstrong long.
As witnessed in Boston with the return of Avery Bradley, defensive tenacity can become contagious. The Indiana Pacers, who have no shortage of athletic freaks like George, own the NBA’s top scoring defense and have shaken off an early season slump (without Danny Granger) thanks in large part to George’s work on the defensive end. He’s no slouch on offense either; he leads Indiana with 16.9 points per game and has also chipped in with 3.7 dimes per game. Not to mention the Pacers crash the boards better than any team in league (first in the NBA) and George (7.7 rebounds per game) is a big part of that. If the Pacers (24-16) continue their strong play behind the Man with Two First Names, they should be able to fend off the Bulls for the Central Division crown, and maybe draw a meeting with LeBron and the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Did anyone honestly think that the Portland Trailblazers would be in the playoff hunt in January of 2013? But even after stripping nearly all of their assets from a year ago, and basically tanking to risk their future on a lottery pick, the Blazers stand at 20-19 and are just a half-game out of 8th place in the vaunted Western Conference. A lot of Portland’s success can be traced to the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. However, a lot of Lillard’s immediate success can be directly attributed to having LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor with him. There’s no question that the one constant factor in Portland for the last few years has been Aldridge. After getting off to a rocky start as a rookie in 2006-07, Aldridge has emerged as a double-double machine in Portland and should be considered one of the best big men in the NBA. He ranks seventh in the league in scoring (20.8 points per game) and also stands in the top 20 in rebounds (8.8 rpg). More importantly, Aldridge is no longer a promising prospect from Texas. He’s the captain, the vocal leader, the heart and soul of the Portland Trailblazers; a team that really shouldn’t be in the playoff hunt. Yet, despite most likely finishing in the top 10 in scoring for a second straight year, and despite potentially carrying one of the youngest teams in the NBA to the playoffs, Aldridge will probably once again have to scratch and claw his way to the All Star Game in February. It’s a damn shame.
SIXTH MAN: ERIC BLEDSOE
I couldn’t help myself. I had to find room for Eric Bledsoe in here somewhere. It’s too bad he’s stuck behind the best point guard in the NBA (Chris Paul), because Bledsoe aka “Baby Lebron” is ready to become a star. Although he’s still raw offensively, the Kentucky product might just be one of the best pure athletes in the league, and has the potential to be a Gary Payton-like lockdown, on-ball defender. Despite being relegated to the Clippers’ second unit, he’s making the most of his 19 minutes a game and is averaging nearly 9 points to go along with 1.5 steals. Sure, the Clippers have a lot of star power, but the bench has been a big key to their success too. Anyway, the point is that Bledsoe could start for the half the teams in the league. He’s that good. He’ll get his chance one day. Until then, we’re yelling “FREE ERIC BLEDSOE” in the Dumpster ’till the cows come home.
HONORABLE MENTION: Kemba Walker, Greivis Vasquez, O.J. Mayo, Arron Afflalo, Chandler Parsons, Nicolas Batum, David Lee, Zach Randolph, Serge Ibaka, Larry Sanders