Having been hyper-focused on our newly cultured Denver Nuggets since the 2015-16 NBA season began, let's take a break from the home team and look around the NBA as the season's halfway point approaches ...
... with the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers all on pace for 60-plus regular season wins, it will be the first time since the 2008-09 season that three teams win 60-plus games and just the third time since the turn of the century that this has happened. The NBA's equivalent of the "one percent club", we haven't seen inequality like this in the NBA since the Chicago Bulls were dominating the NBA in the latter half of the 1990s.
... speaking of those Bulls, we all remember the Bulls' amazing 72-win 1995-96 campaign and ESPN has a great "Warriors Watch" website up that tracks how this season's Warriors just might match - and potentially exceed - those Bulls' record-breaking wins record.
... Warriors interim head coach Luke Walton is doing his best to disprove my "ex-Lakers players make crappy head coaches" theory, but unfortunately all of his wins are being credited to Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. So my theory remains solidly in-tact. Moreover, Byron Scott and his 29-91 record since taking over as coach for the Lakers proves that the theory still very much applies.
... should the Warriors match or exceed the NBA's 72-win regular season wins record, to me it will be more impressive than when Michael Jordan's Bulls did it. The 1995-96 version of the NBA was weakened by excessive expansion (it the first season for both the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors) plus the influx of raw Europeans and even-rawer high school-to-NBA athletes. Combining those factors with the decline of many of the league's great stars, who hadn't yet been replaced by the next generation, and it's no wonder MJ's Bulls feasted on that NBA. But for this season's Warriors and Spurs to be on pace for 77 and 69 wins, respectively, in this NBA is nothing short of remarkable.
... the Warriors latest victim, the Sacramento Kings, are still my pick to sneak into the Western Conference's eighth playoff seed. As I wrote in my pre-season preview, there's just enough crazy plus talent for head coach George Karl to get his Kings into the playoffs this season. And of course, Kings' point guard Rajon Rondo has done his best to prove that to be true.
... with his 1,156th win last week, Karl moved ahead of Phil Jackson and became the NBA's fifth all-time winningest regular season coach. And Karl has done it while winning nearly 60% of his games coached. It's an amazing feat for Karl and one that should be celebrated by inaugurating Karl into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this summer. And yet, unforgivably, Karl's name wasn't included on the list of 2016 Hall of Fame nominees. On the list are other longtime NBA coaches like Bill Fitch and Dick Motta, both of whom have sub-.500 regular season coaching records but do have NBA Championship rings (unlike Karl). Also on the list are Del Harris and Cotton Fitzsimmons, neither of whom coached in an NBA Finals - like Karl has - and whose regular season wins totals pale in comparison to Karl's. In fact, Karl has won twice as many games as Harris. So what gives? It's my understanding that Karl hasn't played the behind-the-scenes political game required for nomination, and subsequent induction, into the Hall of Fame. Karl will get into Springfield someday, but someday should be now.
... since we're on the topic of coaches, the Brooklyn Nets dismissed head coach Lionel Hollins and "reassigned" general manager Billy King on Sunday. Why exactly Hollins agreed to coach the Nets - a team that has to send two of its next three first round picks to the Boston Celtics and has to swap picks with the Celtics in 2017 - in the first place is beyond me. That's right, my fellow Stiffs, the Nets don't have control of their own first round pick until 2019.
... Hollins firing makes about as much sense as the Houston Rockets' firing of Kevin McHale earlier this season. Like it's McHale's fault that the Rockets decided to gamble on the multiple-DUI-grabbing Ty Lawson.
... Lawson is one of the many reasons why the Warriors and Spurs have vaulted to the very top of the Western Conference with seeming ease. Lawson's Rockets, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to give the Warriors and Spurs a run for their money. But, barring any major injuries for the west's two top teams, it now appears clear that those three also-rans will just be competing for the conference's third-best seeding and won't go further than that.
... which means that the Thunder's Kevin Durant, with no championship trophy to be won in Oklahoma City clearly in sight and pending free agency, could indeed bolt at season's end. The only caveat here is that the NBA's new ginormous television contract kicks in at the end of this season, meaning a sky-rocketing salary cap could theoretically keep Durant in Oklahoma City as the Thunder will be able to pay him more (and then some) than any other team will.
... prior to the 2015-16 season, many pundits thought that Durant - if he were to leave Oklahoma City - would hook up with an Eastern Conference team, the idea there being it's easier to compete for a title in the east than the west. Now nearly halfway through the 2015-16 season, the Eastern Conference features more plus-.500 teams (nine) than the Western Conference (six). Additionally, seeds two through nine are separated by just four games, with the New York Knicks currently on the outside looking in as the conference's 10th seed at 19-20.
... Denver Nuggets fans have a rooting interest in the Knicks having as crummy a season as possible, given that the Nuggets can swap first round picks with the Knicks in the 2016 NBA Draft (the last piece from the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade). It's unlikely, but were the Knicks to slip further and further backwards in the Eastern Conference - and knowing that rookie star Kristaps Porzingis is clearly their future - would the Knicks consider trading Anthony to a putative contender like the Bulls or Miami Heat? Or maybe even the Los Angeles Clippers? I mention those three teams only as I can't imagine Anthony waiving his no-trade clause for any other NBA destination. But were the Knicks to trade Anthony before the league's February 18th trade deadline, it's possible that they would lose enough games by season's end to give our Nuggets two decent shots at jumping into the NBA Lottery's top-three picks.
... in addition to the Knicks, Nuggets fans should be rooting for both the Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers to make the 2016 NBA Playoffs. Thanks to the Lawson trade, the Rockets owe the Nuggets their 2016 first round pick only if it's not a lottery pick. If the pick isn't conveyed in 2016, it morphs into a second round pick in 2017. The Blazers also owe the Nuggets their 2016 first round selection (thanks to the Arron Afflalo - for - Will Barton deal), but also only if the Blazers' pick isn't a lottery pick ... in 2016 and 2017. Should the Blazers not convey their pick to Denver in either year, the pick morphs into a second round pick in 2018. I'm betting on the Nuggets getting the Rockets pick in 2016 and the Blazers pick in 2017, as I don't see the Blazers making the 2016 playoffs.
... making matters worse for the Knicks, not only do they have to swap picks with Denver in 2016 (if the Knicks' pick is more favorable), but the less favorable of the two picks gets automatically conveyed to the Toronto Raptors for the Andrea Bargnani trade orchestrated by former Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri recently joined Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski's The Vertical Podcast and spoke glowingly about his time in Denver while giving some insight into what his thought process was leading up to the Anthony trade. Good stuff by Woj!
... at least the Knicks have Porzingis, who through 39 games looks to be the second-best player taken in the 2015 NBA Draft and a player that will anchor the Knicks for a decade-plus to come. The Nets have no present and no future.
... longtime Nuggets fans should be able to sympathize with the plight of Nets fans, as the Nuggets didn't have a lottery selection from 1999 through 2001 despite missing the playoffs from 1996 through 2001. The lesson learned for NBA GMs is to always keep your powder dry with your first round picks, unless you're on the very cusp of competing for an NBA Championship, which this version of the Nets and the latter 1990s version of the Nuggets certainly never were.
... current Nuggets GM Tim Connelly - to his credit - has done the opposite, by holding on to his own first round draft picks and grabbing whatever other picks he can get his hands on (like the ones owed to Denver from Houston, Portland and Memphis, the latter of which should be conveyed in 2017). The challenge for Connelly from here is to make those picks count, and to date his drafting record of Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, Joffrey Lauvergne, Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay speaks for itself. Now the Nuggets need a break in the form of one of those players becoming an All-Star. Lest we forget that the soon-to-be 70-plus win Warriors began their process with a seventh (Stephen Curry, 2009), an 11th (Klay Thompson, 2011) another seventh (Harrison Barnes, 2012) and a 35th (Draymond Green, 2012) overall selection.
... and even the mighty Warriors missed big during their draft pick run, selecting Ekpe Udoh sixth overall in 2010 over Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward and Paul George. Point being, in the NBA you can make mistakes and still win a championship. Just don't make too many of them or you become tomorrow's Brooklyn Nets.