The 2012 NBA All-Star break provides an excellent opportunity to process the season at its midpoint and identify who the real contenders are headed down the stretch. The Philadelphia 76ers built an impressive statistical resume with one of the easiest schedules in the NBA during the first 20 games, but since then the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat have pulled away as the cream of the crop in Eastern conference. Derrick Rose and the Bulls currently own the softest schedule in the NBA to-date and are No. 2 overall in the rankings, while Lebron James and the Heat claimed the top spot for the first time this season in the past week.
In the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been the one constant in an otherwise fluid power structure. The Denver Nuggets have slipped out of the top 10 after a devastating injury to Danilo Gallinari and other lingering issues with Ty Lawson and Nene. Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs made a late surge in the first of the season by winning 11 straight and turning in nine-game rodeo roadtrip into an 8-1 success. Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers have yet to flash a potential for dominance, and as a result they are closer to no man's land than contender status at No. 10 overall.
Five Things You Should Know About The First Half Of The 2011-12 NBA Season
(1) The Miami Heat have the most efficient offense in the NBA. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and company average 107.9 points per 100 possessions, just by far the highest mark in the league at the moment. The extra attention paid to that trio opens up the weak side and the corners on offense for role players like Mario Chalmers and James Jones to unleash their three-point attack. Both players represented the team in the three-point contest at All-Star weekend, and they both deserved the honor. The Heat lead the NBA in three-point efficiency at 39.8 percent from beyond the arc, and Dwyane Wade has only made one all season. Wade and James shine by getting to the free throw line and finishing well at the rim, but the execution of the role players is helping the offense reach an elite level of efficiency.
(2) The Oklahoma City Thunder commit the highest percentage of turnovers. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden might be the most exciting three-man show in the Association, the pressure heaped on them to produce scoring comes with the added cost of additional turnovers. The Thunder are still the second most efficient offense in the NBA, but the turnover trend is something to watch as they position for the playoffs. In late game situations head coach Scott Brooks has allowed all three players to riff of the creation of the others, and when it works it REALLY works, but there is still some potential for serious breakdowns against top defensive teams.
(3) The Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks have played the easiest schedules in the NBA. For the Bulls it probably doesn't mean much, considering they used the opportunity to bang out the second-best record in the Eastern Conference despite injuries to Derrick Rose, Loul Deng, Richard Hamilton and C.J. Watson. Jeremy Lin and the Knicks might have another thing coming, however. The media seems determined to use Carmelo Anthony's return is the prism for all analysis of the Knicks' success or failure going forward, but is important to remember that Lin emerged during the easiest stretch the team has seen and now will face one of the tougher schedules in the second half of the season. Avoid the temptation to make this all about Carmelo Anthony when the Knicks start to lose, because they will lose more often when the competition gets very tough down the stretch.
(4) The Philadelphia 76ers have the best defense in the NBA. Tom Thibodeau has his Bulls playing extremely well on the defensive end (they are No. 2 in defensive efficiency), but nobody prevents points better than Doug Collins' Sixers. Elton Brand apparently chose the 2011-12 season to become a more-than-capable post defender, while Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala have both lived up to their reputations as disruptive perimeter threats. It should come as no surprise that Chicago and Philadelphia are No. 1 and No. 2 at forcing opponents into the highest percentage of 16-23 foot jumpshots. By limiting teams to the longest two-point attempts on the floor, the odds are in their favor to continue the dominant play on the defensive end.
(5) The compressed schedule and/or the lockout really has affected the game. Over the past five full season, the league averages have never dropped below: 54.0 percent for TS%, 94 possessions per game and 103.7 points per 100 possessions efficiency. This season is on pace to set lower makes in all three categories. The TS% is way down (52.2%), the efficiency equilibrium isn't behind by much (100.5 points per 100 possessions) and even the pace (93.8 possessions per game) is lagging. Whether it is the lockout or the brutal reality of the compressed 66-game schedule, offenses simply aren't playing as well. Tired legs and broken jumpshots haven't made 11-12 the season of defense unless you are willing to overlook the steady trends from the past five seasons.
Here is the complete look at the NBA: