A year ago at this time, the NBA was getting ready to get started.
To a degree, that's the case again this season, only this time it has nothing to do with a lockout.
Yes, the New York Knicks have had their moments, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers their winning streaks, the San Antonio Spurs their metronome-like consistency. And yet, to a degree, as Christmas approaches, we really have little clue how this season is going to play out, particularly in the Eastern Conference.
Just as the NBA was late arriving to the calendar last season, the same could be said about nearly a dozen impact players this season.
And that's not even mentioning how returns by Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert could impact the Knicks, for better or worse, or how a return by Hedo Turkoglu just might make the surprising Orlando Magic even more of a surprise.
As Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, "Right now, we are not a good team. We're a .500 team. We're playing like it. We're not a good team, but we're searching for one."
Perhaps more than ever before at this point of a season, teams still are looking within for answers.
Much of the Celtics' makeover strategy was predicated on Bradley being a significant upgrade on Ray Allen. Only now can we start to find out.
It's not just the Eastern Conference. The Dallas Mavericks with Dirk Nowitzki certainly could push up the West standings, as many are expecting with the Los Angeles Lakers and Steve Nash. And the Clippers, for all they have accomplished to this point, have yet to inject Grant Hill into their mix.
Midseason might only be weeks away, but in many ways it still feels like preseason when it comes to piecing together the playoff puzzle. Take the Knicks, for example: While Shumpert might provide more of a defensive edge, how will reduced minutes for Steve Novak or J.R. Smith change the 3-point dynamic?
"We don't know anything yet," Heat forward LeBron James said when asked to assess the NBA's missing pieces, particularly in the East. "There's a lot of teams right now that are missing some impact players, Danny Granger, Derrick Rose, that's the big question mark.
"It can very interesting. I mean you look at the West, too. Dirk hasn't played. We're going to see. We're going to find out."
How much difference can one more piece make? This season, plenty.
"I looked at the Eastern Conference standings, and there are a bunch of teams right there," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "Whatever team can get hot . . . a hot streak in the East, for two weeks, could separate you from the pack."
The type of difference Bynum could make if he actually makes it back. The type Rose or Granger certainly can make.
"It is kind of weird, in the volume of guys who still aren't playing." Heat center Chris Bosh said. "It's kind of a good and a bad thing for those teams, because you know what they're capable of, but you've got to work them in, and it takes a while."
The result could be a No. 7 or No. 8 seed that is just hitting its stride come playoff time.
"That's always a danger," Battier said. "New York was that team last year. And they sort of created a new identity once Amare got hurt and they were playing as well as anybody.
"There always will be that team that changes its identity late, and becomes a buzz-saw."
A year ago, no one knew what to expect with the lockout-compacted schedule, players pushed into action after months of inactivity. This season, though, it seems as if there are as many unknowns at Christmastime, even nearly two months into the schedule.
"I think," Battier said, "this is the year everyone thought it would be last year."
IN THE LANE
THE LEBRON LINK: SI.com recently offered a fascinating look at Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, a man of comic sans and dead seriousness. Included in the piece was a stomach-turning moment for Heat followers, with a Gilbert associate saying he yet could see Gilbert reunited with LeBron James with the Cavaliers, with James holding a Heat opt-out in the 2014 offseason. "Dan would take him back," Quicken Loans Vice President David Carroll is quoted in the piece. "Dan is not going to go out of his way to recruit him. Who knows? Dan likes cool stories and happy endings. It could be a good thing for both of them, bring some closure. I think it would be great. Wouldn't that be pretty cool?" Not to the executives at 601 Biscayne. Then again, we have yet to see Micky Arison fire off an angry email in the heat of the moment, his font preferences still unclear.
NOTHING BUT NYET: Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrei Kirilenko, in the wake of this past week's loss to the Heat, offered a fascinating take on defending James to Russian publication Sport-Express. As translated by the Rush'n Hoops blog, "The most interesting thing happens when you manage to meet eyes with him. Then sometimes you can tell what he is going to do. But right away you realize that he has already guessed your plans and is going do something else now. That’s the telepathic connection we establish. Who outwits who. Sometimes he does, sometimes I do."
MEMPHIS BLUES: While there is much to be said about the analytics-based hire of former ESPN guru John Hollinger by the Memphis Grizzlies, there also should be something said about the potential demise there for former Heat scout Chris Wallace, who until the franchise's recent ownership switch held just about all the personnel power in Memphis. The last time we checked, the Grizzlies were an unexpected contender. And the last time we checked, it was Wallace was acquired Zach Randolph for Quentin Richardson, saw value in Marc Gasol when almost all others saw an egregious trade of Pau Gasol, added Tony Allen, and moved forward with a contract extension for Mike Conley when others had doubts. Yes, Wallace has had missteps along his Heat-Boston Celtics-Grizzlies path, but he also has helped achieve small-market success, the most difficult of all NBA success stories. Oh, and did we mention Wallace also brought Erik Spoelstra to the Heat?
MARKET COMMODITIES: For those who missed it, Dec. 15 was the first day teams could trade free agents signed in the offseason. For the Heat, it means Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen became trade-eligible on that date. Because the rule is you can be traded on Dec. 15 or three months after signing, whichever comes later, Josh Harrellson became trade eligible Dec. 17, because of his Sept. 17 signing. Also, while Terrel Harris also signed early in the offseason, because he has early-Bird rights going forward, he has the right to veto any trade.
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