Andrew Bynum claims playing with Kobe Bryant was essentially a gift and a curse. To be exact, he said Bryant made the game easier for him at the start of his career, but could see how playing alongside Bryant actually stunted his growth in the long run. I’ll say this, as a resident of Los Angeles, I miss Bynum’s candor and flat-out willingness to say whatever came to mind. While I can somewhat see where a person in Bynum’s position could justify such feelings, but I would venture to say the 130 games Bynum missed (due to various injuries) between 2007 and 2012 likely played a larger role than anything else. Speaking of playing with Bryant, after an unforeseen early season struggle, the Lakers are finally close to being at full strength with the news of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash returns within the next week. It will be interesting to see what that team can do with its full complement of players. Did they dig too much of a hole already?
#1 Oklahoma City Thunder (Last week- 1): You can just about count on the automatic productivity of guys like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but when the Thunder get the 25/17 (PTS/REBS) games they got from Serge Ibaka in Monday’s win over San Antonio they are just about unbeatable. Kevin Martin continues to provide steady scoring off the bench, and the Thunder have won 11 straight. Up next: A three game road trip that ends with a Finals rematch at Miami on Christmas Day.
#2 Los Angeles Clippers (6): Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…but these aren’t your father’s Clippers. Judge them by their past history if you’d like, but this simply is not the same team. Outside of the obvious roster improvements, this is a team that has suddenly started winning a majority of their road games (8-3). Anyone that knows the game will tell you winning road games is generally the difference between the “good” and the “great” in the NBA.
#3 New York Knicks (4): They may have lost a short-handed showdown with Jeremy Lin and the Rockets, but the Knicks remain the top team out East. Melo is day-to-day, but should return to action on Wednesday vs. Brooklyn or Friday vs. Chicago. Their Christmas Day match-up with the Lakers could be the best game of the day if the stars are aligned.
#4 Miami Heat (3): The defending champions haven’t left Miami since Dec. 6th, and only travel out of the state once more (@Dal 12/20) until after Christmas. Even with the home-friendly schedule and having played several games less than most other teams over the past couple weeks, the Heat have been up and down (3-3 over the last six). Ricky Rubio’s return could make their meeting with Minnesota a fun game to watch, but we all want to see the OKC rematch.
#5 San Antonio Spurs (2): It’s a rare thing to see the Spurs lose three of four, but that’s exactly what the last six days held in store for San Antonio. No holiday game for the Spurs, but their match-ups @ Denver and vs. New Orleans should be interesting. We had better enjoy the teacher vs student pairing of Duncan vs. Ant Davis while we can.
#6 Memphis Grizzlies (5): Memphis responded to three tough losses with consecutive convincing wins @ Utah and vs. Chicago. Even with the momentary slide, the Grizzlies remain one of the grittiest teams and stingiest defenses in the NBA. They lead the league in points allowed (90 PPG), and are currently 4th in point differential (+6.4).
#7 Golden State Warriors (8): The most impressive thing about the Warriors’ early-season success is the fact that they are 10-5 on the road. In fact, they just went 6-1 on a 10-day road trip that featured wins over Miami, Brooklyn, and Atlanta. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have shown steady improvement, but David Lee is quietly putting up some of the best numbers of his career. A win in Saturday’s home game vs their Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Lakers could be the just the statement this up-and-coming team needs in order to fully establish itself as a playoff contender in the eyes of the public.
#8 Atlanta Hawks (7): The Hawks salvaged the week by sandwiching a couple wins between two disappointing losses at the hands of the Heat (@ Miami) and vs. the Warriors. Due to Miami’s recent struggles, Atlanta remains just a game behind them in the Southeast Division. Big match-ups with OKC, @Philly, and Chicago coming up this week.
#9 Chicago Bulls (10): Although highly respected, Tom Thibodeau still doesn’t get the type of acclaim he may deserve. The Bulls are currently a 4-seed, which means that even without the services of their franchise player (Derrick Rose), the are in a position to host a playoff series if the season were to end today. Obviously, we have a long way to go before the postseason, but with Rose already ahead of schedule and actively rehabbing his knee, the Bulls could return to a contender status if Rose is able to return to form.
#10 Brooklyn Nets (9): The spiraling Nets look to be back on track, even with the tough road loss at the hands of the Bulls. As will be the case throughout the season, the productivity that Brook Lopez and the front court brings will generally be the difference for this team. After signing him to a 2-year $24 million dollar contract in the off-season, Brooklyn has to be disappointed in what the recently-benched Kris Humphries is bringing to the table.