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Tuesday, January 1, 2013
What's real and unreal in the East?

By Israel Gutierrez

LeBron James
LeBron James has been king of efficiency as usual. And there's no reason to think that won't continue.

The Mayans were wrong. The world continues on into 2013, and so does the NBA. But what changes with the new year? Well, not LeBron's numbers or Andrew Bynum's knees. But maybe Josh Smith's uniform and Deron Williams' shooting do.

REAL: LeBron James' efficiency
Since his third season in the league, LeBron's field goal shooting has climbed every season, to the point where he's now shooting it like a 7-footer. He's in the top 10 in the league in field goal percentage, ending 2012 at 54.4 percent. Given how comfortable he is in the Heat's offense and how consistently he's shooting from the perimeter, there's no reason for that to drop. Even if his career-high 41.7 percent shooting from 3 starts to come down, he'll probably just stop taking them. He's better that way, anyway.

UNREAL: The "transitioning" Dwyane Wade
Let's look at the numbers for a moment. Wade is having the best shooting season of his career so far. That includes his handful of stinkers in the first month of the season, for which he blames a recovering knee. And even when he has games like he did in Orlando on Monday -- when he missed 7 of 10 free throws and had nothing working from the perimeter -- he still manages to shake it off quickly and have an impact. If, as Wade says, his knee is getting stronger, his numbers should only improve. So what's to criticize about a 2-guard who scores 20-plus a game and shoots it better than 51 percent?

REAL: Tyson Chandler's career season
The closest year he's had to this was in 2007-08, when he and Chris Paul were running the New Orleans version of Lob City. But last season's 67.9 percent shooting for Chandler is evidence enough that he can maintain his current 68.9 percent clip. If the Knicks go through with a plan to bring Amar'e Stoudemire off the bench, then Chandler can continue his role with the starters and not suffer any sort of drop-off while the team adjusts to Stoudemire's return.

UNREAL: New York's 3-point shooting
The Knicks' fiery start from the perimeter has already cooled significantly. New York lit it up in November, hitting 41.6 percent from distance, but that fell to a more reasonable 37 percent in December.

The main culprits were J.R. Smith and Jason Kidd. Smith nailed a ridiculous 48 percent of his triples in November, then started looking more like himself, shooting 30 percent in December. Kidd's 3-point efficiency dropped from 49 to 42 percent from the season's first month to the second. With Kidd's 39-year-old legs and Smith's erratic shot selection, it's unlikely those numbers will jump back up.

REAL: Boston's struggles
Last season, the Celtics started the season in a similarly strange funk. But that 15-17 start came with the excuse of the condensed schedule and with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett seemingly working their way into shape. This season, Pierce and Garnett both look like their normal selves. The problem is they're being required to do a lot more. And the reliable defense that you knew would round into shape now has too many new pieces struggling to grasp it. Unless the Celtics can acquire another true impact player (maybe DeMarcus Cousins can be lured away from Sacramento for anyone other than Boston's big three in return), it looks as though the C's will remain among the lower-seeded playoff teams.

UNREAL: The Josh Smith era in Atlanta
Yes, the Hawks have been a pleasant surprise. And yes, allowing Smith's contract to simply expire would give the Hawks a ton of salary-cap room with which to work next offseason. But would a team like Atlanta, playing in a building that's regularly lacking atmosphere, really rely on free agency to build that team?

The Hawks' best bet would be building through a Smith trade. Maybe, if the Lakers eventually give up on Pau Gasol, the Hawks can see what a frontcourt duo of Gasol and Al Horford can do. It certainly would give the Heat more trouble than the Smith-Horford combo currently does. The Hawks have shot 42 percent in two losses to Miami this season.

REAL: Indiana's defense
No Danny Granger. Somehow, Roy Hibbert is still shooting less than 40 percent from the floor. Paul George is shooting a career low. Even George Hill is worse than 43 percent for the season. None of it has kept the Pacers from going 14-6 after an odd 4-7 start to the season. That's because the Pacers have developed an identity as the most difficult team to score against in the NBA.

After seeing how that identity put a serious scare into the Heat last postseason, the Pacers have carried that over to this season, playing even better defense while playing without last season's leading scorer, Granger. Indiana's defense has been so good (allowing a stingy 41.3 percent shooting through 31 games), it has made up for the fact that the Pacers are the league's fourth-worst shooting team, ahead of only the Wizards, Cavaliers and Bobcats.


UNREAL: An NBA without Derrick Rose
Let's be honest. If not for the emergence of the New York Knicks, the Eastern Conference would have serious trouble creating excitement. The Sixers, Celtics and Nets have left a lot to be desired in a conference that was supposed to be hotly contested.

What's missing is Rose. He alone made the Bulls the biggest threat to Miami in the East. And his skill and athleticism made just about every Chicago game a must-watch, not to mention his normally epic meetings with the Heat.

When that knee is recovered and he's ready to play again in 2013, there'll be a much-needed additional force in the East. And if Rose is completely recovered and playing like his old self this season, that still would make the Bulls the team most capable of knocking out Miami.


REAL: An NBA without Andrew Bynum
Less than two weeks ago, the Sixers tried to sell their latest news on Bynum and his knees as "good news." Yet that news came with no timetable for a return and included a vague six-step process Bynum is facing, from low-impact rehab to finally returning to basketball action.

Bynum says his bone bruises are healed and his swelling is gone, and he remains optimistic he'll return this season. But there has to be a lingering doubt about a full recovery. I mean, he did injure his "good knee" while bowling. This has an I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it type of feel to it. And until then, the Sixers are going to struggle to stay afloat in the playoff picture.

UNREAL: Milwaukee's tiny backcourt success
The Bucks are hard to nail down because, frankly, that combination of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis is too inconsistent. They just finished mixing in losses to the Cavaliers and Pistons with wins over the Celtics, Heat and Nets. Eventually, one of them will have to be moved, because two "stars" hovering around 40 percent shooting and the rest of your team cleaning up the misses isn't a true winning formula.

Maybe the Bucks are the team that'll take a chance on Cousins and trade Jennings for him. At least that'll offer Milwaukee some balance. And it'll truly give Ellis the chance to back up his recent comments, saying he's just as good as Wade. He does realize that Wade didn't get all those wins and those two championships by accident, right?